Kira is still on board for the rest of the year, keeping an eye on the marketing for us, but the biggest thank you I have to send out to Dan Halstad. Before starting the process Daniel and I knew we needed a project manager to keep eyes on everything. Simply put, neither of us are super organised nor detail focussed. Dan is an auditor by trade, so that covered those concerns. Seriously, without Dan Bloom Town wouldn’t have happened. This just goes to show that games are built by teams, and none of us are superheroes. Teams with diverse skill sets. And even so, sometimes the closest to a superhero is still the person no one would normally have credited.
Thankfully we are all Sidekicks here.
Asger & Daniel are two boardgame designers from Copenhagen. Neither of them are superheroes, yet both of them are sidekicks... On this blog they catalogue their designer diaries. There will be overall process oriented diaries, and there will be nitty gritty game design component fetischist focussed diaries. If any of this sounds interesting to you, subscribe. As of October 2017 the following games are either released, or to be released very soon: A Tale of Pirates, Panic Mansion, Iron Curtain, Gold Fever, Flamme Rouge, Frogriders, 13 Days, 13 Minutes and Ramasjang Rally. And then there are all the 2018 and 2019 titles we are forgetting or cannot disclose... :P
23 Oct 2019
- [+] Dice rolls
Early on we landed an exclusive deal for US, where the game is carried at WALMART.COM. It was an opportunity too good to pass on for a completely new publisher, and we jumped at it.
However, if you want an international hit (and who doesn’t!?), we knew we had to reach out to publishers and offer our game for their markets. Thus, for the first time since Daniel & I started attending Spiel Essen, we will NOT be pitching any new designs to publishers. Instead we will be holding close to 30 meetings with companies from all over the world, trying to make some of them future partners.Find us in hall 5-F106. We'd love to say hi.
This is overall very new for us, but not that far off from when I used to work in distribution. Back then I sat on the other side of the table, looking for titles we should localise into the Nordic market.
Come 2020 we will be pitching games again, but it does go to show that despite our knowledge of the industry, and experience in it, we still vastly underestimated the MANY minor tasks that just keep piling up.
Probably highest on the list of unexpected time sinks, is our decision to have a small booth at Spiel Essen this month (Hall 5-F106). Suddenly there are German VAT rules, extra logistics, layout and decoration of the booth needs to be planned out and acquired. Staff needs to be found, preferably a few that speaks German. Staff plans need to be made, policies for review copies, storing of cash, credit card acceptance and much, much more…
And still, I am certain we will forget something important!
On the other hand I am also terribly excited to be standing at Spiel presenting our game, where we took it from cradle to triumph
- [+] Dice rolls
21 Oct 2019
As a new publisher there are a thousand things to think about, that we haven’t previously had the responsibility for. Probably top of the list is how to handle marketing, as expecting a game to sell without any online presence, seems naive at best. Thousands of games are published a year, and 95% of them drown without ever getting the attention they deserve.
Problem is that I can join a 6 hour playtesting session and get out of it, without so much as a picture. Though Daniel is slightly better, he still has to fight his basic nature to focus on it. Knowing that this task was definitely something that fell far outside our own skill set, we immediately started scouting for someone to handle this.We considered attaching the logo to the street but decided to go with a more classic placement to increase legibility and recognition on a shelf.
Thankfully we had already become acquainted with Kira A. Peavley when she still worked with Kolossal, and we had kept up the contact after she started her own consultancy. She took us on, and has been advising us on how to best allocate any marketing dollars.
Again, adding people to our team that have skills unlike our own, proved invaluable. Daniel and I had been stuck in group think for quite some time, and it was when Kira came on board that we better opened up and changed lots of smaller things (cover as well!) to better mesh with our marketing wishes for the game.Nothing is trivial being a publisher. Not even getting the colours right. Here are six different version just for the arrows.
- [+] Dice rolls
20 Oct 2019
Daniel and I are quite adept developers by now, having pushed a bunch of games through the final reefs before publication. However, we also realised that doing so for a game we were going to self publish, on a tight timeline, would be dangerous. Therefore we hired Kirsten du Preez out of South Africa, to be our developer on Bloom Town.
