Modern game design : Charlie Cleveland

The Lean Startup for board games

Update: Putting this into practice with my new board game, Moonlight.

One of the most mind-blowing business books I’ve ever read is The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries (hopefully his new book will be half as good). The book has many examples of people building businesses incredibly fast. Instead of spending months or years writing code, or starting your business in a traditional or obvious way, the book encourages people to build something tiny and to launch that in some way, in order to learn more about the business before committing months, years and thousands to it.

I come from the world of video game development, which has quite naturally taken on lean principles in the form of Steam Early Access. The idea is to release the game before it’s done and to let players buy it and give you feedback while it’s cheap and not too difficult to TAKE that feedback. We’ve been doing this at my company for close to 10 years now, mostly by necessity, but now because we think it’s a way to build superior games.

Recently, I’ve been getting more serious about designing board games as well. The board game industry is notoriously difficult to make money with, especially because distribution requires inventory costs and because changes can’t be made to a game that’s already physical. So it seems like board games are about as “anti-lean” as it gets. Or are they?

That’s when I saw how Cards Against Humanity got their start. They released a “print and play” on their web site for free. I’m not sure if it was part of the original version, but their current print and play (which is STILL free) has the most wonderfully beautiful and simple instructions for actually making this (click for .pdf):

Cards Against Humanity print

I don’t know about you, but when I see this, I want to run to Kinko’s and print it up. It’s so simple and immediate, this makes me believe that print and play can work. Not only that, but the fact that even after selling so many copies, the fact that they continue to offer this game for free makes me realize what an amazing way it is to market a game and grow it. Reading the card text is half the fun and the fact that you’ll get a laugh and a small part of the experience just by looking at the PDF seems like a radical and powerful marketing move. Once you have the ability to “electronically distribute” a paper game, the requirements for lean principles are met.

With this in mind, here’s my plan for a vampire-themed “Comic Encounter light” game I’ve been working on. At each stage, I’m hoping to build in player feedback (because ultimately, having the best quality game is the most important) and market validation. I’m hoping to use the “traction” gained at each stage to build up to the next stage:

  1. Iterate on single hand-built prototype. Play lots more with different groups. Develop vampire roles to be really memorable and flavorful. Clarify thinking on starting blood, maximum blood and starting influence. Nail the core the best I can with in-person testing and relatively deep (but ultimately sparse) feedback.
  2. Write blog entry about game: what is is and why I’m making it. Garfield’s Cosmic Poker, the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, Mike Selinker and Cards Against Humanity. Write about this lean process and plan also (this article, check!).
  3. Create ultra-simple WP site with forums. Release simple .pdf as print and play.
  4. Include e-mail signup (“Would you like to be notified when a commercial version is available?”). Include clear instructions for print and play and direct link to buy counters and/or container. Include small version number on every card.
  5. Ask players to tell me their favorite vampire roles. Choose only the best and cut/delay the others. As I iterate on rules and cards, e-mail current users with big version updates to keep them in the loop.
  6. Once at 1,000 to 2,000 signups, commission artist to create cards. Maybe work with <name omitted> to do overall graphic design.
  7. Submit to Tabletop Deathmatch (
  8. Research more about Fulfillment by Amazon to make sure it will work for Kickstarter. Ask David Sirlin about his experience with it.
  9. Possibly launch on Kickstarter. Make it short, just a week or two. Make it around $5k and include some awesome limited-edition rewards. Model after other successful Kickstarters. E-mail existing print and players that have asked to be told about a physical version: I hope they will make the campaign successful. With some luck, it could be very successful and provide all the funding for a significant first print run.
  10. Make first print run from Kickstarter funds and send to backers. Continue selling through Amazon store and word of mouth. Print some extra copies and send to industry friends for their feedback and to prime the pump for speaking to publishers.
  11. If/once I hit 10k+ units sold, and revenue is steady or growing, start talking to publishers for potential distribution deal. This deal will be much better than a normal deal, because the game would be much better than most that publishers see by now, because it has been through dozens or hundreds of versions. Possibly talk to others to license better IP and launch it to international or worldwide distribution.

At any step of the way, I can pull the plug if the game isn’t good enough and I can’t figure out a way to make it better. At every step of the way, players are involved with giving feedback (the most important thing for any game) and I’m risking very little or no money.

I’m hoping that by writing this, I can help other board game designers think about ways they can test and improve their ideas before spending too much time or money on them. I’m also hoping all of you have other ideas and resources that you can leave here in the comments, so we can all use this as a resource for building much better games much more quickly!

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