7 Things to Know Before Making a Tabletop Game
As our team gets excited about the release of our debut tabletop game, Proliferation: The Game of Nuclear Strategy, we took some time to reflect on the things we wish we would have known before we decided to launch our Kickstarter campaign in May of 2021.
When Proliferation was first created, it was just a set of handwritten index cards. The rules were loose — before we wrote the rulebook for our Kickstarter Edition, they didn’t even exist on paper because they were always changing. Yet throughout 2020, whenever our friends were able to get together for a game night, we found ourselves wanting to play this game more than any other. That’s when we knew we were on to something!
In 2021, we started showing it to our closest friends and family. It continued to be a game night hit. Later that same year, with their tremendous support, we took a leap of faith and launched a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign — and much to our delight, we found an even wider interest in our game! Surpassing our goal, we raised a grand total of $54,226 and couldn’t be more grateful to our backer community.
Two years later, we’ve learned just how great that leap really was. As we have been working diligently to bring Proliferation to you, we’ve encountered and solved more problems than we ever could have imagined. As all our hard work comes to fruition this spring, we wanted to reflect on the experiences we’ve had as a company and share the top seven things we wish we would have known before making a tabletop game!
#1: It takes a long time to make a good tabletop game.
The idea for Proliferation was hatched in 2019. By early 2020, the game was written on torn-in-half index cards, and the decision to launch a Kickstarter wouldn't come until 2021. By the time the game arrives on backers’ doorsteps, it will be a few months into 2023.
Long story short: Tabletop games take a long time to make.
From establishing creative direction to rule changes, to play testing and working with a manufacturer, there are countless aspects to making a tabletop game that one might overlook before getting started. For example, our first big decision was to nail down whether we would sell our game to a company, or publish it ourselves. Then we had to decide on a manufacturer, since we weren’t about to hand make the games ourselves. Who would market our game, and who would fulfill it?
We officially finalized our rulebook in August of 2022, meaning that it took almost three years of play testing to come to a finalized version of Proliferation! It took every moment of that time to create a game that is fun, well-designed, and will stand the test of time. If you would’ve asked us how much time we thought it would take before the Kickstarter, we would have given a time frame of months, not years.
However, monitoring the schedule of how other Kickstarter campaigns have been fulfilling their games, we saw time and time again that our extended fulfillment timeline ended up being pretty typical. And man oh man, did we work our butts off on this project, working countless hours on graphic design and rulebook editing over the past 20 months.
On our original Kickstarter, we aspired to a fulfillment date of December 2021. Knowing what we know now, an estimate of early 2023 would have been much more sensible. We’ve realized that mistakes are a part of the journey, and that developing a game doesn’t happen overnight.
#2: You need a team of people, and they need to work well together.
It would be really impressive if one person had all the skills required to make a tabletop game, because there are many. Most of us, however, will need a team of talented individuals, dedicated to bringing the game to life.
After making the first prototype of the game, as chief game designer, I realized that the first thing I couldn’t do alone was graphic design. So I started asking my closest friends if they had any experience, and two of them did. They both joined the team immediately.
While I did learn some stuff with Adobe XD, I was able to leave the visual aspects of the game up to the team members who could execute on them best. One of the two friends was also versed in all things social media, and thus began making templates for Instagram and Facebook posts.
Soon after getting the game design going, I realized we would need an editor. I chose to ask a friend who majored in English, and they happily agreed. This addition to the team would make the rulebook that was to come intelligible, and could help edit all documents the team was crafting.
To create an entire tabletop game, you’ll need a team. The team has to work well together, too. Going into business with friends can be a challenging, yet rewarding venture. Clear and effective communication skills proved key for our team, and we took the time that was necessary to foster a project environment where we could be honest with each other, while also being respectful of each other’s feelings. As we worked together to meet deadlines, we learned a surprising amount about each other, from each team member’s work ethic to their views on the Oxford comma.
Our tip to you: Choose your team wisely!
#3: Rulebook creation is one hell of a task.
I’d like to introduce you to the tenth circle of Dante’s Inferno: Writing the rulebook.
We ended up sitting with our rulebook for about a year, constantly ironing out detail after painstaking detail until it became the beauty that it is today. There were many nights when the light at the end of the tunnel seemed close, only for some new suggestion or revision to yank it out of view. After spending countless hours staring at the same Adobe file, poring over the same exact words, some of our team members would even become ill at the thought of ever seeing it again.
Proliferation will end up with a pretty large rulebook, but the aspects of creating one that haunted us the most will still apply to any game. For example, you need to actually make sure that the rules work. Making a set of rules that are self-contained and answer any questions that might come up is much harder than it sounds. All the countless hours of play testing we went through were well worth it in the end, allowing us to collect feedback and suggestions that improved the rulebook substantially.
The rules also have to be intelligible. The rules and game mechanics that make any tabletop game fun, replayable, and well-thought-out mean nothing if the people playing it don’t understand them. Or worse, if they play them completely wrong.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the rulebook has to have a certain flow to it, and have the same tone of voice throughout. And you would not believe the amount of heated discussions we’ve had over things like the placement of a simple comma, or the contextual difference between “one” and “a”. A fair amount of design and illustration will also have to go into the rulebook. When you put all these aspects of rulebook creation together, it is easy to see how the process can become the largest hurdle to clear in publishing your future tabletop game.
