Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game taxonomy

I sometimes teach paleontology where I work, and that is a science rife with classification and categorization. As I've been thinking more about games, I've been trying to come up with a fundamental classification system that works for me. To start with, I need to define what a game is. I think I'll go with this for now - it's annoyingly vague, but I think it needs to be to encompass everything that we currently think of as a game.

A game is the following:
  • an optional activity
  • with one or more abstract goals defined by rules
  • undertaken for enjoyment 
  • involving one or more players.

I think this rules in almost everything, and rules out only stuff at the far fringes, like cooperative storytelling. Of course, it's almost too broad, since a lot of seemingly non-game things would still fit in there (like, say, politics, or marriage). But it's workable for now.

If we accept this as what a game is, then I think there are three main game types - the "Kingdom" level of games, if you'll allow me to strain my paleontology metaphor a little. Not that there are only three, but these three seem to cover most activities. These are:


- competitions that involve contests of skill or agility. I'd include in this traditional sports like soccer, baseball, jai alai, etc., but also stuff like darts, foosball, armwrestling, air hockey, etc. I think I'd also put some video games in here, like first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and other similar ones where physical or mental performance is key. There are some common sports I'd have a tough time including as "game sports." These would be things like weightlifting, much of track and field, swimming, etc., since their goals aren't abstract.


- activities that involve producing or manipulating real or abstract objects or pieces of data to achieve a particular purpose. This would include mental puzzles like crosswords and sudoku. It would also include most computer games (e.g. Snood!), unless they're multiplayer, in which case they might instead be in one of the other main kingdoms here. Based on my definition, "Puzzles" would also include some non-gamey things like jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles require players to be clever, but not necessarily lucky, strong, or aggressive.


- activities that let players use pieces, parts, or objects to achieve an imagined goal or scenario defined by rules. These can follow close to reality (e.g. historically realistic wargames) or remain quite distant from it (e.g. Go, Crazy Eights, Poker), or somewhere in the middle (e.g. chess, Monopoly). So, this covers most of what I'm doing, whether it's card games or board games.

I think these three categories cover much of what people think of as games. Role-playing games are a little harder to fit in, but I think they go in as Abstractions.

I'll think more about this later - maybe get down to the phylum or class level, too.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Essential elements of game design

So, it seems to me that there are a bunch of competing qualities that make games interesting to potential players. Let's see if I can name and elaborate them here - kind of a Grand Unification Theory for game design. These are in no particular order:
  1. Mechanics and Rules - A game design is essentially a request - come here, spend an hour doing this activity I've devised. The mechanics and rules define the activity, and therefore the request, and they'll determine in large part whether people will want to play the first time, and then whether they'll come back. This is clearly the most fundamental part of game design for most games, but not all - I'm sure many of you have played a game that has borrowed most or all of its rules or mechanics from another game, and relies on its art, its theme, or some other aspect to attract players.
  2. Interaction - This can be positive (cooperative, party, or team games), neutral (games with individual decisions that affect others, like Monopoly or trading games) or negative (competitive or "mean" games, where you can block or hinder others' progress or steal their resources). There are some games that are fun with minimal interaction, but you start to shift from game to puzzle or hobby with too little interaction. Too much interaction, either positive or negative, can be bad too. The key is finding the right amount for the game's mechanics and audience.
  3. Graphics and Components - This is probably more important than most people realize. You can have the best game design in the world, but if people are playing with ugly, crude parts, then they're not going to like it. Conversely, sometimes graphic design and part quality can carry a game that would otherwise not be worth playing.
  4. Innovation - this is interesting, because it's terribly important for the initial gameplay experience, and for "buzz" at all levels - whether just between friends or in the broader media. If you can think up a new game mechanic, a new goal, or a fundamentally new kind of activity, you're going to get people to try your game, and maybe buy it. But it's not enough to make it the game you remember years later, or pull out every year at the holidays. More on innovation in a later post.
  5. Fun - this is tough, because fun is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and no one game can be fun for everyone. Fun can be hard to capture or identify early in the design process, because often you focus on mechanics or rules before you worry about how fun your game is. Because of this, the pursuit of fun is often an iterative process in design - you design the game, then try it, figure out what the most frustrating or boring parts are, and try to modify the game to mitigate or remove them while amplifying and promoting the parts that are fun.
Let's leave it at those five for now. There are plenty of other important factors for game design, but you can lump most of them into these categories (especially into fun, which is the primary purpose of most games).

Monday, March 29, 2010

Indie game publishing costs, or the grim reality of game economics

Today, I'd like to share my thinking with regard to the economic viability of publishing games with relatively small print runs. This would cover either small game companies or self-publishing - whatever you want to call it, that's what I'm looking to do.

To get started, I've solicited manufacturing cost estimates from a number of manufacturers both in the U.S. and overseas. There is less difference there than I'd thought, although overseas sourcing is a bit cheaper at most production run sizes. That's before factoring in the hassles of additional shipping, customs, transport, etc., which (along with a general preference for U.S. production) may well be enough to move me back to a U.S. printer. Regardless, I've compiled and graphed my various estimates for Diggity, a card game with 96 cards and a box. Some estimates are higher, and some are lower, but they generally fall along the curve I show here (click on all the graphs to see a larger version):
So, you can see there's a big economy of scale at work, with a run of 2000-3000 games being necessary to get to where the pricing is a good deal cheaper, and a run of 5000 or so to get down to about $2.50 a game.

Knowing how much you can make the games for is only half of the information you need to figure out if this is going to be a profitable venture. You also need to figure out how much you can sell them for. That's tricky - there are a lot of mass-produced card games that are somewhat like Diggity. The GameWright card games retail for about $8-$12. They have a big box, lots of art, and they obviously benefit from a big print run. They usually have fewer cards than my game. Set retails for $12-$14 - also a big, popular game. Fluxx, which is probably more parallel to what I'm doing, retails for more like $15-$16, although it now has a bigger box than I'm including in my estimates here. 

Even so, that sounds great - I can make the game for $3-$4, and then sell it for $12, or even $16! Profit! But that's not how it works. The $12 or $16 is the retail price, and other than customers to whom I sell directly, I'm not likely to get the retail price. If I sell directly to a game store, they're going to want to buy it at maybe half of retail, so that they can make a profit. Worse, if I sell through a distributor, the distributor is going to want to buy it from me for maybe 40% of the final retail price, since they need to mark up when they sell to retailers.

Let's make some conservative assumptions. Suppose I'm only able to get a retail price in line with my cheaper competitors, like the GameWright card games. Even if mine's better, and has more cards. Suppose I can get $10 retail for it. That means, if I'm going to sell through distributors, I need to assume I'm only going to get $4 a game for my product. That means I can modify my graph to show where I'm profitable and where I'm not as follows:
On the graph above, I'm only making money on my games if I can get them produced for less than $4, which is only true if I'm in the blue zone. Which means I need to print over 2,000 games just to get to the point where I could possibly make any money. And these are just the production costs - they don't count advertising, legwork, artwork, web design, office supplies, Internet costs, web hosting, shipping costs, transaction fees, returns, spoiled or damaged products, non-payment or outright theft, and on and on. 

The above also makes the rosy assumption that I'll sell all the games I make in a reasonable amount of time. It's possible that sales will go very slowly, and even if I'm potentially profitable long-run, I'll have to make a really big initial payment and then wait a long time (years) before I see any return on my investment. Worse, there may not be that many customers out there for my game (although my shareware experience has taught me that the web, and the world, are pretty dang huge). Suppose, though, that the limits of the exposure I can get and the interest of consumers are such that I can only ever expect to sell about 4,000 copies of my game. That's not a conservative estimate - lots of companies go with smaller print runs, and many many games sell less than that number. But even so, that limits my potential profits as shown below:

My blue field of happiness and profitability has gotten a lot smaller. Not looking too good.

