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Title: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on August 25, 2007, 11:50:56 AM
OK, now that I have a spare moment, here's the story of how I published my indie roleplaying boardgame last month. I'll also discuss the difficulties of repeating the process at the end, so I'll appreciate any questions as well as suggestions for how the proceed from here. I'm also looking for discussion of marketing strategy, crossing the Atlantic and such, so even if you're not that interested in material tech, there might be something more pertinent in the bottom parts.

I first wrote my game Zombeja! Ovella! for a Finnish roleplaying magazine around last Christmas. The article concerned microgames and the game was written to demonstrate how a roleplaying game might be expressed in just a couple of pages. Later on I found out that the game was quite nice to play, and I was also intrigued by the challenge of figuring out how to publish a boardgame. Thus I started striving towards a carefully playtested boardgame version with everything you'd need to play in one box. Early on I drafted by brother, Jari, who is much more practical and able in handcrafts than I am; many of the details of the solutions below are his, as well as most of the actual work.

Component listing and the box solution

Now, my game at the time had the following components it required:
  • A game board of some kind.
  • One playing piece per player.
  • One die per player.
  • One zombie playing piece.
  • A medium-length (for boardgames) rules booklet.
  • Box for the pieces.
Enough pieces for six players was a good compromise solution; the game runs with as many as eight, but it starts getting sluggish and requires some expertice at that level. Later on, I came to the conclusion that I'd also want a "first player" token and, most problematic of all, 30 character cards to faciliate initial character set-up. My first idea for the cards was to have a picture, age, sex, society role and name for each character card, so a player could just pick a card and have the exact amount of information the game wants you to have in a character at the start.

My goal at this point was to develop a method of production that would allow me to include the above set of materials in a boardgame with production costs below 5 euros per set. I figured early on that 20 was how much I wanted my game to cost, so that determined how much I could splurge on components. My distribution goal at this point was direct-sales, which meant that I'd want to produce anything from 50 up to 200 copies of the game, whatever would prove prudent. The idea was that after that initial run I'd be that much smarter and could leverage the experience for a possible international publication (like, bilingual English/German or something like that) with a larger print run.

The initial flash of genius I had was to pack the game in a VHS tape case. This insight not only solved the hairy problem of getting affordable packaging, but it also defined much of the rest of the project: all the other components would need to fit in a VHS case. The fact that my game is all about stories that resemble movies in both structure and style was a definite bonus here.

VHS cases are commonly sold in bulk in 50 case packages, which fit my needs perfectly. Their price is around .60 per in Finland; I'm sure they're available considerably cheaper in other countries. In any case, it's a durable, easy to open, stylish-looking and very cheap alternative to cardboard boxes.

The game board conundrum

Sadly the VHS case idea was pretty much the only part of the project that was easy. The board, for example: after thinking about it a for a long while, I differentiated between four possible solutions:
  • Cheapass-style printed cardboard: probably cheap, but quite flimsy compared to the case. Can be folded, so double the area of the case. Dismissing this option was probably a mistake, but at the time I didn't like having a flimsy solution.
  • Mounted color-print: technically one could mount printed sheets on cardboard and finish in an appropriate manner even as pure handcraft. I was discouraged from investigating this option in detail by one of Chris Engle's excellent threads (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24173.0) here at the Forge.
  • Print on cloth or other alternative surface: this is an interesting out-of-the-box thought. A cloth board would fold into a small space. It's also been tested in a manner of speaking; there're Indian boardgames that are traditionally played on cloth boards. However, getting the quality high enough proved problematic on the minimal budget I was running with.
  • Soldered/painted plywood: a rather basic handcraft solution; labor-intensive, but the end-result is sturdy and just as pretty as you can make it.
Because we were running with something of a schedule at this point, we opted for the plywood solution at the time. It's simplest to work with and does not require relying on outside printers or such. Getting a hundred VHS casette sized pieces of thin (three-layer) plywood set us back 40 , which is not at all bad. (Local connections made sawing a triviality.)

