Thursday, August 27

A How To Guide to Submissions

I've received over 150 submissions in the three years I've been running Reiver Games. I've published four games. Not many make the cut! But I'm on the lookout for more games all the time. I'd love to have a full pipeline, where I know the next 15 games I'm going to publish. I'm nowhere near that point yet.

I'm most interested in light- to medium-weight strategy, ideally language-independent games with a fun theme that play in an hour or less, like the games I've already published. In this post I give some advice to aspiring game designers on how to submit a game to me.

Obviously this information only applies to submitting a game to Reiver Games - other companies will have different procedures and preferences. But I would imagine a lot of the information is similar across the board among those publishers who accept submissions.

I run a three stage submissions procedure, with the first two stages designed to weed out things I'm really not interested in and the third being the real test of the games.

Stage 1: Overview

In the first instance I ask for a couple of paragraphs via email describing the components, theme and major mechanics. This stage is designed to quickly weed out broad categories of games I'm not interested in: trivia games, mass-market games, sports games and card games playable with a standard deck of cards. I can also rule out a few games based on other criteria: if I find the theme offensive or games featuring very expensive components (if it's got 1,200 plastic space ships I'm not going to be able to make a small print run affordably). I also like a brief description of the number of players, game length and age category.

Stage 2: Rules

The next thing I ask for is a copy of the rules. To be honest very few games fail at this stage, only those that I realise have too many components or actually sound more mass-market after reading the rules that they did during reading the overview.

For the rulebook, the following can definitely help:

  • Get it proof-read by someone with excellent English - the more readable it is, the easier it is to understand how the game works.
  • Get the game blind-playtested: get someone who hasn't playtested it yet to learn it from the rules. This is a great way to find out what is missing or unclear in the rulebook.
  • Add diagrams. They don't need to be works of art but they can help to clarify the more complicated bits of the game.
  • Read the rulebooks of a few of your favourite games. Try to copy the style and structure of a well-written rulebook for a published game.

Stage 3: Prototype

If I still like the sound of your game I'll ask you to send me a prototype to try out with my playtesters. This will ideally take several months but with some of the submissions I've received it's taken a lot longer than that. Here's what I look for in a prototype:

  • A box. Seriously. It doesn't have to be a nice tray-and-lid style board game box, a corrugated mailing box is fine, but it makes it easier to store, easier to cart around and easier to send back.
  • Include the rules. Again it sounds obvious, and I know you've already sent them to me via email, but if you don't I won't always check the box before I take it to a playtesting session and not having the rules in the box is very frustrating if I've just got all the bits out to play with.
  • Include all the bits required. They don't need to be wazzy plastic miniatures, custom wooden figures or little FIMO sculptures, generic wooden pieces is fine. Sure, I've got a spares box, but there's no guarantee I've got the three different sizes of pieces in eight different colours that you need.
  • Ensure cards are shufflable. If you can't print onto thick card, you can print onto paper and put them in card-sleeves with Magic: The Gathering commons for added rigidity.
  • If your game includes cardboard counters with labels attached use a decent glue. Label paper is good. Permanent spray adhesive is good. It's worth knowing that glues can fail as they age. It may seem fine at the beginning, but after a couple of weeks it might fall apart. Test it at home first.
  • Good art is not required. I'll be redoing the art anyway to ensure it fits with my company style. It's not worth paying a designer to do the art for you, or spending hours on it. I'll probably want to change a few things, and it's easier to do that on a simple home-made prototype than a professional-looking product. Prototype art doesn't affect my decision, it's the gameplay I'm testing not the aesthetics.
  • If your game has a board make sure it fits in the box. Making a quad- or six-folding board isn't straightforward, but it is possible to do at home (I've made a few, and several submissions I've received have got them). If it fits in the box it's easier to cart around and send back to you if necessary. I'll not necessarily keep the box you shipped it in for all of the (potentially several months of) time I'm testing it.

