Post by: The Design and Publishing Community!
I asked the community to tell me about how their year went. What did they learn? Where did they succeed? Where did they fail? Hopefully their stories below are interesting, insightful, and fun. Tell us what you think below. You can read Part 1 here.
Editor’s Note: I took some liberties to edit a few of these posts down. I tried my best to preserve content, but many of the submissions were about twice as long as I expected.
2014 was the most insane year I’ve ever had as a designer. In January, I initiated the 4P challenge. It’s a response to National Game Design Month, which I think is well-meaning but does not help designers as much as it could. I successfully play tested one game four times in a month, which started to get me into a rhythm where I expected to test my games much more frequently than before.
In April, I attended my first Gathering of Friends, after three years of trying to get in. I attended all 10 days and play tested The Game Formerly Known as Prime Time 12 times. It was absolutely amazing.
In August, my girlfriend’s father, a copywriter for Big Pharma, offhandedly mentioned that a fun party game could have players trying to advertise crazy drugs. The germ of an idea didn’t leave my head, and pretty soon, I was testing a new party game, Bad Medicine. It was around then that I made the crazy decision to self-publish Bad Medicine. It’s going to be an incredible amount of work. I can’t wait.
Credit Debbie Ridpath Ohi, ©2014
In September, my second published game, Battle Merchants, was released by Minion Games. It looks beautiful. I started frenetically demoing the game everywhere I could.
This month, I will finally start working on making a mobile version of my first published game, the word game Prolix. It’s a project I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve finally cleared up enough time for it.
I’ve also started co-designing a non-sighted game with Richard Gibbs of 64 Oz Games. I’m averaging about one play test per week. And I might even have time left over to put together my game for next year’s 4P project…
My 2014 was a year of restarting. I got into game design seriously around 2000, developing a couple games for GMT, developing and publishing a friend’s design, completing a batch of card game designs, and getting a handful of others into late prototype stages. However, in 2003, a stretch of unemployment brought me up short with that hobby, and in 2007, my first child arrived. While I never stopped playing and buying games regularly, and never stopped thinking about design, I didn’t really do anything for many years. At the end of 2013, a conversation with our estimable host here about a Dice Hate Me game design contest led me to start thinking more seriously. A germ of a design had appeared in my head, and it wouldn’t go away.
I still didn’t do that much with it right away, but it did keep percolating. There was more to come, though. In February, Grant reached out to me to take a look at a game he was calling “Wizard Poker”. I’d been helpful with comments on his contest entry, and he was curious what I thought. I made comments. I made more comments. I edited. It wasn’t long before I was developing then game, then co-designing. After a long fallow period of no design activity of significance, I suddenly found myself seriously working on a game, which became Hocus Poker. The flood gates were open again.
In addition to Hocus Poker, featured in many articles on this blog, I started and got quite far with Killing Monsters and Taking Their Stuff. I created a game originally intended as a companion game for Hocus Poker and also got it into a playable prototype, called Wiccage. I cleaned up and finally released an old design called Foresight, available now via Drive Thru Cards. I also have an ambitious project under way with Grant which we haven’t been talking about too much, and even restarted my blog. I got involved on Twitter. I ended up with a design partner that I work well with, which is quite fun.
Basically, I completely restarted the design side of the hobby in 2014, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I hope to publish multiple designs in 2015, and with luck, start a few more. Why, I just had one come to me the other day…
Right off the bat, I need to say “Thank you!” again (and never able to say it enough) to everyone in the gaming community that sent well-wishes, prayers and gifts in my direction while I was dealing with my medical issues for the first three-quarters of the year. The support was overwhelming and I will never forget it. Now that I’m on the good side of all that went down, I am even more excited to be part of what goes on among these people.
As for actual game-related accomplishments this year …
Dicey Curves, Deluxe Edition: In March, I was able to re-package Dicey Curves and its DANGER! Expansion into a single box as the Deluxe Edition. Part of the process included changing the artwork on the cards (much better now) and re-doing the expansion to use bits on the track instead of just cards.
