Oliver Kiley
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A Brief Crash Course on Game Design:
Issues, Processes, and Resources for New Designers

Welcome to the world of boardgame design! If you are reading this, chances are you are interested in designing a boardgame (or perhaps another type of game). While the subject of game design is extensive and has filled a number of big thick books with all matter of advice, techniques, and other information – there are some basics that are handy to know if you are starting out as a designer.

The intent of this article is to provide a brief crash course on game “design”. I emphasize “design” because many other resources that are available (on BGG or in books) often focus on the marketing and/or publication side of the process – and not specifically on how you get started designing and working through a development process. With that in mind, this article will:

>> Discuss some commonly asked questions on the design forums;
>> Outline a general design process and the often used terminology you may come across;
>> Share some best practices and techniques to consider during the design process;

I encourage others to respond with bits of advice, suggestions, or links to helpful resources.

A caveat:
There isn't any right answer to the game design process. What I’ve outlined below is a process that works for me, but that I feel is general enough that it might work for you. There are no hard rules; design is as much a matter of subjectivity and preference as it is fact and function.



Table of Contents

0. Paranoia - So I have an idea! But I’m worried because…
... Stealing ideas
... Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks

1. Idea Generation and the Early Conceptual Stage
... 1-A. From Daydreaming to Design
... 1-B. Establish your design goals
... 1-C. Pacing and win conditions

2. Early Prototypes and crash testing
... 2-A. The quick and dirty prototype
... 2-B. Internal (solo) testing – The hunt for fatal flaws
... 2-C. Early Feedback and Reality Checks

3. Preliminary Rules, Functional Graphics, and the Mid-Stage Prototype
... 3-A. Document the design
... 3-B. Begin working out the Graphic Interface
... 3-C. Make a refined prototype to support live playtesting
... 3-D. More solo playtesting

4. Internal Playtesting Stage
... 4-A. First live playtests – what to ask testers?
... 4-B. Taking and interpreting criticism –Knowing your audience
... 4-C. Design Refinement – Endless iterations
... 4-D. Design Best Practices

5. External playtesting stage
... 5-A. Blind Playtesting
... 5-B. Rules Drafting and Late-Stage Prototypes

6. The Road to Publication
... 6-A. Publishing Approaches
... 6-B. When to pitch and how to do it
... 6-C. Pitching Points for your Design
... 6-D. Passing the Baby: From Designer to Publisher


0. Paranoia - So I have an idea! But I’m worried because...

My idea is incredible! But if I share it or discuss it openly someone might steal my design!

There are practically zero incidences of someone “stealing” someone’s early design. The bitter truth is that ideas are a dime a dozen. And chances are, someone else has independently already thought of the same thing you did anyway. As you will find out, the real work, sweat, blood, and tears of game design is in the later development stages and playtesting – something that isn’t really “steal-able.” In addition, by publically discussing or testing your game – you are also establishing a track record that this is “your” game design, a further deterrent to potential idea theft.

What can happen more often is that mechanics or design ideas are taken from already finished games that in retail. These ideas are then incorporated into new games or the mechanic is innovated in some way. For instance, Dominion spawned the entire Deckbuilding phenomenon, and today we see all kinds of deckbuilding games that took the original idea and reapplied it in different ways.
Above sentiments paraphrased from this post.


With that in mind, my advice would be to share your design or idea as soon as you feel comfortable and are looking for feedback. Some people brainstorm an idea and share it soon after for reaction, testing the water on the idea. Others might wait until much later in the process, preferring to go further down the road before opening the design up for feedback. Others might not do it at all, working behind closed doors with developers or publishers until the game is “done”. Do whatever works for you and you feel comfortable with – but don’t be worried about someone stealing the design.

I probably need Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks to protect my Intellectual Property (IP)!

You don’t need these in the vast majority of cases – or they are things a publisher will worry about. There are some great articles on copyrights, patents, and trademarks floating around.

Further Reading
>> IP law for dummies and game designers
>> MythBusting: Game Design and Copyright, Trademarks, and Patents (US Law)

Here’s the brief version:

Copyrights apply to the actual wording and language as written on your components and the rules, as well as the actual artwork assets and specific graphic design. Copyrights do not apply to the actual mechanics or what your game “does”, just what the actual components are from a written and artwork standpoint. Copyrights are established automatically upon creation of the work – so you don’t need to file official paper work, hire a lawyer, or mail yourself copies of your rules to be covered.

Patents apply to unique devices/products or processes but that are non-derivative – in other words they need to be purely original. Generally speaking, patents are not used by boardgame designers. They are VERY expensive and time consuming to secure and require extensive legal resources to enforce and protect. Forget about patents.

Trademarks are used to secure a brand identity for something. Publishers will generally trademark the name of their game, and depending on the intellectual properties used in the game other references might be trademarked as well. In general, designer’s don’t need to deal with this either.

Basically, if you starting out in design and you aren’t a publisher – you can more or less ignore all of the above issues. One exception to this is the use of other people’s potentially copyrighted materials in your physical prototypes. If you are using clipart or placeholder graphics, it’s best to use public domain or other assets where you have permission to use them.

Let The Process Begin!


1. Idea Generation and the Early Conceptual Stage

1-A. From Daydreaming to Design - Document the concept!

Some people use napkins. Others use notebooks. Others might use a piece of software. However you are most comfortable and whatever is easiest for you, do make a point to start writing down or sketching out your idea. Make note of any ideas for the theme or mechanics you may want to use. It’s amazing how this one step of documenting your idea will start the process. Otherwise, all you are doing is daydreaming. Go beyond daydreaming and document your idea. Start the process.

In my humble opinion:
I tend to start and keep a small simple sketch book for each game design I'm working on, and use it throughout the design process. You might want to create a rough outline of the potential flow of the game – i.e. how do players take turns, what actions do players take, etc. I like the sketchbook approach (no lined paper) because I can freely switch between writing and diagraming ideas/concepts, sketching out what a component or board layout might look like, etc.

Mechanics First? Theme first? What first?! I need inspiration!
You’ll see many replies to this question – because there is no right answer. Some people prefer taking an idea for a mechanic and wrapping an interesting theme around it to make it come alive. Others start with a theme and try to find mechanics that best represent it. Others have a more “gestalt” approach and have an idea for a theme and mechanic at the same time. And this even varies for an individual designer from game to game.

