Saturday, December 3

The Beginning: First Steps in Crafting a New Game

My games design process starts with a spark of an idea, either theme, mechanics or a combination of the two. This usual sets my head to buzzing with a whole raft of ideas, from mechanics, artwork, market segments, and the inevitable riches that will follow from the million copies sales it is bound to achieve. At this stage I have to ride the wave of unrealistic optimism and get as many of the ideas down as possible before I forget them all. In the past this means getting to a notebook as fast as possible and just dumping all my thoughts onto paper. These thoughts will mostly be theme and mechanics ideas, with maybe a mission statement for the game describing which sector of the market I'm aiming for, target play time, etc.

Recently I've started using a draft email to myself as a virtual notebook that I can access from anywhere I've got internet access, without having to remember to cart the notebook around with me. I've found this really useful, but it has it's strengths and weaknesses like anything else. It's quick to use, and very portable, and also allows editing as your ideas change over time. The downside is that sketching images of design ideas, card layouts, tile distributions, etc. is much slower than scribbling something quickly with a pencil.

The ideas keep coming and the game will evolve pretty quickly at that stage with everything potentially open to change. Over a few days I get enough down (and have enough ideas) to begin the prototyping journey. I've a lot more ideas down on paper than prototypes - lots of these ideas fail at the first hurdle as I come to the conclusion that they won't work, won't be fun or just lose interest in them. After the first year or so of running Reiver Games I went off games design, aiming instead to position the company as an independent publisher of games by other designers. For some reason, I'm back in the designing mood.

If the game keeps my interest enough to make it off the paper of my notebook, the next stage is to make a paper prototype. The early prototypes are just something that you can play (probably by yourself) to work out the worst of the kinks. There will be loads of them and at this early stage everything is still changing constantly, so you want to make something that's playable but doesn't require too much effort to construct. Normally I do this all with pencil and paper. I take sheets of A4 paper (similar in size to US letter I think) and literally tear them down to size. Cards are a sheet folded into 16ths or 32nds, player boards might be a sheet folded in half (i.e. A5), a game board might be two sheets taped together (or a sheet of A3). There's no artwork, just enough text/iconography drawn on with a pencil to be playable. I use pencil rather than pen as I fully expect to be rubbing things out and then re-drawing/writing them after every test game. Using paper for cards is definitely sub-optimal from a play point of view (they are very hard to shuffle!) but this version isn't really intended to be played by anyone other than me, and rather than spending tens of hours cutting out and making pretty card ones, it's more important at this stage to make sure this early game idea actually works enough to play with other people (which is when the real playtesting begins).

The game I'm working on at the moment (Codename: Vacuum) is a card game in the Dominion vein, i.e. it has hundreds of cards. I started making a starter set of cards a few weeks ago and got to just about enough to start testing it to see if the basic premise works before I came down with a filthy cold and then we had Christmas. I'm back home again and I'm already thinking of changing up my process for this game.

Folding and tearing all the cards, then drawing on them the basic layout is a lot of work when you do it hundreds of times. To add the fact that this version is almost unplayable in terms of shuffling is making me think of cutting to the chase and making the Phase II prototype straight away. Or at least Phase 1.5. This would be made out of craft card (about 220 gsm) and be partially printed with a basic card layout to reduce some of the drawing drudgery. I'd still leave the game without any artwork and write the game text in pencil to make it easy to change as I work out the strengths and weaknesses of the various cards.

I still have the Adobe InDesign software I bought for Reiver Games, so I can use that to quickly knock up the card outlines and cutting guides, print those out and then fill in the text with pencil afterwards. I also got an A3 inkjet printer that was capable of printing on card - specifically for printing prototypes - so I'll be able to print them at home too. I've got three days before I have to go back to work - time to get cracking!

What is your process? What steps do your designs go through? What tools do you recommend?

Wednesday, November 30

Which Came First? The Mechanics or the Theme?

With my earlier games: Border Reivers and Carpe Astra the mechanics definitely came first, and the same is true of It's Alive! one of the games I published on behalf of someone else. With Border Reivers I started trying to make a game like Mighty Empires that played faster and less randomly; I really liked the networking mechanic in the submission by Ted Cheatham that became Carpe Astra, though the theme changed quite dramatically. It's Alive! had been through several themes before I changed it to building Frankenstein's monster. So in my experience, mechanics first seems to work ok.

To further reinforce this, most of the many games I've started designing but failed to finish/lost interest in/couldn't get working started out with a theme first, which I tried to find mechanics that fit after the initial idea.

The theme acts as a hook for the game to interest people, hopefully enough that they want to play or buy the game. It's often possible to re-theme a game by picking something that roughly fits the mechanics and then tweaking the mechanics, action names or card wording to get the game to make sense with the new theme. In my experience it's often possible with very few changes to the game.

As I mentioned earlier this week after a conversation with The Wife a new game idea sprang into my mind almost fully formed. Theme and mechanics combined. Since then I've tweaked the theme slightly to distance it from a couple of similar new games (which I've added to my Christmas list so I can play them and ensure my game develops differently) and the mechanics have begun the long road of changes that will hopefully lead to a great game.

