I thought I would give an account of my experiences with self-publishing my first game, Archaeology. I was greatly helped by the experiences of other home publishers, so hopefully these words can in turn be some help to anyone wishing to give it a shot!
After designing games as a hobby for a year or so (although I’d done it on and off since I was about 7), I decided to try self-producing one of my lighter games, a light set-collection filler called Archaeology. After much research and comparing of prices I decided to make 50 copies at home myself. The game consists of a box, a board, 93 cards, 40 money tokens, a card box, instruction booklet and high score booklet.
I will go through the construction of each component step by step. Sorry if my descriptions aren’t all crystal clear! It would be great to have included photos of all this, but in the end the production process was pretty rushed for me and so I was never really thinking about documenting it all visually. Feel free to ask me if you would like any clarifications on how this all worked!
What I used
A trusty stanley knife
Some people may know this as a box-cutter. Great for accurate cutting of boxboard with a ruler. Also excellent for scoring box board so it can be folded (ie. just lightly cutting halfway through the board). I found it worked best to keep the knife quite sharp, and extra blades don’t cost much at all.
A stack cutter
This is like a guillotine, only it can cut through 500 sheets of paper! It locks the sheets in place and then a large lever is used to press down the blade. I picked up a cheap new one on eBay for under $100. This was used for cutting out cards.
This was used to mount the artwork onto the boards and boxes. The only thing I found easily available that is strong enough for this sort of thing is 3M Photo Mount.
Old copies of various street-press newspapers
Not sure about other counties, but in many Australian cities there are a few free local music newspapers/gig-guides that you can pick up. These are great to use as table protection when using spray adhesive because they are free, recyclable and best of all, stapled! Opened up they are big enough for most jobs, and when the page is used up and sticky, you just turn the page and have a fresh new surface. I stumbled across this idea and I think it ended up saving me lots of time in having to ‘re-newspaper’ the table!
Plenty of 2mm thick boxboard
This was bought from a art supply store and was used for boxes, boards and inserts.
Artwork printed on glossy A4 and A3 stock
This was ordered through an online printer. A3 and A4 are very standard sizes here so these prices are best. For those of you unaware, A4 size is 297mm x 210 cm and A3 size is 420mm x 297mm.
Ah the gamer’s best friend. These were ordered in bulk and used to store the tokens.
Really handy for those small specific sticking jobs.
Having a bit of a graphic design background I decided to do the art myself. This was nice as I of course had total control, and the visual look of the game was very important to me. It was also a cost-saver because I know that hiring an artist can cost a bundle. Still I think most people without looking too hard can find artists willing to help out with a fun job like a boardgame.
I searched high and wide for a way to get my game boxes pre-made. Tin, wood, cardboard, I tried everything. Either the shapes and sizes I needed just weren’t available, or the cost to get them custom-made was sky-high. In the end I decided to make the boxes myself. This allowed me to pick any size I wanted, although I knew there would be an obvious trade-off with labour time. After some experimentation I decided to go with 2mm thick box board. It is really sturdy and easy to score with a stanley knife (I found 1mm is a bit too easy to accidentally cut though).
My maximum box size was limited by the largest paper size I could afford to print the box art on. This turned out to be A3 size (I was looking at ‘poster’ prices once I went above this). After much tinkering with my card and board sizes (the components needed to actually fit inside this thing!), I ended up with a box size of 25cm x 20cm x 4cm.
Once I had the dimensions of my box worked out I realised that measuring out the dimensions for the cuts on the boxboard took ages, and this thing needed to be really accurate in size to accommodate the art! My solution was to buy a bunch of cheap A4 inkjet labels and print out a rectangle the size of the box-top. This label was then stuck on to the boxboard giving me exact guidelines for cutting, I only needed to measure out 4cm from each corner to indicate the dimensions of the box sides, and then I could get cutting and scoring.
The box was then folded and the corners taped into place. The tape job can be pretty rough as the whole thing thankfully gets covered in nice glossy art!
Next the art needs to be glued on. I was a bit worried about this part as I knew the print had to be aligned perfectly on the box, and gluing is always a pain. After a little trial and error I came up with a pretty quick way of getting this done. First the artwork is cut to the right shape (there are folding tabs and edges that need to be cut out), then it is placed face down on the table. Now it is quite easy to line up the box lid, placing it top-down on top of the print. Looking at the corners of the box, you can slide them into the correct alignment with the edges of the art. Next, with one piece of double-sided tape stuck on one of the box sides, one edge of the art can be pulled up and stuck in place on one side of the box. Now the art is correctly lined up for gluing, but only attached to one side of the box.
