By James Gage
You play as a witch—you brew, consume, and sell magical potions. To win the game, you have to be the witch to sell the most potions to the bank. Selling potions earns money, but drinking them gives you special powers and advantages. Players must carefully balance their drinking and selling to save the most money by the end of the game. This is Toil and Trouble, a locally designed board game available October 2018 nationwide. Kids and adults recently had the chance to play-test the game at Designer's Night, where board game designers, developers, publishers, and players from around the Bay Area join together monthly for a night of beer and board games at Victory Point Cafe, Berkeley's "first and best" board game cafe.
Designer's Night provides an opportunity for people to play and test locally developed board games right alongside their creators—and offer feedback on the experience. The game designers, in turn, help explain game concepts and winning strategies to participants.
Founded in 2016, Designer's Night is part of Victory Point's ongoing Game Nights, where people are invited to gather, eat, drink, and play. The events typically host upward of 50 board game enthusiasts, and the community is welcoming and supportive. Anyone is allowed to join the festivities, and everyone is encouraged to get in on the fun. During Designer's Night, as you sip one of Victory Point's velvety coffees or enjoy one of the many beers on tap, you are privy to the many small moments of joy, surprise, anguish, and triumph erupting across the cafe as games are played, points are scored, pieces are moved, and victors emerge from the frenzy.
For the board game aficionado who has played them all, Designer's Night is a time to delve into the local game-designing scene and see what board games people in the area are actually producing.
"The real benefit to physical games—board games, card games—is that it brings people together," said John Velgus, a freelance board game designer and founder of Designer's Night. "It's more social than, say, video games."
Cards flip, dice roll, and glasses clink as groups pack around tables to enjoy lesser-known board games like Anomia, True Colors, Se Le Tiene, Lost Cities, and El Dorado, alongside family classics like Battleship, Uno, and Risk. All kinds of homemade games are on display at Designer's Night, from rough-around-the-edges games made on a tight budget with a few hodgepodge pieces to games that are so polished they appear professionally made or mass-produced.
Board game designers like Velgus are responsible for creating the logic and rules of a game, referred to as the game's "intellectual property," though many designers also go the extra step and create their own boards and pieces. What you see at Designer's Night are often impressive feats of passion, detail, and artistry.
"A lot of well-known designers have day jobs but are here out of love," explained Velgus. "Releasing games is a risky business. They can often take a year or more from a well-developed idea to commercial release after periods of idea refinement, production, manufacturing, marketing, and waiting for the release window, and their success is never guaranteed."
"The game may flop due to lack of appeal, poor execution, or something out of the designer's control, like new trends and competition that appear before the game is released. Since income from a game is nearly all dependent on amount of copies sold, and most of a game's sales come from an initial burst of sales, game design is financially unpredictable. Most of us are here simply because we love it. A lot of us in the area are meeting every couple weeks."
The game designers who meet up at Victory Point try to sell their ideas to major publishers like Wizards of the Coast, Steve Jackman Games, and Fantasy Flight Games or self-publish their games using Kickstarter. The idea is to come to Designer's Night with a game that's ready to fund. Indeed, the "Games" category on Kickstarter is the site's biggest category for crowdsourcing, with more than $630 million crowd-sourced for new-game development through the platform (though that number includes video games, which are the main source of funding revenue).
Game development can be a lengthy process, whether relying on the expertise of a big publisher or going it alone. The scope of the imagination, organization, and logic involved in making a game is staggering, and there are many factors to consider when designing one.
The two most important ones are cost and time: the amount of time and resources involved in making a $5 card game versus an enormous $150 board game with hundreds of miniature pieces are significant. The more copies of a game that are printed, the cheaper the manufacturing costs, so designers have to focus on making games that can be easily replicated. Developing a prototype can be costly, however; designers spend anywhere from a little beer money to several hundred dollars producing a prototype to send to publishers. For self-published games, there are also marketing, shipping, and storage costs to consider.
Game publishers typically seek out game ideas that are already well developed, since most publishing companies don't use an internal team to create games. The goal of the publisher is to get a game that, barring a few tweaks, is ready to be published. Once the designer has signed a deal with the publisher, the designer sends the publisher all the related game materials (pieces, rulebooks, related files) and thenceforth the publisher has responsibility over everything else (art, marketing, manufacturing, upfront costs, etc.).
