Tuesday, December 30

I Feel (Almost) Human Again!

I hope everyone had a nice break for Christmas. I spent most of it lying on the sofa watching The West Wing. And not in a good way. I came down with a stinking cold on Christmas Day. By Boxing Day (which was the day we were spending with my family), I was feeling worse, and when we sat down for dinner the others noticed that despite being in a fairly small room that had just been used for cooking and now had ten other people in it, and despite wearing lots of clothes I was shivering. Yes, I now had a fever :-( I promptly went to bed, and slept on and off for the next few days, except at night when I just lay there unable to sleep. Fun. Still, I'm feeling much better now, still not right, but it's just a cold again, nothing fatal (i.e. not Man-Flu).

Today I'm back in the saddle. I'm working on Sumeria now in earnest. Over Christmas I approached a German artist (who had left me a leaflet at Essen - I really liked his portfolio and I thought his style would suit Sumeria really well). I'm getting together the details for him to get a quote. Then I'm going to get a manufacturing quote request off as well.

I'm vaguely considering moving Sumeria forward. I'd like to release a new game at the UK Games Expo and another at Spiel '09. The original plan was to launch Sumeria at Essen (I think it would be the perfect game for the family audience), but now I'm thinking timing might be an issue. The UKGE is at the beginning of June, I'd want to have the games back from the manufacturers a week or two before hand to allow time for some delay at the manufacturers. It'll probably take eight to ten weeks to manufacture again, so I need to have everything ready by the end of March. If I go with Sumeria first that gives me three months to get it priced up, get all the artwork and final playtesting done. If I go with something else I have three months to choose something, playtest it, choose an artist, get it priced up, get the art done and get the final playtesting done. Sounds a bit tight...

Tuesday, December 23

Merry Christmas Everyone!

I hope you all have a great Christmas - I'm off for a few days, down to Bristol to see my family and my in-laws. I'll take a few prototypes with me, though I don't know whether I'll get a chance to try them out - I'll have to see what people are in the mood for.

In other news, I got my present a few days early. Last night we won a game of Battlestar Galactica. Yes, the humans won! Victory is sweet. I'm seriously considering retiring now.

Monday, December 22

Winding Down For Christmas

The orders I'm waiting on are unlikely to arrive before Christmas now. My distributors have been very busy in the run-up to Christmas by all accounts and several of them close between Christmas and New Year for stock-taking. I'm still hoping that several of the orders arrive in time for me to send them off before we move. Two of them sound hopeful, with another saying it'll be last week or the week before! Not holding out much hope of that one arriving any time soon. I had tried to gain some information on the rough size of the US order, but they won't give me a ballpark figure, they'd rather wait until they are ready to place the real order.

On the weekend I bought myself an external USB hard drive. I needed something to backup my data onto and it seemed like the best option. Being a computer-based company I'm particularly sensitive to data loss, and my laptop isn't that new :-/ Still, I finally got around to getting a drive, and on Saturday I wrote a little shell script that performs the backup. I plan to do weekly backups, and the disk will hold around twenty of them without any clever-ness (to do with only storing changed files), so that seems ideal.

I've been doing a fair amount of playtesting recently, but of new stuff, not the stuff I've had for a while. I think my next playtesting project is to send out some blind playtesting copies of Sumeria to get some objective feedback and some new ideas. To do that I'll need to make a bunch of prototypes. I'll need to get some wooden pieces (probably from Game-Components.com in Germany, though the weakness of the pound versus the euro means they'll be pretty expensive), make some boards (I'll probably wait until after we move and I've my own garage to doing the gluing in) and update the rules. Not making any changes to the game rules, but improving (I hope!) the rulebook by adding examples and clarifying a few things.

Thursday, December 18

Polyglot Games

My Belgian distributor wants to translate Carpe Astra into Dutch. Cool! I thought I'd use this as an excuse for a discussion of languages in games.

It's Alive! is a language-independent game. The only text is on the rules, player aids and the box, the game components feature nothing but numbers on the cards. As such, it's prime translation material. Numerous customers have translated the rules into their own languages: Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Japanese. When I did the second version, I got Michael (thanks, Michael!) to translate the rules, box and player aids into German, so I had a multi-lingual version. This was especially useful for trying to break into the large German market, but also at Essen.

Michael sent me his translation in the form of a 'translation grid', where each sentence or caption on a diagram was in a separate box with the German translation alongside. This was a really useful way of clearly showing me which bits of the German translation corresponded with which bits of the English rules - making it easy for me to layout the German text with the diagrams correctly.