Aether Magic: After signing my game “For Goods in Honor” with upstart publisher, Happy Mitten Games, during the back half of last year, the development process of the game — including a full theme and title shift to “Aether Magic” — has been an interesting creative challenge. The changes have led to a more robust game with a bigger commercial potential. Jeff, Kyle, and Lee are good folks and are really prepping this to be a success. At this point, the first sets of artwork are being finalized and the sneak-peeks I’ve gotten look really good.
Protospiel-Michigan: In July, I was able to make the single game-related trip of my year, as I road-tripped to Protospiel in Michigan. Along the way, I picked up Jeff King (from All Us Geeks), Jason Glover (from Grey Gnome Games) and David Sheppard (known to all as “Sheppy”). Without any hint at sarcasm, I can truly say that the conversations on the car ride were both entertaining and educational. The knowledge and creative energy I was able to glean were incredible.
While at the spiel, I was able to get my Abbottsville prototype to the table, which led to a long-legged series of inside jokes about punching pumas. I was also able to see a ton of interesting games, talk with a ton of creative and interesting folks, and take part in the mutual help in advancing game designs that are the hallmark of these sorts of get-togethers.
I say this all the time, and will take a moment to say it here too. If you are a tabletop game designer, please make it a priority to attend a Protospiel/Unpub type event. You will gain from being there, and others will gain from you being there too.
As we get close to the end of the year, I am excited to be getting ready for a couple of big releases next year under my MWG logo, one set in the Land of Danger, and one having to do with Jump Gate. And no more unexpected medical issues. Right?
By far what I’ll remember most about 2014 will be all the great people that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. I’ve been a gamer to some degree or another for as long as I can remember, but until recently my gaming circle had been mostly limited to family members and players I would see at occasional Meet ups. This year, I started to participate in local Protospiel and Unpub events, attended the regional conventions of KublaCon and CelestiCon, and travelled to the Origins Game Fair. Before being exposed to all of this, I had certainly heard or read stories about the enthusiasm and friendliness of gamers, but experiencing it first-hand has been truly fantastic.
Grant was the first person I met with any kind of direct connection into gaming as a business, and within a few minutes after introductions he was already becoming a guide, an advocate, and a sounding board. I soon found out that he wasn’t unique, though, as all of the players and professionals I would meet were eager to talk about their passion for games and how they could share it with others. Some of these people were designers of finalists for the Spiel des Jahres, publishers of products that had sold more than a million copies, podcasters and bloggers I had followed for years, but without exception they had no hesitation in sharing their time, advice, feedback, and encouragement. At the beginning of the year, I considered myself lucky to find time to get a few games to the table every month or so.
Now at year’s end, I have three designs of my own currently being evaluated by different publishers. Even if none of those games move beyond that step, I feel like the really important accomplishment for me has been entering into an entirely new level of enjoyment and participation within the hobby and the industry. Thanks to all my new friends, I’ve experienced what it’s like to be more involved in this great community, and I can’t imagine ever going back.
At the end of 2013, around when I was sending in my last recap, I was on a streak of really focusing on tabletop games, after a lot of my other game-making commitments had tapered off. I think it really paid off to be able to focus on that, and at the same time, I decided to try and attend more public game design events to get my works more out there. I’m happy with my output and situation for the most part, but the road certainly hasn’t been a smooth one!
To start with real quick updates from last year’s set of games:
Heat, my newest game coming in 2014, was one of the two games I was showing off at Unpub 4 to pretty good reactions. I ended up signing a contract for publication while at the convention after one play. However, once the publisher got it home, they changed their mind, and after a series of email discussions, I took the rights back. While lamenting that online, my friend Chris of Asmadi Games asked to see it, and liked what he saw. He’s been great to work with, and really helped develop it into a great final product. Heat Kickstarted in June, and should be in people’s hands in the next month or so.
Spell Dice I renamed to Village Dice, since the fantasy theme was proving problematic, and also moving to a more traditional Euro theme made naming the resources and buildings easier. It was the other game I brought to Unpub 4, and reactions were very polarized on it. Most people loved the core of the game but had been expecting a lighter, less downtime game because of the colorful dice. I made some major tweaks to the buildings themselves, while keeping the core the same, changed the name to Market Square, and brought it to an Unpub Mini event. Reactions were much more positive there, and I ended up signing it to a publisher shortly thereafter.
