Announcement: Smart Play Games Seeks New Card Games for POD Publishing

People of Earth! Smart Play Games now seeks small card games to license for print-on-demand publication. This is a weird idea, so check out the FAQ below!

What the heck are you trying to do here?
After a successful run of self-published games on the print-on-demand site DriveThruCards, Smart Play Games wants to help other designers try this fast, low-risk publishing option. In time, we want to make print-on-demand a viable "farm league" funneling high-quality, customer-vetted products to traditional publishers.

What is Print-on-Demand?
To the customer, it's just like ordering any other tabletop game online. Presently, the one difference is that Smart Play Games' preferred printer DriveThruCards does not offer custom printed tuckboxes, but that will be added in coming months.

To the designer, it means faster releases, aimed directly at an engaged and connected audience. It's also an opportunity to test out niche game ideas that might not be viable in traditional publishing, but can still find a smaller devoted fan base.

To the publisher, there no need for large print runs or over-committed crowdfunding campaigns. Licenses can be written more leniently and generously for the designer, because there is less overhead and risk.

I can release Print-on-Demand games on my own, though.
Yup! And you should definitely give it a shot. More competition and higher quality games will raise the legitimacy of the model as a whole. A rising tide lifts all boats.

So why should I license to Smart Play Games?
Smart Play Games offers award-winning graphic design and art direction services, plus development, editing, and marketing from experienced professionals.

What is Smart Play Games looking for?
  • Small card games with 54 cards or fewer. See this post for how card count affects prices. A small card count also makes it easier to transition a product from POD to traditional publishing.
  • Games with no need for other components besides cards. Paper and pencils are okay for scoring. It's also reasonable to expect some small tokens, but anything you can do to keep the game limited to cards is best.
  • Games with no combat, horror, or exploitive themes. Be ready to discuss re-themes if you propose Zombies vs. Cthulhu Colonialist War Game.
  • Animal themes seem to be a "thing," with Arf, Nine Lives, Koi Pond, and Ten Pen already in our menagerie. Animal themed games will still be considered, though.
  • Competitive games are still perfectly fine, especially if they're framed in unusual family-friendly themes.
  • Games that make clever use of the physical nature of cards.

Who should submit?
Published and unpublished designers are both welcome.

We're also interested in licensing beloved, but out-of-print card games. Given the existence of low-cost print-on-demand technology, we want to make any well-loved game always available at a reasonable price.

Women and people of color especially encouraged. Play Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart and Nicky Case for more info on what it takes to boost diversity in a group. (Smart Play Games is a minority-owned company.)

How do I submit?
You can email the gmail address smartplaygames with the subject "Game Submission: ____" and the title of your game in the blank.

If you'd just like to discuss anything in this post, feel free to leave a comment!

Chalk Board Game Reviews - Belle of the Ball

The kind folks at Chalk Board Game Reviews did a full fancy-dress review of Belle of the Ball! This was just delightful. :D Excellent work, everyone!

Handy Tool for Board Game and Card Game Graphic Designers: Icomoon

One of the most perplexing challenges of tabletop graphic design is how to design a whole deck of cards with variable text, stats, images, and borders. Fortunately, DataMerge makes that much easier as I describe in my SkillShare course. But there are some advanced problems that still pop up even when you've mastered DataMerge: Namely, inserting icons into any part of the text.

I discussed one method of doing this a few weeks ago, but that relied on using a pre-existing dingbats font for your icons and making bizarro GREP styles. As of that post, I hadn't found a reliable and easy to use font creator that flowed seamlessly from Illustrator to TrueType to InDesign. Well, I'm happy to say Icomoon is the app I've always wanted.

You can upload your own SVG vector files, assign keywords to them as ligatures, and save them as TrueType fonts. When you type your keywords with this font, it's automatically replaced with the icon you've chosen. All you need to do in InDesign is make a simple GREP style to apply a new character style that keyword. The character style is your icon font, plus any advanced baseline or kerning adjustments you want to make.

Designing CCG-style cards just got so much simpler.

One tip, though: Make sure your keywords are not a common combination of letters that might appear in another word. For example, if you have an icon for "hat," then it will affects words like "that" and "hatchet."

