Last updated June 2012

Wriggle Puzzle!

Before you start reading all this stuff about game design, do you like puzzles and own an iPhone or an iPod Touch? Have you heard of the new Wriggle puzzles? This $0.99 app will twist your brain in knots! Try it! Click here to learn more about it.

UPDATES TO THIS PAGE;

Because of great demand, this page has been translated into Belorussian (aka Belarusian). Yes, you heard me right. Check here to read the Belorussian translation.

LINKS
I moved all the manufacturing links information to a second page: click here to find out about; Game Manufacturers, Parts Manufacturers, Print-on-Demand manufacturers, China manufacturers and contacts, Distributors, and other Useful Sources of information.

If you are visiting this site from another site, please visit our home page, which offers a small selection of our own unusual games; Jolly Games. Enjoy!

For those of you just interested in Trademarks or Patents in the USA, go to the US Patent and Trademark Office for more info. For Copyright info, go to the Library of Congress site, which has all the forms and information you'll ever need to Copyright your game.

Another great source to train yourself on making or marketing your own game can be found in the excellent book from Kraus Publications entitled "Game Inventor's Guidebook", by Brian Tinsman. No, I don't get anything for listing this here, I was just impressed with the layout and information in the book. If you can't find it there, try Amazon.

Manufacturing or Marketing your own Game

I just added a sample Non-Disclosure Agreement and a sample Game Design Contract. For even more self-pulishing info, check out Discover Games. Lots of good reference material there.

The Big Question

I HAVE AN IDEA FOR A NEW BOARD GAME BUT HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO MARKET IT OR GET AN OPINION WHETHER OR NOT IT IS WORTH PURSUING. WOULD YOU TELL ME HOW?

The Answer

If you want to make the game yourself;

You can always pay someone else a bunch of money to do most of the work and make you 1000 or more finished, wrapped copies. You'll find links to some of these people on the LINKS page. Technology and world commerce have changed a LOT since the first time I wrote this article; Print-on-Demand, or just "POD" printers are popping up here and there, and can do very nice limited production runs of games for a reasonable price; 500 card games in full color tuck-boxes for $2.00 per unit, fully boxed games a bit more. China manufacturing is another option while I'll discuss a bit below. If you have a shoestring budget, here's a few helpful hints. For a first-time effort, don't print a heck of a lot of games; find out first if other people love it or not. My first print run of Wiz-War was 100 copies in zip-lock baggies; the counters were Xeroxed, the boards I hand-silkscreened myself and the cards were printed on cardstock that was cut by the printer into 2x3 inch cards. This was back in 1985, though, and much better, cheaper color printers for home use are now available, as are full-sheet self-adhesive labels, which would have made my job much easy and cheaper.

Mind you, there are much easier ways to do it nowadays. I'm just giving you a little history, like comparing black-and-white TV to streaming video on your iPad.

After my foray into the cheapest production techniques I could find, I had to move up to real components. One place to find printers for this is the Thomas Register, which any large library should have (it's also available on-line, but the on line version didn't used to have nearly the info that the book does; Thomas Register. It's a set of about 20 huge books of manufacturers in the US, and includes everything from chip-board box makers to card deck makers to game component makers. Pick one out, call them up, tell them what you're doing and ask what their minimums are; some card-deck makers won't go below 5000 decks, at a cost of about $1 a deck or more. Games like Trivial Pursuit don't use the same kind of cards, so would be cheaper, but obviously the deck is damned large in their case, too, but I imagine they have a printer that prints to thick cardstock, then cuts the cards out of the sheet and collates them...then again, they probably printed a few 100,000 of them, too.

My decks in Wiz-War were printed onto brown cardstock in black ink, 125 cards to a deck and weren't very durable. They still cost me about $1 a deck, and I had to sort them by hand, but I could also get away with printing only 500 at a time. Boxes cost me about $1.30 each, and were a 2-step process; first I had to have a printer make the wraps for the boxes, then the chip-board box maker had to make the boxes and glue the wrap sheets on. The minimums here were 1000. Naturally, I had to get sizing specs for the wrap-art before I could print it up. Some box makers do both the printing and the wrapping, so save a bit of coordination effort. With the current availability of cheap color printers, nowadays you can knock off 10 or 20 full color games just by printing on a full-sheet label or two, and wrapping it around a blank box. If you want to be fancy, you can even get a glossy clear laminate page to put over your box to protect the water-soluble inks. Both of these run about 30 cents each, blank white boxes (or brown) can vary a lot depending on size, but full-sheet labels won't fit around the big ones. The blank boxes I've bought in the past cost about 70 cents each.