Another concern is how big that initial investment has to be. As you can see above, the cost per game decreases significantly the more you buy. The counterpart to that, though, is that the amount you have to invest increases, because you have to buy each of those games to reduce the per-unit cost. The green line shows the total up-front manufacturing cost (marked on the right side of the graph) that I'd have to shell out to get the game printed.
To even get to the blue zone, I'm looking at a significant initial investment just to get started. Here's an example of how that can be pretty grim. Suppose I really want to publish my game, and I want to make a profit doing so. But I only have $9,000 to spare to get started (call that my Investment Limit). If I spend all of that on printing, at the prices above, I can only print about 2400 games (call that my Production Limit) at a cost of about $3.75 a game - barely below the $4 price I can get from the distributors. That's shown here:
My profitable zone has shrunk to a tiny triangle, almost definitely not enough to cover my other expenses, and my business is doomed before it starts.

Depressing, eh? Well, you have to be realistic. But what are some ways that I could push against this inconvenient truth, and actually make a self-publishing or indie company economically viable? Here are a few:
  • Put in a lot of money - Suppose you can put in more personal funds, or you can raise money from investors. If you make a bigger initial investment, you'll have lower costs of production, and you'll make more money with every sale. You'll have a lot of products to sell, so you'll want to do a lot of advertising and promoting to get your game noticed by potential customers. But if your game is just not that good, or not that marketable, and you do run into a finite market for your game, you'll just have spent (and lost) more money, and you'll have a lot of sad stacks of little cardboard boxes in your basement.
  • Charge a higher price - if you can get people to pay a higher price for your game, then you move the red 40% of retail bar in my graphs upward, and your profitability increases a lot. Given the way the production line is curved, you'll also be able to stay profitable at smaller print runs. Having a higher price than competing games will of course lose you some purchases, but if your game is good enough, and especially if it has some kind of draw, interest, or unique feature that others don't have, you can still sell out. Remember, the benefit of indie publishing is that you need to sell out, but your print runs are pretty small. It's a lot easier to get rid of a couple thousand games than it is to get rid of 10,000 or 20,000.
  • Sell direct - This is a big one, and maybe the best option here. If you can sell your games direct to consumers, then you don't have to weather the discounts that distributors and retailers expect - you get the full purchase price, which means your margin is a lot higher. There are a bunch of easy-access ways to do this - through your own website, through eBay, through Amazon - but the challenge is getting noticed. If your game is sold only on the Internet, you've got to be visible to lots of people in places they go to look for games. That's a big challenge. It's possible that you can sell in a variety of ways, too - get your games out to distributors and retailers as best you can, but also sell in person, over the web, at conventions, by the side of the road - anywhere you can find where people are willing to buy.
There are some other ways I think you can get around this perplexing economic model, and I'll discuss them in future posts. But, like any business venture, self-publishing a game or starting a small indie game company is a big gamble, and not a particularly good one. You shouldn't do it with money you can't afford to lose, and you shouldn't stake your career (or your family's future) on succeeding.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mensa MindGames game competition - too rich for my blood?

I talked about boardgame competitions in my earlier post here. Here's another one: MindGames from Mensa. I thought initially that the competition would favor strictly intellectual games (I knew Set won, for example) but they have some others too that are more traditional or mainstream, like Magic, Rat A Tat Cat, and some others.

It looks like you have to be submitting a game published in the last year. I don't know how releasing through The Game Crafter works there - it seems like a kind of gray area between unpublished prototypes (which they totally don't want) and full commercial products (which they do accept).

I won't be doing it this year, or maybe ever, because of this:

They want a registration fee of $200-$300 (which they strangely won't tell you up front - you have to download the application form or fill it out online), plus six non-returnable copies which they give out to their members who play them. For no prize, other than their seal of approval, which you only get 500 stickers for, and have to buy more if you want them.

Nice work if you can get it. It seems like the game companies are basically funding a game party for Mensa members, in exchange for some small subset of them getting the seal of approval. The Mensa members also have to pay $90 to go judge, so maybe the MindGames folks are harvesting both ends of the cash flow. The site seems somewhat weaselly, too - they have one of those smarmy pseudo-FAQs that doesn't actually answer real questions that people might actually have (e.g. How many games are entered?  "More than 50" doesn't really answer this. Do any of them ever come from small companies? How many judges are there? How long does the judging take? How many people will play my game? How many times? Do I get any feedback if I don't win? Can I see an example judging form? What are you doing with all this money you're collecting?)

So, this would be no problem if you've got a big budget for marketing and national distribution, and if you think the Mensa seal would help you market your game, which it well might. Not possible for me now, since only seven copies of my game exist in the world, and I only have two of them myself. Maybe not possible for me next year, because the game went live on TheGameCrafter in January of this year, and was maybe thus published.

Like I said before, I'm all for a modest entry fee to keep out the riffraff (to which group I currently apparently belong).  Submitting six copies of the game seems high, but maybe reasonable depending on how the event goes. But it shouldn't cost that much just to enter - they're ensuring that they'll primarily be looking at games with bigger budgets and print runs this way, not the broader market of game ideas.

For me, Hippodice seems like a much friendlier, less corporate competition, and they seem to be in it more for the games and the designers, not for the big companies and the cash.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A game publishing case study

Jackson Pope of Reiver Games has a post up at Boardgame Geek about the financial history of his company, and a follow-up post on his blog.  Interesting stuff, and he gives a glimpse at the underlying numbers.  There's not enough there to figure out his entire financial picture, but he's said (as I commented on earlier) it looks like he's not making enough money to do this full-time.

It looks like, after an initial phase of hobby publishing (which I'll define as selling very small print runs of hand-assembled games to friends, acquaintances, convention participants, and random internet dudes), he took the plunge and ordered a modest print run of one game, It's Alive, where modest is a few thousand games.  It looks like for his initial game, if I read his numbers right*, his expenses were in the neighborhood of £34,000 for 3,000 copies, or about £11 and change per game.  That seems pretty steep, but it's got a lot of components, great production values, and a nice box (see a picture of the whole game on BGG here).  Also, he printed it in the U.K., which is probably a bit more expensive than Asia, and the print runs he's been doing aren't quite big enough to get to the cheapest production costs, if my experience getting quotes is any guide.  He may also be including non-manufacturing expenses in there, too, such as postage, office space, computers, etc.

He's been selling that game for several years, and he's come out with a couple newer titles since then, in smaller print runs with higher prices and better margins.  It sounds like he has had some success - he's sold 2/3 of the It's Alive print run, and more than half of the other two, and made some money, all in two years - but it's not been enough to replace the income from working.

So, what are the lessons?
  • The economics are not bad for hobby publishing - you can probably make enough to cover costs by selling hand-manufactured games at conventions and over the Internet.
  • The economics are very tough for mid-scale independent publishing of manufactured products
  • You need a second source of income, or significant savings, to go into it.  It can't replace your real job, and you shouldn't expect it to do so.  
  • Even if you're clever and do things mostly right, you probably won't ever see enough return to live on. If you do, it will come after years of hard work and investment, but even such work and investment still don't guarantee success.
  • You need to buy more copies to reduce production costs and increase margins, but...
  • You will only sell so many games per year, and how many is mostly out of your control, and...
  • There's probably a finite market for any game, after which you've reached all the easy-to-reach, early-to-buy customers, and your sales will slow to a trickle. 
So, your decision to publish becomes a very important calculation, where you know only a few of the variables (production costs, your financial situation) and have to guess at the others (sales potential, retail price, marketing, total long-term demand), sometimes nearly blindly.

