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.

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.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

#2 - The development

I will simply pick up from where I left in my previous post, the moment after the two first tests with the very first version of Warriors & Traders. The first moments of euphoria, made of "I have a functional game" and "Oh, my God, it's really happening" were soon dialed down and replaced with "is this ever gonna work?". 

Versions 0.2 to 0.5
It was already decided that the project needed structure to become an actual board game. I had to take it step by step, changing one thing at a time, to avoid breaking what was already working.

The first big step was to reduce the incredible number of possible army types to just a few, thus implementing a major change - keeping the armies' power and toughness equal and limited to 3. So, the armies became 1/1 army (nowadays called Infantry), 2/2 army (Archer) and 3/3 army (Cavalry).

After testing this shortly and seeing that the project shows a better shape already, I run into a different problem, the outcome of all battles was easy to calculate by everyone and there was nothing in the game that could spice it up. I needed a mechanic to make combat ... well, to tell the truth, less boring. The improvement I found and implemented immediately was the first ability in the game. Armies of a certain level had the option to retreatwhen getting to exactly zero life, instead of dying. It remained in place until today, but it took a lot of time, effort and testing to remove any ambiguity. Giving the players the power to freely distribute the damage inflicted by the armies in a battle combined with the retreat mechanic made battles interesting and unpredictable.

Using Risk pieces as 1/1. 2/2 and 3/3 armies, in version 0.5 of Warriors & Traders.

Technologies and the Play-mat

With armies and the retreat ability successfully tested, the game still lacked structure. To develop the three technologies, players were using Development cards. Actually, every Action in the game was governed by this extensive card usage, a mechanic that was slowing down the game a lot.

To make it even more complicated, players were drawing their cards in the very beginning of the turn, before even feeding armies, and they were using them in a later phase, after gathering resources and trading. Every player was drawing only one card per turn, but there was a mechanic in place to draw more. Thinking back, I guess we called it 'level-up', meaning when you reached a new level on one technology path, you'd immediately draw a new card. When it came to using the cards, there was quite some chaos. Players were allowed to use as many cards as they wanted per turn, with the sole restriction that 'Declare war' cards were played at the very end. There was no turn order and everyone was taking actions at the same time, the whole game turning into a small battlefield of screaming louder than everyone else. Furthermore, without a set order of play, the Declare war cards (they have an equivalent now in using one Action to Declare war) were only used to keep your opponents under pressure, but actual wars were rarely seen.

This whole mess needed to be addressed. At this point in the history of Warriors & Traders, a good friend of mine, Vlad, started being really involved and together we came up with the idea of completely removing the cards from the game.

At first, we merged the drawing and playing cards in one single Stage of a turn, called the Development phase. There was no need to make player think in advance what they would do later that turn and there was also no need to pile up cards and play them all at once. 

Then, we structured the technology tree for Production, Trade and Military on a Play-mat. On Production player would get simply multipliers for the resources, on Trade better rates with the bank and on Military better armies. To upgrade one level players would need one, two or four cards. This made the game better, but we did not manage to avoid stockpiling cards in our hands.

A glimpse at the Play-mat and the map with armies. 

Versions 0.6 to 0.10

The game started to gain structure and we enjoyed testing it more and more. If, in the very beginning, very few of our closest friends were interested to play again, at this stage there was a 'queue' of people curious to try this new project, some of them already saying that they want a signed copy when the project will be final. At that point, I was still taking that as a joke.

After a few more tests, we realized that the game was quite flat and that, except for the military path who provided the option for armies to retreat, there was nothing else special happening in the game. Players would quickly get bored of upgrading a technology just to get more of the same things and went straight for battle. I already had a few ideas of things that would merge naturally into the game, but we needed a few more to make all the technologies interesting and useful.

It was the night after the Christmas day when I met my friends for a 'quick game' which turned into an all-night session of development. By 6 AM we had a new Play-mat with all the technologies in place, the same as you can now recognize on the final Play-mat.

New Play-mat with resources.
By that time, we had already made our own resources out of photo paper, to avoid so much depending on beans, matches or, at best, resource tokens from other games.

We were testing continuously and making small changes, one at a time, based on feedback from many friends from many places when the idea to transform this into an actual business came out in the open. At first, I did not take it seriously, but it was growing on me and I felt that Warriors & Traders deserved a chance to become a published game. I cannot pinpoint when and what was the final kick, I just realized one day that I want this to happen. And I felt so attached to this game that I was going to try to publish it myself.

But this will be the topic for the next entry.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

#1 - The beginnig

I know I started this topic on this blog a while ago, now I am coming with a different approach. So, enjoy :)

Warriors & Traders is a pure strategy historical game, which combines several mechanics, including area control, taking actions

My first game, Warriors & Traders was released in Essen 2011 and I want to share the story behind the development and the things to come.

The kick start

In my group of gamer friends, I was usually suggesting changes to make games either more strategic or less dependent on dice or in some way different from what the original idea was. 

