04 - The many trades of board games

Submitted by ehanuise on Wed, 20/03/2013 - 16:56

04 - The many trades of board games

From the game idea to the finished product on the retailer shelves, there is a long path. Along this path, many different profiles will be required to work on the game. This chapter will briefly introduce each of these trades and try to paint you a broad picture of the gaming world.

Before you go ahead and start your own board game publishing business, consider all of these other gaming professions and ask yourself if publishing board games is really what you want to do, or if maybe some of these other trades are best suited to you. I do not mean to discourage anyone to go for it, far from that, but I would hate it for you to find out later on that this isn't really what you expected.

Also it is important to understand that no one can be a specialist at each of these trades. A publisher should not try to be all these profiles, he should rather act as a coordinator of talents, seeking for the best specialists and orchestrating their work in order to produce his games. This is another of the reasons why self-publishing is not recommended : if you insist on doing everything yourself, and many self-publishers do, you quickly become the bottleneck and end up being a liability to your own project in terms of attainable quality and available time.

The different professions are listed in chronological order from game idea to product on the shelves whenever possible, but some overlap may occur as this is a creative and iterative process.

Game Designer, 'Author'

The starting point, someone with a game ready for the publication process. There are many great books and resources on board games design, so this topic will not be covered in detail here.

Please note that someone with a great idea is not yet a game designer. To become one, he must turn that idea into a game prototype, test it solo, test it with gamers, refine it, redo the prototype as needed after each change or variation, and continue to do so until the feels the game is finished enough to be submitted to a publisher.

It is only once he has a publication contract with a publisher, or when he has an actual product on the shelves as a self-publisher that he can rightly be called a Game Designer. Until there, he's just someone with an idea. Everyone has ideas, what makes a Game Designer special is that he has committed to all the work required to make it an actual publishable design, and reached out to (successfully) get a publication deal for it. As they say, 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. (Actually there's a good 50% of plain luck involved, too.)

Authors usually meet with publishers during events such as conventions, boardgaming weekends or trade fairs. Some do set up an appointment and come to the publisher's office. Sometimes it's the publisher that calls them because they are looking for a specific design,or because they heard of a promising prototype through the grapevine. There are also special events for prototypes and design contests that can help publishers spot a hot game or author. The more a designer shows his prototypes around, the better chances he has to eventually find a publisher.

When the author and publisher agree on having a game published, they make a contract covering the details of the agreement, and the author transmits a playable prototype and the game rules to the publisher. At this stage, the prototype usually has no nice graphics, and is ugly but functionally playable. The game name is still subject to change according the publisher's needs, and the game is still subject to change and evolve during the development process - depending on the publisher's approach to development. All with the Author's approval and collaboration, of course.

Designer Agent

The Agent acts as a middleman between publishers and Authors. When he gets a publishing deal, he earns money : it can be a one-time fee, a part of the royalties prepayment and/or a part of the royalties.
Gaëtan Beaujannot ( http://www.forgenext.com/ ) tells me : "Most of the times, it's royalties (including on the advance). Some agents charge a submission fee to designers, but then they commit to provide a complete feedback and analysis of the game if they eventually turn down the submission."
An agent has added value on several levels both for the Author and the Publisher :

  • He makes a pre-selection of the games (or sometimes authors) that he will represent, acting as a filter. This weeding out of the chaff from the wheat ensures the publisher he will only see games deemed worthy of publication. There is of course always a risk that games that are uncommon or disruptively original get weeded out.

  • He establishes a long term relationship with the publishers and will be able to only present them games that are suited to their editorial line.

  • He has experience in negotiating contracts to the best interest of all parties involved as both the author and the publisher are his clients.

  • He will be able to provide Authors feedback on their prototypes and suggestions for improvement or better market placement before they get submitted to publishers.

  • He will have a portfolio of games and authors to represent, meaning the time a publisher spends with him has more chance of being productive than chance encounters with random designers.

Some established mass market publishers will even not consider any submission that does not come from one of their agents. Some Designers see this filtering as very bad and pretentious, but after receiving hundreds of chess variants and roll and move games submissions, it is somewhat understandable that they are not willing to commit time and resources to assess every submission that lands on their desk.

Graphic Artist

Illustrator, painter, Photographer, CG artist, Layout and composition artist, ... Most board games have lots of graphical components collectively referred to as 'art', which someone needs to create. The page layout and desktop publishing aspects also somehow belong to this category as they play an important role in providing a coherent package.

New art can be commissioned or existing art can be licensed for use in a game, and a contract should always define what is licensed, to whom, how, and to what purposes.

There are several professions involved, from fine arts artist to photographer to typographer or page-setter, each with its own peculiarities. My main point here is that if you are not an artist (and face it, you probably are not) you should turn to more qualified people for that part of the job. The graphical quality of board games has evolved tremendously since the eighties, and the market now expects top notch illustrations and very high quality presentation (box, rules, marketing,etc.)