Token sheets, if you use them, require a die to cut them out unless you force your buyer to do it by hand. Cards can use a cutting die, too, if you want them so they punch out of a sheet. Dies can vary wildly in price; I've paid as little as $200 and know they can go over $1000. Then you find a printer that does die-cutting and get him to print and cut your...oops, left a step out. After you print your tokens, if you use any, you have to have someone glue it onto cardboard, then you have to find someone who can die-cut cardboard. This is harder than it sounds. Token sheets end up costing about $1 each, too. Maybe, if you're lucky, you can find someone who prints onto thick chipboard. Good luck. Corner cutters to cut your decks or boards can cost quite a bit ($300 and up), and often don't do a very good job....the cut tends to drift if you are cutting a stack of cards. I guess if you shell out a LOT of money, you could get a good one.

Dice, if you use them, should cost you less than ten cents each. Plastic pawns should cost 2 or 3 cents each. Check under Game Components in the Thomas Register. Plastic chips (tiddlywink style) can cost as little as 1/2 cent each from places like Mr. Chips.

Whatever you do, if you put out a game yourself, be sure the artwork is good! Nothing will kill a game faster than bad artwork. Cartoony is okay, but even some cartoon quality is required to sell your product. Most people will never pick a game up off the shelf if it doesn't have a degree of professionalism about it. Artwork can cost quite a lot, but then, not selling any of your games can cost even more. Supposedly, your local college graphic-arts department is a good place to look for cheap talent, and students are grateful for the exposure.

NEWER TECHNOLOGY AND CHINA
Nowadays for limited print runs, made in the USA, you can talk to "Print-on-Demand" printers who will be happy to do very limited print runs at a very reasonable price. I talked to a couple of them at the 2007 Games Expo and got some idea on prices. For a full-color deck with rules and a full-color box with shrink wrap, and even a counter-display box, you can probably pay $2.00-$3.00 each for 500 units. Once the initial setup is done, you can usually get more done in smaller batches at the same price. The samples I saw were very professional looking and indistinguishable from normal card decks. If you want to keep costs down, you'd be somewhat limited on your choices of box size and deck size, since going with a cutting die that they already own is far, far cheaper than requesting a custom decks or box size. I'm told that they prefer their card-art as individual card PDFs which they put into their card-sheet graphics program.

If you want a complete boxed game (as few as 500), they can help you there, too, but they might sub-contract out some of the components that they don't make themselves. Doesn't hurt to ask them. I mention a couple on the Manufacturer's Page.

Likewise, you can get cheap games made in China. The toughest part is finding someone in China to talk to, or someone in America who will act as an agent for you. There are some other costs associated with dealing with China though that aren't all financial. Shipping and customs can cost you 10% of your wholesale cost from China to your warehouse. I'm also told that "unless it contains plastic, it's probably not profitable to do it in China". Paper costs a lot to ship. There's also quite often a 3 month lag-time from production to arrival in the US due to shipping, so the saying "slow boat from China" is not without merit. Also, you lack the ability to pop in and see production samples quickly, and there's always the language barrier. Dealing with an agent often ameliorates many of these problems, but I was told that if you want to deal directly with folks in China, you should expect to fly to Hong Kong at some point to talk to them or look at samples. That's $3000-$4000. But, all that being said, I do know someone who had his games done in China and got them with boxes, rules, boards, tokens, and shrink-wrapped for about $3 each including shipping. There are a few "China contacts" listed on the Manufacturer's Page, too. Chinese manufacturers will generally have minimums of 2000 or more games.

Some people are more comfortable getting their games done here in the US just because you can call them up at any time and discuss details and requirements. Shipping isn't expensive, and popping in to check the first print samples isn't nearly as expensive. So there are a lot of plusses to paying the premiums for that. Shop around, getting quotes from people doesn't cost you anything. Cheap printing isn't limited to just China; South Africa and other countries are getting into the game, and PODs have changed the environment.

