Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 2, The Developer

Belfort was 4 years in the making from initial seed in our brains to final product on game tables everywhere. In our interview series, “Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication”, we bring you the perspective of the whole process from start to finish from the perspective of the people involved in making the game a reality. Next up, we’re sitting down with Belfort’s developer and fellow game designer, Seth Jaffee (Terra Prime, Brain Freeze, Eminent Domain).

Sen: Welcome, Seth! Good to talk with you again. Tell us – what motivated you and Michael to sign Belfort initially?

Game Developer for Tasty Minstrel Games, Seth Jaffee

Seth: We played it at GAMA and I was really happy with the overall feel of the game. It really fired on a lot of different cylinders for me, much like Homesteaders did when I first played that.

Jay: Which, coincidentally was how we met. You were playtesting an almost finished prototype of Homesteaders and I asked if I could play – not knowing you were part of the publisher team! But enough about you – more about Belfort!

Seth: Well, I thought it could use some polishing but I saw a lot of potential there. It was clear to me, in talking to Jay, that a lot of thought had gone into the game. At the time, Michael and I didn’t have a long list of great games to publish, so we thought this would be a good one to add to the list!

Jay:  Thanks for making that choice – we appreciate it! For other designers out there, what are some things that designers can do that make their games appeal to a publisher?

Seth:  I’m not sure I have a good answer to that except to say something generic like, “make it awesome!” I know that I like and appreciate thorough games that are well thought out. It’s also got to have some kind of “hook” – many games are solid structurally, but have nothing to really capture attention, they come across as just mediocre to me.

Jay:  I remember you and Michael talking to me at GAMA after playing it for a second time. Michael mentioned that he would like a shot at publishing it, but wanted some time to develop it further. That’s where you come in as you’re Belfort’s developer. What’s the role of a developer on the team?

Seth: My role is to find games with that spark, that potential, and then make sure that potential is realized. Basically, I get to say, “I think this game would be better if…” and then I get to see if I was right! My goal is for the game to feel to me like a real, finished game that I would want to play again and again.

Sen: Is there a timeline for that goal?

Seth: The best answer to that is “yes, and no.” I would like to have more time to concentrate on the games so that they can get finished up and published faster, but having a full-time job puts a bit of a damper on that. Also, it’s tough to find willing playtesters as often as I’d like. So it’s very difficult to stick to any particular timeline! I’m trying to improve that though.

Seth playtested so much that instead of waiting for us to redo components or art for our prototype, he would just mock up the components he had with Post-it notes and such!


 

 

 


 

Jay:  What’s the process of developing a game that you didn’t design?

Seth: The process is basically an iterative playtest: consider changes, tweak, playtest some more, repeat. Considering changes includes listening to players’ comments as well as my own ideas, so it’s important to pay attention during playtests.

Jay: It’s been very interesting as designers to work with a developer (i.e. you!) on a game we designed. As designers we’re very happy with the game and have had it playtested numerous times to get it to the place where Tasty Minstrel was interested. But then to have you develop and tweak it even further has been really interesting as you definitely added to the overall balance of the game. What were some of the things that you knew you wanted to tweak immediately?

Seth: It’s tough to remember specifically what happened with Belfort, but I recall that there were some things I knew should change right off the bat. Other changes came up over time and testing, and some changes didn’t work out or even got reversed. Some of the things that I remember changing over the course of development were things like…

  • Costs of the buildings (and balance of powers)
  • Number of spaces and how many workers a player can send to the Village
  • Placing workers 1 at a time (until passing) vs sending as many workers to your buildings as you want at a time (and only once per turn)
  • When you collect things from buildings compared to Income
  • Guild configuration (and specifics of powers)
  • Scoring specifics
  • Exactly how the Trading Post worked (I can’t remember the original version, but I see notes that it changed!)
  • Cost of walls

Stuff like that. Mostly details, but some significant structural changes. In all cases, my proposed changes were in an effort to accomplish what I thought the game was already trying to achieve- I was not out to change the game per se – just to find a better way!

Sen:  We think you did an admirable job! Out of all the changes made, what do you feel is the biggest improvements that you and your playtesters made to Belfort?

One modification Seth made to Belfort was to reduce the game's length to 7 rounds to make it a faster game.