When it was time to do Carpe Astra I chose to do a single language version only due to the large quantities of English text on each card. Although the text on the card wasn't really necessary (it's a combination of an English language description of the diagrams on the top half of the card and some flavour text which has no in-game effect), I figured it would detract from a German version if the only thing you got in German was the rules, everything else was in English only. As a result - mono-lingual game :-(

However, things are now moving along. The Dutch translator asked if I could provide the text in a form that was easy to edit. Since I had done the rules layout in InDesign, and he didn't have access to that package I offered to send him a translation grid. Then it struck me. Why not provide the translation grids for my games on my website? It will allow people to easily translate the rules into their own languages if they want, which only helps me. The Carpe Astra one is up now, the It's Alive! one will follow later today.

In other news, I'm in negotiations now with another publisher to do another version of It's Alive! in another language, hopefully that will bear fruit in a few months time.

Tuesday, December 16

Sumeria Exists

Sumeria is now listed on my website and BoardGameGeek now. You can add it to your want list, Steve!

In other news, I've heard back from a couple of the distributors whose orders I'm waiting on. One of them will come in at the end of December/beginning of January (in time for my move) the other a week or two later (too late). But it's good to know they are coming.

Monday, December 15

Time's Running Out

I've six orders that are 'coming shortly'. I'm keen to get these sorted before I move for several reasons:

  • I want to get Carpe Astra in more shops as soon as possible
  • The move itself is going to disrupt things, I'm going to be spending a couple of days on the move, and when we get to the other end it'll take me a few days to sort out internet access
  • As part of the move I've got to pay to transport my games from my current warehouse (near my house in York) to one down south. I'll pay per pallet, so the fewer games (and hence pallets) I've got the cheaper this will be.

Of course while I'm keen to get these orders done as soon as possible, I can't progress them until I've actually received the order. Distributors are obviously very busy in the run up to Christmas, so it's no surprise these orders are taking a while. Still, it's damn frustrating.

I've had a chance to play one of the Bruno Faidutti prototypes a few times over the last weeks. It's got real potential (it's a fairly light, fun game with plenty of screwage), I've suggested some changes and Bruno seems ok with them. I've got to make a couple of changes to the prototype over the next couple of days in time for my last York playtesting night tomorrow. I'll try them out and see if they improve things or make them worse...

Friday, December 12

Playtesting Two: Follow the Leader

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about solo playtesting, while hinting that it was part of a series. So, finally, here is part two, about taught playtesting.

Once you've got the prototype into a workable state (i.e. it's not totally broken, or dull!). The next stage is to play it with others. In the first instance, it's best to just play the game with you teaching it to the other players.

Why bring others on board? Two main reasons: other impressions and other strategies. Playing the game by yourself is not a huge heap of fun, especially if the game has any hidden information (you have to pretend you don't know what's in the other players' hands and what hidden actions they've taken). With real players it's easier to see how the game works when the information is truly hidden. You know what you think about the game, what about everyone else? Publishing is all about guessing whether other people will like a game enough to buy it. The more accurate your guess the fewer duds you'll publish and the better hits you'll get. Playtesting lets you get a sample of the gamer public and see what they think. If they all love it, then hopefully it will be a success, if they're not bothered or hate it then maybe you're best off dumping that game, or significantly re-working it.

I should note at this point that the playtesters' feedback is a sample of the public as a whole, but they are not a random sample and like any other sample can be affected by bias. This is especially true when you do the majority of your playtesting with friends and family. Don't be surprised when they love your game. They want to support you and will do that by telling you the game is great and asking to play it again. This bias is why the next phase is so important. At this point the game is likely to change every time you play it, or you might be wheeling out something that sounded good on paper but when you play it is shockingly bad. Friends and family are great for this, as they have more patience with your misses than the gaming public. At this point honest friends are worth their weight in gold. Someone who can play your latest darling and say: 'Man! That was shit! I mean _really_ bad.' to your face is much more useful than someone who thinks it and doesn't say it or is just predisposed to liking it because it's one of yours.

The other big advantage of playing with other people is getting other ideas and strategies. You've played it a lot solo, it's great. It works really neatly. They you play it with Bob and he uses a different strategy, one you'd not considered. All of a sudden your great little game is broken :-( Yeay Bob! Much better you find this out before you invest thousands of pounds (dollars, euros, etc.) in the manufacture of the game - it's not too late to make changes at this point. Fix the problem and try again.

While you are still making a lot of changes time spent writing a great set of comprehensive rules is probably time wasted. Why invest time writing a set of rules with lots of diagrams explaining move 'A' if when you finally play that version, it turns out that 'A' is actually a bit weak and you have to replace it with move 'B' instead? While the rules are very fluid it's not worth the effort creating an awesome set of rules and hence you can't blind playtest it (more on this next time). So you have to teach it to your testers. Taught playtesting isn't the be all and end all, you have to taken into account the bias in the feedback you get and obviously without a set of written rules to learn from you're not going to get much in the way of rules feedback. But it serves a purpose, and it's very valuable if you are aware of its pitfalls.