For me personally, I think the mechanics-first approach is the way to go. What are your experiences? Are you a theme-first or mechanics-first designer? How will my new game idea develop: theme and mechanics in lock-step, or will the theme change as time goes on? Stay tuned to find out!

Monday, November 28

Hello? Hello? Anyone here?

Well, it's been nearly six months since Reiver Games officially shut down. The email addresses and website will be disappearing this week probably, the bank accounts are shut and the only time my games are mentioned on BGG is people trying to offload their copies in trades or auctions.

It's Alive! is now available on the iPad (a version which the designer arranged, I gave him the rights to the game and let them use the artwork for free, but otherwise had nothing to do with it).

I've moved back to Newcastle upon Tyne, where I lived when I first designed Border Reivers (hence the northeast theme), and I'm back working for the company I worked for at that time again too. I'm still into games, hosting a regular weekly gaming night at our house and trying to get along to Newcastle Gamers when my busy schedule allows.

Games design-wise I've done almost nothing for a while now, I've had a couple of ideas over the last few months, but it's been hard to drum up any enthusiasm for anything with the spectre of Reiver Games hanging over me, reminding me how bad I was at it. In the meantime, I've been moping around the house clearly bored: "In need of a hobby".

Until yesterday. Yesterday was a day of driving, at the end of a weekend of driving. The Wife and I were coming back from Bristol where we'd been visiting family and we had a five and a half hour drive on which to amuse ourselves (I was supposed to be driving, but driving-schmiving). We got to talking about Reiver Games and The Wife asked how sad I was about it. I admitted that I was disappointed that I couldn't make it work, and that every now and again I thought about how I could have done it differently: smaller print runs, not make the leap from hobby self-publisher to selling to distributors and trying to make a living from it in one go, etc. And then something weird happened.

You could do it again, you know. As a hobby. I'd help.

Wow. In the (para-phrased) words of Wash from Firefly: "Good wife". I'd tried. I'd failed. Miserably. To the tune of several thousand pounds of (almost) our money. And The Wife was willing to let me try again!

We got talking about the sorts of games I'd make if I had a chance to do it again differently. We talked about the sorts of games I think sell really well and the sorts of games she likes. And then I had an idea. It sprung from something she said and suddenly my mind was whirring with game ideas, I had a fairly well-formed concept in my head and I was fleshing out mechanics and card examples in my head instead of the things I should have been doing (like sticking to my lane and avoiding HGVs). It's Codename: Vacuum by the way, more to come on that front hopefully (especially if anyone is listening!).

So where now? I'm designing again, and I've got a load of enthusiasm back. I'm making notes and hoping to do some prototyping in the next couple of days. Will I have another go at a publishing company? Probably not. But the possibility is there and you never know. I'd certainly do things differently this time round and I know so much more than I did when I started Reiver Games, so it would definitely be less of an uphill struggle.

Reboots seem popular these days (Star Trek, X-Men: First Class, the new Spiderman), maybe I should hop on the bandwagon...

Tuesday, June 7

The End

It's been almost exactly a year since my last post here, but I'm back for a one-time only update on the state of Reiver Games, me and a brief retrospective on the five years of Reiver Games.

A Year! What's Happened?

Since I last posted here I've been trying (successfully :) ) to get back into paid employment. After a brief spell of work experience working for a previous employer in Newcastle, I found a full-time role in software development (my official trade) near home and I've been doing that for the last seven and a half months. I'm nearly back to full steam, relearning those skills I'd learnt in the eight years before I quit coding to try Reiver Games as a full-time concern. The job is going well, they seem to like me and the work I'm doing, and I've got to say I'm loving getting a pay-check every month. It's awesome :)

Bored Now. What About Reiver Games?

Reiver Games has been very slowly ticking along in the intervening twelve months. I cut the prices of the games I had on consignment at distributors in the UK and the US in an attempt to get rid of them so all my stock was in one place. It worked, I sold the last games on consignment at the beginning of this year.


That left me with just over three thousand games left in my warehouse (and my office): predominantly Sumeria, but with a decent chunk of It's Alive! and Carpe Astra too. Plus about 600 copies of the 2-player expansion of Sumeria. I've been trying to sell these to liquidators over the last few months and getting little traction.

About a month ago all that changed, got back to me (I'd assumed at that point that I'd heard the last from them) and agreed to take 300 of each game (and 300 expansions) to sell in the US (so if you're in the US they should be arriving in about two weeks...) and with that sale I could afford to sell the rest to a UK liquidator for a laughable amount. Between the two they should just about pay off my bank loan, so I can close the company down and pay off my creditors without having to dip into our personal funds.

I've got about a dozen games left at home (the loose ones I couldn't sell to a liquidator) that I'm selling on my website at pretty much cost plus shipping. Once those are gone it's just the final 300 copies of the Sumeria expansion, and then I'm done. I'm thinking of sending the remaining expansions to BoardGameGeek, so that at least they should find loving homes :)

You Rich Enough To Retire?