Seth:  I think the biggest improvement was probably changing the game length – jumpstarting the early game and reducing the total number of rounds so that players have turns to get things done, but the game ends in a reasonable amount of time on the clock.

Jay: A fine balance, indeed! And speaking of balance, how do you balance your vision of what a game could be with the designers’ original intentions? As a designer yourself, is it hard developing other people’s designs?

Seth: I actually think it’s easier to develop someone else’s idea than to design and develop my own game from the start. When picking up another designer’s idea, they’ve already done a lot of work so I can pick and choose the parts of theirs that I think are working and I can try to fix the parts I think need work.

Jay: Were there any areas that were “off-limits”? I don’t’ specifically remember any really!  But do you have to get approval for any changes by the designers or the publisher?

Seth: I think that once they sign a game, a publisher can pretty much do what they want, and I have heard stories of themes and rules being changed without the designer’s knowledge or approval. I’ve also heard that some designers, such as Reiner Knizia, put stipulations in their contracts requiring that they must approve all significant changes to rules. I personally like to keep the designers in the loop, so when I think of a change to the game, I usually run it by the designer – it might be something they’ve already tried, and I am not out to reinvent the wheel. It’s also helpful because the designer can playtest changes with a different pair of eyes and different players, making for more testing of any proposed change.

With Belfort, I didn’t consider anything “off limits”, but I did discuss each change with you guys.

Sen: That’s right – I remember. We were always excited to see on the forum that you had another playtest and had a few new ideas or tweaks to suggest.

Jay: I too remember having great debates – in a totally friendly way – about the merits of certain game mechanics. In the end, more playtesting always answered our questions.

Sen:  Early on there was a chance Belfort could be more serious with humans as all the workers instead of elves and dwarves. Were there any other thoughts of changing the theme of Belfort?

Seth: I don’t think I ever considered changing the theme of the game, I liked it the way it was. I also secretly thought to myself that the light fantasy setting of the game might be the land where the TMG logo dragon lives!

Jay:  And astute observers of the final game board can see that you are correct! Thanks for your time and effort, Seth! Belfort wouldn’t be the same without you!
In our next installment, we will be talking to the game’s artist – the prolific Josh Cappell (game designer of Wasabi, artist: too many to mention here).

For past interviews in this series, please go here:

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters

If you are interested in learning more about how we came up with the ideas and how the game grew from something small into what it is now you can read this interview by Jeff Temple and watch this video we recorded.

Step 22: Getting your Game in front of a Publisher at a Convention: Now you’re at the convention

We’ve picked the best convention, we’ve set up some meetings with publishers beforehand and we’re packed properly – now we’re at the convention!

The first thing to do is to understand the schedule.  As Sen alluded to in Step 20, you might want to take in a few seminars (if there are any) or even – heaven forbid – play some games!  Sometimes the schedule is available before attending, so you could have this done before attending – but it’s always worth re-checking as schedules often change at the last minute. Try to attend as many seminars or workshops that are about game design or game manufacturing as possible.  Even if you never want to self-publish, it’s extremely important for a designer to understand the ins and outs of the entire business.

When you’ve determined it’s time to hit the trade show floor, make sure you have everything you need.  What do you need?  Come on, haven’t you been reading this blog from the beginning? Just kidding.  OK, you should be carrying around your sales sheets (Step 14)  in an easily accessible folder.  I get my sales sheets printed in colour on nice glossy or thicker matte paper.  I then put one sales sheet for each game in a folder.  The folder is one of those that open up, but the sales sheets are not bound or attached to the folder in any way.  This allows me to easily find the one I want and show somebody.

So rule #1 – always, always, always have your sales sheets on you.  Always.  If you go to dinner at a convention – bring your sales sheets.  If you’re playing someone else’s games – bring your sales sheets.  You just never know when you’re going to need to show them.

Case in point: I was at the GAMA trade show a few years ago and saw a couple people setting up a prototype of a game.  Seeing that I wasn’t too busy, I asked if they would like another playtester for the game.  They agreed and we started playing and chatting.  While chatting, the purpose of my visit to this convention came up and I showed them my sales sheets.  They expressed interest in a game called Belfort and wanted to play it after.  Sure, why not – I thought.