Inside Joke was done before 2014, I was just debating what path to go with it. Party games are challenging to get picked up by another publisher nowadays. I focused on pitching it to more companies that I thought would be good fits. It’s in the hands of a publisher now who likes it, and we’ll see if that turns into a contract or if I’ll be back thinking about self-publication in some manner.
Now, onto newer games:
Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal is a game that popped into my head based on the title alone. It took a number of major changes before it became a compelling game. I was then invited to pitch to a specific game company, so I tuned the game in the direction of the kind of game they publish. It’s in their hands now, and waiting for a decision about it.
15 Minute Illuminati: I’ve been playing a ton of One Night Werewolf, and its game DNA kind of mixed with a conspiracy theme I’ve always enjoyed, while thinking about the parts of predecessor games I wanted to try and do something different with. This game has really come together quickly. The question becomes who do I pitch it to since it does come from these other games, will the theme have to change, can I make a game where you play as Chemtrails, etc. At least I feel like the game design is done.
I might have a really busy year of publications next year: possibly upwards of four new games in production, if absolutely everything fell into place suddenly. It’s an exciting time for me, but the life of being a freelance designer means you’re always pitching and scheming for the next thing.
Greetings from Nothing Sacred Games! 2014 was a big year because it marked the beginning of a serious commitment to ramping up how often I release games.
The biggest accomplishment was completing Shadow Throne. This drafting, hand management game of Machiavellian intrigue had a solid foundation at the beginning of the year, so most of the work on it in 2014 was development, fundraising, and final production. The Kickstarter, which ran in June, was successful, the game looks beautiful, and I’m very excited to share the final product with the world early next year!
My next game, Birds of a Feather, also improved by leaps and bounds this year. Honestly, much of the design work has just been slighting changing the number of cards and suits. I’ve also experimented with special rules, but they’ve almost all been scrapped. The core game is unique, accessible, and really fun, so it doesn’t need extra frills. I’m really proud of this one. Ping me if you’d like to try a print and play!
Next year, I’m hoping to release Birds of a Feather and Shifting Shadows, a stand-alone expansion to Shadow Throne. But I’ve worked on a couple additional designs this year to keep the pipeline full for the long term.
The first is a re-skin of a game I dropped when I started working on Shadow Throne. The original theme was fungus, which was controversial to say the least. The new theme is wizards trying to write the most influential book on magic. I think the new theme is a huge improvement, but the game has a long way to go. I wasted a lot of time coming up with thematic special rules before the basic structure of the game was ready, an amateur mistake. The next step for this game will be to greatly simplify the cards and try to pin down a solid foundation before I flesh it out with theme.
The second early game is one currently themed as tech startups trying to balance making money with being cool to attract talent. While the game still has a long way to go, I’m happy with how I’ve been handling the early stages of design, keeping an open mind and exploring many different core systems before committing a lot of time and energy to any one.
I’m happy with how 2014 went and hope to continue the trend next year!
Chris and Suzanne Zinsli (Cardboard Edison)
For us, 2014 was a year of endings and new beginnings. The spring of 2014 saw the release of our first game, Tessen! It took a little over two years from initial concept, one year from signing with a publisher, and six months from the Kickstarter campaign funding. Seeing pictures of our game on store shelves and reading about people playing and enjoying it has been a highlight of our nascent design careers.
For most of the rest of the year, we put design on the back burner to focus on some family concerns. Then in July we welcomed the newest member of Cardboard Edison, our daughter Hana! Though we kept our own design work to a minimum, we still maintained our tips blog for other designers.
We’ve gotten back into the swing of things in recent months. Our design for Cottage Industry has undergone some major changes — most notably that it’s no longer Cottage Industry! We split the design in two, and re-themed the core mechanisms as Dubai. The new theme and tight mechanics makes Dubai a modern city-building game that is getting great feedback.
We plan to spend the next few months polishing Dubai and getting a couple of smaller designs in shape for Unpub in February.