Whatever your idea or source of inspiration may be – the point is to be inspired. If you have an interesting idea but aren’t inspired to work on it – write it down somewhere so you don’t forget about it. Maybe that idea you had years ago for some interesting mechanic is just what you need for your current design projecrt! My advice is to work on what gets you excited and do what keeps you motivated. That’s half the battle.

Further Reading:
>> Is It Really About Theme and Mechanics? - Andrew Hardin
>> Theme and Mechanics - Bruno Faidutti

1-B. Establish your design goals and gameplay objectives - and write them down!

What do you want your game to accomplish? What types of player experiences do you want to create? What sorts of interesting choices do you want players to make? What about basic stuff like playtime and number of players? Establishing and writing down your design goals can be an important step that helps you clarify what it is you want to accomplish in the design of your game.

What kind of design goals should I be considering?
- What is my target audience? What kind of “fun” am I trying to make?
- How many players will the game support?
- How long is the game? What’s the playtime for first/learning games?
- How “big” is the game in terms of components?
- How complex do I want the game to be?
- How much, and what type, of interaction do I want to have between players? Is it passive or confrontational?
- How much politicking / table talk do I want players to engage in?
- What types of choices or dilemmas do I want players to face?
- How much randomness / luck do I want in the game?
- How abstractly do I represent the theme? What are the essential parts of the theme to represent?
- How do I make the game standout in the market? What makes it marketable and different?

You may not have a clear answer to these questions, and they will likely change over the course of the process, but you need to start somewhere.

In my humble opinion:
I find that I often have the clearest sense for the goals I have for a game early on in the process, and writing them down so I can use them to evaluate design choices later on is immensely helpful. Often, you may find yourself struggling to choose between two seemingly equal mechanics or design options. Being able to evaluate your choices in light of your established goals is essential for creating a strong rational and case for choosing one option over another.

1-C. Think about pacing and how players win

Again - this will change over the course of the game, but having a sense of what the object of the game is, and how players win/lose, is important. Also consider how the game ends. Keep in mind how long you want the game to be and how the win conditions and game end conditions tie into that. I mention this as a separate point because the pacing, end, and win conditions are intrinsic and core to the entire game experience. Starting off down the design path without thinking much about these issues can cause difficulties later on – leaving you wandering aimlessly amid your prototypes with no clear sense of purpose.

Further Reading:
>> Game Theory 101 - The Story Arc
>> Game Theory 101 - Creating Tension
>> Game Theory 101 - The Agonizing Decision
>> Game Theory 101 - A Game's Nervous System


2. Early Prototypes and crash testing – Do it EARLY!

2-A. The quick and dirty prototype

You can spend forever sketching out a concept in your notebook, rewriting design goals, etc. At the end of the day, you need to get a playable prototype assembled as soon as possible to test the basic flow and structure of your game. In other words, does your concept even work or do the gears start flying loose on the first turn? Nothing provides a reality check on your design like sitting down to actually play it.

Hitting the Wall #1 - But I want an awesome first prototype!
Generally speaking, you want to make your first prototype in the fastest and most flexible way possible. Don’t invest a ton of time into an early prototype that will be difficult to change. Don’t bother with art (even clip art). People’s preferences range from doing things by hand with pencil on notecards (quick and easy to erase + change things!) to making the early prototype digitally in just black and white, printing it out on cheap plain paper and cutting it out as needed. Do whatever you feel will be quickest. The key is that you want to be able to test your idea as early as possible to see if the basic mechanics and flow of the game works.

What’s in a game designer’s toolkit?
The following are some basic tools and materials that are handy to have on hand for assembling a rapid prototype:

- Paper, cardstock
- Pencils, pens, markers
- Scissors, matte knife, straightedge, cutting board
- Index cards of various sizes/colors
- Blank playing cards and/or card sleeves
- Deck of traditional cards
- Assorted dice
- Generic tokens / cubes / pawns / gems
- Coins or cheap poker chips

Armed with the above you can pretty much create (or recreate) any game in existence. For the first prototype you don’t need to worry about fancy printing and mounting onto chipboard – just cut out cardstock tokens or cut up index cards. Keep the construction fast and furious.

2-B. Internal (solo) testing – The hunt for fatal flaws
You should spend a fair amount of time going through your game just on your own, playing for all the players in many rounds of “solo testing”. Test it at each player count as well. Try out different strategies or moves. Make extensive notes AS YOU PLAY about things that work well or don’t work well – and if you have any ideas for changing things. You’d be surprised how quickly you can “forget” a good idea mid-play if you don’t write it down.

In particular, look for game breaking issues and the player actions that cause them. Can a player prevent the game from ending or otherwise break the system? Are there huge run-away leader problems or potential kingmaking problems that will detract from your design? Reassess your mechanics/notes/concepts and find ways to resolve or minimize these issues. Don’t be afraid to throw something out that isn’t working and try a different mechanic. Don’t be afraid to change the rules partway through the game if you think of something that might work better. Be loose and flexible – look to improve the idea.

Hitting the Wall #2 - Playing against myself is hard!
Yes, it can be tricky – especially for certain types of games that include a lot of hidden information or negotiation. Don’t worry too much about that however, just try to quickly put yourself in the shoes of each player and don’t over analyze your plays. I find that it can be helpful to give different players “personas” when I solo test to see what happens when certain players make extreme moves. It also prevents me from falling into the trap of playing each player the same way, which is a pitfall in solo-testing to watch out for.

2-C. Early Feedback and Reality Checks

How you do this is going to vary from person to person, but prior to sitting down and playing with other players in a formal playtest, it can be immensely helpful to bounce your ideas off someone else. Maybe a family member, maybe a friend. Maybe you post your idea and initial concept on the BGG Designer Forum for reaction. Whatever the method, this can be helpful because it forces you to “articulate” your idea in way that is (hopefully) understandable to someone else. If you can’t easily describe your game, what it does, what your goals are, etc., your design may need more work and refinement before moving onto the next stage.


3. Preliminary Rules, Functional Graphics, and the Mid-Stage Prototype

3-A. Document the design

Hopefully, you’ve gone through a number of solo tests and have a good sense for how the basic game works, the flow, the pacing, and have fixed any critical problems. At this point, I find it most helpful to write down the rules for the game (electronically) – even if it is just in an abbreviated outline format. You don’t need to spend forever with meticulous formatting – you just need to document the rules so you can print them out and mark them up on subsequent playtests. The rules are your game, and the sooner you start developing the language and terminology your game relies on, the easier it will be to teach the game and have a reference point for changing mechanics.

