How to make a tabletop game
I’ve long been fascinated by games as a medium for storytelling. Video games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, To The Moon, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead series expanded on what I love about traditional storytelling formats by adding varying levels of interactivity, and by allowing me to walk in the shoes of fascinating characters. So when the Film program at my college began offering a game design course, I was among the first to sign up. I never could have anticipated that my work for one of the class’s assignments—originally scrawled onto torn-up index cards—would become the game Someone Has Died, a project that has taken me to gaming conventions around the country, introduced me to gifted designers from all over the world, and turned me into a fledgling creative entrepreneur.
When I got started with bringing my vision for a tabletop game to life, I had no idea what I was doing (and often times, I still don’t). But, with a lot of trial and error, I managed to create, produce, market, and deliver a game for hundreds of people to enjoy. If you’re interested in venturing into the world of independent tabletop games, I hope this guide can help you turn your dream idea into a real game you can hold in your hands and play with your friends.
— Adi Slepack
Finding inspiration in the real world
There are infinite ways you might stumble upon a great game idea, but finding that spark of inspiration can be a lot harder than it sounds. One of the best pieces of advice I was given in my game design class was to build game ideas around a real-life action or activity. So, rather than starting by imagining how many people can play your game, whether it would involve a board or cards, or how you’d score points, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by starting out with an actionable, real-world narrative. Doing this can help you figure out what you want to achieve with your game and allow the game’s mechanics to blossom more naturally.
For example, let’s say you pick gardening as the activity to anchor your game. What kind of considerations are associated with that activity? Are you setting up your garden in a series of planters? If so, maybe each player should have a board with a limited number of spaces to plant things. Maybe some plants will be bigger than others, and you can distribute their point values so that players are incentivized to think strategically before placing them in their gardens. In real life, planting certain types of plants next to one another can supplement or hinder their growth. This could come into play as a conditional scoring mechanism where you gain or lose points for laying specific plants adjacent to others.
It’s also important to consider how a player might feel while playing your game, and how those feelings would relate to the game’s overall narrative. For example, many people spend time gardening to relax and unwind, or to spend time with other people and grow food for their community. For this reason, maybe you’d avoid using a timer in your game so as not to put pressure on players. Or, maybe you’d want to make the game cooperative to promote an atmosphere of collaboration. The possibilities are only limited by what you can come up with, and this activity-based design approach allows you to be intuitive and inventive with your game’s mechanics, even if you’re designing your first-ever game.
Borrow ideas and approaches from games you love
Alternatively, if you are someone who’s played a wealth of different kinds of games, you might prefer to start brainstorming your game with specific mechanics in mind, and then theme your game a little further down the line. When taking this approach, consider the games you love, and ask yourself what exactly you enjoy about playing them. Is deck-building your bread and butter? Do you feel immense satisfaction when a game allows you to interrupt an opponent’s action and counter them? Do you prefer collaborative play as opposed to competitive play? Take these elements and kick them up a notch for your own game—or try combining them in a new and interesting way. Maybe you hate the way X game keeps you from playing in a certain way. Remove some of those pesky limitations and see what you end up with! New games—like almost any kind of creative expression—are often remixes or reimaginings of older games. And that’s not a bad thing!
Obviously, these techniques don’t exist in a vacuum. Maybe halfway through your process you find a new theme that makes you reconsider some mechanics in your game that don’t make sense narratively. That’s all part of the process, and brings us to our next section.
Once you’ve landed on a game idea you’re excited about, it’s time to come up with a prototype and convince some of your friends to try playing it with you. To do this, you’ll need an overall structure and a list of rules to govern what players can and can’t do—and that’s pretty much it! In the beginning stages, your prototype can be as simple as scrap paper, loose change, and a first draft of some rules. Don’t get caught up in the details of making it flashy and enticing; before that happens, you need to make sure the basic mechanics work.
The first time you experiment with a prototype, things may not go as planned. As people try playing it, take notes on how their instincts as players align with your expectations. It’s likely that at first, they won’t line up—and that’s fine, because then you can (and must) make tweaks. On the other hand, you might like what a player did more than what you originally intended them to do. In that case, you can alter your game to encourage more of that behavior. I recently went to a talk where the speaker posited that game designers are essentially just curators of other people’s feedback. This is absolutely true and speaks to the fact that both the suggestions you take and those that you don’t will ultimately shape your final product.
Why playtesting is so important
At different points in your process you will be playtesting for different (and increasingly specific) things. Every part of your game—from its mechanics and components to its written rules and graphic design—contributes to players’ understanding and expectations of what playing it will be like, so you want to make sure that every piece of it clearly communicates its intent.
