How to Create an Original Board Game (That Sells!)
“The only freedom you truly have is in your mind… so use it.”M.T. Dismuke
Passion projects are a bit like 30-foot-tall ice cream cones. Everyone wants one, but few know what to do with them before they melt. Creating an original board game is an endeavor many aspire to complete – one that satisfies both the creative itch of an artist and the child-like competitiveness that lives within us all.
It is an especially interesting time for the board game industry due to the Coronavirus outbreak. With more people than ever staying home, it would appear board game sales have spiked on Amazon.
If you have been flirting with the idea of creating an original board game, the path ahead of you is wide open.
Too wide open for many!
Before we begin, it’s important to remember a few things.
- There are two sides of commercial-friendly creation. Artistic vision & market viability. Sure, you love your idea… but if you really want success as a product, you’re going to have to carve out a space for yourself in the marketplace. Product research is key. But more on that later…
- Creating an original board game is the same as any long-term creative project. It requires steadfast vision and tenacious drive. Get ready to work.
While joining the ranks of classics like Monopoly or UNO may feel far-fetched, remember, there has been plenty of indie success in the industry too. The following games started as independent projects and eventually broke through with mainstream success, becoming modern day classics themselves:
- The Settlers of Catan
- Cards Against Humanity
- That’s What She Said
- Ticket to Ride
I had the pleasure of speaking with game-making mentor and creator of the smash hit party game “That’s What She Said”, Dan Myers.
When creating an original board game, always keep a notebook. Good ideas have a habit of striking when you least expect them.
Dan put this very technique into practice with what would later become a million-dollar idea.
If you rely on your memory, you will surely lose good things along the wayDan Myers
“After getting the initial ‘ah-ha’ moment for TWSS [That’s What She Said], we immediately started carrying notepads in our pockets at all times, writing down every ‘TWSS’ phrase we heard in the wild. I’d have to stop frequently in conversations to say ‘oh, I gotta write that down!’ By the time we shipped the game, we had stacks and stacks of notebooks filled with phrases, ideas, playtest notes, and box design concepts.”
Play What’s Out There
Speaking of inspiration, choose a handful of your favorite board or card games, ideally ones in a similar family as your concept. Play them repeatedly.
- Which mechanics work well?
- What mechanics would you improve?
- How would changing one single mechanic affect playability?
You want to avoid copying an existing game, but that doesn’t mean your game can’t be a Frankenstein of some of your favorite mechanics.
Changing the Way You Think
More than most, Dan has experienced the dichotomy of art vs. business.
“While the process of game design will challenge your creative abilities to write, design, and produce a product — Amazon will challenge you in a completely different way”
If you are at all interested in making money from your glorious creation, you have most likely thought about selling your board game on Amazon. Start developing your online business skill set early.
- Back end logistics
- SKU management
- PPC advertising
- SEO optimization
- Keeping up with Amazon’s ranking algorithm
With the explosion of new party games in recent years, simply listing your product on Amazon will only take you so far, and perhaps nowhere at all.Dan Myers
Go to Amazon and pick 3-5 established games you’re familiar with. Start researching which keywords they are associated with.
Don’t know where to start? Helium 10’s Cerebro is made for this very purpose.
Cerebro lets you plug in an Amazon product’s ASIN identifying number and instantly view the key phrases that product is being indexed for. Filter by search volume to get a sense of popularity or filter by number of products to get a sense of competition.
Why is keyword data important at this stage of creating an original board game? If your goal is to merely create a game that you and your friends can enjoy at home… it may not be.
Alternatively, you may be finding that your original idea for a game is a little too niche. Perhaps the main keywords you feel describe your product best are not being searched for on Amazon. If this is the case, pivoting sooner would be better than later.
3. Choosing a Theme
Are you into Gothic Viking holy warriors? Cybernetic hacking with a 1980’s flair? Cat detective noirs? Let your personality shine.
A good theme sets the tone of your game.
Your theme is simply the genre and “feel” of your game, however don’t discount what a compelling theme can do for gameplay. Just ask anyone who has played Risk what world domination can do to friendships around the table…
Whether it’s dungeons, dragons, or unicorns – make your theme stand out from the rest.
If you are feeling like you are straying too far into the absurd (which I run the risk of doing with Dungeons & Dragons & Unicorns), you may want to take a step back.
Dan is here to reel us in. He suggests pop culture relevance as a starting point when creating an original board game.
“There are some very successful games out there with their own rich, unique lore, but as a beginner, you should keep in mind that the more unfamiliar your theme, the more effort it’s going to take to educate and attract the interest of a prospective buyer.”