CROWDFUNDING AND KICKSTARTER

Crowdfunding is when you put your project on a website requesting financial support, usually in exchange for product and bonusses. Hopefully, 1000 people pitch in $10 each, then you take all that money and go print your game. That's crowdfunding; getting lots of small "investors" who's primary interest is getting some product out of you. I'll expand this out later, but this is an awesome way to get funding for your game nowadays. Visit the Kickstarter website, check out some of the game projects there, and see what's needed to get started. I did one project there, so far, and it worked out very well for me (the Got It! card game).

There are other crowdfunding websites, too, like Indiegogo and Rocket Hub, but I haven't done anything with either one or researched them.

QUERY Letters and Getting a Publisher to Look at Your Game

There are two main steps you need to do before you send your game to a publisher; first, PLAYTEST the heck out of your prototype. If you don't even have a prototype, just an "idea", don't waste the publisher's time. They're only interested in a well-tested prototype. Next, if you don't intend to go to a convention and meet them in person, learn to write a decent query letter (email or paper) and send it to your prospective company. For God's sake, make it look professional. I can't tell you the number of letters I get riddled with blatant spelling and punctuation errors, most of which a "spell check" would catch. Or people that think it's cute to not use capital letters. If your English sucks, get someone else to read your query and edit it before you send it in. A crappy letter will doom you to anonymity faster than anything else in the whole world (except, perhaps, for beer, TV, and a comfortable couch).

You should probably realize that it's harder than heck to get anyone at all to buy a game unless you're already well known in the game design circles, which is obviously a Catch-22. Usually, if you're dealing with the big guys (and many of the small ones), you'll be expected to give a brief description of the game just to get them interested at all, and in enough detail that the company gets an idea WHY it's different from everything else on the market, and why it might do well. Of course, if you're just doing an add-on to someone else's game (say, a D&D module), then this isn't as important, but it also limits your market. Anyway, AFTER your "query letter" (here's a sample query) is sent to the company (or e-mail, in this case), the company would either send you a letter saying that they aren't interested, or they would send you a form to fill out (an NDA, or non-disclosure agreement) that says something like "...if we happen to be working on a game similar to yours right now, and we look at yours, and subsequently bring our own design out without giving you any credit, then you can't sue us...". Of course, there's a bit more legalese in their contract, but that's the gist of it. You, in turn, could, if you want, send them a non-disclosure form that says something like "you won't tell anyone about my game". Here's a sample NDA form. I've heard that it's not a good idea to do this (and I don't normally, myself), but if you feel nervous about the propriety of your idea, you could do it. Some people think this brands you as a "beginner" though, and they could be correct.

Beyond the query letter, the best way to sell your game to a game manufacturer is to take it to a big game convention or toy show. These are all over the country at various times of the year, I leave it to you to do the web search; Origins and Gencon are the two biggest in the USA, and Essen, Germany has Der Spiel, the world's largest (140,000+) show at the Messe convention center in October. Anyway, once you get to a show carrying a NICE looking prototype (don't walk in there with hand-written cards), go up to a manufacturer/dealer that looks like they'd make the thing that you designed. Target your market! Then, ask to talk to whoever looks at new designs. Usually, someone will be there. Arrange a 10 minute appointment sometime during the day or evening to show them your game. You should be ready to give them a 1 minute "concept" pitch right on the spot to spark their interest a little bit when you meet them. So you're standing at their dealer's table (pick a slow time, not when they're busy!) and their main playtester comes over to talk to you; you say, "Do you folks take game submissions outside your company?" They will either brush you off immediately or set up an appointment, or ask to "have a seat" and look it over on the spot. Then, they might take it from you right then if they like it, or ask you to formally submit it to them. If you've gotten that far, then there's a good chance it will see print. You might want to have an NDA handy when you sit down with them. (Actually, I've been told by another designer that this is a BAD idea, and I personally never do it myself, so do whatever makes you comfortable.)

Keep in mind when you are trying to sell a game that manufacturers are looking at component costs as they look at your game. Excessive numbers of components mean an expensive game to produce. When designing, try to think of ways to reduce your component count. This is obviously not always true; some games have huge numbers of components (like Axis and Allies) and do quite well, but this is due in part to the size of the company you are dealing with. Milton Bradley, Ideal, and Parker Brothers never go to game conventions (to my knowledge).

