This month, Peter Hazlewood, founder of Board Game Hub, joins Diagonal Move to discuss the ups and downs of being an independent board game publisher. Editors note: all photos provided by Peter Hazlewood except where noted
DM: Thanks for joining us today Peter. You are the owner of UK based independent board game publisher, Board Game Hub. Can you tell us about yourself and how you got started in the games industry?
Hi Neil. Thanks for taking the time to interview me. I got into modern board games in 2013 thanks to a great guy from my church called Neil. I caught the bug very heavily and it wasn’t long before I was starting a local gaming group and then an annual gaming event in Worcestershire. A few years down the line, another friend and I were discussing one day how we should start our own board game company. It would be called Board Game Hub and a place for people to find out about (and potentially buy) games from independent publishers. I worked on this venture but eventually came to realise that the concept was too big for just one person- my business partner had left to start a racing team- and the kind of funds needed to successfully launch an online retail business were beyond what I had available. But in the meantime I’d stumbled upon a fairly obvious idea: that I could also publish games myself. And that’s how I came to run my own little publishing company.
DM: Board Game Hub’s most well-known project to date is Tranquility, which was a successful Kickstarter release. Please tell us about the design and development of that game?
Yes indeed, and it was our first game! I’m friends with Richard Denning, game designer/publisher and director of the UK Games Expo, and he very kindly offered me a place at the Designer-Publisher speed dating event at UKGE 2019. It’s an incredible event in which a huge room is filled with tables of designers pitching their games to an equal number of publishers and rotating one-by-one. Every publisher sees every designer and the hope is that some of these designs will get picked up by publishers at the event. I met James Emmerson who pitched his game, then called Hush, which was a co-operative game played in silence about completing a grid of numbers. He sent me a prototype and I felt the game had great appeal. After he decided that we were a good fit, he signed a contract with me to publish his game and the rest, as they say, is history.
The game was pretty fully formed by the time I saw it so the amount of development from me wasn’t excessive. James would be able to tell you more about the overall design concept but it came out of him messing around with a copy of 6 Nimmt!. My job was then more about taking the prototype and turning it into a viable product. The Tranquility theme came out of Tristam’s artwork. I gave him some ideas and broad guidelines and let him get to work and thus the floating islands came into being. We themed the game around the sea, honed and refined the mini-expansions to the best they could be (and in-keeping with the theme) and thus we had our game ready for Kickstarter.
DM: How important did you find non-game elements – the art, marketing, social media etc – to the success of Tranquility?
The artwork was huge in terms of putting Tranquility on the map as it were. As a first-time creator, you have to earn the trust of backers by showing them a high-quality product. It’s the only way to attract support when you don’t have previous successes to point to. As such, the feedback we got for Tristam’s artwork was both immediate and overwhelmingly positive. He’d post an image on Facebook that he was working on and phrases such as “insta-back” would come in. I’ll tell you that’s music to a publisher’s ears! As for marketing and social media, these aren’t things that come naturally to me. I prefer for the qualities of a person or product to do the talking rather than it boiling down to whoever shouts the loudest. That being said, I’m not so naïve that I think we could succeed without marketing so I set about trying to grow awareness of the game, and Board Game Hub in general, by demoing at conventions and working with specific reviewers whose work I enjoy to help show the nature of the game in a natural and enjoyable way. And these efforts undoubtedly played their part in achieving the level of success that we did.
DM: Other publishers have commented that once their Kickstarter campaign was over, the ‘real work’ began. Did you find this to be the case also?
This is a curious one and for me I definitely feel it would entirely depend on the game and campaign in question. For Tranquility, fulfilment aside, I’d say the bulk of the work was before and during the Kickstarter campaign. These days you can’t expect to go to Kickstarter with a raw concept and gain a whole lot of funding. We worked hard making sure the design was rock solid, planning for the campaign process and what would happen post-campaign. Aside from adding in some promo cards with new artwork developed during the campaign, we didn’t touch the game after the campaign. Everything was ready.
I’m not keen on publishers going to Kickstarter with an incomplete product. It’s not fair on backers to expect them to stump up money for a game that isn’t even finished yet, and how can a customer judge the quality and pricing for such a game? The other big problem with this kind of approach is that game development takes a long time, or it should, to ensure balance, find issues and judge the overall gameplay over a period of time with different audiences. If the publisher does their job properly and the gameplay is as it should be, this is going to take time and therefore the project takes even longer to fulfil. Everything should come back to the customer. Don’t ask them to back an incomplete game; and don’t expect them to be happy to wait countless months or years after the campaign to finish the game when, in my opinion, this should be largely ready by the time the campaign begins.
Of course, there is plenty to do after a campaign has finished, but in my experience the hard yards should largely be completed beforehand.
DM: What did you learn your early Kickstarter campaigns that you wish you had known at the start? Is there anything you would do differently?
Good question, and probably the honest (and unhelpfully broad) answer is that we learned masses during and after the Kickstarter campaign. I’m still learning things most weeks about publishing, game design, shipping, manufacturing, etc. The biggest mistake was assuming that I’d be able to easily handle the fulfilment of the project. To be fair, I suspect it’s quite rare for a first-time project to get 2,400+ backers but it was undeniably a mistake not to out-source it. We also under-charged; my priority was to offer the best quality product I could at the most reasonable price but the shipping turned out to be more expensive than expected.
While I still aim to provide great value games, the lesson has been learned that we actually have to make some profit in future campaigns because otherwise there’s no viable business there.
DM: The next Board Game Hub release is Tranquility: The Ascent, can you tell us more about that game? How does it differ from the original Tranquility game?
