The founder and owner of Board Game Tables and the designer of the hit roll-and-write game On Tour talks about balancing being both a game designer and a business owner.
For those of our readers unfamiliar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in Kansas City with my wife and two daughters (ages 3 and 7). Outside of gaming, my biggest hobby is attending Royals games. Like a lot of gamers, I grew up playing Monopoly and then discovered Catan in college. After college I expanded that hobby into more and more games and I had a job as a software engineer for 8 years. Then, about 5 years ago, I was able to merge my main hobby and my job to be almost the same thing.
You've become pretty well known in the game design world for designing the hit roll and write game On Tour, but what a lot of people may not know is that this wasn't your first foray into the board gaming scene. Several years before publishing your first game, you founded Board Game Tables, a company that created custom gaming tables, bags, and accessories. What inspired you to create that company way back in 2015?
I wish I could romanticize it more, but it is mostly old fashioned supply and demand. Some friends and I wanted a board gaming table. At the time, Geek Chic was pretty much the only company selling them and they had a 15-month wait. We didn’t want to wait 15-months.
I started to think that if my friends didn’t want to wait 15 months, then there are probably other people who don’t want to wait 15 months. I found some great partners with a bunch of woodworking experience. I’m the board gaming expert, they are the furniture making experts. Over time, we’ve just tried to listen to our customers and keep up with what people want.
I think part of the inspiration is that it just sounded fun. Making tables for gamers.
Tell us a little bit about your company's expansion from just furniture and accessories to a full-on game publisher.
In 2016, we ran a Kickstarter for the world’s first ever “budget” board game table, the Duchess. It raised $2.6 million, and we shipped over 3,000 tables to backers. It was a project with a lot of new R&D and a massive scale. Everyone got their table, but there were some significant delays, and a number of people had their table damaged during shipping and had to wait even longer for us to send them replacement pieces.
Almost all the backers were really supportive during the process. So I wanted to do a little something to thank them. That is when we made our first board game bag. We offered it free to backers of the Duchess campaign. Soon those backers were asking if they could buy extra. Their friends were asking if they could buy bags. We took some to Gen Con and were selling them as fast as we could hand them to people.
It was clear that gamers wanted a quality bag at a reasonable price. From there, we just started listening to customers and improving the bags. This year we started selling playmats with the same premise. Let’s make a product that is high quality, but at a medium price. They are the nicest playmats I’ve ever used, and the reviews from early customers are starting to back that up.
Publishing games started more simply. I had been toying with game design for a while and finally came up with a game that was fun. I wanted to break all the “rules” and just make a game that I thought was fun, regardless of if I thought it was marketable. I wanted to put great art in it and great components, even if that meant we couldn’t hit the price point or profit margin that people said was required.
And it turns out that has been a great model for publishing games. We tend to publish games that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But we have earned a reputation for putting out quality game play and a quality package. So we have fans who are willing to look at everything we publish and decide if it matches their interest. If it does, they can be confident they are going to get the best version of that game possible. It it doesn’t, then they skip that one and look at the next one.
Designing games and publishing games are two very different behemoths to overcome. How have you been able to balance your time between game design and your responsibilities as a publisher and business owner? How long have you been designing games? You’ll notice that both games I have designed (On Tour and Sequoia) are short games. And On Tour could be played single player. I don’t have the time or the patience to design longer games.
Honestly, for me, publishing is a business and game design is a hobby. If I can make a design that is good, I’m excited to publish it. But from a business point of view, I am very happy to let other people do that piece and pay them their hard earned royalty.
For years I tried my hand at game design. I think On Tour and Sequoia are the only games that ever got past their second playtest. Both of them came together very quickly. I like to design games that basically have one or two core things and the whole game focuses on them. If the core idea doesn’t work, then I’m more likely to move on to the next idea than to keep trying to fix it.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
It is really varied. That is one of my favorite parts about owning a business. Some days I spend all day talking to people on our team about work they are doing. Some days I hardly talk to them at all and put my head down working. Other times we are unloading a container of product or prepping to go to a convention.
Sometimes we are in crunch time and I work 14 hours. Other times I have the flexibility to take a day off and just be available for urgent issues.
On Tour is only one of many games your company has now published at this point but it's one of only 2 games you've published that was designed by you. When you hear pitches from other designers, what are you looking for in their games? What makes a game something that you want your company to publish?
Honestly, taking pitches is the part I like the least. We have some requirements around playtime (30 - 40 minutes is best, but we can stretch from 10 - 60 minutes) and teachability (we really want very quick teaches and 4 page rulebooks).
Other than that, I rely on my personal preferences a lot to decide what to publish. Something really unique that draws me in. Something that I think we can give cool components to make it stand out.
I hate having to tell so many designers “no”. And often I don’t have a great reason. Their game may be fine. But we can only publish so many games, and I’m only going to pick the ones that get me jump-up-and-down excited
What are you excited about in your company's short-term and long-term future? Can we expect to see any more designs from you?
We just announced a partnership with Cwali to republish 6 of their games, with brand new art and components. I’m super excited about that. We’ve got a couple more games ALMOST signed, but I probably shouldn’t talk about them yet.
I’m really proud of the products we put out in 2020, and I think 2021 is going to be even better. If things go as planned, we will publish 6 games next year (we did 4 in 2020, 2 in 2019, and 2 in 2018). We are at a point where, for every product we sell, I can pick up that product, examine it, and be proud that we are about to ship it to a customer and feel confident that they are getting great value for their money.
I really believe that if we keep making products like that, the sales will take care of themselves.
As for my designs, I don’t have anything in the works right now. COVID has made playtesting harder. Maybe I’ll figure out something for 2022. I have to be really careful publishing my own designs. It is easier to get enamored with your own work and not see the flaws.
One fun question I like to ask all of our designers at the end of our interviews: What are your favorite games that you're playing right now?
I love answering this question because I think these games are so freakin’ good!
#1: Napoleon's Triumph
#2: Age of Steam
#4: Pax Pamir (Second Edition)
#7: The King Is Dead
#9: Capital Lux
Right now my game playing is only online via VASSAL. I play in a weekly Age of Steam game.
Just reading those 10 game names make me excited to play some games!
Board Game Giveaway!
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Big thanks to Board Game Tables for sponsoring this giveaway!
My biggest thanks to Chad DeShon for agreeing to take part in this interview.
If you want to learn more about Board Game Tables, click here.