Monday, September 27, 2010


I am struck by the difference between the video game industry and tabletop game industry with respect to game "post-mortems". A postmortem examining what went right and what went wrong in the production of a video game is very common. I don't recall ever seeing something called a post-mortem for tabletop game, and rarely see anything like one.

Why the difference? Is it because for tabletop games you keep testing it until you've got it right? Whereas in video games usually constrained by a deadline and almost never have enough time to "get it right". But that doesn't prevent us from producing a lot of weak and sometimes just plain awful tabletop games. Maybe the difference in production budgets has a lot more to do with it. Publishing a small or even medium-sized tabletop game is a matter of five or low six figures of dollars. Only Hasbro or a collectible card game publisher is likely to spend as much as $1 million to produce a tabletop game. Well-known video games now cost in the tens of millions. When that much money is being spent, a postmortem can save a lot of money on the next game. Further, video games are usually the work of a group of people, whereas the design of a tabletop game is usually the work of one person with the assistance of playtesters, and the entire production only involves a few artists and perhaps an editor as well.

It is likely that the major topic for a postmortem of a tabletop game would be production errors or ways that the publisher change the game for better or worse. Designers would say, usually worse.

In fact, I suppose this reflects the difference that the video game industry manufactures complicated software, while the tabletop industry manufactures (mostly) simple games.


Russ Williams said...

An excellent and interesting question!

I suspect you are right, that it boils down to the higher costs of video games being a stronger incentive to try improving the process in a more serious professional way.

Some boardgame publishers make the same mistakes over and over, ignoring the "best practices" that are evolving and becoming more common.

E.g. making the rules to an upcoming game available online, so that interested players can give feedback and corrections before the game is published, is becoming more and more common. Yet some publishers who have been blasted for error-ridden confusing rules still fail to do this, even when fans explicitly ask to see the rules before-hand to help give feedback.

Paul D. Owen said...

You know, Russ, maybe I'm paranoid, but I'm always surprised when I see rules for upcoming games posted online. I would be reluctant to post my own rules online, particularly if I've come up with something I think is innovative that I'm afraid someone else will "appropriate" and use in their own game.

Russ Williams said...

Paul, I've seen lots of threads on this subject at BGG. I think it is like how many amateur fiction writers are (unrealistically) paranoid about their ideas getting stolen.

But the consensus seems to be that rulebook itself is of course protected by copyright, and that while ideas are not protected, that doesn't usually matter because:

- Ideas are a dime a dozen; the consumer wants to buy a completely implemented product, not an idea. There's almost never some truly new idea. Great games are usually new combinations of existing ideas.

- The ideas of an upcoming game are already publicly known anyway, if it has any kind of reasonable marketing / buzz-building / etc.

- In practice game theft almost never occurs (and the main exceptions I'm aware of seem to involve small companies in third world countries, not established boardgame publishers or designers). Boardgame designers and companies want to make their OWN games, not rip off yours.

- If someone really does want to rip off your game, they can just as well do it from a paper copy anyway. :)

Meanwhile, the benefits of providing rules online seem pretty clear:

- Much better rules with fewer rules errors, holes, ambiguities, language and layout errors, etc. Which means happier customers AND lower costs after shipping (less customer support and FAQ writing).

- Pre-release excitement and publicity.

- Ongoing customer goodwill and loyalty.

Lewis said...

If it's fairly clear that the game is going to go into production "soon", I don't see any problem with posting the rules. I wonder how often that would actually elicit useful comments, though.

There's hardly any idea used in a game that hasn't been used before, though the players (and even the designer) may not know of the previous use.

Russ Williams said...

Here's a couple of recent eurogame examples I've noticed where useful corrections and feedback came immediately after the rules went online, and the rules were revised/improved as a result:

And it seems a VERY common situation with wargames - many of the wargame designers and publishers do it. (E.g. the ongoing designer diaries of Bowen Simmons solicit feedback on the rules as well as graphic design etc.)

More eyes catch more mistakes! :)