To some, the idea of publishing can sound daunting, while others might be excited to explore a new realm of experiences. Whichever side you find yourself on, you may not fully understand the extents you must go to in order to achieve your goal. There are multiple paths to choose from, so knowing your options is a great first step in the right direction.
A few (but not all) of your options are:
- Short-run self-publish
- Mass-market self-publish
- Print & Play
- A mix of these choices
Many factors come in to play when first trying to decide between these options, but some of the most important are:
- End goal
But before you ever reach these choices, you need a game!
Now, a quick Google search will bring you to a smorgasbord of articles heavily dedicated to the subject of “How to make a board game,” so I’ll save you the redundancy. However, if you have not yet familiarized yourself with the development process of designing your own board game, then use this article for future planning, and save it to review once you’ve reached the point of deciding how you wish to publish.
Now, let’s review your options and how they correlate to your factors.
Financing: This is one of the most, if not “the” most, important factor in deciding to publish your own game. Without financing, your board game can never transition from thought to print. Whether that financing comes from your own pocket, investors, crowdfunding backers, gifts from family and friends, or robbing a bank (I do not condone this method) it is impossible to move forward without it.
Motivation: No, I don’t mean your desire to publish. I mean the reason you want to publish. Are you just looking to get a few of your game concepts out into the field and build a name for yourself as a designer, or are you looking to start your own product line to sell through retail and wholesale channels? You have a few different paths you can take, depending on your answer.
End Goal: While this may overlap with motivation, it’s still important enough to address on its own. Some designers prefer to stay out of the business side of publishing, while others dive right in. You should address your end goal from the very start, because it will define the blueprint you need to get started.
Now let’s look at our options:
Short-run self-publishing: This is potentially the simplest of the self-publishing options. Companies like The Game Crafter, Board Games Maker, and Print & Play Games cater to short-run self-publishing here in the United States, offering excellent quality and the expense of… well, expense. They are not as cost effective as mass-producing your game in a dedicated overseas facility, but they can help you avoid many of the large upfront costs needed to publish your first game.
Let’s say your expendable cash is non-existent, but you’ve managed to scrounge together enough money to pay a generous artist to produce the artwork for your game. Or, perhaps you are blessed with artistic talent and your game is now print-ready. Congrats! A company like The Game Crafter provides you an option to begin selling your game without stocking or storing large quantities of it in your spare closet. Simply upload your art, order a printed proof, and within a couple of weeks you’re ready to start promoting your game for sale. Hurray! The largest caveat to using this method is that the cost of printing (aka: your overhead) is high, so your profit per item will be low, despite charging a premium when compared to similar size games produced using Mass-market self-publishing. That’s a segway!
Mass-market self-publishing: This method involves contracting with a manufacturer (typically overseas) that specializes in board games. Companies like Panda and Admagic have representatives in the United States who help facilitate the process, breaking down language barriers, but they charge a much higher rate due to their involvement. Speaking directly to companies like Whatz Games and Mojang can save you quite a bit of money, but it does involve some careful communication and a bit of acceptance for minor mistakes. In full disclosure, I often print with Whatz Games, and their final product is always top-notch.
You’ll need to be a registered business, but a simple DBA (doing business as) will do just fine. This method will have you wearing the hat of not just a board game designer, but of a quote negotiator as well as an international importer. You will be requesting quotes from manufacturers to find the best deal. Then, you’ll be requesting freight quotes to have your game shipped by sea or air. Unless your game is smaller than a standard deck of cards, the cost of air shipment is many times what you will pay by sea. The benefit to air is how quick it will arrive, since most freight by sea can take 30–60 days or more depending on circumstances.
Falling back to the subject of financing, this method requires a lot. Most manufacturers have a minimum of 1,000 units to be produced, although you might find some of the more competitive newer manufacturers willing to allow 500 to earn your business. I find it hard to recommend less than 1,000 units, since that is where you really start to benefit from quantity discounts. This cost will be a quarter of what companies like The Game Crafter can offer for similar quantities. But even if your game only costs $4.00 per unit to produce, that adds up to $4,000 for 1,000 units, plus additional fees for boxing, securing to a pallet, and delivering to the docks to prepare for freight.
Speaking of freight, it is definitely a major contributor to overhead. When I produced my first game in 2019, the cost to move 1,000 units set me back nearly a grand, plus customs fees. Today, that same quote is over double! The sea freight industry has been a mess for some time. From cargo ship backups, dock delays, and issues due to Covid-19, we’ve been experiencing some of the highest shipping rates in decades, with little sign of costs returning to normal. I know, normal is subjective, but it is difficult to swallow paying double, or in some instances triple, the cost of your initial production. Ranting aside, these items all add up to what you will eventually call the real “cost” of your game.
