On Theme

September 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Choosing a theme for your game can – and should – be a difficult process.  Theme is your first impression for potential buyers.  I believe great mechanics will allow a game be brought to the table again and again, but it is theme that will catch their eye in the first place.  And, if you can’t get a gamer to look at your game, how will they ever learn how great your mechanics are?

Theme + Mechanics

The best themes will help invoke the mechanics.  It’s hard to imagine any game having a different theme – which is a great sign.  But, designers often have more flexibility in theme than you think.  If you are designing a conflict game, you can change what era it’s centered around.  Trading in ancient Egypt can be changed to trading in 1880’s New York.

Sometimes theme’s come first – which can be the hardest.  Then, as you start to build the mechanics around the theme, you have to decide if the theme is strong enough to support the mechanics, and if the theme is interesting enough to attract gamers.  And, I should note, I don’t only mean to attract a handful of gamers, but enough to make the game viable in the marketplace.  If only ten gamers would be interested in a theme, it would take some extra stellar mechanics for a publisher to want to publish it.  And even then they’d likely want to change the theme.

Now, let’s explore some decision making behind themes.

Choose a Common Theme to Attract an Existing Audience

There is a reason why there are so many fantasy and science fiction games.  These themes have an existing audience that is already looking for more.  If you have a dungeon crawl game, an avid fantasy reader may pick it off the shelf.  If you have an epic space opera game, a Star Wars fan will take a close look.

Cons: may get lost in the flood of similarly themed games

Make ‘em Laugh and They’ll Tell their Friends

Humor can be a great asset in a game.  If you hit the right note with an audience’s funny bone, your sales can skyrocket.  Why do you think Munchkin is continuously a best seller?

However, not everybody has the same sense of humor.  And I advice you not to use humor to cover up bad mechanics.  After the humor has run out, only the mechanics remain, and you don’t want to leave your gamers unsatisfied.

Don’t Offend Anybody With Your Theme

You’ll notice a lot of European-style games have bland themes.  You’re a spice trader, you’re a 14th century merchant, or you build castles.  It’s not a theme that evokes wistful dreams, but it doesn’t turn anybody away.  What is useful about these themes is just that: you can let your mechanics shine through, and try to avoid players judging your game on the theme.

The problem with this approach?  People won’t grab it off the shelf.  These games are successful because a few people play them, talk about the challenging mechanics, and the audience grows.

Odd Themes Scratch an Unseen Niche

This is, by far, the riskiest theme to take: the brand new one.  If you have a good game that resonates with an audience: awesome.  But, is that audience large enough?  Will the theme drive people away?  A lot of the reason people select themes like fantasy and science fiction is because they are safe, and there’s a large enough audience.  Testing the waters with a new theme is a dangerous proposition… however, if you choose a theme that really does resonate with people, good things can happen.

If you do it correctly, the nice thing about having a unique theme is that you might hit a pocket of demand that nobody has tapped.  And that’s a great place to be in.


Publisher Reactions

August 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

So you pitched a publisher one of your games and they took a prototype.  They’ve have the game for 3-6 months, and just sent you a e-mail.  What should you expect when you open it?

Well, it could be many, many different things.  But here are some reactions I’ve received:

No Thanks.

Yes, it hurts, but it happens to the best of us (and the mediocre of us).  If you’re lucky, this soft rejection came with some advice on how to improve the game, or another type of game they are looking for.  That’s not always the case, but it sometimes is.  If they give advice, take it seriously and consider it.  You don’t have to change your game, but if you valued the publisher’s opinion enough to send them one of your games that you at least should respect it enough to consider their advice.  They have a lot of experience, and may suggest something you hadn’t thought of.

Send them a reply back and thank them for their time.  After all, they did take the chance to play it.

DO NOT SUBMIT THE GAME AGAIN – unless they specifically give you changes to make.  They don’t want to see your prototype again, no matter how much you tweak it.  A publisher will be able to tell if the game just needs a little something, or if it’s not right for them.  So, please, if they kindly reject it (or meanly reject it) don’t send it back to them.  If you’re nice and professional, you can send another game to them later on.

I would like to sign a contract.

Certainly the best response, but also a rare one.  Normally, after a few plays, the publisher will have follow up questions.  If they are genuinely interested in the game, you will likely get…

I’m interested, but…

…can you give me some playtest feedback?

Share some thoughts from your playtesters, some highlights of the games, and some designer history to show the game’s development.  Publishers may do this to audit your design process to make sure it went through the necessary steps.

…what if you take out X?

