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How to Make a Board Game, from Ideation to Design to Distribution

Jacob Vander Ende

Jacob Vander Ende

Jacob is a game designer who runs his independent studio called Spriteborne. He has self-published numerous commercial board games and has been nominated for various awards, including Game of the Year. Over his 15+ year career, his work has been exhibited at SXSW, PAX, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and more. You can find his work at spriteborne.com.

So you want to make a board game.

For the sake of this post, let’s assume that’s all you know. You aren’t sure how to design around your idea, or how to turn a finished design into a real, physical game.

All you have is a blank slate of personal experiences and preferences and you need to shape those into something you can actually play.

Let’s fix that.

But who am I? Why listen to me?

I’m Jake and I run an independent studio called Spriteborne. I’ve been making games for a decade now, and I’ve been in the games industry even longer than that. My work has been nominated for awards, I’ve been featured on Geek & Sundry, I’ve spoken at numerous conventions, and I’ve even designed and manufactured board games on a moving train. Twice.

Even if you’re a seasoned video game designer you can still learn something here because of the differences between the media:

  • Without concrete code governing what can and cannot happen, board games are limited only by the rules that exist in the players’ minds.
  • The players have to perform all the calculations themselves.
  • Non-player characters cannot be autonomous; players still have to perform their actions for them.
  • Every component has a significant material cost compared to the requirements of a video game.
  • Board game components are far less flexible. A video game can effortlessly turn a D6 into a D7, for instance, but a board game would need a totally new piece to do that.

All of these differences add up!

For now, let’s start at the very beginning: your ideas.

By the way, if you have any questions as you read this post, feel free to ask in the Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice and network with game devs of all levels including me.

You can also get notified on exclusive game design tips, workshops, and guides (like this one) here 👇

How to Generate and Organize Your Board Game Ideas

One of the most common questions that creative people in any discipline get asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” People usually ask this question with some sense of awe and magic, as though creative people have mysterious, unknowable powers.

I don’t think that’s true. I do think creativity is magic, but I think it’s a knowable magic that we can quantify, understand, and practice.

Let’s pull back the curtain, turning the mystique into practical concepts that you can use to start designing your own board game right now.

Finding a game concept with design catalysts

I like to start game projects with what I call design catalysts.

Everyone is familiar with the idea of inspiration—the reservoir of energy that propels you into creative work.

A catalyst, then, is how you tap into that reservoir. It’s not a destination, it’s more like the directions to get there or the vessel you’re traveling in.

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The easiest way to understand catalysts is in the form of questions you can ask yourself when you’re getting started.

Any one of these design catalysts is enough to start making a game, but the more questions you ask yourself, the more vivid your inspiration, and the more likely you are to be successful.

If you don’t ask yourself these kinds of questions, you could find yourself in perilous territory:

  • You could design a game for no one.
  • You could design a great game that is impossible to manufacture.
  • You could design something that plays really well in an exhibition hall and terribly in a private home.
  • You could design something that checks a lot of superficial boxes but feels like hollow busywork.

There are lots of design catalysts and there isn’t space to cover every single one of them. Maybe you’ll think of more of your own as you read!

For the sake of organization, I’ll group each catalyst into one of four categories:

  • Fundamentals: The most basic questions you should always ask about every board game you make.
  • Business: Important questions that will help your game succeed financially.
  • Conceptual: Questions that are useful for growing your skills as a designer.
  • Meta: Questions that help you understand where your game fits into the broader picture of the industry and society.

Fundamentals

These questions are the essential core of designing a board game. Every board game designer should ask these questions, no matter what is going to happen with the project.

Any project that moves forward without good answers to these questions is almost guaranteed to run into trouble at some point in development.

Who is going to play your game?

Perhaps the most important question to answer when designing a new board game is “Who is going to play this?” Be specific!

Is this a game for:

  • yourself, to be played alone, that no one else is ever going to play?
  • a family member, friend, significant other, or someone else specific?
  • your regular board game crew?
  • the audience of “people who liked (other game)”?
  • a specific group of people, like independent farmers?

Whether this is a game you want to design for commercial reasons or personal ones, asking yourself who is your audience, is going to be is a critical question when you’re first settling in on your design.

This question won’t necessarily tell you what to make, but it’s very good at reminding you what not to make. Don’t design a deck builder if you’re trying to design a game for a loved one who hates deck builders, for example.

Where will people play your game?

This one is deceptively complex, even though it looks simple. This is also one of the most important questions you need to ask, because skipping it will undermine everything else you do.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you’re playing your game right now. When you do, try to think about the environment where you’re playing your game.

