Tom Vasel
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Interviews by an Optimist # 88 - Evelyn Brunner

Evelyn says this about herself…
Fun Factory Games is a partnership born out of a common love for Euro-style games and an untapped plethora of game design ideas my partner, Nik, had. Our board game-publishing company provided us the opportunity to meld our respective talents- Nik’s propensity for game designing and my experience in graphic design and brand management.

The mission of Fun Factory Games is to create high quality board games with good game mechanics for the enjoyment of board gamers all over the world. We strive to champion the cause of board gaming, exposing non-gamers to the joy of this hobby and drawing them into the tightly-knit community of board-gamers.

I’m a designer by training and as such am the artwork and graphics coordinator of Fun Factory Games’ products. However, most of my time as the Director of Fun Factory Games is spent managing all the business aspects of the company- from finance and marketing to logistics and order fulfillment.

I played a multitude of games throughout my childhood in the US, as I was periodically plied with them as gifts from my Swiss relatives. However, due to my father’s work, my teenage years were spent shuttling around various schools in Asia, and I lost touch with games. Years later, Nik introduced me to the engaging world of Euro-style games.


Tom: What made you decide to start your own game company?

Eve: It was a culmination of things... Right around the time I was thinking of leaving my job to start my own company, Nik showed me some of his game ideas which I thought were great and had amazing market potential. Starting our own games company enabled us to not only meld our respective talents (his in games designing; mine in graphics and brand management), but more importantly, to develop these game ideas in a way we both felt was best for them.

Tom: Tell us about the games that you've produced so far?

Eve: Our first game, Dividends, is a highly interactive game where players seek to make the most money from the volatile stock market through stock buying to earn dividend payouts or selling for profits. Success in this game is largely determined by a player’s ability to make the most money from each stock purchase, while taking into consideration the effects of supply and demand on the stock prices.

Dividends is best suited for those aged 12 years and above. On average, each game lasts from 30 to 90 minutes or more and can accommodate 2 to 12 players.

Our most recent release, Giza, is a quick and light tile-laying game where players strive to construct the finest three pyramids for the pharaohs in ancient Egypt while fending off their opponents’ attempts to thwart their efforts. Players can increase the value of their pyramids by filling them with treasures or by building the notoriously challenging Great Sphinx.

Giza is easy to learn and simple to play, making it an ideal family game or introductory game for non-gamers. With its short playing time of 10 to 30 minutes, it also serves well as a “filler” game between other longer games. Giza was designed for those aged 8 and above and can accommodate 2 to 6 players.
Thus far both of our games have been well received by the public, and we’ve been experiencing brisk sales in the US, Asia and throughout Europe.

Tom: Do you have any future games in the works?

Eve: Yes, we have several ideas in the pipeline. A few are in the early developmental stages, but we've yet to decide which one(s) to develop further.

Tom: How do you decide what games to produce, develop, etc.? And where do you get your game submissions from?

Eve: Under the Fun Factory Games label, we only produce games that meet a few basic criteria. The games must:

* Be relatively easy to learn i.e. does not require one hour or more of rule explanation.
* Appeal to a wide gaming audience (rather than a specific niche of gamers).
* Have robust game mechanics and a high degree of re-playability.
* Have some degree of player-interactivity (as opposed to those games that are essentially "multi-player solitaire").
* Effectively blend the theme and game mechanics (the theme should not just be slapped on as an after-thought)
* Be realistically cost-effective to produce

Our first two games were designed in-house by Nik, and he has scores of other game ideas in various stages of development. We also look externally to designers who we feel are able to produce games that fit the above criteria.

Tom: Can you tell us about the decisions that go into deciding what game components to use; how to produce them, etc.?

Eve: We first consider all aspects of the game as a whole- the theme of the game, the main game mechanics, the target market, the retail price point we're aiming for, etc.

Then we decide the function(s) that each component has to fulfill in the game; how it should look to match the game theme and target market; and finally what methods and materials meet these first two criteria, while still being appropriate for the price point we're aiming for.

So I guess for us, choosing the components to be used boils down to 3 key elements: form, function and cost.

Perhaps the above is best explained by relating some of the experiences we had with Giza and Dividends...