If at the end of all that I don't want to publish your game (the most likely outcome!) I'm happy to return the prototype at your expense, or I can dispose of it - your call.

Wednesday, August 26

Games Designer's Block

It's just as well that I mostly publish other peoples' games designs because since I've started working on Reiver Games full time I've struggled to make progress on my own designs. I've had a few ideas for games, usually theme first, and then I've struggled to get anywhere thinking up mechanisms that mesh with the theme and yet sound even vaguely interesting.

Fortunately, I've received a lot of submissions, so my lack of inspiration isn't getting in the way too much.

When I receive a submission I have three possible outcomes in mind:

  • If I really like it then I want to publish it. This is the ideal outcome, I'd love to be in the position where I know what the next ten games I'm going to publish are.
  • If I'm not wowed by the game, then I want to reject it. I get lots of submissions that work fine, but I'm just not feeling the love for them. It's hard to give the designer a good reason why I turned these down, but at the end of the day I only want to publish games that I think are awesome. If I think it's pretty good, that's sadly not good enough.
  • The third outcome, is a trickier call. When I receive a submission that I think has the potential to be an excellent game but needs a lot of work in my view, then I offer to co-design it with the designer. This is what I did with Carpe Astra and Ted Cheatham.

The third option is not optimal for the same reason that I find it easier to publish someone else's game - a lack of perspective.

When you're designing a game it's hard to draw a line under it. You make a first version. It's awful. You tweak it. The second version is better. You tweak it again. That version is worse! You tweak it again. This process continues for months or years and you lose all perspective. It becomes your baby. You're desperate for it to succeed and as the game approaches complete it gets harder and harder to tell if your fine tweaks are making things better or worse. When is good enough? When is awesome? When do you stop fiddling with it?

When I receive a submission I miss out on all this, I get a game - I try the game. Either I love it and want to publish it or I don't. There's no attachment - it's just another prototype, probably from someone I've never met or never even heard of. I can be completely objective. Is it worth me risking thousands of pounds of my own money to playtest, manufacture and sell this game? Will it make me any money or will I be left holding lots of stock and a sizable debt?

Despite the disadvantages I still sometimes consider this. Only if I get a game that I think could become one I think is awesome, but that needs a whole bunch of work to get there. Is it a bad game as it stands? Not necessarily. It could have an awesome theme, or a brilliant mechanism, but it's just not a game that excites me or that I think would sell well as it stands.

In these circumstances I'm willing to work with the designer to make significant changes. I make the changes I think of and send it back to the designer for comments and more suggestions. The designer makes a bunch of changes of their own and sends them to me. I try them out, and so on. This process carries on until we're both happy with it.

Last week I received a prototype that sounded interesting. It was a sci-fi themed game and I got to try it out last Friday. As it stood I found the game too long and lacking interesting choices in a couple of areas. But I could see the potential and I had a bunch of ideas about how to move it towards the sort of game I want to publish. I approached the designer about co-designing and he's up for it.

I woke up at 4am this morning, my head buzzing with ideas about the game. I couldn't get back to sleep and at 6:30am I finally got up and went and started making a prototype with the ideas I'd been thinking about. I've just tried it out and it doesn't work. But I'm still excited about it, and I've a few ideas that might improve things. I'd like to get some changes that at least sort of work before sending them to the designer - I don't want to look like a total chump!

Monday, August 24


I've moved house twice this year. Once from York to Bedfordshire (160 miles / 270 km) in January for The Wife's new job. Then again in June from the rented house in Bedfordshire to our own place in Northamptonshire (8 miles / 13 km).

While lots of things about the move have been awesome (nice new home, a garden, more space, meeting new people, swanky new office) one of the things I've really struggled with is getting gaming in. In York I used to go to Paul's games nights twice a week (about a mile away), and I tried to get to the Beyond Monopoly! club whenever I could (it was on twice a month so I missed lots but there were plenty of options). In addition, I held a playtesting night at mine once a week too.