Try to imagine everything surrounding the game:

  • Are you playing by yourself or with other people? How many people?
  • Do you usually play with these people or are they folks you don’t see very often?
  • Are you sitting at a table or are you playing in chairs or seats without a surface in front of you?
  • If there’s a table, how big is it? Is there anything else on it?
  • Are you sitting on a blanket on the sand at the beach?
  • Are you in a building or a vehicle?
  • Are you standing in line waiting for something, maybe outdoors?
  • How much time do you have?
  • Is it cold or wet where you’re playing?
  • Are you doing anything else or are you just playing this game?

These aren’t abstract questions, because any one of them could change the kind of game you’re trying to design.

A game that plays well in a boisterous, crowded convention may not work in a quiet house.

A game designed for a large table may not be playable at a bar.

A game that relies on knowing the people you’re playing with may not work with strangers.

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(No matter how fun your game is, the wrong environment can cause players to abandon it midplay to go save the galaxy instead. (Knights of the Old Republic screenshot from Wookieepedia))

Once, I made a prototype that was designed to stretch your short-term memory to its absolute limits. It was something I designed alone and, for a little while, only ever played in a silent dining room with one other person.

The very first time I tested with other designers, they hated it.

Suddenly, we were playing in a busy, loud room with lots of games running at the same time. My game wasn’t made for that environment, so the experience crumbled.

When I realized that most games are played with some noise, or at least player conversations running at the same time, I knew that this wasn’t a project that should move forward any further.

Where you think people will play is just as important as knowing who you think will be playing.

What’s the core ‘atomic nucleus’ of your game? What do you do each turn?

I’ve found success by identifying one specific effective behavior and then making an entire game that centers that action. Here’s an example:

In 2015, I traveled to SXSW with my own board game, Yomi’s Gate. It was my first game and my first convention, so I had no idea what I was doing and spent a lot of my time observing everything I could.

In Yomi’s Gate, the game board is different every time you play. There are three “pinwheel hex” boards that can be spun in six different ways, plus connector pieces that are kind of like hex tile Ls.

All of these are laser-cut and they have interlocking tabs that fit together with, well, laser precision.

I noticed that the single moment where peoples’ faces lit up the most was when they slid together these interlocking tabs for the first time, which made this really satisfying thunk.

Over and over again, click thunk, click thunk, smiles every time.

On the way home, I kept thinking about that repeated experience. I thought, “What if I made a game entirely around the satisfying clunk of sliding laser-cut tiles together?”

So I did. That game became Breaker Blocks.

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I released the earliest version of Breaker Blocks during a game jam the following week, with many versions and updates coming afterward.

To this day it is about ten times as popular as Yomi’s Gate, all because I found that atomic nucleus early.

Finding an atomic nucleus that people really enjoy and making a whole game around it is a totally viable way to design board games.

Tabletop Game Business

These questions are designed for anyone who’s going to pursue any sort of commercial future for their board games. If you want to make money with your games, read on.

If you’re just making games for you, your friends, and your family, you can skip to the next section.

What components will your game use?

It’s possible to make games with a bottom-up philosophy, starting with your components instead of your gameplay.

If you have access to a high-quality art-grade printer or print shop, you could design a game that can be played with only cards and no chits, boards, dice, or tokens.

Alternatively, if you have an industrial laser but no printer, you might want to come up with games that don’t use dice or cards.

This does not have to just be a means-related question, either; you can design around components and manufacturing methodologies for cost-saving reasons, too.

Locking in your components early can save you lots of time, money, and frustration later on, as we’ll see in future sections on manufacturing.

What genre or game mechanic(s) will you build around?

It’s perfectly reasonable to start with genre and game mechanics when you’re coming up with board game design.

Maybe you really like deck builders, and want to come up with a unique take on the genre.

Maybe you’ve been itching to make an engine builder, or a worker placement game, or a marketplace game.

Or you liked a neat mechanic in a game you played, and could see it working totally differently in another context.

For example, I just recently played Spirit Island, where each Fear card had multiple outcomes determined by an evolving macro game state.

I can see that working well with a completely different game, so I’ll squirrel that mechanic away, write it down in a note-taking app like Obsidian, and revisit it when I’m designing games in the future.

According to Song Exploder, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer keeps a spreadsheet of lyrics organized by length and syllable emphasis and consults it during songwriting to fit the needs of the moment.

You could make a game mechanics spreadsheet that does the same thing. Need a mechanic that creates a pressure clock? Consult your database for mechanics that create a sense of time and pressure.

Are there any market trends you want to tap into?

If you’re designing games as a business and not just as a hobby, it’s a good idea to have some sense of business about what kinds of games you want to design.

For that reason, following market trends is both sensible and common.

Identifying market trends can be a deep rabbit hole to explore, but there are three totally free strategies I like that you can do right now:

  • Browse “The Hotness” rankings on BoardGameGeek, checking back frequently to monitor trends
  • Check the featured displays at your local board game shop, ask the owner what’s selling, or visit an open play night to see what’s popular
  • Follow how the public sales reports of board game companies change year to year

Be methodical about it, whichever you choose. Make a spreadsheet and add to it often. The more data you have, the better your market trend predictions will be.