3-B. Begin working out the Graphic Interface

No – this does not mean you need to be an artist or a graphic designer (or hire one)! However, as a game designer you do need to start thinking about how the key information in your game’s components will be presented. What kind of iconography do you need? How will you standardize information to make the game easy for others to comprehend? Where do you need to place key information on the cards or other components to make the gameplay ergonomic? Work out the visual/graphic system for the game in a consistent manner.

3-C. Make a refined prototype to support live playtesting.

Having an outline or draft of the rules and an idea of how to best present the information on the game’s components, it is time to make a better, mid-stage prototype. This prototype should still be quick to produce and flexible to change, that hasn’t changed. And it does not need artwork or a fancy graphic design at this point either. What it does need is to be functional and present information clearly so that you can explain and test the game with other humans.

What tools do I need to make a good mid-stage prototype!? Should I buy expensive software?
Options for assembling mid-stage prototypes range from the free to the very expensive, it depends on what your budget is and how much time you want to invest in learning software or other production techniques versus spending time on the design itself.

From a software standpoint, the industry standard for graphic design is the Adobe Suite, specially Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. The use and integration of these programs will let you pretty much handle everything – but it is a professional level application and it will set you back $1,000+ for a copy. Alternative options include InkScape and Gimp, freely available vector and raster programs respectively. Other options include using programs like Nandeck which allow you to populate card temples for mass production from excel tables with your various card values or texts. It can be a handy tool as well.

Bottom line – stick to your budget and use the tools that you have available to get the job done effectively and that still keeps the design mutable.

4-C. More solo playtesting

Once you’ve made a new prototype, do test it more on your own first. Nothing is worse than showing up a first “formal” playtest and realizing that something is horrendously wrong with the components. Now in particular is a really good time to evaluate how the game is playing relative to your design goals established early on. Is the design creating the kind of gameplay experience you want? If so, what will make it even better? If not, what isn’t working? You may need to go back to the notebook and re-work your design and the prototype more until you think the game is strong enough to test with other players.



4. Internal Playtesting Stage

4-A. First live playtests – what to ask testers?

You now have a set of rules you can refer to and a (hopefully) comprehensible prototype with a consistent graphical interface. It’s time to find willing test subjects. Usually, offering friends/family a free night of food and drink is sufficient to get people motivated to test out your game. You can also look around for other game groups that might have other designers willing to playtest your game. In addition, attending conventions with events targeted at designers can be a great way to get expert feedback from other designers as well as potential input from publishers.

One thing is really important for playtesting: TAKE EXTENSIVE NOTES!!! Pay attention to what actions players are taking. Where are the rules causing issue? What were the final scores like and do they match your assessment of how players played? Is the experience you are observing matching your goals at all? Do players have suggestions to improve the mechanics, the graphic interface, the flow, or anything else? What worked or didn’t work? Did the game go on too long or too short? What could be done to improve it? Most importantly – was it “fun” for the other players (and what do they mean by fun is also important to ask!).

I’d encourage aspiring designers to find a few playtesters that will provide honest and effective feedback and that encompass a range of playstyles. Having players with an inclination to strong politicking, or heavy optimizers, or min-maxers, or semi-unscrupulous players that always look to game the system, etc. is really important because there will be players like this too, and you need to know how your game will hold up across all these gamer types.

4-B. Taking and interpreting criticism – Knowing your audience

As an aside – one of the best things you can do as a designer is learn how to take criticism appropriately, which means calmly assessing criticism received and not getting defensive about it. You WANT and NEED criticism – and getting defensive about it will only hinder your success as a designer.

Be aware of the nature of the criticism and who it is coming from. What is the target audience for your game, and are the current playtesters in that group? If they are, their feedback may be right on target. If they aren’t in the target group – what does that mean about issues they see with the game? Are they valid criticisms? Either way, that will inform your development of the game. What do the testers want out of the game, and do their expectations match your design goals? Examining this provides a way of interpreting the criticism received. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what to change or not – but if you want to make a strong game, you must at least listen to and process the criticisms you hear in an open and honest manner.

4-C. Design Refinement – Endless iterations

If players saw good things in the design and you are still motivated to work on it, continue to playtest and work in suggestions/improvements. Revise the prototype, test it again, and so on. This is the real WORK of designing a game. The continual improvement process. Still, don’t be afraid to try out major changes, or just throw things out that don’t work. Do go back and reevaluate your design goals. Do they still hold up? Or has your game evolved in a different direction and you need to adjust your goals? Generally speaking, less is more. Find ways to streamline and make the game as playable as possible while retaining the depth and experiences that make the game good.

My game “works” and it seems “good” – but how do I make it GREAT??
This question is really right at the heart of the design process. Most games start off working, and then get good. It takes a lot of hard work to make a game great. Unfortunately, there is no list of best practices, where if you do X, Y, and Z you will have a great game – that’s just the nature of the design process. The section below outlines some of the things to keep in mind when refining your game design to go from good to great.

4-D. Design Best Practices

Reduce negative experiences: kingmaking, run-away leaders, effective player elimination, downtime, null decisions, etc.. Be aware of these issues in the game and make efforts to eliminate or minimize them. These issues often cause players to have negative experiences (i.e. not having “fun”) – and if they occur commonly there are likely significant issues in the design that need to be addressed. Keep these issues in the context of the type of game you are making, your target audience, and the game length. People’s tolerance for such issues in a 15 minute game is vastly different than in a game that last for hours.

Further Reading:
>> Games Journal - Fantastic archive of design related articles from top designers.
>> Item for Geeklist "A Boardgame Bibliography: Links to Critical Discourse"

Appropriate player interaction
Be cognizant of the types of player interactions you intend to create in the game and make sure those are coming through in actual play experiences. Do players feel like they are interacting? What is the nature of the interaction? Is it combative and confrontational (i.e. “take that” gameplay) or more passive and indirect? How does that feed into metagaming issues like negotiation and politicking that may upset (or enhance!) the flow of the game outside of what you can control through the rules.

Appropriate use of Luck
Understand your approach for random elements in the game, and use luck/randomness in ways that reinforce your design goals and the experience you want to make. This is a huge consideration that ties into most aspects of your design.

