What does it take to publish a board game? A LOT. A whole, stinking lot. The kind of lot that will eat up hours upon hours, months upon months of your free time like the eery No-Face of Spirited Away. The kind of lot that will quickly and efficiently drain your bank account of tax returns and COVID relief funds and more before your game is even produced. The kind of lot that you’re better off running away and hiding from… unless you are really passionate about that particular game.
And that game can’t just be any old design. If you want it to spread far and wide—to earn it’s way into cozy mom-and-pop game shops or onto coveted Target store shelves—or if you want it to be loved and lauded—praised by critics and recommended by fans—then it needs to be something special.
So that’s a good place to start. Find a game design or concoct a prototype that really sings. Uncover an experience that people want to have again and again. Craft a challenge that is novel, engaging, and dynamic. That’s easier said than done, and there’s a whole universe of useful information out there about how to design a game that people love. But that’s not where we’ll swim in this particular post.
We here at Bitewing Games did not have to cook up a mechanical meal of play for our debut publications. Nor did we have to worry about another typical task of publishing—specifically the development and polishing of a design. That’s because we were provided a menu of fresh and fully developed entrees from a master chef, namely Reiner Knizia. Our only dietary restrictions for menu options were to stay within the parameters of “a small-box game that is quick to teach, easy to get anybody into, fast to play, and addictively replayable.” And the culinary card-game artist certainly provided on that front.
Dr. Knizia and his team presented us with seven card game prototypes that were a mixture of entirely new concepts and reimagined designs. The presentation of each game was nothing fancy… simply a game title, a list of components, a paragraph or two describing the gameplay, and a handful of prototype images. Yet this luxury buffet didn’t need any fancy dressings… the games speak for themselves.
That doesn’t mean we salivated at all of the proposals. From the get-go, some designs felt like they were targeting the wrong audience for our brand. Others had us skeptical of their potential. Yet a few shined with a spark of promise within their descriptions. We decided to try five of the seven prototypes, and away we went… printing off paper cards and tokens to test on willing guinea pigs including nearby family members and gaming friends.
From the depths of this intensive testing emerged three card games—loved by both casual and hobbyist gamer alike. These prototypes were specifically:
Hot Goods: A newer bluffing and bribing game of alcohol smuggling only ever published in Germany and Japan in 2019
Mafiosi: a sharper, more strategic reimplementation of an older family game known as Rooster Booster
Hot Lead: a brand-new push-your-luck auctioning game from the designer of some of the best auctioning games in the world
Yet we couldn’t just love to play these designs…. We had to have a passionate vision for what they could become. With my educational background in Business Administration, I’ve naturally found myself applying business tools and fundamentals to more abstract and creative processes including game design and development. So of course, I couldn’t help but run a SWOT Analysis on Reiner’s most promising designs to see if we could chart a clear path to publishing these games through Kickstarter. This analysis wasn’t just a right of passage… it became our publishing blueprint.
I’ve already delved deep into an explanation of the SWOT Analysis and how it applies to the board game industry on a recent episode of the Board Game Design Lab Podcast. But to put it simply: SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, and these four categories can be applied to even a Reiner Knizia prototype to evaluate internal and external factors that can determine its value and potential. This tool is a great way to take a step back and get both a broad perspective and a laser focus on everything that matters most about the subject.
So to offer an example of how that all actually works, here is my SWOT analysis for the prototype called “Hot Goods:”
The strengths of this prototype included its wide player count (3-8 players), no downtime (everyone is always participating as either traveler or border guard), simple and engaging gameplay, and a solid smuggling and bribing theme that shines through the experience.
The weaknesses of this prototype included confusion from how the rules were explained (at least in the English translation of the German version), a muted look to the overall presentation, and a game length that had the potential of going up to 60 minutes which is way too far beyond our target of 20 minutes.
One major opportunity for this prototype was something that I had already stored in the back of my mind from my own game design brainstorming sessions: specifically a game featuring soda and bottle caps. Despite the colorful inspiration and flavorful experiences that soda provides, despite the collectable clackitiness that comes with bottle caps, I had never encountered a soda-themed game that really stuck within the industry. Another opportunity was certainly the stylish artist we had in mind, Paul Halkyon, who would obviously thrive best off of a theme with wide artistic potential.
Finally, some threats for this prototype included the need to differentiate it—or communicate the differences from other popular bluffing games including Sheriff of Nottingham and Skull. Another threat unique to Bitewing Games is that many of our theoretical day-one backers would be friends and family who culturally don’t drink alcohol, thus making it harder to sell them on an alcohol smuggling game.
So, Hot Goods went into this furnace of analysis, and from it emerged Soda Smugglers, a 20 minute card game of fizzy contraband. The star of the production would be the soda brands, the table presence would be an explosion of colorful bottles and bottle caps, and the maximum possible number of rounds would be trimmed down from 16 to 8. I shared the results of our analysis with Reiner Knizia, and he didn’t just approve our vision for the design… he preferred it. Dr Knizia agreed that our proposed production presented both the best artistic potential and the broadest appeal to the game’s target audience.
