At the beginning of 2008 I was feeling pretty pessimistic about my prospects as a hobby game designer as a design of mine, a majority control game a bit like Samurai which was set in Mycenaean Greece, had been under contract – yet unpublished – for two-and-a-half years.
Now the publisher had finally stated formally that he did not want to publish the game after all – I prefer not to identify this publisher or the details of our interactions – so I was fielding a lot of well-intentioned but embarrassing inquiries from friends asking, "Say, whatever happened to that game you were going to publish?" On top of that, I had not had much luck pitching designs to other publishers. All in all, I was feeling a bit low.
Prior to this, I had always rejected the idea of self-publishing a game as risking too much money for too little reward. However, my real career as a professor was coming along, and I had a little more disposable income than in previous years.
Self-publishing lesson #1: Don't try to self-publish games without genuinely disposable income.
Also, after having done a lot of prototyping of my games, I had gotten better at illustration and at hand-crafting things like game boards and boxes. I thought, "Why don't I do a teeny-tiny, modestly-produced edition of one of my games, sell it through a few friendly outlets, then maybe consider giving game designing a rest." I started thinking about designing a game that would be feasible to self-publish in a desktop-published fashion, one that would need only a few, relatively inexpensive bits. This meant no cards, which I had no way of doing cheaply at the time.
Over the course of 2007, I had been playing a lot of the games that were part of the first wave of "dice Euros", particularly Yspahan and Kingsburg. I was intrigued by the way that using a dice mechanism in a resource management game – a genre of game that usually relied on a card mechanism – transformed the overall experience. It seemed to me that the same kind of change could be made to other genres of game, such as majority control, that did not usually involve dice, so I started with the majority control game that the aforementioned publisher had cancelled and tried to re-imagine it as a dice game.
I found that the form constraints of the dice mechanism practically designed the game board for me. The D6-face values would be the nodes of a network, and each node would have connections equal to its value. I would then use enough nodes of each value to make roughly equal numbers of connections lead to each value (e.g., two "6" value nodes and six "2" value nodes). Players would roll two D6, then select a connection leading to one of the two rolled values on which to play; at the beginning of the game, each roll would give them a choice of about one-third of the connections on the board, with this range of choices becoming more constrained as the game progressed. Scoring tokens would go on the nodes of the network and be worth the node value in points.
Like its predecessor, this game was clearly meant to be themed around siege warfare (surrounding and capturing the nodes of the network with player pieces). The network of the new game did not fit the geography of Greece well, and while the Mycenaeans built citadels (which would make good nodes) they weren't known for road-building (connections). I needed a theme that would provide for siege warfare in a setting with a system of roads and fortresses, so my mind went to the Roman world and the forts and implied roads between them, as in Britannia.
I did not want to just duplicate the theme of Britannia, however, or even the first third of Britannia, so I went digging through the history of Roman Britain for a more specific theme for my game. This is my typical approach; I usually theme a game about halfway through the design process, when the broad form of the mechanism has taken shape, but the details still need to be worked out.
I eventually stumbled on a near perfect (if obscure) historical episode, called the "Barbarian Conspiracy". In 367 AD different "Barbarian" peoples launched a series of coordinated attacks on different parts of Britain to overwhelm the relatively small Roman garrisons which remained at that time. Scots breached the defensive line of Hadrian's Wall and invaded northern England, while various Irish tribes crossed the sea and invaded Wales. These campaigns continued for a year before Rome was able to send reinforcements to drive the invading forces out; the Romans withdrew from Britain just forty years later. I found that my new game network fit nicely into the geography of Wales, and even the number and distribution of forts I needed to place there was roughly historically correct. My own ancestry is about half Welsh and half Irish, so a nice side benefit was that the new theme made my mother very happy.
Cambria game board, first edition
That said, I was now faced with several design problems:
• "1" value nodes did not work well in the network, so I needed something else to do with "1" rolls.
• Rolling doubles was also bad for the player, which did not make sense as doubles are usually something special and advantageous in dice games.
• The game needed to a way to break ties on surrounded nodes.
• I wanted the game to have a more combative feel to fit the new theme.