I wish Jackson well, and I hope he's able to keep his company going while earning enough to support himself.   His games look really neat, and his blog is very informative.  It's a tough business, and a bad global economic climate.

*3,000 print run, break even if selling 75% at £15 means £33,750 in publishing costs.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Still more on controversial topics

Again via Boardgame News and the Paper Money podcast, there's a protest planned on the upcoming game based on King Phillip's War. I wrote about this in an earlier post here. The protestors seem not to know much about the game - one of the comments indicates that they think the goal of the game is to repeat the massacre of Native Americans, while the real game looks to have an Indian side and a colonist side and replays the military struggle between them.

Obviously, King Phillip's War is a tough subject historically, and is viewed by many as a crime perpetrated on the tribes involved. I'm not sure that view is historically accurate - not that there weren't war crimes committed by colonists, since there certainly seem to have been, but that there was a broader context and conflict in which these crimes were undertaken, and that conflict wasn't about the massacres, and involved bad actions by many participants on two distinct sides. The game focuses on the military struggle, which was apparently instigated by the Wampanoag chief Metacom, known by the English as King Phillip, albeit in response to colonial expansion and domination. Given the complex nature of the conflict and the focus of the game, I don't see the culpability there for the game designer. But then I'm descended from the colonists, not those who were murdered, displaced, and ill-treated. Maybe any reference to this event is painful, even 330 years later, and having it reenacted in something as trivial as a boardgame is an insult. But there are many, many games based on historical events, often bloody ones, especially in the realm of wargaming, and it's unusual that any of them attract protest.

I guess there would be two ways to respond here as the designer and publisher. One would be to try to point out that the game (if I understand it correctly) doesn't attempt to excuse the colonists' massacre of Indian families, includes both sides of the conflict, and that it's actually an opportunity to educate about these historical events and their sad outcome, and that the protesters don't seem to know what the game is actually about. That's the current approach, I think, and I'm not sure how successful that is going to be. The other is to cave - to pull the game, apologize, and give up. That's easier to do here, because they're only in the pre-order stage - if they actually had 3,000 of these in boxes, you're looking at a big loss. They might also try just waiting to see if the outrage is sustained or fades away. None of these options is attractive, I'm sure. Not a good choice to be facing.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My favorite game of all time: Lord of the Rings Adventure Game

It's the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game.  Just putting it out there.  The game is a race game, with each player trying to move along the board and be the one who destroys the Ring.  There are lots of cards to control movement, combat, and doing seriously mean things to the other players.  There's also a bit of die-rolling, which can have a significant impact on the outcome.  Loosely based on Tolkein's books, it was also a tie-in product to the mostly dreadful semi-animated LOTR movie of the late 1970's.  The design is simple - it's playable by kids - but the strategy isn't completely trivial.

My brother and I have played this so much that on our original copy, the cards are thin and bendy, the board and pieces are weathered, and the ink is partially eroded on everything.  We can get a game of this done in about 15-20 minutes - every move is so automatic, it's like choreographed ballet.  But the outcome is almost always in doubt up until the end - you have a chance to come back, to catch up, even at the very end if you get the right cards.

We continue to play it to this day, whenever we're together - we've even got a sheet of paper stored in the box recording the worst games we've ever played - e.g. one player wins when the other is sitting on the Rivendell space, which is normally about 15% of the way through the game, or one player gets stuck on Gollum (the last space on the board) while the other one catches up all the way from Rivendell.  I've bought up old copies on eBay to assure that we have one wherever we might meet up for vacations or holidays, and I've even inflicted it on my students in a fiction/games-based first-year seminar class at the college where I work.

I'm sure almost everybody has a game like this, that's a family legend, a personal favorite - what are yours?  Let me know in comments.

(picture from BGG user Arthur, AKA OldestManOnMyspace)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Game design competitions

I've been hearing about game competitions a good deal recently, and they seem interesting. The Hippodice competition just ended for this year - that one sounds interesting, and the games that won look really neat. There's another one, Premio Archimede 2010, coming up, with a deadline of July 30.

The thing is, they're not quite what I imagined. The barriers to entry for a few are pretty high. For example, Premio Archimede has a €25 entry fee and requires a prototype, which, if you want it to look nice, will cost you. So, you're looking at probably $80 at least just to get entered, maybe more. They vote at the awards ceremony, which is in Italy, so if you make the finals, you'd have to decide whether to go and how to get there. They won't give you back your game unless you pick it up the night of the banquet, either.

And suppose you win. Maybe unlikely, since most of the finalists seem to be Italians recently, but that may also just be a reflection of entries. You get the €3500 prize, but you've probably blown a big piece of that on plane tickets to Italy. You have to sign over rights of first refusal for your game to the competition organizers, and you actually pledge them 50% of royalties if they get you a publishing contract agent. And you won't know if you've won until the banquet night, so you may have spent thousands of bucks to arrive and find you've won 14th place. Yikes. Seems like a big gamble.

Hippodice seems like a better deal. The entry fee is only €5, and there aren't restrictions on your use of the game after the competition. You only submit rules first, and then they choose which games they want to see. The prize is merely recognition, but it sounds like more fun, and far cheaper to enter.

Incidentally, I think having a small entry fee is fine - obviously, they don't want to have to wade through tons of crappy games, and having a modest fee probably cuts way down on that kind of thing.

I may not go for this Premio Archimede thing, although I'm tempted. I'll keep looking for other competitions to enter, and I may go for Hippodice next year. Many of these competitions seem to have rules that forbid any publication at all, so I have to figure out if self-publishing on or counts.

An interesting process, and maybe a way to get wider notice. And to tell if the games that I've made that I think are great are actually any good.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


This is bumming me out: 
34 days and counting.  Or processing, or whatever.

UPDATE:  I finally got my order from SuperiorPOD 40 days (and 40 nights?) after placing it.  A comparison between SuperiorPOD and is here.

Finding artists for game projects

I'm a pretty good programmer, and I like to think of myself as a pretty good game designer.  However, I'm pretty much a crummy artist.  I was able to get by with that in the early days of my shareware career, because I was mostly making 2D icons.  The Snood characters aren't great art, but they were useful for the game and cute enough to (I think) keep people playing. It even inspired a real artist to use the main Snood as a subject (see right).

In recent years, I've worked with artists on several projects, including What's New (released by Snood LLC/Word of Mouse Games 5-6 years ago and no longer for sale) and Scryptix (soon to be released on Facebook; a development version with my ugly art is on the Plankton Games site), and another game that I'm currently working on which I hope to get released soon.

However, it can be hard finding an artist to help.  For paid work, I've used - I've found it a very useful way to solicit bids for artwork, and the artists there are generally professional, skilled, and have portfolios you can see.  The bids are extremely variable, though; for one project I listed there involving about 60 separate small images, I got bids ranging from $25 to $6,000.  I ended up picking an artist in the middle of that range, and I was very happy with the results.  It's free to list a job, though, so it's a no-cost way to see what people can do for you.

Another good option is  For my Scryptix project, which I was funding out-of-pocket, I posted a "help wanted" ad in their forums and got a number of responses, for prices ranging from free to a couple hundred bucks.  A number of people there are excellent artists, and again, you can see their portfolios online to see if their art matches your work.  I ended up using one of the respondents, and I got what I think are great results.  I paid the artist more than the small fee he requested, and I think it was a good deal for both of us.

I'd definitely go to either of these places were I considering soliciting art for a boardgame project.  I'm trying to decide if I need new art for Diggity - The cards look pretty good as they are, but I think I might need something more colorful or exciting for the packaging and maybe the card backs.  Nearly every single GameWright card game has a person or creature on the box, and many other commercially sold card games do as well.  I think I might need an iconic spokescreature for Diggity, or at least for the box.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More on controversial topics

My earlier post covered the game Train, about the Holocaust, which is an unusual choice of topic for a game.