The idea to design my own board game was laying dormant inside me for a while, but a friend gave me that final push that made me start working. He gave me an actual challenge, telling me that within one year I have to come up with a board game that all of the people in our group will enjoy playing without complaining. So, a few weeks later, I started putting my idea on paper. The one that seemed to be one step ahead of all the other ones was of a historical game independent of luck. Once I chose my winner, I also came up with the name and the gaming paradigms I was going to abide to no matter what. And so the story began...

Design principles

I had to write down what I wanted to make out of this game, which I decided from day 1 to call Warriors & Traders. I had decided not to make any compromises and laid down all the important things that I care about and I believed make a game with potential:
- Euro game mechanics
- deeply strategical
- a war component
- lots of player interactions
- layered long-term decision making
- historically accurate

Drawing the line, I realized that it will be hard to combine all these in a game playable in less than an afternoon, so I chose my priorities.

First, I decided to put the play-ability before the historical accuracy, but without making severe compromises. This is why I chose the setup in the Dark Ages of Europe, when empires were forming, putting the bases of nowadays European countries. At some point in time, every country was covering roughly the area which is drawn on the game board. And I make here, now this promise, to come back with the details behind placing each single country on the board!

Another key point in game design was the decision to leave every single aspect of the game untouched by any element of luck. That means no dice, no event cards, no random whatsoever. At this point, the major decision was whether to go towards an economical game or a war game, keeping the "NO luck" paradigm. At first I was tempted to go towards the Euro side, it would have been much easier to balance economic decisions in a random-less environment, but I did not gave up and decided to search for a way to put together armies, war and solving battles without rolling the dice.

The place where I compromised a little was the player interactions. Having a fixed (non-modular) map, it was obvious that gamers would find more ways of interaction in a 6 players game rather than in a 2 players game. This seemed like the least amount of distance from the original idea.

Version 0.0

Once design paradigms fully covered, I started to mentally make order in the game components and mechanics. I had to always keep in mind that I was my own harshest judge and I would not go on easy on myself if not following my core design principles.

First I wrote down game components, most of which you'll still see in the actual box of Warriors & Traders:
- game board, with the countries in Europe, each country divided into provinces
- army units, player and neutral; all defined by power (deal damage) and toughness (absorb damage before dying)
- resources: weapons and gold to build armies, food to keep them alive and products as a generic "currency"

Then I wrote down the mechanics and the main aspects of a turn:
- tech development that applies to the entire 'country' a player controls; three 
- actions - each player takes action(s) each turn, developing a technology or building armies
- simultaneous army movement, followed by combat and clean-up
- strategic resource management, using resources before gathering; this required strategic planing for at least 1 turn ahead.

Version 0.1 - plain paper
And here it is - the very first print out of ..hmm.. 'two weeks old Warriors & Traders' 

The map - I got excited and a bit carried away, trying to put every important European country on the same map, from England to Russia. It turned out to be quite crowded and extremely large, with no less than 109 provinces player were "fighting over".

Every province had 1 to 3 resources drawn on it, 1/2 of these resources on the map being Products, 1/4 Food and 1/4 Weapons, with Gold only available through trade.

The resource "tokens" were small square pieces of brown (Products), red (Food) and yellow (Gold) paper and some poorly drawn swords (Weapons) - somewhere West of the map, outside of the picture.

Provinces were Capitals (3 resources and starting provinces for players) and common (1 or 2 resources). In all of them there were Barbarians, some random armies who would fight the invaders and nothing more. 

The development cards, nowadays replaced by the play-mats containing the technology tree, were divided into... countless categories. The most important ones were upgrading Trade Technology, allowing simply a better exchange rate with the bank for Gold, Production technology - multipliers for resources and Military technology.

This Military technology was the key to a random-less combat, so players were be able to to 5 type of army upgrades with 3 options each, so you could end up with any kind or army X/Y (x-power, y-toughness) with X and Y ranging from 1 to 10 !shake

After seeing the pictures above, you're allowed to lough (but not too loud cool)

The game round was composed of four steps:
- feeding armies (yes, before getting resources)
- getting resources
- action - upgrade some tech OR build army
- armies movement and battles

First tests

The first two tests, actually two and a half, were done with just me and my girlfriend (again, big thanks for putting up with all that).

There were no two of the same army after 5 rounds and there were no victory conditions. We were just playing to see how the game works and what are the things that need immediate response.

The top of the list was the giant amount of army types and the Barbarians who had random power and toughness, conflicting with one of the core principles - no luck.

The first two game tests were conclusive, the game had potential, it worked, but it was too all-over-the-place. It required a lot of work to bring structure and a bit more effort on the basic design to make it user friendly. The last test, well... I sneezed in turn three and all the "tokens" flew away, concluding a night that I will always remember, The beginning of an amazing story that changed my career options and maybe my life.

So, stick around, I will tell you the rest of the story behind Warriors & Traders and much, much more.