I’m delighted to announce the next game from Prometheus Game Labs – Micro Bots, designed by Simon Beal. Micro Bots is a mint-tin sized duelling game, where players try to outmanoeuvre and outwit their opponent in a virtual arena. Coming to Kickstarter in 2023 (and demoing at UK Games Expo 3-5 June 2022)
Simon has worked on a number of other games, including the Ion Award finalist, Diverse City and a minigame for Token Terrors, The Gauntlet. Simon introduced Micro Bots (then titled Laser Bots) to me a while ago when looking to get some thoughts on a larger game idea, and I immediately took an interest in it. It also helped me clarify exactly the kind of games that I want to produce with Prometheus Game Labs – tight, cerebral, 1-2 player games, with a short to medium play time.
Publishing another designer’s game is a first for me, but something I am really excited to do as a game that fits so well with the current lineup. On a more personal note, I discovered two delightful things about signing another designers game. Simon has mentioned that he’s really happy to have a game design of his published, and though it’s not quite his first game, I’m really happy to be able to make that dream come true. Secondly, I was surprised how enjoyable it is giving money away (in the form of an advance). I’m really looking forward to sending royalty payments in future – it means we’ve been successful together in bringing a game to life, and I’m excited to share that success.
I’ve really enjoyed working with Simon and I think we make a great team. I’m extremely grateful for Simon’s ability to continually tweak and refine the game (it really does get better every time we play it), and in particular his ability to take some of my off-the-cuff ideas and fit them perfectly into the existing game system. We have a habit of extending our play sessions to be about 30 minutes of play and then another hour of chatting about ideas (sometimes retro video games), and each time I come away inspired. I’m so excited about the future of Micro Bots and our partnership.
Keep an eye out here, in the monthly email updates, and the Micro Bots Facebook Group for more information about the game as it unfolds.
The Shinchoku clan represent the lighter, peaceful side of the town, with more spiritual tones in the building design. The left side of the board has lighter stone and creeping plant growth with blooming flowers. This represents the prosperity and abundance that the Shinchoku bring through their focus on development of the town. The place is literally blooming with life.
The box art also mirrors the board in this way. The lighter stone on the left side of the board is shown at the front of the dojo, whilst the vines and flowers on the board can be seen spreading over the tree and the lake.
The building artwork for the Shinchoku clan reflects the colour scheme used on the box and the board, made up of greens, blues and pinks. Just like in the Tsuyo Clan Spotlight, these buildings are also influenced by historical or cultural realities.
The Shinchoku clan represent progress, developing the town into a an advanced city that can be enjoyed by all. The zen gardens, common in Kyoto, were intended to be serene and calm places to aid meditation. The clean lines you see in the gravel are raked every single day, also as a practice in concentration. The Gardens here, like other more ornamental constructions in the game (such as the Statue) provide immediate victory points for the player. As the Shinchoku are dedicated to progress, and hence a faster game, the 1 victory point gain from the Gardens is manifested by the player taking 2 points, whilst also giving a point to their opponent.
A tea house, or Chashitsu, is a particular space used for tea ceremonies that came about during the Edo period. Some of the most important tea ceremonies were held by the Shogun, offering the invited Daimyo an opportunity to expand their social and political influence. The Tea House in Micro Dojo behaves in much the same way, allowing the Loyalty action to be used to gain 2 Favour instead of 1. This provides an alternative option to progressing along the Loyalty tracks, as well as combining well with other Shinchoku buildings that use Favour as a resource.
Mechanically, the Shinchoku have some sub-themes that I wanted to add into the game as a mirror opposite to the Tsuyo, focused on a faster game with:
Sharing benefits to both players
The Shinchoku building abilities are simpler, as many of them take existing options and improve upon them. The Tea House makes Loyalty spaces more efficient; the Orchard makes Favour tokens more efficient; the Pagoda makes Actions spaces more flexible. This simplicity gives the Shinchoku a more raw kind of power (as opposed to the technical kind of power of the Tsuyo), and the abilities they have will almost always be useful.
Balancing the buildings for those that mirrored existing buildings was straightforward. For example, the Gardens functionally provides a 1 Victory Point, which is the same as the statue. Arguably it is slightly more powerful (since it is effectively 1 point needed of 6), but the Favour cost replacing a resource cost makes it more challenging to obtain. The remaining buildings had additional balance considerations around when in the game they would be used and for what value, which is explored in the strategy tips below.
Note: Some of the buildings may go through some balance or graphical changes before the final print run.
If you’re picking up Shinchoku buildings, and progressing along the Shinchoku Loyalty track, you can expect the game to be much quicker. That means that you want buildings with instantly applicable effects, like the Statue and the Castle, as well as buildings that can help you position to close out the game like the Stables and the Guard House.
When valuing the Shinchoku buildings, some of them are much better used at different stages of the game.
Buildings that grant you resources, or more efficient generation of them, such as the Tea House and the Orchard will be useful early in the game. Indeed the flexibility of both of these can inform your early game about whether you focus on progressing up loyalty tracks or on gaining favour to be spent on getting more points.
Komainu is a great early pickup as it can accelerate your early game immensely, but be warned as it also helps your opponent. You’re still 2 resources ahead whenever you use it, but it could lead to your opponent being able to buy early buildings they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
The Gardens is efficient at any time, as just like the Statue (and indeed any building) it can be sacrificed after its use for an additional point. The Gardens really shine when you’re at 5 points though (or 7 in the extended game) – who cares about giving your opponent a point when you just won the game!
Other buildings that grant you flexibility like the Pagoda and the Onsen can make it easier to score points by simply giving you more options to close out the game, making it harder for an opponent to block those final points.