Without external feedback, it’s hard to see what may or may not be working. You have a very specific bias towards your game (since you designed it), so while the first version of your game probably makes perfect sense to you, it may not be as clear to someone whose gaming experience or overall perception of the world is different from yours. That’s why playtesting in stages, and with a diverse group of people, is imperative to making the best game possible. Your friends and family are a great starting place, but unless you want to make a really niche game that’s only fun for you and your inner circle, you’ll want to get some fresh eyes on it.
But where does one find new people, you ask? Well, Meetup is a great way to meet gaming groups in your area and also to find groups of designers who meet specifically to playtest games. You can also try reaching out to your friendly local game store to see if any of their clientele might be interested in trying out your prototype. Or, if you’re near New York City, Boston, or San Francisco, Playcrafting is an awesome organization that hosts courses and mini-expos for games at every stage of the development process.
What to ask your playtesters
Here are some questions—ranging from general to specific—you can ask your playtesters as your game grows and changes:
- What was your favorite part of the game? How about your least favorite part?
- Did the main actions of the game feel satisfying?
- What was your strategy when playing the game?
- Did the game feel too long, too short, or just about right?
- Did you feel like you had agency and could make your own choices?
- Would you be able to teach this game to someone else?
- Did the look of the game fit with your experience playing it?
If you’re playing with game-savvy people, it’s likely that they will compare your game to other games. If that happens, be sure to try those games out for yourself. Doing so can be very informative as to what you do or don’t want in your own project.
When to stop tweaking
How do you know when to stop playtesting and call your game finished? There’s no definitive answer to this question (an artist’s work is never done, yada yada…). But over time, the feedback you receive from playtesters will become increasingly inconsequential to how your game actually plays and feels, and that’s a great indicator that you’re approaching the finish line. For me, there came a point when I started getting feedback that, while interesting, would have steered the game away from what I believed was its core idea. Once I was able to receive a suggestion for the game and recognize that it was valid but not contributing to the vision I saw for my game, that was the greatest indicator to me that the game was “done” and ready for the next stage of the process.
At this point, you have a game you’re proud of. Now it’s time to show it off to the world! As it turns out, generating buzz and excitement around your game can be one of the hardest parts of the process, especially if you’re super introverted like myself (and like most other independent game creators I’ve encountered). Most of us started designing games as hobbyists because we enjoy playing and thinking about games. Then a few months or years into a project we’re really proud of, we find ourselves on some crowded convention floor thinking, “Wait, I didn’t sign up for this!” But the truth is, unless you have entire teams of people ready to help you, or loads of extra cash sitting around, self-promotion is a big part of the independent-development process.
DISCLAIMER: There is a version of the game-developing experience where you pitch your prototype to publishers, someone picks it up immediately, they give you a small royalty, and you’re free to dedicate yourself solely to your game’s design. This was not my experience, so I cannot speak to it. But it does happen.
How to do your own promotion
As you get ready to tell the world about what you’ve created, start by claiming social media accounts for your game or company (at the bare minimum, you’ll probably want a Facebook page and Twitter account—just be sure to set up a presence on the social platforms you feel most comfortable and excited about using). As soon as you’re committed to your project enough to shell out the funds for a domain, a website presence should follow. Next, invite your friends and playtesters to follow along with your project through all channels. These people will become your base audience and the foundation on top of which your game’s audience will grow. If you are going to events outside your inner circle, you can start growing your audience by printing some business cards that showcase your game’s website and social handles, and handing them out to anyone who seems interested.
That being said, you never know when someone will lose a business card or actually take the extra step to follow you on their own. For a more direct line of contact, it’s a good idea to collect the email addresses of people you meet at events or anywhere else. Always bring a notepad when you’re out at events. As you talk up your new game, ask interested people if you can add them to your newsletter to keep them updated on the game’s progression. Of all the online messaging I’ve done for my project, the email newsletter has by far been the most effective. And, when the time comes to start asking people to actually buy your game, this email list will be you first point of contact for spreading the word.
Editor’s note: You can learn more strategies for self-promotion in A creative person’s guide to thoughtful promotion.
The next big thing you’ll want to do is attend some gaming conventions. I’ve met many aspiring game designers who’ve hesitated to take the leap into larger-scale exhibition because they felt that their product wasn’t polished or popular enough. But, the fact of the matter is that an audience for your game will not appear out of thin air. The odds of you putting your game on Kickstarter and having a flood of people come rushing to buy it are slim to none, and people can’t support something if they don’t know it exists. You have to do the leg work, literally, by standing at conventions, demoing your game, and networking to get your project into the hands of as many people as possible.
