How a board game is born, prototyped, and ultimately sold: the story of Crows
Editor's note: I've been addicted to the tile-based board game Crows since I first played it back in early 2011, and the business of creating and selling board games is an interesting topic. I invited Tyler Sigman, the designer of Crows, to a write a guest post to talk about how he creates, and ultimately sells, board games. It's a fascinating process and I'm going to vouch for the quality of Crows. Enjoy! I’ve been making games professionally full-time for almost 10 years, and before that I moonlighted for about five, not counting all the modding and rules-tweaking I did before I self-identified as a game designer. The sickness starts with adjusting critical hit tables for D&D in the 80s and then, before you know it, you are painting pixel art Wargs for a massive LOTR conversion of Warlords II Deluxe circa 1993. The games I’m most proud of so far are HOARD, a strategy arcade dual-stick dragon shooter on Steam and PSN, Age of Empires: the Age of Kings DS (a turn-based total conversion of the excellent RTS franchise), and Crows, a board game about attracting crows to shiny objects. Today we're going to be talking about Crows, and what it takes to create and sell a board game. This video will give you a good sense of what the game is about, and Ben Kuchera wrote a review of the game over at Ars Technica.I’d like to walk you through the life-cycle of Crows or, in other words, explain what game designers do all day.
Although my specialty is as a game mechanics and systems designer, I start almost all my game designs with a theme. This may seem obvious, but many times designers start with a mechanic instead. I find themes are the best inspiration—the sense of wonder and possibility is what gets me excited about making something. I like to dream about the Parisian catacombs (the setting for a game I am developing called “Boneyard”), Vikings sacking England circa 700 AD (for another design I sold but not yet published called “Longship: Viking Raiders”), Ed Wood-style horrible movies (“Night of the Ill-Tempered Squirrel”), the Salem Witch Trials (“Witch Hunt”), the shrimpin’ business (“Shrimpin’”), or sometimes something as simple as…well…crows! Once I have a theme selected, it’s a matter of trying to develop mechanics that relate to that theme. In the case of Crows, things were far simpler than usual. I asked a good friend “what do crows like?” She answered that they like shiny things to take back to their nests. Immediately I saw a potential mechanic. I’ve since been corrected several times by corvid experts who say that it’s in fact other types, like magpies, who like shiny things better. I’m not entirely sure if that’s true, but in any case a little artistic license is a good thing when designing a game. Sid Meier once said: “Never let history get in the way of fun!”
I’ve prototyped dozens of board and card games over the years. It’s a really interesting and exciting process, but it can also be filled with the pain and heartbreak of unrealized ideas. That’s part of game design: Everything you get excited about won’t necessarily make a great game. The challenge of prototyping and design is to flesh out your idea and see if you can actually make it fun. I would guess about 25% to 33% of my prototypes end up being fun. I think that’s a pretty good batting average, and most of my professional designer friends have similar results. And I don’t mean “fun first try,” I mean only 25% of them are fun after tinkering and fixing and revising. Of course, “fun” is a hard thing to scientifically define, and I reject all the incredibly boring attempts to do so. When I say “fun,” I mean that the game has a legitimate quality that makes it worthwhile to release to the general public. The point is, making fun games is hard work and many, if not most, of the game ideas I explore end up not making it to prime-time. This is a normal, but frustrating, part of game design. To contradict myself, I will now confess that Crows was a very rare project in which prototyping was extremely fast and mostly painless, and the final released game is very similar to my first prototype. I wish they all could be that easy! When I started making Crows, I knew that I wanted to make a game that would hit a low price point ($20-30), be playable in under an hour, fit 2-4 people, and not have an enormous amount of components. That's what makes the low price point possible. My other leading prototype at that time was a longer, more epic boardgame with many pieces (Longship: Viking Raiders). A smaller game would complement my portfolio of titles to shop around to publishers. I also knew that I wanted Crows to be a tile-based game to fit this format. Tile-based games have a good flow—typically your turn revolves around flipping and placing a tile, which keeps the pace up and helps focus player decisions. Armed with the immense amount of knowledge that crows like shiny objects and I had the desire to make it a tile-based game, I started designing. As mentioned above, Crows was very unusual in that the core mechanics pretty much just leaped into place. I remember thinking that there would be crows on the board and of course shiny objects, and that there should be a geometrical element where the goal is to get the shiny objects as close as possible to as many crows. The player should want to “attract” crows. I considered tiles of varying shapes, but when in doubt, a designer should keep things simple. Using hex tiles or something similar can increase the perceived complexity of a game. Hey—That’s my Fish! is one of the rare exceptions that uses hex-based tiles and isn’t overly complex. In general, though, hexes are a grognard’s currency! I decided that I should start with square tiles unless a specific mechanic demanded something else. I guess that is where the crow movement, the core mechanic of the game, came from. I don’t actually remember coming up with it, only that suddenly I knew the crows would move in rows and columns and the goal would be to put your shiny objects in places that could attract as many crows in those rows and columns. It was a straightforward mechanic that is easy to see and understand. Crows should be