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Designer Diary: Game ON! Travel Coins, or How to Make a Game Accessory the Hardest Way Possible

John Butitta

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I blame this whole long, somewhat dreary tale on Power Grid, one of my gaming group's favorite games, but a design with one of the worst coin/money sets of any game. We complained about it regularly. Then one of my game group, Kurt, found a small plastic coin set online to try for Power Grid, so we used it. Then we used it again. And then we started using it for other games.

Power Grid plastic coins vs Game On! Travel Coins

This impressed the rest of us enough to want our own sets. However, they simply weren't available. Being a persistent sort — you can insert "thickheaded" or "obsessive compulsive" here, too — I spent way too much money and effort trying other options. They were all too big, too heavy, or too limited. None of them were suitable. I kept saying, "Why doesn't someone make a nice portable, quality set that works for most games and that also looks good and feels right in my hand? Why doesn't someone make...?" Then that little voice in the back of my head that whispers "Why not you? Why not you?" got very insistent. I ended up making my own.

Unfortunately, you can't make one set; you make lots of sets.

So I am now in the game accessory business, selling Game ON! Travel Coin sets. The story of how this all came about is detailed below. And I also found out why no one else made a coin set like this. If you just want the answer to that question, skip to the last paragraph.

Why Bother?

I have read many posts and reviews in which people write almost reverentially about the quality of game components. This is generally true for boards, rules, and meeples. I love them, too. I agree that quality components enhance the enjoyment of playing a game.

Having seen or played many of these highly praised games, I am always surprised about how people will accept without comment any cardboard chunk or annoying paper offered as a marker or money. After using this simple plastic coin set, I realized that it enhanced my gaming enjoyment as much as the finely crafted, artistic bits that people love. I was radicalized.

Decisions, Decisions, and Compromises

Anything is possible if you set your mind to it, right? Look at Edison and the lightbulb. Taking a firm "Can DO" attitude, I set out to make my coin set.

I started by asking "What is my ideal coin set?" First and foremost, I wanted the coins to be smaller and lighter than poker chips to make the set easy to carry. Why? One of my first attempts to find my ideal set was a beautiful set of poker chips. It currently sits in my basement game room gathering dust. Even hauling out the poker chip set was annoying. It was like lugging around a jumbo bowling ball. Plus the poker chips were too big. Poker chip sets were useful for only a few games and, as we jokingly say, for a doorstop.

Then my wife tried to pick up the poker chip case by the handle, which promptly snapped. The case fell, almost breaking her toe, the latches popped, and we had poker chips flying everywhere. Okay, so there were two criteria out of that incident: lighter chips and no latches.

What about metal coins? I love nickel way more than plastic or ceramic poker chips. Nickel coins feel "weighty" and solid when I hold them. I like the clink they make when the coins tap each other. There are some nice nickel coin sets available right now. However, nickel is an expensive material, and nickel coins don't really save any weight over poker chips in equal numbers and denominations.

This stymied me for quite a while. I looked at making an injection-molded plastic set. I actually bought a closeout set from a token vendor. When I asked why these were closeouts, they said that the quality was poor and indeed it was. Those coins were small and light, but they looked and felt cheap. They were mostly white with color stripes. The color bleeding caused irregular borders, and the coins had no case.

I also tried a set of playing card money. The cards were light, but too big and too inconvenient aside from just not feeling right. The playing cards and closeout tokens are gathering dust in the basement near the poker chips. At this point my "Can DO" attitude fizzled, shipping me back to the "Can't DO" doldrums.

Then I happened to run across Mardi Gras coins. These are large, brightly colored aluminum coins that revelers throw from the Mardi Gras floats to the bystanders.

Mardi Gras coins compared to the Game On! coins

I learned that these coins are made by stamping aluminum using a mold, then anodizing them to add the color. Anodizing is an electrochemical process that causes the color to uniformly adhere to an oxide on the surface of aluminum. This solved another big worry. Nickel coins are enameled to add color. This works great if the coin is used solely for display, such as a souvenir medal. In regular use as coins, though, the enamel would likely chip. That is why you rarely see any colors on nickel coins unless they are minted in brass or shiny shade.

