Step 17: Finding Publishers

Wow, it’s taken us 16 steps to get to the moment most of us thought should have come a long time ago!  But it’s only through your motivation, versatility and persistence (MVP) that you will find yourself fully ready to show your game to a publisher.

Now, how do you find a publisher that might be interested in your game?  Well the first step is to do some research on publishers (“What? More work?  Just tell me who will publish my game please?”).  Nope, research first!  What we’re trying to do is find out which publishers might be interested in your game.  First we need to look at the games that a publisher already has published.

Basically there are five types of games that publishers will make:

  • Strategy/Euro games
  • Family games
  • Party games
  • Collectible games
  • Role-playing games

There are subsets of each of these of course, but this is a good place to start.  So which category does your game fit into?  Now find a list of all the current publishers that make those kinds of games.  You can use boardgamegeek.com, but I’d recommend actually going to your local board game store and heading directly to the section that pertains to your category.

As you’re listing them, make a note if there are any that share too many similarities to your own game.  These publishers would probably be less willing to publish your game if it will cannibalize sales of their own game.  One game that Buffalo Games liked of ours was Jungle Jam as it fit within the kind of games that they like to make, but they were already in production on a game that shared a similar mechanic – so they opted to pass on that one.  Fair enough.

Now you should have a great place to start. These are not the only publishers that might publish your games, but it’s a great place to start.  One thing you won’t know until you start connecting with publishers, is what they are looking for currently.  Sen and I had a deal with Tasty Minstrel games to make Belfort, but when their developer, Seth came to visit me to work on the game, I showed him another game of ours called Train of Thought.  At the time Seth was firm on his belief that Tasty Minstrel will not publish party games.  That was fine – but he kept asking to play that game while he was visiting.  He ended up taking my prototype and three weeks later we got word from Tasty Minstrel that they wanted to publish Train of Thought as well!

So you never know if and when a publisher is looking to branch out of what they do normally.  The best way to start gathering this information is to reply to your rejection emails (oh and you will get them!), by asking what they are currently looking for from game designers.  You won’t get a response from everyone on this, but you will get some.

Next up will be posts on how you should approach a publisher – via email and in person.

-Jay Cormier

Research is key when it comes to looking for appropriate publishers. Not only can solid research save you potential embarrasement (“We already publish a game exactly like that…it’s called Monopoly…you may have heard of it?”) but it can save you money. It once cost us something like $80 US to have a prototype shipped – so we wanted to be sure that it was going to a company that would seriously consider the game. It can also save you time. In this world of instant messaging, snail mail can seem deathly slow. And time spent in transit and time spent at the game company is time that the game could be played by another company. So make sure that the company is one that fits your game.

How do you do this?

There’s this series of tubes…

Check out Z-man games for a good example of submission guidelines. Z-man have published a ton of great games lately and are sure to do more – maybe even yours! But look at their guide and be sure your game fits their bill. You could have the greatest abstract game in the world…but alas, Z-man will not publish it because they do not deal in that genre. Nor do they deal with trivia, sport-simulations, word, or party games. Remember – knowledge is power. And it saves you time, money, and effort that could be better directed towards other publishers.

Most publishers have a submission page on their website. You’ll note that a lot of them state emphatically that they are not accepting unsolicited submissions. What does that mean? Well, it means that if you send them a prototype, you can be 100% guaranteed that it’ll be returned to you unopened. So don’t waste your time or money. Does that mean that the door is always closed to you? No! But it does mean that a little more work is required.

Get out of your Hobbit hole, Bilbo

If you’re not already a member of one, join a local gaming club. Learn about which publishers are strong in what direction by playing their games. Some have great production values. Some have really good rules. Some are consistent. And other gamers can help you increase the breadth and depth of your gaming knowledge with their experiences so you don’t have to play every game for yourself. You can also learn which brands other gamers respect and which brands they don’t. And if you beg and provide chips, you may also coerce your club members to playtest for you!

Participaction

Participate on forums, like bgdf.com – a forum specifically catering to boardgame designers. Not only will you get to know the best source for meeples on the web, but you may be able to learn more about which publishers might be interested in your design. Jay and I are active members of the Game Artisans of Canada, a group of designers, many published, who banded together over the interweb to help each other get quality games out to the real world. So far, it’s been a great reciprocal experience with that team of people. We playtest each others games and help with the promotional aspects as well, including helping people think of which publishers make sense for specific games. Become an active member of your gaming community, be it local or on-line.

