Mitch Caudill is a veterinarian working in residency. You can find his name on the inside box panel of a few board games. Maybe one day you'll see it on the cover.
We are in the golden age of board games. New titles are published every day, and Kickstarter—the main platform for self-publishers—raised over $200 million dollars last year to fund the production and distribution of tabletop games. If you have ever had any interest in designing a board game, now is the time to do it!
I have always had a handful of not even half-baked ideas for a board game. A few made it to the “draw some things on paper” stage, but none made it further. This wasn’t because I wasn’t sure of the process. I have play-tested board games for Stonemaier Games, a major publisher, for a couple of years and I know the design lingo. I just didn’t make a concerted effort to push forward with an idea and found excuses to not work the project.
That changed following conversations with Rachel, a friend and co-worker. In addition to her other excellent qualities, Rachel is a quintessential FIRE-seeking, optimizing, driven Millennial. We had spent many evenings playing games at each other’s houses, and after a few conversations set on actually designing a board game.
The game is still in its early stages, but in a little over a month we had developed a semi-playable prototype, are now further developing the game, and are also discussing plans for eventually getting the game to market. It’s been an extremely fun and engaging process and has taken me well beyond what little I had accomplished on my own.
I fully recognize that finding such a cohesive partnership was more-or-less luck, and I unfortunately don’t have much advice for how to find a partner. That being said, I thought I could pass along a few lessons learned regarding working with a creative partner on a joint project.
Create something you wouldn't have made on your own
This is probably the most important piece of advice I can offer. The project you create in a partnership isn’t one that you would make on your own. Ideally, it will be something that you couldn’t make on your own! I tend to favor long, drawn-out, intricate games that take several hours to play. The game we are designing will likely play in less than an hour and has relatively simple mechanisms. I am still very excited about it. My joy comes from the act of creation, the practical problem solving, and seeing an actual game come into being.
When Rachel and I started out designing our game, we both sketched out a general few ideas for a game theme. We mutually agreed on a game designed around the tragedy of the commons. By starting from a place of mutual interest (rather than one person pitching a half-designed idea to other), we both have buy-in. We both get to see the game naturally grow as we add and alter aspects of it, and neither of us has a pre-conceived idea of how the game should develop.
Another major benefit of this mutual creation is I never have the feeling that this game has to be my singular magnum opus. That desire to have a game be a singular, artistic expression definitely hindered me working on my previous ideas and working with a partner has allowed me to be much freer in tinkering and playing with ideas.
Split the work and regularly check in
In terms of the design process, we both have busy day jobs, and working on the game is a side project for us. To help prevent either one of us feeling overwhelmed, or guilty for not working on the project more, we agreed at the start on a steady, moderate workload. We meet every other week for an evening to work on the game. We don’t have a set amount of time for these sessions, but they're generally 2–4 hours.
More importantly, at the end of each session we agree on what each of us will work on individually before the next meeting. This “homework” might be abstract, like thinking up new mechanisms to try for a given area of the game, or more practical, like making a board mock-up for the next session. This division of work not only lets us get tasks done twice as quickly compared to working on our own, but also allows each of us to do the tasks that we enjoy while pushing to the other person the tasks we find less pleasant.
In between the sessions, we usually send brief emails or texts seeking input or approval on the individual “homework”, and, of course, let each other know if something comes up that might prevent us from completing a task. We also make ample use of shared drives so that both of us can edit documents and leave comments on the work.
Discuss the end from the beginning
This is a topic we are actively discussing. What are we going to do when we have a finished and polished prototype?
Board games have only a few routes for production. We could try to sell it to an established publisher, raise money to produce it ourselves, or, potentially, charge for the rules and files and let people make it themselves (this is called “print-and-play” and is a niche area of the board game market).
For us, if—no, when we get to the stage of marketing the game, selling to an established publisher is probably the most viable option. At the moment, neither of us has real interest in trying to organize a Kickstarter and self-publish the game. On the other hand, pitching a game to a publisher can be a significant commitment and require traveling to conventions or pitch days.
The corollary to discussing the end from the beginning is talking about the monetary inputs, and the division of any profits. Neither of us has put significant money into our game at this point, but at our next meeting one of the agenda items will be discussing some benchmarks and agreements regarding credit. For instance, once the project reaches a prototype, both of us will be credited as designers and entitled to some share of any future profits.
One issue we have been particularly thinking on is this: what if, in the future, one of us wants to take on the gargantuan task of self-publishing and the other doesn’t want to at all? Self-publishing can easily run into hundreds of hours of work and involve handling hundreds of thousands of dollars. How will the person who spent a fraction of that time working on the design phase be compensated from the overall pot? Similarly, if one of us decides to go to a convention and pitch the game, should they get a bigger stake?
We don’t have clear answers yet, but are sure we will come up with something that feels fair to both of us. We also both accept that we may not actually ever sell the game, but its much better to have an agreement that never gets used than someone feeling cheated down the road.
After every joint meeting I get more excited about the game and can’t wait until we get to the point of playing test versions with mutual friends. Even if it never gets formally sold, just playing a game I designed and made would be a majorly satisfying accomplishment. So as a last piece of advice, if you have thought about designing a game and struggled, find a partner and get started!