What do I look for in a game?
A few people have been asking in the comments if we have a confirmed delivery date yet. We do not! I wish that we did, but our difficult printer (discussed in our last update) has not yet been able to give us an estimate when the printing will be done.
As soon as we have that information, I promise I shall share it! :)
From what we know, things are going well. The last estimate we got was "October", but I'll let you know if that changes.
I understand if you're upset by the lack of concrete information - believe me, I share your feelings! Other than emailing our difficult printer every day, there’s nothing we can do about it. I'm a biiiiit of a control freak, so I'm finding this extremely frustrating.
All I can say is: if I were doing this project over again, I’d do it very differently. I wouldn’t launch until all five games had their rules locked down, I wouldn’t change components after the campaign closed (a portion of the delay is that we upgraded everyone from cardboard tokens to plastic, and then upgraded again to glass gems), and...well, honestly, we’d price everything MUCH higher.
You’re getting a whole lot of game for $9!
We’re already taking steps in this direction - once The Lady and the Tiger has completely fulfilled, we’re launching our next game: Show & Tile. We’re already in talks with printers about getting proof copies sent over; this means that by the time the Kickstarter wraps, we’ll be finished with Blind Playtesting, we’ll be finished with printer discussions - everything will be 100% ready to go.
I’m sorry it took us a few campaigns to get to this point. Running a business - and this may shock you to your very core - is much harder than it looks. But we’re getting better with every campaign, you will get your game, and I know you're going to be impressed with the quality.
While we’re waiting on information, I thought I’d post a Publisher Diary.
This started as an aside within a The Lady and the Tiger Designer Diary. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts on this matter, so I decided to make it a post of its own.
Well, it grew even longer than that, so I’m splitting it into two parts! The second half will be coming in an update next week. (Hopefully with some more specific dates, once we hear back from the printer.) Stay tuned!
What do I look for in a game? (Part 1)
As a publisher, one of my pet peeves is being pitched a game that is “good enough”.
Here’s the thing: it’s quite hard to create a game that works from start to finish, that can’t be broken, and that has decisions throughout. If you’ve done all that, congratulations! You’re getting better as a designer.
But it’s not enough.
I playtest about 100 prototype games a year, maybe more. When you’re playtesting that many games, you start to notice patterns.
One pattern I’ve spotted is that designers will create a game that works and can’t be broken...and think it’s ready to be published. Well, I hate to be the one to tell you, but:
Good enough isn’t good enough.
As a publisher, here are the questions I ask myself:
Is the game fun?
This sounds obvious, but seriously: are people actually enjoying playing it?
Now, fun can look different from game to game. I just wrapped up playtesting on Ninjitsu! - that game makes it very easy to spot the fun, because people often laugh a lot when they take a trap that explodes in their face, or when they outbluff an opponent. Regular laughter is a pretty good sign of fun.
(Games that are great at this: Time’s Up, Telestrations, Spyfall.)
Our second game, Dracula’s Feast, involves a different kind of fun: at its heart, it’s a logic puzzle. There’s a lot less laughter (although it definitely happens), but the fun typically comes from a strong feeling of satisfaction when you win, and a weird feeling of “almost there” when you lose.
Most worker placement games also fall into this category.
(Other games that are great at this: Ricochet Robots, Scythe, Codenames)
As well as that, Dracula’s Feast contains a bunch of variable player powers, all of which are fun to play. (I wrote a designer diary specifically about our focus on this.)
Each game, your playstyle needs to be totally different, and adapting to this is very satisfying.
(Games that are great at this: Pandemic, Terra Mystica, Vast)
Lastly (I promise, this post isn’t just an ad for Dracula’s Feast - out now!), Dracula’s Feast contains bluffing elements. There’s something inherently satisfying about fooling the rest of the table, making them think you’re doing one thing when you’re really doing another. It quickens the heart-rate, and you feel a thrill when you get away with it, or when you catch someone else out in a lie.