Further Reading:
>> Luck and Skill in Games (by Richard Garfield)

Make interesting choices
Understand the decision spaces you are creating in the game and mind the balance between the abundance and quality of options your design presents to players. This will depend on the style of game you are creating and your design goals – but you want to avoid irrelevant “null” decisions and emphasize quality meaningful decisions that have an impact on the future. Similarly, be careful not to overload players with countless options that are difficult to parse out and just increase downtime.

Further Reading
>> Hard Decisions - Stefan Alexander

Balancing strategies and play styles
There are countless ways to balance strategies or elements within your game, from ridged mathematical models to (more likely) fine tuning based on extensive playtesting. Whatever the means and methods, it is important to ensure that there are not dominant strategies or dominant playstyles, otherwise your game risks become stale and it loses replayability. Balanced strategies and interesting decision spaces makes the gameplay “come alive” at a deeper and more emergent level.

Game end triggers, the arc, and pacing
Generally, you want players to feel a sense of progression in the game, where the decision spaces you create are changing over the course of the game. Being faced with the same decisions over and over again with little sense of drama or tension can lead to a very flat experience that is not likely to be memorable for players. Use your game end triggers to create tension. Provide opportunities for players to “drop the bomb” and make a big come back from a lagging position (if that's the style of game you want to make). Keep the experience dynamic and keep players engaged.

Scoring and inventive structures
Recognize that your scoring system and mechanics IS the incentive structure in your game. You want your scoring system to incentive/reward/encourage good play in ways that are transparent and comprehensible to players. Otherwise, you risk players becoming confused or disillusioned with the experience.

Thematic Consistency / Congruency
Pay attention to how the theme is manifest in the mechanics. How much abstraction versus simulation do you need? Explore how the theme can be used or emphasized as tool for helping players understand the mechanics. Avoid counter-intuitive situations where the theme and the mechanics don’t make sense with respect to one another.

Elegance, Ergonomics, and Fiddlyness
Pay attention to the ergonomics of your game and the amount of piece manipulation players are required to do. Are there more components and bits that need to be moved around than the depth of the game justifies? Does the fiddlyness break up the flow of the game? Look for opportunities to streamline the physical aspects of the gameplay. Look for elegant solutions. Do more with less.

Be bold and different
Last – do something different in your design. Make yourself aware of what comparable games have done and forge new territory. Be innovative and inventive.



5. External playtesting stage

5-1. Blind Playtesting

After spending an indeterminate amount of time in Stage 4, once you are comfortable with the design it is time to expand your playtesting efforts to “blind” or external playtesters. This means that you send off your game to a group of players who are tasked with learning the game from the rules you’ve written and playing it on their own. Depending on the situation, you may be present as a silent observer, watching how the game does. Often, you won’t be present – so make sure to provide your blind testers with some feedback forms or even just a list of questions to ask among themselves after the game to get your feedback.

A few things you can do to find blind playtesters:

- Post a thread here in the design forums (and/or at Boardgame Design Forum www.bgdf.com) describing your game, its theme, and any other key information.

- Ask for people to review an electronic copy of your rules – you’ll often get great feedback.

- You can make a PnP version of your game available for people to blind playtest your game, which works well if your game doesn’t have a lot of components.

- Create multiple prototype copies that you can loan out to interested groups to playtest.

- Look for designer conventions (i.e. Protospiel) or events at larger gaming conventions (i.e. UnPub, Designer Meetups) where you can get feedback from other designers and even publishers. This can be excellent input on your design.

5-B. Rules Drafting and Late-Stage Prototypes

Regardless of the situation, you will need to pull together a full draft of the rules and revised / cleaned up prototype. I’d suggest not sending away your only prototype either. If you want, you can make your prototype available as a print-and-play (PnP) package electronically, so interested tester can assemble their own prototype and test it out. You don’t need to worry about artwork – but the graphic design of the game should be clean, consistent, and comprehendible. You can use clip art or other if you want, but keep it functional.

It can be helpful at this stage to establish a budget for making a late-stage prototype. A few $100 at the most should be more than sufficient for getting any special components made or produced. Print-on-demand services or groups like Print and Play Productions can be good resources for acquiring more polished prototype materials.

How amazing should my late-stage prototype be? I see others with amazing prototypes!
You’ll often hear people in the industry say, upon seeing someone with an amazing “finished game” looking prototype, say something to the effect that they didn’t need to make such a fancy prototype. And in fact, that a fancier prototype may give a false impression that the design is more finished and “fixed” than it really is – or that the designer will be less willing to change their design. These are all valid points of course, but there is another side.

First, depending on your skill set you CAN do a fancier looking prototype if you have access to the proper design tools and/or artwork. What might this achieve? A more attractive prototype can help generate interest in your game either among potential blind playtesters or even publishers. Many times, blind play testers may be creating their own prototype copies as a Print-and-Play project (PnP), and having a nice looking prototype can help them get the game to the table in their gaming groups.

Regardless, don’t spend money on artwork or graphic design at this stage – unless you are willing to walk away from whatever you spend on it in the event the game is picked up by a publisher.

When is enough, enough? How do I know when is the design “done!?”
The design process is iterative and can go on for a long time. The good Dr. Reiner Knizia said something to the effect that you know the game is at its best not when there is nothing left to “add,” but when there is nothing left to “takeaway.” That is a good message to keep in mind. As a matter of best practice for designing strategy games – you want your design to be as rich, deep, or varied in its gameplay as it can be (consistent with your goals) while minimizing the overhead of needless complexity that only makes the game longer, more prone to downtime, and more difficult to learn.

While the process I’ve outlined to this point is presented in a linear fashion, in reality it is circuitous and iterative. You may conduct a round of blind playtesting, and feedback from it makes you reassess large portions of the design, setting you all the way back to reworking major mechanics or changing your design goals. This in turn may require additional rounds of solo and internal testing/prototyping before going back to blind testing. Such is the nature of the design process. If you are prepared for this eventuality, and are willing to go all the way back to beginning if something just isn’t working – then your maturity (and potential success) as a designer is already growing.


