Topic of the Week: What do publishers get wrong?

Ok. Hi! So, publishers.

Let me open with the caveat that the majority of these are clearly due to the tension between selling a game and designing/playing a game. And I get that. I can get that and still be bothered, right?

  1. Not flagging expansion materials
    Galactic Renaissance comes to mind. I’ll mention 51st State UE as well, while it has marks it is tiny text and going through to actually read each word takes a long time to separate. Old Carcassonne as well (I think new editions have icons). Isle of Skye. Maybe they intend you to just leave these in, and maybe that’s fine, but I want to at least know and have the option.

  2. Putting variable set up information IN THE MANUAL.

So, Galactic Renaissance again. Babylonia. Plenty of others. On page 5, it tells you to remove these three tiles if you have 2 players, etc. I mean, we’ve all seen how games mark setup directly on components, right? It works, right? Can we just stick to that?

  1. Prioritizing learning/first impression over play

I think what I really mean by this is using text rather than icons. Wingspan is my prime criminal here, though not alone. Text on cards makes it easier to learn a game and figure out what an unknown object does. It turns repeat play into a slog, though, as you have to read and re-read that text a dozen times. We’re invoking second order cognitive processing which takes much longer than first order. RFTG is the other end of the spectrum, almost no text. Hard to learn but a breeze to play. I think a lot of games these days do both, text + icons so you can refer to whichever part of the card/tile you need to. But some games just don’t even care about repeat players and create a high friction, high overhead space and I quickly lose patience. My expectations for playing a game I know are established by RFTG.

This goes into design as well, though. Choosing mechanics that make for a breezy and satisfying first game while removing elements that make it interesting for long-term play. Neom here is the counterexample with the ballsy move to keep disaster tiles in the game. The savvy thing would have been to have a “first game” mode without them. But first time players HATE those tiles, while they remain essential for making the game anything other than a 5 session wonder. Frequently, publishers go the other route and give you a 5 session game to keep the newbies happy.

  1. Pizazz over board state

Similar to the text vs icons minirant, this is about making the components pop rather than making a game frictionless. Making a board that looks good on a Kickstarter page. Take the Castles of Burgundy 2e monastery tiles. They prettied them up with a monastery or hobbit hole, I can’t tell which, requiring them to shrink the icons down to a point where they can hardly be read on the main board, let alone another player’s. Take the recent La Granja reprint, where they made a beautiful picture of a Spanish village and then carefully made sure that the game iconography didn’t get in the way. 1e is so…fuctional. The spots for goods are clear, the movement between them is clear. It’s a delight to play the game. 2e is pretty, but I can hardly see the central market. I don’t want the design to get in the way of the play.

Oh, another example, Babylonia again. Nice terrain map. Which spaces are water again?

  1. Box Size

Well trodden topic. Let me focus on box depth. So you want to take up shelf space and sell? I get it. You can still give me a shallow Brass box.

  1. Over-trodden Themes

I get this too. They know what sells. Know what will get elevated by an adjacent search or catch the eye of someone who likes something similar. I just wish we had more new and creative themes.

Most “brave” themes end up not selling. Sometimes someone tries something like Zoos and, behold, everyone loves it, and a new trope is born. I wish we had more diversity in themes.

  1. Required or superfluous expansions

Obviously don’t like it when an expansion is required to play the “real” game. I know often, AFFO Norwegians, Star Realms (original) Bases & Battleships the necessity of those expansions wasn’t known until the community played the game. But I don’t like buying a game and hearing that a second box is required material.

Similarly, when a game doesn’t need an expansion and no one actually has a compelling idea, but the publishers want a way to resell to existing customers. Good business. No one needs Keyflower Farmers. No one needs the last three Dominion expansions.

  1. Why always blue?

Sometimes I just want someone to do a rap song in 3/4 time. I just want a game that doesn’t have blue player pieces. I think this came up maybe 5 years or so ago and a few games went and did it - Barrage comes to mind. And this isn’t really important. Just wondering why every other color is sporadically represented by player colors but no one skips blue.

  1. Alternate modes that are actually the main mode

Barenpark comes to mind. Palaces of Cararra 2e. I get a bit frustrated when a set of rules is presented, in the manual, as “the way to play” and then there’s a little bit tacked on somewhere. Then we all discover that that little paragraph is the most important part. Please do it the other way, give me the game in its best state and then provide an alternate mode for those who want a different flavor (Oceans did it this way with the reef variant). I think I feel burdened to playtest a thing for myself, and it’s hard enough to get table time as it is. If you know, just tell me?

  1. Manuals with blind spots

Imma mention Galactic Renaissance again. I appreciate that they did, actually, provide the manual to all the backers and invite them to review the rules for errors, ambiguitites, or poortly explained things. I’m sure that helped. But when people had the actual game in front of them, actually setting it up, the forums exploded with questions. And I then wonder, did they put this game, with the prototypes they had built or samples they had printed, and this manual in front of someone with no familiarity with the game and have them learn/set it up?

