Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#3 - I have a working prototype, now what?

So, you have a board game, it looks functional, people around you like is all good, but... what do you do next? First, get to the final prototype.

As I said in my previous entry, the game already had shape, was fully playable, or... was it? Well, not quite, I was missing one important element, the game board!

Building the map of Warriors & Traders

Like any other person with high self esteem, I left the hardest part at the end. Being passionate or, as some might say, borderline obsessed with history, I could not make my peace with a perfectly playable game board without respecting the history.

With the medieval theme in mind, the first big decision to make was to choose a more precise historical setting of the game. My biggest problem was that Europe was divided in small kingdoms and other state-like entities throughout the Middle Ages, with borders changing on a monthly basis. No matter how I was looking at the history, there wasn't any single period in which all the great European powers were all within some set borders that resemble what they are today. Furthermore, some nations (e.g. Germany) were split into so many states that it became completely blurry which were the relevant ones which later on would form a country. So, I stopped looking sequentially at the history of medieval Europe and I decided to make the border for each country based on its peak of glory. Thus, the setting is not well defined and players are the ones actually making history, taking their country out of the Dark Ages and creating an empire.

Western Europe map on version 0.11 of Warriors & Traders

For those who played Warriors & Traders, this map may seem a bit awkward, it lacks Germany and Denmark and 'contains' two Spanish kingdoms. This was the first draft of the game board as I imagined it, both playable and fairly accurate from a historical point of view. This is also the version of the map that carried the heaviest testing load.

Looking at the map from the functional point of view, I had to sacrifice a bit of history to respect a few principles:
- each country had to be composed of 5 to 7 provinces (including the contested ones)
- the contested provinces had to be 'in a circle', meaning that country no.4 would dispute a province with countries no. 3 and 5 and so on
- the total number of external borders of the provinces of each country should be roughly the same

Due to the constraints listed above and a few more, I had to 'bend' history and even geography to place on the map a contested province between Portugal and... Scotland. I knew from the very beginning that this would create controversy and I had a plan to change it, but I needed it to start mass testing.
In the pictures below you can admire the version 0.12 of Warriors & Traders.

Armies and Barbarians in Burgundy
Game board, resources and armies, all ready for testing 

Warriors & Traders version 0.12 
At this point in the history of Warriors & Traders, we had custom made resource tokens, army tokens, play-mats, pretty much everything was home made, printed on paper and cardboard, but still lacking any kind of artistic design. But good to go for mass testing.

Establishing the company and the first steps towards production

Now, I am coming back to the original question, you have a prototype, then what?
As I was saying before, I was too in love with this game and too tired of my old job, so I made the decision to establish an independent publishing house. You know how experts say that the reasoning behind making a decision is rational, but the decision itself is emotional? For me, it was just the impulse, I simply had to do this!

First, it was establishing the company, but I will not walk you through this bureaucratic process that is different from country to country, I will skip to the main steps related to board games production and the funny inevitable mistakes which can be the difference between success and disaster.

I am moving forward with the story to the point in time where hiring a lawyer, signing a few kilos of paperwork and receiving a few weeks later the final papers for establishing NSKN were already history.
One of the first things I was worried about was getting the copyright, the European trademark, which is valid and respected almost everywhere in the world.
The application process is easy but expensive, the decision comes at least half a year later but the main question is 'does this bring any value or safety?' and this is what I will try to answer.

The lack of experience in making board games and the fear of being counterfeited was the initial drive to register Warriors & Traders as a trade mark. I can say that it did not pay off and it is not a mandatory step when releasing a new game. My biggest two pros to make this decision were the added recognition and feeling safer about the game being copied and produced by others. What I failed to realize at that point was that a game has to be very good and very popular for anyone to want to take the risk of making a counterfeit version and that this would take a long, long time.

Graphic design
While the game was still in testing, there were two amazing designers working on the game box and the components. I thought this will be a piece of cake, I will give them the components with specifications and I will just leave the creative process up to them entirely. I did not think for a moment that the printing company will also have a big saying in the whole graphic design process. I guess this was the second and most important moment where I realized how little I knew.

There's a big difference between being a board game designer and a board game publisher. While my main focus was on designing and improving the actual game, I realized that I also have to be involved in graphical design and production.
So, I found a compromise, I became a game publisher by day and a game designer by night (that's when I said my final goodbye to my former employer). The graphical design was going well, but the components,although beautiful, were still lacking functionality, reflecting our lack of experience.

The biggest surprise was after the first discussion with a printing company. That one meeting tore apart many days and nights of work. The expert in making board games explained to me the restrictions in dimensions, shapes and many more aspects, rendering half of the graphic designers' work useless. That's when I brought back to life an old motto, "Better ask now than be sorry later and never assume".
Learning step by step what it takes to run a company and producing a board game, I had to go back to the basics and see what was left to fix in Warriors & Traders to get to the final version.

Version 0.15 and final testing

I am skipping to the spring of 2011. The testing showed several small flaws in the game and brought countless suggestions. Together with the development team< i was continuously analyzing them and keeping the few that made the game more interesting.
We got to the version 0.15, the last one without the final graphic design and with all the elements that can be found in the commercial version.

Testing Warriors & Traders in a secluded cabin in the Romanian mountains in the spring of 2011
My original plan was to have Europe divided into West, Center and North and have 3 game boards in the box. Even more, I wanted to have them cut in such a way that players would be able to combine them into a giant mega-map where up to 12 people can play together. Boy, was I naive! After seeing the proposed production prices of some non-famous print-shops, I realized that I had to come up with some out of the box ideas on how to keep all the components of the game and still afford to produce. 

The most important change after this epiphany was to make the map square and thus exclude Spain and Portugal and move Germany, Switzerland and Denmark to Western Europe. This proved to be quite simple and the even more historically accurate than the previous version. I had a new round of testing to have the proof that these changes did not affect the dynamics of the game.

The next step towards making Warriors & Traders an affordable project was to reduce the number of components to a strictly useful amount. For this, I organized a few gaming sessions with very different groups and recorded the maximum amount of resources, the number of armies and Development tokens that player were using in a heavy 6 player game. At the end of this little experiment, the number of physical bits and pieces were reduced by 60%, completing the process of making this a cost effective project.

The next big step - deciding on which company to use for production. And this was probably the biggest decision of all... coming soon in my next blog post.

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