6. The Road to Publication

6-A. Publishing Approaches

If you are serious about getting your game into the hands of gamers, of officially having it “published”, you’ll need to make a determination about how to proceed. There are a few basic approaches:

Traditional Publishing
This is the traditional approach of identifying potential established publishers that are accepting submissions and that might be a good fit for your game, making a pitch, landing a contract, and working with the publisher from there to get the game printed and distributed.

Self-Publish (aka Become your own publisher)
Essentially, you form your own publishing company, taking on all the issues related to owning a company, accounting, paying taxes, managing artwork and graphic design, finding printers, working with distributors, and marketing – on top of that you need to make sure your game is the best it can be and will sell. It can be a lot of work doing this, and can be risky.

Publishing Partnership
Under this arrangement, a designer works with an established “publication management team” (for lack of a better word) that handles much of the logistics and printing and delivering a game, and potentially crowdfunding the game. Essentially, the publication responsibilities are more evenly shared across the management team and the designer. Examples of these companies include Game Salute and Kickin’ It Games.

Print-on-Demand Publishing / Web Sales
This last option is less risky but essentially amounts to finding a print-on-demand service that can produce your game in small batches (or even single unit runs) that are sold direct to end users with you getting a little cut of the revenue. Alternatively, you can provide your game in a paid PnP format. Companies like the Game Crafter, Print-and-Play Productions, Blue Panther, etc. provide such services.

Free PnP / Web Published
The last option is just making Print-and-Play (PnP) files available, free of charge, for interested people to download and assemble their own copies of the game. This can be a good way to go when starting out in the design world.

All of these approaches (and there may be others I’ve missed) have their pro’s and con’s. Going into detail for each of these is beyond the scope of this article. However I want to mention that it is possible to “move up the ladder” so to speak. Perhaps you initially release a game as a free PnP download or for sale through a Print-on-Demand service. If you game generates a lot of interest it may be sufficient to attract the interest of a publisher looking to pick it up, or provide you with the motivation to self-publish through a crowdfunding campaign. So keep that in mind when starting out.

For the purposes of this article, I do want to hit on a few important topics – particularly relevant to going with the “traditional publishing” route, but important to all the approaches to some degree.


6-B. When to pitch and how to do it

Deciding when to start pitching your game is always tricky. Realize that a game design can be endlessly tweaked, and from a certain standpoint the design is “never done.” Recognize as well that even if you think the design is “perfect” a publisher may not see it that way and will almost certainly make changes to the design of the game during their development process. That said, your design is ready to begin pitching when it has gone through extensive blind playtesting and has been revised and developed such that you feel the game is the best it can be. It’s your call ultimately.

As for pitching itself, there numerous articles and resources on the topic, but there are a few basic ways of doing the pitch:

The first I will call the “remote pitch,” which relies on finding publishers that accept design submissions electronically (search publisher websites or e-mail them if you must), filling out their submission requirements (usually a brief synopsis of the game, why it is unique, and list of components) and then waiting for a response. If you get a positive response, they will likely ask for a prototype to test.

The second approach I will call the “in person pitch,” which relies primarily on contacting publishers (if they are accepting submissions) to arrange a face-to-face meeting at a gaming convention where you can show off your prototype and talk directly with them about your design and its merits. If they like what they see, they may ask for the prototype on the spot, or for you to send them one at a later date.

Regardless of the approach, it can be very useful to put together a “sell sheet” for your game. This should be a brief 1-page (single side) overview of your game. The sell sheet should list the game’s “vitals” (number of players, playtime, theme, primary mechanics, etc.), a BRIEF narrative of what makes the game unique in its market, a list of the components, a photo or two of the game, and a note of the amount of blind testing or other special feedback you’ve received.

I really want my game published! Should I contact multiple publishers!?
Discussing your game with multiple publishers at the same time can be a messy matter; and the best practice is to be forthcoming and honest with your efforts at publication. The rule of thumb is that it “may” be okay to contact multiple publishers with a general letter of interest or meet with multiple publishers at a convention. However, once a single publisher has requested a prototype and they are more interested – it is polite and professional let other publishers you may be in contact with know about it and to not have multiple prototypes in review with multiple publishers. That’s a no no. Publishers spend a lot of energy evaluating a game – and it’s unfair and unprofessional have a publisher spend their energy looking on your design just to pull the rug out from under them and go with another publisher. Don’t do it.

I contacted a publisher but I haven’t heard anything. How long do I wait!?
Publishers are quite busy and response times can vary enormously. If after an initial contact (i.e. submitting your idea initially) you haven’t heard back in month (+/- a week or so) it is safe to follow up with another inquiry about whether they have had a chance to look at your idea, and if not what their timeframe is.

If a publisher has requested a prototype, it is usually good to ask them what their timeframe for reviewing it is up front. They may say that they need a few months to review it. They may in reality need even longer. Regardless, after any specified timeframe has passed (or after a few months if no timeframe was specified) sending a courteous follow-up e-mail is perfectly acceptable to see what the status of their review is.

Regardless of the situation, publishers have a full plate and usually reviewing your design is not a top priority, so be patient. If you decide after an extensive period of time with no reply from a publisher to try your luck elsewhere, BE SURE to contact that publisher and let them know, preferably giving them a window of time to respond, otherwise you risk running into the situation described above where two publishers are both looking at a design – and one of them is going to come away upset or insulted.

6-C. Pitching Points for your Design

There are some key points that publishers are looking for when evaluating a design concept. Regardless of whether you are pitching a design in person or remotely, the below items are important to highlight in your message.

Marketability+ Audience Alignment
What is unique about your game that will make it stand out in the market? This is intrinsically woven into the need understand the target “audience” for the game and what that audience might be looking for in the “next innovative” game in that genre. You need to be able to build a case for why someone would buy your game (from an unknown designer) over a comparable established game from a successful designer. Know your market and your competition and be able to speak to it – highlighting why your game is unique and worth looking at.

Fit
Does your game fit in the publishers catalogue? Don’t try and pitch a cutesy abstract kids’s game to Fantasy Flight Games. Know who you are pitching your game to emphasize how your game could fit into their companies lineup. If they already have a successful game that’s similar to yours – there may be little interest in trying to publish and market another similar one. Know the publisher, and acknowledge the types of audiences they focus their marketing around.