Thursday, December 11


Until I started manufacturing games professionally, I'd never dealt with a distributor. A couple of shops carried my hand-made games (which felt great!) but I couldn't get them made cheap enough for the manufacturer, me, the distributor and the shop to all take a cut from the price.

Now that I am getting the games professional manufactured, distributors are the key to succeeding. Very few shops have a high enough turnover to order from me directly, and those that do often don't want the hassle of dealing with each manufacturer separately, they'd much rather place a consolidated order with a distributor for games from several publishers. Also, a lot of them just want one or two copies, at least to begin with, and that's a lot of hassle for me, much less for a distributor who can just pop into the warehouse, pick the odd copy of a few different games, box them up and send them off.

So distributors are vital. So far so good. Now I need to deal with them. The first hurdle is getting through the door. In most cases I've tried to email the email address on their website. This sometimes works, but often doesn't. Publishing an email address on your website is a recipe for spam (I know from experience), so it may be that they aren't interested, it may be that they don't even see my email - hoovered up by some over-zealous spam filter. The next stage is to try ringing them, but as these are often international phone calls this is a last resort for me - due to the expense and, for some places, time difference (if I want to call an Australian distributor during their office hours I've got to make the call between 10:30pm and 6am UK time!). If I do get through to the right person, then I briefly discuss what I'm offering and take an email address (unpublished so less spammed) to send more details to.

So, now I've got a contact. The next step is to get them to place an order. This can be like getting blood from a stone. Distributors are very busy - especially at this time of year. I seem to spend a good deal of my time chasing distributors who are 'just about to place an order'. Because my supply chain is somewhat less than optimal (I've got to drive over to the warehouse to collect some stock, drive to the box-maker and collect the shipping boxes bring it all home and arrange a courier collection) there are good times for an order to come in (just before I go to the warehouse) and bad times (late on a Tuesday evening, when they need the stock on Friday and I've got to be in from 10am on the Wednesday - i.e. yesterday!).

This isn't always the case, some times it's remarkably easy. Two examples are Brown Box, Inc. who contacted me after one of their large online customers asked them to stock It's Alive! and VINCIT, AB in Sweden, who placed a joint order with Lautapelit that was all arranged by Lautapelit. I like these ones!

Once they've placed the order and I've shipped, you'd think the hassle was all over, but no. All my distributors (except the consignment ones!) are on NET30 terms, i.e. they have thirty days to pay. At the moment, about 60% of payments are late, sometimes two weeks or more, so I have to spend a decent chunk of time chasing late payments.

Those distributors that place an order swiftly are great. I want my games in shops as soon as possible - they are not going to sell sat in my warehouse. Similarly, those that pay swiftly are great - hassle free. Sadly, neither are the majority.

Still, for all the hard work, distributors are vital to my success. There's nothing that feels quite as good as a distributor who has previously placed an order for something coming back for more stock - it's selling!

Tuesday, December 9

Time Off!

I usually work weekdays and at least some of the weekend. This weekend I had both Saturday and Monday off! Friday night we went up to Newcastle to see some friends up there before we move. Saturday we spent the day hanging out with them before coming home that evening. I did a little 'work' on Saturday, trying out a couple of prototypes along with a game of Carpe Astra. Mal (who we were staying with) has the sort of games collection I like, Rio Grande Games 25% (Carcassonne), Reiver Games 75% :-)

Sunday I did a little work, mostly emailing new distributors in the hope I can pick up more business. No replies as yet... Still the good news was that of the two flat viewings we had on Friday and Saturday we got an offer, which after a small amount of negotiation, we accepted. Fingers crossed the sale will all go smoothly, in which case that's one less thing to worry about.

Monday was spent in Bedfordshire looking for a place to rent while The Wife starts her new job. We found somewhere and started the ball rolling on that too. That's something else ticked off our list.

Today I'm back at work. This morning, I had to go to the bank to pay in some money, and pop to the Post Office to collect a parcel (the Bruno Faidutti submissions). I've been chasing my distributors and reviewing some submissions in the mean time. What I really need to do now is nail some of the ephemeral 'orders' that I've got in the pipeline and get the shipped. The few games I have left when we move the fewer pallets of games I have to cart down South.

Friday, December 5

Good Customer Service

Yesterday I was in until 7pm, getting the flat ready for a viewing and waiting in for three collections. Two of the collections happened, the third didn't. This was really annoying, not just because I happened to be in all day yesterday, and had to go out a lot today, but also the third courier had my phone number and could have rung me to warn me they couldn't make it - but they didn't. We had snow yesterday morning and unlike countries that are used to it, the UK grinds to a halt when it snows. Traffic was very slow on the roads in the morning and when the two couriers who did arrive got here (quite late) they both complained about the weather. So I wasn't that surprised that the courier had problems and wasn't able to collect.

