The past week has been the Board Game Design Virtual Summit 2020. This is a totally online summit on board game design and publishing and is hosted by Boardgamedesigncourse.com. All interviews are hosted by game designer Joe Slack. Day 6 interviews is about Thinking Outside the Board Game Box. Today, the interviews are with Kathleen Mercury, a game designer and teacher who uses board games in her class, AJ Brandon, a game store owner who runs a podcast, and Sen-Foong Lim, a game designer who talks about contracts with publishers.
You can see the Summit here, though the summit is over now and you would need to pay to view the interviews now which is worth it.
Kathleen Mercury, M.A.T., M.E.T., has been teaching gifted middle school students for fifteen years using design thinking to create functional art from designing tabletop games and RPGs to filmmaking, cosplay, and more.
She shares all of her game design teaching resources at www.kathleenmercury.com for free, and loves to collaborate with educators and industry leaders to promote game design curriculum at every level and format.
She currently co-hosts the podcasts, Games in Schools and Libraries and On Board Games, and is a frequent guest on other podcasts. She has multiple games in various stages of design, development, and publication including the upcoming titles Greece Lightning from Wizkids and Dragnarok from Kolossal.
She teaches gifted kids that have high IQ and she wanted to capitalize on bringing board games to the classroom. But she wanted her students to actually learn to design games and simply not to consume them. She went to board game conventions and met people in the field while designing her own board games.
The games she brings to the class are games that take 45 minutes to play since that is the time her classes are. She makes games to help teach them skills like swimming. She also rethemed a game to have a Harry Potter theme since the theme of the original game was too dark for kids.
She is given alot of autonomy in her classroom. So she incorporates games and uses design to give her students to solve problems with them. They work together with challenges and feedback to improve their game designs.
She created a presentation about game design at a convention, but learned others did the same subject. So she reworked her presentation with failure and dealing with it in education. She was unpublished at the time and wanted to make a presence. Students have failed in their designs and learned to deal with the failure by doing better.
As a designer, you need to play many games and study games with what works and not works. She played with dated games and tried to solve how the game could be better.
She wants the students to leave the class with knowing how to solve problems. She doesn’t care if they don’t design a game again. She only want to use board game design in her class to give them skills that can be used in other ways. She wants them to learn social skills, cognitive skills, working collaboratively, problem solving, crafting with materials, and more.
Board gaming has their own set of literacy. Many gamers recognize different game mechanics, terms of play, icons and more.
She wants to her students to constantly play games, but not let them continue a game if they are bored by them. Some games need to be good but with an exciting theme. Playing games helps them with designing board games. They can see what works and what doesn’t. They learn the different types of game mechanics and rules.
She opens her classroom for students to play games on their lunch breaks or free periods. She encourages them to interact and learn social skills with others.
She designs games that are hobby styled games. She wants people to learn with her games and target young audiences. She uses her students to play test her games, but not all the time. It helps them learn to give feedback and how she accepts their feedback. They solve problems with the game she designs together. She only interested in designing games that can be set up, taught, and played in 45 minutes.
She teaches that game design is a lot of work in creating something. There are challenges and they need to learn how solve problems. She teaches there is no black and white solutions and there is a lot of gray areas in solving problems. The students collaborate with each other to help improve their game designs. She prepares them emotionally that they can’t solve every problem and some things may fail. They can’t win every game they play.
Dr. Catherine Croft is a friend of her who is a science teacher. Her website is http://catlilli.com. She has a resource page for teachers to use board games in classes. Her games are simple and easy to learn and can be used teach specific topics.
On her website, she has audio of presentations she and her friend did at conventions. She teaches on how to incorporate board gaming in their classrooms. She has lists of games that would be helpful to use in the classroom. Have kids focus on the design of a game and ask what they like and not like. Critical analysis of games they play help them with many skills. Not just play to win, but play to learn different skills. Make sure the games you use for your class is relevant to the subject you’re teaching.
A.J. Brandon has been steeped in board gaming his entire life and has been designing his own games for almost as long. He works full time at Board Game Bliss (a popular board game store in Canada) and is the cohost of a new podcast "Fun Problems”.