Finding a manufacturer is pretty simple; go look at Board Game Geek's listing of publishers on their web site, pick one that makes a line that would benefit by having your game in it, and go to that company's web site. Look up their submission requirements and submit your query and your game based on what they say. If they don't have any submissions requirements, send a polite and professional email asking them if they look at outside submissions (following the same query letter format). Once again, make it look professional, be polite and watch your spelling. You only have one chance to make a good impression, and crappy English isn't going to impress anyone.

Game Theft; I wrote an article for an on-line magazine (Games Journal) about the subject of "corporate game theft", in that I designed two "unique" games with unique game mechanics, and Ideal came out with games or puzzles based on EXACTLY the same concepts shortly after I designed or published both. However, both were verifiable coincidence. Since then, I've seen the same thing happen a half-dozen times to other companies, very strange when viewed from the inside of the industry, suspicious looking when viewed from the outside. There's an incredible amount of apparently coincidental game development occuring out there, partly due to the fact that new games build on concepts from old games. For example, collectable dice games weren't a "great idea", they were an inevitable evolution from CCG's, which is why 2 companies (Gamesmiths and TSR) came out with them the same month.

Not that I'm trying to sound discouraging, there are always great new games popping up out there, and sometimes I just shake my head and ask "why didn't I think of that?" Where was I....yeah, you get this non-disclosure agreement, and if you sign it, you send it in to the company with a good prototype that they play a few times, then reject with a nice letter telling you why they aren't interested (I have a lot of those) or a contract proposal (I have very few of those). Depending upon who you are dealing with, IF they are interested, then they will offer you a royalty of somewhere between 2% and 5% of retail sales (or 7-8% of gross), and perhaps an advance of some negotiable amount against future royalties. This may not seem like a lot, but trust me, profit margins in the game industry are very, very tight on small to medium production runs (2000 to 20000), and 2% is generous for some companies. If your game sells 20,000 copies, you can consider it a moderate success, but you won't make much money.

Another thing that will slow you down is the fact that most game companies (including myself) have a backlog of games they want to publish, and in-house game designers, so most of them aren't looking for new submissions at all. This, of course, means they miss out on a lot of neat new ideas and fresh blood, but it also means they don't have to hassle with royalties and legal issues of ownership, copyright, and "stealing ideas", so you can sort of see that viewpoint, too. Which is why you might end up publishing your game yourself.

THE DANGERS OF CONTRACT NEGOTIATION; Oddly, this is one of the touchiest parts of game making/selling. I only know a lot about this because I've had a lot of really bad contracts. It's always a good idea to get some kind of cash up front, call it an advance or "kill fee" in case they decide not to publish it. Also, put in a limited time for publication wherein the game rights will revert to you if the game doesn't get published, 2 years is quite reasonable, I have contracts that range from 18 months to 7 years. If you go with nothing but royalties, there's a good chance you'll get nothing, because the game may never go to market (this happens a lot).

Another thing to look out for is if a company wants the rights "for XX years after the first print run." This technically gives them the rights to your game forever if they decide not to print it, unless you add a kill-date for the expiration of the contract. I recently got hosed on these contract terms, so be careful!

I was recently given some very good advice from another designer who I will leave unnamed here, since I didn't ask him if I could quote him. He said it's a good idea to sell either North American rights, or European rights, but not both to any one company. This is partly because if you sell all rights to one company, then they might license out to another company, and you won't get a royalty, but rather, a percentage of a licensing fee, if you wrote this into your contract. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though...it means you only have to deal with one company and they have to go through the legal hassle of making sure the other company pays them. Doing the footwork to cut deals with foreign companies is not a cheap or easy process. Licensing fee percentages can vary anywhere from 10 to 50%, depending on expected sales and other factors (like your negotiating skills). Since most companies have no intention of licensing out the game, a 25-30% licensing fee is no big deal for them; it's a percentage they'll never have to pay out.

One of the hazards of working with these licensing fees is when companies have "partnered" with each other. This can mean a few different things. The one thing to be careful of is if, say, an American company and a foreign company both own different properties that each wishes to license from the other, and they arrange a "swap" of licenses at well-below market prices so as to cut out the substantial royalty a designer might get out of a legitimate license fee. To my knowledge, this has never happened to me (I'm all ears if you have a story to tell, though). So if this concerns you, you might consider disallowing sublicensing, or only offering the company local rights. Much of this depends on your leverage, of course, and your level of trust.