Taking a look at the finished product (http://www.arkkikivi.net/taikalyhty/zombejaovella3.jpg), one can see that the board looks pretty nice. It's still within the indie-punk envelope, so I wouldn't try to sell it to distribution, but as a handcrafted object it's pretty nice. There were, however, several techniques used in creating the board which made it horribly labor-intensive. I suspect that this makes the method ultimately not worth it, except for hobby purposes. A more or less complete list of the phases of the board-creation:
  • Sawing the plywood into suitable-sized pieces.
  • Grinding the corners to dull them and remove splinters.
  • Burning the surface slightly to create texture.
  • Walking over the board backsides with painted boots for more texture.
  • Soldering the board spaces.
  • Painting the title area.
  • Stamping the texts on the board.
  • Varnishing both sides with different varnishes.
  • Taping the sides.
Some phases were more work than others, but we're really talking of dozens of hours, all told. Definitely not that smart a solution in the hind-sight, even if I like the end-result. The varnished surface could be thicker, but we had trouble with legibility and somewhat limited time at that point, so the result is a thin varnish that lets you feel the texture of the wood under it.

The game card understudy

As I wrote above, the plan was to get 30 custom cards per game, or 3000 cards all told, 100 of each individual card. This proved impossible with my budget: solutions like printing greeting cards or such all proved too expensive for the purpose, especially considering that I didn't want to compromise on the quality too much in a game component that would be included in a great part because of it's aesthetics. Having the cards be the ugliest in the considerably ugly set of game components wasn't an option.

The solution I figured out after too long in the sauna were the popsicle sticks you can see in the picture linked above. They're cheap, so the only problem was getting them color-coded and stamped for action. Of course they can't hold as much information as cards could, so I had to redesign my character creation scheme: now, instead of one character per card/stick each stick has a character shard which can be combined with others in a click-and-lock style. The yellow sticks are suggestions for character natures liable to get the character into conflicts with his fellows, greens are societal roles likely to have special significance in a zombie apocalypse, while reds are suggestions for character-centered story premises a player might want to spice his character with. Instead of drawing just one the player can basicly take as many as he wants and build a character by drawing and discarding until he's happy.

If we forget the amount of work involved, there are considerable benefits to using sticks instead of cards: they can be randomized without having backsides (so each stick has two usable sides), and randomized in two different ways, too: if you want to randomize them all, just hold the stick pile with the uncolored side out, but if you want to pick a certain color, you can turn it around and choose from the colored heads. Quite convenient if you don't need lots of text or illustrations in your cards (I'm looking at you, Joshua). The only problem is finding a printer that prints on sticks; I'm quite sure that they do that somewhere, and while I didn't have the time or inclination to look for this project, a larger print run would definitely require machines.

Here, just like with the board, the amount of work was considerable. Not only did painting 3000 sticks take around six hours, but the stamping action was intense for another eight hours or so. Which brings us to another point...

The heart of the project, the stamper

Although I explain the materials technology of our project in separate chapters, we really worked on all the components simultaneously. The decision to get a stamper was under consideration for the necessity of getting text of the board in a fast and efficient manner, but it was really only affirmed when we realized that we'd need it for creating the sticky card replacements.

Here's a picture (http://www.datakauppa.fi/images/images_big/252007.JPG) of the kind of customizable stamper we used in this. It cost 30 , but it was money well spent: I was constantly afraid that it'd run out of ink after a couple hundred stamps, but it just went on and on and ultimately stamped all 7000 stamps with one ink pad. Or rather, Jari stamped; a skilled stamper does quite uniform and exact stamps, but he can only do around 30 stamps per minute in ideal conditions, so mass production this ain't. It's a definite bonus that we can now use the stamp in company letters afterwards, though ;)

Dice and tokens are trivial

I was rather surprised that there actually are companies in Germany that specialize in boardgame component production and sales to small-press and game designers. We ordered our dice and playing pieces from a company called Spielmaterial.de (http://www.spielmaterial.de/), which even has separate discounts for game designers and publishers. The prices were reasonable (discount levels on most items start at 100 pieces, so we're well within their envelope of customership) and service prompt; the only flaw was that while I wanted the playing pieces and dice to have the same colors with each other, we got pink dice to go with the white pieces. This was apparently because they'd ran out of white dice and misunderstood my (rather clear) email instructions about how to change the order. In any case, it's a small issue in an otherwise excellent and speedy service.