She has helped streamline the rules, the scoring, the rescoring, the balancing, solo rules and much, much more. Also, having a developer ensured we ourselves had to discuss what we wanted her to focus on, which I think has already helped us outside this project.Creating and testing the graphics for scoring and rescoring was a real eye openener. From sketch to final diagrams.
Eventually we had to realise that some of our scoring and rescoring rules, were causing people to make mistake after mistake. Without the countless tests Kirsten has put in, with a much more diverse crowd than our Copenhagen based testers, really proved invaluable weeding out those mistakes.
When we do have to head into development, we always try to find a way of recording each playtest. We can’t record everything, and sometimes we start collecting data, before we actually know what (if anything) we are looking for. Here it meant we made a collage of all playerboards, in player order, with their scores registered on that same picture. This is obviously just a snap shot and doesn’t clarify the order tiles arrived in, if you took a hit to hurt an opponent, or a hundred other variables. None the less as a macro level tool to help catch blind angles and tweak balance, we have found it very valuable on several projects.A couple of the hundreds of images recorded to collect data throughout development.
When we hired Kirsten, she still hadn’t done development on any published boardgame before, but she was playing lots and was teaching game design at university. Since then she has started a game development collective with some of her collaborators, under the company Two Name Games. They come highly recommended from our experience, so do consider asking them for a quote, if you’re in need of development.
- [+] Dice rolls
19 Oct 2019
Bloom Town has a layered scoring system with quite some depths for a simple game like this. You score a building immediately when you place it. And again when rescoring is triggered. And maybe also at the end, depending on what you saved for this final scoring.
The depth is not always apparent upon your first play and as I type this I am thinking that it is kind of ironic. Ironic because it was never apparent to me that the game was better off with all these layers until late in development. And ironic because I thought fixing the scoring would be the easy part of creating this game, not the hardest.
So where did it start getting hard, you may ask?
Well, it did as we asked ourselves the deceivingly simple question: At what point during the game would you score points for your achievements?The people of Bloom Town want to live with a variety of oppurtunities closeby.
First answer: At the end
Initially it made sense to have the scoring solely at the end as you didn’t have to calculate scoring until the game was over. Experienced players could help younger or more casual gamers, and everyone would have a good time. Then it dawned on us that without any guidance of good/bad play during the game nobody was having fun...The shops of Bloom Town serve specific clients.
Second answer: Immediately
It made sense to have the scoring happen every time you place a building. Strong plays are rewarded with lots of points and the dopamine level rises. Then it dawned on us that we had removed the possibility to “complete” certain patterns around houses and shops that want specific neighbours. It is a key feature that a lot of playtesters had fun working pursuing…The parks of Bloom Town are most attractive when at a certain size to accommodate leisure activities.
Third answer: Both
It made sense to have scoring happen immediately and at the end to reward players for strong plays at all times. However, we did not want the final scoring to just be an automatic and rather boring rescore of everything, so we saw an opportunity to add some player agency. Now you will score based on only one of the two tiles you have left, so it is up to you assess when the end game is approaching, and whether it is worth it to build that sixth subway, or you should rather save it for scoring but limiting your options going forward.
At this point, we finally had a scoring system that was solid and working but we found it to be quite symmetric without too many highs. One player would score 3 points, then another 2 points, then a third 4 points etc. We needed a change of pace.The subway of Bloom Town serves the people best when stations align properly. Go figure.
Fourth answer: Immediately, rescoring during play and at the end
Rescoring was the third layer that created a more organic scoring we were looking for. I think the idea of shuffling some sort of scoring tiles into the market stacks first came from our developer Kirsten, and then we ran with it. In Bloom Town all building types may rescore when their scoring tile number two appears on the market. It is a simple system that makes every game different. It changes the values of the tiles depending on what has rescored, and it is an extra layer you have to consider to play well.The office space in Bloom Town tends to group into a large financial district on main roads. You may even see a certain bike race pass by.