Components + Profitability
Publishing games is risky business and even through a publisher may totally love your game concept and everything about it – they might not be able to turn a profit or even break-even producing it because of component costs. Different weights/classes of games have typical selling points that the market will bear, and your components need to align with that bottom line reality. Be aware of how components are used in your game and make efforts to minimize the amount of components, particularly complex ones, that your game requires. The more gameplay you can back into the design using fewer components, generally the more attractive your game will be from a publishing standpoint.

General Interest and Pre-Publicity
If you can point to non-biased instances where your game has already demonstrated potential market interest or publicity, that may be worth mentioning as part of your pitch. If you have feedback from designer conventions, other publishers, or known boardgame reviewers/personalities, that can be helpful for demonstrating interest. If you have made the game available as a PnP or Print-on-Demand, if there are sales from that, it may be worth mentioning. Bear in mind however that some publishers are more closed doors when it comes to accepting games. A public pre-publication presence for your game may close some publishers doors – but then again it may open others!


6-D. Passing the Baby: From Designer to Publisher

Should you get to a point where a publisher has offered a design contract and they intend to publish the game, congratulations – you’ve passed a major milestone! This can be a challenging moment for new designers however.

Designer Quandary #1 – The Dreaded “Development” Stage and Letting Go
One concern is how continued development of your game will be handled by the publisher. It goes without saying that a publisher will continue to test and change the game prior to printing, maybe even substantially such as re-theming or changing major mechanics in the game. From their perspective, they need to make the game a product that will sell such that they won’t lose money. This is a fact of the business. The extent to which you, as the designer, continue to be involved in the publisher’s development process has to do with how the publisher prefers to operate and also your ability to be constructively involved in the process and willingness to “let go” of the sacred cows in your game.

Some publishers may not want the designer involved, some may be happy to have the designer involved provided they make meaningful contributions and don’t throw up roadblocks. Regardless of the specifics, most designer contracts will stipulate that the publisher has the final word on the design – and they have to since they are putting their money and time at risk. If you aren’t comfortable with that, don’t sign the contract. But recognize in doing so that you are not likely to get a different situation with any other publisher. So if you have faith in the publisher you are working with, let go your feelings and sign the contact and be helpful.

As for development itself – the publisher is primarily looking at ways to further streamline and simplify the game, making it easier to learn/teach, reducing playtime, and so on to make the game as marketable and appealing as many potential buyers as they can. This streamlining process may also go hand in-hand with the graphic design (and artwork) being created for the game. Unless a designer is particularly gifted with graphic design skills, a big part of making a game playable (end enjoyable) is having a strong graphic design in place – and often those graphic needs necessitate design changes, so be prepared.

Further Reading:
>> Pricing relative to manufacturing cost

Designer Quandary #2 – The Designer’s Cut
The contact will also stipulate how the designer will be paid on the project. Traditionally, most designer fees were around 3-5% of the MSRP (i.e. full retail price), 5-6% of wholesale price (what the publisher sells to a distributor, usually ~40% of MSRP), or 20-25% of profits.

New designers often balk at the seemingly low fees – but the reality is that when all the costs are accounted for, the “take home” earnings the designer makes can often exceed what the publisher makes. In the first two scenarios (% of MSRP or Wholesale) the designer gets paid for each sale regardless of whether the game turns a profit for the publisher. In effect, the designer is an expense that needs to be paid off the top. In the profit sharing approach, it’s possible that the designer makes less money if the game tanks – but if the game is very successful they may stand to make more. Particularly with crowdfunding, the potential revenues (and profit) under a profit-sharing scheme can be higher if the campaign goes well.

Further Reading:
>> A call for change! - Interesting debate on designer pay

Designer Quandary #3 – The Fine Print
There are lot of other details to contracts that should be considered. I’m not an expert on the subject, so I’ll refer you to other sources. But from my experiences, a few things to keep in mind when negotiating a contract include:

>> How long does the publisher have to bring the game to market before the rights revert back to the designer? 2-years is often the typical time frame.

>> How are rights to expansions, foreign language editions, or licenses to other publishers stipulated in the contact? What about spin-off products?

>> Does the designer gain any special rights or benefits (i.e. have your name on the box, be able to purchase discounted copies to gift to people, initial copies, signing bonuses/advances, etc.).



Wrap Up and the Waiting Game

Phew! You’ve made it to the end. Hopefully you are now armed with the tools to work through a design process, or at least have some ideas where to start. Maybe you are now ready to pitch to a publisher. Maybe you have a contract and are patiently waiting for your game to be printed and start shipping. Regardless of where you are in the process, I hope this article was useful in some capacity. I’m fascinating with the design process as well as the publication side of things – and there is always more to learn and new ways to get games into the hands of gamers.

Please feel free to share any insights, reactions, or suggestions you may have. I will continue to tweak and amend this article as I find helpful resources or have new topics to discuss. Thank you.

~Oliver Kiley
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Nate K
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Bookmarked. Thanks, Oliver.
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John "Omega" Williams
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Small note on the start on design theft.

Yes. It does happen. Fairly often at times.

BUT

It happens predominantly to games that are on the shelves either literally or as finished PNPs and are thus fair game for picking apart for mechanics. The reson why ideas and even WIPs aren't stolen is because ideas are worthless. No... really. Every publisher out there had been inundated with submissions for everything imaginable. Whip Cream Wrestling? check. Kama Sutra Card Game? check. And about all else. Sift through the WIP threads and you'll find quite a few games that started out as ideas and never got past that. WIPs are also worthless for the reason that they are WIPs. They are incomplete and un-proven.

On a rare few cases the games been copied whole cloth. But the most common instance is mechanics borrowing. And its allways after the game is on the shelves.

In the cases of flat out copying, the big example is Hey, That's My Fish! which was bootlegged by a company in Russia. These are less common now than years ago.

So yes you should worry about design theft. Problem is. It doesnt happen untill you cannot do anything about it. So stop worrying and get out there and talk about your game.
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Thanks for the input all - I tweaked the sections slightly to reclarify per your suggestions. Thanks.
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Something else to keep in mind if you are planning to submit the game to a publisher...

Art kills.

Or can.

A majority of publishers do not want submissions with art, etc. They want the bare skeleton of a game without hardly any theme, etc even sometimes. Art, or any glitze can cause a publisher to deny a game they might otherwise have picked up.

There are alot of reasons. 1: They have their own in house artists and will be junking any art you did. With experience publishers know that some designers freak out when told this. 2: It can say to a publisher that you were more concerned with making a showy impression than designing the game. 3: They sure as hell arent going to pay you for art they didnt ask for.