The same company also gave me some indication of how expensive playing boards can be: they have two quite interesting board creation methods on file, but creating a board for our purposes would have cost 4 per board. This is a bit high when you're trying to get under 5 in total expenses, but I can well imagine how this could be the perfect method for somebody else or some other project. Heck, if I ever decide to make one of those 50 boardgames, an expense like that starts to seem rather manageable. Especially if you need a completely water-resistant board made of mousepad material, which I thought was rather innovative and small-press-like thinking on their part.

Finishing up

After we'd created the board and character sticks and got the rest of the playing pieces from Germany, we only had to get a cover leaf for the VHS case, print some manuals and stuff everything into the cases. These parts were nonproblematic; a previously familiar printer printed the cover leafs for a quite affordable 60 , while the manuals were printed and cut at home. The only questionable part was the matter of getting everything packed nice and tidy in the case. At this point our expenses were bordering the self-imposed limit, not to speak of us only having one night before Ropecon to act on it, so we ended up just stuffing the smaller pieces into a thin plastic bag, putting the manual in to give it some backbone, and packaging everything on top of the game board on the bottom of the case. I'm not entirely happy with how ugly that bag is, but then, I figure that a customer may throw it out afterwards. We only needed the bags to manage packing a hundred sets of the game, it's quite possible to just put everything on the bottom of the case without a bag when you're manipulating just one case.

The end result of our efforts was pretty ugly compared to what an indie designer can do with a book. It carries a resemblance with underground comics and old-style punk music, aesthetically speaking. The good part is that all parts are reasonably harmonic with each other, there are no obviously weaker components. And everything works for it's accorded purpose, so I can't say that I'm ashamed of how the product looks. It's not something I'd like to offer a game store to retail, but selling it at conventions as my own, personal work of art is easy. And, of course, with just a run of hundred copies it doesn't exactly make sense to sell even one copy to retail.

Of course, as the VHS case looks professional and we aren't exactly doing print work for the first time, the outside of the game looks rather tasty. Here's a picture (http://www.arkkikivi.net/taikalyhty/zombejaovella1.jpg) of the front of the case. The technique is "half-assed camera set-up with heavy photoshopping", but being that my brother is rather skilled with his graphics programs, it doesn't look bad. The movie metaphor carries the game nicely, as people have certain exceptions about what they'd find on a VHS case. Luckily the game had already been published in the spring in magazine form so I could get some quotes from critics for the backside.

The questions part

Now, for those who cared to read this to the finish, feel free to ask questions about the details of the process if you feel like it. I feel that I learned quite a bit about putting together a boardgame, even if many of the solutions were rather non-standard.

However, I also have questions of my own:
  • How do I replace the handcraft in the process with automation? Making the board and character sticks sucked. (Well, OK, it was kinda interesting, but still too many hours to repeat.) I could imagine doing another 100 copy run of a different game in this manner in the future, if I ever end up creating another game to similar specifications, but even then I'd probably resort to kidnapping children to work in my sweatshop. It'd obviously be easy to do this if I was willing to print 5000 copies of the game, but when that's not the plan... any ideas for how to reduce the manual labor without taking the print run into ridiculous numbers?
  • How should I proceed with an English version of the game? I haven't talked much about the actual game in the above story, so I should probably mention that it has garnered relatively much enthusiasm from the Finnish audience. As far as I can see, it's an excellent game, and I have faith in it doing well in the international indie market as well. (I'm talking of the American market because, statistically, that's where the indie roleplayer market mostly is.) However, I need to formulate a strategy for that: should I, like, find somebody out there willing to package and store lots of VHS cases for me? Or should I cross the Atlantic myself to have a hand in it? Or should I create the run (whatever size) of the game here in Europe and mail it overseas to IPR or something? Selling my game as PDFs or such isn't really an option for a boardgame.
  • Any ideas about the German boardgame market? Now, I know most of you know even less than I do about the mid-European boardgame market, but there are some Germans reading this board and the like. So if you have any ideas for how I should proceed towards that market, I'm all ears; my game has many features that point towards marketing it to boardgamers, so if there are any reasonable steps an indie designer can take to crack that market, it might prove quite interesting.
  • Risk-control strategies? Making a boardgame is a bitch in many ways, not the least because it disallows many of the risk-control strategies a Forge publisher knows by heart. Small print runs cause horrid compromises in component quality, electric versions of the game are nigh unsellable and so on. Furthermore, I'm in the difficult position of being quite interested in "new" markets. I'd like to sell my game to boardgamers, to be specific, so I'm not quite happy with just doing the standard blog+IPR+forums route of marketing my game to people who already play indie games. All this comes to one specific point: how do I create a large print run (compared to indie standards, anyway) and take it to a new market without taking unnecessary risks? For an example of an approach, I could well look for an established boardgame publisher in the European markets to support the marketing and distribution effort and perhaps take part of the financial risk. Several European boardgame houses are actually design houses, I understand, with larger publishers taking their games to international distribution. Anybody have any experience with that? Any other ideas?

