The Business of Board Games

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Alex Yeager is Vice-President of Product Acquisition and Development for Mayfair Games®, which for more than 30 years has published a variety of board and card games. A fan of games through school and college, he started volunteering for game companies twenty years ago, while working in the automotive marketing research field. Alex started working full-time for Mayfair in 2005. He was also the announcer for the University of Toledo (his alma mater) Rocket Marching Band for over two decades. He lives in Ypsilanti Michigan with too many toys, not enough pets, and just enough wives (his wife Julie concurs).

Q: What does the VP of Product Acquisition and Development for a gaming company do every day? What is your favorite part of your job?

A: I get to wear a lot of hats. My primary responsibilities are to find games for us to publish, and then work with those games and their designers to get them ready for market. I also oversee our online video podcasts, help with marketing materials, do demonstrations of our games at conventions, and more.

Every day, I get to work with people from around the world, on games that they have passionately created and then allowed us to potentially share with the world. I get to help choose what games we will publish, make those games better, and then get others to be excited about those games. It really is the best job in the world!

Q: How do the packaging and design of a game influence its appeal? Any new design features in box packaging that helps simplify the gaming experience?

A: The box art is critical to the first impression that a consumer will get about a game. For a game of ours like World Without End (based on the Ken Follett novel), we have a beautiful painted cover that transports players back to the setting of the book. And, to mirror that type of image, the box features a linen box wrap (a textured type of paper) that give the image the type of texture reminiscent of a painting on canvas.

Another example from our catalog is Villainy. The game imagines you as a wannabe supervillain, hoping to get good enough to take on the town superhero. The cover image is modeled after a classic comic book style, and for that box, we used a glossy finish that is similar to what you might see on a comic book cover. We try very hard to take into account both the visual presentation and the use of the piece, as part of the overall package of the game.

We can also provide a lot of information about the game on the box back. We try to include a full component shot so that you can see all of the pieces in the box, and a retailer can use the picture on the back to talk about the game and how it works. You’ll learn a bit about the gameplay, how many players the game allows, the length of time that the game takes, and the suggested age range for players. You can’t open a box when it’s on a store shelf, so everything that we can put onto a box that will convince you to buy the game is important!

We have many tools at our disposal. We can use different papers, different thicknesses of cardboard tiles, different levels of the durability of the card, and other elements like wooden or plastic pieces to give the game a consistent look that’s appropriate to the theme, and will allow the game to last for years. It’s one of the best things about board games: they can be used over and over again!

Q: What’s the most important lesson games with friends can teach you? What do you learn about yourself or others when you play games with them?

A: There’s a famous quote by Plato: “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” The social interaction that you experience with face-to-face gaming goes beyond just having fun–you can read a person’s body language, their casual conversation, and the way that they approach their actions in the game to learn how they play a game, and, by extension, how they approach challenges and conflict in their real life. It’s not a surprise that some Silicon Valley companies use games as part of their interview process!

But, none of this would work if this isn’t an enjoyable experience. It’s the chance to stretch your mind by giving it a problem that changes throughout the game based on the rules and the other players, and it gives you the satisfaction of executing your plans, to the best of your ability, towards a goal that is at the same time important and meaningless. You want to win, and you will ideally win or lose based on your skill (and perhaps a bit of luck), but winning is only important in the context of your game. Your life continues, win or lose, so making the experience as enjoyable as possible is where a good game–and a good game presenter–shines.

Q: What is the best innovation and/or trend you’ve seen impact the board game industry?

A: Print-and-play games are games that designers (and sometimes companies) use to quickly test games, or allow a large pool of players the chance to create a copy of a game and provide feedback that would be impractical by creating dozens, or even hundreds, of prototype games. These are files that allow you to print the specific board, card and paper elements that are required to play the game, and then list the rest of the materials needed to play the game (such as dice, tokens, or other physical components).

For publishers, we use these files to get materials out to many testing groups simultaneously and to revise game materials quickly during testing. For designers, sometimes their ultimate goal is to only release their game in a print-and-play format, simply to let people play their game and to create conversations about the designer and other games that they have created.

Over the three decades that I’ve been watching the game industry grow, it’s watching the way people use the simple technology of, say, a playing card for its maximum value. For example, playing cards as a randomizer of results has been used for centuries: receive a number of cards, and then interact with others based on what cards you have (and how good or bad they are in the game). Then, cards became multi-purpose. Cards could be used as the board for a game, in addition to a randomizer. Cards could have different uses based on the orientation of the cards in your hand, or allow you to use one side of the card while opponents use the reverse side of those same cards.

Collectible card games (games where you buy packs of cards blind, and then use the cards you have obtained to create your game experience) demonstrated how beautiful art and complex gameplay could become very profitable. And, in the last few years, there are games that turn even that experience on its head–so-called deckbuilder games that provide a set of cards, and your game is the process of building a deck to play during the game. The winner builds a deck that would be the starting point for a “traditional” collectible card game!

This all may sound a bit detailed, but the moral of the story is that game designers are leading a wave of reimagining what a game component looks like, and how it can be used. Can you make your game board, or your pieces, or even your rules, something that has never been made before? For game designers, you can push the boundaries of paper, cardboard and plastic as far as technology, and your imagination can carry you.

Q: Why do you think board games have staying power in the digital age?

A: There is simplicity to playing a paper-based board or card game, and allowing the static information presented by them to stimulate the creative elements of your brain. In a board game, you’re not just accepting information – you’re offered the opportunity to imagine and process information at your own pace. Electronic media and devices surround us–we check our phone regularly and our jobs often require constant attention to computer screens, but games continue to offer a form of escapism. They’re also a social activity.

The experience of playing a game face-to-face, and using social cues, body language, and the spontaneity of human interaction as part of gameplay, can be a terrific part of the experience. And, of course, board games are typically easy to pull off a shelf at a moment’s notice, last for a predictable length of time, and can be put away again, ready to play again at a moment’s notice (and you always have the right operating system)!

Q: How has the board game industry changed in the last two decades? Where do you see it going in the next decade?

A: In 1996, a little game called The Settlers of Catan® (which was already a sensation in Germany) came out from our company in English for the first time. Since then, the world has been introduced to a wide range of board and card games, both going back into gaming history for classic, loved games, and an explosion of new designers and companies creating innovative takes on familiar designs.

For the next decade, I think we’ll see board and card gaming in a physical space (as opposed to digital gaming) continuing to increase in size, with designers finding new ways to integrate modern elements and tools into the game experience, without losing the tactile experience of a physical board or card game.