About ¾ of the way through playtesting this game, I realized I wasn’t playing with other game designers – but I was playing with a publisher.  Tasty Minstrel, in fact.  Astute readers will see where this is going.  After playing their prototype – called Homesteaders (now published by Tasty Minstrel Games), they played Belfort and enjoyed it.  So much so that they wanted to play it again the following day.  After that second playtest they offered to publish the game.

So you really never know when you’ll need your sales sheets – so have them handy at all times!

Second ‘rule’ for conventions – have all your prototypes with you when you are walking the convention floor.  I try to have my prototypes with me almost all the time when I’m at a convention – but for sure you need to have them when you’re walking the floor.  The best case scenario when approaching a publisher at a convention is that they will want to take a look at your game – right now – so you better have an easily accessible prototype at the ready.

When I first get into a convention floor – where there are dozens of booths, I like to do a walk around before talking to anyone about publishing my games.  I like to see what they are showcasing and how they’re doing it.  I like to see if I can tell who the person is that I should speak to when I return.  I also like seeing all the new games that they have out!  Once I get a good lay of the land, I refer to my preparations and see which publishers I wanted to speak with first.

Now timing is key at a convention.  You never want to approach a publisher right at the beginning of a convention because they are really focused on the purpose of why they’re there (see Step 19).  If you’re not a potential customer, then you could rub them the wrong way right off the bat.  Also you want to time your approach to when their booth is empty – or at least one person at the booth is not occupied.  If the publisher is there to talk to customers or retailers, then you are preventing them from doing that – so respect their purpose!  The best timing is, of course by setting up a meeting in advance (Step 20).

In the next post we’ll get into details about approaching a publisher and what happens next!

-Jay Cormier

Again, my comments are pretty short and sweet on this section as Jay’s the point man for our two-man strike team when it comes to conventions.

When you consider that out of all the prototypes a publisher sees in a given year, only a very small percentage get published, you might attribute some of our success to luck. But if you think of the equation:

Luck = Opportunity + Planning

then you might be more apt to see how Jay and I work. Nothing came to us by luck. Did we go to GAMA 2009 knowing that we’d get signed or that we’d even have a meeting with Tasty Minstrel Games? No. We didn’t have the benefit of a nifty blog like this one telling us to get an appointment first!

But Jay’s willingness to help playtest (Opportunity) plus us having prepared well laid-out and thoughtful sell sheets at the ready (Planning) ended up in Tasty Minstrel Games being interested in our product and reciprocate by playtesting our prototype.

Even more than that, sometimes, is this often overlooked fact – we are not trying to sell the publisher on just a single game. We view the designer/developer/publisher relationship as one that needs to be developed and nurtured. We want to make sure that the publishers are a good fit for us and vice versa. We want to let prospective publishers know that we are a good team to work with – we are selling ourselves as designers as much (if not more) than we are selling our designs.

And this is how you turn one bit of “luck” into even more good fortune.

-Sen-Foong Lim

 

Step 19: Conventions – Choosing the Right One

Sen and I have had most, if not all of our success from attending board game conventions.  Here are the steps on how we approach a convention, which we’ll detail in the next few posts:

Step 20) Preparing for the convention

Step 21) Packing!

Step 22) Now you’re at the convention

Step 23) Approaching the publisher

Step 24) Showcasing your game to a publisher

Step 25) Playing your game with a publisher

Step 26) Getting feedback from a publisher

Step 27) Leaving the game with a publisher

Choosing which convention to attend: To most people reading this it probably comes as no surprise that there are indeed a lot of board game conventions in the world.  If your main purpose for going to a convention is to pitch your games to publishers, then the thing you have to identify first is the purpose of each convention.

Essen is the biggest board game convention in the world and its main purpose is to highlight the newest board games to the public.  The focus at Essen is to experience a lot of new games – and buy a lot of new games!

BGG.con is getting very large and its main purpose is to get together with old and new friends and play a lot of games – many of which are hot from Essen.  This is a gamers’ convention.  There are other activities and fun to be had – but all of them are focused around playing games.

GAMA is meant for retailers and the publishers show up and demonstrate their products to all the retailers in hopes that retailers will carry more of their games.  There’s not as much game playing at this one as there is at any other convention.

New York Toy Fair is a huge event but is focused more on toys, though board gaming is growing at this show.  The purpose of this event is for publishers to show off their new toys in an effort to get them to the stores – kind of like GAMA – but for toys.

