Monday, February 27, 2012

#4 - Producing a board game

As promised in my previous entry, I will go step by step into the 'fairy tale' of producing a board game as a small independent publishing company. The main question I will try to answer here is 'Who will produce my games?' and how to get closer to making the right decision.
Let me first tell you the story of how I started looking for printing companies for Warriors & Traders or, as my friends like to call it, the most complicated way to go.
True story

The game was ready for production, heavily tested and with amazing graphics. Or so I assumed...
I was hoping to solve the production issue by powering through, so one of my colleagues looked up all the companies who claimed to do printing in Romania. He started calling them and asking for offers. We had the specification well-written (at least this is what I assumed) and I was expecting to get hundreds of offers from which to choose the best one.

After one week of calling more than 150 print shops, we had exactly zero offers. More than two thirds of these companies did not understand the very concept of board games and the vast majority of the companies who did know the concept had no idea what it takes to produce one. 

I used to work in sales and I expected that buying would be much easier than selling, so I did not give up. I decided instead to put even more effort into this. At first there was just one person researching the printing companies and calling them, so I joined forces with him and we spent 10 more days of calling and going to meetings. At every meeting we brought specifications for production together with a board game in the box, showing people what we needed them to do. And I believe numbers speak better than words, so I will list the great 'achievement' of those hard days:
 - 1000+ phone calls
 - 450 printing companies contacted
 - 32 meetings 
 - 9 offers
 - 1 offer that was worth considering

That was one major waste of time and effort, just to find out that we were not looking in the right place. One of the first lessons in life is to know when you don't know and ask the experts. It took a few hundred hours of hard work to finally get to that point, to see that we were powering through... in the wrong direction.

We needed someone who could understand our project and could help us at least to ask the right questions. There aren't so many companies manufacturing board games, we just failed to see that for quite a while. It may seem obvious now, but back then, it all seemed so new and confusing.

After the first discussion with an expert, we saw what we did wrong. We had to modify the map of the game to be square, just because it was too big to be cost effective, we had to organize the tokens on the punched boards differently and so many more little things.

A few weeks later I finally got to the point where I could ask the right questions for choosing the best manufacturer for  Warriors & Traders . I believe the same principles apply to most of the small start-up publishers who want to get a chance on the board games market.

There are two questions looking for answers at the very beginning of the production process:
- What is the quality I am looking for?
- How many games do I want to produce?

Answering these questions will not provide the final answer to the original and most important question, it will only bring us one step closer on the path to finding this answer.

Looking at a board game, one can see the quality of the materials, especially after playing that game several times. The first thing that will get damaged is the game box. It usually happens at the corners, the cardboard and the printed paper covering it split. The other 'option' is the game board, in particular that game board that is folding in 4 or 6 parts. The low quality games get damaged after no more than 4-5 plays, whereas the high quality games are still in great shape after more than 20 plays (and let's face it, very few games get to be played more than 20 times).


I may be stating the obvious here, but the more games you produce, the lower the price per game you will get from any production company. The tough part here is how to find the right balance between the number of games you're making and the price/game. There are at least two things to consider, fitting inside the budget and making as few games as possible.

The most important consideration is to fit inside the budget allocated for production, without exceeding it even with one cent. Once you compromise and you start taking money from advertising for example, you'll see that the more game you're making the more money you're saving and you'll end up spending everything.

The second and more difficult decision is to see what's the minimum quantity to produce to break even, assuming that you know the power of the game and the final retail price for the game. Without prior preparation, it can be just a shot in the dark. Any assessment is better than making a decision just based on pure feeling and assuming that you made a great game and people will fight on who's first to buy it.

Making less games rather then more may look at first as the safe but much less profitable way to go, but it prevents a new born company to go out of business if the first game is not 'welcome' on the market.

China vs. Europe

Once the decision made on the quality and quantity, we are looking into where to manufacture the games. For us there were two big options, China or Europe (I will not talk about producing in the US, we did not explore that possibility). 

China's main advantage is that it's cheaper. I thought that it all comes down to money in the end, but I managed to quickly overlook the possibility of saving money and I studied in depth the other factors. 

Shipping is one big disadvantage for China because it takes at least one month to get the game boxes in Europe. Arriving a few days later that scheduled could mean for someone the difference between having games in Essen or having an empty stand. The other major logistic disadvantage is clearing customs. Depending on the country, this may take as long as one month and it could be an endless trail of paperwork and lost time. So, from the logistics point of view, Europe wins.

Let's now address quality. I looked at more that 50 different games to see if there's a significant quality difference between games made in Europe and games made in China. Even if not always obvious, there's a difference especially at older games. I don't want to generalize, but in my opinion, you get better quality in Europe, especially from the German companies which specialize in board games and puzzles and have a tradition in this business. My final decision was to have the games manufactured by LudoFact and I am very happy I went that way.


Another aspect easy to overlook is logistics. We made the decision of where to produce and where to store  Warriors & Traders  before having our first orders. It was only a few months later that we saw how much easier it could have been.

It is not uncommon for big distribution companies to have many games put together and delivered from the same big warehouse (e.g. LudoPackt) to save on shipping costs. For us, this information would have been useful about six months ago. Having produced our games in one country, storing them in another one and selling in the rest of the world made logistics a big part of our activity. That simply means less time to focus on doing what we love, board games.

All in all, there was so much to learn in such a short time that I sometimes cannot believe we made it so far. It was an amazing experience, especially when I saw 4500 game boxes all together. But this is not the end of the story. 

In my next blog post I will cover the first Essen experience, so stay close.

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