My first designed and self-published game Tiefe Taschen was released by Arcane Wonders in 2018 as GoodCritters. Here's how:
In 2015, the first design of Tiefe Taschen was finished, and I was looking for a publisher. Tiefe Taschen is a negotiation and bluffing game. The name of the game is literally translated as "deep pockets", a German metaphor for being greedy.
The fundamental mechanisms of the game are as follows: The current president proposes a distribution of randomly drawn money, and all players cast a vote on this distribution. If a majority rejects it, the president has to resign and is replaced by a new one. The new president proposes a new distribution among the remaining players. As soon as at least half of the voting players accept a distribution, or only one player remains, each player collects their assigned share and a new round begins. (A detailed how-to-play video can be found here.)
To pitch my prototype to several publishers, I attended the game designers convention in Göttingen, Germany. Two publishers immediately rejected the game due to its "not very family friendly" theme, and to my astonishment Pegasus Spiele had a similarly themed game already in the pipeline: Junta: Las Cartas.
At this time I had just quit my job as a researcher at an institute for Software Engineering, so I decided to dive deeper into game design.
I applied for an internship at the independent game publisher Spieltrieb. After presenting my prototype to Spieltrieb's owner Till Meyer, he suggested that I should found my own publishing company, and he offered his support to get the game published. That's how my company Fobs Games was born.
The development, refinement, and testing of the game rules continued for many months. In numerous playtests with friends and at conventions, I gathered insights on what works and what needed to be improved. For example, in the first version of Tiefe Taschen the president changed after each successful distribution so that each player got to be president at least once. This seemed fair to me.
At one playtest, though, one of the players complained, "I don't get this." I explained the rule several times, getting a bit impatient and starting to secretly question his brainpower, but then he clarified: "I understand the rule. What I don't get is why I cannot stay president when I'm doing a good job?" (Note: The German political system has no term limit for the head of government.) My answer of "It's in the rules" didn't convince him, and now presidents have to resign only if they fail to find a distribution of the money pleasing at least half of the voters. This change was not only a thematic improvement, but the game actually played better.
After the distribution is proposed, all players choose their action simultaneously and place their cards face down in front of them. In the first versions, all players also revealed their cards simultaneously. With five different action cards in the game, experienced players were immediately able to understand the outcome, but less experienced players were overwhelmed and felt like the game was being played without them, especially when bribing was involved. To solve this problem and make the game more accessible to new players, in the final version the cards are revealed in player order. Now there's a bit of suspense with each revealed card, and each player gets some attention for their selected action.
This change also fixed another issue. In the first versions, all players could take money from the treasury (the action "skim" in GoodCritters). This option was way more powerful than blackmailing another player ("rob" in GoodCritters) since there was no risk of being caught and losing money. Thus, the rule was changed so that only the first player who reveals this card actually draws an extra money card; all other players come away empty-handed. This made player order much more important, and players can try to vote against the president to improve their position in the next round.
In the first prototype, the proposed number of players was only 4-6, but with these changes the game could easily be played with up to eight players. I discovered this coincidentally during a game night with nine players (including myself). They wanted to try my prototype, and it worked much better than expected.
During several sessions, I realized that the end of the game was not well designed. It ended as soon as the money pile was empty, but several problems resulted from this: Sometimes not much money was left to distribute in the final round, no one could take money from the treasury, and player behavior tended to change a lot in the last round, with presidents being voted out on good distributions, some players starting to count their money while others were still playing, etc. In the end, I introduced the "National Bankruptcy" card ("The Fuzz" in GoodCritters) which triggers the end of the game as soon as it is revealed.
Game design is one part, but actually publishing the game was a lot of manual work and quite stressful at times.