As a final note, the Shinchoku buildings skew towards costing Food (rather than Gold) so you will want to prioritise those resource spaces on the board accordingly.
The Shinchoku clan develop the town at a fast pace, gaining resources more efficiently than their opponent in the early game and using their flexibility to close out the game at the end. The Shinchoku clan are happy to bring their opponent along with them in this success, just as long as they are the ones holding the power at the end of the game.
On a fairly regular basis, I see questions from designers (and backers) about VAT and how to handle it. Whilst I am not a tax expert, I have done quite a lot of reading and I’m familiar with compliance and legal terms, so I thought it would be useful to share as much as possible in a single article.
This article will be relevant for anyone involved with selling to (or buying in) the UK and countries in the EU, but specifically I will focus on sellers (and particularly Kickstarter) from outside those countries (since sellers inside are probably somewhat familiar). A quick reminder here that though the UK and EU (and indeed each member state) have VAT laws that follow similar purposes, they are applied differently, and I’ll be calling out differences in the UK and EU situation where relevant.
I will try and break down the article logically in the flow that most sellers would normally encounter steps, with a Glossary section at the end for reference:
Note: This article may be updated in future with further clarifications
What is VAT?
VAT stands for Value Added Tax. To think about it most simply, the tax is only on the value that has been added at each stage of a production process.
As an example, a manufacturer buys £100 of wood from a supplier that is VAT registered, which charges £120 (at the UK VAT rate of 20%) and sends £20 to the UK tax authority in its tax return. The manufacturer makes 10 toys worth £20 each out of the goods and charges customers £24 each for a total of £240. Since it collected £40 of VAT from customers it sends that to the tax authority, however it is also able to reclaim the £20 that it paid out in VAT (which the wood supplier sent). The total tax that the manufacturer pays is £20 – in other words it is a tax of 20% on the value added from £100 of wood to £200 of toys. The tax authority essentially gets a tax of whatever the value of the final product was (which is £40, if you remember that it has received £20+£40 and issued a refund of £20).
VAT typically has a standard rate to cover most items, which is around 20% but varies by country, and may have various reduced rates for certain items. Board games do not usually qualify for a reduced rate.
How is VAT charged to customers?
Sellers that are VAT registered in a particular country must charge VAT on their products sold in or to customers in that country. Conversely, sellers that are not VAT registered cannot charge VAT in that country, nor can they reclaim any VAT that has been charged to them on purchases. (Note that whether VAT registration is required will be covered in the next section).
Sellers that are VAT registered essentially act as collection agents for the tax authority by adding an additional charge to their goods and services. The tax they have collected is remitted in their regular VAT returns, and any tax they have paid out to another seller is reclaimed and refunded.
How do I pay VAT?
There isn’t a direct channel to pay VAT to the tax authorities on each purchase or sale. As mentioned above, with sellers acting as collection agents, any VAT owed is paid by submitting VAT returns to the relevant tax authority (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, HMRC, in the UK, and other local authorities in each EU country). This VAT return is handled separately from other local taxes like a sales tax, income tax, corporation tax etc.
In the UK these VAT returns are required to be submitted every 3 months, though after a period of correctly completing submissions (‘good behaviour’) this can be reduced to yearly. In the EU this requirement can vary by country, but for the IOSS (which is the solution for sellers shipping into the EU) this is required on a monthly basis.
UK – Quarterly (or yearly) returns
EU IOSS – Monthly returns
EU OSS – Depends on country
It is worth clearing up a common misconception here – VAT registration for non-resident (i.e. abroad) sellers is not mandatory, and there are no ‘fines’ as such for non-compliance. This is because VAT will still be charged, with the liability passed onto the customer and the courier acting as the collection agent (and usually charging an exorbitant additional ‘admin’ fee). Aside from avoiding the negative customer experience of a surprise charge there are some good reasons for a seller to register for VAT, which are covered below.
The registration for VAT, as far as we are concerned for delivering games to backers, takes two (or three) steps:
Register for VAT in the appropriate country
Apply for an EORI number
Apply for IOSS and/or OSS (EU only)
Applying for VAT allows (or requires) you to collect VAT on taxable sales, and to remit that to the tax authority. It also allows you to reclaim any spent VAT on purchases. An EORI number is the Economic Operator Registration and Identification number, and is used to uniquely identify you for any goods you import. IOSS is the Import One Stop Shop, launched on July 1 2021, and simplifies the process of collecting and remitting VAT in the EU. This is not to be confused with the One Stop Shop (OSS) which allows for VAT registration in a single EU member state for coverage of the whole Union (rather than registration in each individual member state).
For step 1 in the UK you will be applying for VAT registration as an ‘overseas seller’ (definition here). You can register online here and I found the process to be fairly simple and completed it myself (with guidance here), though you can also appoint a professional to do it if you’re not comfortable or want to save your time. You may not have to apply if you are based in the UK and have a low turnover, but it can be worthwhile to do so anyway.
For step 1 in the EU, you only need to apply for VAT in a single member state (when using the OSS or IOSS). Commonly this is done in Germany, France or Italy due to ease of registration or simplified reporting requirements, but any EU member state would do. One big challenge here, aside from language differences, is that registering for VAT and consequently the IOSS, requires you to have a registered presence in the EU. If you do not (which I am assuming in this article) you require an EU resident intermediary to do this on your behalf. So unlike the UK registration where you may want an expert to help you navigate, it is essentially mandatory to use a tax specialist (like SimplyVat or Avalara) to handle this for the EU. This is not cheap, with registration costing several hundred (for steps 1 and 2 above charged separately) and then monthly submission requirements also costing over a hundred. The process of registration and monthly reporting can cost around €3000+ for a year.