He played board games all his life and designed games when he was young for fun. He went to a local board game convention in 2016 which opened his eyes to the industry and eventually got a job at Board Game Bliss.
If you’re a designer who manufactured a game, it is tough to get your games sold to local games stores. Not worth it. Game stores buy their games from distributors who bought them from publishers. They buy their games in bulk from large publishers and buy from consolidators like PSI. If you’re new, you should talk to a consolidator who buys different games from different designers and small publishers. They then approach distributors to sell to. Of course, you will take a hit, since consolidators need to make money. You make money by getting the tail
If you sell through a Kickstarter campaign, you only get the most margin and all your games are sold.
If you go through the traditional model, your game trickles into the board game environment and becomes more accessible to buyers. You will continue to get sales in a longer period of time. That is the tail.
Light engine builders and tableau builders were popular months ago. People are still buying games and games types are still popular. Solo games and 2 players games are growing because of the pandemic.
One of the biggest Facebook groups are for solo board gamers. But there haven’t been a spike on 2 player games during the pandemic.
Many buyers will not consider games that don’t have a solo variant or rules. They want to play games on their own time since playing with others is hard.
Games that are popular in cafes are shorter games with easy to learn rules. HE said games where you can teach piecemeal so that you don’t need to explain all the rules at once. The game may not use some rules until after a certain point. So he teaches what they need now and later introduce more rules as the game progresses. So designers may want to consider where rules are unlocked.
Another game that are great to sell or demo in a store are games that have less set up. Many people don’t want to take time to set up in a group. Also easy take down is important too. He said he had to reorganize cards and components after players were done and just toss everything in the box which is time consuming.
Having a hook with a game makes it a fun demo game. Cash and Guns gives players a foam gun which catches people’s attention. Having a hook gets people excited.
You want games that attract other people. Games with special social interactions get people’s attention at demos. Inhuman Conditions where one player guess what they are looking for and interview another player who has to act a way and the player has to guess.
When making games for the main market, you need it to look at the audience who will buy your game. He play tested a game with other designers who weren’t into it. He kept play testing different audiences until he tested with mass market gamers. These are people who play Cards against Humanity. They enjoyed the game he play tested so he knew what his market was for the his game.
For a game to be eye-catching has to have a great cover but also looks great on the side as many games are shelved on the side. Don’t be gimmicky with the cover design. It needs to get people’s attention at first glance. On the back, you need a picture of the game in mid play as well as copy that hooks the viewer with what the game is about and why it’s fun in simplified form. Showing awards on the front cover is good, but many people may not know what they are so don’t put too much emphasis on the awards.
With price, it is hard to get an abstract concept on the value of a game. People care about the price, but you need to give people a perceived value. Sometimes having some weight gives people notion it has a higher value. Smaller boxes give a notion that is is cheaper. If a buyer buys a game with a bigger box that is filled mostly with air, they feel ripped off. So you can have an insert fill the box that organizes the components which raises the value of the product.
Miniatures give a higher value to games because they are custom made and not found elsewhere. Don’t have a game with components that can be easily found elsewhere.
Pandemic Legacy Season 1 has two different box designs. People were confused and it got people talking. They are actually the same exact same game. The design is beautiful and shows a panoramic artwork when standing side by side. It worked well to get people’s attention.
The store, Board Game Bliss is a moderate sized store that builds a community with inviting players to play there in their play area. He works at the store front and can help new players feel comfortable and finds a group for the person can play with.
His podcast, Fun Problems is brand new and he talks about different perspectives on board game designs. He talks more about making a game successful in the market. He takes it from the perspective of a buy and what they look for when they see the board game in a store or retail website.
Sen-Foong Lim burst on to the board game design scene in 2011, as the co-designer of the Euro-styled strategy game Belfort and has since risen to prominence with games like But Wait, There’s More!, the party game about pitching wacky products, to Junk Art, a family-oriented dexterity game, and Akrotiri, a game about unearthing lost temples in ancient Greece.
He often speaks on panels at GenCon and other conventions. He host a podcast called MeepleSyrup.
