Brian Holland

by Brian Holland

Last Wednesday night, Good Games Melbourne played host to a plethora of playtesters and game developers, sharing their projects, teaching their games, discussing the industry and, of course, learning from one another. 

I got to speak with designers Marty and Jen, as well as Good Games Publishing’s own Kim Brebach to get their insights into the world of tabletop game development, and the industry as a whole.

Marty is one half of Mirrafire Games, currently developing the semi-cooperative deckbuilding game with a twist, Pack of Crooks. Marty has been working on Pack of Crooks with his partner Kayt for a little over two years, while designer Jen has been working on a wide range of games since 2015. 

‘I’m working on lots, actually!’ Jen told me. ‘I’m a bit cray like that. I have a bunch of stuff going at once. I’m working on a Cruise Ship Game, a Teaching game where you’re teaching a bunch of unruly students, a solo deck builder. Oh, and Knitting- and a game about Dwarves!’

‘I think understanding the mechanics you’re wanting to utilise and ensuring they fit with the theme is key,’ Jen went on. ‘Understanding the experience you want players to have, and ensuring that you’ve got interesting choices to make all promote replayability.’

Marty and his partner Kayt have been polishing the same game, Pack of Crooks, since 2015.

‘I think for Pack of Crooks, we wanted it to be fun and playable- that’s what we went with right off the bat. That turned into balancing to also make it strategic.’ Marty said. ‘I think we’ve got to a point now where we’ve hit all these spots. Once we had the game at a certain point, we’d write down all the goals we had for each playtest- Things like making sure people had X amount of points, or to use a certain number of abilities or draw a certain amount of cards- it’s essential to understand what you want your game to be for your players.’

‘We also have two more games we’re working on,’ Marty told me. ‘They’re not as polished as Crooks, so we’re not showcasing them this year. We want them to cook a bit longer. We really want to work on adding to the Crooks world, though- we’ve got the characters and we’d like to use them again in another game- maybe they’re escaping a prison or something?GG publishing

‘Marekting comes into that quite a bit.’ Marty said. ‘If people see recognisable characters and they love that first game, they’ll probably buy the second one- I know I would! I’m a sucker though, haha.’

Knowing where to start when you’re sitting down to design a new game can be pretty daunting- but there really is no right or wrong answer. Both Jen and Marty, however, agree that getting the theme of your game down is paramount.

‘Once I’ve got the idea, I’m often very theme-driven rather than mechanics-driven.’ Jen told me of her process. ‘Once I get the theme I can find the mechanic that suits that theme. For me, it’s very theme-driven design.’

‘For Crooks, it was theme.’ Marty said. ‘I always wanted to make a Heist game. That was probably four years ago. What would be the core mechanic behind it? Before we really delved into that, we had to find something suited to a Heist game. Deck building and negotiation really hit home- getting money, buying loot and the feedback loop is really good. I did a bit of Video Game design theory in Uni, and I’ve applied that knowledge to tabletop.’

Both Jen and Marty have a good chunk of experience, and if you’re an aspiring designer, there is a lot you could learn from each of them if you’re in the process of, or thinking about, starting to design your own tabletop game.

‘I think for me I bit off more than I could chew when I started.’ Jen said. ‘I had a big heavy game with tons of different mechanics. It’s been a huge learning curve. Knowing what I know now, I’d have taken the advice I got early on and started with someone smaller- Jumping into the deep end was a good learning curve, though.’

‘I think it’s persistence,’ Marty said. ‘Don’t be married to your ideas. With Pack of Crooks, we were very, very open to feedback- some of it we didn’t take on, but a lot of it we did, and it’s made it a better game. Really listening and making sure you hone in on what people’s experiences are is really key.’

‘Network with other people.’ Jen added. ‘Play other games. Do research on how to be a good playtester and learn what questions to ask when you’re playtesting your games.’

Kim Brebach is the Director of Good Games Publishing. This means he deals with logistics, distribution, game development and Kickstarter management- it’s a real mish-mash of tasks across a wide range of disciplines.

Kim also works with Jaime Lawrence and Ben Nelson to scout games for the company to publish- as such, he has a unique insight into what publishers are looking for.

‘We look for a game that is a unique experience- or close to a unique experience.’ Kim told me. ‘A game that gives the right amount of fun, that has the right amount of components, that we can sell at the right price- it needs to meet it’s audiences expectations- so we’re really looking for what it’s audience is, and how well it connects with them.

‘We want interactions.’ He said. ‘We tend not to do multiplayer solitaire games, and we’re looking for games that are a bit different to what we’ve already published, or that we have in the pipeline. We’ve got quite a few card games already, wo we’re looking for… maybe tile-laying games, or games with big maps.’

At this point, Kim has seen a lot of tabletop games, at all stages of development. While the industry is booming, more and more developers begin working on their own projects, and scouts like Kim have learned the difference in what makes a good game, a great game.

‘Think very carefully about what your game is,’ Kim told me. ‘Think about how it’s different from other games in the market at it’s price point. You need to understand what your game is likely to cost to produce, and what it is likely to sell for. You need to know who your audience is and the game has to have a place in the market- or do something better than other games do.

‘Do a lot of pre-thinking and research.’ Kim said of advice for aspiring developers. ‘Once you have an idea, you should be checking how well that type of game is already catered for. We’re always looking for games that are different. 

‘A lot of people in retail are lookinf for games that are really different, but not every game can be really different. Iteration and mixing in new elements is also fine, but you need to do your homework and make sure you’r enot doing 90% of what is already being done.

‘We’re looking for open themes.’ Kim went on. ‘There is a big growing diversity in the game scene- we’re looking for games that appeal to women and people of all different backgrounds- it’s not just old white guys anymore, we want wide appealing games. GG publishing 1

‘We also have strong retail sensibilities.’ Kim told me. ‘And in retail, you tend to find games that sell are the best games under a certain price point- in Australia, that’s $50, in the United States it’s $40- those games tend to sell better. So we’re looking for games in that space that are likely to be a solid critical hit as well.

‘We like bigger games that do well on Kickstarter that are maybe $50-$60, there is a separation in the market in games that you buy in store on a whil, and games you buy online or on Kickstarter, however.’

while Good Games Publishing produces games worldwide, sometimes in partnership with publishers like Cool Mini Or Not, they’re still an Australian company, so have a mind for local developers as well.

‘For Australian Game Deisgners, it’s pretty tough.’ Kim told me. ‘At the moment, there are only a handful of publishers in Australia, so designers have to look seriously at doing a Kickstarter for themselves, or pitching overseas.

‘At Good Games Publishing, our pipeline is already 12-15 games- and that’s 2-3 years worth of projects.’ Kim said. ‘As such, Australians need to broaden their oppurtunities, and consider going to other conventions and pitching their games as well.’