Excelente! Suspense and Light Rail in are a hit in Brazil!

A few months ago, Brazilian publisher Funbox Jogos licensed Light Rail as Metrocity and Suspense as Emboscada. They had a Black Friday sale to launch both products and it's safe to call them both a smash hit. Within 24 hours, nearly a fifth of both print runs were sold out! That's a hell of a start for any product launch. Check out these preview videos for Metrocity and Emboscada (Portuguese).

Language-Neutralizing Tabletop Games on Patreon

My next batch of icons on Patreon will be something a little different. I'm trying to make language-neutral icons for existing games, the first set being Love Letter and Dominion.

Fortunately, some of the basic concepts in these games have already been covered in past icons. Basic actions like "discard from hand" are well handled. I won't just copy-paste those files with new names.

For the rest of the icons, things are a bit tricky. In some cases, cards' effects are simple enough that I can make one icon for them, just as I have for the past several batches. That is, each file is a generic standalone icon. If your game has some complex effects, you can put those simple icons together, like letters from an alphabet.

In other cases, like Dominion, the effects have multiple steps and so are somewhat outside the scope of the existing icons. I can make files for each card, which would necessarily mean some repeating iconography (+1 action, for example). Or I can try to break up the individual actions from those cards and save those as separate files, again as I've been doing so far.

Which would you find most useful for you?

Questions about CCG design (Something From Nothing: Nov 30)

This weekend I was on Something From Nothing talking about my first foray into the realm of CCG design, or as I more often call it "cards with words," or "cards with effects." Chevee Dodd had lots of really good advice for how to model the kart racing theme of A La Kart. In response, I had rambling, ambiguous answers to his questions. Oh my god, I just would not shut up. Not my best showing. :P

Arf! now on DriveThruCards

Almost every Saturday morning, I volunteer at the local animal shelter socializing puppies and then tweet updates about each one. Part of this #pupdate is noting which puppies would be best in a family with lots of activity or other special conditions. I've been doing the #pupdate for over a year now and since the beginning, folks have asked if I'd do a game about it. Well, here we go!

I'm happy to announce Arf! the game of picky puppies. Players are volunteers at an animal adoption fair, trying to offer puppies different homes that meet their very specific demands. Some puppies want lots of room, others want lots of food, some want only love and don't care about room or food. Picky picky!

Arf! is now available on DriveThruCards! Remember, you have to place your order before December 8 to be sure to get it before xmas!

November 2014 Sales Report

Each month I make public my sales numbers for my print-on-demand card games. No sense burying the lede here, November was an awesome month for Smart Play Games! To the numbers!

2x Arf! (preview copies)
1x Bird Bucks +1
35x Kigi +30
21x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game -1
6x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) -2
6x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) -2
10x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +2
17x Light Rail +1
10x Monsoon Market -2
4x Nine Lives Card Game +3
3x Penny Farthing Catapult +0
7x Regime +7
3x Solar Senate -5
31x Suspense: the Card Game +16
1x Ten Pen +0

107 Total Sold
$1,301.89 Gross Sales
$361.80 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
1564 Products Sold
$10,924.16 Gross Sales
$3,170.55 Earnings

Sales were up for many products after a brief post-convention lull. We exceeded July's numbers and fell just short of the August spike from just before GenCon/Pax/Essen. Holiday shopping began in earnest well before Thanksgiving, rising sharply as we approached Cyber Monday. (As of this writing, DriveThruCards is experiencing traffic overload. Hope it stays live today!)

It's hard to say, but I do hope my demo table at the Museum of Life and Sciences during their game theory event drove some traffic to the site. It was a great time with lots of very interested casual players. I handed out nearly half of my business cards. Definitely my target audience.

It was also around this time last year, after releasing Suspense and Nine Lives, that I seriously began tracking sales. It will be very interesting to see how year-over-year sales compare to each other. At the time, my margin was about a third of my retail sales. Now it's closer to 3.5, coming from over over three times the products. That I've managed to maintain those earnings from a growing catalog feels like I'm doing the right strategy this year for a first-time venture.