Game Developer

When the designer has a 'finished' prototype and gets a publication deal, development starts. Some publishers make close to no development and expect prototypes that are ready for graphic work and publication, others systematically do a lot of in-house or outsourced development, and most of the others sit somewhere between these two extremes.

The game developer is someone with an extensive knowledge of board games and a good ability to analyse the mechanics and balance of a game. His main job is to take a prototype, remove everything that is not required, and explore some paths for expanding the game beyond its current scope. He will also receive instructions from the publisher as what target audience the game should be suited for, and will develop it in that spirit.

The game developer will also spot rough parts in the game's design and ergonomics (if most players make the same mistake, for instance, he will suggest a variant to eliminate the opportunity for that mistake), and will design some variants.

A good publisher should be able to do development himself, and stay close to the development process. This is what makes your product. An internal or external game developer however can bring fresh eyes and a different mindset to a game design so it always had good added value. And bigger publishing houses simply can't have the boss involved in every development detail of every game, so they have lead developers in house.

Accountant

This is a specialized and technical task. As game publisher you must be able to read and understand your accounting books, and make decisions for your business, but you should leave the actual accounting to a specialist. The cost of not complying with all the regulations, declarations and obligations affecting a company is such that it is also too much of a risk to do it yourself. You of course absolutely require someone you can trust as it's your money on the line, but you have little added value by doing all the accounting yourself even if you are a very small business. Furthermore your core business is board games publishing, not accounting so your time is better spend elsewhere.

Lawyer

Same as above, 'nuff said. But you need one. You do.

Game Publishing Studio

A publishing company normally does everything from receiving the designer's prototype to finished product ready for distribution. Some publishers however focus on only a subset of that wide scope. A publishing studio does create (or sometimes source from authors) game designs, makes the development work (and they sometimes also get work as consultants for development only), and the graphical design. They sometimes also do the market research and audience targeting for the games they produce themselves, and sometimes leave it to or do it in conjunction with the publisher they work with. Publishing studios do not manage the actual printing and distribution of the games, they license a 'ready to publish' finished product to a bigger publisher or a distributor that funds the printing of their games.

Media

Paper magazines, website journalists, bloggers, podcasters, video bloggers, ... They include news announcers and games reviewers, and many do both news and reviews. They are 'the press', 'the media'. Some just announce the news or make neutral reviews of the games that are released, others voice opinions, publish market analysis, review trends, and do more in depth coverage of the board games market and industry. There are also a few specialists, such as Purple Pawn's 'Paper Money' that focuses on the business side of things. Only a few of them are full-time professionals, but they do overall make a very healthy and diverse media landscape focusing only on board games.

Webmaster

This is foremost a technical trade. A webmaster will be able to set up a web site (and sometimes doubles as a systems administrator and maintains the servers). His tasks are keeping the site online, keeping it secure and spam-free, making it evolve with the required functionalities for the publisher (forum, web shop, product pages, mailing lists, ...) making it connected with social media such as facebook or Twitter, and watching new cool technology advances that would enhance the website.

As this is a specialist and technical trade, it is best left to someone qualified.

Community manager

Sometimes doubles up as the webmaster. The community manager is the person who interacts on a daily basis with the publisher's customer base. He must operate both online (publisher website, forums, social media) and offline (setup and manage teams of volunteers, plan publisher presence at events, handle conventions and trade show demos, and somehow be the public face of the company). In bigger companies he usually is part of the marketing team, as his roles involves a lot of public relations and marketing.

Board Games manufacturer

Nowadays, most board games publisher outsource actual board game manufacturing (printing, assembly, packaging) to a third party industrial plant. The cost of equipment required to produce top quality board games is such that you need to have a continuous production running on the factory floor to amortize it. Furthermore this is a very specialized trade and staff experience matters a lot. Only the biggest mass market publishers have such production needs that investing in that kind of equipment and training makes economic sense.

There are several industrial printers and manufacturers worldwide that offer end to end service to board games publishers : they print or source all the printed components, mount them on cardboard, do die cutting and box assembly, produce or source all the plastic and wooden bits, assemble everything on a factory line, shrink wrap the boxes, pack them in cartons and on pallets, and even can deal with the warehousing and logistics for their customers. Most can also source compliance testing labs for you for CPSIA or EN71 requirements.

There are a few such manufacturers in Europe, such as Ludofact in Germany, Trefl in Poland, Carta Mundi in Belgium, ... Mainland US also has some such as Grand Prix International, Delano Services or Paragon Packaging, Canada has Panda (which works with a Chinese subsidiary), and of course Asia has a lot of manufacturing companies active in the bard games market. This list is in no way exhaustive, and I cannot vouch for the quality and professionalism of any manufacturer I haven't worked with.

