How can board game publishers predict which games will sell?


Before I joined the game industry, spent 14 years designing table games with no intent to publish them. I did it because designing them is, for reasons unknown, a reliable kind of ecstasy.

However, to give myself a new challenge, I’ve pivoted (at least for a while) to designing games with commercial intent.

To understand the challenge, I want to know how the board games industry and market work. So I’ve been studying them, and writing about them to force careful thinking (which means what I write is sometimes wrong; you’ve been warned).

One thing I’ve learned: it’s a hit-driven business. Successful publishers usually make much of their money on one or two big-sellers, and the rest are a wash. But because it’s hard to predict which game will be a hit, it’s hard to avoid publishing duds, which is costly.

In an earlier essay, I discussed a strategy for dealing with this unpredictability. I argued that, rather that make a bunch of games and see what sticks, as many publishers do, a hit-making strategy might work.

The argument originated in the observation that games can become perennial best-sellers even if they’re not distinguished as games per se, as long as they find some way into the public eye. Just being in the public eye seems to be a big leg up.

I suggested that, instead of spreading resources over many games, a company might concentrate resources on one or two games in an attempt to drive broad awareness for them. This strategy would include a) focusing on games with potential for mass-market adoption; b) instituting best-in-class production values and branding; and c) aggressive/creative marketing and distribution (more aggressive than most game publishers currently engage in). The idea’s similar to what the movie industry’s doing now – studios have learned they can boost their chances of a hit by making big-tent superhero movies with stratospheric production values and promoting them to death.

My essay took heat from gamers, who understandably don’t want companies to pivot away from them to serving the mass-market. Also, gamers would rather games succeed on merit than through marketing.

From a player’s point of view, I prefer that too. I can’t stand the movie industry now because so many production companies have adopted a similar hit-making strategy. Theaters are dominated by bloated orgies of brimstone which leave me with a headache and a vendetta.


But note the strategy doesn’t have to produce dreck. Apple employs a similar strategy and their products are wonderful. In board games, Days of Wonder does as well (The company says it doesn’t put money into marketing beyond what goes into the box, but I don’t think that’s true, because it spends big to make high-quality mobile apps, which act as effective if non-traditional marketing for the physical games. It just so happens that this tactic is also a source of revenue, which blurs the line between marketing and product.)

So I stand behind my proposal, but acknowledge that, in the hands of the wrong companies it could make the world a drab place for gamers. As often happens, what’s good for a business can be bad for others.

Thankfully, whatever its merits, there are other strategies to consider, and that’s what I want to discuss here.

In this case, I’m going to discuss ideas inspired by “fast failure” strategies, which are in vogue thanks to books like The Lean Startup and advocacy from tech industry titans such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (whose motto is “Move fast and break things”).

His neck still bothers me nonetheless.
His neck still bothers me nonetheless.

Generally speaking, fast failure means inventing ways to make cheap, accurate predictions about whether consumers will adopt your product without committing heavy resources to making it.

The practice tends to work for software companies, because distributing digital products is so cheap you can make and sell an actual, if minimal, version of your product, to see how consumers respond. If they don’t like it, you can quickly move on to the next iteration or next product. It doesn’t work in other industries, such as drug development, where a prototype can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and failure can result in manslaughter.

Table game publishers, who are somewhere between these two extremes, already have methods to assess whether their games will sell of course. The question I want to focus on here is: is it possible to do it better?

The motivation is that many publishers’ evaluation processes are not as systematic or scientific as they could be. A publisher typically tests a game internally and with play-testers and if everybody likes it enough and it satisfies some rules-of-thumb (related to rules simplicity, player-range, playing time, component cost, etc), they publish it.

But how predictive is that kind of evaluation? Enjoyment, per se, for example, may not predict whether a game will fly off retail shelves. I know many games that don’t sell well but which nonetheless earn rave reviews from the folks I teach them to, gamers and non-gamers alike.

What we really want to know is:

a) if a person walks into a store or browses online and sees your game mixed in with all the others, will she buy it preferentially over the others?

b) how likely is someone to teach your game to others (this being the most common way games spread)?