As you plan out which conventions to attend, start with events that are in your range of transport. There’s no need to spend money on a plane ticket beyond your means, especially if you don’t yet have a product to sell. If you want to keep it more casual, you can even go as an attendee (rather than as an exhibitor) and avoid the cost of a booth or demo space. Many gaming conventions have a free-play area where attendees can hunker down with friends and play games from a library. Try to set up shop there and see if you can get groups interested in trying out your game. For this, I’d recommend having a polished—if not finished—product, since people at conventions have a ton of games to see, and they’ll be more likely to give your game their time if it’s eye-catching and professional-looking. This also goes for other designers: they respect the plight of having an underdeveloped project, but it’s best to put your best foot forward when making industry friends.
Meeting other designers is another big reason why you should go to conventions. Aside from the fact that game devs are pretty rad (not that I’m biased or anything), these are the people who are coming up in the industry alongside you. Ask their advice, share your experiences, and—for the love of god—play games together! The more industry people you have in your corner, the better off you’ll be in your first and future game endeavors.
Here are a handful of organizations to look into if you’re an independent designer/developer looking to take your game to a convention:
There are lots of ways to go about publishing your game, but before you can do any of them, you’ll need the funds to pay for production. The publication method I’m personally most familiar with is self-publication by way of a crowdfunding campaign, specifically Kickstarter. If you’d rather avoid a crowdfunding campaign, there are online services like The GameCrafter and DriveThruRPG that will produce copies of your game on-demand. This is an awesome option for small production runs, but likely not cost-effective if you’re looking to make more than a couple hundred copies of your game.
Using crowdfunding to self-publish your game
Self-publishing a game is so much more than throwing your game idea up on Kickstarter and watching the money roll in. First and foremost: this step of the process cannot happen without having already captured an excited audience. While it’s true that the tabletop gaming category on Kickstarter does have somewhat of a built-in-audience (I can’t speak as to whether or not this exists on other crowdfunding platforms), it’s been my experience that only games that already have some traction will catch the eyes of frequent Kickstarter backers. So, in order to be successful with a Kickstarter project or other type of crowdfunding campaign, you’ll need the support of your family, friends, fellow designers, and people you’ve met while playtesting your game and attending conventions.
Crowdfunding is a fascinating and humbling process. For one thing, so much work goes into a project page (much more than meets the eye). And, while pressing “launch” on a Kickstarter project can feel like a giant milestone—which it is!—it’s really just the beginning of your process. The best Kickstarter campaigns manage to generate sales, provide initial seed money for production, and serve as a huge marketing tool for the game. Then, once all the money is collected, you have to actually make the thing—and that’s way more challenging!
To get a sense for how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign for your game, my best advice is to back a lot of other games projects. Take note of how they’ve communicated their game on the project page, what their video is like, how they structure the flow of their campaign, what their updates are like, and how the page is laid out visually. When you see them doing something effective, try to emulate it in your own way. Just like with game design, borrowing and remixing ideas from other games creators is a great way to push yourself in the right direction.
Producing your game
I solidly believe that regardless of how much of a one-person-show you believe you are, no one succeeds in doing anything completely alone. Whether you’re physically working with a team of people on your game, or if you’re relying on the emotional support of one other person to help carry you through your project, collaboration can happen in many ways. I think this notion particularly comes to life while manufacturing a game. Under the assumption that no one reading this owns and operates their own print shop with the capability of producing hundreds or thousands of cards, boxes, and any other number of game components, this is the part when you have to call in reinforcements and relinquish some control. And this can be terrifying, I know. Even after going through this process, I’m still wrapping my head around it, and the best advice I can provide in this department is just to share my own experience.
When making Someone Has Died, we decided to print our games overseas in China through a U.S.-based liaison. After getting quotes from a handful of different companies, we decided to go with that option because it was the most cost-effective, and because it enabled us to overcome the language barrier that would have been challenging had we chosen to work with the factory directly. Also, due to the number of orders we received through our Kickstarter campaign, we were able to justify printing a larger overall quantity, which ended up saving us a lot of money per game.
It goes without saying that when planning out your own game’s production and manufacturing strategy, doing your research ahead of time is vastly important. Price aside, consider what’s important to you: Would you rather work with a smaller company that is less experienced but more attentive? Do you have the extra time to work with a factory directly, or do you want to employ a middle-man for that, like we did? Additionally, what is the minimum amount of product the company can print? When you’re getting quotes, I’d recommend asking for a range of different quantities so that you can gauge when the price per item drops. That way, you know what to expect if you get 500 or 3,000 pre-orders.
