Board game development anything but child’s play

Nate White of Hockessin with Middle Empire, the board game he designed at his Hockessin home. White bypassed Kickstarter and self-published his game, which is sold in several local stores and online. // Photo by Brian Harvath
Nate White of Hockessin with Middle Empire, the board game he designed at his Hockessin home. White bypassed Kickstarter and self-published his game, which is sold in several local stores and online. // Photo by Brian Harvath

By Kathy Canavan

Nate White spent three years of his Life® designing a board game that eliminated the Trouble® he had with games like Settlers of Catan®. Then he took a Risk® and quit his job with JP Morgan Chase to market his game. He didn’t have a Clue ® about marketing at first, but Guess Who® is learning fast as he travels around the country selling Middle Empire®.

The hobby games business, which hit $880 million in sales in 2014, grew another 20 percent in 2015, according industry magazine ICV2.

Even celebs are obsessed. Starting tackle David Bakhtiari taught the other Green Bay Packers to play Settlers of Catan. The players’ naturally competitive temperament reportedly makes for cutthroat games.

Delaware has enough local interest to support four successive Unpubs, Comic Con in Dover, Galactic Con in Middletown and Thy Geekdom Con in Claymont.

Nate White’s 11-month sojourn self-publishing Middle Empire is a how-to for other Delaware game designers.

His concept was Risk meets top-selling Catan, but minus the dice and the six-hour play time.

The 33-year-old Hockessin man followed the recent trend among American game designers to combine the strategic seriousness of European games and the thematic fun of traditional American games.

Typical American games, sometimes derisively referred to as “Ameritrash,” tend to focus heavily on a theme. They emphasize fun and thematic game play. They also tend to feature long play times, player elimination, and large amounts of random chance. Euro games feature strategic depth and balance between the players.

White’s twist: You can learn Middle Empire in 15 minutes, and you can play it in 30.

His slogan: “More fun in less time.”

His target audience: Middle School. High School. College.

“I said, hey, maybe I can put these two games together and make it much shorter and take out some of the things I don’t like,” White said. “In Risk, if you want to take over an area, you can, but, if you’re rolling the dice and they’re not working in your favor, you’re losing and there’s not anything you can do about it. In Catan, once you’re in one place, you’re set for the game, but, in my game, you can build in one area and then, if you see there’s a better area, you can build toward them and attack them.”

Getting the game play down was bumpy: “It was continual, continual, continual play testing over and over and over,” White said. “It was a lot of playing with family because I knew they would tolerate it. They’d say, ‘What if you do this…’”

He dropped in on a board-gaming group at the University of Delaware: “I said, ‘Guys, I know I’m new. You’ve never seen me before. Can I just drop my game in front of you and see what you think?’ ”

He took it to Board Game Night at Days of Knights in Newark. “They really helped out with the prototype version.”

When it was time to print the game, his friend Justin Weber supplied the artwork. (“I can’t draw a stick figure.”)

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Middle Empire is aimed at players from middle school to adulthood.

White made some rookie mistakes: He didn’t go to Kickstarter — the popular online funding platform that has launched 7,562 games, including 625 that raised more than $100,000 and 63 that raised more than $1 million.

“That’s the one thing I wish I would have done. I wish I’d gone through Kickstarter, but God has blessed me so much that I think I can do this by myself.” He said store owners often ask if he did Kickstarter because the online campaigns give new games free international publicity.

“Coming from a finance background, I had no marketing and sales skills. I’ve really learned how hard it is to be a salesman,” White said. “It’s hard to convince the consumer that an unknown product out there can be fun. It’s not a product that you can readily show them, like, ‘Look at my razor. My hair is gone.’ It’s not one of those products where you can quickly show how it’s going to improve the player’s life.”

White, a finance major, made his decisions based on functionality and cost.

His game pieces, often important to board-game buyers, are Scrabble-simple ones. (“When I was going to go to production, the company I was working with said, ‘Hey, I can give you wood pieces and it will cost you this much for this many games.’ I said, ‘That sounds fine.’”)

He opted to buy 1,000 copies as a test market because pricing was better on larger quantities. He’s still working from that original order.

He decided not to use a distributor. (“I would get killed at a distributor, because they take a cut, and I like to have that relationship with the store owner and the customers.”)

He spent time at regional toy conventions until he opted to pay $800 for a first-timer’s table at the Chicago Toy Fair.  (“The long-term goal is to get the game licensed by a major company and, from what I read, the best thing to do was to go to Chicago because there are all kinds of executives wandering around.”)

White, who has limited mobility due to a 2001 motorcycle accident, offered to pay a friend’s way to Chicago in return for the man’s help transporting his games. They sold all 24 games they brought — plus their demo game.

They wore Middle Empire T-shirts. (“I’m trying to get it out there, and, if I can’t be a walking advertisement, that’s even better.”)

He got three companies to take a look. (“They all said the game looked like it was a lot of fun, but I actually only played it with one of them. I think it wasn’t right for their companies. Two of them were more geared toward education products.”)

He took it to independent games stores like Leedom Street Games in Jenkintown, Pa., where owner Kate Pettit welcomes his visits. “He is great with the customers and not sales-y in any way. He just sits and plays the game with them and lets the game work its magic on its own,” she said.

Josh Tempkin, a game-design group founder who has 50 of his own games in various stages of design, said self-publishing, as White did, is difficult.

Tempkin contracts with professional game publishers.

“That guarantees that I have extra unbiased eyes to make sure I’m not missing something obvious with either the design or play testing or art or marketing. The downside there is that your return is a small percentage of the shelf price. Going with a publisher, you probably won’t make a whole lot of money unless either you get a mega-hit — very, very unlikely for new designers — or you can get lots of little royalty checks from many moderately successful games. Point is: don’t expect to make any money doing this.”

Kaarin Engleman, a board member for the Boardgame Players Association, said Kickstarter campaigns and companies like Gamecrafter.com that publish games in small quantities pump production of board games. She thinks consumers will continue to buy. “There’s something special about getting together with people face-to-face in a social way that you don’t get from playing on an iPad.” she said.

Englemann said creating a game is like writing a novel or hoping to become a professional athlete. “The ones who are really successful, like the people who created Magic, they make lots of money, but most people don’t. They do it because they love it and they’re lucky if they get their money back, but they have a great time.”

White, who recently started another finance job, has sold 500 games, half his stock. “That’s pretty good from an unknown guy,” he said.

He’s working on a phone app and an expansion kit for Middle Empire.

Occasionally, he’ll get fan mail. (“Out of the blue I will get an e-mail from somebody who bought the same and he says, ‘I like this game. I play it with my kid all the time. Thank you.’ ”) (“I’ll be talking to someone and someone will walk by my ad and say, ‘Hey, that game’s a lot of fun.’ Yeaahh. Thank you for being a salesman.”)

The game is available for $19.99 in stores, on Amazon and through White’s website.

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