If you really want to get into the trending side of things, there is an entire industry centered around trend forecasting, the difficult and inexact science of trying to predict trends to help plan your release.

Even without expensive, proprietary forecasting models, you can still predict trends with rough guesses based on what you know about the future.

For example, if you know when the next Mass Effect game is going to come out, you could try to launch a futuristic science fiction game around the same time.

You know people are going to be playing Mass Effect and craving more science fiction, so it’s possible they’ll find your brand-new game.

Forecasting isn’t a guarantee of success, but there is real financial value in asking yourself questions about what trends your game does or does not fit into, reducing some risk for your project.

Conceptual

For some, making their own board game is an exercise in improving their design skills. The questions in this section will make you a more flexible, skilled designer.

What experience could you convert into a board game design?

Have you ever experienced something and thought, “I wish there was a game about this?” That’s what design conversion is all about, porting one experience into a new format.

There are tons of good examples of this approach:

  • Tokaido is a game about visiting Japan.
  • Decorum is a game about furnishing a new house together.
  • Parks is a game about traveling to national parks.
  • Suburbia is a game about city planning.

When you design a game like this, you can be grounded and direct about it, making a game that is literally about that thing, or you can use this sort of ported reality as an abstraction.

There is also an entire industry based around converting games from one format to another. You might start with Horizon: Zero Dawn and end up with Horizon: The Board Game.

If you go this route, however, be sure to get the license first.

What reactions do you have to existing games?

This one is probably my favorite way to design games.

Imagine you’re sitting down playing something you really like, but there’s something about it you just can’t stand. A fateful phrase crosses your mind and after that, there’s no turning back.

“That’s not how I would do it.”

When I was a kid, I used to play this old Avalon Hill bookshelf game with my dad called Feudal. We loved it, but the game took an eon to set up.

“That’s not how I would do it,” I thought to myself, many times over.

Once I finally had the means to create a board game as an adult, that was the catalyst. How do I make a deterministic, fast-paced war game that sets up quickly?

One question led to another and pretty soon what started as one quibble evolved into my first commercial title, Yomi’s Gate.

Is this game just a prototype for something else?

The board games you design don’t have to be the end goal. You could design board games as rapid prototypes for video games, or even for other systems in general.

Board games are great practical simulators for things like macroeconomic engines and you can make them entirely with paper, pencils, and dice.

Being able to do this quickly and effectively can be a useful skill in any game design role.

Is this a cooperative or competitive game?

This seemingly basic question can completely alter the direction of a project.

A set of game systems that feels obtuse and frustrating in a competitive context might shine if you put the players on the same team.

Conversely, a cooperative experience might really start to glow if you add a traitor mechanic. Can you imagine Battlestar Galactica with no traitors?

Meta

The following questions are more advanced and intended only for designers who’ve mastered use of the previous design catalysts.

Can you synthesize something from two or more ideas?

There’s a theory of creativity that says creativity isn’t about the novel genesis of ideas, but rather about the novel connection between existing ideas. I think, broadly speaking, that’s true.

Every single person is unique. We each walked our own path to get where we are today, with a complex set of experiences that is ours and ours alone.

We all have inspirations to draw from.

We all have different tastes in what we like and dislike.

We have our own ideas of what’s good and bad, desirable and undesirable.

When you’re designing board games, you can mix and match anything. There’s a pretty good chance that if you’re pulling from two things that are unique to your life, you’re going to come up with something original that will resonate with others.

What emotion do you want players to feel?

The hottest take you’re going to read from me in this article is this: Games don’t have to be fun. You can design games to make people feel anything!

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(Even children’s games aren’t 100% fun all the time.)

Shigeru Miyamoto designed the original Legend of Zelda because he wanted people to feel the way he felt getting lost in an unfamiliar forest.

Firewatch is exquisitely designed to make the player feel immense guilt.

You can absolutely design board games with emotion in mind, too.

I designed Long Road to Ruin, for example, around the feeling of driving on a long, cross-country road trip for the second or third time, where you kind of know what’s coming, but you can’t remember for sure if you’ve been to this exact place before.

How do you want your game to change your players?

You can take that emotional question and run with it, too. Board games can also be designed as agents of social change.

Famously, Monopoly was designed as a harsh critique of capitalist real estate, meant to make people feel frustrated with how housing markets and urban developers worked.

More recently, Spirit Island was designed to be anti-colonialist and to make its players feel that way, too.

How to Design Your Own Board Game

You’ve asked yourself a bunch of questions about your game. You know who’s going to play it. You know where it’s going to be played. You know what components you’re going to use.

Maybe you have a rough idea of what your game means to people, where it fits into macrotrends within the industry, how you’d like your players to feel, and so on.

It’s time to start the actual design.

Many lessons from video game design apply here too, but it’s worth spending some time on what makes board game design unique.