Via BoardgameNews, there's this article in the Providence Journal about a game about a war 335 years ago that's making some descendants of the Native American participants unhappy. The game allows a player to "be" the Indians, and presumably allows the Indians to win. So it's not as though the overall object of the game is subjugation of Native Americans, unlike Train (discussed in the last post), where the goal is (most bluntly put) to facilitate the murder of Jews. However, there's no question that the European settlement of North America, and incidents like King Phillip's War, represented a painful time for Native American population, replete with many atrocities and acts of evil, acts not perpetrated only by the colonists, though the Native Americans lost far more.

Does representing this difficult time in a game trivialize the suffering of the Indians? Or could drawing attention to this era actually educate people about the violent history of the founding of our country? That's hard to say, and the answer likely depends on your heritage and your view of the past. More evidence that topic choices are tricky, and that controversy is hard to avoid, even if the events you're drawing from happened centuries ago. Interesting, though, that the article ends with the question, "Would we play a game called The Holocaust?" Turns out, thanks to Brenda Brathwaite, some people have come pretty close.

One unrelated point from the article - who know that Red Sox pitcher (and bloody sock wearer) Curt Schilling designed games? I saw him in person playing for the PawSox. Pretty neat.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Diggity works, again!

I had another four-player game of my game, Diggity, with the lunchtime gaming group at Guilford College last Friday.  It went well, I thought.  The four-player version has been tricky for me - under my original rules, the game got bogged down with four players, because people felt like they had too little control over scoring, so they tended to just play it safe, just stalling, playing to collect tools rather than score points.  I addressed that by reducing the hand size from five cards to three cards for four players (it's still five cards for two players and three cards for three).  That seems like it would add a lot more luck to the game, and I think it does add some, but it also forces players sometimes to take some risks that they'd otherwise prefer to avoid.  It definitely plays better and finishes faster, and it doesn't seem to hinder the game experience much if at all, which is cool.

The play this time was a little slower than other groups I've played with, and I think it dragged just a tad at times when people took a really long time to choose a play, but there was more strategizing and complex, careful play than I've seen before, too.  This round of play certainly had the most psychological analysis and warfare I'd seen going on - I thought the game had the potential for it from the design, but these players were laying it on pretty thick, gambling on how the others would respond when they chose to mine gold, spending some of their lower-ranked tool cards to try to entice others to blow theirs, and generally thinking hard (sometimes over-thinking!) about what to do.

Neat to see it working well, and being enjoyed - there's no greater reward in game design.

Languages for Game Rules?

I'm trying to figure out whether to include rules in different languages in the manufactured form of my game. Many games currently in stores include rules in Spanish - it seems like that might be worth doing, since it's a relatively small cost to add a sheet of paper. German might be another possibility, if I hope to break into that market. I can get by in German, but I don't speak any Spanish, so that would be a challenge. I'm sure I could find somebody to help, though.

So, I'm pondering the following options:
  1. English only! America, hell yeah! :-)
  2. English only in the box, but include Spanish and German on the website with a link in the English rules
  3. English and Spanish in the box for U.S. retail, German on the website
  4. All three in the box
Seems like #4 is overkill. #1 is xenophobic, and might hurt sales. #2 is pretty easy. #3 involves an additional cost, maybe $0.20 a game, without knowing if the market will reward that investment. Probably #2 is the way to go - most customers will have a web connection, and I can even indicate the availability of the rules translations on the outside of the box if there's room. I could even do French, I suppose, if I'm trying to pick up Canadians and the Gallic market. The game is simple enough that the translations wouldn't be hard.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Train, and games with controversial subjects

There's this "game" called Train that's been in the news recently. I put the word game in quotes because designer Brenda Brathwaite declines to describe it as a game herself in the rules. The premise of the game is that players are trying to load yellow pawns onto small model trains and then move the trains along a track. There are choices to make while playing - cards to play, whether to add more people or move the train, etc. - and there are some cards that can hinder or interrupt the progress of the trains (a "derail" card). When a train reaches the end of the track, the player draws a card to reveal where the train was going, and the destinations all turn out to be concentration camps. The goal of the game has been to play the role of Nazi war criminal - to stuff as many Jews and other victims as possible onto the train and convey them to their doom in the camps.

My initial response to hearing about this was the same as Anthony Burch describes his here on Destructoid. The game sounded emotionally manipulative, like an excuse for a "gotcha" moment. This was compounded by the fact that in the media descriptions, participants are apparently judged by onlookers (and by journalists) on how they respond to the big revelation, with participants who fail to be sufficiently troubled held up for scorn, and those who, upon realizing the game's goal, quit in disgust or try to hinder the movement of the trains within the rules, seen as moral.

Reading Burch's column further, in which he relates that Brathwaite's talk at GDC was a good one, and particularly moving, I'm more inclined to give the game experience the benefit of the doubt. I haven't played the game or had the experience of finding out the secret, so it's a bit difficult to imagine what that must be like, in the same way that it would be hard to imagine or describe the experience of watching The Sixth Sense to somebody - when the secret is so fundamental to the experience, and so shocking, there's no substitute for first-hand experience. I can guess that I'd feel betrayed and pretty horrible about myself, and I'm pretty sure I'd feel manipulated by the whole thing. It still feels like a stunt to me, although Brathwaite frames it in terms of teaching about the Holocaust and forcing people to think about choices of actions. 

Maybe the value here is supposed to be in showing people how they're willing to focus on following rules without thinking about the moral framework in which they're operating. But those who loaded Jews onto trains in the real world could not have been ignorant of the inhumanity they were perpetrating, even if they might in some cases have been ignorant of the full extent of the consequences of their actions. Those playing this abtract game, with toys, don't have that moral framework at all, unless they're able to discern the metaphor through the clues Brathwaite provided - broken glass in the decorations, era-appropriate trains, the color yellow, and a somber, typewriter fonts. If not, they're just playing a game, and can hardly be faulted for what they do. 

And passing harsh judgment on what actions people take when the metaphor is revealed is hardly fair. What is the right response? If I were offered a chance to play the game knowing the metaphor, I'd certainly refuse, and condemn the whole concept of the game - I'm enough of a student of history to know what the Nazis did, and I just visited Dachau for the second time last fall. If it were revealed to me, I think I'd either quit playing or try to stop the trains. But I don't think it's fair to condemn those who don't make those choices. The strength and nature of players' responses would depend on all kinds of things - how well they know the history, how well the metaphor works for them, what they perceive the expectation of the other players and of the hosts of the game to be - it's really hard to figure that out. Some might continue to play so as to continue to learn - to use the simulation as a teaching tool, or food for thought about the evil committed. Other than condemning the real Holocaust, I don't know that there is a definite best response to the game or to the trickery.

It's interesting to me, too, that the fact that the evil the Nazis did here is so direct and so palpable that people feel justified in criticizing those who play on after knowing what they're doing. Just a couple weeks ago, I watched people playing a card game called Let's Kill where they were all serial killers trying to kill the most victims in the most gruesome ways. I found it distasteful, and wouldn't likely be inclined to play it myself, but these people all had decided to play it (and enjoyed it) knowing full well what it was about. And there are hundreds of games I've played in which I kill people, or steal things, or lie - why are those actions not judged, while those in Train are? I've played the Germans in Axis and Allies many times without feeling guilty. Should I be? Are Quakers not allowed to play chess? 