You can never start drafting your rulebook too early.
#4: Prepare for the Power of Programs.
The many programs our team encountered over the course of creating Proliferation helped make our lives a lot easier. Educating ourselves about resources like Google Fonts, Adobe XD, and Legal Zoom allowed us to make sure we were constantly dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s.
Here is a list of the programs, softwares, and resources we used to help bring our debut tabletop game to life:
Google Fonts: Licensing fonts for your project can be extremely expensive. Google Fonts offers beautiful, open source fonts as well as icons available for commercial use for FREE. Google fonts are also available anywhere in the world and are optimized for web use which will keep any website operating at peak performance.
Envato Elements: Envato offers educational and creative assets for almost any personal or commercial project imaginable such as sound effects, fonts, stock photography, email templates and more. It has become a valued asset for our team that we continue to take advantage of daily.
Adobe XD: This program was our graphic design headquarters. This is where we edited social media templates, website materials, Kickstarter graphics, and many other assets. Our shared Adobe XD files are definitely some of the most frequently accessed files on our computers.
Google Workspace: Keeping a shared drive that everyone could access was huge for keeping everything organized. Google Workspace also gives you access to softwares like Google Docs and Google Sheets.
Legal Zoom: The legal stuff behind making a tabletop game can become overwhelming. Legal Zoom easily allowed us to legally form our company and file a trademark for Proliferation. It also offered customer support along the way to understand what we were doing.
Rocket Lawyer: Rocket Lawyer helped us create legally-binding contracts with ease. We were able to easily search through their contract templates and customize them, saving us a lot of time and guesswork.
Quickbooks: Bookkeeping is a project all on its own. Quickbooks is relatively inexpensive, and helps us to keep track of accounting items such as receipts and expenditures.
#5: You’ll need to understand marketing if you want to sell your game.
Having at least one team member with some functional knowledge of marketing is essential.
Proliferation is an intense strategy game for 2-9 players that simulates international diplomacy. Early on, we understood that our target market would look a little different than the target market Monopoly has, for example. So we started listing out the strengths that Proliferation had in comparison to other games that were hot on the market, trying to craft a marketing strategy that would help sell our debut tabletop game. We needed to match these product strengths to the types of people who would be most interested.
Since our game was fairly complex, we knew our target market would look more similar to that of Gloomhaven than Monopoly. The gameplay encouraged coalition building and backstabbing, which were excellent features of any respectable game night. On top of that, the game’s realism approach to international relations might pique the interest of politically-minded nerds.
Was there huge overlap between these three potential groups? How would we reach each of these groups?
Next, listing out the potential market channels to reach these groups through helped us forge a game plan. We could go with word of mouth, setting up a booth at gaming events, taking out paid advertisements on social media, or even rent out a billboard if we thought it would help us reach our specifically defined target markets. Of course, we had to be aware of costs, and how effective each market channel would actually be. It was very important for us to be thorough in understanding each of the market channels we could potentially use.
Determining how we would market the game led to an action plan, fully equipped with a calendar. Since most of our marketing will be executed in the near future, we hope that our plan leads us to our goal of getting Proliferation to the board game masses!
#6: Global events are unpredictable.
The last few years have had their share of surprises. Remember that time we had to fight over the last pack of toilet paper at Walmart? Or that time the Suez Canal was blocked by that ONE sideways ship? Throughout the entire game production process, we’ve heard countless stories of total supply chain breakdown, international shipping dysfunction, and of course, a pandemic coupled with a hostile and unstable international political environment. Events like these affect things like choosing a manufacturer, determining a method of fulfillment, and the prices that will come with each.
For example, when we first started shopping for a manufacturer, we considered locations across the globe. We were first impressed with a manufacturer from Singapore and another from China, but after hearing about out-of-control freight costs, we made a decision to try to produce our game here in America. This substantially raised the unit price for each game we would produce, but would cut out any possible uncertainty from global tensions and shipping breakdowns.
The price of domestic shipping also soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the price of goods in general. And most of that inflation happened between the end of our Kickstarter campaign and actual game fulfillment, affecting our bottom line and fulfillment plans greatly.
No one can predict things like COVID-19 or rising global tensions. We continually reminded ourselves as a team that the best (and only) thing we could do was adapt to the situation, and keep moving forward to the best of our abilities. While keeping track of the world news might occasionally help us to make better business decisions for the game, we knew that we could only worry so much.
Making sure we kept our Kickstarter backers updated regularly was very important in staying honest and transparent. We simply had to roll with the punches and keep open communication.
#7: You won’t win your own game! (If it’s good)
I write to you as the chief game designer behind Proliferation, and I have something frustrating to admit: I’ve won my own game a staggeringly low amount of times.
From the game’s inception in early 2020, I’ve probably won Proliferation less times than is statistically possible. However, losing my own game so often did prove something great about it: friends and family that played the game were drawn into it enough to want to think of new complex strategies, and it showed that the pool of strategies to pick from was massive. They were employing strategies to the game that I hadn’t even considered!
It also showed that someone didn’t need to be an expert in the game to be able to win. A complete novice could wipe the floor with a seasoned veteran, and winning three rounds in a row didn’t guarantee a fourth win.
When creating a game, losing it is a great sign; it means that you've created something engaging. As new game designers, we've discovered that watching others win your game is often far more rewarding than winning yourself. It means that our work has paid off.