- [+] Dice rolls
18 Oct 2019
There are quite a few subjects that each on their own could fill out one of these mini diaries. The two tiles in hand, and the link between placement and acquisition of your next tile, was never changed from the first idea, but most other things were...Even a 5 by 5 grid can feel too restricted when you have enough tiles! Here is a version where we tested bridges and statues.
We started with a 5x5 grid, then changed it to 4x4 grid, before going back to 5x5. The 4x4 actually dogged us for quite a while. We liked it as a streamlined endgame trigger, and we also liked the idea of everyone completing their grid. What we didn’t realise apriori, was that the final few tiles being placed were happening in such a restricted grid, that there really wasn’t much choice or fun in it.
This realisation pushed us to the 5x5 grid, with the knowledge that we needed to find an organic endgame trigger. We tried controlling the total available tiles, and having the game end when they ran out, but in the end chose the stack depletion that the game has now. This version feels more organic, and also allows an element of control to the players, largely leaving it in their hands if they want to push for an early finish. Obviously the stacks will deplete eventually (as all players place a tile every turn), so there still wasn’t any worry the experience would drag.Removing the VP track freed up a lot of space on the common board. We used this as a canvas to create new unique art and as a scoring reference.
Initially in the design process we had a VP track around the board, and I can’t tell you how happy I am we removed it and added the Bloom Points instead. That track kept everyone focussed on the points, and more importantly on their relative differences to the other players. The points came into the forefront, rather than the game experience, as your attention was constantly pulled towards it. Such a simple detail, but with a rather huge psychological impact. Now players naturally focus on their own puzzles first.
- [+] Dice rolls
Very rarely a design arrives from first spark and is almost fully formed. This is not one of those fairy tales, and unlike “normal” for Daniel and I, this time we didn’t have a publisher to lean on! The first very rough sketches of the cover image. Can you tell which one became the point of reference?
We knew we wanted to focus this on being a filler+ type of gaming experience. Something that could easily be played by an 8 year old used to games, but still provide an interesting challenge for gamers. This was a balance that first and foremost required the design to accommodate such development. But as importantly it is where we as designers feel most at home, which seemed important for our own publication. Also we figured we wanted to try and make something accessible money wise, as we knew we would be asking the lot of you to take a chance on a new publisher. This last point also overlapped with our ambition to try and ensure the whole manufacturing process didn’t drown us in details we really weren’t equipped to handle.It was Jessica's Little Houses artwork (left) and Japanese influence that convinced us to take inspiration from a blooming town, thus Bloom Town was born
Early on we settled on the theme, and initially also wanted to name it after some bigger US grid city. ‘Nashville’ was long a contender, but as soon as we chose Jessica Smith as the illustrator, we knew we had to look elsewhere. One issue with the theme is that the market for city builders is quite crowded, and even has some notable games that have already stood the test of time. Yet we deduced that there still wasn’t anyone that had OWNED the market for the 20-30 min city builder, and that Bloom Town could have a chance at doing so. When looking for a niche, the important part is to realise you don’t have to innovate all aspects, you simply have to find one. City Builders are popular, and there really aren’t any major hits that don’t last close to an hour.One of the first instructions we gave to Jessica to help transmit our vision for the game was the idea of the white canvas. When you begin the game it will all be very clean and empty. By the time the game is over you have a colourful town.
- [+] Dice rolls
16 Oct 2019
Daniel had been fooling around with grids and tiles for some time, when he eventually showed me a game with the simple premise: Where you place your tile, determines which next tile you get instead. And thus Bloom Town was born
To this day that remains the central tension of the game, and it was also what made me fall in love with it immediately. In fact more so than Daniel himself! If you try it, you will find that this tension permeates the game, and makes it hard to say for sure which move is best, as it is quite rare that everything aligns for the perfect move.
Do you place your tile where it scores the most points, or where you get a better tile for the future. The complexity explodes when you also realise that the 5 different building tiles interlace in subtle ways, so you not only have to consider scores now, but also set yourself up for even better scores further down the line.