Ideally, we would observe people in these situations to see how they behave. How can we come as close as possible to doing that, as cheaply and quickly as possible?

I don’t have firm answers but I’ll share a few thoughts. Here’s one possible answer to the first question:

In-Store Comparison Test – A publisher could partner with a bricks-and-mortar store to place a retail-quality prototype on store shelves. Then they could recruit targeted customers to visit the store, browse shelves, and discuss which games they’re most/least interested in purchasing and why.

This one is nice because you’ll probably learn stuff every time out based on what the testers say not just about your prototype but about all the games they look at. Publishers could learn valuable stuff by doing this even without a prototype to show, including ideas about how to come up with better prediction heuristics.

I emphasize the prototype must be retail-quality, complete with professional packaging and graphic design, because it’ll be sitting on a shelf next to real retail games. It makes prototyping more expensive but I think it’s necessary because those elements seem essential to a game’s success (Compare, for example, Bananagrams with other versions of the same game -Bananagrams is a huge hit and the others aren’t.)

If it’s true packaging/graphics/branding are essential, then two other things may be true as well:

1. Publishers might benefit by developing methods to quickly create retail-quality prototypes in-house, since they have so much more predictive value than the alternative.

2. Publishers might benefit by thinking of themselves as a branding/graphic design/packaging design companies as much as game developers (no doubt some already do).

I like the In-Store Comparison Test, but doubt it’s enough, since many game purchases aren’t impulse buys. Many buyers already know what they’re after when they go to the store, because someone taught them a game and they’ve decided to buy it.

That means we also need to predict how readily a game will be transmitted from person to person. That’s why the “easy to teach” and “short play time” rules-of-thumb are so valuable to publishers – those qualities generally make games more transmittable.

But while those qualities help, I doubt they’re very predictive by themselves. Some short, easy-to-teach games don’t transmit and other longer, harder-to-teach games do, thanks to compensating qualities. How to make better predictions about transmitability? Here’s the only answer I’ve been able to muster:

Post-Play Comparison Test – Here again you’ll need a retail-quality prototype. Bring a few games, your prototype among them, to a target customer’s house and teach them all (possibly over a few days; more on that in a moment). Make sure the other games are real, commercially successful games against which your game would compete if brought to market, and that the participants don’t know which of the games is yours.

After participants have played all the games once, ask which games they’re most likely/eager to teach their friends/family, and have them write down a ranked list of all the games, ordered by this criterion. Also, make sure they include in their rankings games they already know and love, but which you didn’t teach or play with them, because your game will compete against those too. You may have to compensate your subjects for their time (though many people are happy to learn games for the experience alone).

The weakness of this process is it’s time-intensive – you’ll have to repeat the experiment several times to get a handle on how your game rates generally, which is slow. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any other way to do it. How can a person know if they’d like to teach a friend a game without first playing it themselves?

It might be possible to carry out this experiment in one evening if you only bring two games – your prototype and a competitor game. If you’re confident the competitor game is a good comparison case, that might be enough when included with comparisons with games the participants already know. If you teach/play more than one game in a session, however, there might be a play-order effect due to player fatigue, so you’ll have to control for that over the course of multiple tests.

Notice both the In-Store Comparison Test and the Post-Play Comparison Test involve…comparisons…between retail-quality prototypes and known, successful products. Even if the specifics of my proposals turn out to be suboptimal, I think this “direct-comparison principle” will prove critical to good testing, whatever the specific form. It appears most game publishers don’t do such comparison testing (or do they?)

The Big Question: are there better ways to test the commercial prospects of a game than I’ve described here?

I’m also interested in ideas regarding how smaller publishers can make retail-quality prototypes cheaply/efficiently, since I doubt truly effective testing can be done without them. Alternatively, if you think this is assumption is wrong, I’d like to know your reasons for thinking so.

Nick Bentley

23 thoughts on “How can board game publishers predict which games will sell?

