How do publishers decide which components to use for a game? These days, the possibilities are almost limitless, with many factories having a huge range of in-house products and the ability to outsource for unusual components when necessary. With such an enormous blank slate, how do you even start deciding which components will work for your game?
This side of publishing has been a slow learning process for me. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a rules and play experience guy. I don’t really care about components. But getting more involved in the industry, I’ve learned that components really matter to a lot of people. Plus, they have have a significant impact on play experience.
Today I’ll discuss some of the considerations that go into making decisions about components. This article goes out to all the new publishers out there.
It’s All About the Benjamins
Let’s start where the buck stops: ultimately, most of your decisions will be made for you based on how much money you have to spend. If you can afford nicer components, you’ll have to decide on which components you’ll include, but that’s not a luxury everyone has. At the end of the day, having a game with low quality components is (almost always) better than having no game at all.
Now don’t get me wrong: component quality will have an impact on how successful a game is. Nicer components will get people more excited about a game, and shoddy components will turn people off. But the lowest quality option is often the best place to start when determining which components to go with.
This is especially true in the era of Kickstarter and stretch goals. Stretch goals are a controversial topic. Some people hate them, but almost everyone gets excited by them. I personally think some stretch goals are totally inappropriate and dangerous for the publisher, but others can be used effectively. And the most effective, straight forward types of stretch goals are component upgrades. This allows a publisher to basically guarantee a game with low quality components, but make a much better product if there is real interest from consumers.
Low quality components are only one way to keep component cost down. Other options include sticking with standard components, and minimizing the different type of components you use in your game. For example, using normal poker sized cards is cheaper than using a custom size, and sticking with all cards tends to be cheaper than having some cards and some tokens.
But let’s assume that money isn’t an issue. How do you decide which components to go with?
Physicality and durability. The first consideration is how the components will be used. For example, in some games, cards are repeatedly shuffled, revealed with a little too much enthusiasm, or even thrown across the table. In such games, upgrading the card quality can make a big difference, significantly prolonging the lifespan of a game. In other games, cards are only shuffled once a game and are left peacefully on the table. Here, it might make more sense to dedicate resources to improving other components.
Often times, you will have many options for component types for a given game piece. For example, workers in a game could be cards, tokens, or wooden or plastic bits. How can you decide which works best? Some considerations might be obvious. For example, cards can contain a lot more information than tokens or bits. They can also easily be shuffled without an extra component like a bag, and can contain hidden information more easily than tokens or bits. But other considerations are less obvious. Cards are more difficult to pick up than tokens, which are more difficult to pick up than bits. Bits tend to be easier to see from across the table, and it’s difficult to see how many cards are in a stack, which might be a good or a bad thing. Cards also tend to take up more table space. Consider all options for all game pieces. How will players use them? What would be the most natural fit that will result in the smoothest experience?
Perceived value. Another consideration is the perceived value of your components. For example, custom meeples tend to be very popular with gamers, so a game with them will be inherently more attractive than a game with tokens. In Corporate America, I chose to include a custom Washington Monument figure partially for this reason. While it did fulfill some important functions (it guides players towards the currently relevant deck), it’s also a cool, unique component that players get excited about.
Taken to an extreme, some custom components are enough to sell games by themselves. Tzolk’in comes to mind here. While the game itself is solid, what makes the game stand out from the many other similar worker placement games are the cool custom gears. And don’t get me started on miniature games–most miniature gamers couldn’t care less what the rules of a game are; they’re just in it for the cool components.
Necessity. Some games have unusual pieces that have strange constraints, and you might have to settle on a component whether you want to or not. The money in Corporate America is a good example of this. Mini-cards were not cheap, but the money needed to be one sided and easy to manipulate, so I couldn’t use traditional paper money, a track, or thick tokens.
Availability. It may seem like the sky is the limit, but there are still limitations to what can physically be produced. This is becoming less true every year, with production technology getting better and better, but for the time being certain components in certain materials simply aren’t feasible, especially when time and money restraints are taken into account.
Communicating component relationships. It’s generally cheaper to reuse the same type of component, but including different types of components can make a lot of sense when game pieces will be used in different ways. For example, if some type of game piece will be held in a hand while others will only be shuffled and revealed, it can help with organizing, setting up, and playing the game if those components are physically different, such as different sized cards or cards and tokens.
Game weight. Another important consideration is how serious the game is, and how expensive you want it to be. If a game is supposed to be a casual 15 minute experience, it probably doesn’t make sense to include large numbers of miniatures or even wooden bits. Consider your audience and how your game will be played, and meet expectations on component type and quality.
Once you’ve figured out the game components, you have one more tough choice: what kind of box should it come in? In many ways, the same considerations are taken as with the actual components: you probably want to keep things cheap, but as nice as you can afford. You want the box to match the weight of your game, and want it to fit in with how you expect the game to be used (making it small if it’s quick and you expect players to travel with it, etc). And at all costs, avoid a tuck box, please.
But boxes come with their own considerations. Potential customers will judge your game just by looking at the box, so is important that it the box communicates what type of game is inside. Many gamers rarely play their games, but proudly display them; make sure your box is something people would be proud to show off. And the box better make people want to buy the game.
If money were the only consideration, you’d always want to go with the smallest box size possible. Small boxes require less material and are therefore cheaper to produce. But more importantly, smaller boxes take up less space, potentially netting you big savings when shipping your game to Kickstarter backers or web shoppers.
I learned this the hard way with Corporate America. I chose the box size almost arbitrarily, just making it easy for me to print myself. Unfortunately, that led to a fairly awkward size that cost a lot to ship. For Shadow Throne, I wised up and made the box just small enough to fit in a small flat rate US postal service box. That made shipping much simpler and cheaper.
You might be wondering why you often see games in boxes much bigger than the components require. There are three main reasons for this.
First, some publishers plan expansions and want the base game box to be big enough for all future products. Many publishers plan expansions, but honestly, it’s sadly not realistic for most games. Unless you’re a big, established publisher, I don’t think this is a good reason to make your game’s box oversized.
Second, big boxes are easier to see on the shelf. A big box basically translates into advertising, and with game store shelves as full as they are these days, that can make a big difference.
Finally, there’s perceived value. I’m just going to come out and say it: consumers equate size with value. A big game seems more valuable than a small game, even if the big game is mostly hot air (literally). And a publisher can get away with charging more for a game that people perceive as more valuable. So even though a bigger box might cost more, it allows publishers to charge even more.
One more piece of advice about boxes: keep them boxes. I’ve heard from game collectors, shops, and publishers that irregular boxes just aren’t worth the trouble. Ideally, they would attract attention and make your game stand out, but in practice they just make the game cumbersome and awkward. Stick with rectangles.
That’s all the time I have for this article, but in reality I’ve barely scratched the surface about component choices. There are so many options these days, and different publishers have very different expectations and values when it comes to deciding what a game should actually be made of. External limitations, be they financial or technological, will always dictate the choice to some degree, but more and more publishers can create whatever they want. At the end of the day, preference is often the deciding factor.
I would like to thank my generous Patrons for the support and encouragement that made this article possible.