As with Kingdomino and Azul you will eventually also discover that the drafting of tiles from a shared market, forces you to also consider your opponents needs. If you allow your opponent to pursue their core strategy without interference, all your own plans might still be insufficient to clinch the win at the end of it all.The first prototypes used colours on the player boards to link up with what you got from the market. It created some confusion (do I get a park when I place on green?) so we knew we had to switch to icons at some point.
Bloom Town does have those turns where everything works, you score a huge amount of points, get the right tile and block your opponent. But in between those peaks, you are much more likely to experience a grind trying to squeeze out an extra point or two, while not knowing for sure if you made the right choices.
- [+] Dice rolls
long time no see!
Today I’m celebrating my first anniversary as a full time game designer! I’m very happy about it all, and honestly don’t want to change a thing.
Not much was released in 2018, just a tiny expansion for Flamme Rouge. However, Daniel and I have another 8.5 games on contract that should release in 2019 & 2020, which will push us past twenty releases. I am VERY excited to share more about those games!
The reason I’m posting today, is to talk about making a living as a game designer. I had a twitter interaction three weeks ago with Jon Vallerand a new Canadian game designer whose first design should release this year (Cartographia). We continued it in direct messages, and quickly decided to try and make it into an interview of sorts. Effectively it became a living google doc where we wrote back and forth in a big jumbled mess. The readable version presented below should all be credited to Jon’s editing. Make sure to go follow him on Twitter @JVDesignsGames.
The reason we made it into an interview, was in the hopes that someone else out there would find it useful. If you do, then please do not hesitate to let us know. Even three words of praise may be what pushes us to make another one
The below is of course just my experience. Each full time designer has a different tale, and what works for me, might not even be an option for you. There are so many personal details that shape overall opportunity, that I can’t begin to claim any of this can be transferred 1-to-1 onto anyone else.Quote:We had a discussion last week were you said that you are a full-time designer, and that it’s “viable to make a living designing games”, which I was surprised by: I feel like it goes against the zeitgeist of “don’t expect to make money from your games”.Thank you SO MUCH for reaching the end. Do consider leaving a word of encouragement and a thumb, if you enjoyed the read, both Jon and I would really appreciate that.
I know several people who have earned a living wage from game design in 2018, and none of them had games published prior to 2016. However, I also know people who have worked hard, and still haven’t gotten one of their designs signed. I don’t want to come off as insinuating it is easy, nor that a quick fix exists: I just want to say that it is doable.
What do you think is the difference between those two groups? Is it just luck or timing, or is it something those designers could improve on?
Luck and timing is a factor. It wasn’t a given that Flamme Rouge and its sports theme would find a publisher, nor that the publisher could make it a success.
I think the advice I would emphasize would be twofold:
- First and foremost, you have to look at your games as products. You could make the best children’s game in the world, but if it costs €1000 to produce it doesn’t matter. Effectively each game you are pitching is a business case for the publisher: if they don’t think they can make a profit, they are not going to publish it.
- Second, play the numbers and embrace rejection: don’t design 2 games, design 20; don’t pitch to 5 publishers, pitch to 25. These steps will hone your design skills, your pitching skills, and will build you a network.
Why do you think the perception that there’s no money to be made in games is so prevalent in the industry?
I think it is because a lot of people have that experience. They design a game, sell it to a publisher, and see a little money come into their account, but rarely enough to make a significant impact in their life, and sometimes even less than they had in expenses getting there.
Most games get 3-5K units printed, and then never get a reprint. On average you are probably earning 0.80 USD per unit (that number obviously varies wildly), so that won’t cut it unless you have a massive output. If you want to work on this full time, your ambition shouldn’t be to make a game that sells 3-5K: you need at least a zero after that. I haven’t tracked it precisely from the get go, but my guess is my games have sold around 200.000 copies in total so far, with Flamme Rouge as my breakaway leader.
Speaking of games as products, what do you do to ensure that your games are viable products?
At the end of the day, the question is if it has a place in the market, but none of us have a crystal ball. With 13 Days we knew that we wanted a game that could scratch our Twilight Struggle itch, but in 30 min. We guessed there were many other folks out there that perhaps didn’t have as much time as they wanted either. For other games, it can be spotting a similar niche, but it could also be a component, mechanic or other hook. Regardless of your hook though, you still have to make a good game.
