Prototype Artwork

Some of the earliest advice I got about game design came from Alex Yeager of Mayfair games. I met with him in 2016 to pitch my first design, which was a clunky wooden monstrosity that I was extremely proud of at the time. At some point during our meeting, I apologized for the state of some of the artwork of my prototype, to which he replied, “never apologize about how your prototype looks.” He explained that publishers weren’t concerned with the artwork of prototypes that designers pitch, as they generally would throw out the artwork as a first step in the development stage. This idea has been echoed by several publishers that I’ve met and pitched to throughout the last three years. The general sentiment is this; make a good game, let the publisher handle how it looks.

I’ve often scratched my head at the amount of time and effort that independent designers put into the development of their prototype artwork. I’ve seen designers spend countless hours and hundreds of dollars trying to make their prototype look good. On the one hand, if a designer is planning on kickstarting their game and releasing it independently, that makes perfect sense. But for the rest of us, over-developing prototype artwork doesn’t seem like a necessary investment. Publishers want good, functional prototypes that allow them to see the mechanics play out. If those mechanics are good, and if the game is one that those publishers are looking for, they’ll sign it regardless of what it looks like.

My goal is to make good games, to find the right publishers, and to be respectful and friendly as I try and get those games signed. I don’t exhaust too much energy or resources on artwork, as I try and let the games speak for themselves. I’ve learned how to not apologize about how my prototypes look. Hopefully, the world will get to enjoy them.

On Play Tester Feedback

I recently had a few gamers play test one of my designs, and have been processing the feedback that they provided. The feedback was insightful and honest, providing a glimpse into my play testers’ thought processes and game experience. One of my play testers was not a gamer, and afterwards pulled me aside. He acted remorseful and concerned about how critical the other players had been toward the game and wanted to encourage me not to take their harsh criticism personally, and that it was, in fact, a good game.

There was a disconnect between my non-gamer friend’s understanding of the situation and the wrenching but constructive criticism that my game received. What my friend didn’t understand was that the other play testers were doing me a tremendous favor. I’ve come to value and appreciate gamer feedback in a way that I was not able to when I first began designing games. Feedback is the single most important resource that a game designer has. Honest, calculated, and critical feedback is so crucial to the development process.

It’s hard sometimes to listen to someone tell you everything that the didn’t like about something you’ve created. But, by hearing, accepting, and processing the insight and contextualization of the game experience that only outside play testers can offer, we can identify the elements in our game that need to change.

When I started, I often took criticism personally. I would try to be defensive about whatever element was being scrutinized, convinced that the critic just didn’t get it. In the summer of 2017, that began to change. I went on vacation to Germany and had happened to connect with a designer in Berlin named Jeffery Allers. He invited me to bring one of my designs to a design meetup that he had with a few of his friends. These guys were all published designers, and were experts in the field. And, they were German. That play test yielded some of the most brutal criticism that I have ever received. They didn’t hold back, and being German, didn’t sugarcoat the issues that they saw in my design. They let me have it. But, that criticism, was the most honest look at my game, and through it I became aware of many things that needed to change. It was an invaluable experience for me as a designer, to sit in that room with experts in a field in which I was just a novice, and have them heap mountains of criticism on my product. I’m grateful that I had enough sense to sit and listen, without reacting negatively. It made me a better designer. And although I eventually scrapped that design, I’ve been implementing the feedback I received ever since.

Criticism is crucial, and should be welcomed as game designers. Every person that plays our games brings a unique perspective and experiences, and can provide insight that no one else in the world can. Honest reactions to and critical processing of a gaming experience are so crucial, and should be welcomed with open arms. I hope that I can continue to receive it.

Stonemaier Games’ 12 Tenants of Game Design

At the risk of over-posting about how much I appreciate Stonemaier Games’s, and their owner, Jamey Stegmaier’s, approach to design and publishing (see Everybody All the Time), I feel compelled to share their 12 Tenants of Game Design. It’s a list of what they are looking for from submitted designs, and can be found on their website. It’s a compact and concise summary of what makes a design good, and presents an attainable framework for designing an interesting and complete board game. There are plenty of designs that exist and are successful outside of this framework, but the list below constitutes an excellent set of guidelines for making goals for myself as a game designer. I wanted to share it here for the benefit for any designers that haven’t come across this yet. It’s sublime, and should be considered by anyone thinking about designing a board game.

