So you want to produce a board game: Interview w/ Joe Slack

I am planning to launch Worldbreakers, my two-player card game, on Kickstarter on March 1st. As part of my research I interviewed Joe Slack, a board game designer, publisher, author, and instructor. Joe runs the Board Game Design Course and posts regularly about self-publishing. We discuss the steps required to get your game produced: printing, fulfillment, and their nitty gritty details. You can find the original interview on YouTube.

Elli: Joe, thank you for joining me today. How about you tell us a bit about yourself and your board game career?

Joe: Thanks so much for having me on, Elli. I have been playing games all my life. I started off when I was a kid playing “Clue”, “Monopoly”, and “Game of Life”. I learned how to play “Risk” and really got into that, but then got into video games. I reintroduced myself to board games as an adult playing party games with friends and then getting into modern board games about a decade ago. Then I thought to myself, I think I can make something like this, that’s kind of similar to this but adds a little more creativity, adds a little more of your own personal touch. I started making my first game and played it with friends a little bit and it ended up sitting on a shelf. I then started learning about different game design groups, going to board game cafes, and meeting up with other designers. Eventually it just became a big passion for me and I started creating more and more games. At this point I have four games published with other publishers and one game which I self published.

Elli: And you also have the board game design course.

Joe: Yes, I run a board game design course. I was very fortunate when I left my job in healthcare to do game design and game design-related stuff full time. Back then I heard about a great opportunity to teach at Wilfrid Laurier University in their game design and development program. I taught the intro to games and game design course for four months. I then decided that I am going to launch my own course, which helps people go from an idea, through play testing, iterating, and developing their game. Additionally, I discuss the decision on next steps: Self-publishing, pitching to a publisher, or just enjoying the process and playing with friends and family.

Elli: For Worldbreakers I am pursuing a self-publishing path. One of the things that impressed me about your blog is the discussion of printing and fulfillment. Could you outline what I, as a creator, need to have in place so that I can actually produce the game?

Joe: When you decide to crowdfund and self publish, it’s way beyond just designing a game. You want to get quotes for your game so you know exactly how much it’s gonna cost to produce. Additionally, you should get quotes for shipping and fulfillment so that you have established costs for the campaign page. This will also dictate your pledge levels and funding goal, you want to cover the cost of manufacturing and shipping.

Elli: What is a quote? What should I see in a quote? And how do I get a quote from a printer? 

Joe: The quote is a sheet that has descriptions of each of the particular components in your game. It’s a chart with the components, their quantities, and their prices at different copy counts, along with the total per unit at the bottom. The price goes down with the number of copies, for example, if I want to get 500 copies made, it’s going to cost me $6 each, if I get a thousand made, maybe it’s only going to cost me $4.50 each.

You should contact a few manufacturers, start with one and contact at least five. You will need to provide them with a list of all the components, their quantities, sizes, and the quality (like how thick you want your cards to be and how big are the meeples you’re using). Make sure to include things that are often forgotten like box, rulebook, baggies.

Another thing to consider besides price is communication. How quickly do they get back to you? How good are they about answering questions? Do they understand your questions well? Additionally, consider their quality. You won’t be able to see that through a quote but you can talk to other people or ask the manufacturer for past games that they produced.

Elli: The manufacturer might ask you to sign the quote. When should you actually sign the quote? Should you do it before the campaign, or wait until the campaign is successful?

Joe: Definitely after the campaign. One of the big things is quantity. You don’t know before if you’re going to sell 200 copies, 2,000 copies, or 20,000 copies. Additionally, you needs might change, for example if you have stretch goals or if you get backer feedback.

For example, with “Relics of Rajavihara”, somebody suggested making a dual-layer board which I thought was really cool and would add to the game. I asked the manufacturer about it and the price difference wasn’t great. When I got the printing sample made, I asked the manufacturer to send me the two different versions so I could decide. They sent me both versions and I decided that the dual-layer board is great because the pieces won’t slide off, everything is kept more contained.

Another thing to consider is how many retailers backed your campaign. You will need to ask them how many copies they want. Backers could pledge late through your pledge manager or upgrade their pledges. Finally, you might want to make extra copies if you think you can sell them outside of the campaign. You don’t even know your quantity until you have all of those questions figured out.

Elli: Could you comment about printing domestically versus printing abroad, the pros and cons of each one of these paths?

Joe: I am in Canada and when I was first looked into crowdfunding I searched for any local printers. The only one I found was a printing company, but not specifically a board game printing company. The other thing was, even though they had an office nearby, they still printed everything in China (it was just an office front). Similarly with Panda GM, a big manufacturing company that is well-known for doing Stonemaier Games and a lot of other high-quality games, their offices are in Canada but the factory is in China. There are a couple of companies in the US and when I got a quote it was approximately twice as expensive, at least at the lower quantities. At higher quantities it would become more comparable but with no guarantees. I think that a lot of it comes down to infrastructure. China has a lot of factories. They have a lot that are specialized in games . There are very few factories in the US and Europe

The advantage of printing domestically is that you could save a lot on shipping, especially right now with shipping prices (especially freight shipping) being so high. Maybe the price balances out a little bit, as long as the quality is really good as well. I think that it’s definitely worth looking into, do some comparisons to see what they’re like in terms of price, in terms of quality, in terms of communication.