Do you ever need to work on games that don’t excite you as much, just because they’ll sell or make good products?
I’m blessed to be an omni-gamer. I have my personal preferences, but generally I just really like playing games. I wish I would actually “know” which games would sell, but I don’t, therefore I try to make games that will make people happy. Sometimes that can be achieved by nuclear war, other times it will be jumping frogs, or shaking meeples around in a box.
The process of design is a creative outlet I enjoy immensely, in and of itself. Personally I don’t need additional motivation beyond that and the goal of spreading happiness!
On your personal experience:
When were you able to go full-time?
I went full time on February 1st, 2018. I had been designing games since 2012, and signed my first contract in 2014. By 2018, I had about 10 boxes on the market.
How much (if at all) did your experience at Games Workshop help you?
Personally, I think the Warhammer Community was much more influential in forming me as a game designer than my 2 year stint at Games Workshop HQ in Nottingham. I have been designing tournament systems, restrictions, campaigns, and scenarios for at least a decade before I started designing games, and I had been consuming other people’s work in similar veins.
And in terms of contacts in the industry, did either of those experiences help?
So far it has not made any difference. I have tried using some of them in the past, but nothing has come of it.
What does an average week look like for you as a full-time designer?
I co-design all my games with Daniel Skjold Pedersen, and have been doing so since 2014. From Monday to Wednesday, we meet and work from 9 to 16 (4PM). It is a mix of design, development of existing projects, prototype production, and publisher contact. Every other Friday we have a playtest session, the Superhero Meet-up, that runs from 16-22. Our time is generally scheduled around getting something ready for next Superhero Meet-up.
On top of that, we also have on average two or so impromptu playtest nights a month when we are in need or want to shorten the cycle. These are typically with other designers in the Copenhagen community. Some work also makes sense to do without Daniel and I having to sit together, so rulebooks, graphic design and other tasks may land outside the fixed hours. Conventions are also part of this, and often we end up working 16 hour days when there.
How do you and Daniel share the design responsibilities?
There are differences in what we do, but more from differences in ability: I can’t draw a stickman without being ridiculed, so Daniel does that. However, I can use the adobe suite, so I do that. This is often time consuming, so Daniel ends up writing slightly more rulebooks than I do. It just happened organically, we didn’t really plan it that way, and regardless of the task, we bounce almost everything up against each other.
How many games are you working on at any one time, on average? Are they at the same point in their designs?
On average, we have 3-5 active designs at any one time, in very different stages. At the highest, I know we have had meetings in the past where we covered issues on 10+ designs in one sitting.
How many playtesters are in your regular Superhero group, and how did you build that group?
Semi regular numbers probably reach 15-20, but on any given Superhero Meetup, we will have 4-8 of those attend. To start it, we bought a bunch of snacks, drinks, beer, and pizza and invited lots of our friends and network. Then we made a few one-time open invitations in board game groups in Copenhagen, and if people showed up they got invited to return.
With that testing schedule, how long does it take you to get a game from first prototype to a pitchable state?
There really is no formula. It can be days or years. Children’s games tend to be based on a single strong idea, and sometimes that is all you need to pitch a game. Generally the process stretches when complexity goes up, but even so bigger games can still be sold without being fully developed. Assuming it stands out and is already solid. No need to sink hundreds of hours into developing a cowboy game, if the publisher wants a space theme. If your core design is pliable enough, developing after the sale ensures you can merge the theme and mechanics.
Convention-wise, what do you prioritize?
Nuremberg Toyfair and Spiel Essen are the permanent fixtures in our calendar, though they are so close in the year that we might ditch Nuremberg going forward. Our ambition is to do a US-convention a year as well. Beyond that, we do attend others, but more as gamers than as professionals, though the blessing is that even that is considered work!
On the pitching process:
How do you handle relationships with publishers? The pitching process is already very stressful, I can’t imagine what it would be like if I knew my next meal depended on those contracts!