Next stop is outside, where the box is sprayed with adhesive (the art is flipped out of the way). Then the art is pulled back across the box and pressed into place. Strong woodworking glue is then applied along the tabs which fold into the inside of the box. I used a paintbrush to apply this, and went for a strong glue so I wouldn’t have to hold it down for more than a few seconds.
I also had two small insert sections stuck within the box which held the board up in place and allowed a space in the middle for the other components to be stored. Again I printed out a template for these on labels, stuck this onto boxboard and cut them out and scored them. They were folded, taped, and then covered in the same material I used for the board backings (see below).
I’d say that when I got on a roll, I could get an entire box done in 20 minutes. This was a time-consuming part of the process but did mean I could have a pretty good looking and sturdy custom box.
Getting custom boxes made is expensive!
Home-made boxes are possible, just time consuming!
My board was about 48 cm x 19 cm with one fold in the middle. The artwork was printed in two separate halves (divided at the point where the fold would be) on one A3 sheet. I then stuck this onto boxboard with spray adhesive. I then cut out each half of the board and lightly taped them together so they lined up correctly. Next I flipped over the board and stuck a nice thick piece of cloth tape down over the divide. This essentially became the hinge of the board fold. Now that everything was locked in place, I could remove my initial tape from the front of the board.
Now I pondered for quite a while what backing to use on the back of the board. Not only does a backing look nicer than plain boxboard, but the cloth tape needs some protection. One day I was in K-Mart and saw this great adhesive notebook covering, and it had a woodgrain pattern! It looked like an original Atari 2600! They also had heaps of rolls of it so I bought a bunch. This worked out great as backing because it was self-adhesive and looked cool. So I just stuck a piece of this across the back of the board. To finish, I just cut all around the edges making everything nice and neat.
This didn’t take too long but the fold did make things pretty complex. An easier path would have been to have two separate boards, and no fold. This would have worked out ok in the case of this game, because my board has two pretty separate functions (the marketplace and the treasure chests) which could quite easily be divided on to two boards.
I also realised that a quad-fold board is virtually impossible to do at home. The reason is that one folding hinge needs to fold forwards which in turn means that the cloth tape across this fold would have to be applied underneath the artwork. Which is too complex an operation to even comprehend! (He says in a Dr Frink voice).
For the small run I was planning I knew that getting custom decks made was out of my price range. However I realised that having only 16 different types of cards in the game, I could squeeze them all on to one A4 sized piece of artboard. Although this meant the cards would need to be cut up manually, and that they’d be a little smaller than I’d hoped, the price difference was huge. So I ordered the printing done on 300gsm matt finish artboard, the quality of which helped to make up a bit for the card size.
Boxes of this stuff arrived and I set about chopping up all the cards with my trusty stack cutter. I had no problem chopping through piles of card quickly (especially when using a piece of tape to secure big piles), however I found a lot of concentration was required to make sure the cuts were exact. Even when the pile is locked in place there will be some slight movement during the cut which I had to keep an eye on. This all meant that occasionally a cut wouldn’t go so well and I’d end up throwing out a bunch of mis-cut cards. In the end though this wasn’t too time-consuming and was cheap enough that the wastage didn’t really matter much.
One interesting downside was that because some cards appear 12 times in each deck, and others only once, I ended up with way more copies of certain cards than I needed. I have hundreds of Master Thieves left over!
I knew small cards like these would really need to have rounded corners. I’d looked into professional corner-rounding machines, but the prices and shipping were pretty high. In the end I went with a few craft corner-punches and invited friends over for a punching party! With a few people going you can get through them at a reasonable pace, plus you can chat or watch TV while doing it. Still in the end this is something I’d rather not do again!
I also made a card box by just printing the artwork in a tuck box template, cutting it out and assembling it with double-sided tape.
If cutting your own cards make sure the design does not have any graphic element that visually locates the edge of the card too closely. I had a thin border around the back of my cards, which meant that if a card was even slightly mis-cut, it was graphically obvious because the border didn’t quite line up with the edge of the card. A plane of colour or simple pattern on the back would not have revealed my errors as much!