Once your VAT registration is complete, you can apply for an EORI number in the UK here, and in the EU via your tax specialist.
Why register for VAT if I don’t have to?
Countries typically have revenue thresholds for which VAT registration is mandatory (for example in the UK it is £85,000) but these typically only apply to business in the country in question. So why register if you don’t have to?
The primary reason for registering is to be able to deliver products to customers with no extra charges (though there are a few alternatives available discussed in the article). So let’s assume we want to have happy customers receiving their games, why else might registering be a good thing?
Since registering for VAT requires you to charge VAT on sales, and allows you to reclaim any spent VAT on purchases, there are often financial benefits if your purchases come from within the country (including any import VAT charges on goods shipped from outside the country). Being able to reclaim any VAT added by service providers, shipping materials, or even any manufacturing you do in-country. As an example, for the Micro Dojo campaign I shipped goods in bulk to the UK, paying (and reclaiming) import VAT, and then fulfilled to customers worldwide (also reclaiming VAT spent on shipping materials). If you’re importing goods to a country, which may include a fulfilment centre, it may still be worthwhile to register for VAT.
Note: There is an alternative in the UK called the flat-rate scheme, however this is only available to sellers that have been registered for 2 years and is best evaluated by a finance professional for your specific situation rather than in this article.
What other options are there?
Your first option is the simplest – don’t register and collect VAT. It’s also probably the least attractive option as it leads to a negative experience for backers. Your goods will arrive at their door with an extra administration charge to pay on top of the VAT cost (further discussed in section 3). I put this option in the same category as not offering sales to UK and/or EU – not advisable unless you have no alternative.
The EU allows for marketplaces to register for IOSS. This means that for registered marketplaces like Amazon or Etsy, they are responsible for calculating, charging, invoicing and remitting VAT. As long as your sales are under €150 and you use a registered marketplace, then there is no need for you to register for VAT – you simply affix the marketplace’s IOSS number to the package.
In the UK, there is a similar scheme for sales of £135 or less, however the registration is a little different (and the definition of an online marketplace means they have to handle delivery as well) so you are less likely to find a registered marketplace for UK sales. Fulfilment and distribution partners like Spiral Galaxy Games may be able to act as an online marketplace. You are technically making a sale to the online marketplace at a zero-rated supply, and if this is the only method of sales to UK customers you can apply for exemption from VAT registration.
Kickstarter does not see itself as a marketplace, and has no role in calculating, collecting and remitting VAT. To bridge the gap between individual creators and VAT services, some pledge managers are looking into IOSS registration to allow them to handle VAT for campaigns. I know that Gamefound is looking into this, and I’d be surprised if other pledge managers are not as well. In future I expect we will see less and less individual creators registering for VAT and using pledge managers and fulfilment partners to handle tax collection.
A final note on a commonly asked question. I believe that there is still a duty free allowance for items declared as personal gifts up to €45 (though in practice it’s inconsistently applied). So it’s often asked “can’t I just send items and declare them as a lower value gift?”. Misrepresenting the value of goods on a customs declaration is customs fraud, and can be met with severe financial penalties. Don’t do it.
1. Funds Collected
When selling (i.e. offering and shipping rewards) to customers in the UK and EU a chargeable event has occurred – how that tax gets collected and remitted to the tax authority is covered elsewhere in the article, but as a creator you need to know how to charge backers correctly first.
Kickstarter does not collect tax through it’s platform, nor does it offer an easy way to do it (since backer location is not known until the post-campaign survey). So as a creator your first decision is set prior to the campaign launch, and you have a few options which I’ve ordered from (generally) best to worst:
Charge VAT post-campaign via a pledge manager
Add VAT to shipping costs for each region in Kickstarter
Create different pledge options with different prices for backers to choose from
Don’t collect VAT from backers, and:
Require backers to pay the VAT on delivery
Pay VAT directly to the tax authority (‘eating the cost’)
Don’t offer rewards to backers from UK or EU
The merits of each option could be discussed in a whole article, but for now I strongly suggest pursuing option 1 (or option 4.1 for very small campaigns).
Receiving Funds from Kickstarter
A few weeks after the campaign is completed, Kickstarter will send you the funds from all backers (minus it’s administration and payment processing fees). Unless you have followed options 2-5 above, you will still need a way to collect VAT in addition to the funds sent from Kickstarter (which is usually through the pledge manager).
There is an important myth to clear up here:
Kickstarter claims that it is not selling a product in its terms and conditions, stating “backers must understand that they’re not buying something when they back a project – they’re helping to create something new, not ordering something that already exists.” However, this is not the view of the tax authorities, which ultimately are the ones that decide whether VAT should be charged. In the UK, there is a publication called VATFIN5550 which covers the ‘Reward model’ type of funding Kickstarter follows, and determines that a pledge is taxable for VAT purposes. I am not aware of the precise law that exists in the EU, but I highly suspect that is has a similar effect.
The amount of VAT to charge to the customer will depend on the country, details of which can be found here.
Payment to tax authority
Kickstarter campaigns have a couple of complications when it comes to VAT collection:
Funds are often collected long in advance of delivery
Backer location (and hence VAT jurisdiction) is not known at the time of funds being collected, only post-survey.
In the UK, a tax point (or ‘time of supply’) is defined for a product as “the date they’re sent, collected or made available”. Some fulfilment companies I spoke to suggested that, in the EU also, the taxable event occurs upon on delivery in the same way.
This appears to take care of both problems above, however note that you may end up claiming VAT refunds in one period (e.g. for import VAT, see section 2) and then submitting VAT payments in a future period, so take this into account when managing cash flow. In the recent Micro Dojo campaign I both collected funds and delivered to backers in the same 3-month reporting period which made for one easy VAT return.