Nickel coins need to be different sizes to make them distinguishable, whereas the anodized aluminum coins were light and uniformly colorful, while having a tough surface that still felt like metal when I held them. Ah, I thought, could this actually work? The "Can DO" attitude was back.

Unanodized Game ON! aluminum coins

One Set to Rule Them All...

Now I faced the key question — What should the ideal coin be? — which invoked many other questions: What size coin? What thickness? What colors? What art? How many in a set? and so on. Before checking with mints, I needed more details on what exactly to ask for. My Mardi Gras sample coin was about 1.5" in diameter, slightly smaller than a poker chip, but still too big. The original plastic set I wanted to buy had 7/8" coins, which were too small. How do you experiment with coin sizes?

Well, U.S. coins have no rational basis for size — the nickel is bigger than the penny, which is bigger than the dime — but they're great for experimenting with coin size. I started walking around with a pocket full of U.S. coins to get opinions on size. The U.S. quarter was the size everyone liked the most. It is ~1" (25mm) and fits nicely in hand. The interesting feedback, though, was that the quarter is too thin. The requests I kept hearing were that the coins needed to be thicker so that they're easy to pick up. Two quarters stacked on top of one another seemed to be the right width. Plus they feel "weightier" and more solid than the thinner Mardi Gras coin. In the end, I settled on a target coin that was 5mm (3/32") thick with a 25mm (~1") diameter.

Size comparison

A harder design decision involved what kind of art to use. Since this coin set was meant to be usable for any game, I wanted the art to be simple. Each coin would be one bright color to make it easily recognizable. I also wanted the coins to be two-sided. I decided to use simple art: a diamond pattern and the denomination on one side of the the coin, with only the denomination on the reverse side.

Deciding how many coins and of which denominations to put in a set was another tough decision. I am an 18xx/Acquire player, so I wanted the higher denominations: 500, 1000, and 5000 coins. On the other hand, most Eurogames need at most a 25 or 50 denomination coin.

The even harder issue was how many 1 denomination coins to include in the set. With thirty 1 coins, the set would support up to a six-player game with each person having five 1 coins before trading them in for a 5 coin. I hate when a coin set is so inadequate that players have to trade in coins to fill out the a shortage in the bank. This was a real head scratcher for a while until someone suggested the obvious: add a 2 coin. This eliminates the issue of adding enough 1 coins and made making change at the lower denominations infinitely easier. I finally settled on an "Elite" set of 240 coins: 30 1 coins, 30 2 coins, 30 5 coins, 25 10 coins, 25 25 coins, 20 50 coins, 20 100 coins, 20 500 coins, 20 1000 coins and 20 5000 coins.

The Elite 240 coin set with storage options at right;
extra foam cutouts are shown as an illustration

I wanted this "Elite" set for myself and brazenly assumed every other gamer in the world would want the same set. One set to rule them all...

A Digression: Never Discuss Politics, Religion, or Metal Coins with a Gamer

Making the ten types of coins in ten colors but the same size with simple art so that they could be used for any game seemed like a good compromise. For feedback on this idea, I read many blogs and articles in which gamers commented on metal coins. I posted my ideas on some of them and got torched immediately. Some respondents were passionate about having different coin sizes. Some demanded elaborate designs as with the Scythe coin set. One person looked at the prototypes and pronounced the set "so 1970s". Others commented that they wouldn't consider anything other than nickel, and they wanted a unique set for each game — at a $1 coin, no less!

One pair of game company execs to whom I showed the prototypes treated me to a thirty-minute tag team full volume, non-stop lecture about why these coins sets were worthless. They pulled out their own multi-sized nickel coins with the fancy artwork to show me what the coins should look like, even though they mentioned having lots of coins available because they weren't selling. One even pulled out their iPhone and showed me eight websites with similar coins and said that this is what I needed to do. I felt like the Russians in June 1941; the Germans had attacked, and it was an overrun.