The above list of questions is so all over the place mostly because I don't know who's listening. If you have an angle on some of the topics above, feel free to say so and I'll write about my own perspective on the topic in question. I already have some idea about how I might approach each of the above issues, but with my story at this length already I don't really feel like flooding the forum even more with my vague marketing strategy ponderings.


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: guildofblades on August 26, 2007, 09:13:04 AM
>>    * How do I replace the handcraft in the process with automation? Making the board and character sticks sucked. It'd obviously be easy to do this if I was willing to print 5000 copies of the game, but when that's not the plan... any ideas for how to reduce the manual labor without taking the print run into ridiculous numbers?<<

That s the hardest aspect of being an indie board game manufacturer. We have experimented with a number of options. Presently most of our "board games" get game boards/maps that are printed regular 11" x 17" paper and then laminated. The non printed edged are trimmed off on an art trimmer. Laminated sheets have the advantage of being able to be folded, so long as you stick with a thin enough lamination. But there are two problems with this method. Running the sheets through the lamination machine, then trimming and folding them is still a bit of labor. A lot less labor than what is sounds like you did with that wood, but still more labor than we like. Second, the thin lamination required for easy folding is a little too easy to get small creases in them.

A new method we will be switching too for some of our better sellers is going to be to outsource map printing to a printer that specializes in fliers. We can print on a 16pt double gloss sheet that is 11" up to 33", 1,000 copies, for a reasonable price. Reasonable enough, in fact, that once you factor in the lamination cost and labor for material handling, this costs about the same as the in house method. But yeah, to make sense I would suggest you really need to be able to move about 200 units within your first year to recover your printing costs. a 16pt cover stock is about 50% thicker than your average soft cover book cover.

Another semi board like option we considered was to source our game board printing through our box manufacturer. They can print on .28 thickness chipboard, the maximum thickness those style printing presses and drum die cutters can handle. We haven't done this yet, but likely will in the future. It still means printing 1,000 pieces at a time and for best pricing we need to group up multiple items on the largest press sheets they have and print multiple such sheets. Our current printer is having difficulties right now and decided they wanted to jack up pricing nearly 200%, so we're going with the flier product options for now until we can source a more reliable box printer.

Another option we have considered. You can order blank chipboard sheets as thick as .80 thickness. By comparison, the chipboard that comprises the "board" within hard bound books is usually .60 thickness. We, like the Chris, had experimented with trying to glue printed sheets to a board and found the labor to be heavy and the error rate of glue bleed through, wrinkles on the press sheet, etc, to be too much to make the process worthwhile. However, in thinking about the process some more, printing the "board" (artwork sheet) onto a slightly more durable stock, say 10pt cover stock or heavier, and having it pre folded in a couple strategic spots, could allow for a wrap around effect. Wrap the artwork sheet completely around the .80 thickness blank chipboard, with the printed side up and a blank side down could work out well and would be a LOT easier to attach to the sheets. You could also make a game board (or game board section if you need multiple parts to make the full game board) double sided to offer 2 games in 1 or two map scenarios for the same game. We haven't tried this method yet, but it is our current train of thought on how to create actual "board" thickness game boards in house. You can outsource the actual printing or get a cost effective POD color printing option for them.

