SCG Daily – Designer’s Journal #3: Lessons of the Past

Whether a game is great or not certainly matters – that’s obviously a big source of demand – but it is far from the only consideration in determining whether something is a great product.

Before going on to the main topic of today’s piece, I want to address some forum questions from yesterday.


I’ve always been hesitant to use this term because the implication is that we’re trying to force people to become repeat buyers. CCGs do this by making new sets necessary to continue playing the game at anything outside the casual level. Many wargames do this with “power creep” whereby new sets are just better than old ones, or by reissuing armies such that old ones are actually invalid. One rather famous miniatures wargame has done both.

Our approach is quite different. We are committed to making sure that our starting armies are valid – both legally and practically – for serious/tournament play for as long as Battleground exists. If you buy an Orc army today and bring it to a tournament five years from now, no one will have you outgunned simply because your army is old.

We’re also committed to keeping our cards balanced, so that you don’t have to buy tons of cards in order to field the best army your faction can create. If you buy an Orc Starter and your friend buys an Orc Reinforcements deck, he’ll have more design options than you do but he won’t have more “power cards” than you do because there aren’t any – or, rather, the power cards are appropriately expensive in points to keep them balanced.

So why do I talk about subscribers at all?

Our goal is to create a situation in which a large number of our customers choose to buy each new army as it comes out – not because they have to, but because they want to. Naïve? Perhaps… but it fits with our overall product strategy.

One of the big problems facing CCGs and miniatures games (and any game with the word “collectible” in it) is that customers know it’s going to cost them a lot of money, regardless of how much it costs to get started. Like recovering addicts who hear, “The first one’s free,” we know what comes next. By stepping out of that “forced subscriber” model, we make it a lot easier for someone to try Battleground.

The next question becomes, “Once someone has tried Battleground and liked it enough to keep playing, will they bother to pick up new armies?” We think the answer is yes.

Look at how we all get when a new Magic set approaches. We want to see the art, we want to explore the new mechanics, we want to draft it – we’re ready for some new content in the old game. The same thing should be true for Battleground, provided we execute well. Then, if someone wants to try out a new army, the same value proposition – $15 to play, $30 for a ton of units – makes it pretty likely that they will.

Battleground is not a CCG

This seems to be a common misconception, even when I explain otherwise. Battleground is a miniatures game, but with cards representing units instead of painted figures. Other than being in two dimensions rather than three, it’s structurally identical to any other unit-based miniatures game. Specifically:

  • Cards are not random. Each Starter deck has exactly the same 18 units as any other Starter for that army. Each Reinforcement deck has excatly the same 50 units as any other Reinforcement deck.

  • Unless we screw up, no card will be strictly better than any other card. That’s not to say that an army comprised entirely of one unit type will be as good as a mixed army. Designing an army in which the units work effectively is a vital part of the game! But this isn’t a game with “power rares” that a player must chase down to be competitive. (I recognize that many miniatures games do create deliberate imbalance between units; my point is merely that all CCGs do so.)

Now, on with our regularly scheduled discussion.

Yesterday we looked at Battleground from the perspective of the customer – or rather, from our perspective as we tried to look at it from the perspective of the customer. When you’re selling games, however, you have three different layers of customers – distributors, retailers and finally players.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to treat retailers and distributors as the same thing – under the name channel. They do differ somewhat, but the key distinction is that players want a great game; channel wants a great product.

A retailer has many limited resources – money to invest in inventory, shelf space for display, table space to support players and staff time to demo new games. She therefore has to decide how to allocate those resources among all the products she can sell.

Whether a game is great or not certainly matters – that’s obviously a big source of demand – but it is far from the only consideration in determining whether something is a great product.

Let’s take a look at Succession, my first game. Assuming it’s a great game, is it a great product? Not really. At $39.95 per copy, it’s on the expensive side. It’s a one-shot purchase and it’s a conventional board game, so selling it to one person isn’t likely to cause follow-on sales via word of mouth. That means any investment a store makes in selling it has limited benefits. Succession is also tricky to demo; it plays best with 4-5 people and needs a full table to play on, so you’re not exactly going to demo it at the counter.