We also have big plans in the works for Cardboard Edison. We recently asked the community for their thoughts on the future of Cardboard Edison, and we now have a solid grasp on how we can best serve the gaming and design community. Details to come soon!
Anyone who follows me on Twitter is no doubt sick of me going on about Gravwell, so I’ll just touch on the highlights and surprises I encountered during the first year of its publication.
I didn’t anticipate the creative energy of tabletop players and fans. One player in Columbus, unable to get a copy of the game, made his own based on the images he found online, including a beautiful alternative board. He presented a copy of his handiwork to me when we met at Columbus Ohio’s Kingmaker’s game café. A crazy clever Minecraft expert, @Adlington, built an automated Gravwell game. I definitely didn’t expect Gravwell to receive the awards and recognition that it did. Most notably, Dice Hate Me Games and Scott King each named it Game of the Year for 2013. Nothing had prepared me for the afternoon in late April when I saw in my Twitter feed that Gravwell was named a 2014 Mensa Select game. I really can’t imagine ever being that excited again.
Another big change was when Gravwell changed hands from Cryptozoic to Renegade Games. I’ll always be thankful to Cryptozoic for giving me my start in the industry, but I’m so happy with the direction Renegade is taking with the game. New art, a huge new print run and a fantastic new marketing push. We’re working on a much-requested 5-6 player expansion and some other expansions and variations.
My second game, Santorini, languished much of the year. I signed with a publisher during Protospiel 2013, but progress on it wasn’t what we were hoping. In September of 2014, I got the rights to game back. It’s now under consideration by another publisher.
Today, I’m busily working on One Way Out. This is my great white whale. It’s the biggest game I’ve done so far. I’ve been working on it for 4 years. It’s a 3-4 player “boardless” board game in which you play a timeless hero jumping from world to world every 15 minutes, racing through a pirate warf, then jumping to a crashing alien ship, then fighting your way out of a kaiju’s abdomen. One Way Out was with a major publisher several years ago, but it had crashed and burned in blind playtest. The endgame just wasn’t satisfying. It ended with a fizzle instead of a bang.
At Protospiel 2014, I was helping another designer with a similar problem. I came up with a solution that might work for his game, and in the process came up with what may be the solution to my own problem. Events like Protospiel and UnPub are invaluable. These kind of breakthroughs happen all the time when designers help each other.
Grant Rodiek (Hyperbole Games)
2014 once again reminded me that the road to success is long. I had a busy personal life. I became engaged to Beth, met my niece shortly after she was born, shipped The Sims 4 (I’m on the development team), and was a few miles away from the epicenter of the biggest earthquake since the big one in 1989.
I have three board gaming events of extreme significance to me. In January, after 4 months of consideration, Ignacy Trzewiczek of Portal Games signed Dawn Sector. Ignacy and his team make some of my favorite games. To receive feedback from Ignacy, Michal Oracz, or Michal Walczak (the lead developer on Dawn Sector and Legacy: Testament of Duke de Crecy) is awesome.
I’ve loved working with the Portal team. Ignacy has kept me involved with design. I can’t wait to move into a balance phase and see final graphic design and art. And Ignacy’s doing minis, his first step in plastics, for the game. Holy crap!
Shortly after this, I began working on Wizard Poker (now Hocus Poker). Because of it, I have a design partner in Joshua Buergel. Not just on this, but on a 2015 (tentative) project/experiment called Landfall and whatever else we cook up. Josh is incredibly cool and I hope to show up in Seattle for beer and an intense lesson on music in 2015.
Last month (November), I was about ready to quit Hocus Poker. We’ve tested it well over 100 times, run blind tests on previous versions, and we just seemed to be spinning. Then we tried a few changes and the game is quite fun. Pfew. The highlight was my family legitimately loving it over Thanksgiving. They don’t normally like my games. We wouldn’t mind finding a publisher for Hocus Poker, but honestly, we wouldn’t mind doing it ourselves. It’s a weird game.
Thirdly, I finally formed an LLC. I don’t see publishing as a job or a source of income. But, I’ve been making video games professionally for 9 years. I have this entrepreneurial itch and I want to see if I can do things right. I want to do things on my term, even if it’s only with 90 card games. Landfall will definitely be something we self-publish. Maybe Hocus. We’ll see what I learn.