Actual payments to the tax authority are made after submitting your monthly, quarterly or yearly return and the total tax owed (or refunded) has been calculated. I found the UK system quite simple to navigate, however the calculations required to be able to complete the submission correctly can have its own complexities (for example, the difference between reporting VAT zero-rated and VAT exempt) and I do recommend procuring professional financial services for this. As mentioned above these regular submissions can be quite costly if using a professional, especially when required monthly for the EU.
One small note on this – depending on the options you’ve taken above your accounting could be quite different. Take a pledge of £10. In option 1, you submit whatever VAT was charged and collected through the pledge manager (e.g. you would have charged backers 20% of £10, which is £2 extra) , however for option 4.2 the tax authority considers that the £10 total already includes VAT (which is £8.33 + £1.67 VAT for a total of £10). Options 2 and 3 (adjusting prices in Kickstarter) might lead to some slight tax differences if the tax authority doesn’t recognise that the higher amount charged is intended to include VAT, but it is worth getting professional advice on this if you intend to follow that route.
2. Products Shipped to Country
For goods arriving into either the UK or EU (for onward fulfilment in region) import VAT is calculated and levied by the customs authority on arrival. If you are VAT registered you will want to include your EORI number on the customs declaration (which will allow you to later reclaim the VAT paid). If you are not VAT registered then the declaration and payment will be handled either by your courier or fulfilment centre, however you’ll be liable for those costs (one reason you might want to register for VAT).
Import VAT includes the cost of the product plus the cost of shipping. In the UK the declared value of the goods is typically the price paid to the supplier plus the cost of shipping (including any onward shipping), and a more recent update to guidance on calculating the VAT cost also includes any duties payable in the calculation of VAT.
It’s worth noting here that, with the introduction of the OSS and IOSS, the main reason to use an EU fulfilment centre is to reduce shipping costs for EU customers by having them ship from closer to their destination. The VAT benefits of using an EU fulfilment centre have been closed with the changes since July 1st that require sellers to account for sales within the EU via the OSS. The concept of free circulation still exists, where import duties are handled so that goods can be sold like any product made in the EU, and is handled via the OSS.
3. Products Shipped to Backers
What are my options for shipping to customers?
Essentially, goods can be shipped to backers in one of two ways:
Ship from outside the country
Ship from within country/region
When shipping from outside the country, this will fall into one of 3 categories:
Under IOSS (for EU)
DDP – Delivered Duty Paid
DDU/DAP – Delivered Duty Unpaid/Delivered At Place
The IOSS applies to goods shipped to the EU from outside the EU only, and for goods valued under €150. The customs declaration will still include your EORI number and also your IOSS number, allowing it to pass through customs.
In the DDP model, the seller pays (or accounts for) any duties, via the courier paying duties and passing on this charge to the seller. Often couriers charge for this service, and it may not be cost effective for lower cost items (which luckily is where the IOSS comes in for the EU) however it doesn’t require VAT registration since the courier acts on your behalf. For shipping high value items (over €150) to the EU, this will also require accounting in the OSS and VAT return but may be handled by your fulfilment partner in special cases (see below).
DDU or DAP is the least desirable option as it is used for consignments where duty is not handled by the seller (either via IOSS or DDP). This means that when the goods arrive to the customer, they will need to pay the VAT owed. The issue with this method is that additional charges will be levied by the courier that collects the payment, which can be significant, leading to extra cost for customers.
Finally, if shipping from within country or region, the application of VAT may be different. When shipping from within the UK to UK customers there is no need for a customs declaration – if VAT registered, the seller will simply account for sales in their regular VAT returns. If using a fulfilment partner as an online marketplace there is guidance for the parts they will be responsible for, which includes calculating and charging VAT at point-of-sale.
For shipping within the EU, for example from a fulfilment centre, then VAT registration is required for the country in which the goods reside and OSS registration will allow for goods to be shipped within the EU in free circulation.
What about UK/EU Friendly Shipping?
You might have seen badges on Kickstarter projects like EU Friendly Shipping (below). All this means is that backers will not be charged import VAT when receiving the package – it does not mean there are no VAT charges at all. This is because VAT will be collected by the seller (see section 1) and remitted to the tax authority.
The EU Friendly Shipping badge has always meant that backers will not be charged VAT on delivery. Previously items could be shipped from an EU fulfilment centre with the creator usually absorbing the one-time import VAT charge on the (lower) manufacturing cost, or because items were shipped from outside the EU and declared under the low-value consignment relief (LVCR) value of ~€23. Since July 1st 2021 the LVCR has been removed and requirements for registering for the OSS (for sales above €10,000) have been introduced.
What alternatives are there if I’m not VAT registered?
If you’re using a fulfilment partner that’s able to act as an intermediary, you may be able to proceed without VAT registration and still deliver to backers without charges. If the fulfilment partner is within the region, you will have to bear the costs of the import VAT on the goods – if you’re using a model where MSRP is 5x landed cost, then you are looking at losing approximately 4% cost (20% of 20%) on all your sales for that region. If the fulfilment partner is not in region but is acting as an intermediary for the IOSS/OSS, you will likely incur a small charge for them to handle the administration and VAT liability on your behalf. Spiral Galaxy charges 5% of the payable VAT, so at an approximate 1% of EU sales that makes it cheaper than registration (unless you have very large consignments to the EU).
There is a solution for UK providers shipping to the EU called Taxamo Assure, which also act as an intermediary and charges a flat rate of £2 per parcel (plus any VAT required to be paid) and provides an IOSS number to be used for shipping. It integrates with Royal Mail’s shipping solution Click&Drop, however it is also required to be integrated with the marketplace so it’s more suitable for those making sales via their own website than Kickstarter or a pledge manager. I suspect similar solutions may be available in the US to enable shipping to the EU.