Since moving down here I've found a group through BoardGameGeek that I play with on Tuesday evenings, and I've even managed to get along to one of their Sunday sessions yesterday. They're a great bunch of guys, but the 15 mile trek is a lot less convenient than Paul's games night was in York :-( In particular, if I can't drive due to MS there's no gaming for me :-(

I found a club on Thursday nights in Newport Pagnell, but since we moved the second time the 25 mile trip has got in the way of me actually attending. Last month I went along to another club in Leighton Buzzard, which was about 40 miles, but for a full day of Saturday gaming it was worth it :-)

Playtesting is even harder to arrange. There's no guarantee of the quality of a prototype (in terms of game play - the build quality doesn't bother me), so I feel uncomfortable asking people to potentially waste a good chunk of what might be their only games night for several weeks on a game that might be rubbish. So I'd much rather do a playtesting session, where everyone knows what they are letting themselves in for. I don't know anyone who lives locally, so I'm limited to people I find through my games nights, games clubs and BGG. Since all these people live at least 15 miles away (often significantly more than that), it's not so easy to arrange. I've started having sessions at Terry's house (again about 15 miles away - I've officially moved to the arse-end of nowhere!), and ideally I'd like to do them around once a week - I'll have to see how much I can impose on Terry's generosity!

Despite all the problems I had a really good week's gaming last week. I went along on Tuesday to Tony's, then with Tony off work I went over to his again on Thursday during the day for some proper games and a playtest. Friday was more playtesting at Terry's (six plays of four different games), and then on Sunday I got over to CJ's for another afternoon of gaming (including another playtest). This week is looking good too - Tuesday evening at Tony's, playtesting during the day on Wednesday or Thursday, I'm seeing Paul in York on Friday and then hopefully CJ's again on Sunday. Hopefully I'm getting things sorted down here now.

Wednesday, August 19

Essen Preparation

I'm starting to sort out my Essen visit for this year. Last year I went to Essen for the first time, as an exhibitor and as an attendee.

Having never been before I had no idea what to expect, nor really how to prepare. I had released It's Alive! in September (about six weeks before Essen), but I had very little in the way of distribution and very little buzz about me. Carpe Astra, which I had hoped to release at Essen had been delayed and so I was just toting It's Alive! and a hand-made prototype of Carpe Astra.

I'd been approached by Peter Struijf of Geode Games to see if I'd be willing to share my stand with him and I was. Turns out it was a great idea, not only did Peter's Krakow 1325AD game draw lots of extra people to my stand, but Peter was a great guy and we had a lot of fun hanging out on the stand over the five days. Peter's boundless enthusiasm was infectious :-)

This year, with a year's experience of Essen and three games to sell (plus the Sumeria 2-player expansion promo) I hope to be able to build upon last year's experience and have an even more successful show.

To determine if the show is 'successful', I need some benchmarks, to gauge its success.

The simplest and most honest success criteria will be do I turn over more at this year's show than I did at last year's? This is easy to work out since I already know what last year's turnover was, and I have to work out what this year's is in order to pay it in to the bank :-). Cash sales are also good for my business, as the mark-up I get on each sale is much higher than I would get selling to a distributor. This boosts the average value of my sales, and reduces the number of games I need to sell to break even on a particular game (none of my games have broken even yet).

On top of the simple cash turnover, there's a more involved, but still financial criteria: October's turnover. This includes not just the cash turnover at the event, but invoiced sales to shops and distributors at the show. Last year's October turnover was awesome - it's still my best month ever by quite some way, since as well as the cash sales on the trade show floor I also sold a lot of games to new distributors. This year things will be very different, since most of my distributors already have stock (though I'm still waiting for most of my European distributors to pick up Sumeria).

Then there are the other less tangible criteria: raising awareness of my games and my company, attracting new distributors, finding new artists and designers, projecting a good image of my company, etc. How to judge success on those criteria is much harder.