"Game design is difficult to predict in terms of time and resources spent in developing an idea," added Velgus. "Often a designer will try out 10 ideas with anywhere from an hour to weeks of exploration time before they find one worth developing in the long-term. Once they have a long-term idea, how long does it take to solve design problems and explore options along the way? Anywhere from minutes to forever. Many game ideas are abandoned because they are not good enough and/or the designer sees no solution to problems."
While making a game can be time-consuming and costly, the rewards can also be great. Some designers make thousands of dollars selling a single game idea to a publisher, though it is mainly a labor of love over lucrativeness.
"This isn't a job where designers get rich," said Velgus. "Most jobs aren't jobs where one gets rich, either. It's possible if you get multiple great publishing deals and consistently put out hits, you can go full time, though this is really a job, or even hobby, people do for fun and because they love it."
"There's been a broad Bay Area designer community that's been happening for years," added John Brieger, another local game designer with several published board games under his belt. Brieger started designing games when he was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon majoring in computational interaction and expression and even made board games as part of his coursework. Today, he works in IT development at Apple and supplements his income by selling board games.
"Two years ago, I started working on a game in my spare time—play testing it, not really sure if I was going to license it to someone or self-publish," Brieger said.
That game was Brieger's Mars Rover, which is about a team of scientists on a mission to Mars competing for funding and influence where the only game piece that is moved around the board is the Rover. London-based Spiral Galaxy Games play tested Mars Rover and published it. Brieger later began work on two other recently published games, Door Number Three, a family memory bluffing game where game show hosts try to trick each other into taking terrible prizes, and Toil and Trouble, mentioned previously. All three games will become available for purchase over the next year.
"Part of being a tabletop game designer is figuring out your own process for game designing," said Brieger. "The faster you can get it on paper, the faster you can prototype. Early ideas might be as simple as hand-jotted notes on a bar napkin."
While designers do worry about the look and feel of the game—what the board will look like, what the pieces and components will be—most of the work of designing is in creating the game mechanics and settling on what makes it a joy to play and easy to follow. Some designers focus on games that are more challenging, while others prefer games that are easy for families to play.
"You have to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible, because once you sign the game to the publisher, they're responsible for the final art design," Brieger said. "You have to worry that the game is legible, usable, and that play testers can interpret it. The publisher worries about making the game beautiful."
Successful board games are not just those that sell but those that create a cult following of players or are appreciated by the game-designing community as particularly "good" games—logically consistent, fun to play, and easy to learn.
"People keep calling what we're seeing a board game renaissance," said Nick Henning, an amateur game designer and regular at Designer's Night about the recent surge in board game popularity across the Bay Area.
"That might be a little pretentious, but it is true. The amount of people participating, the amount of games coming out, it's really just kept going up since 2005. I think people enjoy being around each other, sitting down, and playing something face to face. It's not automated—it's spontaneous. I think overall, some board games weren't as well-designed in the past, and I think we're figuring out a lot of ways to make them more enjoyable."
Tabletop board games are making a big comeback among all age groups, perhaps as a natural response to our constant societal screen time. The Game Developers Conference, recently hosted at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in March, drew thousands of international game enthusiasts to the Bay Area, which is quickly becoming a hub for board game developers and designers.
"The community is really inclusive," said Velgus. "Even experienced designers with published games are welcoming and treat brand-new members with respect. There's really nothing like sitting down with other people, having a drink, laughing with each other, and playing a game together."
It seems that board games have made their way out of the broom closet and back onto family room floors—now even trendy cafe tables. Apart from Victory Point, Characterz Cafe in Pleasanton offers game nights where you can play board games with friends and family. San Francisco's newly opened Game Parlor cafe also offers a space to eat, drink, and play games. All share in common a commitment to community, physical play, and face-to-face interaction—welcomed in a world separated by digital barriers.
Stop by the next Designer's Night at Victory Point Cafe to grab a sandwich, have a pint, and try out new games with their creators every first Wednesday of the month 6 p.m.-11 p.m. at 1797 Shattuck Ave. Visit www.Victory-point-cafe.myshopify.com for more information. For questions on how to get involved with Designer's Night, contact John Velgus at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting www.JVelgus.com.
Game designers bring their new games to Victory Point Cafe for play testing. Photo by James Gage.