The game design had a kind of beautiful simplicity up to this point, so I didn't want to just throw new mechanisms into it willy-nilly. In the end, I added two mechanisms. Doubles would allow a player to replace an enemy piece on a road. This fit well with the theme; the Irish invaders were a temporary alliance of clans who would sometimes compete over spoils. A role of "1" would allow the player to move a Roman legion piece to displace each other, which gave the Romans a more dynamic presence in the game. This was when I really started to form my present philosophy of game design: Accomplish the vital functions of the game with the fewest possible mechanisms, and every mechanism added should serve more than one function.
By now I was ready to head over to game night at EndGame – a game store in Oakland, California – and start cajoling my long-suffering friends into playing yet another of my designs. The game worked pretty well at this point; the small combat element made the game feel more exciting than many majority control designs without making the game unduly chaotic, and with the new dice mechanism, the game finished in just 20 minutes!
However, a couple of early difficulties became apparent in playtesting. First, trying to surround a high value fort, then failing to do so was disproportionately punishing. There needed to be some kind of second place points available on the larger forts, so I added second-place point tokens to the seven largest fort nodes. I was loathe to do this at first because it meant increasing the number of game pieces, so at the same time, I experimented with reducing the number of player pieces. I finally settled on five pieces per player since this meant that the largest forts could not be surrounded without the collusion of two players. Second, when most of the fort tokens were gone, players ended up with rolls they couldn't use, which was frustrating. After some tinkering, I settled on the best end point for the game being when only six forts remained on the board, with those forts being awarded based on endgame position.
I also found that moving the legion on a "1" wasn't an advantageous choice, so I added a mechanism which gave players the ability to reserve a roll of a number of their choosing for a later turn whenever they moved the legion. My playtesters consistently told me that these changes added a lot of interesting choices to the game, a little more sense of control and planning, and generally made it a lot more fun. Cambria had assumed its final form.
I then started looking for sources of components online, and budgeting for self-publication. Professional manufacture was out of the question for me as that would mean making at least 2,000 units and spending in the neighborhood of $8,000 dollars; this was more money than I was willing to blow, and more storage space than I had in my home. I also didn't think I could sell anything like that many units.
Self-publication lesson #2: Start as small as possible because you will inevitably learn from mistakes.
I decided to buy enough materials to make 100 or so units – although I ended up making only about 70 – and to get materials cheaply enough that I could hit a price point that I thought people would consider. In my experience, most of the self-published games I had bought turned out to be bad, so I felt the game had to be cheap enough – around $20 – that others who had experience similar to mine would be willing to take a risk on buying it. This meant that the components ended up being functional, but cheap: plastic cubes, plastic dice, a color laser-printed waterproof label on unfolded mat stock for a game board.
The infamously cheap component, however, turned out to be the box. The boxes I bought looked good online, but turned out to be incredibly thin, like the boxes new dress shirts come in. (Again, expect to learn from mistakes.) The amount of crap I would get from reviewers, geeks, etc. about those thin boxes would turn out to be considerable. I also had failed to account for the sheer amount of dull, repetitive, yet painstaking work involved in assembling the copies from these components: cutting, putting labels neatly on boxes, counting out components and putting them in bags, etc. This is probably the closest I have ever come to carpel tunnel syndrome.
Then I began the process of trying to find retailers that would be willing to stock a self-published game with low production values. The guys at EndGame and my good friend Shannon Appelcline who runs RPG.NET gave me invaluable advice throughout this process. My good friends at EndGame were a sure thing because of our personal association –
Cambria first edition from Vainglorious Games
Self-publication lesson #3: Cultivate friendships with game stores.
–but I needed online retailers as well as brick-and-mortar stores. I built a website (good investment) and got a PO Box (bad investment), and started sending out inquiries to all the online retailers I could identify. In some cases this started rewarding relationships, particularly with Noble Knight Games and Boards and Bits. However, a lot of retailers didn't want to hear from me, and one even ripped me off. (Again, learn from mistakes.) I tried sending copies to some relatively small-scale game reviewers, which also involved trial-and-error learning. Later, when I self-published Hibernia, I belatedly realized there was no reason not to send my games to big reviewers. After all, the worst thing that could happen would have been for them to ignore the game, but at the time it seemed presumptuous for me to send a copy of my crappy little game to GAMES Magazine or to Bruno Faidutti for possible entry into his Ideal Game Library.