Prototypes and Rapid Iteration

First, you need pieces you can play with.

These are the supplies I almost always use:

  • A stockpile of blank poker-sized cards, for any cards a player is expected to have in their hand
  • A stockpile of blank, square cards (sometimes it’s useful to have two shapes of cards)
  • Blank paper and/or cardstock, for making a game board and player sheets
  • Pens, pencils, and colored markers
  • A collection of interchangeable face dice; I use dice made for Rattlebones, plus small circular stickers
  • Card sleeves to hide the backs of your cards (especially if you’re using cheap, see-through cards)
  • A Dymo 4XL thermal printer. You can cut 4” x 6” thermal stickers into quarters and use them to rapidly print new card faces. I made a whole card game on a train with this, blank cards, Adobe Illustrator, and scissors.
  • A bunch of meeples of different shapes and colors. I usually recycle ones from my older games.

With those supplies, you can make most types of games.

Game design is iterative. Everything will change many times, so don’t spend too much time or money on your first game pieces.

Only invest in more detailed prototyping components when you have to (for instance if players can’t read your handwritten components).

Playtesting

You won’t know much about your game until you test it.

For your first tests, I recommend playing by yourself.

Play every side, even when your game relies on players not knowing information about other players. This will at least give you data about what optimal play will look like.

Once you know the general flow of your game, try to play exclusively with other players. Be mindful about playing with the same people repeatedly, because they’re going to develop an expertise bias over time.

Try to take note of how you teach your game to others. You’ll naturally discover that there are good and bad ways you can teach your rules, and testing is where you’ll discover that.

If you’ve reached this stage and have more questions, this guide to playtesting might answer them.

Writing Game Rules

Strangely, this step comes last. Only after you have tested your game repeatedly should you worry about writing the rules down because testing is how you discover how to do that.

Generally, I find that players respond to knowing their victory conditions up front, then how a typical turn goes (in very broad strokes), then setup, and then detailed mechanics.

It’s a good idea to try to design your game to have as few exceptions to the rules as possible. If there’s a way you can make a rule universal, you should almost always try to do so.

For instance, in Breaker Blocks the Automate tile lets you play another tile instantly. To prevent these chaining together, instead of referencing Automate specifically, I wrote the universal rule “Action tiles cannot target themselves or copies of themselves.”

Universal rules are much easier to understand than a series of exceptions, especially in board games.

Once strangers are testing your game without you present, having a strong rulebook is even more important. At this stage, I would also recommend making your own tutorial videos.

To make a good tutorial video, set up a camera on a tripod facing the table, then explain the game the exact same way you would during a playtest.

Speak naturally, like you’re explaining the game to a friend, not like you’re explaining the game to an interviewer. Clear footage and simple language go a long way.

Common Pitfalls in Board Game Design

Maybe you’re stuck and you’re not sure why your design isn’t working.

Alternatively, you’ve designed your game and tested it extensively, and you want to make sure you’re ready to move on to manufacturing.

Either way, here are some useful questions to move your design forward and get your game one step closer to reality.

Players are often thinking about these elements, but it’s up to you as the designer to verbalize them.

Irrelevant Gameplay

Is there anything that happens in your game that isn’t part of the core experience you want to deliver? This can mean many different things.

For example, early in my design process for Yomi’s Gate, I decided that setup was actually irrelevant gameplay.

The real meat of the gameplay was during the player’s turn when they’re deciding which units to use.

Once I made that decision, I worked to make setup as short as possible.

Player Interaction

How interactive do you want your game to be? Is it the level of interaction you’re striving for? Board games aren’t like video games; they only do stuff when the player does stuff.

This isn’t a binary question, either. Too much interaction can feel crushing or ruthless, but too little can feel like we’re playing solitaire in parallel.

Think of interactivity like the pressure of a stage spotlight.

Just like there are natural rock stars and people with stage fright, there are people who enjoy both ends of this extreme. But most audiences are seeking something in the middle.

Pacing

What kind of pacing do you want your game to have?

Is this the kind of game where every turn is high pressure and it can end at any time?

Are the early turns the best and the game slows down as it goes on?

Does your game accelerate, with the best turns at the very end?

The simplest way to think about this is in terms of cognitive load. What variables and decisions is your player expected to be responsible for at any time? The number or nature of these things can change over the course of the game.

This one can also tie into interactivity.

Games where players can’t interact when it’s not their turn will naturally feel slower. This can make them easier to understand at first, but risks making them boring in the longer term.

Conversely, games with immediate actions and reactions possible at all times can feel fast and exciting, but they also risk feeling exhausting and intense.

Variance and Replayability

How is one playthrough of your game different from the next? Similarly, how many times do you expect players to play your game and still have fun?

There are two traps here to avoid:

A game that’s great exactly once…

For some games, learning how to play them is the fun part.