How about shipping to retailers?
A final note on shipping to retailers (and distributors). Typically, as the retailer or distributor will be VAT registered in their country, you will be putting their EORI on the customs declaration and they will be the importer of record. The invoice (and packing list) will include the quantity of the goods at whatever price you sold them at, not the MSRP.
If you are VAT registered for goods sent to a retailer in the UK or EU, you may need to charge VAT on the sale and account for this in the invoice.
There’s a lot to take in in this article, and the specifics of your situation may call for different approaches. In general I found UK registration and VAT reporting to be easier (and cheaper) than the EU, but if you are not as comfortable with any of parts of this then you will need a finance professional
You will almost certainly need partners to handle VAT for customers. Luckily these are probably partners you are already working with. A pledge manager is the first priority simply to allow you to charge VAT appropriately for each country. A fulfilment partner can ease the burden of customs, and shipping if they are able to act as an intermediary for you. Finally, whilst the cost of VAT registration can be high for small publishers, if you are already engaging a finance professional to help with regular VAT reporting it may make sense for them to handle registration in addition.
Selling to customers in the UK and EU may seem intimidating, but it is absolutely worth offering games to these markets, which are some of the largest behind the US, in exchange for some extra work when it comes to fulfilment.
VAT – Value Added tax
DDP – Delivered Duty Paid
DDU/DAP – Delivered Duty Unpaid (Delivered at Place)
EORI – Economic Operator Registration and Identification
IoR – Importer of Record.
OSS – One Stop Shop
IOSS – Import One Stop Shop
HMRC – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK tax authority
LVCR – Low Value Consignment Relief.
Return – The reporting of your VAT liability to the tax authority in a given period
Remittance – Sending payment for owed VAT to the tax authority
Free circulation – Goods that have had import formalities completed so that they can be sold in the Union like others goods made in the EU.
I’ve been playing a lot of X-and-Write games lately, from abstract Roll-and-Writes like Ganz Schon Clever, to spatial Flip-and-Writes like Cartographers, and a highly complex euro game in the form of Hadrian’s Wall. I have even tried my hand at creating a Roll-and-Write in with Microll Dojo (still a work in progress).
When considering X-and-Write games, I’ve noticed some common trends and features. Whilst new games do need to innovate, they also need to have some familiar elements to be accessible, and so I present a basic recipe of features for an X-and-Write.
Perhaps due to the disposable nature of the format, X-and-Write games tend to be lighter weight. This means things like simple mechanics, shorter turns, shorter play time, and usually a smaller footprint (making them suitable for travel). This also correlates with lower prices, with games coming in the $10-$30 region.
A game time of 20-30 minutes, with quick (or simultaneous) turns, seems to be the expectation for most X-and-Writes. This short play time combined with a simple gameplay loop is what often leads to us playing ‘just one more game’ of Ganz Schon Clever or Railroad Ink.
X-and-Write’s don’t have to be lightweight, but they are more challenging to market when they’re not. Hadrian’s Wall is a fantastically successful heavyweight game, but a common perception is that it is expensive at $60 for ‘just’ a flip-and-write.
Work with what you’ve got
A lot of X-and-Write games have a phase for generating resources that is shared by all players. In this way X-and-Writes set a puzzle for players to solve, which is to make the best of whatever resources they have. When the resource generation is shared by all players (such as in Cartographers) then the game becomes a true test of skill, as all players are provided the same inputs and the winner is the one that makes the most effective use of them.
For this reason, X-and-Writes tend not to have ‘bad’ resource events (where there is a direct failure or loss). In other words all resources will benefit the player, but how much benefit can be derived from it depends on the the current state or time of the game . There are no fundamentally better or worse terrain types in Cartographers, or good and bad workers in Hadrians Wall, but the ones you would want depend on your strategy at the time.
As a side effect, this shared input also allows these games to scale to almost infinite player count. When all players have the same input, turns can be taken simultaneously, preventing larger player counts from taking a long time. Even when there is player interaction it can be restricted – the sphere of influence for both Cartographers and Hadrian’s Wall is limited to your adjacent neighbours only.
One of the most satisfying moments of playing a game like Ganz Schon Clever comes towards the middle of the game, as boxes start to get completed, and multiple bonuses can be strung together in a chain. This mini puzzle which takes place over the course of a single dice choice provides a game within the game, as players try to sequence their choices to maximum effect. If I take this blue dice then I complete a row, which lets me cross off a yellow box, that let’s me put a 4 in my orange box and unlock the +1 bonus to…
X-and-Writes often have bonuses for covering certain spaces (even if they just offer extra points like the mountains in Cartographers or the middle spaces of Railroad Ink). In euro style games this would encourage specialisation in a certain strategy, but it works fantastically in points-salad games where proper sequencing or timing can allow players to push a collection of their points scoring categories higher with only a single move.
Even with the explosion of X-and-Write games in recent years, I still think there is some new territory to explore for designers.
Most X-and-Write’s give players individual sheets as their own personal ‘board’ to draw all over, but few have players play on a shared board or sheet.
A shared board lends itself well to area control games (something that X-and-Write’s can do well with the permanence of ink), and during development of Microll Dojo I started to lean into this aspect more heavily. However, a shared board also allows some of the common aspects of worker placement games to be realised, such as competition for spaces and limited resources.
A shared board not only allows players to compete for space, but also to cooperate. A lot of X-and-Write games have players working on their own player sheet or board, perhaps with common resource generation, but few have players working to a common purpose. Both a shared board and cooperative X-and-Write games are areas that I believe are still to be further explored.
