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Published on April 10, 2023. Last Updated on April 30, 2023.

Welcome to your weekly dose of board game design!

I put my winter coat away… FINALLY… Is there a term for when you leave the house during the day, knowing you’ll be back in the evening when it’s colder, and you have to decide whether to take the jacket or be fine with your sweater or hoodie? Asking for myself.

Something I learned about game design this week

The process of playtesting requires careful observation, especially in real-world situations with casual players.

Most playtesting I get to do happens online with designers, who know how to listen to rules and ask clarifying questions before taking an action. These questions are informative since they usually imply something was unclear during the teach or something wasn’t intuitively understood. (It can also mean the player wasn’t listening or paying attention, but for the first few questions I’ll err on the side of ‘it’s the game’s fault’.)

I’ve had some wonderful opportunities recently to playtest a couple of my mass-market games with a more casual crowd – curious but mostly inexperienced. I noticed that this crowd sometimes asked questions, but it was more a personality thing.

  • One player basically said ‘I’ll just try this and see what happens’.
  • Some players stopped to confirm they were doing things right.
  • I think one player didn’t recognize an opportunity because they didn’t understand it (they could have flipped another card completely safely in a press-your-luck game)

The lesson for me was more than just ‘be ready for some hand-holding’. It’s more like ‘read the room – each player is different‘.

This week’s tip

I’d like to talk about ambition today. People think of board games as a full-time job that would be absolutely amazing to go into…

And I’m here to tell you that’s true, but…

Here’s the thing.

There are many levels of ambition.

For some designers, they’re just happy to see a great looking, professionally printed copy of their game that they can take and show their friends and family. They made something, they completed the project, and the proof is right there in front of them.

A brief digression…

Some of you may know I used to keep a travel blog. I enjoyed it – it gave me a reason to explore while traveling, take photos, occasionally take good notes, and otherwise see the places I lived in as an expat / digital nomad. The world of travel blogging had conferences and meetups, some of the ‘hang out at a coffee shop’, some of the ‘big annual conferences with keynote speakers’.

I had built this pyramid in my head of who I looked up to. Near the very top was a guy named Gary Arndt, who started his blog in 2006 and had been traveling around the world since 2007. He’d been in mainstream media, was the keynote speaker at lots of bigger conferences. His blog got tons of hits, he was recognized in mainstream media, his business was making lots of money… Literally everyone in the travel blogging industry looked up to him. Meanwhile, I was like 2 or 3 steps down on this pyramid in my head…

OK, enough of the background.

When I got into game design, I had built another, similar pyramid in my head. People making game design their full-time life? Sounds like the best-case scenario to me! Over time, it fleshed out like this.

I thought of the top of the pyramid as people whose full-time income comes from game design or publishing. Truthfully, however, this is a tiny sliver of people that either make a prodigious amount of games (Reiner Knizia), or have one evergreen series that does well (Alan Moon). Sure, it would be nice to be here, but the point I’m trying to make is that this is far from the only level to call a success.

Next up were people with some royalty income and some income from other game-related sources that makes up a full-time income (Sen Foong-Lim makes some amazing games and teaches as a professor, as one example). Again, a great place to be, but still not the only level to consider a success.

Next up were people that make money from their board games, but also offer professional services / products related to the field (I’ll put myself here for now, along with other editors, proofreaders, artists, graphic designers, etc.). The lion’s share of their revenue comes from those services. It’s a solid place that keeps you engaged in the industry, and one that keeps your engaged in the industry without having to tie yourself to it.

Next up were people who enjoy making games, have made one, or think of it as a hobby. Maybe it’s on the Game Crafter, or maybe they’ll put it there. They have a full time job and are either happy enough with it, or not dissatisfied enough to find something else. For want of a better term, I’ll call this the Einstein model – recall he worked as a patent clerk, a full-time job that paid the bills while having enough time to pursue his side quests (that is to say, projects that shaped humanity’s quest to understand the universe).

Now, there’s one very important sentence below that’s bolded and italicized for a reason.

I used to think of this as a pyramid, but this thinking is now in the past. Yes, these are still valid levels of success to aspire to, but all forms of game making are awesome.

Good games aren’t necessarily sold by the millions, or even thousands.  ‘Best seller’ has almost never meant ‘best in quality’ – it usually just means ‘best marketed’ or ‘best promoted’ or ‘best distributed’.

What helps is to set a course for the level of success you want to have.

So let’s take a moment. Off the cuff, right now: where would you like your games to take you? Allow yourself to be selfish for a moment here.

What is one single accomplishment you want to do with your games, or your games can do for you? They can:

  • give you a project to work on and build confidence when it’s complete
  • give you an ego boost when it gets made with your name on the front
  • make you money, by selling copies you make yourself or by licensing the rights to a publisher
  • further your career in some way – either by showing your initiative, creativity skills, your ability to think outside the box, etc. (as a bonus, this usually doesn’t require leaving your full-time job)

So be honest with yourself – truly honest with yourself. You don’t have to share this with me or anyone else. What do you want a board game to do for you? We’ll talk about the experience your board game provides to others another time.

What I’ve been working on last week

  • Playtested Downward Facing Panda, Dice Cream, Smite, Re-gift, Shell Company, and a new game
  • Met multiple co-designers on our projects
  • Outside the world of board game, had some dental work done, had a doctor’s appointment, played with tennis with my wife, and kicked butt at the gym

What’s coming up this week

  • Client work and meeting
  • Prep a game to pitch
  • File US taxes (um, yay…?)
  • Playtesting

ICYMI

Daryl Andrews talks about what Maestro Media is looking for here.

2023 04 10 12 47 02 The Board Game Designer s Guide The Easy 4 Step Process to Create Amazing Games

Joe Slack has released the 2nd Edition of his book with lots of new content: The Board Game Designer’s Guide: The Easy 4 Step Process to Create Amazing Games That People Can’t Stop Playing. Look for a review coming soon.

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