I created no fewer than 5 prototypes that were horrible and burned. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t experimenting enough. I do this every year and it’s good for me. I also made huge progress on Sol Rising, including completing the design of the entire persistent campaign. It was a great deal of work. Now, I’m in the hunt to work with a great publisher. We’ll see how that fares in 2015.
Daniel Solis (Smart Play Games)
Two years ago, I resigned from my day job so I could focus on freelancing and developing my game design catalog. In 2013, despite my best efforts, I didn’t release as many games as I would have liked. I had at least a dozen of 95% finished games laying around, but I couldn’t stick to a schedule to get them all to 100%. Also, there was the whole matter of paying the bills.
In January, I began a challenge to my own productivity. I decided I would polish up and release a new game each month this year on DriveThruCards, a print-on-demand card game printer and online store. My goal was simply to increase my catalog, build name recognition, and collect actual sales performance for my games to support traditional publisher pitches in 2015. It may not earn bajillions of dollars like a crowdfunding campaign, but it would also be way lower commitment.
When I first started selling games on DriveThruCards, my products shot up to the top of the seller hot list. But the site was new, so I had no context for what would be considered an objective “hit.” I figured any new designers coming to the site wouldn’t have much context either. So I bit the bullet and released my monthly sales numbers to the public. I was honest and transparent about my margins on each product and how much I earned. Folks seemed to respond well to that transparency and I saw small sales boosts after each report. Here are my averages for the entire year:
- Monthly Gross Avg: $861.41
- Monthly Earnings Avg: $261.75
- Monthly Sales Avg: 103
I set my own margins for each product, meaning I can earn quite a bit from each sale even at a modest retail price, even during promotional discounts. However, POD has very limited reach at the moment since it’s too expensive to do traditional marketing or retail distribution. (Reasonably priced high quality POD tuck boxes are more difficult to get than you’d think.) Still, the most surprising successes came from overseas.
That plan about pitching to traditional publishers in 2015? Yeah, that kind of got sidetracked this Summer when Chinese publisher Joy Pie licensed Koi Pond. Shortly thereafter, Brazilian publisher Funbox licensed Suspense and Light Rail. Since then, I re-evaluated my whole model. (If you can call this experiment a model.)
I’ll still pitch in 2015, but I want to expand the offerings on DriveThruCards so I have more competition on their top seller list. If more top-level designers are on the site, it raises the credibility for my own products. I’m even going so far as to explore becoming a licensor myself, so I can give those games as much of a push as I’ve given my own. We’ll see how that turns out!
John du Bois
2014 was a weird year for me design-wise. Between my daughter arriving in February and major job issues in July and August, I didn’t feel like I got much done design-wise. And yet, I seemed to get work done on four games:
Something Old: Bread and Circuses is a social negotiation game was rejected by a potential publisher in 2013 due to lacking player interaction, and spent most of 2014 gathering dust on the back burner. However, I’m now working on a possible re-theme as well as adding “sabotage” cards (a la Cutthroat Kitchen) to the game to increase player options and interaction. Look for this game at UnPub 5, probably after hours.
Something New: Avignon is the only truly new game I’ve worked on in 2014, and it’s also the game I’ve learned most about game design from. In its journey, I’ve learned about the interaction between mechanics and theme, avoiding using too much card text, avoiding using too little card text, component cost, the average person’s ability to use spatial relations without a guide, and much, much, more. At the end, I had a 5-10 minute 2-player abstract with a Dark Ages Catholicism theme that uses “tug-of-war” as its primary mechanism. You’ll be able to see this game at UnPub 5.
Something Borrowed: Scapegoat is a social negotiation/storytelling game that I initially designed using components from Clue for Grant’s Classic Game Remix contest. In early 2014, it ended up being a finalist (but not a winner). Afterward, I tweaked the rules set to work as a game in Jason Tagmire’s Storyteller Cards: Fantasy. I’m still working on a way to get this to work as a game in its own right, because the game’s core story – the players worked together on a crime of some kind and have to give someone up to the police/mob/Illuminati so everyone else can get away with it – is just too fun to let die.