There seems to be an interesting and inconsistent boundary between games that are OK and games that go too far. A board game focused on rape or suicide bombing or abortion or the Holocaust would be condemned, likely rightfully so, but Train gets by that by hiding its true meaning and being framed as experimental art or as a teaching tool. Other topics, like homicide, war, theft, and organized crime all seem perfectly OK - Mafia Wars has over 25 million players on Facebook, and the actions you take in that game are often pretty horrendous, yet it has generated not nearly the outrage that Grand Theft Auto has. So much of this is situationally dependent, inconsistent, and ambiguous.

My nature has always been to play it safe, so I'm not likely to head anywhere this controversial in my designs.  But the temptation is there for many designers.  Dipping into violence and sin is as common in games as it is in prime time TV - it's a real market draw. The Let's Kill card game and Mafia Wars are published and making money (providing a guilty pleasure, maybe), yet those players who finish a game of Train are apparently often contemptible. The Holocaust, perhaps because of the scale of its evil, has a special power that other events do not, and maybe that's how it should be. But it's an odd and deeply unsettling choice of topic for a game.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Even more on boxes

I bought some of these boxes from to box up print-on-demand versions of Diggity to share with friends. I got style 07350, the 4"x3"x2", which are a bit too big for my decks of cards (poker size, at 3.5"x2.5"x1.5"), but they work OK. The boxes come as unfolded stamped sheets, so you have to fold them together, but that's not too hard. They're white corrugated (like a pizza delivery box), so not too fancy. I bought some of these stickers from, which were the perfect size to go on top of the boxes. They come with a downloadable template for MS Word or other word processing programs, so it was easy to convert my cover art to fit into the sticker templates. I printed them out on a color laser printer, which gave good results, and stuck them to the top of the boxes.

Not very elegant, and probably not anything that I could put in an actual retail environment, but it worked for homebrew copies, and at a total of $0.24 cents per labeled box, the price is right.

I hadn't seen these boxes - they look like a better size, and they come in a two-piece format.  But they look like they might be flimsy, like those cheap gift boxes you get for shirts at department stores.  Nothing you could ship in, and probably not something that would stand up to being crammed on a shelf.

No ISBN/UPC needed?

With regard to my recent ISBN/UPC posts (here and here), Tim Harrison of Games on the Brain says:

I checked a number of games I own. None of the following publishers use UPCs or ISBNs:

GMT Games
JKLM Games
most small publishers

GMT publishes thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of copies of games every year, and they don't use them. I'm just saying that unless you have a lot of capital and plan to be doing huge print run, don't waste your money.

Good advice, I think, but I'll unpack it and do a little research.
  • GMT Games, as far as I can tell, is an aggregating publishing house that sells small print runs of games direct to players, many of them through a pre-order model. I doubt their games are often in stores. They have no UPCs or ISBNs, I think.
  • Warfrog (soon to be Treefrog) publishes their own line of games, but also in small print runs, and they don't seem to be listed in most stores, although carries a couple of titles (Brass and Perikles). Perikles is now released by Fantasy Flight, a bigger publisher, and does in fact have a UPC. Brass appears to have one too. Maybe just their bigger titles have codes?
  • JKLM Games (soon to be out of business, unfortunately) is listed in many stores. I'm not sure if most of their line has coded products, but some do - Alien Ascendancy has an ISBN, Days of Steam has a code (I think it's an EAN), but Confucius and Caveman do not.

So, I think I'm in the same boat I was in. Tim's advice is great for smaller print runs that are likely to be sold directly to consumers; there's no need for coding for these. For bigger print runs that might get broader retail distribution, it seems to be pretty standard to have them. I'll have to make that call on my game when I get closer to publication. Since the printing is such a big investment, it might be worth the money to at least have a chance at retail distribution, but on the other hand, I could do a smaller initial print run and add the UPC/ISBN if a second printing is warranted.

Mass Effect II

I'm currently enjoying Mass Effect II for XBox - I'm about 15 hours into it. It's kind of funny, though, that nearly every character you meet has some connection to your earlier life in Mass Effect I. It's like there are only about 100 people in the galaxy, and you met them all the first time, and they were just waiting for you to come back. Also, everybody in the galaxy treats you either as some kind of living god or with haughty disdain - no middle ground. Just once, I'd like to meet somebody who doesn't care much about me.

It's a fun game, though, and an engaging universe they've set it in. The world you walk around in is actually much more fun than the game part, which is mostly a simplified first-person shooter with a couple of dry minigames tacked on. The decision-making character interaction parts are also thoroughly enjoyable, although I'm too much of a namby-pamby to choose most of the renegade actions. They've done a good job of giving you a chance to explore your moral code as well. A fun experience - even better than the first one, I'd say so far, although the ending of the first one was pretty awesome.

Is this a "game" in the sense I've been discussing in earlier posts here? Not really at all - it's more of a puzzle, or actually just an interactive story. But we've conflated all of these cinematic computer experiences as "games," based on the initial arcade-game offerings (which were actually much closer to true games or sports) so I guess I'll stick with the vernacular.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Game Review: Dixit

I had a chance to play Dixit a couple weeks ago. It was clever, fun, and very pretty. The basic idea is that the players all have a set of pictures on cards kept hidden from the other players. One player (the storyteller) chooses one of his or her pictures and then comes up with a phrase (broadly defined to include a word, several words, a noise, or even an action) to describe that picture. Without revealing the picture, the storyteller shares the phrase with the other players. The other players then choose from among their pictures what they think is the best match for the phrase, and all the pictures (the initial one plus one from each other player) are mixed together still hidden, and then turned face up. Each player (other than the storyteller who came up with the phrase) votes for which picture is the best match to the phrase.

The storyteller scores points for anybody who picks the original picture that inspired the phrase. The other players can score points for picking the correct picture themselves or for having other players pick their pictures instead of the correct one. To keep the descriptions from being too literal, the storyteller actually loses points if everybody picks the correct picture - there has to be at least one player who chooses incorrectly for the storyteller to score points. A very clever mechanic without which the game wouldn't work at all.

So, the strategy when you're the storyteller is to come up with a phrase that's a good enough match to get people to pick your picture, but ambiguous enough that there will still be enough confusion that other pictures get picked. When you're not the storyteller, it's simpler - just pick the best match to the phrase.

The gameplay is quick and fun, and the scoring seems pretty balanced. There's a fair amount of luck involved, although it's not traditional luck (e.g. die rolls) - there's some of that with the cards you draw, but most of the luck comes from what happens to inspire the other players, and what connections you're able to get them to make. I didn't feel like I had much control over the game, but that was OK - it was a fun enough process that I didn't mind just going with the flow.

The pictures are really neat and a good fit to the game - very colorful surreal scenes that lend themselves to metaphor, emotion, and ambiguity. The cards are very big, too, which is nice - they're easy to see from across the table. Some of it seems desperately over-the-top artsy - the playing pieces are little bunny rabbits, for no particular reason - and stereotypically French. The bunnies don't stay in place well on the little board you move them around on - they're too big and too tippy. But that's a quibble - it's a cool concept that I think would play well with different numbers of people (I had a group of six). Playing the game felt a little like Apples to Apples, although it's not directly parallel - it's maybe more like the dictionary parlor game and other derivative ones (Balderdash, Wise and Otherwise). I'm not sure how it would stand up to repeated playings, once you had seen all the pictures, but I think it would be OK, since you'd come up with different phrases. Better than Apples to Apples, anyway, which gets a little stale even with the many, many words they have to match.

A fun one - recommended.

More UPCs, EANs, and ISBNs for games

So, I've been looking further into the barcoding process for games, as I discussed earlier in this post about UPCs and ISBNs. It's kind of complicated. Be careful, because we're going to get pretty deep in the weeds now. Make sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

In the U.S., as I mentioned, it's common for games to have both a UPC (Universal Product Code, the general code that identifies nearly all retail products from Parcheesi to peanut butter) and an ISBN (International Standard Book Number, a separate identification code for published material). On American games, the bar code printed on the package is usually the UPC, but the ISBN is listed in number form nearby (often above the bar code).

