What Could Go Wrong: An Abridged Almanac of Production Pitfalls (Topic Discussion)

The following article was written by Lewis Shaw of Braincrack Games.

Hi! My name is Lewis Shaw and I run Braincrack Games, a UK-based tabletop games publisher that’s been bouncing around the scene since 2016.

After my recent interview with Heavy Cardboard and a post on our own blog where I listed some of the reasons I don’t think people should rush to start their own board game publishers, Oliver was kind enough to invite me to guest post on Tabletop Games Blog and talk more about the challenges the industry has thrown us in recent years – a brave choice, considering I could easily clear a room this way!

So today I’ll be going over a few of the issues that we encounter between a successful Kickstarter and successful fulfilment and how we’ve managed to overcome these – so far, at least!

For the most part, the ‘business as usual’ challenges that we have always faced can be broken down into three categories: those posed by international communication, those posed by the nature of the market-at-large and those that specifically occur in the production of board games.

To be clear, our business model is to Kickstart and mass-manufacture board games. I say this so that you can understand our goals in a given project and make clear that we know this isn’t the only way of doing things! Changing this business model would obviously solve many problems, but that’s a discussion for another day!


For most businesses in the tabletop industry, getting your game made relies on working with a factory, usually in another country. The savings made this way can be huge. Lower living costs can mean lower viable wages, which will make up the bulk of your production costs no matter where you produce in the world, enabling you to halve or even quarter your product cost.

But in case this wasn’t obvious, these savings come at a trade-off! Different countries mean different time zones, which can slow things down, creating an over-reliance on email. This can exacerbate already slow processes, like quotation, which is particularly essential when scoping out and planning a project.

Language barriers also play a role, especially posing issues with particularly complex projects like miniatures games or heavy Euro titles with lots of parts, requirements and player expectations that might not be obvious to someone who hasn’t – and may never – play the game.

At a certain point, the size of your production run may even necessitate a factory visit – and plane tickets don’t get much more expensive than those to the other side of the globe!

Perhaps the issue I personally experience most often, though, is reading between the lines. Manufacturers are, undoubtedly, the experts in their given area with insight that only feet on the ground in the factory itself can grant. But account managers are also, especially in an increasingly competitive industry, sales people.

As we scope out product choices, it’s not uncommon to ask for a price and be told “no, you don’t want that,” or “try this instead!” Particularly frustrating (for everyone involved!) is when factories have adapted to an industry “standard” that we are trying to change or improve upon. A lot of time can be saved by listening to good advice, but the dilemma we face is discerning good advice from good sales rhetoric.

The Market

While the last few years have been a grotesque escalation of these issues, the matter of dealing with “the market” (i.e. the industrial context beyond our silly little board games) has always posed its own challenges.

Just like communication, many of these are issues that only arise from the almost-irresistible appeal of doing business in places like China. A concentration of industrial activity means that part, machine and material availability is frankly incredible. For Florence, our last game, we asked our manufacturer if we would also be able to produce metal jewellery as an accessory for the game and I can’t exaggerate enough how little effort it took for us to get a jewellery designer and sculptor, source coloured gems, and have samples made within a matter of weeks.

With these rings, Cheney can end half the lives in the universe. Maybe. (Photo courtesy of Lewis Shaw, Braincrack Games)
With these rings, Cheney can end half the lives in the universe. Maybe. (Photo courtesy of Lewis Shaw, Braincrack Games)

But that ease of getting things done only makes it more baffling and frustrating when things can’t be found or you’re told there is not a pre-existing tool for a part that you’re sure you’ve seen in a ton of board games already. Who knew – being spoilt for choice can make you spoiled!

The biggest issue the market throws at us, though, is price fluctuations. Planning a game with a year or more of development, months of pre-production, a Kickstarter campaign that demands exacting pre-visualisation of the finished product and then another half a year of manufacturing lead time, is difficult at the best of times – least of all when you want to end up with a modest profit at the end!

From material availability and price, to the cost of shipping containers and the actual service of freight itself from the factory to your intended distribution centres in each region, the rising and falling of these prices can break or make any prospect of profit on a mass-manufactured board game project – and in some edge cases, the prospect of it completing at all!


Then there comes the issue of actually making the game – an immensely complex process involving DTP graphics, an understanding of mass manufacturing procedures, sampling, assembly, trouble-shooting, moisture control, shipping terms and regional product quality standards.