Something Blue (one of the socks in the game is blue, I promise): Odd Socks, a 2-4 player deduction microgame, started out my 2014 on a positive note when it was chosen as a finalist in the Dice Hate Me 54-Card Challenge. While it didn’t win, it was my first major validation that I’m working on games people want to play. I also took it to the Publisher/Designer Speed Dating event at GenCon, and I had a couple nibbles from publishers, but no sales. This year, it’s gone through various tweaks and modifications to strengthen the mechanics, and I’ve managed to make it small enough that I feel comfortable calling it a microgame – 18 cards is a microgame, right? I’ve got the newest iteration of the game ready to go to UnPub 5.
J. Alex Kevern
This year started on a good note, as I found of Easy Breezy Travel Agency was going to be part of the Rabbit line from Dice Hate Me games. This was my second signed game and my first one to hit Kickstarter, so that was an interesting and rewarding experience. It will be shipping to backers within the next few weeks, so I am looking forward to those unique ‘in the wild’ moments.
Within a few weeks after signing Easy Breezy, I also received word that TMG would be signing Gold West. It’s been an great experience working with Seth and Michael, and Adam has done an incredible job bringing the game to life through his art and design. We’re working on some ‘businessy’ things behind the scenes, but look for it in the first half of 2015.
Daxu will be coming soon from White Goblin Games — there have been some production delays, but in 2014 this was the first game of mine that I was able to see with finished art. That was a special and surreal moment for me, and I’m really grateful Klemens Franz (Agicola, Le Havre) agreed to work on it. I can’t share images yet, but I can’t wait for everyone to see how it turned out.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate this year. And there are more games on the way! I’m looking forward to UnPub in February and some more announcements coming soon.
Looking back at 2014, I feel like it was a defining year for me, but in a mostly subtle, behind-the-scenes way. I had 2 main releases, but it was much different than last year where both debuted at Gen Con. This year, 5 Pixel Lincoln mini-expansions shipped to backers in September just missing the all-important Gen Con window, and just last week Maximum Throwdown: Overload (a standalone expansion to my card throwing battle game, Maximum Throwdown) was part of the super-secret AEG Black Friday Box. Having a secret game release was really interesting. You can’t hype it beforehand, so I just had to sit and wait with my lips zipped. And finally, the original Maximum Throwdown also ended up at Barnes and Noble, which is a wonderful accomplishment.
As for new stuff, Seven 7s was signed to Eagle Gryphon in January/February and should be out in 2015, 60 Seconds To Save The World has been signed but not announced so I’ll leave that up to the publisher, and secret licensed project that I’m co-designing with Jeff Quick is coming along very well. Those games have eaten up a good chunk of my year, but won’t be a factor until 2015.
On the publishing side, I’ve Kickstarted, fulfilled and released Storyteller Cards: Fantasy and Alex Strang’s Movie Plotz, expanding my Button Shy catalog quite a bit. In both of those projects I experienced working with other designers. With Storyteller Cards: Fantasy we made a manual with 20 games from amazing designers, and I worked closely with Alex in converting Movie Plotz into a tiny, little wallet game. Just having other people in the mix, took me outside of my self-publishing bubble and into a new world of ideas and opinions.
What have I learned? Well, I gained some confidence and feel like I can pitch and sell my games a little better than before. I HATE being a salesperson, but it’s a necessary evil of working in this business. I just learned to be myself and be honest and it goes a long way. I also worked on my first big co-design, which is very different than going solo. It’s great to see another side of things and try them out DURING the design process, instead of much later during playtesting. I think if you can get the right fit, where you share common goals, principles, and schedules (being local makes it a little easier too), co-designing is definitely a shot.
And what’s next for me? 2013 was all about getting myself out there. 2014 was all about getting my games out there. 2015 is about getting serious. Seriously pushing things from the publishing side, and studying the other sides of the business that happen before, during and after the game is designed. Just designing a game isn’t enough today. It’s just as much about who designed it and what they are doing to support it.