And all the time I was thinking: "If everyone is making the same type of coins, which are barely selling, why not try something different?" (heavy sigh)

Like every other aspiring designer in the game world, I wasn't going to give in to a bunch of negativity. I ultimately went back to the inspiration for this project. Kurt's original coin set came in a nice, easy-to-carry injection-molded plastic case with all the coins the same size.

Having coins of different sizes would create havoc with the case design as it would have to be tall enough and wide enough to accommodate the largest coins, but the smaller coins would constantly spill out every time the case was moved. Plus, I now had ten different coin denominations; my head ached thinking about designing a case for ten different coin sizes. The case size would be huge, killing the portability principle.

So I went with the 25mm diameter for all the coins. I kept the simple artwork so that it could be used with almost any card, board, or mini game. The denominations on the coins were easy to read without the fancy artwork. With ten different colors, you could easily tell the coins apart by glancing at them. For color-blind people, each coin had a denomination on both sides.

Decisions, Decisions, and Compromises (Continued)

The final decision/compromise was picking the coin colors. I had no real basis for choosing colors other than to appeal to as many gamers as possible. In my simplistic reasoning, I asked "What very large gamer group would care about coin colors?" Why, Magic players, of course!

I had already decided to make the coins two-sided (tapped/untapped in Magic speak), so why not make the first five coin denominations the five Magic colors? The 1 coins would be white, the 2 coins blue, the 5 coins green, the 10 coins red, and the 25 coins black. What other group might be interested in colors? Well, role-players like silver and gold, so I made the 50 coins silver and the 100 coins gold. As for the 500, 1000 and 5000 coins, I just decided to see which other colors were available. I didn't hear the disheartening words "standard poker chip colors" and "In D&D the golds are 100 but the silvers are 10" until much later after the sets had already been produced.

A side view to show the final colors

I was blissfully happy, and all I needed now was a name. After some discussion, I settled on the name: Game ON! Travel Coin set. I christened myself and the company as "Der Coinmeister". It sounded cool, and after arm-wrestling the German language for many years, I figured this was a small payoff for all that study.

The design decisions finally were done. Now all I had to do was contact mints to get the coins made, and I would be on the way to coin mastery.

An Arabian Nights Hero Rescues Me

I wanted to make the coins in the U.S., so I contacted mints that made Mardi Gras coins to ask them for a quote for making the coins. They were all glad to take my order, but two issues arose:

• They would make them in only two sizes — 1.5 or 1.25 inches in diameter and 1.25 mm thick, and/or
• They were so outrageously priced that I would be offering coins at the same price as more expensive nickel coins

My plans abruptly crashed and burned. To get my set, I needed to make lots of sets and sell the extras to like-minded gamers. The set I wanted to make was either unmintable, unsellable, or both. All my talk/testing/planning was now just smoke — another out-of-the-box idea that amounted to nothing but a long, fruitless exercise.

The coin project lay moldering, dead but unburied, for seven months. Then I was laid up at home for almost a month without enough to do, which is always a dangerous situation for me. I began to sniff around the corpse of the coin project again. I've written reviews of Origins and Gen Con for Counter magazine for over ten years. During that time, I had the opportunity to talk with lots of game designers, big and small. They often talked about how hard it was to produce a game in the U.S., so they worked with printers in China. I kept reading about this Alibaba website and wondered whether this would work for minting coins. Well, what can I lose, I thought?

I went to the Alibaba website, typed in "aluminum coins", and got 135 hits. What's more, all of these sites would make any size that I wanted, and the prices were reasonable. I sent out a bunch of requests and got lots of replies. I eventually narrowed my choices down to three manufacturers who would make test coins if I paid the very reasonable cost of making a mold. I also realized that I had seen Mardi Gras coins in only five colors, so I had to struggle with the mints to get them to anodize in five additional colors.

Two of the three mints sent me sample coins. I even made some test sets from the cheaper of the two. I showed these to people at Origins in 2017 to get feedback, which was mostly along the lines of "Okay but sort of cheap-looking".