All this being said, I don’t want to sugar-coat anything. These days, game manufacturers are increasingly busy with the amount of independent projects being made. The general gist I’ve gotten from both my own experiences and that of fellow designers is that regardless of which manufacturing approach you take, this can be a slow and arduous process. So, when promising a shipment date for your game, make sure to give yourself some buffer time for the production complications that will inevitably come up.
Post-production: selling and delivering your game
At this point, the printing press you’ve opted to work with has fired off a first production run of your game. Now, how do you get it into people’s hands? Let’s assume that you ran a crowdfunding campaign and offered your finished game as a reward. One way to get your game into people’s hands is to simply export your backers’ shipping information from Kickstarter (or whatever platform you used) and manually organize who needs to receive what, package it all up, and put it in the mailbox yourself. But, what if you also offered additional products/perks or sold hundreds or thousands of copies of your new game? That’s a lot of work for one or even one team of devs to handle!
Instead of doing everything yourself, you can connect with a pledge manager and/or fulfillment company to get your newly printed game into the hands of customers. Pledge managers (we went with Backerkit) can help you by organizing your backer information, purchasing postage, and even setting up a pre-order store. They also make it easier for backers to adjust their shipping information, which is especially handy if you have a long delivery timeline for your project.
Fulfillment companies primarily deal with shipping out orders. They’ll receive the product from your manufacturer, take the info from your pledge manager, and use their manpower and resources to deliver everything to your customers. Some fulfillment companies also have warehousing services. Depending on how many copies of your game you opted to produce, and how tiny your apartment is, this service could be very important.
Just like I mentioned in the production section, doing your research ahead of time and assessing your needs is key. Yes, outsourcing this kind of work can rack up quite a bill. But on the other hand, doing this kind of confusing work incorrectly can also be costly—not only in terms of time spent, but also in terms of not having relationships with shipping companies or knowing how to deal with international customs to minimize your expenses.
For more info on the production process, James Mathe’s blog has a ton of resources and reviews on various manufacturers and fulfillment companies. You can also do some research through Kickstarter’s fulfillment resources.
Another question to consider is whether or not you want your finished game to end up in stores. If you do, then you’ll need to connect with retailers and/or game distributors as well. You can reach out to smaller local game shops on your own and see if they’ll stock your product, either by buying it from you or taking it on consignment. For a farther-reaching approach, working with a distributor can help you get into bigger stores and shops outside of your sphere of influence. I am only beginning to reach that stage of my game-design process, but the thought of having Someone Has Died up on shelves in game stores across the country is very exciting to me.
While this guide exclusively covers making a tabletop game, in my eyes, the biggest difference between the processes of independently producing an analog game and a digital game is time. Sure, there’s also programming and animation (and a lot of other things I don’t understand) to consider, but the overarching steps of the game-making process are extremely similar.
In order to truly self-publish a game as an independent designer, you will find yourself wearing many different hats. You’ll need to make sure each piece of the puzzle connects to deliver the final product, which is a huge creative undertaking that requires diligent research, planning, and follow-through.
But really, you can define “publish” in a myriad of different ways. Maybe you’ve simply set yourself the goal of creating a polished game that you and your friends can play on the weekends. Or, maybe you want to post a print-&-play game online that other people can download. Traditional publication and commercial distribution aren’t necessarily the barometer of success that you need to strive for. In my experience, I’ve found that games are most often created as passion projects—not get-rich-quick schemes or full-fledged businesses. And sure, with enough time and work, perhaps they could become a career. But you should feel proud to call yourself a game designer regardless of whether your game is now selling thousands of copies worldwide, or if you’ve distributed a run of five or ten to your friends and family.
I mentioned that I took my first game-design class unintentionally, and sort of fell into the world of tabletop game design. Every day I’m glad that it happened, because not only am I now part of the incredible community of game designers and players, but I’ve also managed to take an idea and fully execute it as a playable game that people can share with their friends and loved ones. If you’re thinking about taking the leap into making your own game, I hope this guide can help you feel like you can do it. The community is always looking for more people to join, and for more games to play. So pull up a chair.
Adi Slepack is the President and co-owner of Gather Round Games. She is the lead game designer and primary graphic artist for their first game, Someone Has Died, which is fulfilling its Kickstarter campaign in August 2018. When not making games, she is a creative professional in the TV/film industry.