So last time I wrote about how a bad first impression with a game can make folks unlikely to try it a second time. There might be great and hidden depths that reveal themselves after x number of plays, but many folks aren't going to ever get to x. Or, as John Brieger put it, "you have a problem if it requires weeks of playing constantly for players to achieve the level of knowledge to make the game balanced." The thing is, I don't know if that really is a problem.

I mean, yes, it is a problem, in the sense that there are plenty of folks who aren't going to ever play that game a second time. Especially as they've got plenty of other games on their shelves that don't have that problem. With so many games to play, and with less leisure time available, most people are going to shy away from a game with such a steep, difficult, and thorny learning curve. Such a game is a really tough sell, and is going to have difficulty finding an audience in an increasingly crowded marketplace. So, sure, that is a problem, but only if you're trying to sell a lot of games.

And that's certainly the goal for most publishers, and there's nothing wrong with that. After all, a company needs to stay in business if it wants to keep publishing games. If you print six thousand copies of a game and only one thousand sell, then you have five thousand copies sitting in a warehouse or ending up in a dollar bin. That's a pretty ruinous loss! For smaller companies especially, one flop can be catastrophic. Or, to put it another way:

The longer I do this publishing thing the more I realize the only real rating that matters is SALES. Publishers of "great" games that don't sell consistently won't survive. If you want to be a publisher then every decision should revolve around, "How will this impact sales?"

… As a businessman I'd rather have a "Munchkin" than your average hot for a few months title that rated well on BGG but no longer sells much.

That's coming from the twitter feed of Van Ryder Games, a publisher of thematic games like Hostage Negotiator and Detective: City of Angels. I disagree with the things they post on twitter pretty consistently - even small things like whether or not people should be allowed to pay for groceries with checks - but at the same time, I understand where they're coming from, and if we were publishing games in that style and with their model, we'd probably be approaching it much the same way.

Different kind of risk.

So, yes, from a business perspective, I absolutely agree that games that are going to turn off the vast majority of players aren't a great way to make money. But hey, printing games on demand - the most expensive and least efficient way to make games - isn't a great way to make money either! Yet it works out pretty good for us, precisely because that method neutralizes any financial risk. Our overhead is so low that even if we only sell a handful of copies, the game will pay for itself.

That puts us in the enviable position of being able to publish pretty much whatever the heck we want to publish. There's more to it than that; production cost factors highly into the MSRP given our absurdly low profit margin. For the average game, there is an indirect correlation between how low the MSRP is and how many copies it sells. That is, a $30 game is easier to sell than a $40 one. So while we'd love to publish something like an 18XX, it's so components-intensive that there's no way we could price it in a way that makes sense for consumers. But other than that, our decisions are mercifully free of the dreary, cold calculus that eats up the time of other successful publishers.

So at that point, the question isn't, is a game with a steep learning curve a problem from a business perspective?, because for us - and perhaps for us alone - it isn't. The question becomes, is a game with a steep learning curve a problem from a creative perspective?

Maybe not that steep.

And the answer to that question of course is going to vary from game to game. Our catalogue is pretty eclectic, and for intro-style hex-and-counter games like the Shields & Swords II series, a punishing learning curve would be counterintuitive. You absolutely don't want to risk turning players off the first time they take the field. For meatier and weirder games, though, it can often be part of the appeal. As I've mentioned before, many of my games are balanced on the point of a needle, and only need a slight push to become lopsided in your favor: the game, in a way, is about the players both pushing at the same time, searching for leverage and maintaining equal pressure until one of them breaks. It's hard to be good at Supply Lines. It's difficult to play Table Battles well. Even I have trouble wrapping my head around good play in Optimates et Populares, and I made the darn thing.

These games are interesting to me as a designer and as a player because of their underlying fragility, because of how easy they are to distort and how carefully you must protect against your opponent obtaining that distortion in their favor. A given play session can go wobbly in a dozen different and delicious ways. Does that mean that a player might hate the game the first time they play it? Sure. Does that keep me up at night? Not really. It's a risk I'm willing to take, because it results in a more interesting competitive experience.

In fact, sometimes I wonder if the opposite impulse - the need to ensure a good first impression - makes for a less interesting experience. In order to limit the game state to what is traditionally considered acceptable and palatable, you have to rein in all the lovely distortions, feedback loops, and asymmetries, sanding off the edges and softening the sharp elbows. If a strategy will win unless properly countered, and the proper counter requires some skill, then that counter needs to become easier to grasp, that strategy needs to be neutered. The game's balance isn't something fluid and in flux and transitory, but something rigid and resistant to change, always snapping back into place, always ensuring that everyone can mount a comeback when they fall behind.

