Spielwarenmesse: Turning a board game into a bestseller

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Gesellschaftsspiele und Brettspiele
  Movers & shakers

Movers & shakers

Turning a board game into a bestseller

from Peter Neugebauer

Even games without technology can still be loads of fun. In spite of the digitisation and video game trends, tabletop games are still a stable segment in the toy industry. Games publishers have to keep finding different concepts for new games. The success of these then rests on several factors.

With analogue games as well, the young and old can immerse themselves in themed experiences on a board, with dice and cards. Each year, hundreds of new products vie for public favour, across international boundaries now as well, e.g. within the US and UK. The desire for non-screen-based play makes games a popular pastime.

How does a tabletop game come about?

There is no official apprenticeship for designers of tabletop games. Nevertheless, there is a small band of creatives who earn their bread as board and card game designers. Besides these, there are also a number of part-time inventors who develop ideas for games and work with publishers to make them marketable when not at their day jobs. It must already be clear at this point that productive cooperation is needed between the designer and publisher to get a tabletop game ready for market.

There are basically two main approaches when developing a new game. Either a designer develops an idea and presents it to a games publisher or the publisher has its own ideas, usually based on themes, which it then commissions one or more designers to develop.

Designers are especially likely to arrange to meet publishers at trade fairs, such as the Spielwarenmesse, which is held in February and even boasts its own GamesCafé for interactions. All established publishers have editors on the team with experience in games. At such meetings, game prototypes are presented and an initial decision taken. The editors may accept an idea for a game and be interested in testing it further, obviously with the goal of publishing the game. Or a game is already rejected at this initial presentation if the editor feels that the game mechanism, abundance of materials or overall theme is not suitable. The accepted prototypes are then played with among the editorial team and developed further if they prove interesting.

This is a fruitful and exciting process which usually lasts several months. The designers are big on the creative side, while the editors have to keep an eye on what is feasible. If this cooperation succeeds, a new game results.


The cooperation between me as a designer and an editor as the representative of the publisher is a necessary process. As a designer, I live in my own world. The editor has a completely different responsibility in terms of the marketing. Often it is the publishing editors who rein in game ideas, both in terms of materials and the ‘jumble of rules’. Here, less is also more.

Michael Rieneck, a successful German game designer

When is a game successful?

Publishers are businesses and have to generate revenue. So it makes sense to measure new games by how well they sell. But curiously, if you measure the success of a game by whether it is sold frequently enough, then the good games are not necessarily always successful. Time and again, reviewers praise games to the high heavens that then fail to catch on with the public. These titles disappear again quickly from the market and may even have vanished from the publisher's catalogue after a year or two.

On the other hand, reviewers can also influence the market, especially if a game wins a critics’ prize. In Germany the most coveted award is the “Spiel des Jahres” (German for “Game of the Year") trophy because the industry knows that winning this can boost sales of a game by a factor of 20 or 30. Such a boom may last for two or three years, or sometimes even for decades as with winners such as Scotland Yard, Catan and Carcassonne.

However, word of mouth advertising is the most important criterion for consumers. People who have enjoyed playing a game often then go out and buy it. They then introduce the new game to their friends and acquaintances. And so a multiplier effect takes hold. The side effect of this is a phenomenon that should not be ignored. In such cases, the new buyers usually do not have to study the rules of the game. Having to read and understand rules, a difficult hurdle for many, is usually a given when becoming familiar with a game. Phase 10 is one of the games that proves this observation.

Watch out for the game duration

Ravensburger: Krazy Wordz
Ravensburger: Krazy Wordz

Notwithstanding this, there are standardised criteria for what makes a good game. First off, a game should not last too long. Campaigns that go on for hours without a properly defined end are a thing of the past. A game should end within around 60 minutes. If it has gone down well, the group can start playing it again straight away. The interaction aspect is major. What you do should always affect how the other players act. The players then have to concentrate all the time on what is going on in the game, and do not feel like they are having to wait around a lot.

Ultimately, the setup should make it difficult to tell who is going to win for as long as possible. This keeps things exciting and the players have to stay at the table, watching everything that is going on. Nothing is worse than the ultimate winner being telegraphed well in advance.

It is also essential that the graphical representation of the game in particular be of a high standard. There are now some really attractive scenarios for players to immerse themselves in and forget about everyday life. This is ultimately the main objective of good games. Haim Sharif, the designer of such entertaining games as Halli Galli, gets to the heart of this when he summarises: “I am passionate about spreading joy and I achieve this when I invent games.” This is not the worst springboard for developing new, good games.

Which current games are popular?

Pandemic Legacy
Pandemic Legacy

Besides the classics already referred to in the publishers’ ranges and other enduringly familiar titles such as Monopoly, Memory, Rummikub, and the like, there are a few unmistakeable trends at the moment which meet the described criteria. More and more games, known as “micro-games”, are emerging in the card game segment. Love Letter, for example, provided some initial impetus. With just a handful of cards, maybe 15 to 30, a range of game rhythms can be tested.

Beasty Bar, Tides of Time and the underestimated but very smart (as it is unfortunately considered abstract) Kobayakawa are all part of this. Designer Michael Rieneck revealed that he will also publish a cunning and tricky game in this genre in the autumn, proving that he is in tune with the zeitgeist.

On top of this, new kinds of communicative games with the occasional touch of creativity or cooperation are enjoying a great deal of popularity at the moment. Four years ago, Andor opened up a whole new fantasy world in which players must group together to vanquish the menacing game system. Pandemic Legacy, just nominated for the “Kennerspiel des Jahres” (German for “Expert Game of the Year”), uses the idea of a pandemic, with the players having to stop epidemics spreading around the world. Pandemic Legacy also continues the fundamental idea by having the same group of players repeatedly facing the same threat but having to take into account the decisions taken in earlier campaigns.

Another tricky customer is Codenames, also a current “Spiel des Jahres” nominee. Two teams compete to uncover codenames in a mixed pool of agents. And finally, everyone who likes creative play will enjoy coming up with really crazily creative words yielding very particular associations in the game Krazy Wordz. There are lots of new tabletop games, several of which are not only bang on trend but also highly recommended.

The idea for a new game is ready for the market, now measures for the proper marketing need to be taken. Learn in the second part, how games publishers are placing newest game ideas on the market successfully, evev with low marketing budget.


Author of this article:

Peter Neugebauer

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