Gregor Zolynski designed symbolic graphics for a first prototype series of about forty copies. I had the boxes manufactured and the cards printed by an external provider, but making wooden pieces as I wanted them would have been expensive, so we did them on our own. I first printed stickers for the wooden discs in different colors and bought matching paints from a building supply store. We spent several weekends painting the 40 x 8 private investigator meeples and 40 x 16 wooden discs. As the minimum order of wooden discs was five thousand, I still have plenty of them in my apartment. There is a good chance one of my future game designs will use wooden discs...
We used these prototype copies to demo at several trade fairs and conventions. They were also part of the promo video, and we gave them as a reward in a crowdfunding campaign.
The art of the final version was done by Christian Opperer, an illustrator recommended by Till. We first met at SPIEL 2015 to discuss the illustrations. Christian always came up with lots of great ideas and several improvements.
In December 2015 we finally started a crowdfunding campaign on startnext, a German crowdfunding platform. Since I definitely wanted the game to be published, the funding goal was relatively low — just high enough to realize the project using all of my savings.
Till helped me to find a producer for most parts of the game: the cards, the box, and the rulebook. Since Gregor had told me to "go big, or go home", I ordered 2,500 copies of the game (with 300 preorders from the campaign). The contract I signed stated a price per game and a clause that allowed a production plus or minus 10% units. In my case, only 2,385 were produced, something that rarely happens, according to Till, since producers usually like to sell more units than fewer.
We had to order the wooden parts from a different supplier. This supplier suddenly had problems delivering on time, so the game production was delayed. Just a few days before the last open production slot closed, the wooden parts finally arrived. Two days later, and we would have had to wait until all scheduled game productions for SPIEL in Essen were finished!
In August 2016, one month after the scheduled release date, the truck with the games finally arrived — but this was not yet the end of the problems.
When the driver opened the truck, he shouted some words I don't want to quote here. The boxes had not been loaded properly. He advised me to not accept the shipment, but sending it back was not an option at that time; I had the backers of the campaign getting impatient, and SPIEL was coming up. I decided to accept the destroyed delivery, and luckily only thirty copies of the game were actually ruined — and those were compensated later by the insurance company of the producer.
After sending out three hundred copies that were preordered during the campaign, I was sitting on more than two thousand copies of my game. In Essen, I sold about eighty copies, with some more sold at other conventions, but this was a really hard job. At the toy fair in Leipzig, I managed to sell only four copies over three days.
Thus, I was forced to find other distribution channels. I established contact with several local game stores, webshops, and distributors. My father visited game stores and bookstores in the area he lives and asked them to sell my game. I tried selling games on Amazon, and I became a member of Spiel direkt, which is a co-operative distributor. Publishers like 2F-Spiele and Oink Games are also members. Spiel direkt picked my game as something that would be feasible for bookstores, so I sold dozens of copies via this channel.
To get more attention for my game, I contacted several reviewers from local newspapers, blogs, and YouTube. Tiefe Taschen got positive reviews from many of these reviewers including one from Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower. He made an amazing video, and suddenly the game got lots of attention worldwide.
Tom proposed that Tiefe Taschen become part of the Dice Tower Essentials line, so Tiefe Taschen was tested by Arcane Wonders. They also liked the game and decided to publish it, so we signed the contract for the new version, which became GoodCritters. Bryan Pope and I worked on improving and streamlining the rules since we had discovered, for example, that gameplay can become relatively static in a four-player game. (All changes and the ideas behind these changes are detailed in this BGG thread.)
While Brian and I were working on the rule improvements, Arcane Wonders was already thinking about a new theme. Like many publishers in Germany, Arcane Wonders didn't think the political theme was going to sell well and wanted it to be changed. One of the first ideas was a fantasy setting, then pirates, but in the end they decided to go with a great setting of a gang of anthropomorphic criminal animals in the 1920s.
When I saw the first concepts by Valerio Buonfantino and Stephen Gibson, I was really impressed:
So, after years of designing, testing, re-designing, re-testing, printing and painting, and pitching and canvassing — not to mention a little luck — Tiefe Taschen now exists as GoodCritters!