Others may actively seek print ready games. But in personal experience those are few and far between.

Allways check before you throw alot of cash at art.

Same for prototype components. Dont blow 20-100$ just to make an impression. You arent getting payed that much to begin with.
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John I have found this not to be always be the case.

It'll differ from game to game but a good functional close to ready prototype with borrowed art reflecting the theme can help you get playtesters who unconsciously or consciously might expect a more 'real' play experience. that helps in some ways and hinders in other as players are more likely to give feedback on layout usability, art and style directions, but that is good if its what you want and are doing graphic design partially yourself like oliver did.

If its good it can also help convey the thematic intent of the game to a publisher. Some publishers will respond well to that and other wont. I dont think you cannot say its a blanket rule.

If its really good on top of other design goodness it can also help a publisher make a decision to go with what they see.

There were many factors in why Minion games signed up Olivers game hegemonic and the level and quality of graphic design (and art?) was i believe one of them. That also had i presume some impact on the cut of profits Oliver has negotiated.

In his case at least it was a benefit.

Edit: sorry John on a re read of your comments i see you didnt say 'always'.
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What a fantastic resource thank you Oliver.

Your sections '1 B - establishing design goals and gameplay objectives, and 1 C - Pacing and winning' are extra valuable and too little discussed in similar guides i think. I'd add in consideration of the narrative arc and expanding range of choices as discussed elsewhere into 1C too.

another point - i wish i had considered earlier right in phase 1B is your part 6C _ Components and profitability - as that can make of break your games feasibility in a publishers eyes.

massive kudos to you for this.
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Omega2064 wrote:
Something else to keep in mind if you are planning to submit the game to a publisher...

Art kills.

Or can.

A majority of publishers do not want submissions with art, etc. They want the bare skeleton of a game without hardly any theme, etc even sometimes. Art, or any glitze can cause a publisher to deny a game they might otherwise have picked up.

There are alot of reasons. 1: They have their own in house artists and will be junking any art you did. With experience publishers know that some designers freak out when told this. 2: It can say to a publisher that you were more concerned with making a showy impression than designing the game. 3: They sure as hell arent going to pay you for art they didnt ask for.

Others may actively seek print ready games. But in personal experience those are few and far between.

Allways check before you throw alot of cash at art.

Same for prototype components. Don't blow 20-100$ just to make an impression. You aren't getting payed that much to begin with.

I wonder where you are getting your information? I have factually had the opposite happen: art was ready, game was ready. Publisher did pay for it. So it does happen.

I believe the way the game plays with components is critical. After all, players are handling and interpreting your game based on the components. It's important to understand that. And what about language neutral components? Very important to get a feeling for that. And number of components? Size? Absolutely critical.

Sure be ready to toss it all - that's part of the risk of submitting a game to a publisher. And if you can't do decent work, don't do it. But I would encourage making your best impression. A good prototype indicates you've thought through the game design to the end.
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kbrebach wrote:
There were many factors in why Minion games signed up Olivers game hegemonic and the level and quality of graphic design (and art?) was i believe one of them. That also had i presume some impact on the cut of profits Oliver has negotiated.


Which is funny as when I was talking to them about a game they wold me they did not want any art and would use their own artists.
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adamw wrote:
I wonder where you are getting your information? I have factually had the opposite happen: art was ready, game was ready. Publisher did pay for it. So it does happen.

I believe the way the game plays with components is critical. After all, players are handling and interpreting your game based on the components. It's important to understand that. And what about language neutral components? Very important to get a feeling for that. And number of components? Size? Absolutely critical.

Sure be ready to toss it all - that's part of the risk of submitting a game to a publisher. And if you can't do decent work, don't do it. But I would encourage making your best impression. A good prototype indicates you've thought through the game design to the end.


Some of the biggest games out there were sold as bare skeleton prototypes. Agricola is one prime example.

As said. Check first.
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Omega2064 wrote:
Some of the biggest games out there were sold as bare skeleton prototypes. Agricola is one prime example. As said. Check first.

Established designer was probably more likely the reason Agricola got attention. Early on, all art is crappy. But when submitting, do your best.
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Hmm and look at the fantastic job they did with the final art and graphic design too!

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Omega2064 wrote:
kbrebach wrote:
There were many factors in why Minion games signed up Olivers game hegemonic and the level and quality of graphic design (and art?) was i believe one of them. That also had i presume some impact on the cut of profits Oliver has negotiated.


Which is funny as when I was talking to them about a game they wold me they did not want any art and would use their own artists.


Which is different from saying that the publisher because won't look at a game prototype if it does have artwork. Your first post makes it sound like having draft artwork will prevent you from advancving a prototype.

While I agree it is not neccessary to have a nice graphic look (and/or draft artwork) - I have a hard time imagining it hurting your chances provided you are willing to toss all the artwork out if the publisher wants, and are upfront about stating that. If you aren't willing to let the draft artwork go - you probably have other issues too that will make it difficult to get published.

Overall, I personally think that a nice graphic design, IF you can do a good job of it, will provice more benefit than harm. It helps get you noticed by playtesters, it helps get you noticed at conventions, it attracts publisher interest, it shows your ability as a designer to think about the graphic design, etc. The downside is it may give an impression that your design is more inflexible than it may be - a point easily resolved through conversation.

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Mezmorki wrote:

While I agree it is not neccessary to have a nice graphic look (and/or draft artwork) - I have a hard time imagining it hurting your chances provided you are willing to toss all the artwork out if the publisher wants, and are upfront about stating that. If you aren't willing to let the draft artwork go - you probably have other issues too that will make it difficult to get published.


Yeah. Agree with you Oliver but I'd have to agree with John that paying for (a lot) of art to be done in a vacuum prior to pitching is risky in terms of finding a publisher or perhaps wasting money unless you intend to self publish if you can't find a publisher. Like many, I err... 'borrow' art to convey the thematic / artistic vision in advanced prototypes.

But if you are one of those rare artist / designer / graphic designers who does all 3 well and has a clear vision and the ability to bring it to fruition then good luck to you! But the risk of emotional attachment / investment issues is likely to be higher.


Oliver did you pay for any art / graphic design before pitching or is it all your work in Hegemonic?
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Hey I also really think this thread should be pinned.

