I had begun my board game development journey when I started my game design course at the University of Huddersfield in September of 2017. Though as I first started to attend classes and work towards my degree, I didn't know this. I thought I was learning the trade, getting foundational skills that could set me on the right track for a game development career, something which I had always wanted to do. I thought getting a degree was something I needed to do BEFORE I started game development, but I was wrong.
In my first year, Dr Daryl Marples, my tutor for my concept development course, set us on the task of making a board game. To be clear, the degree that I am taking is mainly a digital game development degree, meaning video games. This assignment was to teach us the fundamentals of game design, to show us that the structure and skeleton of games, whether they be on the television or tabletop, is vital to creating a meaningful experience for the player. This assignment is when my game development journey truly began.
After a few months of coming up with concepts (at one point, I had a massive space 4x game (before I even knew what 4x was) that borrowed many elements from games like Civilization and Armello), I discovered dexterity games. Dexterity games are great to design because the core fun experience is already there, accomplishing a task with your hands and usually doing it with some restriction like time or space. This discovery leads me to create my first ever game, Blockers: The Stacking Game.
I missed out on the iterative process of design that I later found with my next game, just because of how simple the rules were and how much of a hit it was with my classmates. People loved to play it during play-testing sessions, there was little critical feedback, so I moved onto looking at the game's visual design.
Learning Experience #1: Criticism is a good thing.
The iteration of Blockers' visual design, I think, was when I realised what game design was and what it takes to develop a game from start to finish. The short answer is brutal criticism, followed by less severe criticism until, eventually, the criticism is less so than the praise, and you have a game to sell. I had comments like, "Your game looks like something I would find in a $5 discount bin at Walmart", as well as "This looks like something from the 70s, and not in a good way". At the time, I found this feedback difficult to digest. Over time, and especially now, I realise that it's necessary and something that I now invite into my every day working life as I continue to develop games.
Top is the final version of the Blockers box art, bottom is the first version.
Once Blockers had reached a point where both myself, my peers and Daryl were happy with it, Daryl specifically pushed me to look into Kickstarter and see whether I could get enough money together to make the game and publish it. At the time, I was just 19 years old and had no experience whatsoever with manufacturers, finances, shipping, borders, taxes, logistics or anything that goes into making and distributing a game. Did I care? Not really, but not out of confidence or big headedness, but more so out of ignorance; I had no idea what I was getting myself in to.
Learning Experience #2: You succeed, or you learn.
Now, I am incredibly thankful that my first Kickstarter failed. First and foremost, it was a great learning experience to fail at an early stage (I know some people that failed with their second game after seeing success with their first game, which can crush them), but secondly, I would not have been prepared if it did.
The goal for my first ever Kickstarter campaign was £7000. This number was calculated using a combination of a quote from the manufacturer, expected shipping costs, and even a small profit margin for all my hard work. A substantial unforeseen cost, both time and money-wise, was that if I did fund and I ordered the print run from the manufacturer, I would have been receiving 1500 copies of Blockers to my front door. Where would I have stored 1500 units of a board game I had no infrastructure to ship? Where would I have sold the remaining 1000+ copies after the backers got theirs? These questions and more were something that I didn't think about, and I am glad I never had to deal with them.
With my second campaign fully funded less than a year later, with £2800, I received 500 units of Blockers to my father's warehouse that he uses for his business (you have to find perks where you can when starting your business to save you some money). Still, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows.
Learning Experience #3: Don't be too desperate for "success".
Firstly, you probably wonder how I managed to get 500 units for £2800 when 1500 units were £7000 (Keep in mind, cost per unit dramatically decreases once you get about 1000 units and more at 1500 units). Well, the short answer is that I didn't.
I actually ended up paying around £5000 for 500 units, using many of my savings to do so. There were many reasons for this miscalculation, one huge one being that I received an inaccurate quote from a manufacturer, and I didn't realise this until right near the end of the campaign. At that time, I had to find a cheaper manufacturer. That's what I thought I HAD to do at the time, at least (we will come back to this in a different learning experience section later).
As you will find, if you ever do a Kickstarter, you get approached by many companies trying to offer their services to you, and manufacturers are in no short supply, especially once you have hit your funding goal. I ended up sending out a production sheet detailing all the components required to make the game to as many of these manufacturers as possible to find a cheap quote. The cheapest I got for 500 units (most Chinese manufacturers do a minimum print of 1000 units, so it was doubly hard to find one that could offer me a lower price than those already quoting me) was around £4000 plus shipping. This quote came with quite a few corners cut and not the rounded ones. Right then and there, I should have cancelled the campaign and reevaluated, but I decided that to be "successful" in my eyes was to fund and publish a board game as soon as possible. If I could go back and tell myself that this wasn't the case, I would have done.
Learning Experience #4: Be okay with reevaluating your situation.
Being introspective, especially when you are in the thick of it (mid-development or mid-campaign), can be difficult. You are too focused on the goal and being too much of a futurist that you can't see what is right in front of you. With my next game, Food Time Battle in Space, I overcame this hurdle of introspection and finally saw the path I am on as a developer.
I launched Food Time Battle in Space in February 2021. This game has simpler components and less of them, making a quote of 1000 units from a reputable manufacturer put the goal at a reliable but achievable £4000. The art was incredible; the game had been playtested to hell and back; it was and still is, I might add, a great game and one that I am very proud of. The campaign was cancelled with 11 days to go.
With 13 days to go, I was contacted by the manufacturer that provided my company with prototype copies of Food Time Battle in Space to send out to reviewers, saying that they could offer me a print run large enough to launch a Kickstarter with their quote being the basis of the funding goal. Firstly, I was shocked because it didn't even cross my mind that they had the capacity for a large print run. After all, they accepted my minuscule print run of seven copies which is unheard of from manufacturers in China. But more importantly, they are based in the UK, which made me outright think "unaffordable". It turns out that wasn't the case. And with a print run as small as I want (within reason to maintain some profit), I could have the Kickstarter goal as low as I wanted, which meant that I could guarantee what I wanted to do from the very beginning... make games. Kickstarter doesn't allow you to change your goal once you go live, and as I was about £1800 off my goal with 11 days to go, I cancelled so I could relaunch with a smaller goal—the relaunch funded in just under four hours.
Learning Experience #5: Discovering your path.
I'm thankful that it has taken me such a short about of time to figure out the direction I want to go in as a games designer in the grand scheme of things. Most of my peers are still going through their first stage of finishing University, whilst I feel like I have a firm grasp of my career's future. All because I was introspective, and I thought back to what I wanted to do, it wasn't to make lots of money or be Kickstarter famous; it was to make games that people enjoy and lots of them. I have found the tools I need to do that reliably, and let's see where it goes from here.
Hello, my name is Niall Crabtree, and this is my comprehensive blog showcasing all of my game development endeavors and successes, as well as essays on game design.
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