Myth Busters – Board Game Designers episode

Kickin'

I get asked the same questions a lot and I see post after post resurface on forums about some common topics. So I thought I’d get on the pedestal again and preach. In many cases the answer is specific to whether you wish to sell to the mainstream toy industry or our little hobby game market. I will answer for the latter unless I note otherwise.

Q: How do I pitch or sell my game idea to a company?

A: You don’t. No one buys ideas. Publishers want to see and play actual near-complete (previously play-tested) prototypes. Don’t waste the Publisher’s time sending them something that isn’t a fully tested game.

Q: How do I protect my IP (Intellectual Property)? Can I Patent my game idea? What keeps someone from stealing my ideas? What will Copyright cover?

The short answer is just forget about all of this and get play-testing! You cannot copyright or trademark or patent a game – you can copyright actual text of a game manual. You can trademark a specific title or trade dress. You can patent a specific mechanic (though I doubt it’ll hold up). A patent will cost you more money than you’ll ever make on your game. Publishers will not sign an NDA to look at your game. This is a small hobby niche and most people know each other and if you rip off a game you’ll get blasted in the public eye – still, it happens all the time and there is little you can do about it. Cards Against Humanity and Dixit for example are just rip-offs of Apples to Apples – yet Hasbro who now owns it doesn’t sue anyone – because they really can’t.

Q: I improved on a game, can I sell it as a new game? I want to remake this old game, can I?

A: This is the flip side of the above question. Yes you can rip-off a game technically, but if it’s a derivative of the original or almost identical to the original you’re going to have a very hard go at it. Ask yourself if you have the spare time and money to deal with a lawsuit? So drop those plans to extend Catan with your special cool new ideas. Also, remember, just cause you don’t make money on something doesn’t mean its OK to do.

Q: What should I ask for or look out for as a designer when signing a Publisher’s contract?

A: Publisher’s contract should include:

  • Your royalty rate (3-5%), but specifically what that value is calculated off of (MSRP, Wholesale, Units, etc).
  • The payment schedule and any penalties if not met.
  • A maximum time to get the game to market (2 years).
  • A clause for what happens to the game after the company goes out of business or if it hasn’t been “in print” for X number of years (and a definition of “in print”).
  • Your earnings if the game is licensed for other languages, electronic versions, software editions.
  • Copies for you the designer of all versions of the game
  • Where your name will appear in credits (box cover?)

Q: Do I need to pay someone to make art? Do I need a good-looking prototype? Can I use art from the Internet on my prototype?

A: No, do not pay anyone for artwork. The publisher will have their own ideas and artists. Still, I’m not going to lie, the nicer your prototype looks the more likely it is to get the attention of the publishers. But it’s not required to have a pretty prototype. If you used images from the Internet to pretty up your prototype, don’t worry about submitting it to the publisher that way as they all know the art is just a place-holder and it can even help set the tone for your game.

Q: At what point should I submit my game to publishers? What type of play-testing is needed?

A: To steal a phrase from the software industry: “When it’s ready”. Let me be more clear- when you feel you’ve done everything you can to make it a great game and would like the final help of a publisher and developer to polish the game for the market. This means your game should already have gone through blind play testing – which means handing it over to a group of people you DO NOT KNOW and saying nothing or not being there while they play the game. Do not trust the feedback of your family or friends or employees. Do not waste the Publisher’s time by sending something that isn’t polished and fully tested.

Q: Which publishers are open to hobby game submissions? How should I make that submission and what should I include? What if I want to submit my game to Hasbro? Should I pay an agent?

A: This varies too much to just make a list, but in general if their website has submission instructions then they are probably open to submissions and you should follow their instructions to the letter. Many medium sized companies only develop games from within or hire people they want to work for them. Large companies typically cater to the mainstream board game market and use Agents to weed out the submissions. If you want to get a game in front of Hasbro for example, you need to pay an Agent $500+ to put you on a list that they submit to the executives there. My opinion is that it’s not worth the bother, but that’s me. Plus many Agents out there just in the business of telling you your game is nice and collecting money from you to do that. Best thing you can do is to talk to a publisher at a convention and ask what they are looking for and how to make a submission or setup a demo meeting. Publishers are busy people and if you show them the game it saves them a lot of trouble reading rules and finding players. Sometimes a publisher can hang on to your game for more then a year and maybe not even have played it.

Many publishers are fine with a simple email asking if they are interested in your game. Just make sure you summarize what makes it special in 1 paragraph and include a picture of the prototype if you can.

