Panic Mode cover showing burning computer and back showing description of game

First, news!

I have such happy news about Panic Mode. I worked so hard for so long, and finally the game is actually printed and in my hands. It was on the ocean for awhile, then it was stuck at the port in LA for a bit, then it was on a train to Chicago where it enjoyed some downtime, then it got on a truck for its final journey to me. Like It Follows. Just always there, moving toward me.

This was amazing progress and I am thrilled with it. But I also want to talk about decisions and pressures that are suddenly unavoidable. And I want to share some of the hidden challenges with you, in case it is helpful or helps you prepare or gives you a giggle or anything.

Note: I hired a very talented artist and a couple of graphic designers when creating Panic Mode. The rest was just me. I am unlikely to represent the difficulties of the artists because I did not go through it.

Here’s the thing about making a game all by yourself: you are a designer, a publisher, a project manager, a marketer, a researcher. You need artistry, passion, resourcefulness, urgency, patience, sanity. On the worst days, each of these things represents a tiny fist that is punching you, all along the way. You are getting tiny, little challenges – not enough to give up but just enough to constantly feel unfit and over it.

The following examination is so strictly related to my Panic Mode! game (and my personality) as to be ridiculous. But when I was researching tabletop games and Kickstarter campaigns, I adored any highly transparent post that I found. This process was not easy, and my goal is to set an expectation for whoever may find this post, that there are three hundred little issues waiting to drown you the entire time. There are probably three hundred more in front of me!

But believe me: if I can do this, you can too.

Part 0: context for my perspective

  • I am not a game designer, I just made a game! I am not looking to change jobs or start a game design company. I was not testing the waters. I am invested in my game, but my worst case scenario is an anecdote and not my livelihood. This game is my contribution, and I don’t feel like I fit in this world. And this is the post of an outsider.

Part 1: game design

  • You need an idea. That’s the first step. If you have one, great! If you don’t, I always find constraints to be fuel for my creativity. What is something you love that no one else does, and how can you make a game out of it? What is a topic that needs more awareness and could help the world, and how can you make a game out of it?
  • So then you have to care enough to move forward. You made a thing and it might have been tested in a limited scene, and then what? Who will remember a week from now? You have to care enough, and cling to every single encouragement you get, to move forward.
  • OK so you decided to do this. Now how does this game work, exactly? And how does it not work, exactly? You need to settle any disagreements between mechanics and theme, maybe even introduce new ways of accomplishing a goal, new win conditions, stressors and relief, etc etc.
    • Designer Diaries are a great way to get into a designer’s head. Board Game Geek is full of them, as are many Kickstarter updates. You can start to back Kickstarter games you appreciate at $1 level (if they offer it) to get more insight into the process, even if you don’t plan to crowdfund.
  • Also logistics. If this is something I am planning to work on, what tool should I use? And why is it so hard? Surely there is something better. Surely there is something that will help me get a head start for sending to manufacturers or even prototyping.
    • The general rule of thumb here is to be brief and perfunctory during early playtesting. Use whatever you got and whatever works. Index cards, crayons, Excel, Word, whatever. Just be nimble.
    • But when you get further, use Photoshop or InDesign if you have those skills. Use Inkscape (it’s free and was more intuitive to my brain). Use Nandeck which I understand takes a bit to learn but saves you time in the end. I used Inkscape until I was forced into the Adobe suite, but that was in publishing.
  • OK got that down, now just have to create more content. Panic Mode involved a lot of writing, and I spent a lot of time writing more and more cards. My first prototype was an adorable 47 cards or so. I had more serious playtesting around 150, but eventually something in my dumb head decided 250 was where I needed to be.
  • You still have to care enough to finish. Limit your, “I will get to that later. No one is waiting for this. I will do it so soon.” Or is that just me?
  • You need help to edit. And to make the design sing and dance. Be ready to ‘kill your darlings,’ as most designers put it. And everything needs to be tracked in a game, or don’t even go there. At some point I had the amount of cards I intended but some were awesome, some were great, some were okay, and some were bad. I for sure needed to rewrite a lot of the stinkers. So I did card sorting but needed more than myself, the author. Pull in people around you.
  • OK but while I figure out what I am rewriting I need to determine how frequently wins happen. And I need to decide how much I care and whether I have a target. I need to figure out if the game is fun and resonates with people. And so do you. You need playtesting.
    • If you are still using early versions of your game be prepared to determine which feedback is truly about your game design and which can be addressed in a more graphic-designed version. And which to discard, because they just didn’t get it. And which you accept. And which you need to listen to and adjust.
    • I gave a lot of deference to theme in my game.
  • At this point my rules were…okay. But I needed to simplify them and fit them onto a limited space. And I hoped they made sense. But the real test for rules is blind playtesting.
    • Blind playtesting means someone plays your game without you or someone else familiar with the game there to explain any issues or rules. Just strangers and your game and rules as written. The game needs to stand on its own. It can be brutal, but it is critical. I hear video or audio can be helpful for designers in this step, though I didn’t do that myself.
  • I also needed someone to tell me when enough was enough, and to ship it. At some point you have to be done.
  • OK it’s really coming together! But it looks like shit! I needed an artist, so how do I find someone that can make these illustrations and help make my game come to life?
    • Only pay for art if you are going through with self-publishing, and consider this an investment of your own. Don’t factor this money into what you need to make back or it will skew your numbers. You seriously have to care a lot.
    • Also don’t offer an artist a percentage of your revenue for payment. That’s like asking for work up front with no pay, and it’s offensive. Art and graphic design is a service and you pay for it.
  • OK this looks so good. So now what?
  • Go ahead and throw it up on Board Game Geek. Common advice says to do this early, and it won’t hurt. If it feels too early, no biggie, just keep revisiting this item on the checklist so you get it done when you can.

