The art of knowing when to give up

More than three years ago I started working on a game called “W – The Board Game“, centered around the US presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. The idea simply came to me one morning, so I wrote down the core mechanics of the game in about two hours and for the next three weeks I worked like crazy, putting almost all of my time into this project, mostly researching how the American election system works in its finest details.

WIn all honesty, I had a blast! It didn’t matter if the game would actually work, I felt again that I can mix my passion for history with the one for board gaming and I learned a lot about one of the most intricate electoral systems in the democratic world, one which I had grossly misjudged as unfair and unrepresentative. Understanding the complexity of the political landscape in a huge country such as the United States made me realize the brilliance of this system and the fact that it is perfectly fitted… to become a board game theme.

At the same time my loving for Twilight Struggle was at its peak, so I was dreaming of designing a great 2-player game. So, all the stars were aligned for W.

After a brief campaign of play-testing in Romania, we took the game to the big scene, presenting it at Spiel 2013. The game got its fair share of plays and the impressions were mostly positive. The theme was not to the liking of our European audience, but I thought it would make an impact in North America. I was wrong!

Not only our major partners in US said no to the game from the start, we even tried pitching it as an education game (which it is) and we also failed going in that direction. I wouldn’t just give up, especially because of the positive comments of gamers who had a chance to play it, but I was stuck. My team decided to postpone the game to 2016, because all the feedback we got pointed out that election games only sell in election years and our next chance was 2016.

Between back then and now, we’ve also “discovered” Kickstarter, which seemed like the perfect tool to avoid classic distribution channels for a game that most would label “too niche” to even consider carrying. So, we planned to re-theme the game to fit the 2016 presidential elections in the United States and go to Kickstarter as soon as the candidates are chosen, and then deliver just before the elections, so people would still feel the thrill when playing for the first time. And yet, I am here to tell you that W is now a boxed project which NSKN Games will not publish.

As a game designer, W – The Board Game is one of my beloved projects – one I put a lot of faith in. The game is very competitive, bordering on cutthroat (like any political campaign should be) and it bleeds theme. Yet, our team decided against it and here are the reasons:

  • It’s a board game about politics, which seems to be one of the taboo topics among many people. The theme stands in the way of the game, rather than helping it.
  • It’s a 2-player game, which heavily limits the audience of the game, putting it in direct competition with the aforementioned Twilight Struggle and some other very famous titles in the same genre. Making it a multi-player game would have been totally anti thematic and even harder to sell.
  • Campaign games sell only in election years. Our game would rot in some warehouse 3.5 years out of every 4 year cycle, that is if any distributor ever considered picking it up.
  • Targeting a game at only one country, be it even the United States, drastically limits its potential market.
  • “The game is too heavy for school children,”
  • “It appears to rely too much on luck and especially luck expressed in the form of dice”
  • “Even with its theme changed into a generic election game it would still make a poor choice for an educational game” (feedback received from one of the largest educational items retailers in the USA, not an exact quote)
  • Asking our play-testers if they’d buy the game, less than half said yes while 90% said they’d love to play it.
  • “No one in their right mind would pick up a game about George W Bush” to quote one of our former business partners. “Stay away form politics and religion and you’re golden!”.

There is a live project on Kickstarter called Campaign Trail which shares many of the concepts of W, it plays from 2 to 6 players and, without knowing much about it, I assume it tried to fit in the same niche of election games. Someone else is doing it, and I can only wish them the very best of luck. I simply know that for NSKN Games cancelling W is the right decision.

This does not mean that we’re putting the whole thing in the trash bin and never look back. The game mechanisms are neat and versatile, so there’s a chance that in the future we will use them in one of our designs. For W it was just not meant to be.

It’s very hard to let go, even if the cons clearly outweigh the pros. I still have a heartache thinking that W will never be printed. The designer in me always wants to fight this decision, and to ask for another chance to reshape this game into something marketable. But the publisher must stay strong, and know when the time has come to give up and let go.

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