able to move as far as possible, bounded only by moving in straight tile lines. This immediately created tension and strategic opportunities—you can trump your opponent by putting your token one space closer to a given crow, and blocking them. The challenge is to get the most crows, so you need to look for clever places to get massive amount of crows from each direction. Crows move like rooks in chess—any distance in a column or row. It didn’t occur to me until much later that a rook is another member of the Corvidae family of birds. I had a private chuckle when I realized that I made crows move like rooks, which was entirely appropriate in balancing the universe. Once that core was in place, the other mechanics fell out naturally: different board tiles should affect either the crows’ movement (e.g. carrion tiles will distract the crows and delay them) or change how they behave (e.g. baubles tiles are shiny so they break ties between two equally close player shiny objects). Graveyards are thematically a place where crows like to hang out, so attracting crows in those areas are worth double the points. And so on. The “crow dispersion” mechanic is a fun little thing that I think adds to the game thematically as well as fulfilling an important mechanical goal. As players attract crows, this creates big clumps of crows on the game board. This eventually would result in one giant mass of crows. To prevent this, I came up with the idea that whenever there are a certain amount of crows—a murder—then the crows would get spooked and disperse in a spiral pattern. This creates a neat sort of time lapse progression: crows are by themselves for a bit and then tend to group up in pairs and triplets and then all the sudden will make a big mass of birds and POW!—they spiral out individually again. I cobbled together the components and gave the first prototype a play. Lo and behold, it was fun! I revised a number of things over the following weeks and months, but the final version of Crows looks a lot like the first prototype. If you're interested in this process, I've also written an article about prototyping games.
I started looking for opportunities to pitch the pitch to a publisher once I was happy with the mechanics. I went to some U.S. gaming conventions of various sizes, and used those events to show the game to a few American publishers. Generally, the way the board game industry works is that designers pitch their games, in prototype form, to a publisher. Publishers, if interested, take the prototype, play and evaluate it, and then if all goes well they offer a publishing contract to the designer. It’s close to the traditional book authorship model; designers license, or sometimes sell, the rights to their game to the publisher in exchange for an advance against royalties. Of course, a great many designers say “screw this” and start their own publishing company, which is usually short-lived. I did this myself to get my start with Mythrole Games, which was a pioneer of PDF gaming industry commerce from 1999-2003. Sadly, some pioneers got eaten by bears. Unless you are truly committed to the business, your chances of success as a publisher are very small, because of the small margins and smaller print runs of the board game world. The recent wave of Kickstarter success will create a whole new generation of people who self-publish their own games, and most of the companies will eventually tank. I don’t mean this in a condescending way—running a publishing company requires different skills than designing game. Furthermore, many self-publishing companies fail because they are based around one title, and a publishing company requires a line of releases to sustain it. I knew I didn’t want to start a publishing company again at that time, especially since I'm employed full-time as a video game designer, so I wanted to sell games in the traditional model. You hand over the game and then it gets produced, marketed, distributed and sold. Of course, you give up a lot of the profits for the game, so it’s really just a matter of what your priorities are. I am a big fan of German-style boardgames such as Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, and Carcassonne, and I knew that Crows was aimed for that market. These insights immediately shortened the list of domestic publishers I wanted to approach. There were some great publishers doing those sorts of games domestically at the time, and I managed to track them down at various conventions and show them Crows. The working title of the game was A Murder of Crows, which I was enamored with, but it didn’t occur to me that the ominous title was at odds with a family demographic until I spoke with the publishers. Some customers might be turned off by the name, thinking it was a more serious, or even violent, game. It turns out not everyone knew that a group of crows is called a “murder.” The name was eventually changed, although a well-known publisher was entertaining picking the game up, and wanted to name it Counting Crows if he could get the okay from the band. I made some progress with a couple publishers and sent them prototypes, but ultimately none of them took the game. This step is incredibly long and frustrating and can take from 4 to 12 months. The best advice I’ve heard to cope with this is similar to screenwriting: as soon as you finish a script and send it out for consideration, forget about it and start a new one. I did get some useful feedback and I made some tweaks even though Crows was ultimately rejected. Rejections happen for a number of reasons, and with the only two domestic publishers I targeted rejecting it, I knew I’d need to broaden my pitch. If I was less happy with the game, I might have shelved the concept and moved on, but I felt Crows was solid, and didn’t want to give up. Since it was aimed at the German-style market, the logical step was to pitch to all the German publishers. I decided that sending packages off into the void wasn’t the best strategy after checking out submission guidelines and information on the web, so I set my sights on pitching the game in person. There are only really two ways to do that: the game authors convention in Gottingen and the massive game fair called SPIEL.