  1. Nick–This is really interesting. It’s something I’ve been pondering myself lately, and I actually wrote about one answer to your question (but in doing so, I created a question of my own: on my blog yesterday. I think those two questions you ask in this post about a game are crucial and should be considered by any publisher. The latter is one that I’m starting to understand more and more as Stonemaier Games grows (and as I have to teach my own games more and more often!)

    1. Jamey Stegmaier!

      I already feel like I know you because your Kickstarter articles comprise some of the best most complete stuff about Kickstarter that I’ve seen anywhere, and I’ve read it all the way through like 12 times. Major kudos for that. One thought about Kickstarter: it’s probably much better if your target market is gamers, rather than the mass-market/non-gamers. The latter don’t don’t hang out on Kickstarter backing everything. To take an example from my essay, I’m not sure that, if Bananagrams were first presented on Kickstarter, there would be much indication of the huge success it eventually became, and I’m not sure it would even be funded because everybody might be like “It’s just Pick-Two right? Why should I care about that?” Another example is abstract games, which I think about all the time because those are the types I design. Abstract games often have an *easier* time in the mass market than among gamers, because gamers have very little interest in the genre, but non-gamers like games that are very easy to learn.

      1. Thanks Nick, I’m glad you’ve found my Kickstarter blog to be interesting reading. 🙂 That’s a great point about the type of game on Kickstarter. I completely agree that a Bananagrams-type game wouldn’t go over well there, and thus Kickstarter wouldn’t be a fair gauge of demand for it (and other games of that type).

  2. Another recommendation for shallow, banal products lacking any real merit. Perhaps all the profits from these can be used to finance something worthwhile the same way Hollywood make films for money and films to please the Academy – and they’re never the same films.

    In store comparison? Impossible. Games cannot be made in one offs at this time. Even the best POD game pales in comparison to an average full production run product. And iterations of retail quality prototypes would break the bank and have no meaningful market reach.

    And… teach MULTIPLE games to the same people? They don’t have the patience to listen to the elevator pitch for ONE game, let alone play it and try it.

    Neither of these suggestions come close to successful evaluation techniques; this isn’t a business of market research and focus groups.

    Want to sell a lot of units? Put a zombie on the cover.

    Seriously? Understand market segments and their demographic choices. Built a reputation for serving a segment. Euros, AT, family, and wargames. Copy other’s successes in these areas. Follow the established formulas. Be easy to learn and engaging in the core values of your target segment.

    1. Appearance is more important to hook the non-gamer or shop browser and mass market, but less important to hard core gamers I think. Although a lightly pasted theme pleases your boardgamegeeker. I, like you Nick, have been making many abstracts (mostly rubbish), but whenever a mid-sized publisher looks at the better ones, they say the same thing: change this, change that and we might have something. The changes amount to making a good game worse, but more marketable, with sound and colour. I say ‘thanks for your interest and thoughtful comments….all the best’. Publishers and designers often occupy two different worlds it seems, unless the designer is focussed on the commercial end, in which case they have something in common. That’s at least the case for medium to large publishers. I’m now working with a broker/agent who only charges upon publication.

      1. Yeah, I think that, if you’re going to design games to be sold, the approach should be tailored toward that goal. It’s the difference between designing for oneself and design for an audience of people other than oneself.

  3. Thanks for the article.

    Play testing is obviously very important and especially where it concerns how easily the game is picked up. You include this sentence: “and that the participants don’t know which of the games is yours”. Perhaps it is equally if not more important that the one doing the teaching does not know which game is the new one. If a person has been working on a game for months, of course it is easy to teach and get people excited about. Just look how many people buy games on things like GenCon and Spiel based on a single demo by a single enthusiastic person (more than often someone involved in the design). Perhaps something to think about.

    1. I think this is a really good point. I didn’t talk much about how to control these experiments but I wouldn’t be surprised if other controls were required in addition to what both you and I have pointed out.

  4. You could maybe simulate an “in-store” comparison by using a website to showcase your games and let the visitors vote on which games they would like the best.

    That way you would at least not need to make actual prototypes (although you would still need good graphics).