At this point, I will lay down a whopping-great disclaimer: while we built our business ourselves, from home, without any initial personal investment, I have the privilege of a degree and years of industry experience in publishing and a lot of what we’re able to do at Braincrack – and able to do with the money we have – is down to this. This is not me trying to brag, by any means, more to set realistic expectations for anyone looking to join the industry: we struggle, even with the advantages we have!

With that in mind, what can go wrong while making a board game?

Many issues stem from the plan and process itself – with processes changing from factory to factory, knowing what to expect, what to check for and what boxes to tick can be difficult, especially when starting out. Add to this the varying challenges and requirements for each individual project and things can quickly become too much for one head to manage!

Take for example the matter of sampling. Sampling is how we go from a black and white quote sheet to a finished product and the process can vary wildly in length. You want to answer questions that have hitherto only been answered with guesswork and the factory wants to go from quotation to finished sale with as little expense as possible.

See also: explaining to your boss at your day job why uncut sheets keep arriving from China for you. (Photo courtesy of Lewis Shaw, Braincrack Games)
See also: explaining to your boss at your day job why uncut sheets keep arriving from China for you. (Photo courtesy of Lewis Shaw, Braincrack Games)

Blank samples consist of a full unprinted copy of the game, to help you assess material quality, weight, dimensions and packing considerations (helping you answer useful questions like “will this actually fit in a box?” and “how much will this cost to post?”) But some factories may omit this step entirely, going straight to a printed sample or only sampling custom elements of the game.

Correcting the errors that are found through sampling is the main, if only, way that we can ensure a quality final product, but when corrections are required and factories want to do as little sampling as possible, lead times can quickly spin out of control, delaying your game by months on end.

In this case, having an experienced, independent or in-house production manager can be a big help – though at no small cost!

Once you’re sure the factory is making the correct thing, there are still plenty of wrinkles, from complicated shipping terms and acronyms that you’re just supposed to understand (there was me thinking F.O.B. was a catchphrase from Thunderbirds) to the matter of cardboard’s tendency to get mouldy and rot or flake if it’s not kept in a perfectly-controlled environment.

Would you like to see today’s specials?

Of course, everything I’ve said so far was true before The Event. So what special treats has the world had for us these past two years?

The most notable, of course, are price hikes to cardboard and freight – and resulting backlogs created by those of us who had the luxury of being able to wait and see if prices would go down after a while.

Shipping was always the most expensive part of making and delivering a Kickstarter board game, so you can imagine the ensuing heart attack we had when we saw prices had gone up by up to 600%.

A global cardboard shortage was a little less expected. I mean, how dare you, Amazon, don’t you know cardboard is our thing?!

What we (as in, as a board game company) absolutely didn’t see coming were planned power outages in the Chinese factories that we rely on. For those of you who were unaware and who don’t mind some slight oversimplification, the issue is/was threefold:

  • China’s government strictly controls the price of energy to keep it affordable to everyday people and businesses alike,
  • China’s government is also trying to become carbon neutral by 2060, which means reducing coal production, even though they still need lots of coal to meet demand and
  • with dwindling coal supplies, the coal plants could either operate at a loss through winter or just shut down occasionally – so they chose the latter.

This meant that to preserve resources, non-essential industry like (controversially) board games were forced to shut down for set periods over the recent months.

Add to this the ‘cherry on top’ of COVID-19 related labour shortages both with our factories and licensing partners and the result is a slightly ridiculous amount of delays that we’ve had to swallow and pass onto our ever-patient Kickstarter backers.

How we handle it

So how have we managed to keep our Kickstarter backers from kicking down our door and burning us at the stake, so hungry as they are for their luxurious stretch-goal-laden pledge of Florence?

It’s simple. Are you ready? We are honest with our backers!

It’s an obvious answer, yes, but you’d be surprised how many publishers fail to follow this advice. The results speak for themselves, though. Not only are our backers polite and patient (with exceptions, you know who you are), but when we nervously explained the rising costs to them last year, our backers actually volunteered to pay more of the difference than we asked, to help us stay in business.

Because yes, anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on Kickstarter will know that people can be incredibly rude sometimes. But that is usually only the case when legitimate questions or concerns have been met with hand-waving, updates about “look at the cool art instead”, lies or – and this is the worst thing you can do – no updates at all.

Communicate, Plan, Prepare

So there you have it – a whistle-stop tour of all the things that will make you want to faceplant your desk if you want to publish a board game. What can we learn from today’s lesson?

Communicate: Figure out what you want, ask questions and keep it super simple to help make your life and the life of your manufacturer as easy as possible.

Plan: Financial forecasting is nobody’s idea of fun, but having a solid plan for development, production and fulfilment can be a lifesaver. Or so I’ve heard.