Sometimes they like part of your game, but not another.  This happened with me with Martian Dice.  Not only did the theme change (which is easy), but the publisher removed a scoring mechanic.  The scoring mechanic moved it up the complexity scale, which didn’t work as well for the type of game – so it was a good call.

…explain some of the math to me.

A recently signed game of mine required no only some playtest feedback, but to do a monte carlo simulation to show the odds of a dice game.  The idea was to make sure there was no divine strategy.  Luckily, there was not.

…why is this different than Game A?

This is a danger if your game has similar mechanics to another popular game.  The market for the hobby industry is narrow – very narrow.  A “successful” game may only sell 2000-5000 copies.  This may come with design tweaks to ensure your game has a niche.

…we’d like to hold onto it longer.

This is dependent on your situation.  It’s bad taste to have prototypes in the hands of multiple publishers, so the longer they hold onto it the more of a danger is that you lose a window with another publisher.  If they ask to hold onto it longer, make sure both parties agree when the exclusively period ends.

…we’d like to develop it.

This happened with one of my games.  The publisher thought the game was good, but wanted to add more to it.  So, we entered into a development contract.  Basically, I got to work with their staff on the game for a couple months.  If the game got where they wanted it, they had first right of refusal to publisher it.  If they passed, then I got all of the development work.

…not yet.

They liked the game.  But couldn’t fit it into their schedule.  We basically agreed to allow me to shop the game around, but they asked if I hadn’t placed it within a year to touch base with them.

No response.

This is the worst.  I like to check in on a prototype every month or two, just a friendly “any updates?” e-mail.  Any more than that is bothersome to the publisher.  However, if they’ve had the game for 6 months, and you haven’t gotten any responses from them at all… then it’s probably time to move on.  If a publisher has had your game for 6 months and can’t bother to response to one of your e-mails, then they’re probably not worth working with.


Of course, these are just some of the responses a publisher can give.  The most important take away I can give you from this article is:

Submitting a Game is a Process.

It will very unlikely be an immediate “YES! I’LL TAKE IT!”  A publisher will want to have some back and forth first.  They’ll want to talk about the design, your experience, how you envision the game, etc.

And, another thing….

You should treat it as a Process, too.

If a publisher says they like it enough to publisher it, you should ask them questions as well.  Will this be a kickstarter game?  What do you think the reach of this game will be?  What will my involvement be in the development process?

You should have as many questions for the publisher as they have for you.

And, if you do get a rejection, that’s OK.  If a publisher says it doesn’t work for them, then it’s just that.  It doesn’t work for THEM.  Try another publisher.  Consider any advice given.  Keep on going.  If the game doesn’t need any more work, then keep submitting it to other publishers that might be interested and work on your next game.

Pitching Made Easy

August 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

So, you have a game.  It’s been playtested and developed.  It’s awesome.  Everybody loves it.  Now you want someone to publish it… but you don’t know where to start.  Well, that’s easy.

It all starts with a friendly, professional e-mail.

Visit the publisher’s website and get their contact information.  This may be an e-mail, or a simple form.  (Don’t be put off by contact forms – it’s a perfectly legitimate way to contact them.)  When you send an e-mail, you’re going to do the following things:

  1. State who you are, and that you are interested in submitting a game to their company
  2. Ask them if they look at outside submissions
  3. Write a short, 2 paragraph description of your game – I like to focus the first on theme, and the second on mechanics
  4. Read number 3 again.  You want to keep this description short, and high level
  5. Write a few sentences on why you think it might fit their company
  6. Tell them you can provide rules or a prototype
  7. (If you can) Offer to meet them at a convention that they regularly attend
  8. THANK THEM for their time.

And, that’s your e-mail.  It should be short, sweet and professional.

Master the Sell Sheet

If it’s an actual e-mail address you are sending to, I suggest attaching a Sell Sheet.  This is a 1-page description of your game, with lots of pictures, and a high level overview of what’s going on.  Pictures are worth a lot when submitting to a publisher, so I highly recommend it.

Be Patient

It’s possible you might not hear anything for a few days, weeks, or even months.  I have had experiences across the board.  I’ve had a publisher ask for the ruleset within 20 minutes of sending an e-mail.  I’ve had one follow up with me 2 months later.  Each publisher has their own style and schedule.

Be Ready

You should have everything ready that you offer in your e-mail.  You should be prepared to meet them at a con if you say so, to send them a prototype, to send them a polished ruleset.

If you can, meet them at a convention.  Seriously.

Any publisher or designer will tell you this is the best way.  You get to be face to face and pitch your vision the right way.

But, I will go through the way publishers proceed.  There are as many different ways as there are publishers, but here are the 3 most common processes and how they intersect.