At right is an example from Settlers of Catan. The block of 12 numbers on the upper left (029877030613) is the UPC, registered to Mayfair Games. The extended part on the right is often used for a suggested retail price. In this case, it would be 42.00 British pounds (the first zero codes for currency, and the other four digits are the price). That seems kind of expensive for Catan, and it's a U.S. printing, so you'd expect it to be in dollars. So, I'm not sure they're using the supplemental 5 digits for a price - it might be an edition code or printing run or something.

Note that the Settlers game also has a 10-digit ISBN at the bottom. This ISBN is a completely separate identifier from the UPC. ISBNs come in two forms, 10-digit (old) and 13-digit (new). The 13-digit ones are now the default, but it's easy to convert. To make 13-digit ISBNs from 10 digit ones, you add 978 (see below for why) to the start and then add on the first 9 digits of the 10-digit code. So, the ISBN above would go from 156905201-8 to 978-156905201-3. The last digit is a checksum, so it varies based on what the other digits are. An image from the back of a real book is at right - it's a pure ISBN (no UPC). Note it starts with 978, and it has the extended code to the side (51900, which means 5=US $, recommended price $19.00).

Further complicating this is the European version of the barcode, known as the EAN (originally European Article Number, recently renamed to International Article Number, but still abbreviated EAN, so as to maximize befuddlement). Here's the code from a German version of a Keltis sequel. You'll note that it's pretty similar to the UPC, but there are 13 total digits. The UPC system (seen on Catan above) has 12. The beginning of the EAN is actually a country code (there's a table of them here and here). Because this Keltis game is a German product, the first three digits have to be between 400 and 440.

However, the EAN is designed as a "superset" of the UPC, which means that things that read EANs can actually handle UPCs, too. If you have a 12-digit UPC, you can make a 13-digit EAN out of it simply by adding a 0 at the start. This is to allow American products to merge into the international EAN system easily. America gets all the EANs that start with 00 to 13, so adding a zero to the 12-digit UPC code is a very easy way to convert your product from American coding (UPC) to international coding (EAN).

Even weirder, the 13-digit ISBNs are also set up to merge into the EAN system, but not via the country they're published in. Instead (and I wish I were making this up, but I'm not), the geniuses who designed this system created an artificial country called "Bookland" where all books would come from. Remember the 978 we added to the ISBN up above to convert it to a 13-digit ISBN from a 10-digit one? The code agencies have assigned Bookland the EAN country code of 978, and then also added the code 979 to Bookland when 978 started to fill up. So, any EAN that starts with 978 or 979 is a book, and you can't tell what country it came from, while for most other EANs, the first three digits will tell you what country the product comes from.

So, why do the American games have both an ISBN and a UPC? The answer is complex, if I understand everything I've read. To be sold in a regular store in the US, it has been standard to have a UPC for your product. That lets the store scan items when they show up, keep track of inventory, and scan your purchase at the cash register when you buy the product. So, games need a UPC to be distributed and sold this way.

However, in the US, the book and publishing industry has relied for years on the separate ISBN system rather than the UPC system. So, because games are published items, and because they are often sold in bookstores, game manufacturers have gotten ISBNs for their products as well, so that stores and distributors that relied exclusively on ISBNs rather than UPCs will be able to handle the products.

These days, UPCs can become EANs by adding a zero, and ISBNs can become EANs by ensuring that they are 13 digits and start with 978. And everybody, from bookstores to distributors to Toys R Us to WalMart, should be able to read EANs. So, the EAN should be a unified coding system for everything.

What's that mean for me and my publishing project? Well, I think I can probably get by with either an ISBN or a UPC, but I likely don't need both. That makes me nervous, because the games I see in stores today have both. However, the European game market has clearly gone with the UPC/EAN model and dispensed with the ISBNs. I think that should probably work for me, but I'm going to research it further.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another neat game design blog

By virtue of him noticing this blog, I noticed Brett Gilbert's blog, BrettSpiel.  Lots of great information there, including a series of articles on game design (his Game Design 101).  I'll need to dig deeper into his archives, but it looks like great stuff so far.  He's also trying to self-publish a game through a start-up company called Keyhole Games - an enterprise fairly parallel to mine here at Plankton Games, although Brett seems to have a good deal more experience in the board and card game industry than I do.

Not that I have the power to send traffic to anybody yet, with my lowly 40 visitors per day, some of them me, but I thought I'd include the link nonetheless.

Game Review: Are You the Traitor?

I played an interesting game last week called Are You the Traitor? It was pretty fun as a party game, reminiscent of Werewolf (described here) which I'd played with friends a couple years ago. The premise is that everybody has a secret role (wizard, guard, key bearer, traitor), and the roles are split up into two sides, and each player is trying to figure out who's on the other side while deceiving everyone else about his or her own role and side. There's really no "game" to it in the traditional sense - sure, you score points via treasures that you collect, but that part seems only designed to give the game an ending point. The rest of the game is just guessing about the roles of the other players - basically, figuring out who's bluffing and who's telling the truth.

This has a long history in games, of course - any game with hidden information involves some degree of bluffing, and even pure strategy games with perfect information and no luck involved can involve bluffing (e.g. "if you move there, I'll definitely not attack this space."). But this game (and those from which it's likely derived) have bluffing as really the only part of it. There's no way to get enough information to decide well - you either believe or don't believe.

The story is moderately interesting - something about a key that wizards are vying for (see yesterday's post about game metaphors), but there's not really enough of a game there to develop it on. So, you're left with the only game mechanic being listening to your fellow players declare themselves innocent or guilty, and then either making a call yourself, or wimping out and waiting for another player to take a stand.

That can be pretty fun, especially if you play a couple rounds (or know the other players well enough) to get a sense if your fellow players are likely to lie or tell the truth. But it didn't seem like enough to sustain a game. I found myself occasionally, when everybody was just sitting there staring quizzically at each other, fairly bored, and willing to make a accusation just because nothing was happening.

So, what would I add or change? That's hard to say. I think there should be more to it. The natural-feeling thing to me would be to give the players some kind of resources, and then let them make bets about other people's roles. In this way, you could gradually reveal more information (as you do in poker) while still forcing people to stay in or out as you go. Maybe the cards get revealed in a particular order, from the least important to the most, and each round players place bets on who is the key-bearer or Chosen One or whatever. If they bet on the player who goes out, they're out too. And then you could change your choice between rounds. I don't know. But something like that would allow for some clever guessing and clues to follow without every round being an all-or-nothing bluff-off.

It was interesting to play, though, and very easy to learn. I just didn't feel like the fun-per-minute ratio was very high. Just my two cents - your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Possible Box Source

Following up on my post on boxes from a couple days ago, I've heard on a couple of forums (e.g. BGDF)  that this company, the Marion Box Company, is willing to do small print runs for not so much money. I haven't tried to contact them myself, but one user at BGDF indicated he got custom-made (and custom-sized) plain boxes for only $1-$2 per box. If you're looking at a small print run and want some nicer boxes, such as two-piece "setup" boxes with a bottom part and a lid, it might be worth dropping them an e-mail or giving them a call.

Some satisfied customers and further discussion here at BGDF.

Me sighting

My game and I got written up by my friend Bob at Pixelated Geek.  Neato.