As for the sticks, I am to gather these were meant to replace playing cards because playing cards are hard to POD? Have you considered business card sizes to serve that function? If so, you can have regular 8 1/2" sheets printed and then buy a Business Card Slitter machine to chop them out yourself. If laid out in advance to account for how the business card slitter will ultimately stack the sheets you run, you can run sets through the machine and end up with collated decks after slitting. There are a variety of different business card slitting machines, including little hand cranked ones, but if you have any thought to doing a lot of cards this way for board game inclusion, I would advise getting an electronic one for sure.

>>However, I need to formulate a strategy for that: should I, like, find somebody out there willing to package and store lots of VHS cases for me? Or should I cross the Atlantic myself to have a hand in it? Or should I create the run (whatever size) of the game here in Europe and mail it overseas to IPR or something?<<

Produce it there and ship it here. weather you use IPR or Key20 or Impressions, or whatever, clearly you will need somebody here that would do warehousing and fulfillment. For crossing the Atlantic with the goods, you cheapest route will be if you can find someone that already does sizable shipments here and piggyback on their shipments.

>>Selling my game as PDFs or such isn't really an option for a boardgame.<<

Well, that's not really true. You can produce and sell PDF board games, but you have to understand that your sales in the PDF realm will tend to be small. 50-300 units within a couple year time spread based on your title and how aggressively you promote it.

    * Risk-control strategies? Making a boardgame is a bitch in many ways, not the least because it disallows many of the risk-control strategies a Forge publisher knows by heart. Small print runs cause horrid compromises in component quality, electric versions of the game are nigh unsellable and so on. Furthermore, I'm in the difficult position of being quite interested in "new" markets.<<

I am assuming you POD printed the wraps for tape cases. POD print your game board artwork then seek out a means of attaching it to your backing. If you have a single piece board then simply laminating the artwork to its board backing works, but leave a little bit of flash on all edges, so this breaks down if you need a multi part board that must be aligned next to each other. Try the fold over or dust jacket concept for putting your artwork onto or around its sturdier backing. Or simply have the artwork printing on the thickest stock you can find. Or don't worry about thickness of printed stock and laminate. One thing is for sure, there currently is no "ideal" POD board backing method for board games.

I think us indie board game manufacturers simply have to be content with game boards that are not the equal of your average mass market game board. The good news is, there is a segment of the playing audience that cares more about getting a game that plays well. The bad news, you'll get roasted in some reviews simply because your board or your box or whatever are not up to the production standards of the leading board game producers. It comes with the territory.

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Publishing Group
http://www.guildofblades.com
http://www.1483online.com
http://www.thermopylae-online.com


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on August 26, 2007, 02:34:51 PM
That's great stuff, thanks! It's so dense that I'll be taking my time to chew through your suggestions, but there are certainly good points there. Some kind of cardboard board seems like a definitely workable solution, based on your experiences. I'll be sure to run some experiments myself.


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: hix on August 27, 2007, 12:16:53 AM
Did you consider printing the board on the other side of the video's cover leaf, Eero? That way you can pull the cover-leaf out of the case, turn it over and be ready to play. I guess you can laminated the cover leaf as well.


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: Emily Care on August 27, 2007, 08:06:58 AM
Hi Eero,

The VHS box is brilliant, I think. It's a good size, cheap and durable. Having the board be good quality seems valuable. An attractive one will be a selling point, it's a place where you get to be "pretty" and catch consumers with flash.  Your current tokens and dice are just fine.

If the trait cards/chits/sticks are too big of a deal, I think you could get away with not using them, and maybe strengthen the game. You've mentioned people sometimes get really silly due to odd juxtapositions from choosing the traits randomly. You could instead do a PtA type thing--where people choose a setting, then create character types that would fit in it, and choose from among them. 

best,
Emily


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: MatrixGamer on August 27, 2007, 10:06:23 AM
Eero

Gee I'm sorry I warned you off gluing maps to board. It was probaly my comments about the messy toxic nature of spray adhesive. Since then I've discovered a better method.