So I found some retailers, at which point I realized self-publishing was also going to involve a tedious quantity of trips to the post office. The next year, I applied the scaling-down principles I used on Cambria, and the difficult lessons I learned from making and distributing it, to redesigning and self-publishing Hibernia. (I'll tell that story another time, but basically I decided, "Eh, what the hell – I'll do one more.")
By the time I had started distributing Hibernia, I had managed to sell all the Cambrias I had made. Hibernia got somewhat wider and better reviewer attention than Cambria had, most notably very helpful reviews from Bruno Faidutti and John J. McCallion at GAMES Magazine, for both of which I am quite grateful.
However, it was Cambria that became a hit among people with whom I was in contact. It became the go-to filler for almost everyone who had a copy, which made the effort feel worthwhile. There were even quite a few people making print-and-play copies for themselves. (By the way, now that the new edition is out, it is time for you PnP folks to go buy one!) People overseas started volunteering to translate the game rules into other languages for me. In this way, I established really rewarding long-term relationships with Achim and Magalie Varenholtz, who became my French and German translators, and Yegor Sadoshenko who became my Russian translator, for all three of my self-published games. I also self-published an alternative map, Cumbria, after I belatedly realized a more optimal structure for the game board network.
In 2010 I self-produced a card game, Armorica, on a larger scale using professional manufacture, and with much better distribution thanks to the services of Aldo Ghiozzi at Impressions Advertising and Marketing. Self-publishing Armorica was a whole different set of headaches, which I will go into another time.
Meanwhile, Chris Hanrahan, one of the owners of EndGame, was doing consulting for a start-up game company called Sandstorm Productions LLC, which was looking for new products. Chris mentioned my games, then Chris Ruggerio, one of the other owners of EndGame, volunteered to demo Cambria and Hibernia for them at a trade show. This led to Sandstorm's then-president, David Stansel-Garner, putting both games under contract.
If aspiring game designers take any lesson away from this diary, it should be this (and no, I don't mean go bug Sandstorm or EndGame to help you):
Self-publication lesson #4, and really a lesson for all designers: Cultivate your professional friendships most carefully.
I am a big supporter of my local game store, EndGame, because I believe they keep the gaming hobby alive, and also because Chris, Chris, Aaron and Anthony are swell guys. I didn't cultivate that relationship to help myself get published, but it worked out that way; loyalty and sociability get rewarded. Emailing people you don't know from Adam, and asking them to help you make your dreams come true is less effective.
There was some personnel turnover at Sandstorm, and some production delays in the period between the signing of the contract and my games hitting the market. Given my frought prior history dealing with game companies, I sweated those changes and delays a little. However, going to trade shows and cons – and getting to know the Sandstorm folks there – let me form strong working relationships with people who did lovely work on my behalf. In particular, Jessica Blair really listened to my feedback, kept a close eye on component quality, and generally nursemaided the games into existence. Michael Vaillancourt worked very hard on the arrangements for getting the games to our shores. David Stansel-Garner and James Sugarbroad Walker, who had left Sandstorm to pursue other gigs, are now helping me to promote the new games through the auspices of their new endeavor, the Verne-Wells Society.
If it seems like I am dropping a lot of names, it's because I genuinely owe a lot of people for their help. I first got a look at Cambria around the time of Origins 2011, and the new edition looked just beautiful. Brent Knudson did some really lovely artwork. The new components were all wood, and all of very good quality. The double-sided tri-fold board was very cool. And Jessica, bless her heart, made sure that the new edition had the sturdiest game box I have ever seen, hopefully erasing the memory of my homemade edition's flimsy box forever.
So while I had some fun self-publishing, I have to say it feels great to have the games published in nice editions with professional support and marketing. It feels like Cambria has traveled a lot of windy roads to get here and had to knock down a couple of forts along the way. Ironically, as I finish this designer diary, I am busy hand-crafting a giant copy of Cambria for a launch party at EndGame, proving how little professional publication really changes things...
Eric B. Vogel