Enter contests, like Hippodice’s annual event (sorry, entry deadline was 1 week ago!). Some of these contests can lead directly to publication as the prize for the winning entry. It’s well worth it as an unpublished designer to put a strong design in for consideration. Even if you don’t win the whole shebang, the feedback you get from the judges is usually very high calibre. There are tons of design contests around. Search the web and you’ll find local, state-or-provincal, national, or international level contests. Note that these contests often have criteria regarding your submissions (like it can’t be currently under consideration by a publisher) so be sure to double-check that your game meets their standards.

Meet People

Get out there. If you want to be a game designer, you have to spend time in the field. Designing games and playing them with your friends is one thing, but the business end of it is the next big step. This is what really separates the wanna-bes from the people who’s names eventually will grace the game box. And I’m not talking about going as far as Essen or Nuremburg. Just in the Continental United States alone, there are some great opportunities to get your name AND game out there – designer conventions such as ProtoSpiel in Ann Arbor, MI, going to industry trade fairs like GAMA in Las Vegas, NV, or player-oriented conventions like Origins in Columbus, OH or the much-ballyhooed (and exclusive, invite only) “Gathering of Friends” hosted by prolific designer Alan R. Moon (also held in Columbus, OH – a veritable hotbed of gaming, it would seem!).

Basically, you need to up your game and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the industry if you want to get ahead. Much like the music biz, there are probably countless people across the world who can sing better than Lady Gaga. But she gets the accolades because she’s out there working it. Now, I’m not suggesting you wear a dress made of meat at a convention to get your game noticed, but a little bit of face time goes a long way. For this reason (amongst many others), I’m glad that Jay is my partner in crime. He is the face and voice of our team. He has experience in sales, acting and improv. I tend to be more on the Asperger’s side when it comes to social graces. Jay can sell more than our game design. He sells *US* as a team that is worth working with.

But more of that in the next post…

-Sen-Foong Lim

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Step 14: Create Sales Sheets

Once you’ve decided that you want to send your game to a publisher then the next step would be to create what we call a Sales Sheet.  A Sales Sheet is a one-page document that gives a quick overview of your game to a potential publisher. To some this might seem superfluous, but to us, we credit a lot of our success to having these Sales Sheets ready.

Showing a clean looking Sales Sheet to a publisher immediately tells them that you are professional and you know what you’re doing.  When I attend board game conventions and approach a publisher’s booth to ask them if they are accepting submissions, I often get an ‘eyes-rolling’ kind of vibe as they begrudgingly say “ok sure.”  Then when I pull out my Sales Sheets, I can actually see a visible change in attitude as they immediately realize that they’re dealing with someone who’s serious about game design and not someone who has designed the next Monopoly clone.

A Sales Sheet needs to include the following things:

  1. Title of game – preferably with a mock up logo
  2. Suggested age range
  3. Number of players
  4. Length of time to play the game
  5. Quick overview of the game
  6. Category that the game fits into
  7. List of contents
  8. Images of the game
  9. Sample of one turn or round of play
  10. Some reasons on why this game will sell
  11. Your contact info!

Here’s an example of one of our Sales Sheets for our game Jungle Jam (which has since been retitled to Jam Slam, but we haven’t updated our Sales Sheet yet!).

board game sales sheet

Our newer Sales Sheets have a lot less text, but this one had all the major points on it that I wanted to cover.  See bottom of post for an example.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

1. The logo might seem challenging to you if you don’t have artistic skills, but you really don’t need a lot of skills to create a logo.  Google ‘how to make a logo’ and you’ll find a bunch of resources to help you.  The main key is that your logo should have the same energy that you want your game to have.  If your game is a quick reaction game then your logo needs to be playful and punchy; but if your game is a serious game about trading antiques then an old fashioned feel is obviously better.

2-4. The next three can be combined into a graphic similar to what we see on published board games.  If there are ways to remove or reduce text on this page, then do it!

