Wizened Words is a planned regular series where I consult people with considerably more experience than me on the finer points of life, game design and other important things. Full disclosure: I provided financial backing to the Hoard Kickstarter project.
The rising popularity of tabletop games for adults over the last few years has lead to some incredible feats of design, with games which weave layers upon layers of systems together into a neat package that offers players real strategic choice. That said, the old family classics continue to sell. They are nigh-immovable stalwarts of Western childhood. It’s always interesting to see someone take a swing at the “family games” market, because it’s not enough to be just good, you’ve got to sit on the shelf alongside Yahtzee, Monopoly, Scrabble and Cluedo.
With three independent all-ages titles already released to the local New Zealand market Julia Schiller of Cheeky Parrot Games has taken to Kickstarter for her newest, most ambitious project; the not-so-subtly Tolkien inspired Hoard. She was kind enough to share her design experience and some very practical business advice for those looking to self-publish.
“No Child Required”
Julia says she has admiration for those who design sophisticated 60-90 minute Euro-games, as well as publishers like Gamewright who put out products targeted at kids aged 3-10.
“But frankly, not all of their titles are ones mom and dad are going to want to sit through ad infinitum,” she says.
“My niche is somewhere between these two: shorter, card-based games, and fortunately, those are much easier to sell in a small country like New Zealand.”
Julia calls these games “no child required”. There needs to be enough meat there for a table of adults to still get competitive, but like any good Pixar film, that doesn’t mean you can’t let kids in on the action too.
Hoard Artist Tim Kings-Lynne, who designed the original version of the game with partner Beck Veitch says once he had the basic mechanics down he made sure the art was simple and colourful to appeal to kids, and he had a good litmus test.
“My daughter was a big influence in the design, and I was always checking in to see if she liked the artwork and could understand how the game is played,” Tim says.
“The one spark that started the overall game design was the image in my head of the dragon asleep in the middle of the treasure cards.”
For reference Hoard is essentially a suit-collection game. Players must collect sets of treasure before a dragon wakes, ending the game. Points are scored for complete treasure sets and deducted for incomplete sets. The core mechanic is one of memory; players can peek at cards during the course of the game, and must remember their place on the board to collect them in future turns. An element of chance is added with random dice rolls determining movement.
“Bright, bold and identifiable treasures were key, so players can pick up the game and just ‘get it’ really quickly,” Tim says.
“Literally moving around the hoard of treasure and collecting gems is very intuitive for people of all ages.”
Julia explains that strong art can also be important when playtesting with adults.
“One thing I’ve learned is the importance of a pretty prototype, or game testers will tend to fixate on appearance instead of gameplay,” she says.
“Unless you’re an artist yourself, artwork is a necessary investment, especially a compelling image for the box, which will cost at least a few hundred dollars,” she says.
“There were 56 cards in the original [Hoard] game and this was a constriction I decided to work with; it enabled me to put the cards in clear sleeves so that the card back artwork could be seen,” Julia says.
It’s something that makes sense. As much as you can trust your friends to see past your collection of plain cardboard cutouts marked in sharpie, when you’re bringing something to wider playtesting people are going to judge a product on its appearance. This is fine, but if people can’t get over how your game looks they can’t provide good criticism for you to improve on, so some decent art can be a serious aid – even early in the design process.
Art can also be key to reinforcing player understanding of a game’s core mechanics.
A good portion of Tim’s artistic experience is working for Weta Digital in Wellington, who’ve handled character animation for a wide array of feature films including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
“Animating a character or creature in a film shot is often more akin to acting, whereas designing a game comes down to thinking about gameplay and mechanics,” he says.
“When I think about games, I try and concentrate on what it ‘feels’ like to physically play the game – a mix of intuition, art and design is needed for the creative process in both animation and game design.”
Fear the Dice
As with any good family game Hoard has players move according to a dice roll. Julia herself describes roll-to-move as “much maligned” but says she was excited to take on the challenge.
“One early tweak was to the die; instead of a boring D6, I substituted a custom die which had a symbol in place of the six and I also allowed players to move clockwise or counterclockwise if a number was rolled,” she says.
“The symbol allows them to stay put or access all but one of the other cards. So flexibility of movement, an element of memory, and a board that is never the same are what make roll-to-move compelling in Hoard.”
A Hobbit-Sized Market
Julia explains that when you’re going up against brands like Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit a customer who is confused by the wall of games at a department store will probably just walk out with something familiar. A small-scale publishing operation also needs small-scale distributors.
“That’s where the importance of the mom-and-pop, brick and mortar retailers comes in, especially for the little guy without the reputation or resources of a Gamewright or Days of Wonder,” she says.
“They give you an opportunity for free advertising – product on a shelf, which is why I stress that box art and design is so important – and the best ones take the time to learn about your game to help their customers know if it will suit them.”
Kickstarter is a first for Cheeky Parrot, and Julia puts her some of her motivation to do that down to Tim’s artwork.
“I figured it was Tim’s cover artwork that sold out the small [self-published] original print run – the price was actually rather steep, certainly beyond impulse purchase territory,” she says.
“Before I even opened the box I knew there was an important ingredient already there, resonating with all who adore The Hobbit, which is one of those classics many read in childhood but pick up again later in life too. Obviously in New Zealand in particular, there is much awareness about it because of the films, which brought Weta Workshop and Weta Digital worldwide acclaim.”
Around a quarter of Hoard pledges have so far come from New Zealand, and Julia says encouragingly for their local reputation a good chunk of those are first time pledgers.
The campaign saw a good launch, with a significant number of backers being personal friends, but beyond that Julia says its all about preparation, groundwork and the generosity of strangers.
“I lined up some reviews for Hoard ahead of time,” she says.
“Then a friend mentioned I ought to try to get video reviews as well. With not quite a month to spare before the launch, I put out a plea in a Facebook group that connects reviewers with designers.
“Within a day or two, I had eight reviewers lined up, from Australia, the US, the UK and Italy. All were happy to take a prototype, do their work, and then pass it on to someone else.I figured this had to bode well!”
From here Julia says she has plans to expand a little further outside of New Zealand, with Hoard attracting some interest from distributors in the US.
“I also believe New Zealand can be a stepping stone to bigger markets. For example, Granny Wars sold 1000 copies within two years in this market. That kind of figure might make overseas publishers and distributors take an interest.”
There’s a few days left on Hoard‘s Kickstarter, and it looks like it will hit its target, so if you’re interested can take a look here. If you have any comments sound off below, or if you’re a designer have something to add feel free to get in touch so I can share your Wizened Words too.