These games can feel great when you’re introducing new people to them, but once you know how to play you don’t choose to return.

There is a business model for legacy games, but these are usually spinoff variants of highly replayable games (e.g. Pandemic Legacy). Even then, they’re not played just once, but their discoverable elements are each discovered only once.

This is a serious divergence from many video games.

I’m fine paying for a video game that’s 10-30 hours long that I’ll only ever play through once, but I would feel bad paying for a one-shot board game that’s gonna take up space on my shelf forever.

Infinite Replayability

Infinite replayability is a trap. Board games aren’t really infinitely replayable. Sure, you can trot out Chess or Go, or whatever, but most players aren’t reaching for those games on board game night.

The risk of chasing infinite replayability is infinite brown. The idea is that if you were to generate infinite sets of randomized colors, what you’re really going to get every time you mix them together is infinite shades of brown.

Think about how many times you’ve played your favorite board games. It’s a real number. It might be as low as once, but it could be a few hundred times, maybe a few thousand tops.

Shoot for that. Truthfully, I think you should shoot for somewhere between 10 and 50.

I know if I buy a board game and I get to have fun with it ten times, I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Some players need more and some players need less.

Player Count Variation

How many players can play your game at once?

How many players can enjoy your game at once?

These are not the same question.

You may find that your game is wonderful with two players but terrible with six. You may find that it works great with four, but crumbles with just three.

You could even run into weird situations like a game that plays beautifully as a solo game, but has too little interaction for multiple players.

Test your game with every audience size you want to target. I mean every size, because weird stuff can surface that you won’t see coming.

If your game is “2-6 players,” then you need to run multiple play tests with 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 players before you should say that.

When your game isn’t fun with a particular number of people, try to figure out exactly why:

  • Do players start to gang up on the winner?
  • Is the game running too long to hold players’ interest?
  • Do finite resources divide in an uneven way that’s causing problems?
  • If your game is cooperative, is one player just running the game for everyone?

I recommend finding your niche and sticking with it if you can. Then you can apply your expertise to games of that size for every game you make instead of reinventing the wheel every time. Personally, I love making games for just two players.

Manufacturing: Every Way to Make Physical Board Games

Okay, so you’ve designed a board game.

You’ve prototyped it, you’ve playtested extensively, you’ve balanced everything appropriately.

This game is good and you want it to exist for real where people can get it.

What do you do next? How do you create a board game?

How do you turn your design into a physical game?

There are a few questions you need to ask before you get started:

  • What is everything that needs to exist for your game to be a real game? Cards? Dice? A box? A board? An instruction manual? The answer is your component list.
  • How much of this process do you want to do yourself? What sorts of business partners are you willing to work with?
  • How many copies do you want to sell, if any? How big is your market?
  • How much money do you want to spend upfront? What kind of investment do you want to make?
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(Every approach has its pros and cons. Read on for a detailed breakdown.)

With those questions in mind, there are several options available to you:

  • You could artfully make every copy yourself.
  • You could outsource manufacturing but handle distribution yourself.
  • You could hand everything off to a publisher and do nothing but design.
  • You can find a hybrid combination of multiple approaches.

Here’s how to go about creating a board game, from the most involved to the least involved.

Make It All Yourself

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(Creative Commons image from PXHere)

Positives

  • Full creative control
  • High profit per copy
  • High-value clients will pay more for independent work

Downsides

  • You have to do everything yourself
  • Reach and distribution are challenging
  • Expensive up-front investment

The first option you have is to make everything associated with your board game yourself.

This is definitely what you’ll be doing when you’re making prototypes for playtesting—you want the quickest and cheapest handmade components when you’re in that stage, as I covered earlier.

But it’s also possible to handle the final version of the game yourself, as well.

You could draw all of the final art, make all of the pieces, design and craft the box, print out the instruction manual, and so on and so on.

Beyond simply creating the physical manifestation of the game, you would also handle all of the back-end work, including buying ad space, managing inventory, boothing at conventions, distribution and warehousing, and a ton of other things, none of which are particularly glamorous.

This is how I do things at Spriteborne.

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When I sell a copy of Breaker Blocks, I handle every part of that process. There’s a lot that entails!

  • I order acrylic from a supplier and manage my inventory
  • I engrave and cut those sheets of acrylic into game components on my industrial 60W CO2 laser (which was a more expensive purchase than any car I’ve ever owned)
  • I maintain and troubleshoot that machine myself
  • I designed the logo for both my company and the game
  • I created the stamp to ink the parts bag
  • I ink all of those bags myself and fill them with parts
  • I built the website
  • I fulfill client orders
  • I pack the boxes (different from packing the bags!)
  • I print the shipping labels
  • I bring finished copies to the post office

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This is what the complete board game development process looks like. When you commit to doing everything yourself, this is what you’re committing to.

It’s time-consuming, but the profit margins are good and on-demand production means that I never have to have standing inventory taking up space and costing money.