Now I'm printing the maps on my color printer - painting them with clear latex house paint (though I'll switch to screen printing it soon) - and using "Yes Paste" (essentially wheat paste) to attach them to the board (either poster board or binder's board).

The yest paste is non-toxic, isn't too wet so as to warp the board or map, and has a reasonable working time. I've been using a putty knife/paint scraper to put it on. It is certainly fast enough for a 200 unit prouction run. You might try this out.

I personally have some concern about using VCR tape boxes. Guy McLimore of Microtactics tried that out ten years ago and hit a wall with it. People did not think "game" when they saw that kind of box. This really limited sales. This might have changed due to the shift over from VCR tapes to DVDs but I'm still concerned about the box size.


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on August 27, 2007, 01:37:47 PM
Did you consider printing the board on the other side of the video's cover leaf, Eero? That way you can pull the cover-leaf out of the case, turn it over and be ready to play. I guess you can laminated the cover leaf as well.

Actually, there are see-through cases, so what I was mostly thinking about doing was to put some advertisements on the inside of the cover leaf. Could also use the spot for a rules summary in some other game. Didn't ultimately do it because I had nothing particularly interesting to advertise (and my brother doesn't particularly like indies advertising each other). I did consider using the cover leaf as a game tool as well, but came to the conclusion that it seems too cheap and isn't ultimately very usable. The cover leaf takes a pretty strong bend from being stored on the cassette case. Taking it out also risks wear and tear which is not nice from the consumer's viewpoint.

If the trait cards/chits/sticks are too big of a deal, I think you could get away with not using them, and maybe strengthen the game. You've mentioned people sometimes get really silly due to odd juxtapositions from choosing the traits randomly. You could instead do a PtA type thing--where people choose a setting, then create character types that would fit in it, and choose from among them.

An important reason for the sticks is that they balance out the range of tools in the game; it feels like more of a genuine boardgame when it has several different kinds of components. So that's the marketing reason, but it's also a fact that character creation is perhaps the most difficult phase of the game for complete beginners. I'll have to play the game more and  observe results, the sticks have been used too little to draw conclusions about their effect yet - and even then, character cards with complete characters would work slightly differently still.

But you're absolutely right that the chargen cards/sticks can be dropped if efficient production requires it.

Gee I'm sorry I warned you off gluing maps to board. It was probaly my comments about the messy toxic nature of spray adhesive. Since then I've discovered a better method.

Well, now you tell me ;)

I think that the plywood thing just happened to suit our particular skills as craftsmen, so we gravitated to it without much consideration for other solutions. To tell the truth, handcrafting isn't something I really want to do to the extent that this project required - I'll be doing my utmost to figure out a way to recreate the game with minimal handcrafting.

Quote
I personally have some concern about using VCR tape boxes. Guy McLimore of Microtactics tried that out ten years ago and hit a wall with it. People did not think "game" when they saw that kind of box. This really limited sales. This might have changed due to the shift over from VCR tapes to DVDs but I'm still concerned about the box size.

That's an interesting experience. Our experiences at the Ropecon convention were very positive: the VHS cases garnered interest when placed next to all the roleplaying books, and people liked handling the box. We sold a bit over 30 copies of the game at the convention. I can well imagine how the case will compare unfavorably to a boardgame box, though. Perhaps a lot of it is about the methods of sale: at a boardgame store without a salesman explaining the product it's probably rather easy to walk away from a VHS case.

Then again, perhaps a game like this could be sold in a venue where people do expect movies, like a movie store. But then the VHS case would probably be a negative connotation there. Tricky.


Title: Re: [Zombies at the Door!] Publishing a boardgame
Post by: Veritas Games on September 01, 2007, 12:08:39 PM
At our website www.veritasgames.net we are constantly coming up with links in the Game Design section.  I've got a bunch of other links not on our website.  Shoot me a copy of your rules and notes on the size of your current board, etc. and I'll see what I can do to suggest appropriate components on the cheap.

Regards,
Lee Valentine
President
Veritas Games Co., LLC
lee_valentine@veritasgames.net