Swashbuckler and the importance of game themes

After my recent post on Little Green Guys with Guns, I thought I should maybe give homage to a little-known game with similar mechanics that I bought in college, circa 1989, from The Games People Play, a great game store in Cambridge that's still open and doing well. That game is Swashbuckler, from Yaquinto Games. The main idea here was that you were taking part in a chaotic bar fight. You had a bunch of available actions, including moves, fencing attacks, turns, and then more colorful swashbuckler-style moves (throw mug, flip table, yank carpet, swing from chandelier). You'd string together a sequence of 2-6 of these moves, then execute them, all players together, one phase at a time. Sometimes, your plans would work; other times, your opponent would move, or you'd fall down, or you'd get a distracting hat waved in your face. Then you'd get a chance to plan more moves, and the game continued until somebody won the fight (or until the Gendarmes were summoned). This plan-then-resolve mechanic has been used by many other games, too, like the more famous Robo Rally.

The game was fun because of an interesting confluence of features. The basic mechanic was fun - planning counfounded unknowingly by the moves of others - combined with D&D-style hit points and die rolls to resolve the various attacks and events. But enjoyment the game provided owed perhaps an equal amount to the swashbuckler theme, which drew heavily from the Three Musketeers and old Errol Flynn-era pirate movies. It wouldn't have been nearly as fun if the pieces and moves were more abstract. It was great fun shifting the counters to knock over book shelves or pull the carpets around, and to imagine the swordplay. In the other games I've played with similar mechanics (e.g. LGGWG, Robo Rally), the fun mechanic is still there, and it is complemented by the other theme choices quite well.

Actually, in the later games, the mechanic part is updated and simplified. Swashbuckler had a complex notation system where you'd write one- and two-letter codes for your moves on a turn grid, including appropriate rest phases after strenuous moves, which was kind of a pain. Robo Rally has the moves on cards, which is much simpler, and LGGWG has a visual interface for move planning, so both of these make it easier to play. But both sacrifice some complexity to this end - the variety of available moves in each of the later games is much less than in Swashbuckler. So, you're somewhere on the axis where you trade ease-of-play for complexity-of-strategy, although Swashbuckler was really crying out for some more simple way to make moves.

But all three games have a really fun world in which the action takes place, whether it's a tavern brawl between French fencers, a crazy robot battle, or alien worlds with inexplicably hostile one-eyed green guys. One lesson I'd like to learn here is that mechanics aren't everything. Many game designers spend all their time figuring out how to make a great new thing for players to do, or a way to play, and they disdain any design that's not innovative. Others are more willing to re-use old or classic mechanics, but they still want the game's structure to be different or "new" in some way. The theme or setting often isn't seen as important at all, but I think it really is, and is a neglected part of many game designs, sometimes just tacked on at the end.

The most successful games, from classics like Risk, Monopoly, and Stratego to modern successes like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, all wed their mechanics (which are pretty fun) to their themes, which logically couple the game mechanics to a real-world metaphor which makes sense and is fun to imagine. And there are even cases where the metaphor works well enough that the mechanics can be pretty lame - think Go Fish or War as examples.

So, here's to the metaphor - To it, I hoist high a foamy pewter mug of mead, at least before I hurl it at the mincing dandy who's tormenting the mademoiselle in the corner over there.

(Image from Joe Scoleri via BoardGameGeek)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Little Green Guys with Guns

For those of you looking for a boardgame-like experience online, I'd recommend Little Green Guys with Guns (at I'll admit to some potential bias here, because the game's author is my brother, but the game is really fun. It's a play-by-e-mail (PBEM) turn-based tactical combat game. You have a team of little green guys trying who are usually trying to kill the other teams run by other players (although there are some cooperative maps, solo maps, and alliance team maps). Each turn, you plan out moves and attacks for your team, and then they execute your orders. They do this literally - which means your moves and attacks can get messed up if somebody steps in front of you or destroys nearby terrain, often leading to comical and tragic results.

The game is quite mature, having been in development for over five years. There are six different kinds of units with different range, strength, armor, damage, and attack type. There's lots of variety in map design, unit selection and capabilities, and terrain types, and the maps are scriptable, so the user community frequently comes up with new innovations. There are over 130 different maps to play on, and more being created all the time. The player community is open and supportive, with a hotly contested player ranking list. Even better, the game is free to try (donations to support are currently optional, but there may be a small subscription involved in the future).

The Problem of Boxes

I'm finding boxes to be the most expensive part of a game.  Looking at my card game, Diggity, the initial quotes I'm getting are for a simple one-deck tuckbox - i.e., a one-piece box with a flap that tucks in, like a regular deck of playing cards.  Now, Diggity has 96 cards, so it's more like the size of two decks stacked on top of each other, but the cheapest quotes are still for a single-deck tuckbox.

My problem?  I've only ever seen one stand-alone game marketed that way recently, and that's Fluxx.  Maybe that's just because I tend to shop in big chain stores or online rather than in specialty game shops, but I think it's generally not done.  Even Fluxx has now changed their packaging.  See here for their new Family Fluxx version, and notice how the cards are in a little chamber inside of a big box.  That's pretty typical; as another example, nearly all the Gamewright line of small card games which used to be sold in tuckboxes are now in boxes that measure about 5"x6"x1.5" (e.g. Chomp), even though most of them consist of a deck of about 50 cards.  The single deck of cards sits inside a little plastic tray with an empty margin of wasted space around them, almost an inch and a half on each side.  I'm told by one of the manufacturers I've contacted that the plastic trays are very expensive to set up (thousands of dollars), but then cheap to produce.  Prohibitively expensive for a small-timer like me.  A cardboard platform might be workable if I want to do a three-piece box.

Environmentally, this is nuts.  I'm paying extra and using more resources to package and sell empty space.  Fitting-your-games-on-your-shelf-wise, this is also nuts, for the customer and the retailer and the distributor, since a game that would have taken up 14 cubic inches in a tuckbox will take up close to 45 cubic inches in the three-piece box, for the exact same contents.

Marketing-wise, thought, it's quite possible that people are happier dropping $18 for something that has some heft to it, even if the heft is artificial, and the number of cards actually lower than Fluxx or Diggity in a tuckbox.  But the only things that seems to be sold in tuckboxes now (other than standard playing cards) are games like Old Maid or Hannah Montana Uno, and those are only going for $8 or so.

So, what do I do?  A three-piece box is going to add at least $1 per copy to the manufacturing cost, maybe more like $3 per copy, for a game that is would only be $2-$3 per copy to produce in the tuckbox.  Insane - doubling the manufacturing cost to get a box that's about three times as big but holds the same deck of cards!  But apparently not insane if my game would fetch a far lower price in the tuckbox than it would in a big, wasteful box.  If I can retail at $18 for a three-piece big box version that costs me $5 to make, and only get $10 retail for a tuckbox version that costs me $2.50 to make, then I make significantly more on each sale of the big box, even though I'm just selling air.

A halfway option for me would be to use a tuckbox, but have it contain two half-decks of 48-50 cards side-by-side rather than one thick deck - that makes the box a little bigger, and might make it look more impressive on a store shelf.  That's the route that the makers of Set have taken with some of their games.  Set (81 cards) now usually comes in a double-deck plastic box with a printed cardboard wrapper, which is probably more than I can afford at this point, but Five Crowns and Quiddler are multi-card games in wide tuckboxes (although even they have some extra space added to the box to make it wider). I'm looking into that and soliciting quotes.  Any advice is welcome.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Game card production options

I've had some luck creating home-made versions of cards for my games using a variety of stuff, from completely hand-made, hand-written parts, to laser or ink-jet printouts on cardstock, to pre-perforated business card forms (pretty cheap from Office Depot, and they separate easily and shuffle surprisingly well).  I've used color ink-jet printing, which can get expensive but is pretty high quality, and color-laser printing, which can get super-expensive if you do it at a place like Kinko's, but is generally very high quality (but it doesn't always stand up to repeated play - the toner can flake off).  But if you want to take a step further, to a more professional look, there are now a few print-on-demand options.

