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Publisher Diary: How to Run a Game Company Out of Your Closet

Greg Lam
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Massachusetts
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It's not my day job, but I run a game publishing company. Pair-of-Dice Games was started in 2001 by me and a couple of my friends. My friends moved on after a few years while I kept the business going, and in the ten years I've been running Pair-of-Dice, I've self-published 12 games that run the gamut from simple abstract games (Knockabout, Warp 6) to a dexterity game involving chopsticks (Chopstick Dexterity MegaChallenge 3000) to a Euro game with the game board housed in a restaurant's menu cover (Restaurant Row).

The common thread between all of these games is that I make them by myself. When someone orders a game, I go into the Ikea storage bench which houses most of my game bits and dig out the right combination of dice, dyed wooden bits, screenprinted handkerchiefs, bowls, sauce dishes, and eating utensils that comprise one of the seven games that I currently offer.

Every once in a while, I realize that I'm running low on restaurant menu covers (which I order from a restaurant supply company), little wooden stars and spools (which I order from a company in Maine), or plastic bowls and sauce dishes (Dollar Store and Super 88 Asian Grocery store, respectively) and have to get more. How many games I sell is pretty much directly proportional to the effort I put into promoting them. Have I sent reviewers, podcasters and other board game cognoscenti review copies? Should I go to this or that convention to do game demos? Orders trickle in by ones and twos off my web site, or by one or two dozen if Boards and Bits or FunAgain calls. It's not the most efficient way to build a brand, I know, but it's one that lets me concentrate on the part of game design that I enjoy most: Making new games.

Chopstick Dexterity MegaChallenge 3000 – game pieces drying after being dyed

One question frequently asked is whether I've thought about selling my designs to larger companies for them to produce. The answer, of course, is yes. I have pitched designs to larger companies, but when you do so you have to get them to agree to produce the games and to undertake the various steps of getting a full production, which could take years to happen. The two cautionary tales of game design that I want to avoid are A) the people who have printed 10,000 or so copies of their original game and can sell only 100 or so, and B) the people who have their game stuck in "development hell" for excruciating years. By doing the games on my own in this just-in-time manner, I can make whatever game that I can figure out the logistics for and be happy whether I sell a dozen or a thousand games in a year.

To illustrate this, I recently got a phone call from Zev Shlasinger of Z-Man Games saying that he'd like to pick up Truffle Shuffle, a chocolate-making game that I pitched to him. I said yes, of course, since I had no plans on making Truffle Shuffle as nicely produced as it needs to be. The funny thing is that I pitched Truffle Shuffle to Zev so long ago I literally forgot that I had ever shown it to him, let alone gave him a copy of it.

Since I had pitched Truffle Shuffle to Zev, I conceived and produced two games, Restaurant Row and R.U.M.B.L. Will a Z-Man version of Truffle Shuffle ever find its way to your Friendly Local Game Store? I'll believe it when I see it, and Zev is one of the well-established good guys of the gaming world.

The idiosyncratic way I make games has consequences on the types of games I make. I have things I can do and things I can't do. I can buy dice and wood bits in bulk easily, and I can order silkscreen cloth boards so my early games such as Knockabout and Warp 6 used those. Later on, I found printer sticker sheets that would let me print small circular stickers that could be put onto wooden discs, and that let me include printed tokens for Marvin Marvel's Marvelous Marble Machine. The realization that a game board could be neatly housed in a restaurant's menu cover led me to create a game themed on running restaurants called Restaurant Row. Meeting fellow designer Steve Jones of Blue Panther – and learning of his machine which lasercuts custom wooden bits – allowed me to make a custom shaped hexagonal board with docks that precisely fit each edge for R.U.M.B.L., my new robot programming and fighting game. I've yet to find a way to print cheap and reliable playing cards for low print runs, so I simply avoid making games that use cards as components.

As well as having new capabilities, I also continually refine the games I make. Depending on when you obtained Knockabout or Warp 6, it might have been contained in a white mailing tube, a small green cardboard tube so small the components barely fit, a larger red tube, a plastic clamshell, or now a small set-up cardboard box. The boards might have been printed on felt, or vinyl, or now cotton handkerchiefs.

So that, pretty much, is an overview of how one person working alone can run his or her own games company out of a spare closet. I'm not saying that this is the best way to do this, or even that it should be done, but that it is possible to do. These days, it's easier to run a games company this way than it ever has been before.

Greg Lam
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