One last thing to be aware of, there might be some things a domestic manufacturer is not capable of doing. In those cases, either they’d say no or they would have to outsource it, likely to China. Miniatures (and other custom components) are definitely a big thing for production in China.

Elli: And this is a good place to point out that if you’re designing a game, try to stick to standard components for your first production. Customization is challenging and expensive.

Joe: Definitely. Even something like custom dice, you have to make a particular mold for that, which is expensive (thousands of dollars). You’re going to be paying a lot upfront for those molds. If you’re doing your first game you should keep it reasonable: small card games, dice games, things that do not have a whole bunch of customized special things.

Elli: Let’s say that I printed my game. I have 1,500 copies in China. How do I get boxes of games from China to my backers?

Joe: Once the games are manufactured, you’re going to have to find a way to get them from point A to point B to point C. First, you have to get your game from the manufacturer to a port in China. Then it has to be taken from that port to its destination port, and from there to a warehouse where it is packed and shipped to your backers. There are a lot of steps in there and there is no one company that does the whole thing. The good news is that many fulfillment companies will take care of it for you. For example, Quartermaster Logistics is located in Florida in the US. You can have it all freight shipped to them, and then the games arrive in their warehouse and they package them up and send them all over the world.

You might want to use multiple fulfillment companies for different regions. I used one for North America, one for Asia, one for Australia, and one for the UK and Europe. You should have a conversation with them to see if they have a bare minimum of copies. I know that I worked with VFI in Asia. They said that if Australia and New Zealand had less than 50 copies then they could handle it themselves. If it was over that quantity, then they would send it to Aestherworks, which is an Oceania-based fulfillment company.

If you’re offering your game all over the world, you’ll probably find about 50 to 60% of your games will be purchased by North American backers, around 30% in the UK and Europe, and the remainder in Australia, New Zealand, and the rest of the world. It will vary a bit but those are the kinds of numbers that you can expect.

Elli: What happens if backers get damaged boxes or are missing components?

Joe: Talk with your fulfillment company to see how they handle replacement parts and extra orders. You should send them more copies than expected. There is always a possibility for loss, there’s possibility for damage, anything can happen. That way if a backer has missing components you can tell the fulfillment company to dig into a spare box and grab that one deck of cards that was missing. I tend to leave about a 5% buffer. Another good thing about leaving some extra copies is to send them to reviewers or to retail stores who sell out of their initial order.

Elli: Could you talk about the port situation, especially given COVID?

Joe: From what I understand and from my experience delivering my Kickstarter in May 2021, there are a lot of backlogs. My game went to a port in Los Angeles. I got lucky because it was loaded onto the ship fairly quickly and arrived in LA within 30 days or so, some publishers are having difficulty even getting their products onto ships. Then, what I had to experience was the delays at the port in the US. The boat arrived at the port and could not dock because there were so many boats waiting to unload. The unfortunate thing is there is no real indication of how long it is going to take once it arrives. Eventually the game was sitting there for about a month before it went from the boat to a train. It then took two weeks for the train to get to the central US, which would normally take a few days. Then it had to be trucked to the warehouse, which had further delays. It took months from the time it arrived in the LA port to actually getting to the warehouse.

So definitely expect delays, build in a delay getting it to your game at the port in China, to the port or destination, and on the rails or on the roads. Give a longer timeline to backers. It’s better to say that it will take a year and a half and deliver a couple of months early than to say that it will take a year and deliver late.

Elli: Tell me about Europe and about VAT. How does that work?

 

Joe: I’ll preface this by saying that I am not a tax specialist, I am only going to talk from my own experience. If you are shipping anything to the UK or Europe, you have to pay VAT. Be prepared for that. If you don’t charge your backers for that then it’s going to come out of your costs (and VAT is around 20%). Unfortunately Kickstarter cannot charge tax directly. The easiest way to do it is to say on your campaign page that VAT, shipping, and taxes will be charged after the campaign ends. Then, put them in your pledge manager, where you can set a country-specific rate.

 

You will also need to be set up for paying the VAT to the respective countries. You can sign up with a one-stop shop for Europe (and another for the UK). The way that I am doing it personally, I’m working with Spiral Galaxy and they bill me for the VAT and pay it to the respective countries. They’re like an intermediary or representative for me and the taxes are being paid through them.

Elli: One last thing, tell me about your design course. What is it about? What can people expect when they register?

Joe: When you register for the board game design course you will get immediate lifetime access to the eight-week program. There are different modules and you will have all the audio and video, downloadable resources, templates, all the tools that will help you. The course will take you from an idea through play-testing, through developing your game and then deciding what’s right for you, self-publishing or pitching to a publisher. The registration also includes 28-day access to the community and twice monthly calls with me for group Q&A sessions, which you can extend further on a monthly subscription basis.

Thanks again to Joe for the interview! Click here for the Board Game Design Course and Joe’s blog.

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