I also enjoy the manufacturing process, since I like making things!

For most people, however, the challenges of this route are not worth the reward.

It takes the most time per copy, your initial startup fees for equipment are pretty high, and it can be hard to find new players since distribution is entirely up to you.

A La Carte Manufacturing

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(A la carte manufacturing uses a combination of in-house tools and external suppliers (Images from 3D&Print and Stokey Print Shop))

Positives

  • High creative control
  • Faster than solo manufacturing
  • Small upfront investment

Downsides

  • Costs more than making things yourself
  • Dependency on external non-partner businesses
  • Limited options on craftable items

Let’s say you don’t want to make everything yourself, but you still want to be the one putting a bow on everything and you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty.

A la carte manufacturing is a great choice when you’re midway through the design process and need to upgrade from your handmade prototypes, but aren’t yet ready for final product design.

You can also use this approach to make final products, if you’re willing to do a lot of work yourself but want some external help.

This means outsourcing individual component manufacturing, paying a small premium to have someone else handle some parts.

This can take many forms and might include one or more of the following:

  • Using a local print shop to get boxes printed and die-cut for you (folding and assembling them yourself)
  • Using a local printer to print out card sheets for you (cutting, laminating, and packing them yourself)
  • Having a local laser shop cut out custom meeples
  • Getting an independent die manufacturer to make custom dice for your game
  • Buying ready-made, generic components like counters and dice and bagging them up for individual copies yourself
  • Finding a supplier of blank versions of something (such as blank dice) and personalizing them yourself (such as with engraving or stickers)

The point is, in this tier, you pick and choose the things you can do best and you only outsource as needed when it’s difficult, time-consuming, expensive, or impossible to make something yourself.

Critically, this is different than using a publisher because:

  1. You are doing all of the work to identify, contact, and utilize suppliers and other business partners.
  2. You probably don’t have a contract with those businesses.

Exercise caution here before committing to a long-term plan. If the businesses you work with close down or change their prices or stock availability, this can significantly impact your pipeline.

Something as simple as a box becoming a quarter of an inch wider can cascade into your whole project, and that’s not something you can control.

I had to stop making copies of Kaiju Stadium for a while because my supplier for jumbo wooden dice stopped making them!

If you can get around these limitations, a la carte manufacturing can be great. I use it all the time to put the finishing touches on my projects. Using someone else’s expertise to do what they do best can really elevate your game.

If, however, you want someone else to do all of the manufacturing work, you might be interested in…

On-Demand Production

image16
(Image from The Game Crafter, the premier board game on-demand manufacturing company)

Positives

  • Easy, hands-off
  • Bundled distribution
  • Reliable production of a wide variety of components

Downsides

  • Most expensive per-copy cost
  • Extremely difficult to market and achieve critical mass
  • Scales poorly

On-demand manufacturing is where another company manufactures your entire game with professional-quality components, one copy at a time.

There’s a common bias among players, and even among industry professionals: the quality of the components affects people’s perception of the quality of the game.

If you think you’re experiencing significant component quality bias in your testing and it’s negatively impacting your development, it might be time to try on-demand manufacturing to improve your component quality.

(On the other hand, if your pieces are handwritten junk and players still love your game, you’ve got market validation. There’s demand for your product, and you may want to set your sights bigger with bulk manufacturers or publishers.)

The other advantages to the on-demand approach are obvious: you upload all of the files necessary to make your game, post it on the manufacturer’s marketplace, and you’re basically done.

Every time someone orders a copy, it’s made to order and the manufacturer makes and ships it for you.

You can also bulk order small batches yourself to have copies on-hand for things like festivals and independent distribution, where it’s helpful to have physical copies to give to someone on the spot.

Currently, the only business I know of that does this reliably is The Game Crafter. They’re reputable, they’ve been around for a long time, and I can personally vouch for the quality of their output.

Genuinely, I think this is a process everyone wanting to make a board game should go through at least once.

Using a site like The Game Crafter or on-demand production is a great learning process on how to:

  • Identify every component that needs to get made, from the box to the instructions
  • Get manufacturing guidelines and template files from a third party
  • Create production-ready files to match those guidelines
  • Order prototypes to make sure everything meets the necessary specifications
  • Make production changes based on prototype evaluation
  • Enter “full” production only once prototypes are approved
image5
(A template file from The Game Crafter. It’s much better to get experience with these from an on-demand service before you have to prep an order for thousands of bulk manufacturing copies.)

If you’re considering either of the next two options (Bulk and Publishing), you should really do on-demand at least once first.

All that said, on-demand manufacturing is expensive on a per-copy basis. You’ll be paying twice as much or more as you would with bulk manufacturing, eating into the already razor-thin profit margins of board game development.

It’s also impossible to get any sort of media traction. Nobody will write about games available exclusively on The Game Crafter!