5. The quick overview gives the publisher an understanding of what the game is all about and should not take longer than 15 seconds to read.  So keep it short and concise.  It will take a lot of copy editing to come up with the most colourful yet efficient ways to get your message across!  Get your English Major friends to help you with this one.  Here’s an example of an overview for our game, Junkyard:

“The Junkyard is the frantic and fun-filled stacking game where junk piles rise high but tensions rise even higher. Each player builds their own junk pile out of oddly shaped blocks that their opponent’s have challenged them to use.  Should you place that piece to make your junk pile more stable or make it taller? While a stable structure will keep you in the game longer, it’s the tallest junk pile that wins!”

6. The publisher should already know what kind of game it is, but most games have subsets of categories that it could belong to.  Our upcoming game, Belfort is a Resource Management game, but it also has Worker Placement, Area Majority and Building as subset categories.  It’s beneficial for a publisher to know which categories your game fits into as they could be looking for an Area Majority game.  Conversely they could be full up on Area Majority games and will want to pass on your game – but it’s better to know that sooner rather than later anyway.

7. A publisher is always looking at the bottom line so a list of contents will help them understand if it’s a game they can make with a profit or not. Hopefully your game is as lean and clean as possible so you don’t scare off any publishers with a ginormous list of contents.

8. If you can include actual photographs of your game instead of just computer based samples, then it will go a long way to show the publisher that there is a full prototype ready to go.  Just like when we look at a game we might want to buy from a game store, the image on the Sales Sheet would be better if it shows the game in progress.

9. It’s even better if you can use this image to show an example of one round of play.  This part can be challenging because think about what everyone’s least favourite part of playing board games is…it’s reading the rules.  So don’t just put a rules summary in your sales sheet.  The publisher doesn’t need to understand why Player A did what they did – the publisher just needs to know how some of the mechanics work together.  Here are a couple examples.

10. The last part is your chance to let the publisher know why your game is worth publishing.  It’s important to keep to facts here instead of telling them how much fun your playtesters have with your game.  Some examples of what you should talk about here:

  • If your theme is interesting or hot in the market then list that
  • if your game has a new mechanic that’s never been seen before
  • If your game has variants or expansion possibilities
  • If your game could be licensed to popular characters
  • If you are open to re-theming your game entirely (instead of wizards collecting dragon eggs, it’s a bunch of Igors collecting body parts!)
  • If it’s a kid’s game then list any educational impact
  • If you can find any sales stats that support why your game will do well, then that’s perfect!

[EDIT BY SEN FEB 4, 2015 – in discussing this with James Mathe of Minion Games, he finds this offputting; I’ve also heard that from one other publisher.  They find it presumptuous that designers would tell publishers what would sell.  While I still think it’s good for you to *think* about the above points and perhaps be able to discuss them, it may be best to leave them off lest you offend the publisher you’re trying to sell your game to.  This also clears up a poop-load of space from your sell sheet.  Don’t be in a huge rush to fill it up, though – remember that white space increases readability and walls of text are an instant turn off!  Feedback works!  See?]

11. Obviously don’t forget to put your contact info on it!

Once complete you are now ready to approach publishers.  We’ve found that whether we’re approaching a publisher in person or via email, we’ve used our sales sheets almost every time.  In an upcoming post we’ll talk about the importance of conventions and how these Sales Sheets are invaluable to us as designers.

Here’s an example of a newer Sales Sheet that is more show and less tell.  It works well for this kind of family game and this was what was used to show to Mattel and Hasbro.

Promo sheet board game design

-Jay Cormier

Not much more to say except treat your sales sheets like your “business cards with a bang”. You want something to leave people with that says more than just your name/contact info/website. You want to leave them with the impression that you are professional, that you’ve got a prototype ready to play at the drop of a hat, and that you’ve put a lot of thought into the product you’re pitching. Short of giving the publisher a working prototype, you want them to be able to get the gist of your game – the general rules, the look and feel, the target demographic – with as little effort on their part. The less amount of time they have to spend scouring the internet, calling you, chasing you down the better for you.

The sell sheet is your foot in the door when your foot isn’t even nearby. Publishers will take the countless sell sheets they’ve picked up from a convention and sift through them, hoping to chance upon the next SdJ. Make sure your game is poised to be picked up by making a sell sheet that helps them remember everything pertinent about your game without overloading them. Give them confidence in your product by creating a well-presented, succinctly worded sell sheet.