It goes into much greater detail about the design of a game (the actual forum topic) than the other excellent pinned threads here. Bang for buck it is one of the best single articles on game design I have read (I've read many) and in my view makes a brilliant intro for new game designers and contains thought provoking reminders for more experienced ones too.

Is it just thumbs that earn pinning or do admins need to see vocal support for pinning?
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Oliver Kiley
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kbrebach wrote:
Mezmorki wrote:

While I agree it is not neccessary to have a nice graphic look (and/or draft artwork) - I have a hard time imagining it hurting your chances provided you are willing to toss all the artwork out if the publisher wants, and are upfront about stating that. If you aren't willing to let the draft artwork go - you probably have other issues too that will make it difficult to get published.


Yeah. Agree with you Oliver but I'd have to agree with John that paying for (a lot) of art to be done in a vacuum prior to pitching is risky in terms of finding a publisher or perhaps wasting money unless you intend to self publish if you can't find a publisher. Like many, I err... 'borrow' art to convey the thematic / artistic vision in advanced prototypes.

But if you are one of those rare artist / designer / graphic designers who does all 3 well and has a clear vision and the ability to bring it to fruition then good luck to you! But the risk of emotional attachment / investment issues is likely to be higher.

Oliver did you pay for any art / graphic design before pitching or is it all your work in Hegemonic?


Yes I agree with that too. If you aren't willing to walk away from whatever investment or money you sunk into prototype art then that is something to be mindful of.

In the case of hegemonic, it was a fortuitous situation. The artist Alex skinner (greenmelon on BGG) was offering to help with space art to get his portfolio going and it was a really early collaboration from that standpoint. We both knew the art may never end up getting used.

I do a modest amount of graphic design work in my professional work, so I had an advantage there in terms if being able to use Alex's work in a good way.

All said and done, I probably spent around $400 dollars over about 2 years of hegemonics prototyping. But that yielded three pretty high end prototypes that I used to shop around for publishers. I did a lot of research into the most cost effective ways to get the prototypes assembled to get the most bang for the buck so to speak.

kbrebach wrote:
Hey I also really think this thread should be pinned.

It goes into much greater detail about the design of a game (the actual forum topic) than the other excellent pinned threads here. Bang for buck it is one of the best single articles on game design I have read (I've read many) and in my view makes a brilliant intro for new game designers and contains thought provoking reminders for more experienced ones too.

Is it just thumbs that earn pinning or do admins need to see vocal support for pinning?


Thanks for the support! Not sure what to do about getting it pinned either.

I was hoping to address a couple points in particular that are questions asked about every other day it seems, mainly the first point about idea theft. I have a lot of interesting threads bookmarked from my few years here as well, so I'd like to keep adding links and the like through out the article.
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Added the following articles from the defunct Games Journal by Jonathan Degann. They were fairly instramental reads when I was looking to improve how my games played.

>> Game Theory 101 - The Story Arc
>> Game Theory 101 - Creating Tension
>> Game Theory 101 - The Agonizing Decision
>> Game Theory 101 - A Game's Nervous System
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This is an excellent post sir. Thank you for taking the time to put this together.
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Yes, I agree with the other replies above that this is an excellent post and resource. thumbsup

My Significant Other and I have been working on a board game, Three Kingdoms Redux, for the past 3-4 years. We started out as complete noobs and felt our way through the design process. Reading through your post, it is quite amazing how much of what you wrote above runs parallel with what we went through.

Indeed, we wrote up our story as geeklists (still ongoing):
We Are Taking The Plunge!
We Are Taking The Plunge! (Part 2)
We Are Taking The Plunge! (Part 3)
We Are Taking The Plunge! (Part 4)
We Are Taking The Plunge! (Part 5)

Based on your categorisations, stage 1 probably took us 1.5 years, stages 2 and 3 about 2-3 months, stage 4 another 1.5 years, and stage 5 has been the last 6 months or so. It was then that we felt comfortable enough with the game to submit it for approval in BGG.

We plan to go the self-publishing path, and my Significant Other is doing most of that work. She quit her job to work on this over the past few years, whilst I still have a day job. The publishing company's name is Starting Player. Fingers crossed!

Edits: Inclusion of latest geeklists
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Such a huge help! Thanks for posting all of this info.
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Great Article!
Easy to understand and supports the steps already taken
I will use this as a guideline for the rest of the development process.

This article made me less Paranoia to share the concept of the game I am developing and ask for feedback in early stage and not wait until I have obtained copyright on the manual

After a couple more playtest rounds for putting the mechanics in place I will look for feedback on BGG

Hopefully end of this year (or start next) will reach Chapter 6. The Road to Publication

Thanks again!

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Wow, nice and detailed post!

As an absolute newbie in board game design as I am, this is the kind of step-by-step guide and recommendations I was looking for to start a board game project for my kids.

I will definitively use it as a reference along with my project notes!

Thanks!

@Tryskele
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One thing I also found very useful, especially if you have a "real" job and can only work on your game every other week: make notes why you chose a specific mechanic or made a certain design choice or rule.

For instance, this could be trivial like "I just love rolling dice" or it could be more specific such as "after the fifth round a player may only play one instead of two movement cards (to simulate the character getting tired)".

This is especially useful if you're working on a thematic game and really want your mechanics to tie in with the theme. It's of course no guarantee, but at least you will often get some early warning signs that some aspect of the game makes no sense thematically.

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Oliver,

This is remarkable! Thanks you for the condensed version from the myriad books and articles on the subject. I'll definitely check out the links in the days and weeks ahead.

Regarding the fact that publishers may take several weeks (or even a month) to get back in touch with a designer might actually have nothing to do with the industry. I can only speak to the 'hex and counter' war game environment where many small publishing companies are run by one or two guys who hold day jobs and answer e-mails specific to gaming once/month.

I'll be sure to pass this onto several individuals for whom I'm serving as their Developer...just a note on Developers...we're almost always uncompensated (save for a copy of the game and credits on the box) lovers of the genre who offer their service of establishing play-tests; reviewing first and second drafts of rules; issuing play-test feedback forms and indexing responses; and generally working on behalf of the publisher to shepherd the process forward. It's an exciting, albeit overlooked, area of the board game process.

Cheers,
Joe
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Stuart Cudahy
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Where in that raison d'être do old gamers do their stuff. Play testing, the make of fun. Lol. Stu.
 
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