Q: My game is based on an IP, how hard is it to license? Will I have to change it all?

A: This is a big no-no… don’t do it. The chances that a small company in our industry can secure a good license to use with a game are small. The chances that you as a designer could find a publisher willing to hunt down a license for your specific game is probably NIL. Games with licenses usually happen after the licenses is obtained and then they go looking for someone to make a game out of it (which is why most of them suck). So don’t pigeon-hole yourself as a designer and make something based on an IP that you have no clue you would ever be able to obtain.


Q: I made the next greatest collectible card game (CCG)…

A: STOP! Hold right there. The worst thing you can ever do (if you want a publisher contract and money) is to create a game that needs to be a CCG. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, I own multiple game stores, I talk to hundreds of retailers, I know the distributors. They all treat CCG as the plague of death. What makes you think you can do better than the dozens of failed CCGs that had large licenses and million dollar budgets? As a retail store owner I do not want to spend $50 on a box of boosters to MAYBE sell just a couple. As a consumer I don’t want the prospect of yet another money pit of a hobby. So please, just make your game in a box with a static amount of cards.

Q: I have this great game and some expansions are already in the works. When should I print the expansion?

A: Most games in this hobby industry don’t sell past their first print run. If your game doesn’t sell out of its first print run there is not going to be a need for any expansion. The economics just don’t make sense. So, if you have good expansion ideas, that’s nice – but try to include most of them in the base game or use them as stretch goals on Kickstarter.

Q: I hear I need to make my cards in quantities of 54 or 108 to save money, do I need to come up with more card ideas?

A: These days this really isn’t much of an issue and you really shouldn’t design with these counts in mind. Many printers have dynamic die cut machines for cards and even if they don’t, they’ll figure out the best way to do the setup. However, you might have room for 1 or 2 more cards after talking to the printer, so you could squeeze in some last minute promotional cards for Kickstarter and Conventions.

Q: Do you recommend designers use Kickstarter to publish and ship their own games?

A: There is a simple answer to this: do you want to start a business, hire freelancers, learn how to make mechanicals, run a Kickstarter campaign, deal with customs and shipping, have tons of boxes in your home, stay up late packing, and risk losing a lot of money? Or do you want to design games? If you choose the latter, then find a publisher to help you get your game out. It’s a lot of work to bring a game to the market and you’ll find yourself not having time to make games anymore. I suggest you read my blog post, “10,000 Feet to Publishing a Board Game

To share ideas and help other designers, join our Facebook Card & Game Designer Guild

We’d love to see you at our Designers event in March: http://www.Protospiel-Milwaukee.org

5 thoughts on “Myth Busters – Board Game Designers episode

  1. Great answers all around!

    On the last point, I think it’s only fair to mention that sometimes a designer won’t be able to find a publisher that’s interested in publishing the game. Now, the advice might be, if it’s not good enough to get a publisher interested, then it’s not good enough to Kickstart. But I don’t think that’s useful advice for designers in that situation.

    If a designer really wants to see the game in print, even if publishers have passed, then going the Kickstarter route might make sense. Of course, designers have to go into this with their eyes open about their chances for success and being prepared for all of the hard work involved, which you did a good job of laying out.

    I just think it’s worth acknowledging that for many designers, it’s not a question of, “Do I accept this publisher’s offer or go to Kickstarter on my own?” It’s, “Do I try to publish this game via Kickstarter or just let it go?”

  2. That is a valid point Michael. I certainly do not believe that just cause you can’t find a publisher willing to take your game that it isn’t worth publishing. Hell, these days I even think Kickstarter is a better gatekeeper then Publishers. Just keep in mind you’re going to be married to your Kickstarter campaign for 6 months.

  3. Regarding games based on a IP:

    If it’s an IP that is already owned by a company it’s a great idea to pitch them games that are already themed to the properties for which they have license. But 99% of the time you may not know or it may be impossible to track down. Or the company could be crazy.

    A reasonable non-IP restricted version is your best bet, however weaving your own rich IP (otherwise known as theme and setting) might be a benefit. Some companies look to establish game lines, so this can help. If you do that, make sure your IP is also covered by the contract.

  4. Hi James,
    We are just getting started launching our board games, and our first project has not been a huge success. We have taken a crash course the last few weeks, and your blog has been very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write all of this out for n00bs like us.
    You don’t have a option to follow your post via email or subscription and I don’t want to lose track of you. How do other people follow you?
    Thanks,
    Christina

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