Dry-erase boards and markers are provided in some X-and-Writes (such as in Railroad Ink), instead of paper player sheets. This can add to replayability, since a dry erase board doesn’t ‘run out’ like a pad of paper as well as reduce waste. Some players also prefer to keep their papers for posterity, reviewing old scores or maps.
Aside from these cosmetic differences between paper and boards, most X-and-Writes don’t take advantage of the major difference which is the ability to remove or change marks during the game. The possibilities for erasing marks makes area control games more possible, as well as the ability for players to interact more by removing each other’s marks. There is a danger that an X-and-Write that leans into this too heavily could have just been better achieved as a ‘regular’ board game, with tokens and pieces to represent changing resources or movement, but I think there is still room for games to explore the mechanics that erasable boards offer even further.
I think that almost any game could be adapted to an X-and-Write format – I even brainstormed what Pandemic would look like as a Roll/Flip-and-Write. However, whilst a game can be presented in this format, the core elements of the game may just perform better as a ‘regular’ board game.
To really be successful as an X-and-Write I think a game needs to hit most of the elements above, but importantly it really needs to make the Write part of the game the irreplaceable part of the experience. There is something primally satisfying about leaving your own personal mark on something, as many players of Cartographers can testify.
I thought it would be interesting to give you a pretty rough breakdown of the funding from the Micro Dojo campaign to see where money was spent (and maybe help you plan funding for your own campaigns).
Design includes the artwork costs, some rulebook translation, and other minor costs like licensing fonts.
Promotion is the cost of creating review copies and advertising spend during the campaign. Note that I did no advertising prelaunch.
Product is the cost to physically produce 3000 copies, which was done in two separate print runs (of 1000 and 2000). There is some stock left over as 2100 copies were sold, but since Micro Dojo doesn’t have a direct line to retail this stock isn’t as easy to count as future profit.
Shipping includes the cost of freighting the product to the UK from UAE, and the cost of shipping all of the individual copies to backers (as well as shipping materials). I didn’t use a fulfilment partner.
Fees and Costs includes Kickstarter fees and payment processing fees, PayPal fees from late pledges, and also includes VAT costs for UK backers. I absorbed the costs of VAT for UK backers which offsets the import VAT costs to bring the goods into country, and so were not included above in shipping.
Profit is exactly what is says. I expect there to be some further future costs to replace some missing/damaged copies etc. but this shouldn’t materially change the amount
One of the things that immediately jumped out to people is the cost of shipping, well known to be astronomical at the moment. This didn’t sit right with me though because Micro Dojo was designed to be ultra cheap to ship, and even using a standard parcels service to freight from the manufacturer to my door was still a similar cost or cheaper than a commercial air or sea freight option. An alternative way of breaking down the costs then was to split it by the phases of the project. This is a similar split to above but basically includes the game design phase (pre campaign), promotion during the campaign, production and freight post campaign, and then fulfilment to backers.
Time. A question that comes up for new designers, but not often enough, is how much is your time worth?
Making a game is a hobby for some designers, and even for some budding professional designers it is considered a success to run a campaign that doesn’t lose too much money. So ending with some amount of profit from Micro Dojo was a massive success far beyond what I could have hoped. However, it also put into perspective how difficult it can be to make designing board games sustainable.
Micro Dojo from first conception through to the end of (the majority of) fulfilment took 10 months. On that basis it’s a small return over that time period, but I was also working a full-time job which meant I wasn’t quite doing 40 hours a week on Micro Dojo. That said, I estimate that somewhere between 20-30 hours per week is an average time spent.
A large part of that time was spent on campaign details and learning about other factors like manufacturing, logistics, the changing VAT situation etc. Further till some time was spent on things important to the development of myself and Prometheus Game Labs but were not strictly related to Micro Dojo. Playtesting others games, reading books and articles, developing and sharing my thoughts on this blog, and so on. Whilst future campaigns shouldn’t take as much time to cover the basics, it’s still worth noting that game design was actually a very small component of the overall time spent to bring a game to life.
Was it worth it?
From a purely financial perspective, I would have been better putting my spare time into working a second minimum-wage job, though I would have learned and created very little. However the Micro Dojo campaign gave a ton of value beyond the financial return:
Expertise in game design and publishing
An audience for future games and campaigns
A creative outlet
Engagement with people in the design and gaming community
Totally worth it. Micro Dojo was intended to be a launch towards larger campaigns (and larger games) and it’s provided a fantastic start. The format of the game allowing for a low price and low cost international shipping was well received, and future games in this format are also likely to be successful. Making games of this type sustainably in future though will require reducing the time spent on the project, or increasing the reach.
I hope this article helps other designers looking at their costs and breakdowns, as well as provides an interesting insight to fans of the game that want to know more about what it takes to create and launch a game.
In this update, I want to show you the advanced game mode, with a little insight into the development process. The advanced game mode can be thought of as a mini-expansion to the game, as it adds more complexity and a (varied) different ways to play. This fit well with my mission to pack as much value as possible into a small game, and the advanced game mode let me explore some more interesting design space without overwhelming new players. The advanced game mode adds two features:
Advanced Movement Abilities
Advanced Movement Abilities
When designing buildings for the game, they generally gave you abilities in one of three areas:
You might recognise two of the buildings in the game that fall into the movement category – the Stables and the Guard House. However in the early designs there were four more buildings that allowed a player to unlock additional abilities for the Geisha, Sumo, Ninja and Samurai meeples:
These buildings gave more options to the player, but for a less experienced player it wasn’t intuitive that purchasing one of these buildings could be more valuable than something more straightforward like a resource gathering or points scoring building. The biggest problem with these buildings though was that if they didn’t come out during the initial random selection, the characters had no…well…character.