Now, let’s once again say your expendable cash is non-existent, but you’ve managed to put together a complete game. If you don’t have the financial standing to support the costs involved with producing a game, then you are exactly in my shoes. When I released my first game, Beasts: Edge of Extinction, I was barely supporting myself, let alone a game production. Despite this, I somehow scrounged together the money to pay Alisha Volkman to produce some fantastic art, while I used my own graphic design skills to put it all together into a neat little package.
But how did I afford to go from barely supporting myself to having a pallet of games delivered to my doorstep? Crowdfunding! I took a chance and created a campaign on Kickstarter that, thankfully, funded successfully on the first try. This was not without effort, however, as I had spent the last year and a half wearing yet another hat in marketing and advertising. I placed ads on social media, printed dozens of pre-production copies through The Game Crafter to send to game previewers to produce videos, and I showed off my game at popular gaming conventions. However, I did not properly plan for all of these expenses, and set myself back nearly $7,000 in credit card debt before I ever even started my campaign.
Unless you’re in a great financial state (which I was not,) you’re probably saying to yourself “wait, that’s a lot of money!” and you’re right, it is. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been more meticulous with my finances. Thankfully, in the years since that first campaign, sales of Beasts: Edge of Extinction have provided a fair amount of profit. Failing to create a proper financial plan from the start became a hard pill to swallow. I learned my lesson for you, so hopefully you don’t need to experience the same shock.
This story wasn’t an attempt to persuade you away from crowdfunding, as I’ve had two additional successful campaigns since and will continue to use it for upcoming projects. However, it was a warning that unless you’re ready, willing, and most importantly “capable” of wearing the hats of multiple job positions on your own, then things can easily get away from you.
Let’s review all those hats again:
- Game designer
- Print buyer
- Quote negotiator
- International importer
- Marketing / Advertiser
That’s a lot of hats! Honestly, I probably could have broken this down further, as some jobs sit in-between the lines of these categories. But you get the picture, I hope.
Licensing: In contrast to mass-market or even short-run self-publishing, this is certainly the simplest, but not the easiest option. Confused? Let me explain. Licensing is essentially leasing your game concept to another company to produce, and they pay you a percentage based on the number of items produced. This usually involves little-to-no additional work on your behalf, other than hiring a lawyer to review your contract and ensure you regain your rights to the intellectual property when the terms conclude. Better yet, most publishers prefer to use (and maintain the rights to) their own art, so you can typically get away with using concept art in your pitches instead of paying an artist.
Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “this sounds great!” and it is, in a way. You can spend your time focusing on designing games, and not on wearing 6+ other hats. So what’s the catch? Well, you’ll only be paid an average of 5% of the MSRP they sell your game at, and typically only when they sell. That means that unless your game is the next Wingspan, you’ll get small checks (or likely bank transfers) every month. Of course, this varies based on the publisher, but it is a good starting point to understand what financial gains you can expect from your intellectual property.
In addition, publishers hear pitches from aspiring game designers on a daily basis. I personally know more designers who have never received a licensing offer, despite countless pitches for really innovative games (Bloodrunes comes to mind) than the contrary. Even though the board game industry is small, it is very competitive, and unless you still have a bit of emphasis on wearing a marketing hat to make your pitch stand out, it may get overlooked.
Digital: This is a realm I am personally yet to dive into. Not for lack of desire, but yet again, lack of financing. The thought of bringing Beasts: Edge of Extinction to the app marketplace is very enticing. But so far, my inquiries into companies offering to facilitate such a development have quoted in 5-figures. Something my little indie publishing company, Riftway Games, just cannot afford.
Does this mean you shouldn’t go this route? Of course not! If you have the financing to support the development and advertising needed to keep it going, then you’re 90% closer to succeeding than most (including myself) reading this article. Keep in mind, these expenses are continuous, and as seen with the defunct RWBY deck building app, when it is no longer profitable, it will disappear, unlike a physical card game.
Print & Play: Last but certainly not least, print & play games are extremely popular, especially for gamers on a budget or in remote locations with limited access to games. Your main overhead is the cost of artwork (unless you do it yourself) and marketing if you plan to sell it.
If you just want to get your game out there and don’t care about making money from it, sites like PnP Paradise offer you a built-in community of print & play gamers who are dedicated to the craft. If you are hoping to monetize on your creation (and I fully support this route) then PnP Arcade is a popular site that will display your print & play game alongside numerous others for a reasonable profit share.
Some very popular games started as print & plays: Secret Hitler, Sprawlopolis, and Black Sonata, to name a few. Some designers use the success of their print & plays to justify a traditional short-run or mass-market print production.
Conclusion: It’s up to you to decide which route is best for your project, but I hope these brief incites mixed with my own personal experiences can help guide you on your journey to game publishing.
The views and opinions expressed within this article are that of my own, and only that, views and opinions. I do not guarantee any information to be accurate or factual at the time of reading.