Giza actually started out as a card game in its early developmental stages. However, we felt that stacking cards would not give players the sense of constructing the various levels of a pyramid. So we settled on using tiles which were thick enough to enable players to see their pyramids "grow" with each level they added.

When our play testers tried the tile-based prototype we created, they loved it. However, we found that some of the less experienced gamers couldn't keep track of the number of pyramids they were allowed to build. So we introduced the individual Giza map-boards with their demarcated construction sites.

Compared to Giza, Dividends had more elements, resulting in much more trial and error in deciding the components to use for it. Initially we wanted a wooden or plastic stock market chart, but given its large size, we had to rule those two options out due to cost considerations. After a lot of brainstorming, we came up with the solution of creating the chart out of the blister and housing it in the box bottom.

Other decisions were made as a result of the input we received and the observations we made while the various prototypes were being playtested. For example, the game board. This component is not critically necessary in the game, but we found it prevented players from skipping any of the 5 steps in each game year. It also gave the game a focal point and helped players keep track of the game year they were playing in.

Tom: How big is the Asian board game market?

Eve: As far as I'm aware of, there have been no formal studies on the size of the Asian board game market. However, based on anecdotal evidence, I'd say it is definitely an emerging market. The key players are currently Japan followed by South Korea and you have newer players like Singapore.

In Singapore, the awareness of Euro-style board games has really grown in the last two years or so. The first board gaming café appeared in Singapore in October 2003. Since then, the number of board gaming cafés has grown to five, and on any given weekend they are bustling with people.

Singapore also currently ranks number one as the "city" with the most number of board gamers as registered on the Board Game Meet-up website.

Tom: So, are there board game club, cafes, or other such things in Singapore? How big is the gaming population?

Eve: In Singapore there are currently four board gaming cafes, and they are largely frequented by newcomers to the hobby. I feel that the cafes are integral to the development of the board gaming culture in Singapore, as they give the general public exposure to Euro-games that they would otherwise never have had been aware of.

Also noteworthy is the Singapore Board Game Meetup (http://boardgames.meetup.com/21/). Thanks to this group there are now regular opportunities for individuals to meet other like-minded people to play games at one of the board game cafes. The Meetup organizer, Andy, has worked tirelessly to promote the hobby in Singapore and has done an amazing job.

Besides that, there are very few formal board gaming clubs that I know of in Singapore- most people just game with a loosely-knit group of friends at someone's house.

How big is the gaming population in Singapore? Factoring in that the Singapore Board Game Meetup alone now has about 275 members, and that there are a lot of "closet" gamers who don't attend these events, I'd put the number at 450 or so.

If the efforts to develop board gaming in Singapore continue, I foresee that this number will grow considerably over the next few years.

This is substantiated by the fact that every time our company does game demos at mass-market retailers in Singapore, the "non-gamers'" response to our products has been extremely positive. I feel that "non-gamers" here are receptive to the concept of Euro-style board games, but merely lack exposure to them.

Tom: Why are there so few board game companies in Asia?

Eve: I think the key reason is because the modern board gaming culture isn't as deeply rooted here as it is in the West.

Tom: How can this be changed?

Eve: I think there are two factors that are key to the development of the board gaming culture in Asia-awareness and time.

Once a larger group of people in Asia are exposed to (and interested in) a range of games beyond Monopoly, Uno, Jenga, etc. there will naturally be a larger pool of potential games designers. Eventually some of these designers will start their own game publishing companies.

Awareness of Euro-style board games will grow when more “non-gamers” see and are given the opportunity to play such games. This can be through the mass-market media giving coverage to the board gaming hobby, mass-market retailers carrying Euro-style games, non-gamers visiting board gaming cafes and gamers introducing the hobby to the uninitiated.

However, it seems like it will take some time to develop this awareness.

Tom: What kind of work goes into one of your games from start to finish?

Eve: We start off with a very general idea of what we want the game to be and how it will fit into the Fun Factory Games' range of products: the type of game, its target market, price point, etc.