Playing with movement abilities unique to each character was something that I really wanted to include in the game, both as interesting design space and to communicate the theme better. Including these abilities as standard detracted from the tight simplicity of the base game however, and made the game much harder to learn. This made them a perfect candidate for an advanced game mode that offered players that had mastered the standard game a new way to play.
The advanced game mode has two main variants, and a third variant that can be applied with either one.
In Variant 1A the movement abilities of each meeple can be used by paying the cost shown in the rulebook. These are priced at two resources each, which is fairly costly when you think that some of the stronger spaces in game give you 2 resources for a turn. Consequently the movement abilities get used sparingly during the game, but when they are used they can be decisive. You and your opponent now have an extra threat to keep track of if they can be afforded.
In Variant 2A the movement abilities of each meeple are available for free at all times. This adds a lot of extra complexity because of the amount of choice that you and your opponent has, but also leads to fun, powerful and somewhat chaotic games. Because of the overwhelming complexity of choice the game loses some of the chess-like calculation elements, but is generally a quicker and more exciting game.
Finally Variant 1B/2B modifies the other two variants by letting you (randomly) choose which meeples have abilities available for the game. To do this you simply flip the meeple tokens during setup, with the coloured side being active and the grey side being inactive.The legacy of the advanced game mode abilities as buildings lives on, and though the artwork for them didn’t make it into the final game I’m delighted to share it with you my fans.
The other part of the game that is modified with the advanced game mode is the inclusion of advanced objectives, which can be included with the existing 9 objectives during setup.
Three of these objectives are based around positioning, which is not a feature seen in objectives in the base game at all. The Combatant and Spymaster objectives score the active player points if the two meeples adjacent to each other when the objective is triggered, whilst the Organiser objective scores if any three meeples are in a straight line. This encourages players to look at the state of the board not only in terms of what spaces are (or will) be available but also at relative positioning of the meeples. In the standard game with only basic orthogonal movement it was very easy to prevent anyone from scoring these objectives and gameplay stalled, however in combination with the advanced movement abilities a smart player can grab points from these objectives.
The other two objectives are based around what might initially seem counterintuitive play. For a game that wants you to acquire resources, build buildings, and score points, having the least of these things seems at odds with driving the game to a conclusion. These two can lead to some interesting races where one player foregoes the objective points in order to obtain an earlier advantage.
Playing Advanced Mode
The advanced game is recommended for players that have played at least 5 games of the standard mode due to the added complexity. Even if a player only played Micro Dojo 5 times I think it already represents great value for money, but adding the advanced game mode variant (for just a handful of tokens and two panels in the rulebook) was a great way I could pack even more value into the game and give it a long life.
(Note: Credit for the prototype meeple artwork that was used for testing goes to meeplesource.com)
I enjoy playtesting other people’s games, because giving feedback forces me to clarify my thoughts and consider game design more fundamentally – to explain why I felt something whilst playing that game. The thoughts behind this article came to me during a recent playtest where the game felt at odds with itself, and the more I’ve explored it the better understanding I’ve come to have of some of these interlinked concepts.
One of the most important things in good game design is balance, but a perfectly balanced game would lead to the same outcomes every time. Arguably then a game needs some imbalance to allow players to exercise their skills in a way that rewards them for doing so.
When learning a new Euro game, I ask if this is a game where I need to do a little of everything or if this is a game where I need to go hard on a few things. Though more generally this is the difference between broad and deep play experiences, it is often an indicator for whether a game is primarily rewarding players for playing efficiently or for taking opportunities.
In games that reward efficiency, players will generally be taking very similar actions and have similar paths to victory, and so the fundamental game play becomes about which player can do that ‘thing’ the best. Not all actions (or items or resources) are created equal, and so rewarding players for efficiency therefore relies on players exploiting the inherent value of actions (or items or resources).
Efficiency games tend to be lighter games and with shorter turns. Shorter turns allow for more turns to be taken over the course of a game, and the more turns a player takes the more chance there is for incremental efficiency advantages to convert to a lead. Games that rely on efficiency also generally have a very fixed action economy i.e. there is little deviation above or below some baseline for what a player can achieve on their turn. This allows players to exercise their skill by finding ways to beat that baseline.
If an efficiency game has a fixed action economy and a low number of turns, players have not had enough chances to create a lead and feel unsatisfied with their ability to execute. In a game that has a wild variance in action economy or in inherent values (‘OP’ or ‘trash’ cards) the game feels more rewarding of luck than skill.
Century Spice Road is a great example of a game that rewards efficiency. The underlying action economy in the game is pretty easy to calculate, as each turn you play a card that converts some coloured cubes to other ones. Though the cubes aren’t numbered, their value is easily calculable thanks to the victory point cards that award points for different cube combinations. Essentially each turn you growing your resource pool by a fairly standard amount each turn (as are other players) and then converting those into points. In Century however there are some cards that you can add to your deck that are demonstrably more efficient (above the curve) than others. Since the majority of cards are ‘on the curve’ this makes taking and using those cards (and conversely not taking the cards that are below the curve) a good indicator of victory over the course of the game.
Games that rely on players to take advantage of opportunity tend towards engine (and deck) builders, where the inherent value of something (actions, items, resources) is generally tightly balanced but the value that it has to you will vary depending on your strategy. This falls into the category of instrumental value.
Paladins of West Kingdom and Everdell are two games that immediately came to mind when I think of games of opportunity. In both games there are very few actions that are hugely over or underpowered – no must have cards or huge first player advantage. Which actions you want to take will depend quite heavily on how much you value that action, but also on how much other players value that action (as they may take it before you can).