If you are going to punch your own corners, consider buying a decent professional punching machine.
The money tokens
There are 40 money tokens in the game, which were represented by rectangular tiles with art on both sides. These were made by gluing artwork (a big grid of tokens!) onto boxboard. This was then cut out as one big square. Another copy of the art was placed on the back of the board and taped along one edge. This was then flipped out of the way, and adhesive was applied to the board underneath. Then the art was flipped back down and glued, the taping allowing for good alignment. Then each individual token was cut out. I started using the stack cutter for this but found it wasn’t always accurate when cutting through piles of thick board (the pile tended to slip a little). To save wastage I decided to cut each token out by hand. This took much longer and actually led me to make a change in production technique.
I needed to quickly put together an extra print run of 25 copies to take to the Australian Games Expo, and decided the token cutting had to go! So I ordered in a bunch of coloured wooden discs from Germany to replace them. These look quite nifty and have the feel of poker chips which is fun. Most importantly, it saved a lot of time.
Cutting up lots of small tiles simply takes ages. Some people have suggested the method of die-cutting for tiles. On my investigation this seems like a pretty expensive way to go when done at professional level. If done with a craft-level home die-cutter it seems that it can be pretty tough to get accurate cuts done. Those mini machines seem to be made for cutting out shapes from plain card or board, not cutting out shapes in specific places determined by artwork. If anyone has had luck going in this direction, let me know though!
The booklets: rules and high score book
The rules were printed on double-sided gloss. Only four pages long, so I just had to fold them once to make the booklet. There was enough space left over on an A3 sheet for a second small booklet, so I decided to chuck in a high score log book. Not super necessary but hey, it added a little flavour.
Putting it together
Collating all the pieces and assembling copies actually takes more time than one might think. I was a little caught off guard here because I didn't really consider this at all as a timing issue. However if a bit of extra man-power is called in it can be done at a reasonable pace.
The reception of the game
The first audience for the game were my friends who had seen it developed. The snapped up some copies, and I put together a little launch party which was great fun!
But I also wanted to have strangers play this thing! I didn't have a huge plan here, just set up a way for the game to be ordered online and then post about it in a few places.
The game got a great reception when I first posted about it on BGG and the Board Game Designers Forum. That is, I got the first print run sold out pretty quickly. I feel this happened largely because I presented the game in a bit of a press-release style, with a few photos. Also I had something of a fun-sounding theme and some colourful artwork. I doubt a black and white printed game about being a librarian would have fared as well! Actually the theme, presentation and 'marketing' of a game is really a whole different discussion for another time!
I wasn’t expecting the orders to come in as they did, and so had quite a bit of extra production to do all of a sudden! In the future I will have a bigger stock in waiting just in case.
I think I under-estimated just how light the game would be perceived to be by the hobby-gamer community. I mean I knew it was a very light filler, but perhaps because I mainly game with lighter gamers, my radar was just a little different here. I was thinking somwehere between a Gamewright game and Lost Cities, and I think most gamer's felt it was closer to the former. No buyers were actually mad about this, but I would certainly say that next time when advertising to hobbyist gamers I will err on the side of saying the game is lighter than I think it is, as it is very important that people get what they feel they paid for! Of course, you play Archaeology with a Monopoly-only family and they can't get their head around the fact that there are no dice, and see it as a brain-burner!
An opportunity came up not long after to get a booth at the Australian Games Expo. I got 25 copies quickly made and took them down. This was a fantastic weekend! We played the game with heaps of people and it really found its audience with families, and 8-14 year olds. The feeling I got when watching a group of boys have loads of fun playing the game was by far the best experience of the whole project. They were having a great time setting the thieves on each other and selling off their treasures, it was excellent fun moderating their game! It made me remember all the fun I had with games as a kid and why I got into designing to begin with.
A few stores and distributors were also interested in the game. From chatting with them I realised I would need to find a quicker and cheaper production method to really make stocking with them worthwhile, but this is something I am still investigating.
I sold out all but the display copies and left the expo having met plenty of great people, and I suppose having the game’s key audience more specifically defined.
I basically broke even in the whole venture. I was aiming to make a little profit from each copy (to pay myself something like $2 an hour for labour and to have some money for another game) but in the end this was eaten up by other costs related to the game. Little things just keep popping up!