However, strong correlations probably shouldn't be inferred since the overall environment now is way different than last November. This year saw more exposure, more promos, more product, just more more more. Hard to make a pure A/B comparison.

Suffice it to say I'm feeling good about 2014. It's modest for a traditional publisher, certainly, but this is all one big frontier. Hopefully some other brave designers will join me out here and we can get some healthy competition going. :)

Collected CCG Design Research

As I mentioned last week, A La Kart has at its core the DNA of a CCG. There are focused constructed decks tailored to unique play styles, customization options for advanced players, and expanding options released over time. The whole shebang. This is a new territory for me, as I tend to design more standalone, (hopefully) elegant, single-deck games.

So, I got to work researching. I played Magic back in the day and a bit of Netrunner earlier this year.  I downloaded and played Hearthstone, SolForge, and Adventure Time: Card Wars. Explored the deckbuilding side of things with Dominion, Ascension, Quarriors, Valley of the Kings, Master Merchant, and Star Realms. My wife and I have really got into Kaijudo, and we're disappointed that the CCG business model requires such a huge critical mass that the game is no longer supported despite some avid fans. That's another story, though.

But throughout all this, I've found some really smart people talking about CCGs as a design genre.

If you have some good lectures or interviews to share, I'm eager to see them!

Breakdown of POD Pricing

The first full year of Smart Play Games is coming to a close soon and I've collected many many capital-O opinions about the viability of the POD business model for indie card game designers. Overall, I'm favorable and very pleased with my results from 2014, but the economics of the system shouldn't be taken lightly. Today, I wanted to talk about pricing in the POD market. If you were curious about what goes into the pricing of POD products, the general idea is...

High Margins, Low Prices

My earliest releases were fairly large decks of cards around 90 cards. The economics of print-on-demand releases dictate a fixed price per card as a minimum cost for production. Because DriveThruCards doesn't do rulebooks, I have to print rules on cards themselves. That means higher minimum cost for production.

My own earnings come from the margins I choose for each sale of a product, which DriveThruCards allows me to set at my discretion. I quickly found that a 90-card deck would need a commensurate higher price, but then I started hitting a ceiling. $14.99 games just weren't selling well. Instead, I found that $9.99 is the sweet spot for POD pricing. It's low enough to be an impulse buy, but high enough that I can still afford to do the occasional promotional discount. Anything higher than that gets a measurably lower sales.

Therefore, each card I add to a deck cuts into my overall earnings. For example, a card game like Light Rail has 10 cards per player, for up to four players, plus 8 bonus cards. That puts me up to 48 cards for the game alone. Now I add one card to act as the "cover" of the product. Then I add 6 cards for the rules. That puts me at 54-cards, which turns out to be just right to have a set a livable margin of profit for my work. See the pie chart above for how it breaks down.

Minor League System for Board Games

Of course, a more pessimistic way to put this would be high costs, low sales. Mainly because the price per unit would be far lower if I released these games in a traditional model of Crowdfunding > 5000+ print run > Shipping > Warehousing > Fulfillment. The price per unit would be pennies, but doesn't necessarily mean higher earnings when I tally the costs of all the other services involved in that model. And it would be way more stressful. And it would be way slower release schedule.

But even that presumes there is an us/them between POD and traditional releases. I've always held to the belief that POD is a complement to traditional publishing. It gives smaller card games a chance to perform on the marketplace with minimal risk, like minor league farm teams for the majors. When card games start going out of print in traditional retail networks, they can live on in POD for more long-tail sales, still earning revenue for the IP owner long beyond its retail life cycle.

I'm pleased to have seen Koi Pond get licensed by Joy Pie in China. Just a few weeks ago, Suspense and Light Rail were picked up by Funbox Jogos in Brazil. The "POD model" isn't an island. It exists in symbiosis with traditional publishing.

I hope other designers will soon experiment with this model, especially on DriveThruCards, who have been so extremely helpful and supportive from the start.

Update: Feedback from Other POD Publishers

After this originally posted, I got some very generous feedback from Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions) and Steve Segedy (Bully Pulpit) regarding their own sales numbers.

Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.