It's a permanent game state in which players have no agency, and I can't really think of anything less interesting than that. It's one reason why the mid-weight, finely-balanced, point-salad Euro, once the mainstay of our gaming table, no longer holds the same magic for us that it once did. We still play them, especially in social settings, we just don't find them particularly compelling - they're too safe, too staid, too ordinary. And in today's crowded marketplace, with so many games sitting unplayed on people's shelves, why waste time playing yet another normal game?

See Part 1 of 2


  • Yeah. This. (as the kids say)
    I’ve always treated this gig, in the 25 years I’ve been designing and publishing, as a hobby that makes me creatively happy and fulfilled and might, in a good year, pay for itself… that year, and don’t count on too many good years.
    If somehow it were no longer possible for me to have other people publish my work, I’d do it myself (as I still do, with about half a dozen designs). Or I would put it up on the Net, for free (as I still do, with about half a dozen other designs).
    I’m quite aware that other people’s spare time to spend playing games is scarce, and they will prioritize it how they will. I don’t have a lot of time to spend designing them either, and I spend many more hours working a design out than someone will ever do playing it… same as any creative endeavour.

    Brian Train

  • As your printer, I have to say that I’m inclined to root for you to have more sales rather than less.

    Now to the POD model. As a business owner and customer, you are correct that a POD printed game is generally more expensive than a “traditionally” printed one. And it’s a bit ironic that as a POD game printer we are always looking for ways to make games less expensive, while the big printers would like to find a way to get their operating costs down so they are competitive at lower volumes. That’s pretty much the point – POD serves more of a niche market – with POD you make $X per copy if you sell 5 or 500 or 5000. The difference is that you don’t have to buy 500 or 5000 in advance – substantially reducing risk and allowing you to be more adventurous in your choice of titles to publish. With traditional printing, you start around 2500 or 3000 – they cost less per unit and if they all sell you have made alot more money. If they don’t sell, you’ve got alot of no-value cardboard you have to keep somewhere. It’s risk vs reward. As a small company, if they don’t sell, a single flop could sink the whole ship.

    Then you have titles like Munchkin or Settlers. These two titles made up a vast majority of the income for SJGames and Mayfair respectively, allowing them to go off and try other titles they may not have tried. I don’t like Munchkin, and everyone I know says they play it once, then stop. But if SJGames puts out an “Evil Dead Munchkin” I’ll likely buy it anyway.

    A few years ago we did a Kickstarter for a well-known company. We made wooden boxes and engraved them for customers who chose that option. We also engraved their name on the boxes. From our perspective, it wasn’t much of an extra cost because we were already engraving the box top anyway. It was “fun”, however, trying to make sure that the right box got to the right person. From the customer’s and the end customer’s perspective, this personalization was a big value add at no added charge. This is something POD is uniquely able to do. We do a fairly brisk business in Kickstarter upgrades – but they’re mostly one-off projects of unknown volume til the campaign is over. Welcome to the gig economy.

    So POD can do things that other approaches can’t. But that doesn’t mean we don’t take advantage of scale. We use a standard box and a standard countersheet size for that very reason. We can make boxes and countersheets in any size, but using our standard size will make it faster and cheaper for both us and our customers.

    As for games with opaque rules, that’s why I go to game conventions – to learn how to play them from the people who run the “Wargames Boot Camp” or similar. I don’t have the time to spend XX hours looking at rules figuring them out, but fortunately I know people who like to do just that.

    I used to play the crayon rail games quite a bit. I learned them from people who I later found out, were the playtesters for the games. That’s why they only took 75 minutes to play instead of 3 hours. On the other hand, when I occasionally won those games, I felt a sense of achievement. I learned 18xx from the same people. Played the game four times in the same day, and didn’t touch the system again for years because I couldn’t “figure it out”. Then along came that giant Railroad Tycoon game and I was lured back to 18xx. I don’t win often, but I do like playing the system and the choice of maps is truly astounding.


  • Great perspective.

    Over the years I have come to appreciate my own attraction to “initially opaque, but eventually penetrable” subjects. Whether it is late-period John Coltrane, Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, bullet hell shooters or 18xx, I enjoy being initially baffled by what appears to be sheer-faced monolith of difficulty that eventually gives way to a tenuous ascent.

    Just last night I finally progressed to turn 7 of Agricola: Master of Britain before falling in the battle of Mon Graupius. Ultimately a loss, but I finally had a grasp after failing in turns 1 or 2 in 5 previous attempts.

    Thanks for doing what you do, the way you do it.


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