Sunday, September 20

The Curse of the Good Prototype

As a publisher, I'm always looking for new games to publish. I'm fortunate to receive a lot of games submissions on a more or less constant basis. Quite a lot of these are types of games I'm not interested in (mass market, trivia, sports), and so can be instantly discounted. Some sound interesting, but have so many components that I have to rule them out on cost. Lots sound interesting at first blush and so I ask for a prototype to play with my playtesting team.

Some of those I try aren't very good when you actually play it and can be quickly discounted. Occasionally, you get an awesome one which is pretty much ready to go (Sumeria was one of these). The vast majority however are 'good'. Which is a bad thing.

There are tens of thousands of board games out there (BoardGameGeek has over 50,000 in its database) and hundreds more get released every year. If you're a big company like Fantasy Flight or Games Workshop, you've got the marketing budget and market presence that means your games will sell well. If, however you're a little guy like me with a tiny marketing budget and very little market presence your games will have to fight tooth-and-nail to sell themselves. For comparison, the third edition of Space Hulk was released two weeks ago. It has 761 ratings on BGG and 1554 people listed as owning it. Sumeria has been out fourteen weeks and has 100 ratings and 116 owners. Very few people rush down to their local games store to buy the latest Reiver Games release when it arrives on the shelves. Instead they might hear about it, add it to their wishlist or want to play list. Maybe wait for a friend to get it so they can try it out, or hope to find it at a convention where they can try it out. Of the much smaller number of people who are interested and who find a copy to play, only people who really like the game will tend to buy it.

If I publish a game because I think it's good, the chances are most of the few people who play it will also think it's good. Nobody rushes out to by a good game. They rush out to buy a great game. The internal conversation goes: ' I know Bob's got Zombie Ninja Pirates in Space, but it's frickin' awesome, I need my own copy', not: 'I know Bob's got Watching Pastel Paint Dry, but it's a pretty good game, I need my own copy'.

I need games that at least I think are great, in the hope that I can find several thousand other people who think the game is great enough to warrant buying.

Still, it's very hard to go back to a designer and reject their game because it's good. There's nothing really wrong with it, it's solid, it works. But it's not great. It doesn't help that great is subjective.


Jon said...

"Sumeria has been out fourteen weeks and has 100 ratings and 116 owners."

JACK!! That's very good! You're a small publisher, developing your market, and already over 100 hardened gamers want your latest game. Space Hulk is a re-issue of a popular game with a known demand from a much bigger market. You are being very unfair on yourself - it's a bad comparison. Compare your games with other small producers, not with a bigger company like FF.

Go back, edit this post, and compare like with like. You're doing pretty well, and you know at Essen you're going to sell a shitload. Plus loads more of It's Alive and Carpe Astra. People asked you to re-issue It's Alive. You're going into the biggest game show on Earth with THREE dynamic original games that gamers want. Sumeria is rated over 7/10 on BGG. That's pretty hard to achieve Jack.

Smarten up and compare like with like.

Jack said...


The whole point was I was contrasting people who don't live or die on a few people loving their games with someone like me who does. I know it's not a fair comparison, but the point was I need to make games that people love at first blush, because much fewer people will experience them than the likes of a FFG game or Space Hulk.

I wasn't saying that I'm doing badly because I can't make games as popular as a 25th anniversary edition of Space Hulk. I was saying I've got to choose games that I absolutely love, not just think are pretty good. But it's hard to explain to a designer why I've rejected a game I think is pretty good.



dirk said...

I understand what Jack means. I had games returned from publishers with the comment that the game works well and that the games is good, but doesn't fit in their program.
It's a fun business to be in, but it's a hard one too, for both publishers and game authors.

Jack said...

Hiya Dirk,

It certainly is. The worst ones to reject are the ones that on paper sound like a perfect fit, but in the flesh are just good, not great.



Darren, London said...

thank you for keeping this blog. I designed my first game at the start of this month and made it on a cereal box. I've playtested and re-designed it and I'm going to go to Essen to set up shop, because life is short. Is the cheapest way to sell a game the 10sqm mini-booth for €527? You shared your booth with a chap last year - is there a system where one can share a booth and halve the cost, something like that? Also, must I print German rules for my game?

Regarding what you said about rejecting good games, I suggest being honest. Tell them their game is good but you don't think it will sell like hot cakes, and at the moment you are too small an operation to afford to publish a game that doesn't do so. Remind them that their game is good and wish them well.

Look forward to swapping a copy of my game for Sumeria!

Jack said...

Hiya Darren,

Yes, the 10sqm publisher booth is the cheapest option, but that 527 Euro doesn't include German VAT (at 19%) or furniture.

The dealine for booking booths for Essen is in May, so it's too late to book one for this year, unless you can find someone who is willing to share with you (maybe on BoardGameGeek or the Board Game Designers' Forum).

Also, I'd suggest that if you only designed the game in the last month it will probably need more testing than you can get done before this year's Essen. Read some of my previous posts regarding playtesting ( and especially the 'blind' playtesting bit.

Hope that helps and good luck!



Darren said...

Thank you for the advice, Jack; it is both valuable and welcome. As ever, I cannot take it. I have booked my flights and am on my way. Now all I need is a board game to sell!

So with VAT the booth is €627.13, so I should give half of this to my booth buddy and also bring some folding chairs, is that right? I'll go on the geek and try to find someone. Hope to see you there. Btw I always listen to advice and really appreciate it, even if I have to go against it.

Jack said...

Hiya Darren,

Fair enough.

Your booth buddy is likely to already have made arrangements for furniture, so you probably won't need to worry about it. As for what to offer, you might be able to get a better deal for less than half a booth - see what they offer you.