Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Why aren’t publishers doing better marketing?

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Sometimes when I look at the actions of people in another business segment than those I’ve worked in, I criticize them and say “why don’t they just do X, it’s so obvious that it’s much better than what they’re doing”.

Recently, I did just that about a company in my wife’s business segment and she explained to me why it wasn’t as simple as it appeared to me and I realized that my criticism had mainly been unfair because of my lack of knowledge.

Half an hour later I read a blog post about board game publishers from someone with a marketing background that started like this: “I see how publishers promote their games it’s makes me want to cry.”

As it happened, I thought that there were good reasons for why publishers did things the way they do instead of as blogger suggested but it requires some knowledge from the publisher side of the industry to see why.

Most board game publishers are tiny

First, let’s look at the one single factor that prevents most marketing strategies from being implemented: The majority of board game publishers are tiny operations running on shoestring budgets. Many are one or two people working in their spare time on top of a fulltime job or at best one or two people fulltime because that’s all that the industry can support for the most part.

It’s simply impossible for such publishers to do each step of the process “right”, because if they did they’d never get to the stage of actually selling a game.

Skillsets and the publishing process

As a publisher you need to carry out all the steps below and have the required skillsets and knowledge to various extents:

* Game design.
* Game development.
* Technical writing, editing, and proofreading.
* Finding strangers willing to playtest more or less for free.
* Coordinate production with people across many time zones away and language barriers with cultural differences as an additional challenge.
* Art.
* Graphics design.
* Laws and regulations in relation to contracts, certifications, import/export, etc. E.g. make sure to declare the wooden components correctly in relation to fumigation if you want to get your game into Australia.
* Logistics and distribution.
* Retail.
* Enticing content creators to cover your game.
* Photography to take good promotional photos of the game.
* Community management.
* Marketing.
* Accounting.
* Project management.
* Others I have overlooked.

You can farm out some of the steps to people with the relevant expertise and for some areas such as retail you have no choice, but you still need at least a basic understanding of each topic and coordinating with many people takes time.

No one has the time to learn all these skills well and every hour spent learning a skill or performing a task is an hour not spent on something else. Personally, even if I had the time, there are some skills I’m just not wired for.

From factory to consumer

The best marketing in the world won’t sell any games if you don’t have any games to sell because the manufacturer adhered to the ‘we produce according to spec even if the amateur who placed the order specified something that makes no sense’ philosophy.

The best marketing in the world also won’t sell any games if lack of knowledge causes the publisher to go bankrupt because they mess up logistics or legal stuff.

For the rest of this post, I’ll use one example of a marketing strategy that was suggested in the blog post I mentioned in the introduction that can seem reasonable from the outside but has a lot of problems on the inside.

That example is: Why don’t publishers support physical retail stores in the hobby game segment by giving them promos or special editions with a built-in promo.

In the rest of this post, I’ll go through step by step how such a marketing strategy will affect a game’s path from production to the gamers.

Before we get to that, please let me state that I’m not an expert in these fields, but at least I’ve been in the industry for some years, am involved in some of the steps, and study the others out of interest. Please let me know in the comments if you spot something that’s wrong.

1) Game design and development: Promos don’t make themselves . Someone needs to spend time designing, developing, and playtesting them and there might be a need for extra art and graphics design which can be expensive. All this to make content that only some players will get.

2) Production: To implement this strategy the factory must produce 2 products. This can be done in various ways

2a) Produce two different products, the normal one and the one with the promo. This means that unless you sell a lot of copies of both versions, you’ll risk producing too many copies of at least one of them because of minimum print run sizes.

It also causes problems if your game has cards because cards are produced in multiples of a number related to their size and the factory’s sheet size. If this is 15 for your game, you’ll pay for 60 cards if your game has 49, which is wasteful.

This often leads to games to have a number of cards that are a multiple of 15 (or whatever the number) to avoid such wasted costs.

If you do this and you want to add a 5-card promo, then that promo causes all promo copies to increase their cost by 15 cards to add the 5. If you instead make it so that the number of cards in the game plus the 5 promo cards is a multiple of 15, then you pay for 5 wasted cards in each non-promo copy.

2b) Produce the game itself, produce the promo separately, put the promo in some of the boxes, and label them. This also comes with problems in relation to sheet sizes and minimum print run sizes but as far as I know that’s easier to handle.

2c) Produce the game and promos separately and handle them as two different products with only the promos going to physical hobby retailers.

No matter how you do it, it’s more expensive than just producing one version of the game.

3) Assembly: These production methods increase the risk of errors where the promo doesn’t get added or a copy gets mislabeled, which leads have annoyed customers and you’ll need to fix such errors manually when consumers contact you. This costs precious time and money for shipping the promos, which will likely eat the profits of multiple copies of the game each time it happens.