Sadly no. I don't have the exact figures, but I reckon I lost about £13,000 ($19,000) on Reiver Games. Dear God, that sounds awful. The one slight redeeming feature is that the vast majority of that was some money we came into unexpectedly (which was the only reason I could afford to invest in the company and not earn anything for two years). I say again: Earning a wage again is awesome.

What Went Wrong?

Clearly I screwed things up. How? Can I at least provide some pointers to the intrepid among you to help you avoid my mistakes?

Firstly, I made the jump from hobby publisher to professional publisher too soon and too quickly. The games I made by hand were very successful - I sold out of both print runs within a year and pretty much doubled the investment both times. 100% ROI is pretty good going. But that was selling a few hundred games mostly direct to gamers, not selling thousands predominantly to distributors and shops. Rather than rushing into things, I should have continued to make the games by hand and sell them to gamers at conventions, while building up my reputation and stable of games. Once I had a strong reputation and 5-10 games under my belt, I should have moved to a half-way house, where I got the games professionally manufactured in much smaller print runs (500 - 1,500) but still sold directly to gamers - that way I could afford the high costs of small print runs, since there were no middle men taking their cut. The fully professional model could come later, once I had a bunch of awesome games with a proven track record and a wider reputation. This is similar to the model Martin Wallace has taken with such success (though clearly it helps that his games are extremely popular).

My second mistake was around print run sizes and manufacturer choices. I decided to get the games manufactured in Europe for three reasons: it would be easier to liaise with the manufacturers, the environmental cost of shipping the games to me would be less than from China, and I knew that working conditions and materials would be of a known high standard. I was very happy with the second manufacturer I used: LudoFact in Germany. Their customer service was excellent. The production quality was excellent. They delivered on time and as budgeted. Sadly, getting the games manufactured in the EU cost me, as the unit cost was significantly higher, which both raised my retail price and squeezed my margins. In an attempt to overcome this problem, I increased the size of my print runs to reduce the unit costs. This left me with me with more games than I, as a new relatively unknown publisher, could sell. As a result, the capital I needed to invest in new games was instead sat in my warehouse as unsold stock, and even worse, it was costing me money to warehouse it there.

Mistake number three was related to mistake number two. In an attempt to get retail prices to an affordable level, while still selling at 40% of retail to distributors I squeezed my margins too far, to the point where I was making nowhere near enough money on each game, and yet still the games were expensive, especially in Germany (where they had to compete with local manufacturers doing vast print runs) and the US (where they had to compete with local manufacturers doing much larger print runs and getting the games made in China). With high prices people were less likely to take a punt and see if they liked it, so sales were lower than they needed to be. Making the games in the smallest box I could fit them in, while popular with collectors with huge collections and saving money on shipping, also made the games look even more expensive when compared similar sized games in the shops.

Finally, there was the bank loan. The bank were very happy to lend me £10,000 to get Carpe Astra manufactered, just after It's Alive! was released. It's Alive! was several months late, due to problems at the manufacturer, and with my pitiful margins had hardly recouped any of its investment when I wanted to release Carpe Astra. It turns out that the bank made a good decision: I'm going to re-pay the loan in full a few months early. Sadly, it was a terrible idea for me. I was paying £330 a month servicing the loan, which meant the money I was making month in, month out was quite rapidly disappearing from my account, leaving me little to invest in new games. In hindsight, I should have gone more slowly as discussed above, without having to rely on a loan. If I really wanted to jump straight in at the deep end of selling to distributors, then I needed a much larger initial investment, probably on the order of £50,000 - £100,000 - enough to fund five or ten games without relying on external finance.

It probably shouldn't be the last point, but I also needed a much better understanding of marketing and a solid marketing strategy. Considering how little I knew, it's a wonder that I managed to sell 5,500 games worldwide before the end.

Final Thoughts

I'm proud of what I achieved during the last five years with Reiver Games. From a pipe dream of making a board game in Newcastle eight or nine years ago, I sold four games (8,500 copies in total including the liquidators), to five of the world's continents. I got my products into 21 distributors in North America, the UK and throughout Europe.

I really enjoyed the graphic design and learning new skills in sales and marketing and dealing with manufacturers, distributors, shops and logistics. I loved going to trade shows and conventions and introducing gamers to my games.

I'm really glad that I decided to go for it, and that The Wife gave me her unconditional support. Had I not done it, I'd be financially better off, but I would not have learnt everything I did over the last five years, nor would I have met so many gamers who share my passion for board games.

I'd like my last words here to be a huge thank you to all my customers (thanks again for your support), all the gamers I've met (thanks for your enthusiasm), the designers (including those who sent me games I didn't publish) and my friends and family (especially The Awesome Wife) for your support, encouragement, advice and for not treating me like the lunatic I clearly am. I'll leave this blog up, hopefully the information contained herein will provide information, advice, a cautionary tale and entertainment(?) for other wannabe designers, publishers and entrepreneurs.