The Process of Publishing a Game

Scrabble tiles and notepads

As the Head of Game Development and Acquisition for Grey Fox Games, a major part of my job is finding board games to sign for our catalog. As the founder of Travel Buddy Games I delight in doing the same.  Here is a little look behind the scenes of the process of signing and publishing a board game that might be of interest to aspiring publishers or designers.

The Submission

The Travel Buddy Submission process is modeled after the submission process I’ve used with Grey Fox Games for the past 5 years but with some added criteria. I think it’s a pretty straightforward process for everyone involved.

  1. Reach out and tell me about your game. Tell me how it fits in with our guidelines and what makes it fun. If you have a sell sheet, send it along.
  2. Prepare a video. If I think your game might be a match for us I’m certainly going to ask for one. Don’t go crazy on production though. Truly, just film a few turns on your phone and narrate the action for me. This is never a test of your video editing skills. I just want to see what the game is like.
  3. Prepare a prototype. If your video shows a game that might fit in our line, I’m going to want to play your game. The fastest way for me to get it in front of players is for you to send in a playable version for me to try. (If it’s not a good fit, we can certainly arrange a way to get it back to you.)

The Evaluation

If that’s what the designer gives me, then what do I do with it?

  1. I look at the sell sheet and see if the game checks my boxes. Is it small? Does it seem approachable? Is the theme right? If any one of these things is off it can be a dealbreaker for this brand. I’ll try to pinpoint problems here and see if the designer has considered solutions. If it seems like it hits all my criteria I move on to the video.

  2. The video is an absolute necessity for me. With Grey Fox Games, I receive somewhere in the ballpark of 500 submissions a year. There is no way I can play all of them. There is no way I can even see all of them. So after ruling out games that are clearly not a good fit in our line, watching a 5 minute video can tell me a lot.

    Obviously Travel Buddy doesn’t yet receive anywhere near that volume of submissions but this level of evaluation is still immensely valuable for me. I look for the key things: quickly teachable, intuitive play, integration of theme, table presence, and moments of joy.  This 5 minutes can tell me almost everything I need to know about a game.

  3. When a video shows me a game has potential for the brand, then I need to play it. I ask for a prototype and get it to the table. This consists of several rounds of testing with different numbers of players. My goal at this stage is to determine two major things. First, I need to know that the game is sufficiently developed and tested by the designer that it feels unlikely to break down with heavy testing. Next, I need to know the game is fun! (And that last one means a diverse group of people find it to be so. My own opinion is not enough.

Example of a Sell Sheet
Example Sell Sheet

The Signing 

When a game has made it through all of the above and still shows itself to be a match, I offer the designer a contract. This document outlines a ton of important information not limited to the following:

  • How long until the game is published
  • What % of sales does the designer receive
  • How and how often will the designer be paid
  • What special arrangement are there for a Kickstarer edition
  • How will we handle licensing the game to other publishers
  • What will we do in the case of a digital version
  • What happens if one of us doesn’t abide by the terms

The standard contract I use was written with the specific request that it was fair to both parties. I know some larger companies have very unfriendly contracts and perhaps when a publisher reaches a certain size, they see the world differently. I am happy to say that Travel Buddy Games (and incidentally Grey Fox Games) sees the opportunity to work with great designers to make great games as something that can and should be mutually beneficial. 

I very much value the relationships I have with people I work with. I strive to make real and lasting connections with game designers, graphic designers, bloggers, youtubers, artists, manufacturers and the broader gaming and travel communities. We all need each other to succeed so shouldn’t we help each other succeed? The fact of the matter is, if you are good at what you do (designing fun travel themed games for example) then I want to work with you. And I want you to want to work with me. And the best way to do that is to build a relationship that values fairness and benefits us both.

The Development

When people ask me what I do I often explain my role as a board game developer like this. Imagine board game publishing to be akin to book publishing. The game designer is the author. The game developer is the editor. I look for the roughest parts of the project and try to polish them so that the whole thing shines a little brighter.

I’ve always been a curious person and I like to play the “what if” game. As in “what if I hitchhiked all across New England?” or “what if I added Korean pepper flakes to the Caesar dressing?” or “what if when we play rummy I hold all my runs until I can play my whole hand at once?”

The answer to those questions are, “you meet some very strange people,” and “it’s delicious but not to everyone’s liking,” and “it makes it much harder for other players to go out since they can’t play lay-offs and you will either you win big or lose disastrously and no matter what my wife will be rightly annoyed about it.”

Annoying or not, the fact of the matter is, people will do it. (The rummy thing. Not the Caesar dressing or hitchhiking thing.) And if they are going to do it when we have 5000 copies of the game out in the wild,  I want to be sure we did it first and that it either didn’t break the game or it did and we found a way to fix it. And I love fixing things almost as much as I like breaking them.

Like with any creative endeavor, this usually requires someone less close to the process than the creator. The closer you are to something the harder it is for you to think about it in divergent ways and the easier it is to overlook problems. I love being the one to help make a designers vision sing. And thankfully I have great groups of playtesters willing to help me too for when a project becomes my baby.

 

Making it Pretty

Board games have come a long way in the past 25 years. They have gotten smarter, more diverse, and certainly nicer looking. This is a good thing. 

I like having games in my life and I love being able to show them off as the pieces of art that they are (or can be!) That is why it matters to me what the games I work on look like. I love cool pieces like those found in Hive or Azul and I love the epic art in Scythe and Reavers of Midgard. I want Travel Buddy Games titles to stand out too.

To this end, I spend pretty much every night on Artstation finding new artists to follow for when I have a project I know they’d be great for. If you are interested in discovering new artists and you aren’t on Artstation, do yourself a favor and start browsing!

The Rest

Of course there is a lot more that goes into making a game: marketing, manufacturing, freight, logistics, fulfillment and so on. But what we have touched on so far are the things that I am most passionate about. Finding great games, building great relationships, and turning designs into the most appealing final version of themselves is something that I love to do and want to share with all of you.

And for the record, I am not the only one.

 Jamey Stegmaeir of Stonemaier Games has long run an awesome blog sharing great data for board game publishing and kickstarter usage.

Designers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim also have a great guide to getting a game published written by designers for designers that really digs into the process.

As Travel Buddy Games embarks on our first project (Spoiler: it’s a very clever card game by designer Keith Piggott) I would love to share a behind the scenes look at that process from the perspective of a very small publisher beginning down the road to publishing great games in small boxes and bringing them beyond the board game hobby to the world of Travel.

If you found this post valuable, or have questions or suggestions for future posts, leave a comment below.

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