First, I don’t think they are stressful at all. Pitching games is the most stress-free sales I’ve ever done, simply because you aren’t actually selling anything. At best they are going to take a prototype, then they are going to take it home and test it multiple times, with people that weren’t even present at your pitch: the game has to sell itself. Now I’m not saying there is no skill involved in a pitch, but I just feel that knowing the game has to prove itself regardless of what I do and say reduces that stress.
Second, my next meal isn’t dependant on that contract at all. If I sign a game today, I’m not going to be paid for it for 2 or 3 years. Right now I’m living off the work I did the past 5 years, not the work I’m doing tomorrow. Moreover, it is a numbers game: lots of games, more meetings, and even more pitches. But what you get most of all is refusal: I think Daniel and I pitched ~120 times total, across 26 meetings, just at Spiel Essen 2018.
How do you handle pitching multiple publishers, and the delay while they have prototypes?
We pitch to lots of publishers at once, and we never do sell sheets. At most, about 10 different publishers have had the same prototype of one of our designs. That being said, we try to avoid that these days, not out of concern for the publishers, but because we don’t want to make that many prototypes!
If a publisher then offers to sign a game, we tell them they will have to wait 4-6 weeks. We immediately inform all other publishers with prototypes of the deadline, and then wait. This process is fully transparent and we have not received any pushback from publishers.
And have your ever had to deal with simultaneous offers?
Yes, twice. We asked both companies for draft contracts, and looked through those. Though the details of the contract matter, they still cover 95% the same concerns in slightly different ways. We are not looking for a bidding war, we are much more interested in the second thing we ask them for: their vision for the product.
Also, it is much more important if they have the right partners, if they answer emails, all the intangible stuff that doesn’t go in the contract. Each game you design is a tiny lottery ticket financially: so many factors go into its final success that are completely out of your control. Therefore, I think the most important part an established designer can start focusing on is developing relationships with the best publishers. They will possibly impact the success of your game more than you will.
You said you design 30 games, of which you get 10 published, 1 of which is actually getting you long term money. Could you elaborate on that process?
First off, that is just a rule of thumb: Daniel and I are trying to track our work, and even when we succeed, our numbers aren’t exactly massive enough to be statistically significant, but 30-10-1 sounds right over a two-year period. I’ll try and look into it later in the year, and see if there are any trends. I also suspect our hit rate is going up.
You also talked about selling directly to customers: is that something you have experienced? Is that something you plan on doing?
A fully different topic, where we’re moving away from game design, towards publishing. Right this minute there aren’t any plans to do so, but if there was a project too niche to fit into traditional publishing, I would consider it. I do believe designers have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.
If you have any follow up questions, please don’t hesitate to pose them. Who knows, they might be edited into the interview at a later stage
Asger Harding Granerud
- [+] Dice rolls
Back in 2014 I started the boardgame distribution company Spilbræt.dk with the backing of two investors from up North. There has been highs and lows. Not all tasks involved in running a distributor have been my core competencies, but the company has ended each year in a plus, and is currently stronger than ever. Right this moment I have had my last official work day in the company! I’ve spent the last six months preparing the transition and the last four training my replacement.
As of now, I am officially freelance designing games on full time. Less than three years ago I still talked to friends and family about my game design as a hobby that might earn me a little side income, even if I secretly hoped it would become much more. I hadn’t dreamt that day would arrive so soon.
In many ways the journey here has been long coming. Not just the gaming that started from I was in kindergarten, but also in my professional life. I was just 20 when I first moved to Nottingham UK to work for Games Workshop, my then all consuming hobby. I did so to become a game designer, and also applied for a job doing just that. The same hobby gave me lifetime friendships, but also provided ample opportunity to playtest, tweak and house rule GW games. I often say I did 15 years of game design in this manner, before I even started designing my own games.
Today I am here, and though it isn’t a given it will succeed I feel confident it ought to. Considering how risk averse my wonderful wife Malu is, I am repeatedly humbled by how calmly she has supported every move.
I will, as always, be designing games with Daniel, and there are still huge news coming that I can’t wait to tell you all about! Finally a big thank you to my regular gaming group for putting up with crazy ideas.
Asger Harding Granerud
- [+] Dice rolls