Looking for a career in Board Games Inventing: Don’t expect it to be easy!
Inventing board games is a tough gig, even for those who are highly experienced and expert and with a portfolio of previous successful games behind them. Very few people come up with one game & then make it big. Of course, there are some famous examples of people making it with their first game release – for example I was lucky enough to meet Leslie Scott, the inventor of Jenga, at an industry event a few years back. I read her book ‘About Jenga’ after meeting her, and although she made it big with her first game it was not plain sailing. Moreover, for every story like Leslie’s, there are thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people out there making no traction whatsoever with their first game.
The following tips may help you to bring the next breakout hit game to market.
Board Games Inventors: The Top 10 tips for bringing board games to market
1. Inventing games is the easy part - selling them is the difficult part!
This is by far the most fundamental point in this article - anyone can develop a board game, and if you playtest it enough, you will eventually produce something that is fun to play. The bottom line though is that if you want to achieve commercial success as a games originator, you are in the business of selling (whether you like it or not). There are so many games out there, so you are choosing to enter a very competitive market. No board games company out there is desperately in need of a new inventor to speak to.
This is not like selling hand sanitiser at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when it was a seller’s market, it is more like selling hand sanitiser now when every store can source as much hand sanitiser as they want – in other words the ‘dice’ are loaded against you! The way you win as a games inventor is in constantly developing & improving your ability to sell your games. If you want to create cool games for you & your family to play that is fine, you can just focus on creating cool stuff, but if you want to get thousands or even millions of people to play your games you need first and foremost to be skilled and effective at selling!
2. Be clear on your preferred business model
There are a few different business models for bringing a game to market:
It won’t feel like it, but this is the easiest model. In essence you hand over your game to someone else who invests the necessary time, relationships & capital to bring your game to market, and in the process, they may achieve a net 10% profit for themselves if they are doing well. For the inventor under this model, the payable royalty would normally be between 3 to 7% depending on the company and the deal parameters. This may not sound like much to the uninitiated, but the games company you license this game to will not make much more than this in profit despite cash flowing the inventory purchase, marketing and organisational overheads required. For those lacking in business acumen, Licensing would be the safer approach normally, although you will still have to push like crazy to place your game under license due to the sheer volume of games on offer. By way of context, a small games company may look at 100+ games each year, and the biggest in the industry may review as many as 2,000, so frankly the odds are against you statistically speaking.
b) Self-publishing to trade
Self-publishing is an option for those who are willing to become ‘founders’ and go on a crazy start up business journey. This most often results in failure, but if this approach is right for you, you will probably read that the odds are against you & relish the chance to prove the doubters wrong!
Just beware of ordering inventory before you have an accurate read on demand, excess inventory kills companies, and many start up founders end up with a garage full of games!
You can choose to sell to retailers and/or to distributors. Often companies will try to sell direct to retail in their home market & then sell internationally via a network of distributors. Building these networks and achieving retail listings can take years, so be prepared for a long hard, grinding process to build up your distribution.
c) Self-publishing direct to consumer
I have seen many companies achieve success by cutting out the traditional gatekeepers & middlemen and going direct to consumer. Arguably Amazon can be as much a direct-to-consumer platform as it is a retail business, and with Amazon accounting for 20-30% of the total market in some countries, many of my clients take an Amazon first and foremost approach. Be aware though of course that those who achieve success via Amazon & other direct channels tend to be ‘techie’ at heart to manage the algorithms & systems of Amazon and other platforms.
An additional approach to direct to consumer is crowd funding – it is no coincidence that some of the best-selling games of the last decade have come via Kickstarter or Indiegogo, Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens and several more have achieved major success via crowd funding. Like all distribution channels there are challenges with this approach, but there are many more ways around the traditional distribution system than there used to be, which has certainly increased the breadth and variety of games on the market.
3. Theme or topic can be more critical than gameplay
There are thousands of games out there which are well constructed and fun to play. But the commercially successful games have more than just good gameplay. They tend to have a theme, topic or relevance to a major trend. Those board games inventors who develop themes & ideas first and gameplay 2nd sometimes achieve the highest sales volumes!
4. How to present your game to sell
In a world where either board games company inventor liaison folks or retail buyers are looking at hundreds or even thousands of games, you need to be able to quickly present the general theme/topic of your game, give a quick but compelling overview of how the game actually works, and most critically you should also be able to explain the competitive advantage or difference between your game and all the very many others out there in the market.
5. Let the buyer win the game
We all like to win the games we play, so if you want to sell your game you may want to stack the deck or the gameplay so that the buyer wins the game. It’s basic psychology in action, a buyer is more likely to respond well to a game which they enjoy & which they are good at than one which they are bad at!
6. Be prolific – High Quality x High Quantity
The basic formula for success for games inventors can be expressed as simply as this:
quality x quantity. High quality concepts, high quality sales pitch, high quality of strategic thinking about the games market multiplied by a prolific quantity of games, customer meetings, presentations and trade shows. There is no secret formula or action out there that offers better chance of success than the quantity x quality formula.
7. Visit key trade shows
Trade shows are key selling opportunities for board games inventors. Many deals get done at shows. You can loosely divide the games companies into two categories – firstly are those companies big enough to have inventor liaison executives, these people are highly experienced and tend to know more about what games are doing the rounds than anyone. I remember talking to an industry legend who was retiring from an inventor liaison role at one of the major toy/game companies, he told me that he had viewed something like 25,000 board games concepts in his career. So, this type of person/company will have huge knowledge, but also tends to be a little jaded due to the volume of stuff they see, they are often a great resource for you to ask questions about what’s out there and what’s hot or not, but are inherently not that likely to be super excited by what you present to them! Smaller companies on the other hand may have you meeting with their head of R&D, games editors (especially in Germany), key commercial people or even the company owner or managing director. These meetings will tend to be more rushed and more interrupted, but you are often meeting directly with the key decision makers.
Either way for both groups, trade shows are a great opportunity to meet the right people to place your games. I have been visiting Hall 10.0 & 10.1 at Spielwarenmesse in Jan/Feb since around the turn of the millennium, I have found no better place to get games business done than this. The great and the good of the board games business are here, as well as in Hall 12 & other Halls. So key tip number 7 would be to visit Spielwarenmesse, but make sure to book as many meetings in advance as you can, because diaries get very full at the show, so prepare for success & book meetings in advance.
8. Creative collaborations can lead to greater success
It is quite common for established and successful professionals to team up with other peers in order to collaborate on a particular project or with a view to creating something unique together. Sometimes people with similar strengths come together, but often people coming at the games business from a different perspective produce the most successful output.
9. Consider working with a Licensing Agent
If all else fails, and you are finding it too hard to place your games, there are several inventor agents out there specialising in the board games category. If you Google ‘board games licensing agent’ you should come across a few of the right type of people. Be aware though that licensing agents typically take 40-50% of the royalties on the basis that selling represents at least half of the work.
10. Keep on keeping on
The only other obvious but correct suggestion is to just keep persisting. It takes years to build distribution, it takes time to sell in our industry. Success is measured over multiple years, not just in a few weeks or months. We have an annual selling cycle, so one approach you could take is to turn up every year for the key events such as Spielwarenmesse, and to focus on your day job for the rest of the year. If you just keep on coming back, you may well achieve better results than you would by going full in for a briefer period of time. We all wish things could move faster in our industry sometimes, but be realistic and prepare for a long journey, and you are more likely to win…in the end!
As a final point to wrap this article up, for me, inventors bring freshness and progress via innovation to the board games business, and this would be a dull product universe without you!