Process 1: Fill out a form and submit a prototype

Some publishers (especially bigger ones) get prototypes in bulk and take a more industrial approach.  They have you sign a form (possibly an NDA) and send it to their corporate office.  Then, you’ll hear back yes or no in 3-6 months.

The best thing you can do here is: polish up your ruleset so it’s foolproof, make your prototype as nice as possible (no, you don’t have to hire an artist), and give your contact information – including a phone number in case they have a question in the middle of a playtest.

This is a tricky one, because you don’t have the ability to really pitch the game.  So, you have to make sure your game does the pitching for you.

Process 2: Send a Rulebook

I’ve found this to be the most common route for small and medium publishers.  If they like your description, they want to see a rulebook.  So, send it along!

Be prepared – very prepared – to answer a lot of questions.  They may ask you detailed questions about your design.  Why does that cost $10 when this does $5?  Why would a player want to do this?  Don’t you think this would annoy a player?  Have you thought about adding X or Y?

Answer all of their questions and be very friendly.  You might feel the best way to answer their questions is to have them play the game… but that’s not helpful in the current conversation.  As you are answering these questions, you are showing how easy you are to work with.

Another nice tip: give bits of feedback from your playtests.  Share the design history of your game.  Prove to them that you have designed and developed this game.

When you send a rulebook, you have one goal: to get a prototype in their hands.  After that happens, you want to do everything that I noted in Process 1.  Be prepared to answer questions, and make sure your prototype puts your best foot forward.

Process 3: Pitch in Person

If you offered to pitch the game in person to a publisher – highly recommended – they will normally give you two opportunities:

  1. A 1-5-minute elevator pitch, or
  2. A 20-30 Minute meeting

Be prepared for both.  And, in this case, the 2nd is an expansion of the first.

Start off both with an elevator pitch.  Explain the theme, give the winning condition, and talk about one or two mechanics.  If you can fit this in 1-2 minutes, you are golden.  Have a sell sheet ready, and get it into their hands as you are talking.  Since your sell sheet is loaded with pictures, then they’ll have something to help visualize what you are talking about.

If you just have an elevator pitch, they may do one of two things:

  1. Ask to setup a longer meeting later in the convention, or
  2. Ask to take home a prototype

Both of those are winners.  If they take home a prototype, you are in the “Process 1” phase again where you no longer have much control.  But, that is ultimately a good thing.

If you get a longer meeting (or started off with one) you have a bit more breathing room.  I like to follow this process:

  1. Start with your elevator pitch, and give them the sell sheet
  2. As you continue your pitch, start to setup your game
  3. Once you have your game (mostly) setup, give a quick rules explanation.
  4. Note: you don’t have to hit everything rule, but you can gives more details than your elevator pitch
  5. Quickly show a sample turn so they can get the flow
  6. Then, talk about what came from playtesting.  Mainly, what players have really enjoyed

With these longer meetings, your goal is to have them take a prototype back with them.  In fact, if you haven’t noticed, that’s generally your goal for every process.

You want to get your prototype in the hands of the publisher.

Then they can play it with their own playtest group and make a decision on it.  Sure, it’s possible that they could accept the game on the spot, but that is rare.  Truly, for most cases, a win is getting a publisher to take the game home from them.

And you do that by being professional and friendly along the way.

That way they’ll also want to hear from you in the future, even if they don’t accept your game.

And always…

Thank them for their time.

Next time, I’ll talk about the responses you should expect back from the publisher… and how to handle them.

Before you Pitch to a Publisher

August 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

So, I’ve successfully pitched games to 4.5 different publishers.  (The 1/2 point being because one will be released under Michael Mindes’ 2nd game venture, Paradise Games. His first being the popular Tasty Minstrel Games)  And I’d like to talk about some thoughts about the pitching process.

The first, most crucial step is this:

Pitch a game, not an idea.

Publishers don’t want to see ideas.  They have plenty of ideas.  Everybody has plenty of ideas.  What publishers need – and what YOU can give them – is a game.  A game that’s been playtested, developed, playtested, tweaked, playtested, and so on.

Sure, a publisher will likely develop a game further.  Martian Dice was originally a game about cavemen, but the theme was changed and a scoring mechanic removed.  For Kings of Air and Steam, Seth Jaffee (master developer) and I created the entire advanced game (with the custom characters) after we settled on a contract.  Before then, I only have the Basic Game.  However, both games were finished games before I approached TMG.

There’s two reasons you want to pitch a finished game:

Pitching a full, playtested game shows off your vision.