Insider Edge: Theme Research
If you are interested in how competitive a theme is for your board game within the online marketplace, you’re in luck. Black Box from Helium 10 allows users to take a peek behind the curtain.
For example, inputting the key phrase “eldritch horror board game” gives us some useful data.
Among the top performing products for this keyword phrase, they average 1320 monthly units sold for an average monthly revenue of 44,000 dollars. There are however only about 169 people who use this search term a month. This tells us that the products on this page are probably getting most of their sales from other keywords.
The top products also have an average of 472 reviews, so that tells us that its a relatively mature niche.
Is your game combative or cooperative? An exercise in social deception or a race?
Take mechanics that interest you and adapt them in a unique way for your game. No one wants to play Settlers of Catan but reskinned as your “original” game.
Players want mechanics that are similar enough to past games that feel familiar and easy to pick up, yet different enough to feel fresh and unexpected.
If that sounds like a catch-22, it’s because it almost is. Being “the same, but different” requires serious innovation. Common game mechanics include:
- Taking turns
- Drawing cards
- Rolling dice
For a more complete list of common board game mechanics, check out Board Game Geek.
Randomizers are the mechanics that dictate the pace of play. A good randomizer will provide obstacles to all players while guaranteeing one of the most important factors for any board game: re-playability.
If you game relies on something like rock-paper-scissors to move things along, chances are people won’t be lining up to play again.
Create a working rule book for your game.
- What is the minimum and maximum number of players?
- How long should the game take to complete?
- How severe are penalties?
- Can players steal, negotiate, or trade?
- How do you win?
“Playtesting the game is perhaps the most important phase of creation…”Dan Myers
Which mechanics are helping or hurting your game?
In the case of That’s What She Said, Dan and his team set out with the goal of eliminating boring or throwaway rounds during play.
“To achieve this, we play-tested well over 50 times in bars, gaming stores, colleges, with friends and family, and anywhere else we could, notating the reactions of each card combination played from ‘weak/offensive’ to ‘gut-busting laughter’.”
Gather a small group of trustworthy friends and have them play your game. Encourage brutal honesty.
Dan suggests an alternative idea.
“I’d also recommend remote playtests, sending people your game and creating a simple form to fill out that gives them a chance to leave feedback on their favorite or least favorite parts, without the pressure of you being over their shoulder.”
Part of being an artist is developing a thick skin for criticism, you can take it! With enough playtesting, criticisms will melt away into pure, unadulterated enthusiasm.
This phase of creating an original board game relies heavily on trial and error – lots and lots of error
Insider Edge – Preemptive Playtesting
The idea behind preemptive playtesting is to gather user feedback from other indie games with weaker online reviews.
Let’s revisit the Helium 10 tool, Black Box. Under the “Niche” tab, we can search “indie board games” for example and set the filter to only show products with under four-star reviews but over five total reviewers. As you find these games, open them in Amazon and use Review Downloader to dive deeper into negative reviews.
“The instructions are unclear”
“Game pieces feel cheap”
“The game is too complicated to just enjoy playing!”
Keep this feedback in your back pocket. They aren’t reviews for your game, but they one day could be.
Setting Budgets & Expectations
Many game developers fail to take into account production objectives. Dan throws a real-world example our way, with a starting price point of $24.99.
“Consider that retailers and Amazon will take at least 50-60% of your margins. So, your $24.99 game now has $12.50 to play with. If you want to advertise, consider ~$3 allocated per unit, and of course, you’ll need to make $3-4 per game, so call it $7, leaving you with only $5.50 to get the game made, shipped, and stored. With that information in mind, when you are speaking with the factory about producing your game, you’ll have a better idea about what thickness of card you can use, what material you can afford to make the pieces out of, how fancy is your box, etc. If you don’t look at this problem starting with MSRP and going backward, you are bound to find yourself making supply-side decisions that are ultimately not going to work when it’s time to start producing and selling your game.”
When is a Game Truly Finished?
You can patch a video game post-release – board and card games do not have that luxury.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it easy for new players to pick up and understand?
- Are your key mechanics functioning the way you intended?
- Do you see furrowed brows or beaming smiles around the table?
It may seem like a game is never truly finished, as there are always things you can add.
Go Forth and Create
Remember, making fun and games isn’t always fun and games. If you are ready to make the leap from hobbyist to entrepreneur, you must understand how to leverage the tools that will get you there.
A huge thank you to Dan Myers who provided such practical insight on the subject and continues to mentor game makers all over the world.
Now pass GO and collect (hopefully a lot more than) $200.