He started out playing games when he was young and was an avid Lord of the Rings fan. He discovered a place to play Dungeons & Dragons. But had to stop since it affected his education so he stopped RPG. HE then got into Magic the Gathering but it got expensive and stopped. He then got into board games. Board games didn’t take as much of his time and not necessary to spend lots of money.
He and friend designed a game but it was terrible and shelved it. His friend moved, but he visited one day and they decided to design board game together. They designed Belfort and his friend went to a convention with the prototype and end up getting signed. They both loved helping people with game design.
The talk is about contracts with board games you design.
When signing a contract for a game, you need to know what they are licensing. You need to license the name of the game and the world you created. When you license it, they still belong to you, but publisher can use it as long as the license is there. The rights of the game and the world can revert back to you when the license is not renewed. They cannot use your world when you have the rights come back to you. They can’t create their own game that takes place in the world you own the rights to.
Derivative works come from that game and world you worked on. It can be merchandise, books, etc that have content based on the world or game. You need to include that in your contract so you get a percentage.
Your license you negotiate may be world wide where they can publish anywhere around the world. Or publish for a specific language like French where many countries speak French. You could exclude some regions if you have another publisher cover a particular region like Mexico or all Spanish speaking countries.
There are many types of derivatives works like video games, movies, tv shows, and more media based on your game. You need to negotiate to get a percentage. Publishers can sublicense your game out to a French company that wants to sell your gammon French. You need to make sure you get a percentage that deal as well in the contract. It’s a win win situation, but you need to make sure you win more as the designer.
Your name as a designer should be on the box or rulebook. If you can, put it on the front cover and rulebook. However they may have rules where they can’t put your name on the front like when you designed a board game using a licensed IP like Scooby Doo so the owner of the Scooby Doo license won’t want your name on the cover. THen you get it on the back of the box and in the rulebook.
When your game is published, you should negotiate to get copies of your finished game. Sen-Foong says he usually gets a case which is usually 6 copies so he can give them away and keep some for himself.
When negotiating, both you and the publisher should be in a win win situation. If you feel like you’re losing something, you should renegotiate until you’re satisfied before you sign it. You can request wholesale purchases so you can sell the games yourself. You can negotiate more for a Kickstarter campaign since there is less overhead. You can negotiate for more when the game is sold by direct sales at conventions. For example, you get 7% for sales of the games to a distributor because it requires more costs. But for direct sales at conventions, you get 10%. Sales through a Kickstarter, you get 15%.
An advance is when you get money upfront which will affect your royalties. So you negotiate you get $1 per game sold and they pay you $1,000 up front. You won’t start getting royalties until after thousand copies are sold first. And you can’t give your advance back if it doesn’t go well.
A sign on bonus is extra money you get just to sign with a publisher. He only got a sign on bonus a couple times. You usually get it if it is a really big project and you have a reputation as a published designer. Or the game was so good that there was bidding war between publishers for your game.
You negotiate on what your royalties are based on. Is it from gross sales, MSRP sales, wholesale sales, net sales. But one you want to avoid is getting royalties based on net profits.
You want to avoid work for hire even though he did work for hire himself. It means when you’re working for hire, you don’t own anything anymore. The publisher owns all the rights. So they pay you up front now, but you have no future earnings and no control.
Getting royalties for net sales or net profits is not good and is tricky. Because they will deduct many different things from the gross and come up with net. So you might not get anything after they made all deductions. Sen-Foong negotiates to get realties based on wholesale sales. Getting paid royalties based on MSRP is hard because it is an arbitrary price to put on a game. Wholesale is the cost of the game before it goes to the warehouse. It’s easier.
Also he has a structure called escalators. Where when they sell 1,000 copies, they get 7%. When they sell 1,001 to 2,000 copies they get 8% and so on so they profit more as the game become more successful.
Another thing to add to the contract, you won’t get your money frequently. You can be paid royalties quarterly or twice a year or even once a year. And he says to include penalties for late payments so if they are late to be paid, you can charge late fees though it is hard to enforce.