The final coin set

Then the set arrived from the third mint, the most expensive one. It was so superior in color and quality that there was no question which way to go. These had bright, true colors, such as white, blue, gold and yellow, not the shiny pastels of the Mardi Gras coins. They had a tough finish coat that wouldn't scratch or chip. They looked and felt good! The price point would be painful, but everyone who saw this set loved the coins. I loved them. These were coins I would be proud to own and proud to sell. Alibaba saved me.

A Case Study...

With the coin minting on track, I wanted to get some kind of box to hold them. Kurt's set came in a nice little injection-molded plastic case. In a rapid series of flashbacks, I started with U.S. manufacturers who made injection-molded cases. Again, the cases were too expensive, and the manufacturers weren't willing to customize a case.

This time I queried Alibaba promptly to discover a stunning profusion of case makers. As I was looking, one particular case caught my eye. It was injection-molded but had a tough fabric cover, zippers (I learned my lesson about latches with the poker chip box incident noted above), a handle, and foam inserts that were cut so that there were five or six removable inserts per row. I loved the case.

The case's outer appearance; note the zippers and handle

I contacted the manufacturer, who graciously worked with me over multiple samples to get both the case size and the row width correct so that the coins would be held firmly in place at a depth from which they could easily be pulled up. On top of that, the case had a nice zipper compartment in the top for more storage. It turned out way better than expected, and it was affordable. The final case had an 11"x9" external diameter, a handle, two zippers, and seven rows of five foam cutouts inside that could be removed or adjusted depending on which coins or other accessories (dice, figures etc) the gamer chose to put in the case. The case could hold up to 400 coins, although I was expecting to use space for only 240, with the rest of the volume being available for storage.

With 240 coins inside, the whole set weighed 2.5 lbs. The rub: the minimum order quantity was five hundred cases. That was many more than I needed for the coins that I had ordered, but I thought there might be a second minting. It was better to have a few (!!) extra cases. This was not a project for the fearful, so full speed ahead with five hundred cases on order.

"Patience You Must Have, My Young Padawan"

Okay, I thought, you can actually make these coins in time for the big Kahuna: Gen Con. I pushed the manufacturers to get the coins and cases done so that I could show the 240 coin sets there. The manufacturers grumblingly complied with my short time frame. I made up business cards that promised a Kickstarter in October because...well, that's what a seller does, right? Run a Kickstarter? A completely naïve decision on my part. More on that below.

Soon I received 18 boxes containing 70,000 coins and had an irritated spouse. Then, to my horror, I opened the first box to find...each coin was individually packaged in a cellophane bag that had to be cut open. We spent months cutting them out of the cellophane.

Imagine having 17 more cases like this, each with 2500+ individually wrapped coins

I got enough open to make up some sets using the sample cases I had on hand. The actual cases were in Chinese customs weeks before Gen Con. They cleared customs agonizingly slowly, but were finally on the way to the U.S. They arrived at LAX four days before Gen Con at the same time as a massive shipment of cherries that had to be transported immediately. The cases were waiting for me when I arrived home from Gen Con.

All was not lost at Gen Con, other than some valuable gaming time. I did get a chance to talk to game journalists in the press room and show them the coins. That is something I should have paid more attention to. Talking to game journalists is obvious, but where to meet them was the key lesson that went over my head.

Kicked by Kickstarter

Kickstarter has been a real boost for game designers and for gaming in general. It seemed like the natural place to debut the coin sets. As a Kickstarter newbie, I asked people how to go about running a Kickstarter campaign. There is also a lot of good posted information about this on Kickstarter itself and blogs such a Jamey Stegmaier's on the Stonemaier Games website.

My Kickstarter did a massive bellyflop, mostly because despite all of the great information available, I failed to comprehend a few critical fundamental concepts:

1. Kickstarter is not an advertising platform. As many places advise, build up the interest BEFORE the Kickstarter campaign (duh).

2. Kickstarter is not very flexible. I wanted to sell customizable sets and individual sets of coins, but that is not possible, so I created an overcomplicated group of sets for sale.