This is basic business. My old company sent school supplies to families. We had local families come to the office and the team watched them unbox. Asked them what was confusing. Noted what was damaged. On and on.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. And the arising questions are so obvious. It shows that the only people reviewing the manual and game, in its full state, were people who were already familiar with it.

Just… just do it right. Find one gamer. Sit with them while they learn and unbox. Is it so hard?

  1. Have we complained about Kickstarter yet?

I don’t know why I pay more for kickstarter. I just overpaid for Lords of Vegas. A while back I paid $51, shipped, for Ra only to see it sold for $30, free shipping, at retailers.

Rough math, if a game’s MSRP is $100, retailers will sell it for $85 or $90 (let’s take the higher number). They can then afford to run sales down to about $77. Free shipping at about this point, average for number of zones and corporate rates and we’ll say $67 net revenue. This retailer needs their profit margin, which we can keep tight at 3%, but also to cover their own expenses. All to say, the publisher is able to deliver this game to a retailer for $50-$60, shipped. I’m aware of the palletized shipping vs. residential shipping and all that, but I should be able to buy that same game for $80, shipped, with the publisher making more money than they would by selling to the retailer. Instead, they charge me $90 plus $20-30 shipping.

They do this because we keep buying. Can’t blame them, I’d do the same. But I’m bothered because it doesn’t have to be this way. I’d like to buy direct and have it be a win-win.

Oh, and also don’t bundle in a $0.20 piece of plastic and tell me it retails for $8 so I’m “getting value.” Sheesh.

My fault for buying.


It became easy for me, because I’m in the UK. The international shipping for most games just made the money HUGELY not worth it. I can save 50% by waiting for retail and taking the game home on the bus.

I stand by what I said a few years ago now, if I’m helping you create a game that hasn’t been mass-tested or reviewed, and the components and rules may change before I get it, and I have to wait 12 months, the discount I’m getting should be absolutely enormous. If not, I wait for reviews and retail. I am much happier since I started doing this.


I’ve been testing out a new theory to not buy any game that isn’t at least 3 years old. Early results are very promising.


Because otherwise my wife won’t play?


It’s her preferred color, and helps her remember which pieces are hers if she is always blue. Doesn’t always work, as some games such as Chinatown don’t have a blue color, but if there is a blue option, she always gets it.


I think I used to go to KS and Gamefound for the discount/early bird excitement. Which are factors that either have been lost due to courier costing or games developing at a speed that ends up not being advantageous at all, or just the fact that having a game two weeks/a month earlier than the shops is not worth the cost.

I just would go there now to support creators that may need the help. And given how little I am checking those up these days, I have hardly backed anything since Flamecraft came up.


To branch off from this a bit, state that you have to keep in your head. This is most obvious in classic wargames, where you may get to activate all 20 of your units in turn, but there’s no way of looking at a unit and working out whether it’s been activated. And you can’t even do left to right top to bottom, because sometimes you want to use particular units first.

A game that fixes this: Flash Point Fire Rescue. When I’ve been demoing, players often ask “can I pick up that victim from the other firefighter”. Yes you can, because there’s no rules artefact of “victim being carried”—if they’re in a square with one or more ffs, any of those ffs can choose to carry them when they move, or not.

FFG seem to be the masters of shaving this close: you can buy the core box of X-Wing or Arkham Horror LCG or arguably even the original Outer Rim and you get what they said you’d get, but you really want expansions to play the game as it’s meant to be played.

At this point my KS backs are:

  • won’t be readily available anywhere else (Haggis and Tricktakers, Forks, String Railway)
  • shiny shiny cards (Sentinels of the Multiverse Disparation) which on the basis of Rook City Renegades will get me the game about two weeks early and cost a little more than retail.

This example highlights where I’m used to something. X-wing this seems natural state as it’s a miniatures game to me. GW doing starter boxes are good value but it’s not a good or even whole game and arguably they are the pioneers of that in the war games world. Prior mini and rules manufacturers were often separate entities. I don’t think it’s right but it did interest me to see my reaction was pretty much ‘but that’s normal’. I suppose the benefit is it allows you to choose your set piece meal to suit your tastes so you don’t get superfluous stuff. Down side the things they’re selling are often on the more expensive end. opposed the starter set is often a disappointing shadow of what a full game is. Maybe the balance there is that for someone completely new to the concepts it’s more achievable to play a game and track the information needed in game.


At least FFG have moved on from the LCG trope of “you need to buy 3 core boxes of the game in order to get the x3 cards you need for a competitive hand” that they used to do with Game of Thrones 2nd ed etc.

Any player who wanted to play another human pretty much had to spend £100+ on 3x core boxes or just lose. (Nice to see that not apply to Marvel Champions, hopefully it’s gone for good now).


Yeah, of those games I played X-Wing first and pretty much expected to buy more—but the core box did actually give some idea of what the full game might be like.


I guess that’s a tough balance for a publisher. Give enough of the game in a core box cheap enough to get you playing vs and expensive box with lots of stuff with lower sales.