Last year at Essen, I did very little in the way of preparation. I spent £50 on some glossy posters, which I hung from the back of my stand with simple poster frames. I bought some material to use as table-clothes and just piled my games along the back of my stand in their cartons - a warehouse-like wall of brown cardboard. I also got It's Alive! listed in the 'Spiel fuer Spiel 2009' handbook, a full colour handbook printed by Dagmar de Cassan of Spielen in Osterreich.

This year, I'd like to improve the pre-fair awareness of my company and my games to draw more people to my booth. I'll be listing in Spiel fuer Spiel 2010 again, and I'll be spending 100 Euro on an improved listing in the SpielBox preview which includes not just the basic info (number of players, title, designer, etc.) but photos and descriptions of the games.

I'd also like to put some more thought into the stand design to make it look a little more professional (without adding hugely to the cost).

If you've got any ideas or advice I'd be very glad to hear them :-)

Monday, August 17

Back - Sort Of

Well, I've had a week off, mostly spent lying in bed and I have to tell you I'm exhausted!

The treatment I was receiving last week was five days of intravenous infusion with an experimental drug. The drug (originally used for treating Leukaemia) works by intentionally destroying your immune system. Since in MS your own immune system starts attacking the myelin sheaths that insulate your nerves in your brain and spinal cord, the study doctors figure that killing off your immune system and letting it regrow might fix the problem. The results of previous clinical trials have been very encouraging.

Of course, the downside is I've just spent a week being pumped full of very toxic chemicals and now I have no immune system, so I'm very vulnerable to infection and food poisoning. Also, I'm completely knackered, despite not having done anything for a week. I'm under Doctor's orders to take things very easy for a couple of weeks.

Much as I'd like to continue lying on the sofa watching telly (it was pretty much all I was capable of this weekend), I've got a swollen inbox now after a week off, and I need to get the art for the Sumeria 2-player expansion to the manufacturers by Friday, so I can't just totally slack off.

I'm also keen to make some progress on the Sumeria computer game which has been on hold for a few weeks. I'll have to see what I've got the energy for...

Friday, August 7

Off Topic: Week Off

As many of you will know, I have MS.

Next week I'm starting treatment with a new drug and will be in hospital all week. As a result there won't be any posts here and any Tweets I make will be few and far between.

This means that the next version of the Sumeria computer game will be at least a few weeks away. When I get back I'll also have to finish off the Sumeria 2-player expansion, as that will need to go to the printers fairly quickly.

See you all on the flip-side :-)

Wednesday, August 5

Sumeria 2-Player Expansion

Sumeria was originally submitted to me as a 2-4 player game. I played the 2-player version several times and really liked it.

During play-testing, one of my blind playtesters found a weakness in the two-player game that made the second city-state worth less than the third (and the choice of influence counters pretty meaningless). Since the 2-player version also added to the cost of the game (since it needed extra wooden pieces), Dirk and I decided to drop it so the game was only 3-4 player. Later in play-testing a slight change to the 2-player rules fixed these problems, but it stayed out of the game as released.

Until now! I've decided to release the 2-player version of Sumeria as a promo expansion at Essen. What's the deal? Buy Sumeria from me at Essen and you'll get the limited edition promo expansion free! It includes 6 extra trader pieces in each of the four player colours, a sticker to add to the board to show a fourth player turn per round and a rulesheet (in English and German again). All wrapped up in a plastic baggie.

If you've already got a copy of Sumeria (well done :-) ), the expansion will be available to pre-order from my website shortly, and if I have any left after Essen they will continue to be available there. To keep the cost to a minimum, I've decided on baggie packaging rather than a small box, this means it probably won't be available in shops ever, but I hope it will only cost £2 plus postage and packaging from my website.

This is my first time making both an expansion and a convention promo, it will be interesting to see how it goes...