The time spent making the sell sheet and handing it out will pay dividends if it’s done right.

-Sen-Foong Lim

Jam Slam rules Requested by Publisher

Just got word that Gamewright is requesting to see the rules to our Jam Slam game.

This is how it happened.  About 4 years ago, Sen and I invented a game called Jungle Jam (which I’ve written about a couple times already in this blog).  It’s been to see a few publishers already, and has undergone some improvements over the years.  Currently it is in the Great Canadian Game Design Competition and is a semi-finalist.  This is when we found out that the name “Jungle Jam” had been taken by another game and was entangled in some sort of legal dispute with a game called Jungle Speed.  Not to be confused with that game, we changed the title of our game to Jam Slam.  We’re expecting to find out any day now if it made it to the finals!

Concurrently to this, I’ve been invited to participate in a group called the Game Artisans of Canada – a group of game designers whose goal is to work together to provide the world better games and help each other out whenever possible.  Rob, one of the members heard that Gamewright was looking for quality submissions of games that were easy to learn and played in less than 30 minutes.  That described our Jam Slam to a tee!

Rob sent them a quick pitch to them about our game and they just expressed interest to see the rules for the game.  If they like the rules for the game then they’ll ask for a prototype in a few weeks.  One step at a time!

Special call out to Rob from Game Artisans of Canada for the heads up and the connection!

-Jay Cormier

There’s a few really cool things about this “day in our lives” as game designers. It shows:

a) That no matter how old a game is, a good design is timeless. Keeping old designs on the back burner, but ready for showing is critical. We usually only keep the latest physical version of a prototype for space reasons (and to limit our confusion!), but always have the older versions as files on the computer if something we did before is beneficial. If you know your game intimately, you should be able to parlay an older design into something good when an opportunity arises. Jay’s use of “Night of the Dragon” concepts for another game is a good example of a game that was sitting doing nothing on the back burner (we actually have a forum called “The Back Burner” where we stick all of our games that are on hiatus) being used for the good of all mankind by being transformed into a game that is forthcoming for the Piece Pack called “Cream of the Crop”.

b) Versatility is an asset, because you never know when a publisher will say “Well, we like what you’ve just shown us, but we’re really interested in a card game…” If all you make is hardcore gamer games, you might miss out on some things. Of course, don’t make kids games if you don’t like making them, but versatility pays off – that’s all I’m saying.

c) Making games that are not tied to a theme, but can be rethemed easily is a good idea if possible. The name change was minor and it doesn’t change a thing at all about the game, but if it had to be done, “Jungle Jam” (now “Jam Slam!”) could be rethemed to almost anything because of it’s simple mechanics. It has a really good base for being used with a licensed character. Imagine Dora or Diego telling you “I need 3 red grapes!”

d) The Chinese (in the case of Jay and me, I’m talking about me) have the same word for crisis and opportunity – Crisi-tunity. Seriously though, it is said that luck is equal parts opportunity and preparedness. In this case, opportunity presented itself through a colleague telling us about Gamewright and we were able to take advantage because we were prepared – we have sell sheets ready, our prototypes usually ready to ship, and our rules done up for blind playing. In this case, because we have the two prototypes of “Jam Slam” out already for the competition as Jay mentioned, we’ll have to make another copy. But usually, we’re on top of that now that we’ve had a few publishers ask us for multiple copies of a game at once, etc.

e) Collaboration extends past Jay and myself. Now that we’re really delving deeper into the game design/production industry, we’re finding gold at every turn! Through our relationship with Tasty Minstrel Games, we worked with Gavan Brown, the graphic designer for “Train of Thought”. That wonderful working relationship turned into Jay being invited to work with the Game Artisans of Canada. They’ve already been immensely helpful in playing our prototypes and giving awesome, no-holds barred feedback for improving our games. And then, as icing on the cake, they’ve been super great with things like this! Opening up doors for us on several levels – they’ve already helped up get consideration from Amigo Spiel (a well-known German publisher) and now GameWright. How awesome is that? I can only hope that Jay and I can reciprocate in kind!

-Sen-Foong Lim