As a newcomer to the tabletop industry, I jumped at the chance to scout for unpublished games at Munich’s Internationale Spieleerfinder-Messe.
As an Australian whose “Deutsche ist nicht sehr gut, entschuldigung,” I was nervous.
Luckily, the community welcomed me across the language barrier with open arms. Dozens of authors were kind enough to walk me through their projects, which stretched the gamut from kinderspiele to hardcore gamer’s games.
As a scout, you’re faced with tons of cardboard and little plastic things and dice by the truckload, and somehow you need to figure out which game is the most interesting.
Here’s the catch: they’re all interesting, because you love board games. Such a crazy situation, right?
But this is daily life for every gamer on the planet. There’s plenty of stuff and it all looks awesome. For that reason, thinking about the humble scout is a good way to think about your market.
These tips are intended for new designers, so we’ll start with something very concrete.
Your game may not need dice
I get it.
Board games and dice are pretty much synonymous (just look at the last two images I’ve used). Dice are a kind of conceptual shorthand. How else do you know when a player’s turn has started? Plus they’re fun to roll! But your game may not need dice.
Your game may not need a lot of things.
Cards, miniatures, variable powers, all the beautiful tools and ideas that tabletop gaming has fostered – each should be carefully scrutinized before letting them into your game.
It’s not about throwing out the rule book, vainly attempting to reinvent the wheel. Get new rule books! Play everything you can, keep stretching those horizons, and you may find your game fits elsewhere in the tabletop universe.
Like, what are you trying to do with this game? Really?
Do that thing. Just do it.
Less is more (unique)
Remember those hundreds of other titles? Your game needs a hook, friend.
One common trap for new designers is to keep adding more features, searching for that point of difference in sheer quantity. This is a common intuition across the arts – look at all this interesting stuff!
In fact, the opposite is often true. By narrowing the focus and throwing out the baggage until nothing but your game remains, you’ll have something more distinctive.
With this approach, it’s possible to not only find that hook, but also sharpen it to a fine point.
Think of it like a Venn Diagram. As the circle of your game expands, the greater likelihood it overlaps the same terrain (solving the same design problems) as other games.
And what if you’re designing a glorious big box game drenched in small details? That’s fantastic – go for it! Just keep that precious, original idea at the beating heart.
You’re onto something
Absolutely every game I saw in Munich had a great idea at its core.
And that idea is rarely a mechanic. It’s often a feeling, a relationship between players, an affection for certain aesthetics – the cardboard and rules are just vehicles. So do you really need those hidden roles, that event deck? And if it’s a distraction, why do you keep reaching for it?
Maybe the ‘twist’ should become your main idea, and it’s time to change everything. This is fine as well.
As a designer, you might spend weeks, months or (sometimes) years getting it just right. You obviously have a lot of faith in the central idea, or you wouldn’t have invested so much time and effort.
So, when it’s time to show your prototype to others, let that idea shine. Make your goals explicit. Help people understand what you want to do.
Because you’re onto something great – you know it.
Life is a point salad
People find joy in a lot of different ways, and we’re not all pursuing the same things.
Some designers want fame and fortune. Some publishers want to painstakingly hand-craft every wooden piece in their own garage. It’s all good.
So what do you want from game design? Think about that. Write it down if possible. Now think about your dream publisher. What do they want?
These goals should at least be compatible – ideally, they’ll be in harmony, each supporting the other. If they aren’t, you may need to reconsider your ideal publisher. That wasn’t your dream after all!
From this point of view, the sting of ‘rejection’ can seem very different.
When a publisher decides this isn’t the game for them, they’re not deciding it’s a bad game. Often it’s simply heading in a different direction, and doesn’t match their own hopes and dreams.
This can feel like a failure, but in reality you’ve dodged a bullet.
Have you ever gone on a bad date? Now imagine that lasting for months and months…
The tide is rising (so pick a ship)
It can be tempting in these situations to feel defensive, to imagine you’re in competition with other creators. But the tide of tabletop gaming is rising, lifting everyone across the industry, and their success is also your success.
And the truth is you’re not competing for some all-powerful gatekeeper to publish your game or condemn it to obscurity.
That kind of gatekeeper is dead.
With the advent of crowdfunding, smaller publishers are more like partners or consultants on the project of your game, with particular areas of expertise and equally particular restraints.
It’s fine to aim your game towards a large company, but there are alternatives! If you make that decision, it’s time to start thinking like a small publisher. What do they want? What are they thinking about?
Spoiler: it’s Kickstarter. Here is a great resource to get you started.
See you in Munich next year!