Part 2: game funding

  • To begin with, you need to do your homework to figure out approximate cost. Once you have an established game (you already designed it by now, OR GO BACK TO START) then you can email manufacturers to get quotes. You can ask them to provide you with a rough weight for your game that you can then use to ask Fulfillment centers the cost of shipping. Freight costs across the ocean is more difficult, but there are websites that will provide a rough estimate based on your very rough weight estimates.
    • Speculation here, but all of the manufacturers I reached out to for quotes (a handful) asked me to tell them more about my game. I always got really responsive replies, and it’s probably because I provided a link to a print and play, and they knew I was a real prospective client. Make sure you do this step when you can provide real evidence like a print and play, photos of playtesting, a prototype, things like that.
    • Main costs are manufacturing + freight + shipping (if you have backers). I strongly encourage you to leave your own time and that of artists out of this equation.
    • Panic Mode was printed by Longpack and they were great. Their minimum order quantity (MOQ) was 1,000 as of that point in time, they were great to work with, wonderful experience. I traded emails early on with Panda, and they were lovely too. Their MOQ was high for me at 1,500.
    • I worked with Quartermaster Logistics to get a shipping quote prior to my Kickstarter campaign launch. This tells me approximately how much it will cost me to ship to backers from specific points in the globe. But there are still freight costs.
      • Note: even though I had <100 backers I still had a few comments and direct messages about the high cost of shipping. There is so much pressure to get your Kickstarter goal as low as possible as it is, and you likely have zero wiggle room for shipping. In fact I think one of the variables to take down the most successful campaigns is shipping, where they tried to bake it in and eventually couldn’t keep up. Be so confident in your estimates. You can’t control shipping.
    • I actually way over-estimated my freight costs based on dire warnings. I’m not sure there’s a great way to estimate this in advance. I paid way less than expected to get 1,000 units from Shanghai to my door step in rural Wisconsin with a gate lift. And it was not my cheapest option, but it was the easiest. I think my campaign goal was way higher than it should have been, because I was just guessing on a lot of it and trying to build shipping into it. I don’t recommend either of those things. I do recommend reaching out to a logistics company super early to see what swag estimates they can give you. Worst case, I think a common rule of thumb is assume $1.50 per game for freight.
  • To crowdfund or not to crowdfund, that is the question. I decided to Kickstart my game very early on. The most valuable part of this decision is that there is a wealth of information around crowdfunding preparation that is much harder to find if you decide to go it alone.
  • You can also decide not to fund, and just to sell your game design to a publisher. I don’t know anything about this myself, but people do it all the time. Game conventions have speed dating around this type of thing, publishers will let their followers know what they are looking for and how to apply, and other less standard approaches.
  • You can just make your game. Because, oh shit, my Panic Mode campaign failed so now what. I decided to just make my game anyway, something I could afford to do. This decision still took a lot of outside perspective before I was fully stubborn on it. I can’t overstate the importance my backers had on me, even in a failed campaign. Private messages from my campaign are probably the only reason the game exists today. I do not regret my crowdfunding attempt, poor though I was at it.
  • Crowdfunding blurs lines with publishing, since you are essentially self-publishing your game with crowdfunded money or handing it off to a publisher who isn’t reading this. So you need to follow the gotchas in the publishing category too.
    • Like, you need to market and make an audience! SO IMPORTANT!