Essen: The pitch
There is a boardgaming convention in Essen, Germany that makes even PAX, and definitely the venerable GenCon, look…well…small! Over 125,000 visitors attend, with their eyes set on buying the new crop of boardgames that come out each year. This convention is called SPIEL. Over here in North America, we refer to it colloquially as “Essen.” If you love boardgames, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to Essen at some point in your life. Most people I know who have done it are quite glad they did. I knew that Essen was where I needed to strike to get my latest designs sold and get the exposure I was hoping for, since all the German publishers are there in one spot. In Spring 2009, I booked the trip and got serious about prepping my prototypes. Making three copies of three different boardgame prototypes is a heck of a lot of work, especially when one of the games, Longship: Viking Raiders, has about one BAJILLION cardstock pieces, all of which need cut out by hand because of the irregular shapes that are key to the game play. The last days before leaving for Germany were filled with tons of manual labor, a lot of trips to Fedex Office, and far more stress than I want to repeat any time soon thanks to the school-work-protoyping-relationship combo. But I got all the copies ready in time. Sadly, I waited too long to send out query emails, and many of the publishers’ meeting agendas were already booked for the entirety of the four-day show, even though I pinged them a month or two early. However, I was still able to get a few appointments locked down, and a number of other publishers told me I should show up on day one and there would be a chance I could get something booked for later in the show. With a few appointments nailed down and my games in hand, I flew off to Essen! I made the mistake of telling the customs agents in Germany that I had work-related materials. After all, designing games is my profession, and got a stern lecture for not having invoices and detailed documents for my prototypes. Thankfully, I was able to proceed without too much trouble. A couple years later, I would have a far worse experience trying to get HOARD-related materials through the Canadian border on the way to PAX 2010. In any case, I eventually made it to Essen, checked into my hotel, and prepared for the next day’s show opening. Along the way to the convention hall, I noticed a good omen: I entered the hall early on the first day thanks to my SAZ Game Author Association membership, which allows professionals to enter one hour earlier than the huge throngs of other attendees. I used that hour to great effect, setting up as many meetings as I could. The rest of Thursday was spent doing the same: trying to hit all the major players, including Kosmos, Hans im Glück, and so on, and get on their agendas. Although some were just too full, I was successful in landing meetings with almost everyone I had targeted. The next four days were a mad blur of schlepping gear back and forth between publisher booths and doing endless pitches for Crows, Longship, and Pied Piper. It was incredibly tiring. Pitching my boardgames was more intimate than shows like E3, and I found the meetings more substantial than most video game meetings tend to be, as video game meetings have an extremely high noise-to-signal ratio. The product acquisition people at the companies I met with were generally kind, competent, and decisive—a combination highly valued whenever you are trying to get somebody to pick up an entertainment product! You learn to value a quick “no” almost as much as you do a “yes.” The worst is the eternal “yes, maybe.” Generally the best you can hope for as a relatively unknown designer is for a company to like the pitch enough to ask for the prototype so they can play it in more detail after the show. Over the course of the show, I found myself in the enviable position of having more companies interested in Crows and Longship than I had prototypes. This was a bit of a logistical challenge, as I had to tell some companies that I would give them a proto but not until the end of the show, so I could use the proto to show other companies in the intervening time, or I would have to mail them a proto after the show. If they were lower on my preference list—I wanted to reserve the protos I had for the best leads. I also received a lot of good feedback from those companies that didn’t want the games. They were very up front about the factors that made them pass on the games—for example, too many components for Longship, or too much difficulty selling tile-based games that aren’t called Carcassonnein the case of Crows. Like magazine editors, game editors know their audience and know their production capabilities, so they have to acquire product that fits those needs exactly. One company that I got along very well with was Valley Games, a publisher based out of Canada. They had a great booth at Essen and some promising titles, including a reprint of the time-honored classic Titan. The Valley folks impressed me with their honesty, strategy, and graphic design in recent titles such as Container and Supernova. I liked where they were going as a company, even though they weren’t as well-known as the established German companies I was targeting. The Valley folks were also just good people; they invited me to a rollicking session of an awesome German bowling game called Kegeln, played in an underground lane in a pub. It was a hell of a lot of fun, made even more so by the company of a bunch of board game fanatics and good German beer. The game acquisitions director of one of the big German publishers I was also aiming for was a member of our group. I was beginning to think my trip would be a success! Since I was at the world’s biggest board gaming fair, I didn’t have too much trouble filling time in between my pitch sessions. I drooled over many new games, bought far too many for my luggage to hold, I had to de-box a few before flying home, and tried a bunch more. I also developed a habit for schnitzel sandwiches and cappuccinos, both of which were crucial in keeping me going for those frenzied days. By the end of the trip, I had found homes for all three Crowsand Longship prototypes, plus obligations to make and ship a couple more when I got home. Pied Piper wasn’t a huge hit, although I hadn’t pitched it as much and I also knew the mechanics weren’t incredibly original for the German market. I flew back home tired but satisfied.
