Last month, I signed my first game to a publishing deal with 25th Century Games. It’s called Colorfield and is due out next year. Getting my first game signed has been a roller coaster of trial and error and fortune and failure. It’s a process that has spanned over three years, covering wide range of conventions and contests and meetups. I had to learn a lot about the system and the industry as I went, I thought it might be helpful to share my experience of getting a board game published. So, here it is.
I designed my first game in 2016. I knew nothing about modern board gaming, or about game design. But, I had an idea for a game and started putting it together, playing with friends and family, and developing it as I went. By the summer, I had something that I thought would be marketable (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t). So, I contacted a few designers on Board Game Geek and asked for advice. I put together that the best way to get published is to contact publishers directly and try and set up meetings at conventions, typically during the summer months. So, that’s what I did. I contacted 22 publishers through their online contact forms or email, and heard back from 7. Of those 7, five told me they weren’t interested. The other 2 publishers, Mayfair and Rio Grande, penciled me in for a meeting at a convention. I went, met with the representative, and showed them my game. The game was bad, but the guys I met with were polite and kind, and let me down gracefully. I took my prototype home and eventually moved on.
While ultimately unsuccessful, that experience allowed me a more complete understanding of the process of publication. As an unpublished designer, my name carried no weight. But, publishers were still willing to meet with me and see what I had. I’ve since found that most publishers hear thousands of pitches every year, and thus for a game to get published, it has to be a really good game.
A Really Good Game
Three years after my failed attempt to get my crappy game published, I was still designing games. I had gone through a process of ripening as a board gamer and as a board game designer and had a few designs that felt solid, and one in particular that I had play tested and play tested and play tested. This was a crucial piece of the process. Colorfield was a project that I invested a lot of time and effort into. I got it in front of a lot of people who knew board games and who could articulate their thoughts on its design and execution. Designers often undervalue this step in the process, but playtesting is crucial.
At the time that it was rounding out, the Geekway to the West Design Contest was taking applications for entries. I entered Colorfield and was excited when they told me that it had been selected. The contest was a blast and my game was awarded as first runner-up.
Taking it Into the World
With the momentum of a 2nd place finish in that contest, I started brainstorming about what the next steps should be. I knew Colorfield was good, and I knew it could be published. So, I began looking for publishers that could want it. This was a crucial step, as identifying likely-interested publishers, based on their brand and market, etc., helped me get more meetings than I would have otherwise. This time around, I contacted 7 publishers, all of whom I thought might be a good fit. I heard back from all 7, five of which gave me a meeting, two of which took home a prototype, one of which signed the game.
How I Got Signed
The momentum of the design contest result was instrumental in the successful signing of Colorfield. Being able to lead my emails with an explanation that the game I was presenting had already been recognized as good through the contest results most likely helped me get a foot in the door with some of the publishers. But, my initial pitch was simple and focused primarily on the theme of the game. I had a professional-looking sell sheet and a completed set of rules, all of which I attached to the contact emails I sent to the publishers. So much of the process was networking, and I followed up on every lead I got. Being professional and polite, and understanding that these publishers have an overwhelming load of games and game pitches to sift through helped me maintain my poise, and hopefully set me up for future success in the event that I ever want to work with one of those publishers again.
Publishing Deals: What to Expect
I had many questions about the actual process and terms of a publishing deal. I received what I’ve discovered to be an exceptionally good deal, but generally, a publisher can expect the following. Most publishers will offer an advance. This advance is an amount of money up front that the will be paid back to the publisher through future sales. The amount of the advance ranges all over the place depending on the publisher’s vision for the game, the price point, the size of the publisher, etc. On top of the advance, the designer gets a royalty, which is a percentage of the profit from the copies of the game that sell. For a beginning designer, 4-7% of the wholesale price per copy can be expected, but again that depends on the size of the publisher and the projected market of the game. Beyond that, there is a specified amount of time for which the game is licensed, and usually terms for the designer getting the rights back if the game doesn’t sell, or the publisher drags their feet or doesn’t come through on their side. There are usually stipulations for if an overseas publisher wants to license the game to sell in another country, of if the publisher wants to transfer licensing rights to another publisher. Do your research before signing to any terms, though. Most publishers are honest and devoted to doing right by their designers, but understanding the terminology, and knowing what to expect and what questions to ask can make a huge difference.
All in all, it was a lot of work and a bit of good fortune that got Colorfield signed. I hope that it is well received, which will hopefully make it easier to get future games published. It’s been a fun learning experience, and getting into the details of the board game industry has been great. I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and the positivity that the community has, which has been reinforced through my interactions with industry people. This board game hobby is great, and the community around it has been a pleasure to be a part of. So, for all of you aspiring designers out there, I hope this has helped. Playtest your game until its ready, find the right publishers, be polite, and do your research. Best of luck!