12 Tenants of Game Design

by Stonemaier Games

  1. Quick beginning and organic end: Streamlined setup with (at most) minimal pre-game choices, and an organic end-game trigger (we’re generally not drawn to games with a set number of rounds, though there are instances–particularly in engine-building games like in Wingspan–where they provide a better experience than a race to the finish).
  2. Ability to plan ahead before taking your turn (you shouldn’t have to wait for the previous player to complete their turn to be able to decide what you’re doing on your turn).
  3. Limited analysis paralysis with choices displayed on player mats, game board, etc. This also manifests in a reasonable amount of information on display, not dozens of cards and tiles with detailed text that players need to read from across the table.
  4. Tension, not hostility. We like to limit the potential for spite while still encouraging various forms of interaction.
  5. Interesting choices are better than luck. If there are elements of randomness, players should be able to make decisions based on random input (instead of, say, rolling dice to determine the outcome). Agency is very important; it means that players have control over their fate.
  6. Rewards and forward momentum, not punishment and backwards movement. Players should feel like they’ve progressed during the game to a superior position than at the beginning, and the mechanisms should support this (i.e., engine building).
  7. Intuitive to learn and retain. The design of the game should take into account the accessibility and learning experience–ideally, new players can be presented with a few core rules and start to take turns due to the presentation and order of operations. Retention should also be a factor, enabled by few to no rules exceptions.
  8. Strong connection between theme and mechanisms. Mechanisms should be designed to keep players immersed in the game instead of reminding them they’re playing a game. Two key examples of mechanisms that don’t do this are phases and action checklists. There are much better, more thematic ways of showing players what they can do on their turn.
  9. The potential for dramatic, memorable moments in a game is difficult to achieve, but it’s a huge plus when the game allows and encourages them to happen.
  10. Board games are tactile experiences. We love games with some type of appealing, exciting component. It can be as simple as the cardboard Tetris-style pieces in Patchwork or as complex (yet important) as the wheels in Tzolk’in.
  11. Variable factors to create replayability–you can’t play the same exact game twice, even if you try.
  12. Multiple paths to victory. Various game subsystems should be equal in their ability to reach the winning criteria.

That’s enough gushing, for now.

Aloha ‘Aina: Thoughts on Storytelling

I’ve recently begun designing a new game called (tentatively) Aloha ‘Aina. Players take on a leadership role in one of several disconnected Hawaiian secessionist factions after the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands around the start of the 20th Century by the US. The central mechanic involves drafting meeples, or “Dissidents” into the player’s factions in order to build up their strength so they can storm US military strongholds with the goal of eventually retaking Iolani Palace and reinstating Queen Lilioukalani as the rightful Queen of Hawaii.

As I’ve begun to develop this idea, I’ve encountered my ignorance about this historical period, which has hindered the development. I’ve thus decided to invest my time and my effort into educating myself about the historical event of Hawaiian annexation. It’s been an enlightening process.

In my effort, I’ve begun to read a book called Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism by Noenoe K. Silva. Silva presents a historical account of foreign presence and control in and over the nation of Hawaii as told by native Hawaiian scholars who were living at the time. Her presentation of this alternative (to the pro-US story I have been told) perspective has shed light on the complicated emotional effects that colonialism has had on native Hawaiians. It’s an interesting and at times heartbreaking read.

But, I’ve begun to digest this perspective, because it’s part of the story I’m hoping to tell with Aloha ‘Aina. I recently watched a presentation called Victory Points Suck by Scott Westerberg at SHUX 18. He argues that good storytelling is missing in a lot of board game designs, and that designers should focus their effort not just on creating compelling mechanisms and interesting themes, but on telling good stories. As my game has come together, I’ve found myself trying to apply this idea, focusing in on the story that I’m telling more so than I have before. The story in Aloha ‘Aina is one of struggle and patriotism and anti-empiricism. It’s about heart and tradition and the love that the Hawaiian people have for their home.

But, to get there, I have to do my homework. Reading this and other books, hearing stories from the people affected, and being honest about the reality of American imperialism will hopefully inform my storytelling. I hope Aloha ‘Aina can be an interesting game, but I especially hope that it will be a good and honest story that honors the people who died fighting for what they believed in. Their story is the story I want to tell.

The Subtle Art of Rule Book Design

The most daunting part of game design (besides awkwardly asking friends to play test my games) is putting together a rule book. I typically start working on the rule book for a game design pretty early on in the process. It’s a slog though, especially when the rules are finalized. Communicating the complexities of a game design in comprehensible language to an assumed audience that is starting at a zero-level of understanding about the game and its mechanics is difficult to do. In fact, the majority of feedback that I get from blind play testers usually centers around confusing language in the rule book. It’s definitely not a fun part of the process for me. But, I think it’s an area in which I need to grow, as it’s crucial to help make the play test process as smooth and fluid as possible. All in all, it’s no fun. As a practice, however, I’ve attached the three rule books that I’ve completed below. Hopefully this will be a reference for how far I’ve come.