Overall lessons learnt
Self-production will only be survived if you really love what you are doing. It really is a lot of work, and at some points you will simply get fed up. For me it was the day I cut two of my fingers with the stanley knife! I feel that a real love of the hobby is required to get you through these times. You sure as heck aren’t going to get rich from it either!
Presentation is really important in terms of getting people interested in the game. I would say that having a reasonably professional looking game accounted for much of the initial interest people would show in the game. This seemed to happen both online at the expo, where kids would just walk up to look at the colourful pieces. It turned out to be well worth the extra time spent making everything look polished.
Taking your game to an expo is a great idea! It is the best way to get your game seen and played by a whole lot people.
Lots of tiles takes ages! This was the one aspect of design I found too time consuming and had to change. I haven’t found any decent solutions for a way around this problem as of yet. For now this is one component I am not really factoring into any future self-publishing projects.
When getting stuck in to a day of construction, group all like tasks together. Do all the cutting then the gluing then the assembly for example. Somehow your brain clicks into gear and you get things done quicker this way. But beware of RSI.
For really simple and repetitive tasks, invite some friends around to help and then shout them dinner.
Have a recycling bin nearby. I went through way more paper and board than I ever could have imagined. I am glad I had an easy way to recycle from day one, because I must have murdered half a forest.
I have a few more prototypes ready to produce, and not sure exactly what I will do next. I think I’ll approach publishers about a couple of the more complex ones which would just be a nightmare to self-produce. For a couple of simpler ones I am thinking that I have learnt enough that I could streamline the process for self-produced game number two, but we shall see.
Thanks for reading, again I’d be happy to clarify anything if there are questions out there.
Thanks for a great breakdown of your experience in self-publishing. My wife and I have our own art business and go through many of the challenges you've described with your manufacturing process. It's amazing how if you analyze and go through a process enough times you discover the simplest changes make a huge difference in the time you consume.
I'm interested to know a bit about your playtesting process you went through to arrive at the point where you were confident that you were ready to begin publishing.
I've got a few game ideas brewing and am seriously developing one of them currently. I'm just now begining to think of how I will tackle the publishing end also...
Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for the post, and I'd like to echo the desire to hear more about playtesting and your design process. We can all learn from your experiences!
Newcastle upon Tyne
Excellent post - extremely informative. It's amazing how similar our experiences were for our first games. Best of luck with your next game.
May you find the Perfect Shoe! xxx
Mostly offline, but trying.
Thanks for this detailed and informative post, Phil. It's great to get such insight into the work that went into producing your game.
I spoke to you briefly at the Australian Games Expo (one of the hundreds) and was impressed that you had gone to the trouble of taking a booth to bring your game down - I'm so glad you sold all your copies!
I didn't play Archaeology, but I watched the last half of a game and it looked like a fun game for families - I would have liked to try it with my 8 year old.
Glad it has been interesting!
Design and playtesting is probably a whole other article!
I suppose to summarise my approach to playtesting, I would say that I kept putting the game into various groups of people, guaging their responses and making tweaks until I felt the game had reached its potential within the vision I had for it. When suggestions slow to a trickle and people seem to be having fun I suppose you know you are getting close. I tried different types of groups and a couple of totally blind tests to make sure the rules worked and I hadn't been influencing sessions, but did not to a mass send out of copies to blind test, as I just wasn't hooked in to any real network like BGG last year. This is something to certainly look into for next time, as it is a powerful tool for reaching a wide range of gamers I'm sure.
I can't thank you enough for your post about your rare and valuable experience with publishing your own game.I am currently working on a game for playtesting.
I had so many questions about what someone does during and after the playtest phase, to get the game ready for self publishing. I was also to shy to ask these questions here.Then this morning I came across your post.WOW you answered all my questions and gave me even more to think about.Things I never even considered.
I'm starting to look for the stack cutter, and the other things you listed.
Thanks again Phil
P.S. I can't wait for your second print run of Archaeology. It looks phenomenal for a self Published game!You really set the standard high for me and all other aspiring game designers and self publishers.
If done with a craft-level home die-cutter it seems that it can be pretty tough to get accurate cuts done. Those mini machines seem to be made for cutting out shapes from plain card or board, not cutting out shapes in specific places determined by artwork. If anyone has had luck going in this direction, let me know though!
If you do them upside down, you should be able to see what you're doing through the hole in the bottom of the cutter.