Likewise, the prototype Mafiosi evolved into a more potent Pumafiosi while Hot Lead ended up requiring minimal resculpting. And it was once we had settled upon publishing these three games due to their individual merits and promising possibilities that they became more than just a convenient bundle. Suddenly, we weren’t just publishing three 20-minute card games… we were publishing three games designed by the illustrious Reiner Knizia that were all related to criminal activities. We were publishing Reiner Knizia’s Criminal Capers Collection. In other words, we were publishing something special.
To make things even better, Reiner and his design chops weren’t the only ace up our sleeve. We also had the dark horse illustrator, Paul Halkyon, who just so happens to have enough imagination, passion, and talent to craft an entire anthropomorphic Criminal Capers universe where these three games can intermingle and coexist. As project managers, our task was simply to maximize both the functionality of Reiner’s mechanisms and the aesthetics of Paul’s art. We had to plan a production that makes these card games pop in every possible way. Now, how the heck do you make a game designed by Reiner Knizia and illustrated by Paul Halkyon pop even more? I’m glad you asked…
- Step 1: Charge Paul with the duty of creating several soda brands that straddle the fence between nostalgic familiarity and mesmerizing peculiarity.
- Step 2: Make these fantastical soda brands the star of the production. I’m talking large, loud, and in-your-face bottles on the cards. Don’t forget to supplement them with matching life-size bottle caps as well.
- Step 3: Select components and materials that enhance the theme and supplement the fun.
- Step 1: Give players their own personal family tiles and tokens that have character and lore. Make them feel an invested tie to their Pumafia family to strengthen the emotional range and potency of the game.
- Step 2: Give the push-your-luck gameplay a physical form. Rather than recording gained or lost points or simply earning and returning point tokens for successes and losses, give each player a wealth point card and penalty point card where their glorious triumphs and hilarious failures can be piled high and on full display for all to bask in or envy.
- Step 3: When your artist displays an unexpected passion or shows intriguing promise within their concept art, fuel that fire with everything you’ve got. They just might come up with some of their finest work ever.
- Step 1: Just step back and let Paul do his thing because he is on a freaking roll now.
- Step 2: Once the initial designs are in, look at every card and component from a readability perspective. If anything has the potential to be unclear, make tweaks to the components as needed. (Good example here: the font of the numbers in Hot Lead has been changed since our latest prototypes. So the final cards will be even easier to read than what the cards on our Kickstarter campaign page show).
- Step 3: Don’t be afraid to make late improvements to the production. Our initial deluxe version plans for this game featured metallic foil cards, but with enough time to mull it over we decided that there was too much of a risk of this card material being problematic. That’s when we came up with an even better idea to turn the promotion tiles into sheriff stars and have the deluxe version feature thick wooden stars that you can proudly stand up on the table and display when earned.
Of course, planning the art direction and components is merely one task covered by a publisher. We’ve also had to track down a manufacturer who is capable of making these games at top quality and a reasonable price. Likewise, we’ve scouted out reliable fulfillment and shipping partners amid these hectic COVID shortages. And crafting the Kickstarter campaign page with a strong marketing message have been monumental efforts unto themselves. It helps to possess or acquire secondary skills such as graphic design, photography, videography, writing, podcasting, communication, branding, scheduling, budgeting, and more.
If you have the time and drive for the Herculean task of publishing, great! There are plenty of helpful tools and resources out there to get you the skills you need. But one aspect that may prove even more difficult is the money. Years ago, it used to be that you could slap a rough concept on a crowdfunding site and wait until you’ve funded to invest significant money into the project. Nowadays, there is simply too much competition to thrive with low-effort or low-investment campaigns. Of course, you can skip the crowdfunding route all-together and try your hand at online or direct-to-retail sales, but the minimized risks and maximized marketability of crowdfunding is usually too good to ignore.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a big splash with our first campaign. Time is too precious for us to simply inch-worm our way through the early publishing years before we can ramp up to more ambitious publications. We’ve already got 7 total games lined up to publish with a hunger to add even more to our plans! From game 1, we want our backers and customers to understand that we mean business when it comes to publishing gorgeous, fantastic games.
Thus, we’ve invested nearly the cost of our funding goal to get this business and this first project up and running. If you intend to assemble a team of experts to design and develop exceptional games, bring them to life with stunning art, engineer custom plastic components, find interested gamers across the World Wide Web, produce the games with premium precision, and deliver them to doorsteps around the world, then you better be ready to invest the finances required to enlist this team plus the time required to direct them.
It’s a rollercoaster, to say the least. And tomorrow, we finally reach the starting line.
The Kickstarter Campaign for Reiner Knizia’s Criminal Capers Collection runs from August 10th through September 2nd! We need your help to make these games a reality. Please consider pledging your support so we can 1) send you these excellent games once they are manufactured, 2) continue to provide you with juicy board game content through our blog/podcast/Youtube/etc., and 3) publish even more exciting games in the future!
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.