Tranquility: The Ascent takes certain core elements from Tranquility – it’s a non-communication co-op for 1-5 players that involves completing a grid of numbers- but the gameplay is really quite different. With Tranquility you had a 6×6 grid to work with and that meant that, in theory, players could play anywhere on their turn. The Ascent is much more restrictive though in a pleasing way. The theme this time around is about climbing a mountain. As such, the players have to ascend slowly from the base of the mountain and can only play in specific locations. This generally results in players being faced with more compelling choices pretty much every turn.
Tranquility: The Ascent also adds in a major new feature which is essentially three suits of cards. Each row is considered a separate entity from the others but, within those rows, you may not play cards of the same suit next to each other. It’s another added restriction that forces the players to constantly adapt to the game in front of them but which allows them to make good tactical plays and keeps the game very fresh. You also no longer have the set formation in which players fill the grid from the lowest point to the highest. Rows can start with high numbers or low numbers and it’s irrelevant what has been played above or below.
The mountain develops very differently from game to game and it’s extremely pleasing to see the players battling against the game trying to ascend to the summit when it keeps throwing different challenges at them. In summary, on paper Tranquility: The Ascent may sound very similar to Tranquility, but the truth of the matter is that the overall experience is completely different. Indeed, Rahdo featured The Ascent in his May round-up and his take was that the game is plenty different enough to justify owning both, and that he prefers The Ascent to the original!
DM: Various releases feature limited communication in a co-operative game. From a publishers POV, at what point do you consider a mechanic to be over-saturating the market? How does Tranquility: The Ascent overcome this familiarity?
That’s an interesting question and a tough one to answer categorically. I can only answer this from my perspective and others may feel differently. Over-saturation is definitely a concern that I have considered before. We invited game design submissions on our website for a good while and one of the primary reasons that I might turn down a game would be because I can’t see anything new in it. It’s exceptionally difficult, and very rare, to come up with a brand new concept in board games but what happened after everyone had played Dominion, credited with pioneering deck building as an entire genre? Game designers and publishers went to work to explore this mechanism, refine it, combine it with other mechanisms in new ways, apply it to different styles of games and ultimately create new gaming experiences that diverged a long way from the original inspiration.
Do we consider that the board game market is over-saturated with deck builders, or worker placement, or area control? Can we say that there are definitely enough games now that feature farming, or fighting, or zombies, or trains and, therefore, that there should never be any new games with those themes? Arguably, each person can only decide that for themselves. It’s my job to publish games that are fun and engaging, and it’s up to the customer to decide if they want to buy it. I don’t think we’ve hit the saturation point for limited communication co-ops until publishers start releasing games that fail to provide anything new. I can rest easy in my mind that Tranquility: The Ascent feels like a very different game to Tranquility and indeed any other limited communication co-ops that I’m aware of; it’s up to the gaming public to decide if they wish to buy it.
DM: Board game publishing is highly competitive, how do you ‘stand out’ as a small independent publisher?
I think if I knew the answer to this question then Board Game Hub would a lot more successful by now! It does feel competitive and challenging to make yourself stand out. Small publishers don’t have the marketing budgets that the major companies have access to- this was one of the reasons behind the idea of Board Game Hub, to provide a platform for those companies whose work we believed in to reach more customers- so you have to try and stand out in other ways. Some companies set their stall out to blow away customers by the quality or volume of components; others release games or products that are in a niche of their own; others have a specific target audience that they go after. We’re still finding our way at Board Game Hub, but there’s one thing that we’re consistently aiming for: high quality across the board (pun not intended!). That’s high quality gameplay, high quality (but appropriate) components and artwork, and the best customer experience we can provide. I believe that if we achieve this simple (though demanding) aim then eventually, Board Game Hub will gain recognition for how we go about things.
DM: Despite the success of the Tranquility series, Board Game Hub has faced challenges. Can you tell us more about those?
I’ve touched upon one issue that we encountered during the Tranquility campaign, that of the cost of shipping out orders going way over budget. Our profit margins were thin as it was and those extra costs meant that we basically didn’t make any money from the campaign. This obviously isn’t viable in the long-term and it meant that despite gaining a lot of backers and good will, the finances of the company didn’t come out of it very strong.
In addition to this, we have of course been affected by Covid-19. I doubt there’s anyone out there who hasn’t suffered and in many ways we have been very fortunate to come through it largely unscathed. However, the lack of conventions for over a year has really hurt Board Game Hub. They have been amazingly fertile ground for us and invaluable for getting our games in front of people. It’s an awful lot easier to sell a product to someone who can see it in the flesh and do a demo. We launched Tessera, our third game, on Kickstarter in November 2020 with complete confidence in the game but it failed to gain any momentum. There are several things we would’ve done differently, but it does feel like not being able to promote the game at conventions affected us badly.
With the campaign for Tranquility: The Ascent, we’re in the process of trying to rebuild. If it’s successful, then we’re getting back on track. If the campaign really takes off then that should guarantee our short-mid term future and it’ll allow us to make more concrete plans for the multiple projects that we’re currently working on and are excited to get in front of the gaming public once more.
DM: If you could offer advice to anyone wanting to start their own publishing company what would it be?
I think I have to break this down into a few different answers. Firstly, it’s tough going it alone. I recommend finding someone to work with who provides different skills and expertise to you because there’s an awful lot of different roles that a publisher has to fill. Secondly, have a clear goal in mind. Work out what you want to achieve and then plan how to make it happen. Thirdly, I’d say don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. Speak to other publishers to gain the benefit of their experience; talk to designers to find out their perspective on the publishing process and game design. Also, do your research. There are many games released every year and there’s little point in developing a game that’s already been done. Find out what’s out there and this will help you identify what you could do differently or better.
Tranquility: The Ascent will be launching via Kickstarter on 28th June 2021.