To go into more detail, let's say you sell your game to Jolly Games, and we offer you a 5% royalty against wholesale sales (or 2% against retail, minus freebies given out for promo), AND if we license out the game to some other company, we pay you 50% of the money we collect as a license fee. Naturally, this means you get no royalty from this other company. This is negotiable, as is any contract. You could stipulate that Jolly Games, if sublicensing to another company, require that company to pay, say, 2% royalty directly to the designer from *their* sales, thus circumventing Jolly Games (though Jolly Games would still collect some license fee for themselves). This is a pretty good way to go if you can do it. You'll also want a cut of the action for licensing any other products as a result of your invention, if you think it's that great an idea. By this I mean stuff like t-shirts, posters, movies, and the like (Pokemon is a good example for this).

Furthermore, let's say Jolly Games offers you a $1000 advance against sales (that is, this counts as your first $1000 of royalty payments when it gets published), but you, being a wise and savvy contract negotiator, insist that the "advance against sales" be paid immediately upon initiation of the contract, and that the advance will act as a kill fee if the game is not produced within 2 or 3 years, and that the rights revert back to you in case this happens.

Some of the larger companies will offer you a canned contract; you can argue some of the details, like percentages, but generally the terms of the contract will be pretty fixed, that is, a "form" contract. You won't have much luck dealing details on a contract like this. One of my favorite stories is with a company that offered me a very decent royalty (like, 5% of retail) verbally, but by the time the contract was initiated a year later, the company had grown so much, that when I got the contract in my hands, the royalty had magically decreased to 2% of net!! When I asked them about this humongous change, the response was "well, we're a lot bigger now, so we figure with the increased sales potential, you'll realize the same overall royalty." Huh? I couldn't believe my eyes when I read this!

The same game subsequently was offered to another company that didn't pay the advance on the royalty (even after the contract was signed) because they said they weren't sure if they'd produce it or not, so since there may not be any royalty, they weren't going to pay an advance. Yeah, I couldn't figure that one out, either. This tied the game up for another year and a half.

Fortunately, the game finally made it out 2 years later as "Drakon", under Fantasy Flight Games' banner, who did a very nice job of it. Be sure to buy a copy the first chance you get, it's a great little game (shameless sales pitch).

Okay, back to your negotiation process. Naturally, in amongst all your finagling, you should realize that if you insist on too much, the company will just dump you and find some more reasonable person to deal with. You should probably be pretty flexible with your first game sale, and take what they offer if it's reasonable at all, just to get your name in print. Oh yeah....be sure your name goes on the box or on the rules somewhere! Some people actually notice these things.

If you go with a software version of your game, heaven help you, there are so many loopholes in software contracts to plug, it's a seemingly impossible task. Here's a horror story; I used to have a contract with one company that said they write the software and put it on-line, and I get paid by the number of hours people play it, as a percentage of the money they pay to play. This all seems reasonable until the game goes on-line for free. Free? How can they make money from that? Simple, they put advertising on it, and also use it as a hook for their pay-and-play games to bring in customers. The contract wording is just ambiguous enough to make this practice very questionable, but the bottom line is I don't get paid anything.

How do you cover yourself for this? It's hard to guess what the computer industry will do next, when I signed the aforementioned contract, advertising banners were not considered a viable source of income (DOS times, pre WIN95). Still, try to imagine ALL sources of income that the game can produce, figure out a way to calculate that figure, then ask for a percentage of that. Actually, that's what I thought I was doing, but got caught by modern times. Possibly sources of income include sublicensing to other on-line companies, secondary market products, advertising income, "hook" use of the game for other marketables, sale of the game as a stand-alone product, etc, etc. Use your imagination.

Probably the best way to handle it is this; get some cash up front, and an annual fee for every year the game is on-line, and a lump sum if the game is published as a stand-alone. Everything else is frills. If you base your payment on sales quantities, sure enough someone is going to make it freeware with advertising sales. Make the contract as cut-and-dried as possible, no room for arguments and no questionable phraseology. Here's a sample Game Design Contract.

Good luck. Hope this helps.

Tom Jolly