Over the next couple weeks, I waited anxiously for some playtesting feedback. One of the earliest responders was Valley Games. They informed me that they wanted to offer contracts for both Crows and Longship! I was definitely excited but I realized that I’d probably have to decide in advance of hearing back from the other publishers, as the play testing process can often take months. Signing the games with Valley had a number of advantages even though they weren’t one of the German firms I was targeting. First, I knew the games would look good and have excellent production values, which was important. Second, signing both together was kind of a nice efficiency thing, although it was also risky. Third, I liked where Valley was headed and figured they had a bright future. Fourth, I liked the guys and figured that the development process, bringing the games from proto to print, would be relatively painless and I would be treated well post-release, as it can be a pain to chase people down for royalties. I don’t know any published authors or designers who aren’t owed money from somebody, or multiple somebodies. I’m still owed from several of my past games and articles. In the end, I took the sure deal in front of me instead of waiting for an uncertain possibility of a major German publisher taking on the games. Negotiating the contracts didn’t take too long, but we did haggle a bit about royalty rates, advances, and electronic and sequel rights. I decided a higher royalty rate was more important to me than a strong advance, and that is often music to a publisher’s ears. Essentially, I wanted to do really well if Crows did really well, and was willing to give up a little up front in return. I also wanted to keep the electronic rights so I could decide how to exploit the franchises in the future. We ended up with a mix that was agreeable to us both, and then Crows and Longship were sold! Although they weren’t my first game sales, it was still a very happy moment. Selling a game never gets old. It’s funny that I had to fly all the way to Essen to sell the games to a publisher next door.
Release the Crows!
Valley included me in all the key development steps and decisions, including greenlighting the art and proofing the components, which was appreciated. Many times your game will be acquired and then they run with it at the bigger publishers. That also has its advantages, but often the entire theme will be stripped out if they like the underlying mechanic, and you might not even recognize the game by the time it's released. It was nice to be involved and help shape the look and feel of the games. Although Crows' central mechanics could have been reskinned, I was happy to see it remain themed around crows and shiny objects! In November 2010, a rush order of Crows arrived at my office just in time for me to take the game to BGG.con and demo the heck out of it. The game hit the market in January 2011. I was very happy with the boxed product, and it gets a lot of praise for the solid component quality. Reviews have been positive, but the game is still very much unknown. Just as with video games, there much competition each year, and even having a good game is never a guarantee that something will get noticed and sell well. Thankfully, boardgames have a longer shelf life than most video games, but I’m not holding out hope that Crows will replace Carcassonne any time soon. However, someone did affectionately call the game “Crowcassonne,” which I take as flattery. And yes, the little wooden crows are “creeples,” a pun on Carcassonne’s beloved “meeples.” From a business standpoint, it’s really damn hard to make money in boardgames, ask any board game publisher or author. The number of board game authors who make their entire living from boardgames is staggeringly low. Counting prototyping and sale expenses, including a trip to Germany, I’m still in the red on Crows. It’s a hit-driven business, just like video games. If you can make the next Spiel des Jahres winner, it means the difference between selling a few thousand copies or a few hundred thousand or more. So, while Crows hasn’t made it possible for me to quit my day job (which is designing games, har har) it did buy me a ticket to the game.
Although I’m quite busy between my day job as an Executive Producer/Designer in video games and finishing up my MBA, I still have some board game gears turning. Valley and I talk about ways to expand the market for Crows, and we are still looking at how and when to bring Longship to market. I’m hoping to have updates soon. And, like any designer worth his weight in chipboard tokens, I have a few more game ideas that I might just want to sell you… Crows is on sale now, and it's a wonderful game. You can also follow Tyler Sigman on Twitter.