All of your advertising dollars will essentially just be free advertising for the manufacturer, instead of driving traffic to your own store, social channels, or newsletter.

You’ll be completely locked into limited distribution through The Game Crafter. You will only be able to make what they can make and there’s no guarantee that production files you design for their guidelines will be usable by anyone else.

This is all totally fine if you’re a hobbyist just looking to have your game exist!

It feels great to have professional quality components that you designed, and on-demand manufacturing is a great way to just get your game into the hands of your friends and family.

If you actually want to make a living doing this, however, you’re going to need to move up or down on the chain. This one isn’t sustainable long-term.

Bulk Manufacturing

image1
(Image from Rex3 card printing service)

Positives

  • Ultra-high per-copy profitability
  • No meaningful limit on copies produced
  • All but required for wide distribution

Downsides

  • High lump cost for every project
  • Outsourced overseas (unless you’re in China)
  • Extremely slow

Have you already played your game a lot and you know it’s something you want to see to completion? You have now reached an important crossroads. You have to ask yourself the following question:

How many copies do you want to get out into the world?

The options above can be great for getting copies into your friends’ hands and/or personally overseeing quality control—but none of them are likely to lead to a breakout commercial success.

So let’s say you have a real hit.

You make a game and there’s a demand not in the dozens or hundreds, but in the thousands.

You don’t just want to make individual deals with your local game shops for distribution, you want to be in every board game shop. You want to be on the shelves at Target. You want to sell copies on Amazon.

The only option for you at this point is bulk manufacturing.

With bulk manufacturing, you work with a company like Panda, Delano, or Longpack and they make and pack every copy for you. Some of these manufacturers will also handle distribution.

The process for bulk manufacturing is very similar to the on-demand process (which is part of why I recommend on-demand first), but there are several important differences.

For one, it takes much longer, to the tune of 9-18 months. You have no choice but to plan around this. I’ve had colleagues spend six months on test runs alone, getting a sample, giving feedback, getting another sample, and so on until everything looks good.

For another, contracts are involved. Are you prepared to bring ink into this project? Do you even have a lawyer yet?

Lastly, these companies aren’t handling point-of-sale for you; you’re making a giant order (usually of 1,000 copies or more) and whatever you do with them after that point is up to you.

Let’s put things into perspective for a moment.

I make every copy of Breaker Blocks myself, taking about 45 minutes for each one. If I ran my laser 8 hours a day for 365 days a year, I could make almost 4,000 copies a year.

During that time, manufacturing would be my full-time job. I wouldn’t be designing new games, I wouldn’t be writing, I would just be making copies of my game.

With bulk manufacturing, I could just order those 3,000 copies. They might still take nine months to get here, but I’m free to do anything else during that time.

I might even be able to develop an entirely new game in that window of time, then order those copies, overlapping games in a waterfall of development, manufacturing, and distribution.

image13

So there’s a clear advantage to bulk manufacturing, but you still need to consider cost and time.

If you’re ordering 3,000 copies, you might get your cost down to $4 per copy. That sounds like very little at first, but at 3,000 copies that becomes $12,000 that has to be paid all at once!

This is why people run crowdfunding campaigns (or snowball one success into the next game’s development).

Beyond that bulk cost, these things also take time. Lots and lots of time.

It takes weeks or months to make inroads with a manufacturing company.

It can take months to have a back-and-forth getting the prototypes to look correct.

It takes many more months for the copies to be made. In the worst cases, it can take over a year or more.

After everything is manufactured for you, those copies then have to be shipped to you. Unless you live in China, that probably means slow oversea freight shipping.

But wait, there’s something else very important that you might not have thought about!

Once all of your copies have arrived, now you have to warehouse several thousand copies of your game, which can take up an entire garage even if they’re small card games. If you don’t have that kind of space, now you have to rent a storage unit just to warehouse your game.

You might be able to get a manufacturer with distribution bundled in to alleviate that last one, but then you wouldn’t be selling any copies yourself. Most manufacturers don’t do distribution.

2024 note: Overseas manufacturing was hard enough pre-2020, but supply chain problems are notably bad with board games right now. This may clear up, but at the time of writing all overseas manufacturing is quite bogged down.

Bulk manufacturing solves some critical problems when you want to sell your game at scale, but it’s also a lot of work.

If you want complete control over your sales and distribution channels and you know you can sell a reasonable volume on your own, it is unquestionably the best route for you.

If, however, all of that sounds daunting, there’s one more option for you.

Publishing

Positives

  • Almost totally hands-off
  • Often bundles ancillary services like marketing and PR
  • Instant visibility boost by being associated with a reputable publisher
  • Highest potential reach

Downsides

  • Low autonomy; everything requires publisher approval
  • The least favorable per-copy profitability
  • Some publishers are predatory
  • Publishing takes longer than every other option
  • Your game might not get published at all

Maybe you read through everything and your first thought was, “Oh my god, I don’t want to do any of that, that sounds exhausting.” If that’s the case, publishing might be for you.