Things were complicated by the fact that I use a courier aggregator, who have high-volume accounts with a bunch of couriers and can hence offer a much better rate than I'd get with my low volumes directly. When I phoned the courier who'd failed to collect the parcel their automated telephone system wouldn't deal with me unless I had an account number, which I don't - the aggregator has the account not me.

So I contacted the aggregator, and their automated telephone system said I'd get an email. Not that encouraging. Then I had to go out, post some games and pay in some money (we'd been out last night for The Wife's Christmas do at her old work where I sold lots of It's Alive! - they're mad for it!). When I got back I checked my email, and sure enough there was one from the aggregator. They'd re-booked the collection with the same couriers (who'd called while I was out) and another courier to ensure it was collected. They were very apologetic. I was impressed, it doesn't take much, but they'd apologised and made an effort to fix things.

I'll be spending the rest of the day waiting in for the other courier, and preparing for a trip to see my old work mates in Newcastle before we move down South. It'll be a great chance to catch up with them, hand over some copies of Carpe Astra they've pre-ordered and do some playtesting/gaming!

Thursday, December 4

Distributors Out the Wazoo

Last weekend a Spanish distributor signed up to take some It's Alive! and Carpe Astra. Yesterday I heard back from a Finnish distributor I'd been talking to. They wanted to take some of both games, but the distributor minimum I have was too high for them. So they contacted a Swedish distributor I wasn't aware of, and they're going to place a joint order! Yeay! Scandinavian distribution :-)

I've a few collections to wait in for today, which is ok, because other than that I don't have much time for work today. I've got to spend the day frantically tidying, cleaning and hiding junk in preparation for a couple of visits by potential buyers tomorrow and Saturday. I have to do it during the day today as tonight we're out for The Wife's work Christmas do.

Stuff seems to be going pretty well at the moment, what with several new distributors and a re-order of Carpe Astra already (they've only had it a week!). If I can keep this up I might be able to make a living at this!

Tuesday, December 2

Emptying The Flat

Yesterday I brought home a load more boxes of Carpe Astra and It's Alive! Unfortunately, by the time I'd been to the warehouse and collected them and then been to the box-makers for shipping boxes it was too late to arrange a collection that day. As a result, the first order of business today was to arrange collections for the two orders before the 10am cut-off time. That's done, so I'm just waiting now for the collections, which should happen at some point within the next five hours. No going out to play in the snow for me :-(

One of the two orders is an initial stocking order for my new Spanish distributor, that's four European distributors I've got now, with another three interested but as yet not bitten.

At the moment, I'm having to collect the games, bring them home, carry them up two flights of stairs to our second floor flat, box them up, then carry them down two flights of stairs to the courier. One of my selection criteria for our next place to live gives a lot more weight to houses with a garage. Carting the boxes up two flights of stairs, just to leave them in my living room for a day and then cart them back down seems a little unnecessary!

Ideally, some of the potential new distributors will bite soon, so they get the games into shops in their jurisdiction before Christmas. I'll probably chase them again today. See if I can get some definite orders...

We've got some viewings for the flat this weekend, so I need to get all my stuff tidied away so the place looks appealing to potential buyers. Getting rid of the stock I've got at home is the first step, then I need to do my books and tidy all of that away. Another selection criteria for the new place is a second bedroom I can use as an office, having all this stuff in the living room makes our current flat very messy.

Monday, December 1

Reminders Carry The Day

I had about forty pre-orders for Carpe Astra that I hadn't heard back from yet. I didn't know whether:

  • They'd got the first email and not got round to ordering yet,
  • They'd got the first email and didn't want it any more, or
  • The first email didn't reach them (due to spam filters or whatever).

So yesterday I sent out a second email to everyone I'd not heard from. Off the back of that I got another eight orders and one cancellation. I'm getting through them now.

So far today I've been running around. I've been to the Post Office a couple of times, the box-makers and the warehouse to collect more stock. One of the overdue accounts has paid (yeay!) and I've missed the courier deadline for sending a couple of shipments. Those will have to go tomorrow. Still, at least I don't have to wait in for a collection any more, so I can go the bank and pay in some money :-)

November was a pretty good month, and I'm hoping December will be too - I've several orders I'm expecting still outstanding. I'd imagine things will slow down in the new year, I'll not have any more new products for a while so I'll be relying on re-orders. We shall see.

Oh, and me email is broken again. I think a new supplier when I move is called for.