(Games that are great at this: Cockroach Poker, The Resistance, The Sheriff of Nottingham)
One of my favourite games is Twilight Struggle, a game which has a weirdly stressful form of fun. Twilight Struggle is enjoyable because - as the name inadvertently implies - of the struggle. Each turn, you’re handed an impossibly bad hand, and have to make the most of it. When you manage to claw your way out of the muck and emerge victorious, it’s deeply satisfying. The fun comes from succeeding at something that’s really, really hard to get right.
Most co-op games fall into this category.
(Non co-op games that are great at this: Dead of Winter, Food Chain Magnate, Mage Knight.)
There are way more types of fun than I’ve mentioned here (I once did a whole podcast about it) but I want to mention one last one: some games feature elements of tactile fun. Placing stuff down in just the right way, or feeling something click as you use it. Board gaming is a physical medium - take advantage of the form!
All dexterity games fall into this category. Minis can also be a factor here.
(Non dexterity games that are great at this: Patchwork, Potion Explosion, The Castles of Mad King Ludwig)
And the best games, of course, feature more than one type of fun.
As a designer, you need to make sure that people are enjoying your game throughout, even if it’s in a “ah heck it’s so hard to get anything done but when I do it feels AMAZING” sort of way. Perhaps “satisfaction” or “engagement” is a better word than fun, but after every prototype I play, I always ask myself: did I enjoy that? Was I engaged?
The best indicator for fun, to my mind, is “do I want to play it again”. For 95% of prototypes I play, the answer is a solid “no”. I find it so exciting (both as a publisher and as a player) on those rare occasions where I find a game that I do want to play again.
(Only once have I found a prototype that I wanted to play again...and again...and again and again and again and again, for an entire weekend. I signed it - Show & Tile, the game I mentioned above. I’ve played it dozens and dozens of times now, and I look forward to playing it hundreds more times in the future. It's just plain ole fun.)
Obviously everyone has a different definition of fun, but when I’m the one being pitched to, all that really matters is: did I have fun?
If your game isn’t fun/satisfying/engaging, you need to either fix that...or throw it out.
Does the game do something different?
Some people are calling this the Golden Age of Tabletop Gaming. For good reason! New games are being released every day, and it’s rare to go on Kickstarter without finding a mega-campaign or two in progress. You could play games all day every day, and still not get your hands on everything...let alone dive deep into the games you want to be playing.
But for every game that’s released, there are thousands that aren’t. Like I said, I play at least a hundred prototypes each year, and I’m playing a fraction of a fraction of the games that are being designed.
The market is full. The game design community is massive. In order to make something that’s worth picking up, it needs to stand out.
Again, it’s not easy to create a completely functional game. It takes a lot of time and effort to get to that point. Games break in the strangest of ways, and mastering the skills involved in creating a robust rules system can take years.
But having a functioning game is not enough. Firstly, you also need to make it fun. But just as importantly, you need to ask: why would someone play this game instead of another?
I love The Resistance. I love Werewolf. I don’t love One Night Ultimate Werewolf, but understand why people do. With these great games on the market, why would anyone play Dracula’s Feast?
Dracula’s Feast is unique among social deduction games for a few reasons: there’s no teams. There’s no “eyes closed” phase. There’s no ‘boring’ villager role. But even beyond that, it feels different - as I said earlier, it’s a game of logical deduction instead of just ‘who is the best at masking their intentions’. It’s about being the most observant player. You never have to lie.
And there’s no shouting!
Your game needs to stand apart from others in the same genre. It needs to bring something new to the table. Literally. You need to give me a reason to play your worker placement game over Lords of Waterdeep, Stone Age, Dungeon Petz, or Feast For Odin.
It’s hard! But if you want to make something that’s publishable, you gotta do it.
There are a few ways to stand out:
It’s entirely possible to make a brilliant, never-before-seen game about farming. But if you do, it’s going to be compared to Agricola. If you make a game about colonizing a small island, it’s going to be compared to Catan. If you make a game about traveling the world and curing diseases, it’s going to be compared to Pandemic.
You want your game to stand out! Terraforming Mars is a theme that had never been successfully done before, and that’s a big part of why the game took off. Scythe has a unique, beautiful theme - the art actually came first, and the mechanics were inspired by that world. Even something like Codenames, where the theme doesn’t realllly matter, picked something that wasn’t overdone.