To protect yourself, you need to indemnify yourself so that you don’t get punished for something you didn’t do. Like if the publisher decided to use Batman art in your game without your knowledge and they get sued, you won’t be included in the lawsuit. But also you need to indemnify the publisher as well, so if you used copyrighted material in your game, the publisher won’t get sued because of your actions.
You should have the ability to audit the books. If you feel something is wrong with their finances and you think you’re not getting the right amount for your royalties, you can demand an audit of their books to make sure the numbers add up correctly or if they cook the books and deny you what you deserve. If they are at fault, they have to pay for the audit. If you are wrong, you pay for the audit. So make sure you have have a conversation with the publisher beforehand to clear things up before taking action. And if that doesn’t work out, make sure you have evidence before you demand an audit.
Involve yourself in prepress controls even though you may not have as much in the decision making of the final product as the publisher hired the artists and designers, but you can see the proofs at the manufacturer. In that way, you can make sure the colors are correct, nothing in the game text or rules were changed or have typos and so on.
Another thing to add is if the publisher want to expand on the game or do expansions or do a reskin of their game, you should have first dibs on that before they think of giving it to someone else. If you decline it, then the publisher can hire anybody else to work on it.
You should also include a kill fee. It’s opposite of an advance. It can be $1000 or whatever. If the publisher holds up the game or doesn’t do anything with the game after a set period of time, you can demand to kill it and get a kill fee so you can pitch the game to another publisher that will produce the game.
License expiration is the next thing to include. For instance, if the publisher doesn’t reprint your game within a set period of time like 6 months or so, you can have the license expire and revert back to you so you can find another publisher to reprint your game. Your game is your income and if it goes out of print, the royalties eventually stop.
A failure to sell at a threshold is another aspect to include as well. If they can’t sell a certain number of copies in a year, the contract is void and you get your license back.
You also need to protect against a publisher bankruptcy. So if your publisher goes bankrupt, you don’t want your contract to be included as an asset that can be sold to another company. You want the contract to become null and void when they go bankrupt and you gain back the license so you can negotiate with another company. But there should be liquidation where the bankrupt publisher can sell off remaining copies of your game in whatever way they need to. It’s fair for them to do that because they paid to have them made. So you can let them sell at wholesale price the remaining copies with a liquidation period of 90 days.
When the license expires, you need to know what you own and what the publisher owns at expiration. You should get back the game itself, its name and the world you created. However, the artwork may not be yours as the artists may retain the rights to the artwork unless the publisher had negotiated to own the rights to the artwork.
There is also is a period when exactly you get your license back as the publisher need to do liquidation and that takes time.
Be careful of the term “in perpetuity” as it means forever. You may not want the publisher to own all rights forever. It depends. If it is your game design you pitched, you don’t want them to own it in perpetuity. But if they hire you to work on a game that is theirs or has a licensed IP, you my grant that in perpetuity as you were hired as a designer. He did a game using a Scooby Doo IP and it can’t be used as any other game except for Scooby Doo so it was fine for the publisher to keep the rights forever.
Don’t sign something because you just want to be a game designer. You have power over your game and there are so many publishers out there.
Never negotiate your royalties based on net profit or net sales because they can make whatever deductions that can where you end up with nothing or very little.
Be aware of anything that hold you for life. Like even after the license expires, they say you still have to do this or that for them Don’t do it.
Also beware of anti-disparagement clause where you can never say anything bad about the publisher forever. That is predatory because they may do terrible things and even if your license expires with them, you are not allowed to warn people against them.
If you want to work with a particular publisher, you may want to find designers that designed games for them and seek them out and ask them how was working with the publisher.
Of course, you really should get a lawyer that specializes in a contract. It may be a cost, but it is worth it so that you don’t get screwed on something you missed or was not written properly. You can negotiate on your own if you want and may just hire a lawyer just to write the contract itself.
You should make the contract fair for you and the publisher, but you need to know what is fair.
Last advice for new designers with a contract is to read it carefully. Understand your rights more. Also know there are many publishers out there so you don’t have to work with one. Talk to other designers and others in the industry. Listen to podcasts.
Se-Foong is working on many games but is not allowed to talk about games that are in development.