Everybody all the Time

I just finished watching a live video from Stonemaier Games owner Jamey Stegmaier. He does these weekly (I believe) Facebook live chats where he simply answers viewers’ questions about a variety of topics. I’ve participated in these talks several times, often asking him questions about game design or about the publishing process.

He’s doing it right.

Jamey is hyper-present and available on social media, and regularly posts videos or blog updates about a wide-range of board gaming topics. He’s been extremely successful as a game designer and publisher, and has made himself available to his fans and customers to an impressive degree. The fact that I, a still-unpublished board game designer, can ask this figurehead of the industry what his opinion is on how to make games more accessible for colorblind gamers, or for advice on submitting designs to publishers, is incredible. I enjoy the games of his that I’ve played, but don’t usually have a lot of questions that I want him to answer about those games. But on these video chats, other users are constantly asking him about different mechanics or thematic elements of specific games of his.

This blows my mind. It’s equivalent to calling up Paul McCartney and asking him what “I am the Walrus” means. Obviously, it’s not on the same scale, but the accessibility of Jamey and other titans of the game industry is something that I have been reflecting on a lot recently. Last week, I got a response on boardgamegeek.com from Richard Garfield about a question I asked him about the publishing process. Richard Garfield created Magic: The Gathering. He is arguably one of the most important game designers in the world. And he sent me a message, apologizing for the delay, relaying his experience and advice about how to interact with publishers. It’s crazy to think that that kind of access exists, but it’s indicative of the industry itself, and how welcoming and inclusive it is. I enjoy this hobby, and guys like Jamey Stegmaier, who commit their time to interacting with their fans, make it that much better.

Megachurch

I’m currently working on a design for a game called Megachurch. The idea is that each player is trying to build their individual church into a megachurch by using their pastors to take actions and grow their attendance numbers. It’s got potential as a game, but it’s been really fun thinking through it all thematically. Designing a tongue-in-cheek satire of the American megachurch has been cathartic and freeing in a lot of ways. It’s also given me pause to think about the intersection of game design and social commentary. Megachurches are generally indefensible, in my analytic opinion, as productive faith communities, and at times create an intense absurdity that demands satire. I feel, as an artist, a certain responsibility to engage with social assumptions and norms, holding up a mirror to those I feel compelled to examine. Worship teams playing concerts to sold-out stadiums, celebrity pastors who hang out with famous musicians, movie stars, and athletes, unbelievable budgets and enough money to make a serious dent in the major social and economic crises that the world is facing, and preachers with designer shoe endorsements; all demand examination.

I took the idea to a friend of mine who runs a successful publishing company. I asked him whether or not building a megachurch was a theme that any publisher would be willing to touch. He was reluctant, but told me that it might be possible with the right approach. There is certainly a market for this type of game. There are enough people out there who have been burned by the American church industry (a term which I use intentionally), or who are standing outside of the conversation, looking in and scratching their heads at how it’s even possible for someone like Joel Osteen to be so comically successful. But, there are also those who would not be able to enjoy the joke. People who have bought into the sanctity of it all might throw a fit, decrying the heretic apostasy of trying to hold a mirror up to something as holy, anointed, and undeniably blessed as churches of 20,000 people that congregate in sports arenas or renovated shopping malls.

I’ve kept that in mind, and have tried my best to make Megachurch satirical but respectful. I don’t want to insult or belittle anyone’s experience or expression of faith, but the absurdity of the American megachurch demands to be lampooned. There may not be much of a future for Megachurch, but I’ll go on designing it as long as it’s fun to design. The jokes are nuanced and the game play is engaging so far. Hopefully, as it all starts to streamline and refine I’ll have a game that is interesting and strategic, that can be enjoyed whether you’re a megachurch goer or not.

How to Get Published

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.

First attempts

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.

Conclusion

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!

On Loving

A question I often get when discussing board game design, and particularly my own games, is how I feel about the games that I’ve designed; whether I still enjoy playing them, are they precious to me, etc. I often don’t know how to respond. I hold my games as something that is important to me, a product of my effort and expression. But, I hold different designs differently. Colorfield, which is the furthest along in production, is a game I’ve played at least a hundred times through various playtesting, demoing, and pitching interactions and presentations. I can confidently say that I’ve played Colorfield more than I’ve played any other game I own. The saturation of experience that I’ve had with Colorfield has developed in me a kind of callous tenderness towards it. It’s hard to describe, but while I do love the game, and it’s a piece and part of me, an extension of my creative expression and sweat equity, I hold it differently than I used to. It was once my baby, entirely mine. Now, it’s grown into an adult with its own character. It interacts with people without me, and is experienced in a way over which I have no control.