Succession has some good points as a product. The Phil Foglio art gives the game some pull with a fairly large fan base; more than one store ordered it purely because they knew they could sell a copy or two to the local Foglio fanatic. We also managed to create above-average buzz for the game by getting a number of reviewers to write about it – fortunately for us, most of those reviews were positive. All things considered, however, Succession is at best an OK product.

Space Station Assault has some advantages over Succession. It’s cheaper – at $14.95 it makes a reasonable impulse purchase. It’s extremely easy to demo – several store owners have told me they keep a copy by the counter because it’s so easy to show the game to anyone they think might like it. But it’s still a one-shot purchase, and nothing really special as a product.

Naturally, we want to do better with Battleground: Fantasy Warfare.

Battleground starts off extremely well. It’s a new category within a sizeable market. There are at least a million people buying miniature wargames, and they spend a lot of money – Games Workshop alone has annual sales of over $200 million. Battleground also has all the advantages we’ve discussed regarding price and convenience, so there’s good reason for a store to think it can get players to try it out.

Those advantages are inherent in the game – Rob’s genius idea leads naturally to a great product. There is so much more to be done, however, to make it as good a product as possible. Some steps involve decisions that play directly into game design, while others are more independent.

From a game design perspective, one of Rob’s starting ideas was that a standard game of Battleground should be playable on half of a normal game-store card table. Play space is a tight resource for most stores, and most miniatures games require much larger table spaces, requiring stores to dedicate special tables or else bring out large wooden boards.

Battleground takes up no more play space than a CCG. That means that a store that is considering Battleground knows that it can support leagues or tournaments without giving up too much space per player or doing a lot of preparation work.

Pricing had to be looked at from a retailer’s perspective as well. The cheaper the product the easier it is to sell – but the less money you get for selling it. Since our overall design (balanced cards, non-random decks) means most avid players will still spend only $30 per army, we had to do the math on whether it’s worth it for a store to really push Battleground or whether we’d created something that’s worth carrying but not supporting with, for example, leagues.

We think that $15 a deck is enough to make the game worth supporting – and in a year I’ll be able to tell you if we were right! The basic math is that a “subscriber” will spend $120 a year on new armies. A store’s cost of goods is 50%, so that’s income of $60 – ignoring sales of things like terrain and the traffic generated by any support activities.

Finally we looked at packaging. Originally we planned on booster packs instead of a Reinforcement deck – each booster would have exactly one each of the twelve units in an army. Ultimately we decided against this for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was not wanting to send a wrong signal to the channel; a store that takes on a CCG will typically stock far more booster boxes than starter boxes, whereas with Battleground you’re likely to sell more Starters.

Another aspect to packaging was the size of display boxes. The standard size is around 12 decks, so naturally we could have launched with two display boxes (one for Starters, one for Reinforcements) containing four each of the launch armies. This had a lot of appeal – four seemed like a pretty safe number for a store to take on, and it kept the total inventory commitment to $180 – I’m a big fan of us keeping that below $200.

There was an obvious problem, though – one that anyone who has sold or even paid attention to Magic preconstructed decks will be familiar with. If you sell three different products in one package, you put your channel in an awkward spot when one of those three outsells the others. The last thing we want is a store that sells out of Undead to decide not to reorder because they’ve still got two Men of Hawkshold decks.

We decided to shoulder some extra expense and package each deck in its own small display box. This means that retailers avoid the above problem which makes Battleground much more attractive as a product.

A final tweak to the packaging – one that we also did for Space Station Assault – is the inclusion of hang tabs on the wrapping of each individual deck. This opens up the retailer’s display options – instead of just shelves or counterspace, they can use pegs. In general we think this is always worth it for deck games – we do a lot to keep costs down, but adding this convenience for retailers seems worth the pennies. In the case of Battleground, however, it’s even more appropriate since at least some retailers may want to display us with their miniatures games.

As you can see, thinking about your game as a product leads to a lot of decisions that hopefully enhance its value to a retailer. Some of them go directly to the game itself, like our standard play area. Others, like using hang tabs, can be invisible to the end customer but improve your product significantly. If you ever decide to produce and sell your own games, there may be no better advice I can give than to make sure you think of your game not merely as a game… but as a product.

Hugs ’til next time,