Part 3: game publishing

  • It’s getting real now. The goal now is to get this thing out there, so how do we start?
  • What if someone steals my idea? Should I explore patents or trademarks?
    • I am no lawyer, and this is not legal advice. But game mechanics can’t be patented. The only games in my collection with patents are vintage and truly terrible. I got a trademark for my game, because at the time I didn’t know any better. I wouldn’t do it again. Make the best game you can, and the rest will work itself out.
    • There are endless examples of games with new or interesting ideas or mechanics that are not executed well. Then other games come along (or more often, they actually don’t) to do a better job, and we remember the better games. That is what you are up against.
  • I heard some people make a Print and Play and some don’t. Should I do that? What do I get out of it?
    • James Mathe has an article with his statistics [on offering a print and play], but they are what you might expect: almost no one is going to print your game and play it. They just want the reassurance that you have a real game by opening a PDF and finding…a game. That being said, I have a free PNP and one of my favorite things about it is that some folks actually did print it, play it, and tag me in it. And rated it on BGG. I have 250 cards in my main deck, and I love them for making this effort.
  • OK so the software decision feels more real now than in playtesting. Yeah, it does!
    • There is no magic answer that will fit your needs for prototyping, manufacturing, and playtesting. Stop looking for one.
    • You can go to websites for manufacturers like Longpack and Panda, and see their manufacturing and template requirements. This is the closest you can get to a head start on preparing your files.
    • At some point, if you are like me and know nothing about these programs, you need to get comfortable enough to work in them. In my experience, a kind friend was better than google for my questions because I didn’t know how to ask the right questions.
    • Panic Mode has 250 cards that may or may not tie to different roles with different icons and various lines of text. My artist, Rose Hammer, was extremely clever and set me up with a template to choose these things. She set me up for success as an Adobe neophyte. She is half saint.
      • But even then, she set them up using a Panda template because at the time that seemed most likely to me. I had to ultimately transfer each file to Longpack standards. That’s just how it is. You can’t know what you don’t know.
  • Now that I decided to be the publisher, I need to get ready to sell this thing. So what is marketing, exactly?
    • Yes, you need to be in social media and collecting emails and preparing for a game launch. And you need to apply logic to every approach you take. For example, if your audience is not in all the usual spots then you should not spend your time there. If your game does not contain unicorns and your game box does not have fur on it then you might not go viral. Just remind yourself, you already made that decision.
    • But followers don’t equal backers. You are just signing up for eyeballs, really. Be earnest and stick out in the crowd. And don’t follow people just to unfollow them, that’s gross.
    • Lean into your audience. This is one thing that I think I did okay, but it didn’t work out for crowdfunding. I had a lot of very interesting things happen when my campaign failed, and there might be interesting paths in front of you like there were for me. Paths that aren’t in all the blogs and groups and were unique. Just ride the waves.
  • I decided to print overseas and need to get these games shipped to me. I need to know my freight options.
    • Yes this goes back to doing your research, but there are a wide variety of companies that coordinate this level of logistics for you. As mentioned above, get the best info you can from the actual logistics companies.
  • I need to decide on a MSRP
    • The rule of thumb is landed cost (the cost to get a single game printed plus at your doorstep) x4 or sometimes x5. This is highly oversimplified but a good rule of thumb.
    • Compare your game to similar games in the market to get an idea of what is fair or normal right now.
    • Remember that if you go into retail then retailers will expect to pay about 50% of your MSRP (usually with free shipping) and sell at your full MSRP. (They have terrible margins too.) If you go into distribution then this discount might be even more! Distribution means volume which means cheaper manufacturing but until you hit that sweet spot, yikes!
    • Me personally, I struggled so much with this decision. My most interested audience was not from the gamer world but from professionals and industry experts related to Disaster Recovery. Even just people in IT that wanted their teams to try it. I got a ton of great pricing advice, but I was never comfortable leaving behind one audience for the other. So I settled somewhere on the higher end of the gamer group. I’m not sure how that will go, but I am fiercely comfortable with it.