For cards, the simplest custom printing option is probably business card printing.  Business cards are a bit smaller than normal game cards, but you can get them printed in bulk for very cheap.  If your deck doesn't have a lot of different cards (either a small deck, or a number of repeated cards within a deck) you could order one set of business cards for each card type in your deck, and then collate them.  That's labor-intensive, but it doesn't have to be cost-intensive.  It's also very scalable - for example, has both regular and square business cards at 250 for $20-22, while 1000 is only a dollar or so more.  And there are hundreds of business card printers online.  For a custom project, or for a deck with many unique card types, you might be able to contact a local print shop and get those made up easily - business cards are very common print requests for these companies. Some of the drawbacks are that usually, business cards are a little thinner than "real" cards, they aren't plastic-coated so they don't slide past each other as easily, and they don't have rounded corners, which means they catch on each other when you hold them in your hand.

There are also actual custom playing card printers, which give better results.  For game printing, I've heard of folks using Artscow (custom cards here), TheGameCrafter, SuperiorPOD, and Guild of Blades Retail Group.  These companies print real decks of cards.  I have experience with TheGameCrafter (detailed in an earlier post), and I should (hopefully) have some cards from SuperiorPOD next week for comparison.  Many folks I've read online have sworn by Artscow.  I don't know much about GuildOfBlades - they've not been taking on new projects recently, says their website, so I didn't look into them for my recent print-on-demand projects.   However, their pricing looks very competitive, and it scales downward for bigger print runs, which isn't true of the other POD folks.  They (like TheGameCrafter) have an order fulfillment option.

So, there's a quick guide to some different card printing options.  Let me know if you know of other good ideas!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

UPCs and ISBNs

One of the things I've looked into for self-publishing is getting a UPC (Universal Product Code).  Looking at games already on the market, nearly all of them have both a UPC and also an ISBN (International Standard Book Number).  I'm still working my way through this, but here's what I've found so far:


These are granted by a group called GS1 (website here).  It looks like you need to pony up at least $750 to get a set of UPC numbers for your use (the price varies a little based on your expected sales and revenues).  For this, you get a prefix for your company and a set of reserved code numbers you can use on your products.  There are different tiers of registration; the price above is for 1-100 different products.  The initial set-up fee lasts for a year; for subsequent years, you need to pay again, in the neighborhood of $150 per year.

If you don't want to go the official route, and you don't need too many different UPCs, you can buy individual UPC numbers from reseller brokers.  Prices for these vary, but they can be a lot less than the fairly steep $750 setup fee to do it the official way.  Some folks seem to think this is fine; others point out that you're relying on the reseller to stay in business, deliver an unused code, and keep all the registration stuff current for you.  Also, if you did get wide distribution in retail, your codes wouldn't map directly back to your company, which might not be ideal.  However, you might be able to get this to work, and for significantly less money.


ISBNs seem to work in a similar way.  There is an agency (a government designated private firm, Bowker) which assigns and records ISBNs.  You can buy them singly, or in sets of 10, 100, or 1000.  A single ISBN costs $125; there doesn't seem to be the big initial registration fee that makes the UPC so expensive.  Ten numbers are a significant cost-per-unit savings at $275, a hundred are $995.  I wouldn't expect an indie publisher to need more than 10 initially, and if you've only got one product, you could buy them one at a time.

So, if I've got this right, UPCs are expensive, but you get them in bulk.  You have to renew them each year with an additional smaller payment.  ISBNs have less overhead and can be bought singly, but they're comparable in cost to UPCs in bulk.  I couldn't find anything saying that ISBNs need to be renewed - they seem to be permanent.

Does  an indie publisher need these?  The answer is probably yes if you want to be picked up by any major retail store or distributor.  If you're planning on selling only over the internet, at conventions, or to your local game stores, then you might not need them.  It looks like getting the codes provides yet another cost (and thus yet another barrier to entry) for somebody looking to self-publish.

Caveat:  I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have experience in the retail market.  The above is based on my research, and isn't guaranteed to be correct or accurate.  Do the legwork on your own to be sure.

Funding via

One independent game design partnership, creators of Inevitable: The Game, has managed to fund publication of their game through an online donation-collecting site called Their fundraising page is here.

The deal is, they can collect donations of any amount through the Kickstarter project. If they reach their goal over the fund drive period, they get to keep the pledges. If not, then it all just goes away, and they get nothing. They are going to use the money to design and produce a print run of 100 games, which is really small for a game production run. They've promised rewards to donors, such as PDF copies of the game, one of the games from the print run, T-shirts, and other stuff.

It looks from the link as though the Inevitable project reached $3000 in funding already from nearly 30 donors in only eight days. That was their goal, which means they'll get the money. Great for them!

Here's another game project, Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, also fully funded through Kickstarter. They were looking to print 500 copies for $7600 (about $15 a game), and they've exceeded that goal.

It seems like this might be a way to fund indie game publishing. Donors get a good feeling for donating, and low-cost reward goodies, almost like an NPR fund drive, and the designers get to publish. For many of the donors, this Kickstart thing has been essentially just a way to pre-sell copies of the game, which is great.

However, before using these two data points as proof that the concept is generally workable, I've got a few concerns or questions:

  • For Inevitable, $1350 of their contributions are from three people. I'd be interested in knowing if they'd be able to pull this off without these few angel contributors. For Gentlemen, it's not quite as focused on large donors - most of their donors have pledged $26 or $36 to get a copy of the game, while a small number (13) have pledged $150 or more. This small group makes up 25% of the total.
  • For Inevitable, you have to donate $50 to get a real copy of the game. On a print run that small, with the components visible in the pictures, I doubt the cost of production is lower than $25 or $30 a game, maybe more. With the bigger print run in Gentlemen, they've apparently got lower costs, as you'd expect, but in each case, they don't have much of a margin.
  • It looks like the Inevitable guys have a fairly active support group (e.g., they have 88 fans on Facebook) and have had a number of playtest events. For Gentlemen, they've gotten some support in the game media and from a faculty member (the creator is a grad student in design). My guess is that for each of these projects, many of their donors are friends and family, rather than random people they didn't know who happened to see the project on Kickstarter. If that's the case, then Kickstarter has provided only a framework for hitting up friends rather than a magical source of independent financing. It might not work if you haven't got friends, or if you don't do the networking legwork before listing on Kickstarter.
  • As I said above, I don't think there's much of a margin in either of these projects for profit. It looks like the funding collected will go almost directly to manufacturing costs. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course - it's great to have your game printed up and played by hundreds of people - but that makes this a means to support a hobby, not a way to support yourself or a family as a "real" job.
  • It also isn't a clear path to a broader print run or wider distribution. Again, not a problem at all - if your goal is getting some nice copies made, and getting it out there to your friends and acquaintances and maybe a few others, then it's a clear success. Just not a way to found a company. However, these seed projects could allow the authors to prove that their games have a market, and might allow them to recruit bigger investors or get a traditional publisher to pick up the games, or provide a foot in the door to publishing future works.

Anyway, a very interesting model, and apparently in these cases a very successful one. Congratulations to both the Inevitable and Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands projects, and good luck.

Distributors and middlepersons

Interesting discussion here at BGDF about distribution, fulfillment services, pricing, and the overall economics of game sales.  The takeaway: In order to make a profit publishing games, you need to be producing your products at 20-25% of the cost of their eventual retail price.  For a game like mine, I think I'd end up at about $15 retail, which means I need to get it produced for under $4.00 a game.

For the curious, "gameprinter" on BGDF is Ben Clark of Imagigrafx, a game manufacturing company.  He also co-hosts the Paper Money podcast, which is a really neat insider's look at the game industry.  "dobnarr" on BGDF is me.