Cardboard Incarnations

I’ve noticed what might be a growing trend of small indie developers leaving (at least experimentaly for a project or two) the digital arena for the cardboard killing fields. I base my “trend identification” on two data points…which when connected make a line :) The first is the case of Crosscut Games. For a long while I have followed their progress on Dungeon Delvers, their dungeon romping tribute to games like Talisman. Then last year it looks like they were inspired by something to take the plunge and go completely cardboard. The result is the impending release of Galactic Emperor.

Galactic Emperor

Over at Digital Eel, the developers of the brilliant Weird Worlds franchise, the future is cardboard as well. Eat Electric Death, besides having the best name ever invented, looks to be a great tactical space battle game coming soon to a game board near you.

Eat Electric Death

So, what to make of this? It’s not like making a board game is really any easier than making a computer version of the game. The work is just done in different cubby holes with different skill sets. Some of the skill sets overlap considerably. The fundamentals are similar in the design and prototyping aspects. Art conceptualization and generation can be identical. Design iteration and play testing is pretty much the same in concept. The creative process diverges at the big chunk in the middle…..implementation. The computer game has the code monkey stage where the game is built via computer code. The card board version is built by artists designing and creating components in photoshop, illustrator, Indesign etc. and a project manager who finds other companies (usually in China) to print, mold inject, and press the game components. The components also have to be assembled, shipped (by cargo ship in a container) clear customs and then be warehoused. All that is unbelievably easier said than done. Finding a printer that delivers the materials just as desired is hard. It’s a full time effort that requires tremendous knowlege about the printing/production process, attention to detail and excellent negotiating skills to boot.

Barriers to Entry: Then there is the fact that a physical product like a board game is quite a different beast to sell. The entity that owns the customer has all the power. As a software indie you can set up your shop and own every customer you can get to browse your site and buy your digital good. The marginal cost to create each digital copy is essentially zero. You don’t have to come up with the capital to do a print run of 10k units so that the cost per unit is reasonable. You don’t have to split the revenue with a retailer who gets 40-60% of the retail price based on how the “power” is distributed between the two of you. You don’t have to rent a storage space every month or park your car in the driveway to store all the boxes waiting to find their soul mates. If you sell the physical good from your website you have to prepare the games for shipping, print shipping labels, print postage and wait for the UPS/FEDEX guy or drive the stuff over to the drop off points yourself. When I worked for TravelBrains, this type of process could easily take an hour and a half at the end of every day….and folding laundry is a lot more fun.

The competition in the board game space is tough as well. New technology and the rise of China as a micro printer has made it possible for small guys to get into the market by easing the barriers centered around physical manufacturing. You don’t have to be a huge toy corporation to make a reasonable quality physical product nowadays. Like I said before you do need some expertise and some amount of capital. Consequently everybody and their brother has a dusty board game prototype they are pitching or building. Competition for retail channels is intense. The distribution system is in flux as well. Your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) is diminishing and taking the boats for the West. You can sell through a large distributor but you will probably wake up one day and feel like an abused spouse in a homeless shelter. If you decide to do the distributing footwork yourself then get ready for some serious traveling, flesh pressing and lonely nights on the road.

So why make a card board game if you are a small indie developer? The challenge is one thing that comes to mind. I think the challenge of the creative process is what drives a lot of indies, me included. It’s a different way to create something… a change of pace. The thrill of having something tangible as a result of your hard work is also probably a big factor. For all the entertainment that computer games provide they intrinsically lack the tactile experience of a board game.

Just to note: There are also some established board game companies that have done a great job of going from card board origins to digital. Days of Wonder has a system for playing its many fine games online. I don’t know if I would categorize them as an indie though. They probably generate revenues in the millions. Mark H. Walker’s excellent Lock and Load company is indie but publishes through Matrix. Heroes of Stalingrad, a digital version of his tactical board game system looks really interesting.

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