Prepare: That is, prepare for things to go wrong anyway! Publishing your own board game is a monumental task and if it

Roll and wrong (Topic Discussion)

The genre of roll-and-something or something-and-write or whatever else there is these days has really grown in the last few years. To start with, there was a deluge of Yahtzee-style games, but soon the genre added themes and settings to try and draw people in and make them feel like they were exploring a map or fighting monsters. In this article, I want to talk about my experiences with roll-and-write games, as I will call them from here on in for the purpose of simplicity.

I really enjoyed some of the early, more maths-based games, like Qwixx for example. It felt like a nice step away from the original Yahtzee and presented you with a clever little puzzle. These games also introduced the idea that players could all take turns at the same time, using the same dice results as everyone else. It created a feeling of playing together. These games were no longer multiplayer-solitaire.

Of course, it didn’t take long for new games in the genre to replace the dice with something else. A deck of cards allowed people to gauge what cards and therefore what numbers were left. It reduced the amount of luck to some degree. Ultimately though, you were still filling in boxes, ticking things off or otherwise writing on a piece of paper or maybe a laminated sheet.

Many of these new something-and-write games tried to inject a setting or a theme. They wanted you to number the houses in a street or to plan a tour around Europe. At the end of the day though, none of these games really conveyed the theme to me and it still all felt like you were doing your accounts. There were only a few games that I genuinely enjoyed playing more than Yahtzee.

Too Much Roll and Write

As the genre grew and more games came onto the market, the situation seemed to get worse. It was clear that publishing a roll-and-write type of game was pretty easy and not very expensive. It was a great way for established and new publishers, or self-publishers, to get their game out there without a huge amount of financial risk. The problem was, as the floodgates opened, it wasn’t just a deluge of wonderfully clean water that came through. Unfortunately, a lot of other stuff made its way down the river too.

The more roll-and-write games I tried, the more I felt I was just ticking boxes on one part of the sheet of paper to eventually tick more boxes somewhere else. Playing a roll-and-write game, at least for me, became more and more like filling in a spreadsheet. Most of the games I tried just made me want to play Yahtzee or Qwixx more.

There was a mix of games that just tried too hard and games that were clearly just rushed out without much effort. The genre started to lose its lustre. The potential it had seemed to be washed away by the sheer volume of games forcing its way onto the market.

Roll and Write Maturing

Over time, the roll-and-write genre matured. It became clear that it was time to invest a little more effort in producing good quality games. Designers did what they could to come up with new mechanisms. They did a lot of work to integrate the setting or theme from the start, rather than paste it on afterwards. I think it’s really only in the last year or so that roll-and-write games have become fun again. They finally achieved what they seemed to have tried to do at the beginning.

the roll-and-write game Aquamarine by Matthew Dunstan and Rory Muldoon by Postmark Games
Roll and write game Aquamarine by Matthew Dunstan and Rory Muldoon by Postmark Games

For example, after being hugely sceptical, I was proven very wrong when I played Aquamarine by Matthew Dunstan and Rory Muldoon by Postmark Games at UK Games Expo 2022. I expected yet another game where you roll dice, highlight areas on a piece of paper and then tick off certain special effects or bonuses, which then allow you to tick off other boxes somewhere else and so on.

However, the game is really amazing. You really feel like you’re diving down into a reef. You’re trying to observe fish and reef plants and maybe spot a sunken ship as well. Sure, you do tick off bits somewhere, for example, to track the amount of oxygen used, but it still feels very thematic. So not only is the diving mechanism really clever, you do get really engrossed in the setting. In my first dive, I really didn’t want to go down too deep and was more snorkelling than diving.

Colour Me Pink

There has also been a growth of roll-and-colour games in recent months, probably fuelled by the popularity of colouring books for grown-ups. It’s an activity I enjoyed myself and can be really calming and therapeutic. Not only that, but you also end up with a lovely little picture that you could hang on your wall.

Roll-and-colour games scratch a similar sort of itch. They also give your brain a bit of a puzzle to solve at the same time. These games also make great greeting cards, of course. Not only do you give your friend or family member a card that looks nice just in black-and-white, but you also give them a game and by the end of it they have a lovely coloured card to put on their mantlepiece.

As you can see, the genre of roll-and-write games has gone past its teething problems and is now growing and thriving. I’m really excited to see what new games come out in the next few months. I’ve gained a new respect for the genre and am keeping a keen eye on it.

What About You?

How about you though? Do you like roll-and-write or games from that genre? Did you come across really bad roll-and-write games? What are your favourites and why? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)