No matter how you do it, it’s more expensive than just producing one version of the game.

4) Logistics: If you put the promo in the box, you’ll have two different products that are visually very similar. This increases costs and adds a risk when the games are sorted in the logistics step. It also means that you need X copies of one of the products and Y copies of the other to go to destination A instead of just Z copies of one product, which adds a risk of errors.

If you make one version of the game and the promo as a separate item, you create the problem that a small promo is harder to handle in the logistics step because it’s expensive to pack each promo in a way that will protect it from the vagaries of handling and shipping. This means that they might be batched in boxes giving you a minimum multiple of promos that can be shipped to each destination.

5) Distribution: You need to convince distributors to handle two versions of your game, which they might not want to because they’re already dealing with thousands of products. It gives them headaches to make sure that version 1 goes to physical hobby retailers while version 2 goes to everyone else with no errors being made or cheating being possible. I have no clue how easy it is for distributors to track which of their customers are physical retailers nor how hard it is to know which belong in the ill-defined hobby segment.

Distributors also need to keep inventory of 2 different products which is extra work and they might end up with too many copies of one version and not enough of the other meaning they risk losing sales and storing unsold copies.

If they run out of the promo version and a physical hobby store wants the game, then what do they do? Send the store the normal version? The retailer and their customers won’t be happy about that.

If you chose to go with games and promos as separate products, then you again get issues with the promo being unprotected and thus is difficult to handle when shipping in low numbers to each retailer.

In the previous steps you’re the customer paying others for handling the extra complexity but in this step, distributors are your customers. You might think that consumers or retailers are your customers, but on a direct level it’s actually the distributors and so you need to please them or they might not want to buy from you. Unless your game is a huge seller you need them much more than they need you.

6) Physical hobby retailers: As mentioned above, the physical hobby retailers risk being in a position where they can’t get new copies of the promo product because inventory has run out at the distributor or publisher level, while their competitors still have copies left. When that happens and a customer who knows about the promo comes to a store, they’ll find that the store has the inferior version instead of the one the customer expected, which will annoy them and can cost the store the sale.

If the promo is a separate product, then the retailer needs to communicate to customers browsing the store that they’ll get the promo, because most games are sandwiched in tightly among hundreds of other games with no room for displaying the promo.

It also carries the risk that the customer doesn’t get the separate promo with them back home because the retailer forgets about it or an employee isn’t aware of it, which can lead to annoyed customers.

We must ask ourselves, how many sales will the promo strategy move to the physical hobby stores from other retailers? Unless we’re talking a game that has enough buzz for players to know about the promo, then I’m guessing that the effect will be small.

So, is it worth the hassle for the retailer and everyone else in the chain?

If we look at how promos are handled most of the time in the board game industry, the answer is revealed to be “no”. Promos are most often sold only from the publishers themselves and perhaps also a few other specialized places like the BGG Geek Store.

7) Online hobby retailers and physical non-hobby retailers: From the perspective of all other retailers like Miniature Market, Barnes & Noble, and Walmart, you’re giving them an inferior product to sell. This could annoy them and make them not want to carry your game and perhaps even stop dealing with you in general. They don’t need you - you need them.

8) Consumers: From a consumer perspective having two versions is fine if you buy from physical hobby retailers, but if you don’t then you’ll be left with an inferior game.

Some can’t buy from such retailers because it’s more expensive, they don’t have the time to go there, or there are no such retailers that they’re reasonably able to get to. You’ll also have customers who only become aware of the promo version after having bought the non-promo one.

This can lead to people feeling unhappy about their purchase or feeling treated as second rate customers, which can cost you sales and tarnish your brand.

9) Publishers Inventory handling: As the publisher, you need to manage two different products in relation to inventory and reprinting, which can be a costly headache.

You might end up with lots of unsold copies of one of the products while running out of the other. This means that you’ve not only wasted money making unsold products you’re also paying warehousing fees. Additionally, you might not be able to reprint the sold-out version because the minimum print run size is beyond what you think it’ll sell.

10) Publishers - what kind of company do you want to be? As a publisher you must consider what kind of company you want to be.

Do you want to be the kind that treats one kind of costumer better than another? Do you want to hold content back that you have made instead of giving everyone the best product you can? Is doing so actually a better marketing strategy long term than treating everyone equally?

Closing remarks

This post isn’t meant to pick on the blogger mentioned in the introduction, their statement can be reasonable to outsiders. Instead, the post is intended to provide context from the inside.

I’m not saying that promo versions of games can’t be done or that it can’t be advantageous, instead I’m saying that it’s much more complex than it appears from the outside and the benefits of doing promos or promo versions of games might not warrant the costs.

I’m also not saying that marketing isn’t important nor that board game publishers can’t do better, but the marketing done by publishers needs to be evaluated based on the reality they operate in.
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