3. Everyone loves to jump on the bandwagon of a funded campaign. I put down a goal of selling 250 sets, which is what I had available to sell. That was dumb. Since the sets were already made, I could have chosen five sets as the goal, or even one set to have a successful Kickstarter, then push out one of those "Funded in 24 hours" boasts.

4. Timing is everything. A Kickstarter in October is bad timing. There is lots of advertising for SPIEL releases around that time. I advertised on BGG but never asked the key question: How often would my ad show up? It turned out it was about 1 in 100, which essentially was not seen. My ads were swallowed up in all the other SPIEL advertising.

5. Several game company people mentioned using Facebook to advertise, so I did. What they didn't spell out or I was too thick to understand was that you also needed to create a following on Facebook ahead of the Kickstarter. I paid to boost my Facebook post, supposedly reaching several hundred thousand people without one hit on my page. I don't advise trusting Facebook's numbers.

6. I did wind up selling twenty sets to people who were quite happy to get them.

"There's a Big Difference Between Mostly Dead and All Dead. Now, Mostly Dead Is Slightly Alive."

That was all a totally frustrating experience. After some painful self-review, I decided to start again, this time exhibiting at tabletop conventions. I began at a small one in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, then went on to a larger one, Geekway to the West, in St. Louis, then finally went to Origins 2019. Along the way, I got much more information about what gamers want, how to show the coins, how gamers like to purchase coin sets, and what they are looking for. The gaming press turns out for the larger events and are always interested in writing about something new.

One total surprise coming out of all this was that the case was a hit. As I was demonstrating the coin sets, people kept asking about buying the case separately. It seems that it is the perfect size (with the adjustable inserts) for RPG gamers to transport figures and dice with space for pens/pencils/character sheets/etc. in the zipper storage. What started out as an afterthought turned out to be a "product line".

RPGers like this storage concept to transport figs and dice

"Good Judgement Comes from Experience, and Experience Comes from Bad Judgement" (Rita Mae Brown)

I did accomplish several goals. I now have a good high quality, universal, portable set of metal coins for myself and my gaming group. I learned a lot about the mechanisms of marketing. I have a website and Facebook page, take credit cards, and have a tax ID and a seller's permit in three states. I have gotten Game ON! Travel Coin sets into the hands of a lot of like-minded gamers who were are looking for an alternative to poker chips and had the same issues I did with cardboard for markers or coins. They were quite excited to see these sets. I stumbled into a business that means that I can write off trips to conventions where I exhibit as a business expense.

Better organized booth at Origins with specific sets and individual coins to sell

I learned that exhibiting at conventions is work and not fun. At Origins and Geekway, there were thousands of gamers enjoying gaming nearby, and I was stuck in a booth. (All game company owners and employees are now laughing snarkily and evilly after reading that last sentence.)

I also found out why no one would make another set like this. The profit margin is too slim for a company to sell profitably. In coin sets there are two options: cheap/low quality/profitable, or high quality/high cost/slim margin. Since the Game ON! Travel Coin set is a personal project, I could afford to create it as I have no overhead and and am not relying on this to support my family or my retirement. When I was writing the Gen Con and Origin reviews for Counter, I talked to an endless stream of hopeful game designers, but met very few who could ever make enough money to even consider giving up their day job. The gaming business is a harsh one. It is a real tribute to the great large and small companies that bring out the profusion of fine games to which we have become accustomed and stay in business.

But in the final analysis:

• I own my ideal coin set.
• I won't ever need to buy another chip/card/plastic set.
• I am not alone; there are other gamers who are looking for this type of set.
• I carry my set with me whenever and wherever I game.
• I leave the cardboard chunks of markers and irritating paper in the box.
• My set enhances my enjoyment of every game in which I use them.

I learned a lot, but one important overall lesson is that I love gaming as a hobby, not as a business.

And finally: Game ON!

John Butitta, a.k.a., Der Coinmeister

Next stop for Der Coinmeister: SPIEL '19
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