I’ve noticed that games like this tend to follow a similar learning curve:
In the first game the overall points scored are low, because players don’t yet know how to optimise their actions
In the second game, points scored are high because players know how to strategise and optimise
By the third game points scored are lower than in game 2. This seeming paradox is because as player skill improves there is more chance of a valuable opportunity being lost to an opponent, and so timing factors can force suboptimal plays.
Games that reward taking advantage of opportunity give players a fairly broad scope in how they achieve victory, and usually push towards deeper synergistic play. This means that players are rewarded for identifying and pursuing a strategy with the least competition for resources (action spaces, cards etc.) from other players.
If an opportunity game has larger imbalances in efficiency (of actions, cards etc.), this creates a ‘power’ or ‘forced’ strategy which players must follow, and competition for that strategy becomes excessive. Because players are not appropriately rewarded for spotting the strategy with the least competition, they can feel reduced agency in the game.
It’s rare to see a game that only rewards efficiency of play or only rewards opportunity spotting, since in the extremes those play experiences can become stale. However, a lot of games will lean more heavily towards one than the other, and it’s important to understand where a game falls so that players can be appropriately rewarded (or incentivised). A game that confuses its approach with its rewards can lead to those negative play experiences already discussed.
A game where players are largely doing the same thing should reward players for efficiency by creating differences in inherent value. Avoiding mathematical balance is key here so that players are able to exercise their skills by exploiting these imbalances (or else they have no agency in the game).
In a game where players are rewarded for pursuing (very) different strategies, mathematical balance is much more important. This avoids there being a clear ‘best’ choice, and exercising player skill comes from identifying how the instrumental value has changed (for the player, and for others).
If you can think of any other great examples of games that embody some of these aspects, or even some interesting counterexamples, please do share them with me in the comments.
After two weeks the BGDL Community Design Sprint is wrapping up. Did we create a working prototype in two weeks? Categorically yes. Is it any good? We’ll see….
The dangers of designing anything by committee are well known, but the group came up with a really solid brief that would be the foundation. for the game. Week 2 was when most of the hard design work began, and I want to particularly thank Drew Richards, Chris Backe, and Matt Wilson who together turned the game from just an idea to some beautiful prototypes, some cool mechanics ideas, and some interesting playtest sessions.
What did we learn?
It’s dangerous to go alone. As a community design it might be obvious that success depends on the input from others, but where the game really took huge leaps forward was when the concept grabbed a few people who invested more time and work into it. More than that, as a designer having other enthusiastic people around can keep your own momentum going. Towards the middle of the second week I knew we had a flawed prototype but no impetus to start refining it – a push from the team to get some playtests done kept things moving where it would have stalled (and possible never been looked at again) had I been going it alone.
Briefs and Prototypes are easy.Too easy. Creating the brief was surprisingly simple, and through a series of polls we had a pretty clear theme and gameplay direction. I expect the first prototype(s) to be broken and unplayable. What I didn’t expect was that out of those first playtests we would come up with ideas for potentially 5+ different approaches for the game, which means designing and playtesting 5+ more things, before settling (or finding 5+ more…). The exponential growth of possibilities from prototype playtests really showed how much work is required in the prototype stages.
Engage by giving people control. Engagement during the Facebook polls was very high, with dozens of people voting and submitting ideas. It was also a good way to gauge popularity for ideas. Once we had the brief nailed down and there were no simple poll questions to ask it was much harder to get community engagement, but thankfully a few members really got inspired by the challenge. This makes sense – everyone is busy with their own designs, and a click on a poll is a low investment, whereas investing time in designing and playtesting an idea takes significant effort. In this however is a great lesson for an oft cited concern – this is why no one is going to steal your game idea.
Creating a game in two-weeks was simultaneously very easy and very hard. Coming up with a solid theme, some mechanics, and ultimately a brief was simple to do. Creating a first prototype was also very simple, made easier by limiting the game to a two-player micro game.
However, the next step after the prototype wasn’t just to tune and tweak a few things, but to brainstorm ideas and nail down what the game would look like. This is where the potential for the game really exploded and whilst we do have a game we are still honing in on the game.
If our head-to-head micro game about time lords trying to capture a fugitive by trapping them in a paradox becomes a published game then it’s thanks to the community effort to create something really cool. If it never sees the light of day, as most games won’t, then I’m still grateful for the lessons learned during this exercise, the time spent getting to know some more of our community, and hopefully some seeds of inspiration planted in myself and others.
Getting towards the end of the two-week sprint, and the as yet to be named game (working title: It’s About Time) has started to stall a little. This is where we need some more community support to play and iterate!
The early playtests had the fundamentals of a playable game and with a few balancing and ability tweaks to improve it suggested. It also inspired some other ideas that showed we might not end up just creating 1 game, but 4 or 5 different alternatives to build and test before settling on one.
As a graphic designer first (or should that be second, and gamer first?) Matt Wilson sketched out some beautiful examples of cards to be used for the game. This also inspired a second major change – cards can be double sided (which is an efficient use of space in a micro game) and played for either their ability or used as a basic connecting path.
With just a few days left we’ve definitely fulfilled the initial requirement of going from nothing to a prototype in under 2 weeks, but I’m certain with a few more tests we can go from a workable prototype to a fun one!
A few weeks ago I put out a poll to the Board Game Design Lab Facebook group to see if we could develop a game from nothing to a working prototype in just over 2 weeks. Thanks to an overwhelming positive result (and no recounts) I’ll be starting this up on November 19th.
I’ll be documenting the results of the polls and game updates here. Follow along and add your contributions as the days go on, or join the BGDL Facebook Group and vote directly.
Here’s a rough timeline of events, from concept to prototype.