Printer

The printer often is hired by the manufacturer directly, or in-sourced at the manufacturer's own print plant. Printers only print on paper and flexible cardboard (up to 'cereal box' cardboard). Everything larger, such as chipboard or corrugated cardboard needs other printing techniques, such as being printed on paper and then mounted, as it doesn't pass through a printer's rotatives.

They are experts at pre-press and printing matters, and also deal with finishing such as dispersion varnish, adding foils, coatings, embossing, and other special techniques. Die cutting however is not something a printer usually deals with, and neither is chipboard box assembly. As with the manufacturer, the cost of machines and professional experience required at this crucial step of production make it economically unrealistic to in-source printing.

'bits' manufacturer

These are the makers of wooden cubes, meeples, plastic pawns, spinners, dices, tiddlywinks and tchotchkes. Be it wood, plastic, metal or anything else, they have the industrial tools and workforce to create these items. Here again, it usually doesn't make economic sense to set up such a production plant instead of just outsourcing. Manufacturers have existing relations with them and volume pricing so you will only rarely if ever directly deal with these.

Logistics provider

The logistics provider moves boxes from point A to point B. They handle warehousing, palletization, picking (taking different products from different pallets at the warehouse and assembling a custom pallet with mixed products for shipping to a customer), transport via truck, train, ship, plane, or whatever other means of transportation. They also usually can source or recommend a customs broker for you to handle customs declarations and payments when doing international deliveries. They also can provide insurance.

Logistics is a very complex world, with its own vocabulary (incoterms, special weight and value units, ...) and unless you ship tens of containers each year it is also best outsourced to someone with the required skill-set and experience.

Distributor

This is perhaps the most important partner of the publisher, after the game designer. The distributor is the link between your warehoused game boxes and the retailer shelves. They will stock your games, and assemble custom orders for all shops on their territory, deliver the games to the shops, invoice them, and pay you. In some countries most distributors sell direct to retailers, in other countries, distributors sells to sub distributors who sell to shops.

There are two main ways to work with a distributor : either they buy your games upfront, or they take them in consignment and make you a monthly sales report and payment. In the latter case, they pay you more for each game than in the former.

There are also two kind of distributors to put it very roughly : those who push boxes (and do no promotion other than listing your games in their catalogue) and those who push the product (doing demos, promotion, advertising, retailer event support, etc.) but pay you less per game in order to cover these promotional costs. Each model has its merits and flaws, see the chapter on distribution for more information.

Fulfilment Agency

This is a specialized logistics provider that is part logistics provider, part distributor. They sell and ship your games to local distributors, and can handle special logistics needs such as shipping hundreds of pre ordered games to individual customers. All the ones I heard of so far are located in the US.

Retailer

This is both the FLGS and OLGS. They buy games from the distributors and sell them to customers. They are the most public-facing part of the board games industry, and one of your best sources of feedback on what works and what doesn't. For a good insider's look at board games retail, look at Gary ray's 'Quest for fun' blog : http://blackdiamondgames.blogspot.com where he blogs about his board games shop day to day.

Event Organiser

According to the size of the event this can range from a single person to a small company with year-round employees on the payroll. This covers all events, from the yearly local church gaming weekend run by volunteers to professionaly-run huge events such as the major conventions and trade fairs. An event organiser has to manage not only the logistical aspects (finding a venue, coordinating set up and dismantling, accommodation, securing things like fire permits and insurance coverage, etc.) but also all the communication and press coverage for the event he manages.

There are two main kind of events : public events/conventions and trade fairs, as described shortly in the previous chapter. The first category is open to all visitors, free or for a fee, and the latter is accessible only to professionals. Most are recurring on a yearly basis so once you have started your board games publishing business, you will get to know the organisers of the events you attend over time.

Some publishers set up publisher-run events, sometimes inside bigger events, or at stores, or even on their premises. Reaper Miniatures organises factory tours, Fantasy Flight has started an event centre, Asmodee in France set up an 'Asmoday' event, just to name a few examples.

Scholars

The 'Scholars' are the people who write and think more about games than they play or create them. Board games are a social phenomenon and have an history that is worthy of study. Game design is also a study field, both from the mathematical and sociological points of view. Scholars write papers and books over these subjects, and study the theoretical aspects of board games. Sometimes the philosophical aspects as well.

Are you still sure you want to be a board games publisher ?

The list above is not and could never be exhaustive, and these definitions are quite short and rough, but my purpose here is to show that board games are a vast subject matter, that board games publishing is only a small part of it, and that it requires at least a rough understanding of the wider picture. A board games publisher must know what he can and want to do in-house and know to which professionals to turn for the other parts of the process.