  5. If a company with the resources of Coca-Cola can make the horrendous marketing mistake of “New Coke”, are game publishers, with minimal resources generally, likely to find a better way to predict success than they use now?

    Also, success depends on so many variables such as timing, changes in taste, sheer luck, that prediction becomes nigh-on impossible. My example is how well or poorly popular songs do in different countries. A song can be #1 in one English-speaking country and get no play, or disappear quickly, in another. (Many examples, but here’s one: McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” (one of his best, I think) was #1 for 6 weeks or so in the UK while I lived there in the late 70s, I have NEVER heard it played in the USA though I listen primarily to oldies stations.) Nobody really knows why.

    1. I agree that trying to predict what will work is a daunting and difficult task, but I also believe that many tasks end up being less daunting when somebody thinks of some clever way to do them better, and we can’t do that unless we consciously try to. For that reason, I think it’s important to look for and experiment with news ways to make good predictions (regardless of whether my particular proposals are any good). i.e. I think it’s worth talking about despite the difficulty.

  6. Nick. Great read. Your last comment was right on the money. Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done soon.

    An idea: Could you predict trends in the specialty board game sector by creating an environment where a certain type of game will be a hit with experienced gamers? (while still being accessible to more casual gamers). This ‘environment’ could be an atmosphere or even based on reputation?

    The box art counts for a whole lot in mass market games, but you only have to look at Uwe Rosenberg’s popularity on BBG (as far as I could see he had published the highest AVERAGE ranked games) to realise that over time, quality pays off. The second he releases a new game there will be thousands of gamers wanting to buy it – his reputation precedes him.

    1. Thank Gilbert!

      “The box art counts for a whole lot in mass market games, but you only have to look at Uwe Rosenberg’s popularity on BBG (as far as I could see he had published the highest AVERAGE ranked games) to realise that over time, quality pays off. The second he releases a new game there will be thousands of gamers wanting to buy it – his reputation precedes him.”

      Indeed. The hobby market works totally differently from the mass market, and this is one of the ways it does. Mass market consumers don’t know the designers or publishers well enough for their reputations to sell games. They only know game-names, hence the emphasis on expansions and spin-offs in the mass market.

      I’m not sure I understand your “enviroment” point. Elaborate?

  7. So on a small scale, a manufactured environment could be something as simple as your reputation. In this way, Uwe’s good reputation is kind of like an atmosphere/environment that would encourage sales.
    On a larger scale, an ‘environment’ could be like a general trend in gaming. If it was possible to anticipate that gamers would love the deck-building mechanic, then it would be possible to supply for that desire.

    I thought of a more sinister explanation of what I was getting at. On a small scale, one way a drinks stall could sell more drinks in a mall could be to increase the temperature of the air con, making people hotter, thus more thirsty, thus more likely to buy a drink etc. On a larger scale, a way to sell more drinks might be to put salt in the city’s water supply!

    I know these examples are a bit ridiculous, but tossing around ideas.

    1. Oh, I like these! They are indeed ridiculous, but I firmly believe that one of the best way to good ideas is through ridiculous ones. I’ll ponder this idea. Thx.

  8. Excellent conversation. Hands down some of the best information around for those of us with the desire to build a game business.

    1. Thank you! Let’s hope I’m not wrong. In the time since I’ve written this, these ideas have evolved into something more refined, which I hope to write about. In fact, I’ll be undertaking one of my “evolved” experiments later this afternoon. Wish me luck 🙂

  9. Books, music, video games, movies, television, board games. Which one of these six types of entertainment takes the most effort to engage in? Which is vastly underrepresented in the US market? The two facts correlate.

    Board games are so unique compared to the other 5 mediums. Can’t really be delivered digitally, provide a unique shared and creative experience and it’s tactile. When was the last time you took a cd home and and read every word on the liner or shared it with a friend?

    There are going to be great hardcore gamer games no matter what because it’s a passion and an art. I think it’s great for the whole industry to talk about how to make successful “gateway” games. Games that are easy to buy, easy to play and enjoy and easy to share with others. It broaden’s the market and a rising tide floats all boats.

    Thanks Nick for putting this and yourself out there!

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