Part 4: fulfillment

  • Usually fulfillment means providing copies to backers. There’s a lot of companies that offer fulfillment services, and lots of great info. The gist is that you need to have companies in various parts of the world to accomplish it when you have a known audience, as that will be most cost-efficient. There’s short- and long-term fulfillment companies.

Part 5: just plain accepting and fulfilling orders

  • You need a store. You should have a website to take your orders, or lean into only utilizing Amazon or some other alternative.
    • One of my challenges has been, and continues to be, non-US shipping. I asked around a bit and did a lot of googling and the gist was that it’s not pretty. There’s no trails blazed that make the most sense, it all just kind of sucks unless you hit a critical mass to utilize better resources.
  • If you are not crowdfunding and do not have backers then you just need to get items to the people that buy them. There are lots of shipping options based on the dimensions and weight of your product.
  • Marketing does not end with trying to fund your product. It’s important to hustle to make sales once you have product in hand.

Part 6: real talk

  • This is a saturated market. You may have heard about the tabletop Renaissance, and you may have also slowly walked the Target board game selection and noted the number of products that directly have to do with defecation. Can you be part of one without being part of the other? Yes, and that is in your control. Unless you want to be part of both, in which case more power to you! Just own it, whatever it is you want to do. But it’s hard, either way.
  • It’s cold out there. I was just making a game. If you don’t have time to be super-invested in the tabletop community then they will not be super invested in you. And that’s okay.
  • You will not make a lot of money. Maybe not any. The total cost for my game was around $8,000-$8,500, not including art. I need to sell around 240 games at full price to break even. Another 240-250 I could decide to do another printing if I wanted. The rest is the gravy, not much! If I factored in my own time, well, why would I do that? Few people can write that kind of horror.

In conclusion

I think there are three major items that come up throughout the entire process.

  1. Do I care enough? You have to constantly dig for the passion to go up that hill. Every step of the way, do you care enough to keep going? Just do it.
  2. Ship it. This is a phrase that reverberates in my head for good reason: my best friends would constantly say, “Just ship it.” Or, “Ship it!” Or, “Just go, launch! You’re ready, be done!” This was necessary for me personally since I was doing a campaign, but it is something that has come up for me ever since too. All of the above steps need to end at some point. Why don’t you just ship it? Ask this all along the way.
  3. Be confident. I wrestled with a thousand decisions throughout this process, and a few I might change but most I would not. Make a decision and be fiercely confident in it. Fake it til you make it.

But most importantly

Panic Mode! the game is now available at

And also if I can help to support you, be a sounding board, just say hi, or anything else just reach out. If you read this far, it was probably for a reason. You can do this!