When you work to design, develop, and mold your game idea into an actual product, then you are putting your best foot forward.  You’re able to show the full version of your vision, not some cloudy idea.  To only pitch an idea is a disservice to your own idea.

The second reason is perhaps even more important.

You don’t want to waste the Publisher’s time.

This might sound harsh – but pitching an idea instead of a game is truly wasting the Publisher’s time.  They are getting tons of viable game designs submitted to them every week.  Some even get a couple of designs a day.  If you submit a game that isn’t finished, then you’ve wasted their valuable evaluation time.  It’s not fair to them, as they trusted you to give them a viable product.  Most publishers are a one-man operation and are trying to wear a hundred hats at once.  You’ve taken time they could have been spent developing other games, playtesting finished designs, marketing current games, interacting with fans, etc.

Worst of all, this could hinder your relationship with that publisher.  Most are great people, and more than willing to help a budding game designer.  But, you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with them.  Why would you?

Now, that’s step one.  What’s step two?

Research, Research, Research

If you’ve ever been to the chaos that is GenCon, you only need to look around to see that publishers come in hundreds of different shapes and sizes.  A few page-flips on BoardGameGeek.com will tell you the same.  You have large, veteran companies like Fantasy Flight, Mayfair, and Rio Grande.  You have the newer stars like Tasty Minstrel and Dice Hate Me Games.  And there’s the up and comers, like 8th Summit or Crash Games.

The tricky bit is that their tastes are varied.  After working with 4 different publishers (and interacting with more), I can tell you that they all have very specific likes and dislikes.  Some change within the same company.  What you need to try to do is figure out companies that would welcome your game into the line up.

To do this, however, isn’t as difficult as you’d think.

Interact with the Publishers – The internet is a wonderful place.

Most publishers have a strong internet presence, and this is a great service you its fans, as well as you – the eager designer.  This allows you to evaluate your game against their catalog.  When you do this, you’re trying to judge whether your game would make a good addition to their lineup.  There’s a few aspect you should consider when doing this:

  • Mechanics – American-style or Euro
  • Target Audience – Kids, Family, Casual or Gamer
  • Themes – themes can be changed, but if you have a wargame, it’s unlikely to match a company that deals with shipping in medival Europe
  • Game Length – will your 2 hour long game fit?  Do they like 15-minute fillers?

And, of course, when you’re looking at this, you want to make sure that you’re game doesn’t match something they have exactly.

You want to add to their catalog, not copy it.

Most publishers don’t have a reason to publish the same game twice.  And, if they do (like copying the mechanics but changing the theme) they don’t need a new designer to do it for them.

If you are a convention goer, another good way to start is actually talking to the publishers.  Walk up to their booths and talk about their likes and dislikes.  Ask what they are looking for.  Ask what they like about their current lineup, and what they think might be missing.  Publishers are friendly people, and they’d be more than willing to talk a little shop.  This is especially the case at smaller conventions.  At conventions like GenCon, they will likely be pressed for time.  But, still go say hi!

So, now you’ve found a publisher you like.  Now what?

Well, that’s later this week with my follow up: “Pitching Made Easy”.

Inaugural Ramble

August 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

The hobby board game industry is awesome.

I could probably stop there and be good.  That’s enough blogging.  Might as well quit while I’m ahead.

But, seriously, the industry is awesome.  The people are friendly and fun.  Publishers treat designers right.  Designers get to play games with their fans.  Everyone gets to sit around the table and play games.

I’ve been lucky to have some success in the industry, and I wanted to give a little back.  I’ve learned some things about game design – both hard learned and through the generous advice of others.  I’ve played some great games that some people might not have on their radar.  And, I have some more personal projects in the works.

I’m here to tell you about all of it.

As I said, I’ve had some success.

I’ve had two games published so far.  The first was “Martian Dice”, a light push-your-luck dice filler.  The second was “Kings of Air and Steam”, a pick-up-and-deliver game set in a steampunk world.  Both are available, have gotten good reviews, and are published by the fantastic and friendly game company, Tasty Minstrel Games.

And I’ve learned some things.

Tips and tricks about prototyping.  Creating balance.  How to use player interaction.  The importance of “board presence.”  I’ll be covering those and more.

And there’s more to projects to come.

As of writing this post, I have 5 more projects in the pipeline.  They are…

  • Another dice filler, to be published by Indie Boards and Cards
  • “Bigfoot”, a two-player dice game to be published by Game Salute
  • A hidden-role dice game, to be published by Paradise games
  • “KoA&S: World’s Fair”, a expansion for “Kings of Air and Steam” to be published by Tasty Minstrel Games

I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride.

Cheers and happy gaming!