Regional conventions happen all over the place and will be smaller than all these and could vary in size and scope and purpose.  Mostly these regional conventions are meant for gamers to get together and play games – and possibly sample some new games from some publishers.

So why is it good to know the purpose of a convention?  Well you really need to get inside the head of what a publisher is trying to accomplish.  At BGG.con the publisher is constantly trying to get their games played by people because every single person that attends BGG.con is like a walking advertisement.  If someone at BGG.con likes a game and they chat about it on BGG.com – then that is worth more than spending a bunch on magazine ads and the like.  Because publishers are so focused on getting their games played, none of the publishers have much time to talk to designers.  Not only that, but BGG.con only has about 6-10 publishers show up anyway.  On top of that, some publishers won’t even send the people that you’d want to speak to. At BGG.con, Jay Tummelson of Rip Grande didn’t come – instead he had a bunch of other people to explain games to people (and he sponsored the restaurant bus – yay!).  So if you went up to someone at the Rio Grande booth – they wouldn’t be able to help you anyway.

At Essen and the New York Toy Fair (though I haven’t been to either yet) publishers are focused on selling their game – which involves a ton of demoing.  This again means they won’t have tons of time to talk to designers.  The good news though is that there are a lot of publishers at Essen and the Toy Fair.  I’d be curious to hear from any reader out there who’s been to Essen or the Toy Fair and what it is like from a designer’s perspective – please chime in!

So that leaves GAMA.  While the objective is similar – in that publishers are trying to sell their games – the attendance is mostly retailers, so it’s a lot less crowded.  This was the first convention that I went to and it proved to be very effective.  Since it wasn’t super busy, publishers were more agreeable to listen to designers.  Almost all of the big and many of the small to medium publishers come to GAMA so you really have a great opportunity to talk to a lot of different publishers.  GAMA is also great because they offer a lot of seminars and workshops and some are even targeted to the game designer.  I’ve learned a lot from these seminars – and have passed off a lot of what I learned on this blog already!

As for regional conventions, it’s rare that a publisher will show up.  While they might sponsor a part of the event, they usually don’t send the people that you want to talk to.  Often you’ll just get a card or direction to follow what it says on their website for submissions.  That’s not bad as even getting a card is a tiny foot in the door, but I wouldn’t spend too much money in attending a regional convention if your main purpose is to get your games in front of publishers.

Each convention has its benefits, but knowing the purpose of the convention will help you determine which one you should attend.  I’ve now been to GAMA twice and BGG.con once.  I’ve had to pay for my flights and hotels for each, so it’s definitely not cheap.  As you’ll see in the upcoming posts, without attending these conventions Sen and I would not have had the success we’ve had (or at the very least it would have taken a lot longer!).

-Jay Cormier

There are also some other major game conventions and toy fairs to mention:

The Nuremburg Toy Fair – Feb 3-8 2011, Nuremburg, Germany – http://www.spielwarenmesse.de/

The Origins Game Fair – Jun 22-26 2011, Columbus, OH –http://www.originsgamefair.com/

Chicago Toy and Game Fair – November 2011, Chicago, IL –http://www.chitag.com/

Note that some are open to the public, some are industry and press only.

There are also specific boardgame design related conferences, such as Protospiel in Ann Arbor, MI.

http://www.protospiel.org/

If you check the site, you’ll see that Elfinwerks, Mayfair Games, Minion Games, North Star Games and Steve Jackson Games were present there. And you can be guaranteed they went looking for new material.

Some smaller local conventions might have product reps that can meet with you – you just have to ask. When Jay and I both lived in Hamilton, we went BayCon – run by Bayshore Hobbies, our FLGS – and there were always reps from companies like Privateer Press, Mayfair, and Chessex demoing games, selling product and showing off unreleased titles. So check out what’s in your area before you drop a few c-notes to travel to NY, Chi-town or Vegas.

You may be able to find out if a publisher’s rep is going to be at a conference by looking at their website. For example, these are the conventions where a representative from Steve Jackson Games will be present:

http://www.sjgames.com/con/

And Days of Wonder will have reps at the following events (Look in the bottom left hand box):

http://www.daysofwonder.com/en/community/

So as the old adage goes, seek, and ye shall find! But it’s always polite to have an open dialog prior to meeting…

-Sen-Foong Lim