A decent parallel would be the love I have for my 18 month old daughter. She is precious and beautiful and is in this intimate process of becoming. And, she is entirely mine. One day, she will grow up and have her own experiences and opinions and tastes and abilities and accomplishments and failures that have little to do with me or her mother. One day she will offer the world something unique, be it expertise or insight or empathy. But, now, she is small and cute and flimsy, a bundle of smiles and tears and budding self-awareness. Her experience of and interaction with the world around her is still mitigated and, to some extent controlled, by her mother and me. She is ours, we are hers. Our love for her is vast and complex, and carries with it our understanding of the responsibility that we own to protect and nurture and invest our time and effort into her growing up. Some day, she will be her own, aware and in tune with her own existential worldview. She will have skills and experiences that will make the world better. She will be something unique and grounded, with her own family and responsibilities. But for now, she’s our precious little toddler, learning not to touch the oven when it’s hot, or what peanut butter tastes like. We love her, and, I imagine, we love her differently than we will love her when she is 20 or 30 or 50.

To an entirely different extent, of course, I also love Colorfield. But, I once loved it because it was mine, it was a part of me. I now love it as a child grown up, out in the world doing things on its own. I’m proud of the time and effort I put into it, but as it has changed and developed into something different than it was, I no longer feel like it’s my baby. It’s its own thing, free to interact with and affect other people: free to offer the world something of its own. And, that’s okay. I’ve playtested games from designers who have been reluctant to accept, or even defensive against, constructive criticism of their games. I probably reacted once in a similar way with Colorfield. But, as it grew and changed, as others took stock in it, my grip on it loosened and loosened. Now, it’s no longer entirely mine, and that’s okay. I love it and will always love it, but it’s not mine to hold and protect and develop any more. Hopefully it does some good out there, on its own.

Board Games as a Medium

I often get a funny look when the topic of my board game and board game design hobby comes up. I usually have to explain how board games have come a long way since the days of trudging through a 5-hour game of Risk as a bored 10 year old on a rainy day, or the collective beating of heads experience of playing a full game of Monopoly with the family as kids. Some are surprised that a 34-year old man with a family and full time employment would spend his free time with a hobby that seems so childish, as if I were playing with action figures or catching fireflies. I assure them that it’s very grown up, and that the kind of games I play are challenging, interesting and exciting. I’ve even had some success in winning over skeptics to the beauty of board games as a hobby. Often, they just weren’t playing the right games.

The truth, though, is that designing board games has a greater appeal than that of other pastimes that I’ve pursued. For me, board game design has become something deep and expansive; the purest and most life-giving art form that I’ve participated in. I used to make music with some regularity. Five years ago I wrote and recorded a 6-track album with some friends of mine. I played a few small shows around Atlanta and sold two or three dozen CDs. I enjoyed the process of writing music, and was particularly drawn to that process as a means of creative expression. I’ve also written poetry and have tried my hand at writing a novel once or twice. But, all of those artistic mediums have been wildly less satisfying than designing games.

Game design is a creative process through which you not only want to create a product that is beautiful and satisfying, but you want to create an experience that people can share. With my music, people might hear a song online, or see one of my shows, or buy a CD. They would at most talk about it with a friend or relate to the lyrics or enjoy the melody. But, that was always the extent of it. It was consumable and limited, and maybe at times beautiful and inspiring. But it could only enrich the consumer so much.

Board games, however, offer a much deeper and communal experience. When a group of friends or family members sit down in front of a board game, they create a shared experience that has the potential of bringing them closer to one another. Board games are a medium, a tactile and tangible opportunity for face-to-face community and relationship development through genuine human interaction and shared experience. We are closer when we look each other in the eye, sit around a table, and focus on the same thing. While other forms of art also carry this potentiality, board games offer this process in its most pronounced form. To create a board game is to create a tool by which we as people can walk towards one another. We can laugh and plan and play together and grow closer together.

Making games brings me joy, for the complexities and problem solving opportunities that it provides. But the promise, the hope that someone will sit down with people they love or with people that they’re just getting to know and play a game I’ve made, full of ups and downs and twists and turns, constructing narratives and experiences together, that excites me. It excites me beyond the limits of other creative mediums. Hopefully, I can get games out there that do that and do it well.