Pitch me a game about a school for circus performers, or a steampunk hospital run by robots, or a game where everyone plays different emotions in a young girl’s head*.
Make the mechanics perfectly mesh that cool, weird (yet marketable) theme, and even if it doesn’t blow me away, you’re head-and-shoulders above everyone else.
Pick a great theme AND make it blow me away, and you likely have yourself a game contract.
I should mention - make sure the theme is something that people actually want to do. "Sorting stationery” is a unique theme, but it’s also something I have zero interest in using my spare time to simulate.
If your game is largely about one thing, and that thing is super fun to do (think: Patchwork’s spatial puzzle, timing the gears in T’zolkin, meeting your pets’ needs in Dungeon Petz) then you’re onto something.
I don’t mean to pick on worker placement games, but this is the problem with most worker placement prototypes. Worker placement games are sort of mechanically fun by default - if you’re going to release a worker placement game, it really needs to bring something new to the table. Otherwise, people are going to ask “Why would I play this instead of Lords of Waterdeep?”
99% of worker placement prototypes I've played didn't have an answer to that question.
If you have a mechanic that’s fresh and new and super cool, and you’ve impeccably built the rest of the game around it, you’re not going to have any trouble getting a game contract.
The vast majority of prototypes I play don’t do anything new. With the glut of games out there, you’ve got to be innovative or your game is dead in the water.
Confession time! After my tenth game of Colt Express, I realized that while it’s extremely elegant, I don’t actually have a lot of fun playing it. It’s too chaotic for me to find it interesting.
How did it take me ten plays to notice this? Well, the game comes with a big 3D train that you set up on the table, and physically move your meeples around. It’s super fun, and everyone who’s nearby will come over to see what you’re up to.
Publishers love this.
T’zolkin, Sagrada, Ice Cool, Lazer Ryderz - these games really “pop” on the table.
Games like Happy Salmon and Two Rooms and a Boom have a different kind of presence, but I’d include them in the same category. They involve people physically using the space in an interesting way; seeing a group play Happy Salmon is inherently fun to watch, and equally fun to participate in.
If your game has an amazing table presence (even something subtle like Codenames - that grid of cards is intriguing, especially when there’s a group of 6 people standing around and intently staring at it) then as a publisher, I’m going to be interested.
But please, please, please make sure that the table presence-providing component is actually a part of the game. I was once pitched a game that included a cardboard version of a cat’s scratching post as a component. I was extremely interested (our artist Tania would looooove to do a cat game) until I discovered that the scratching post was literally just a scoreboard. It had zero in-game function, and could be replaced with a number line without changing anything.
Tip: Don’t do this.
Is the game publishable?
“Doesn’t that depend on the publisher?”
Well, yes and no. For your game to be publishable, you need to make sure that its component count matches up with its weight. If you create a 5-minute game for 2 players, it can’t require thirty different minis and cost $120.
(The reverse doesn’t necessarily apply, however - if you can make a deep, strategic 2-hour game with just 18 cards, let me know! I wanna see it.)
Do a bit of reading about what different components cost and what’s actually possible (no, your game cannot come with a microphone) before you start pitching.
For example, most people don’t know that while custom dice are expensive, having 10 unique custom dice is waaaaay more expensive than having 10 identical custom dice.
You don’t need to know everything (and if your game is good enough, anything can be possible) but you do need to know the basics.
A friend of mine made a dexterity game that is apparently super fun. People have played her prototype for entire conventions, and just kept on coming back for more.
The issue? It required about four times as much wood as Junk Art. The game is fun to play, but no one can publish it. Consumers don't want to spend $500 for a dexterity game, no matter how good it is.
Do your research, find your fun, make your game stand out...and you're halfway there. More next week! ;)
If you have any questions, ask in the comments!
Thank you so much for your support,
-Peter C. Hayward
A dude who apparently has a lot of thoughts
P.S. In each of these updates, I like to link to a currently-running Kickstarter I think you might enjoy! This week, it’s STEM: Epic Heroes. It’s a game about putting together a team of famous historical figures, and being the first to make important scientific discoveries. It’s only got 2 days left - check it out!