Then we look at the design submissions we have and ascertain which submissions can meet these potential goals. We play-test this narrowed field of submissions, assessing that they meet our basic requirements of high re-playability, unbroken game mechanics and a rich theme entwined in the games' mechanics themselves.

If required, we then go on to tweak the game play and game rules. Following which, we create a rough mock-up and have it play-tested among groups of trusted gamers whom we know will give us honest and constructive feedback. After exhaustive play-testing and tweaking we would have pretty much decided which game(s) are suitable for production.

We then confirm the components to be used and get manufacturing quotations so as to ascertain the feasibility of manufacturing the chosen game from a business standpoint. If all indications are good, we produce the artwork for the game and create a final prototype. A final round of play-testing ensues to ensure there are no graphic design flaws that hinder the game play (e.g. colours of player's pawns not being easily distinguishable, player aids that are not intuitive, illegible fonts being used, etc).

Once we're totally happy with the product we have, we go into production sampling and finally we manufacture the game. Marketing and securing our distribution channels pretty much occurs concurrently with the manufacturing process.

Tom: What advice would you have for an aspiring board game designer?

Eve: Playtest, playtest, playtest. And when you think you're done playtesting your game, playtest it some more.

It's so important to playtest your games with as many people as you possibly can. Playtesting will not only help you weed out any possible problems in the game mechanics and rules, it will also give you a fresh perspective on the game.

You have to playtest your game with people that you know will give you honest feedback and constructive criticism. Personally, I also find it useful to playtest one's games with a diverse demographic pool - young and older people, male and female, gamers and non-gamers, etc. Doing so will help you assess the potential "reach" of your game as well as its commercial viability.

When playtesting, game designers must be very open to any suggestions and possible criticism offered by playtesters. There is no point playtesting if you've already made up your mind that your game is a flawless gem!

Tom: What about advice for those who want to start their own game company?

Eve: (1) If you are starting your first game publishing company, don't be too quick to quit your day job.

(2) Have realistic expectations and goals. If you want to become a millionaire overnight, starting your own company is not the way to do it.

(3) Do your homework and know the workings of the board game industry inside out *before* you commit to manufacturing your game.

(4) Have a stellar marketing plan from the get-go.

(5) Have unlimited supplies of patience and perseverance.

Tom: How many games would you recommend someone producing for the first run?

Eve: The short answer is: as small as possible.

The rationale behind a small production run is that it enables you to rectify any mistakes (e.g. in your rules, graphics, game play, final production, etc.) a short while later in a second, larger run. It would be a nightmare to be stuck with several thousand units of a flawed, un-sellable game.

Additionally, a small initial run enables you to preliminarily gauge the public's reception to your game. This in turn will help you decide whether it is viable to do a second, larger print run and if so, how large a run it should be.

However, having said all that, small runs are generally (a) not cost effective and (b) near impossible to do as few manufacturers will produce small runs for you.

So you have to produce the smallest run that your manufacturer is willing to take on at a reasonable per unit cost (so that you can actually make a profit when your game is sold).

Once you are more experienced in game publishing and have firmly established your retail and distribution channels, you can consider diving straight into a larger production run of a few thousand sets from the get-go.

Tom: To whom do you go for components? Are there any things you've learned from your first two games (what not to include, what you should have included), etc.?


Eve: We have various manufacturers in China. Who we go to really depends on what sort of components we need.

Luckily for us we didn't make any major mistakes in the production of Giza and Dividends, so everything we learned was while producing the games, rather than in the aftermath.

During the pre-production phase we learned things like how to optimize our print runs through tweaking the size of our cards, reducing the number of films used, not using too many different card weights, etc.

Tom: Eve, thanks for all your great answers! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Eve: It was my pleasure, Tom.

I just want to take this opportunity to say a big, heartfelt, "Thank you," to all those amazing people who have supported Fun Factory Games this past year... All those retailers, distributors and licensees who took a leap of faith in taking on our games; and the gamers who bought our games and have enjoyed them. It's you guys who really spur us on!

(Warning: shameless plug coming ) Look out for the foreign language versions of our games that are coming soon, as well as our third game, slated for release in 2007!

Edited by Tom and Laura Vasel
"Real men and women play board games"
February 3, 2006
www.tomvasel.com
 
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