McPherson: Bringing my games to the table
Growing up in Saratoga Springs, I regularly played board games with my family and friends, but I never imagined that game nights would include one of my creations.
This changed in 2019 when my game “Tiny Towns” was released. It went on to win a handful of awards, including Origins Game of the Year, and has been translated into over a dozen languages.
My career as a game designer started almost by accident. In 2017, after being fired from a writing job, a position I had enjoyed, I took a chance and brought an early prototype of “Tiny Towns” to a convention in Philadelphia.
It’s a simple game about creating cities one building at a time on a small board. A handful of publishers agreed to meet and take a look, and after the convention one of them offered to publish the game. Two years later it was published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), a leading independent company in the board game industry.
Since then I’ve also released other designs, including “Wormholes”, a space travel game about connecting planets with portals, also released by AEG. This Tuesday, my new game “Fit to Print” is launched. It’s a quick puzzle game about the layout of a newspaper’s front page – inspired by my wife, Indiana Nash, who is the editor of The Daily Gazette.
I never imagined that at 30 I would be working on my own as a freelance board game designer. My father, John McPherson, worked for himself as a cartoonist behind “Close to Home” for three decades, and I grew up hoping I could have an equally creative career.
When I describe what I do for a living, people often think that modern board games are played on your phone or have a digital component, but most board games (including mine) have no element digital – just what’s in the box.
My design process, from developing an initial concept for a game to publishing, typically takes about three years. “Tiny Towns” was rare in that most of the game happened quickly and the rules didn’t change much even when working with AEG. Although “Wormholes” and “Fit to Print” took about the same amount of time from concept to pitch to publishers, they both went through more iterations and major changes. I’ll be lucky if another idea comes to me as quickly as “Tiny Towns”.
Most of my ideas start with a particular theme and experience that I want to evoke. With “Fit to Print”, I tried to create a light but frenetic play on the layout of a newspaper, drawing inspiration from my second-hand experiences from my wife’s career as a journalist and editor. chief. In “Wormholes”, I wanted players to feel like they were exploring a peaceful galaxy and traveling through space at the speed of light. I’m currently designing an antique store game where players bid on antiques, pile them up in their store, and sell them to collectors.
With my three games published, I created my first playable version as quickly and cheaply as possible. This remains one of my design rules, and it helps me work on ideas quickly and make changes without being valuable for prototypes. Almost all of my games started out as a collection of handwritten cards and parts borrowed from other games.
My wife is almost always my first game tester, although I usually play a game alone to make sure it has legs. After “Tiny Towns” survived early testing, I started showing it to friends, but these days I’m mostly testing with a local group of game designers. Anyone can be a great game tester, but testing with other game designers is more of a fair trade since we test all other people’s projects.
Once I regularly test a game, I create a print version, often using stock footage and artwork as placeholder artwork. It’s hard to tell when a game is truly finished, but once the testers start talking about strategy and seem fully engaged as they play, I get ready to pitch it to publishers.
First, I write a rulebook and ask players to learn how to play from the rules without my intervention – a difficult exercise in self-control but one that teaches me a lot about my games. Then I create a sell sheet, which is a one-page preview of a game with some photos. Finally, I contact the publishers that I think might be suitable and ask them if they are interested.
After meeting a publisher at a convention or online, it becomes a waiting game for me while they decide if they’ll take it on. If they do, I work closely with them to take the game from prototype to finished product. This means working side-by-side with a developer, who oversees rule changes to create the best experience for players. They’re often also the art director, which means I can help create the overall look of the game. Game.
My favorite part of the process is going to board game conventions and showing my finished game in front of people. It’s always weird to me that my games are played at game nights all over the world, and playing my games with people at conventions never gets old.
I have met many great people during this career and I love knowing that people enjoy playing my games with their friends and family. If I’m lucky, I hope to continue doing this for years to come.