Getting a publisher is a daunting process that requires shopping an almost-complete game around to multiple businesses, all of which might say no.

If you’re successful, however, a publisher can theoretically handle everything for you.

They almost always have their own manufacturing and distribution connections, with some handling manufacturing and distribution internally.

They often have their own PR and marketing departments, or existing relationships with firms.

They sometimes come with their own warehousing options.

A few publishers even have in-house development teams, which can include art, playtesting, and more! Yes, there are publishers where all you have to do is design the game.

A publisher can truly be a one-stop shop to make your game a reality.

All of that said, going the publishing route can be a minefield of nightmares.

Here are some of the worst possible outcomes:

  • You shop your game around with publishers and nobody wants to publish your game, wasting months or years of your time.
  • You lose control over your IP and can’t make a sequel or other tie-ins because of it.
  • The publisher gives you a raw deal where you’re lucky to make 1% per copy sold, leaving you broke even if your game sells thousands of copies.
  • The publisher forces you to change creative decisions, altering the design direction of your game.
  • You lose control over PR and marketing and the publisher starts advertising your game in a way you don’t approve of.
  • You get locked into unfavorable contract terms that can put you into an assortment of legal difficulties.

All of those are real things that have happened, many of them to people I know. These aren’t abstract hypotheticals, they’re real possibilities.

If self-manufacturing is the highest business risk, then at the other end of the spectrum publishing is the highest creative risk.

image8

One major tradeoff for getting another company to handle so many aspects of development for you is that things could go very differently than you expect them to.

Furthermore, publishing is extremely costly on a per-copy basis, to the tune of 1-5% royalties for the designer. I don’t mean that you’re losing 1-5% per copy, I mean that’s what you get paid.

Yes, it’s entirely possible to make $0.40 per copy sold of a $40 game.

You have to do some serious math to make sure publishing is right for you.

If you make $20/copy crafting everything yourself but you can only sell 500 copies, you’ve made $10,000 on your game. That’s not bad, but also not amazing.

If you earn $0.50/copy, you’d have to sell 20,000 copies to make that same $10,000. That’s quite a few units for an indie board game with no designer track record, but you’re more likely to sell that many with a publisher than you are on your own.

On the other hand, if you make the next Wingspan you might sell 1.4M copies in a single year. Suddenly $0.50/copy sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

At that scale you’d have to work with external partners, at least in manufacturing and distribution.

Bulk manufacturing becomes mandatory for working at scale. A publisher can be a powerful ally in achieving that scale, with its reputation, connections to bulk manufacturing and distribution, and marketing apparatus.

Still, a publisher can also steer you off course, take advantage of you, force you to make creative decisions you don’t like, and leave you in a position worse than if you hadn’t tried to work with one.

If those are risks you’re willing to take and you’re able to find one of the good publishers, however, publishing could be the best route for you.

How do you get a publisher?

Getting a publisher is a lot more straightforward than it may seem. There is no guarantee that your game will interest publishers, but you can follow a concrete set of steps to give it a fair chance.

  1. Design a game that people like. If you’ve made something that playtesters consistently enjoy again and again, you’re on the right track.
  2. Make a sell sheet. This is a one-page document that describes your game’s elevator pitch, your unique selling points, the number of players it can accommodate, how long it takes to play, all components involved, and your contact info.
  3. Go meet publishers. Go to conventions, festivals, and events like Unpub, PAX, and GDC with the specific goal of meeting publishers. I have met plenty of publishers this way without actively seeking them out. It’s a good idea to identify good fits in advance, then email them prior to the event to book a meeting.
  4. Get a lawyer. Do not skip this step. You need a lawyer who can look over all contracts and terms for you and it needs to be someone familiar with games and intellectual property (IP) law. They are expensive, but worth every penny in long-term trouble avoided.

Finding a publisher can be scary. Be kind, be patient, and don’t be pushy and you’ll be just fine.

Wait, what’s a sell sheet, exactly?

This could be a whole article unto itself, but in summary, a sell sheet is a one-page document that tells a potential publisher everything they need to know about your game:

  • What kind of game is it? Genre? Player count? Complexity? Length?
  • What sets your game apart from other games like it?
  • Who is the target market? Audience? Theming?
  • What are the financial needs in order to manufacture it? What’s its component list?
  • What does your game look like? Final art isn’t necessary, but a photo of your game in action is important.

Think of a sell sheet as a résumé for your game. Submitting it to a publisher is just like applying for a job.

Next Steps and Future Reading

You should now have everything you need to make your own board game, from concept to completion. Whether you’re going to make everything yourself or hunt for a publisher, you are ready.

If you’d like to be even more prepared, here is some additional suggested reading:

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Level-up your game design knowledge, skills, career, and network

Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan