An Open Letter to Distributors and Retailers from Stonemaier Games

17 January 2019 | 203 Comments

Distributors and retailers, we need to talk.

First, though, let’s bring everyone else up to speed, because most of my readers aren’t distributors or retailers. Here’s a quick summary of how the system works in the board game world: A publisher (like Stonemaier) creates a game and pays a manufacturer (like Panda) to produce it. The manufacturer typically ships it to one or more warehouses. From there, the game is sold and shipped to (a) consumers and (b) distributors, who then sell and ship the games to retailers (who sell to consumers).

A company like Stonemaier Games relies heavily on distributors and retailers to sell our games. 90% of the units we’ve sold over the last few years have gone through the distribution system (English and localization). The percentage may be different for a brand-new product, but in the long run over various reprints, retailers sell the vast majority of our games to consumers.

Publishers support retailers in different ways. Here are some of the ways Stonemaier Games does this:

  • We authorize distributors to sell deeply discounted demo copies of our games to retailers (they pass on those costs to us).
  • We prominently feature a retailer locator on our website, as well as a link to that locator at the top of every game page. Any retailer who carries our products can request to be added to that list and to our monthly retailer e-newsletter (retailers, you can find me at contact@stonemaiergames.com).
  • We sell games at full MSRP on our website so we’re not undercutting brick-and-mortar stores (even though that logic doesn’t completely make sense, as people still have to pay us for shipping). The exceptions to this are during our very brief preorder periods (4-7 days) for the first print run of new products and bundled versions of our products.
  • We don’t use Kickstarter. I don’t actually think that Kickstarter is bad for long-tail games, but I think all too often Kickstarters result in a lot of buzz during the campaign and crickets when the game is released to retailers. There’s just too big of a gap (8-12 months) between the campaign and the release.
  • We consistently reprint our games and support them with expansions, marketing, social media, etc. Our games may go out of stock temporarily, but they don’t go out of print.
  • We send a detailed update to subscribing retailers and distributors every month.
  • I frequently talk about a wide variety of tabletop games–most of which aren’t published by Stonemaier Games–on my game design YouTube channel and Instagram as a way of boosting the board game ecosystem as a whole, which hopefully has an indirectly positive impact on retailers.

Anyway, that’s the system…and something isn’t working.

The overall issue is demand forecasting. Publishers don’t know the demand for a new game until they announce it, reviewers discuss it, and people play it. And most importantly, demand is uncertain until people can actually buy it. Until then, the demand is purely hypothetical.

Yet, by the time you know what the demand is for a new game, it’s too late! The first printing of the game has been made, and it’ll be 3-4 months before the reprint arrives. So if demand is higher than supply, retailers and distributors aren’t happy. If supply is higher than demand, the publisher isn’t happy–especially if supply is WAY higher than demand and you have thousands of games gathering dust in your warehouse.

Let’s use a specific case in point: Wingspan.

Last summer, before we started manufacturing Wingspan, I reached out to a few distributors to ask how many copies they thought we should make of a bird-themed medium-weight Euro game. Even though these distributors had absolutely no incentive to go low–remember, all the risk is on us at this point–they all said that we should make 10,000 copies.

So we did. I printed 10,000 copies of Wingspan. But I was still a little worried, so just in case, I also made 5,000 sets of the non-printed components (the eggs, wooden tokens, plastic trays, etc). I figured if the game was a hit, having those components would speed up the reprint. And if the game was a flop, I hadn’t invested too much. As it turned out, when I saw the buzz around the game in early December, I immediately started the second print run.

The problem, as retailers learned this week, is the the demand for Wingspan is WAY higher than 10,000 units. I’ve been hearing from retailers that their distributors are only giving them 1 or 2 copies of the game even though they have 50 preorders.

Whose fault is this?

  • It isn’t the distributors fault–they’re selling everything they can, and they gave me their best-guess estimate earlier this year.
  • It isn’t the retailers fault, though accepting preorders before knowing your allocation may not be a great idea.
  • It isn’t our fault either (though in hindsight, I absolutely should made more first-run units–that is 100% my fault). Even if Stonemaier Games hadn’t accepted a single direct preorder, the demand for Wingspan wouldn’t come close to giving retailers the quantities they want. Though perhaps I should have shared more information about our “bird-themed Euro game” (like photos of the pre-production copy) with a few trusted retailers and distributors so they had more context for their guesses.

That’s the main reason I’m writing this post today. We’re all frustrated when demand is much higher than supply. And as a result, people look for someone to blame. But is that actually going to help anyone? I don’t think so.

I’d much rather focus on solutions, even though I don’t have a solution for this particular problem. None of us know what the demand for a game will be until the complete information about the finished product is available.

And no, I don’t think Kickstarter is the answer. Kickstarter is great at gauging direct-to-consumer early adopter demand, but it still doesn’t help predict future demand after consumers/reviewers have received and played the final product. (Update: Some people have mentioned the P500 system, which is very clever and may work for some publishers, but I don’t think it works for us. Here’s why.)

Distributors and retailers, I feel for you. I wish I had more Wingspan too. But if possible, let’s take a deep breath and realize that April (the second print run) really isn’t that long after March 8 and that May (the third print run) really isn’t that far away either. Let’s celebrate that we have something people actually want!

That said, I’m sorry. I truly wish that I could have done a better job at forecasting demand. I wish I could say I have a foolproof method for the future, but I don’t have the luxury of printing 30,000 copies of a new game. I simply don’t have the resources, and even if I had the resources, it wouldn’t be worth the risk.

Thanks for considering my thoughts today, and I hope we can move forward in a positive, constructive way.

Sincerely,

Jamey Stegmaier

Click here for more open letters.

Click here for a follow-up podcast on this topic with Who What Why.

203 Comments on “An Open Letter to Distributors and Retailers from Stonemaier Games

  1. This is pretty much what happened with Gloomhaven. IIRC they had a 10th of what there were pre-orders for in the end leading to shops only have 1 copy (when they had 10 pre-orders etc). I do think that shops accepting pre-orders _without_ a guarantee of getting enough stock isn’t good for anyone though. One online retailer I know in the UK will always list a new product as “notify me” until they know what stock they’ll get due to this issue.

    1. Paul: Yeah, I heard about that with Gloomhaven, and the sentiment was similar to what I’m hearing about Wingspan: That it was somehow Isaac’s fault (when in reality, I’m sure Isaac would have been delighted to meet first-run demand if he had known what it would be and he had the money to make that many).

      1. Does a pre-order at store happen after the first print run amount is determined? If not, wouldn’t the first step be to have the stores notify you when someone oreorders?

    2. A couple points:
      1) In order to receive any copies from distributors when items are allocated, I need to place my preorders with them. As a retailer, preorders are helpful (necessary?) to gauge how many I need. Guesses get me burned.
      2) If I do not accept a preorder from a customer, he/she will just preorder elsewhere.
      3) We always track the dates preorders were placed, and all customers know everything will be filled on a first-come-first-served basis.

      I have no fault with any of the parties involved, as we all have to make the decisions best for our companies and customers. I’m still told I won’t be getting a single copy of Wingspan until the 3rd wave, in June…

  2. This is probably an even bigger challenge to tackle, but has anyone considered a way to shorten the production time of games. Are there just not enough factories, are they in the wrong locations. It would seem a factory that could turn games around quicker, even at a bit of a higher cost, might go a long way to elevating the issue. Predictions are just that, predictions. There will never be a way to get them completely right. I am surprised someone hasn’t decided to enter the printing market with a more competitive, faster, model.

    That said, your idea of stockpiling components is good. What if there was a bit more standardization of items that appear in many games so that they could always be available with minor alterations [color, size, etc.]. Box sizes certainly seem to be going this way. Maybe designers could adjust certain aspects to include things from a warehouse system, while maintaining the ability to print original artwork or colors. Unique things like item meeples are fun but I don’t know that they have ever improved gameplay.

    Lastly, what you just did is great. Talking about challenges, setting expectations and being honest about the realities of the situation goes a long way towards good will. It’s chaos out there, be kind to each other.

      1. Hi Jamey. As a retailer, I can tell you our distributors don’t always tell us what is coming down the pike. If you reach out to distribution for a number, they should reach out to retailers for feedback and this doesn’t happen often enough. If they reached out to me and I committed to 6 or 12 or 24, I would take what I committed. I would also take pre-orders for what I was guaranteed (my committed number). There is a problem when I commit to 12 and other stores said 0 and then the other store changes their number to 12 or 24 after the fact and MY STORE (that was willing to commit early) gets allocated somdostribution can try to make everyone happy. If a store doesn’t commit early, they shouldn’t get games from the first print. Sticking to this will get you more accurate numbers and would get retailers to commit or be left out.

        I have missed out on games and have purchased them at full retail price to put on my shelf making no profit just so I could have it in the store (Gloomhaven). Sometimes I’ll even add $5-10 to the price so I make a little something. When they announced a second run, I ordered enough for 6 months. I learned my lesson.

        Thanks for listening.
        Patrick Maloney
        Game On! RI

        1. I can tall you that on the distro side just because a retailer submits a preorder for a large quantity they don’t always end up honoring it. Yes, we use preorder numbers to generate our orders from the publisher. But if a game gets a lot of hype and a retailer says they will take 100 copies right when we open the preorder then, let’s say, the game gets pushed, some buzz dies. Then some reviews come in and they aren’t as high as everyone had hoped. Now that store wants 5 copies. That certainly happens and we have the stock on some titles to prove it. Or the complete opposite happens. A store says they want 10. then buzz keeps growing and growing now everyone wants 100 but we submitted our order to the publisher long before everyone upped their numbers and now the publisher is sold out.

          I understand your frustration on saying you had your confirmed preorders in early. But not everyone will stick to those numbers. And aside from that we also deal with some pretty large scale retailers that could easily buy out our entire supply of Wingspan. And if they said right away that they wanted 5000 copies. We certainly wouldn’t give them everything we had in the first run just because they were the first to declare their intent.

          Like Jamey said there isn’t great solution and there isn’t anyone to blame. Getting review copies out earlier helps gauge the interest but then as he said we run into the kickstarter issue with too long a delay between the initial hype and the release. I don’t have a good answer but I think that if all the sides of this equation could see clearly the different obstacles and methods of each other it would help with some of the frustration and blame game.

          1. A question to the Distributor (no name): may you ask for any deposit on preorders?
            Could Mr. Jamey Stegmaier give us some insight on this?

            My policy when I need a product fast (buying raw materials in Italy) is to preorder it, paying a 50% deposit. This splits the risk in half with the supplier.
            Sometimes I decide to sign a deal paying it 100% upfront in exchange for an extra discount or quality selection… and a total commitment to my request.
            Wondering if this could apply to your market.

            M

          2. Marco: It’s very rare for a distributor to prepay for part of a print run, but I am always happy to guarantee a distributor the quantity they want before I begin production if they’re willing to prepay.

    1. This seems like a really good solution—I think it’s usually 1+ month of queue time and then another 1+ month of shipping when we print games. I wish we could print domestically or at least closer to home.

      1. Max – Printing domestically doest address the fact the market is international. Moving production to Europe or the USA will create is own logistic issues. Not only that it would increase the costs. Look at Terra-forming Mars as an example – component quality was sacrifice to make it a price that would sell.

        The other option is to manufacture in multiple locations, but then you lose the scale of economies.

        Another way would be at exposure to the publisher in that they could pay to hold a production slot for x amount of the product shortly after the initial run is due to land. If its successful this can be flipped and paid for product quickly. If its not, while its not as big as a loss of excess product in the market place, it is still additional cost the publisher has to make.

    2. Wouldn’t that mean going back to simple wooden tokens in simple shapes? There’s a group of people that care more about the gameplay than the aesthetic, but if Kickstarter is proof of anything (including the kickstarters for Stonemaier awesome tokens) it’s that there’s a larger group of people who really enjoy the immersiveness of custom bits. It can turn a “boring cube pusher” into an “interesting worker placement”.

      I mean Star Wars Armada, Star Wars X-Wing, wouldn’t be even fractionally as popular if the ships were just cardboard pieces, and making the ships purely cardboard pieces would remove literally nothing from the gameplay front. A huge portion of the enjoyment though is the feeling of scale and the table presence that game has when everything is out.

      While a lot of people will disagree, games are essentially toys, and the person selling the coolest toy will sell the most.

  3. Jamey,

    Thank you. You work diligently to keep the hobby alive and active. Your games are works of art and we are proud to sell them in our store. We are so excited for Wingspan as we had an opportunity to test run it and it is truly a treasure! Thank you for your kind words. Sometimes customers struggle to understand these risks and challenges involved in game creation, sales and distribution. I can say as a retailer I had NO IDEA how challenging it would be when I first started our shop.

    I am proud to be a retailer for Stonemaier and will wait patiently for the next print runs for Wingspan, as it is a game worth waiting for.

    Thanks again!
    Amanda (And Ben) Wermers
    Game Chest
    Sioux Falls, SD

  4. Very interesting,
    I personally reached out to the store I Pre ordered from after your q and a last week where you mentioned there could be a shortfall. I let them know I’m fine with waiting for a copy from the second print run. I would prefer them give it someone else that may be very excited to get game.

      1. I shop at The Dice Owl it’s an online store right now with a physical store being built. The physical store is set to open in the next couple of months!

  5. I wonder if you’ve potentially proposed the solution in your letter, something akin to kickstarter, which helps market the product, including reviews and demos and build that buzz, but with a faster delivery so that retailers can benefit from that energy. Consumers who are willing to participate in the kickstarter process and wait a year for games would be happy to have a much shorter wait time (6 months?).

  6. My wife works in book publishing, so I am familiar (second-hand) with your problem. Judging demand is something very hard to do, and you are right, it really isn’t anyone’s *fault*.

    But here’s the thing…you ARE dismissing one of the great ways of determining demand by rejecting KS. I joined your blog because, at the time, you were involved with KS, I was (and am) a project creator, and I was looking for insight from others who have been down that road. And while I respect your reasons for bypassing the KS route now, it seems to me from reading your blogs since you made the switch, that you have become a little out of touch with the KS advantages. (Note: I’m not trying to be a dick here, just giving some honest feedback).

    Yes, there are problems with using KS. But probably the single biggest plus that they give developers a gauge of interest. So, if you are looking for a solution to this problem, you gotta put KS back on the table. Maybe not for every project, but if you really have no idea of what demand is going to be, and you don’t want to risk angry customers who have to wait extra months to get it, then it is something that you have to consider (and to gamers, those months feel like years and if something shiny catches our eyes while we are waiting….welll….let’s just say that I waited *FOREVER* for the reprint of Fury of Dracula. Now that it is out, I’m in no hurry to buy it; they lost their window of opportunity for me because it was delayed so many times and I found some legacy games in the meantime.)

    Remember also: a lot of people who read this blog joined because of your tips for KS. The further you are from being an active creator, the less relevant these columns are to us. I no longer read every post anymore because a lot of it isn’t relevant to KS anymore and those that are often seem dated to me.

    Just my 2 cents; not trying to be a jerk.

    1. Here’s the thing about Kickstarter – the data from the Kickstarter can be very misleading.

      If you are using Kicsktarter to forecast demand, you’re going to need to use a multiple (2x, 3x, 5x demand). However, the amount of demand left after a KS can be quite variable.

      From our experience, we’ve fulfilled and shipped a lot of games that have done really well on Kicsktarter (Cthulhu Wars is a great example) that has sold 2x or 3 copies at our retail store which is ‘okay’ demand (remember, most stores only turn 4-5x for all their stock).

      Then there are the KS games who come out and are ONLY good for KS. Big Trouble in LIttle China is another example there. We FINALLY sold our last copy after serious discounting. But the game itself shipped a bunch out.

      Then we have games like Gloomhaven which are the ‘surprise’ hits. I don’t have Isaac’s numbers but I know there’s no reasonable way for him to have predicted the insane demand he got. Even after his 2nd Kickstarter, there was so much demand we had pre-orders nearing the hundred mark! And that’s with us getting over 100+ in the 2nd wave. Nevermind having the funds, he had 2 Kickstarter’s and pre-orders from retailers and he’s still selling like crazy.

      Kickstarter isn’t a good gauge of demand. It can be a data point, but it’s only one more data point.

      1. Well said, Tao. Thank you for sharing these examples. Scythe is another–we made 25,000 copies (21,000 for backers), and the first run was nowhere close to meeting retailer demand. But it just as easily could have gone the other way, as per the other examples you mentioned.

    2. What Jamey has done with Wingspan is quicker than Kickstarter.

      Most great games sell less than 1000 copies on KS. Jamey sold 5000+ with the early-bird/pre-order sale.

      It’s not due in August like games on KS now, it’s with its in people homes since last week with thousands more on the way to stores for March and April.

      What Jamey is doing right now is not the gateway steps of Kickstarter, it’s the next step.

    3. For hrothgarshoard: you are forgetting that this eventual “forecasting help” from KS costs a 4.5% price share on any unit sold :D

      jokes apart, KS is good for starting the venture when you have no funds or you want to validate your product before risking your house.

      about boardgames, they are absolutely validated as a large selling toy after the surge in 2011, and KS turned into a pre-marketing instrument.
      it is for sure fun, engaging… but campaigns are to be seen from the eyes of sellers: they could be used to unfold elaborate plans of branding and co-marketing, or to link products and empty warehouses…

  7. As a retailer that sells your games, I just want to know that I totally get it. I appreciate your obvious genuine concern for everyone involved with you games from manufacturing to the consumer, and it is one of the reasons I try encourage our customers to check out your games. Not only do I trust that you will take care of MY customers if they have problems, I also trust you will take care of retailers like myself (and not sell your own products on amazon for less than I can get it through my distributors, an increasingly common problem for us).

    Does it suck, yes… Such is life.

    P.S. I’m personally a Stonemaier champion, and just played Wingspan yesterday. Loved it…Keep
    putting out good games and I’ll keep trying to get them. :)

    1. Brett: I appreciate your understanding here. And you’re right, we don’t sell anything on Amazon (though plenty of retailers, as well as Amazon itself, sells our products there–that’s often a confusing distinction when people see our name there!) :)

  8. I like Herb’s idea of a P500 system like GMT does, but your’s would likely be a P1500 system or something and have it well in advance of the release, then based on Wingspan sales and future data points, you could do the print run for P1500 times X. But then that starts sounding a lot like Kickstarter.

    Another possibility is to have pre-orders and solicitations for product well before the release date and lengthen the marketing campaign for the product. Some sort of cut off date (or a series of them) for retailers to get pre-orders in with distributors and they forward that onto you or something…

    Regardless, thanks for the time and effort you make finding solutions to problems.

    Cheers
    John Gallant
    The Board Room Game Cafe
    Halifax Nova Scotia

    1. Thanks John! I posted a link about how the P500 would work for a company like mine, and I’m not sure it really scales the way I’d like it to. I’m looking at a minimum of 10k for any first print run, and I’m confident in making that, especially since we only release 1-2 new games each year. So it’s more of a question of “10k, 15k, or 20k?”, and I don’t have a good way of answering that so far in advance.

  9. I think you could incorporate the great timeline information from your newsletters more effectively. You have a well established trusted brand that has a following of reviewers and end consumers. A large part of buzz is the word of mouth and if you involve your client base earlier in the development cycle you may be able to get people talking earlier about the game and generate earlier buzz. Sneaking information to your followers and guaging their response through polls, activity on comments, views etc… Idk just a few thoughts.

  10. Goodness, too much demand. Such a problem to have!

    Kidding aside, I’m very happy for you and for Elizabeth Hargrave. I got to play the prototype at a relatively early stage years ago, and I’m so happy to see the success you and she are seeing in “Wingspan.”

    To your point, I recognize the frustration your distributors and retailers must have at not being able to meet the immediate demand. But as a consumer, I know I’ll get my copy sooner or later (just like I did Stronghold’s Terraforming Mars, which had a similar issue early on).

  11. My wife is a demand forecaster for Boeing and we’ve been discussing this as a case study in optimization. To open the conversation:

    This is a good situation to use the Newsvendor model. It helps determine the optimal inventory level by balancing expected revenue against fixed costs and lost sales.

    We could also use different forecasting methods based on historical data and employ a like/similar method.

    A lot of mathematical models are available for this problem.

    There are also more methodical ways to estimate market size and response to initial offerings.

    Well written and thought-provoking peak behind the curtain! She’d be glad to call and discuss.

    1. Aaron: That’s fascinating–I haven’t heard of Newsvendor. I would absolutely be interested in talking to her (or you and her) about this. If she cracked the code, it could help a lot of people in this industry.

  12. I will still maintain ks is a better solution or an much earlier preorder campaign. There is a reason so many big companies are moving there. I know there are big reasons why not to do it but it does help gauge demand .that plus early review copies .Not sure it’ll ever be perfected tho.

  13. On the plus side, this isn’t a collectable game so this shouldn’t impact the game’s long term future due to this. Fascinating insight into the production process.

  14. If the game is to be available only through retailers and the Stonemaier website, perhaps a direct-to-consumer survey. Perhaps styled like a Kickstarter initial campaign with a similar detail level, but with a “to help gauge our initial print run, are you interested in purchasing this game from your neighborhood retailer when it becomes available?” survey instead of a true pre-order system. Along with retailer pre-orders, that might be a good way to gauge overall interest.

    This has the added benefit of acquiring email addresses for customers so you can keep them informed of other new releases as well as reminding them when the game they’re interested in is about to hit retail stores.

    1. Steve: Yeah, I did that for a while through our “future printing request form,” and the data was helpful…it was just really tough to extrapolate it to gauge actual first run demand. I think Wingspan works perfectly as an example of this, because it makes a big difference to see the real, final game in photos and in action on a reviewer’s table.

  15. As someone not within the publishing/development cycle, I see the issue as one of “information.” The unknown for the consumer is the product, and the unknown for the producer is the demand.

    Is it conceivable for specific high population centers to be focus points for early access versions? The cost for getting this early access version is demoing the material to the public and get a “reading” for player interest? I realize this might be naive, but I have done some ambassador programs for publishers before, but never was I asked to give feedback on popularity of a product. I was instead treated as an advanced salesman. Just a minor idea.

    1. David: I do that with our playtesters to a certain extent, though because they’re using prototype components, it’s hard to truly gauge their excitement for the finished product. But I think you might be onto something here.

      1. From my perspective within ambassador programs, I felt like I was a marketing tool for the publisher. That was complicated when I didn’t believe in the product. It was a delicate balance the publisher had to walk, because they didn’t want me to lose interest in the games I did support, because I was also a consumer and “fan” of some of their products.

        I just think the mentality that puts someone in the ambassador program itself is because they are passionate about the industry as a whole, and so I imagine that person wants both the industry and the community to succeed across the board. I’d imagine such individuals would be incentivized to contribute.

        As a media historian, I just think the internet’s capacity to bridge like-minded individuals can clear up these kinds of “information” black holes.

        1. By the way, I know this is an aside to everything else. I really like Viticulture and Scythe. :D Thanks for keeping the blog up to let us know your thoughts on the industry. I like that too.

  16. I have no idea how long it takes to build everything that goes into a single game, let alone 10,000, but would it be possible to have a preorder window for the retailers, similar to what you had for Wingspan, except maybe longer, and after that day make all that are preordered plus some? (Dont accept preorders after that window) Then have them be available at retailers on a release day? I assume it would be at least months before the release when you would take preorders but at least it would help with knowing the demand for the game. Maybe that wouldn’t work because it would be too long of a gap before release? Unless you do exactly what you did with Wingspan, except make the release day further out so you have time to make more copies once you find how much of a demand there is based on the orders from your website and reviews? No idea.

    1. James: I think your idea has merit, though a lot of it (in my opinion) has to do with keeping that window as tight and short as possible. Also, distributors are really good at selling and shipping to retailers (well, most of them!), so undercutting them by selling directly to retailers may not be good in the long run.

  17. Hmmm…. how could we gauge direct demand from the most engaged fans of your products and increase the percentage of profit that the publisher actually gets to keep?

    Kickstarter IS the answer.

    1. So Peter, I’ll agree that you’re right if you can accurately answer this question: The Scythe Kickstarter had 18,000+ backers who wanted 21,000+ games. How many games is the correct number for Stonemaier Games to make in the first print run, assuming that we want to precisely meet retailer demand and backer demand?

      1. I think Kickstarter is great for getting initial interest from customers, and estimate an initial print run, like you did with Scythe. It was good to make a 25k run, so you know you will sell 21k via Kickstarter and the rest you produce on your own risk. If the game is a huge hit (like Scythe) you then can make a bigger run depending on the pre-orders via the retailers. In case the game is a dud or less popular after the initial Kickstarter hype is gone you only have a small amount of games that you must sell now. So, the people who like to take risks go on Kickstarter and there is the chance that they get a great game early on while others must wait, or they get a game that looked fun but is not and have to deal with that. Everyone else who then wants the game must wait, but then again, they also do not take any risks what so ever.
        Maybe it makes sense to use the overproduced copies from the initial Kickstarter run to sell them to distributers and retailers and then ask them how many copies they want to pre-order based on the buzz from their own customer base. But again, the people must wait for their copy either way. It’s the same as when you have missed the campaign of a cool game and you must hunt down all the “extras” and promos to get a complete game for collectors like me.
        Something that you also have touched on that would help that the big manufacturers like Panda build smaller production sites in Europe and the US to print boards and cards and boxes only and make smaller runs there while you order all the other components in bulk from their main factory and then store and assemble the games yourself. That then creates more issues somewhere else, so I am not sure there is a one fits all solution to the issue you are describing here.
        I am in a way happy for you that you must deal with this now because it means you are doing a great job and your products are liked by a lot of people. I love your games and have almost all of them (except few things like Wingspan and some addons) and I am sure I will get all of them eventually. Keep up the great work and thank you so much for your blog, it helped me a lot when creating my own crowdfunding campaign for my Board Game Café. I hope I can then also become a Stonemaier Games retailer over time and sell your products to my customers.

        Cheers,
        Berenduin

        1. Very well said. KS mitigates risk and increases likely hood that you are going to meet most of the initial remand. Scythe is about 1.5-2x cost of wingspan. Id imagine you would have seen 2x your scythe demand. Only true way to gauge interest is via end customers. Else someone is taking on risk.

          So instead of 10k print run you likely would have had a 30-40k print run. Then reviewed demand with a more informed data point. Distributors and retailers are mearly guessing.

      2. I am not privy to the expect financial results associated with Scythe, but being a project that funded for $1.8 million and with those number of copies to be delivered, I suspect making at least 30,000 was much closer to a correct answer (and still would have caused a shortage)

        In 2013 after funding Dungeon Roll ($250,000 for 15,000 units) I printed 40,000 units. This is a much less expensive game to make. 10,000 sold through almost immediately through distribution and it tapered off from there.

        With 4,000 units for retail with Scythe, there isn’t good room for getting after Kickstarter demand data. Now, if you sold 9,000 immediately, then you know there is something. An extra 5,000 units of Scythe at probably $17-19 a unit before freight doesn’t get past me either.

        1. Dear Micheal,
          an extra 5.000 units means an extra $ 100.000 + freight + insurance + vat + transport and warehousing :D

          It would be interesting if you share with us how you managed the other 25.000 units of your Dungeon Roll (that you can find in every shop in Italy: well done!).

  18. One thing that I think could make a difference would be having the game published in the US. Especially with Kickstarter games, you get that several week wait for it to be shipped, then waiting for it to clear customs, then waiting for it to get to the distributor. I understand that there is going to be a big difference in manufacturing costs, which would make the game itself more expensive, which may impact demand…but in the long run could it pay off? I don’t know, probably not in most cases. But at the end of the day, I think it is better to have to wait a bit to get a great game than to have a warehouse full of a mediocre game sitting there collecting dust, especially with the large number of games being released each year.

    1. Thanks Andy! All of our games are published in the US (I’m based in St. Louis), but they’re manufactured in China. There are lots of factories in China that make components that simply aren’t made here. Though if they were, I would certainly be open to it. Ludofact, for example, has a factory in Indiana where they print and assemble, but many of their components are still made in China.

  19. Jamie, would cross over between the KS and this current model work?

    What I mean by that is starting the “hype” earlier, not as early as with KS but earlier then this current model. That way you would be able to see what type of interest / buzz the game is getting. Use that to guesstimate the print run from there.

    This would mean you have a longer down time between the hype and the actual release of the game. But hopefully not as long as with the KS route. I was thinking it would be 4-5 months instead of the 8-12 months with a KS.

    That would give 1-2 months of buzz that hopefully would give you a good indication of the number of games needed to be printed. Sure it do have a slightly longer time from the hype to the game being there. But it hopefully should give you a more accurate read on the amount of game needed to be printed.

    Sure it is not a fix, but it might be worth a try.

      1. Yea minimizing the “down time” is hard. That was the most doable solution to the problem I could think of.

        The easiest fix would be to have your own production facility. A high volume PnP facility. That way you basically could do like the car industry, only produce games that already are sold. Sell it and then produce it.

        But I do not think that is something that can be easily done. Especially not cheaply.

        But it would technically solve all the problems. =)

        1. Daniel: One thing I’ve considered (though this is a big step from someone who runs Stonemaier Games entirely from a home-office) is to print game boxes and handle assembly here in the US. Everything else would happen in China. It wouldn’t actually impact the schedule all that much, though, as assembly in China is SUPER fast (it’s all the other stuff that takes time).

          1. That would be to minimize shipping cost I assume. That way you would not have to shop all that “empty” space.

            Considering the volumes of games you print I assume it actually would impact the bottom line. Any idea of what volumes such a solution would start to get interesting to do?

            Doing such a thing I would think it would be along the lines of what both Gamesalute and Greater Than Games have done. They saw a need for something, and then filled that need.

            But I assume it would depend on the size of the print run needed in order for it to make sens to do it. If it would make sens already at 2-3000 games then I would say opening up such a service place would not be such a strange or bad idea. =)

          2. To Mr. J. Stegmaier: prepare to set up an homeland production line, how about the duty quarrel between USA and China?

            Ideal solution will be to have 100% complete / final samples to send out for showcasing. at least this way the demand is based on appreciation of the real product.

  20. This is all just some growing pains in this industry. Jamey you are a growing force and unfortunately the Distributors need to be able to evaluate a prototype from you earlier and be willing to make a commitment for your products then you could do a larger print run up front saving major production bucks. Think of Mechs vs Minions. They did a 30K first run and were able to sell a $150 valued game for $80 bucks. Back in the mid 90’s I worked for a toy company with net sales around 150 Million. We had about 100 employees and when we did a production run of something we did 50K piece runs because of contracts we had with major retailers. This industry is yet to form those relation ships, and it relies on distributors to hold inventory not retailers and distributors do not want to take those kinds of risks. Big Box retailers are starting to take notice but they will never hold variety of stock that a small FLGS will hold but they will sell large numbers of single hits. Think about it Walmart has about 5000 stores if each store takes one case your looking at a 20-30K print run just form them. It would not be unreasonable that a store could sell one case of 4-6 games over a short course of time. If you can hit your numbers closer the first run this is a win win for you and the consumers. Lower production costs for you and more product for the people when they want it.

  21. Inability to forecast demand can be seen through a different lens: risk intolerance due to insufficient capitalization, diversification and insurance.

    In other words: demand is always difficult to forecast. Beyond whatever improvements could be made at the margins on that forecast, there will still be substantial uncertainty remaining.

    Greater capitalization means, basically, being willing to bet more money, either of your own or from investors. Spreading more money surround across more products to smooth the returns means making more games, probably through horizontal integration – ie acquiring other publishers. I’m not sure what insurance play here would be but it’s worth thinking about.

  22. Jamey for all the people that are complaining, I suspect they are a minority. I don’t have any problem waiting for April for what I’m sure is going to be an amazing game that is worth the wait. You are doing your best and I don’t think a couple of months is a big deal. I’m just happy you’ve created another amazing game.

  23. Thank you for this post. It is always interesting to hear what goes on “up the chain”. As a consumer I want my product, but I don’t usually know very much about what goes into getting that product to me. So reading this article is very enlightening. Of course, I don’t have any answers either, but I hope that posts like this one help consumers know more about the potential pitfalls along the chain and therefore make us consumers more understanding.

  24. From someone who’s a board game retailer, a customer and runs my own production and distribution of a gaming product as well: I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, thank you for bringing it up. Having experience from all 4 (producer, distributor, retailer, customer) parts of the chain I have to accept that forecasts are guesswork. My only conclusion is that when the forecast does fail, it is better to have high demand and low availability than the other way around.

  25. I think so long as reprints are being printed and there’s a time line for that… what’s the problem? As you said, a couple of month’s wait is not the end of the world. The frustration comes when there’s a large demand for a game, no reprint on the horizon and no word from the publisher. Then you’re left with the option of either sky-high ebay prices or simply missing out.

  26. Thanks for the insight and I’m lucky that I preordered directly from you, Wingspan is impressive.

    As for a solution to this challenge I think your best approach would be to take time and learn how this is done in other industries, as this is an eternal challenge covering much of retail. What I think you’ll find is that for large indusutries (e.g. smart phone market) there is enough money that there is an analytst community that can charge the vendors to try and get these answers (as well as things like market share – “I know how much I sold, but how much did my competitiors? and why?”). Also for high volume industries (e.g. low-mid end fashion) they have the luxury of having massive data sets that they are now using to predict demand and run close to ‘just in time’ (see: Zara, which does a great deal of planning and stock allocation autonomously by computer).

    Alas tabletop gaming is neither big business (relatively) nor high volume so you cant rely on those methods. So if there are other similar situations in other industries (perhaps something like book publishing?) how to they forecast? Is there opportunity for a company to come in and start keeping their finger on the tabletop pulse (through surveys, publisher shipments, retail sales and general ‘buzz’)? Could we see SM Analysis be the GfK/IDC/Gartner of the tabletop world?….. :-)

  27. Capitalism in our current state means that the cheapest way to produce things is somehow far, far away, in as big quantities as possible and flying/shipping them all around the world. It’s crazy if one thinks about it.

    I once imagined a produce-on-demand production that’s localised to each demand centre. But of course that’s a pipe dream for what economy we have now.

  28. Hello Jamey,
    although i am only in the consumer group i can see that forecasting demand is a difficult problem due to several constraints or better called factors difficult to measure.
    As i am currently writing my thesis on AI ,prediction problems are quite a relevant topic.However in your case it is quite hard to actually acquire relevant data or even in a first step determine the factors affecting demand:

    I had this talk with a friend of mine , who on way lower scale is running a boardgame shop. He is definitely also troubled by the idea of how to gauge demand.

    One thing that is quite interesting would be social demographic factors of your buyers -> who is buying your games, how old are they, how many games with a similar mechanic , theme, or from your company did they buy? Another interesting part would be how release point is e.g. correlated with budget people have for boardgaming. In germany for example ( i do not know for the US ) people spend most of their christmas money on the 4 weeks after christmas but also all year type insurances typically collect money in january as well. Moreover you have different regions to consider – so you would maybe need differnt forecasting models for different regions or event countries .

    All in all i think it is quite difficult to gauge demand and i would never criticize you for taking the secure way of gauging demand.

    One idea , i had of estimating demand would be to maybe ask your newsletter receivers ( i know it is not a real representative sample of all people buying stonemaier games) how they would for example respond to mechanic x, theme y, complexity z., or game length. This could at least get an initial idea -> although you would have to give out some details way before the announcement (might result in less buzz).

    On another note – thnaks for your constant effort in making peoples life better by giving them enjoyable games to play in their everyday life.

      1. Hi Jamey,
        yes i read this post. Would be interesting to see how these distribution of answer differ when analyzed not on an aggregated scale but maybe by age or by gender/ country of origin or region.

        One more interesting idea (although gathering would be a heavy job) would be to look at the people rating your game on bgg and the other games they rated or own and try to identify similar mechanics . So we could get a cluster of customers possible interested in a game with mechanic X, that already own a stonemaier game.

  29. I don’t live in the US, so kickstarter is a lifeline in terms of getting games at a reasonable price with reasonable shipping costs. (Most retailers in the US have insane shipping costs to Hong Kong).

    You mentioned Kickstarter isn’t the answer, but it does give you a much better idea of demand than just asking retailers how many copies they want. Also Kickstarter is a good indicator to retailers of a games popularity so might help them get a better idea of how many to order.

    You said theres a problem of buzz waning for the game between the KS and delivery, but if retailers are going to get their copies at a similar time to the KS backers then the buzz of actually receiving the game and KS backers getting it to the table, should hopefully propel the retail sales.
    I believe a lot of the buzz causing so many orders for Wingspan is due to a couple of things: a. Stonemaier makes great games, b. the reviewers have loved the game. This shouldn’t change as long as the game doesn’t change. So maybe the solution is to have a fully developed game released to KS rather than the current situation of many KS campaigns where the game is being developed during / after the campaign. That way the reviewers arent playing a prototype, theyr’e playing and reviewing the actual game

    You cant predict all demand, but at least you have given people the option to buy by offering the KS as well as the retail distribution, and if the demand is still there, then print more when retailers start asking for more orders.

    Apologies if I’m completely naive about this. These are just my thoughts as a consumer of your great games.

    Regards

    Kamran

  30. Out of curiosity, is there a way to collaborate with other publishers to collect the following data to do a retrospective analysis?

    – Number of customers who backed a Kickstarter campaign for a board game
    – Customer demand within a defined amount of months after a Kickstarter campaign
    – Customer rating + “marketing buzz” of board game (e.g. through BGG, which may give an explanation of the demand immediately post-Kickstarter campaign)

    While this is overly optimistic as I do not know if you will have other publishers sharing this type of data, working with other publishers would be ideal to get a large enough sample size to see if you can get any insights into the data. I’m wondering if a very rough equation can be developed to enable a publisher to extrapolate potential demand within so many months after a Kickstarter campaign, giving that publisher enough breathing room before another reprint is scheduled. If a rough equation can be developed, you can then test it out to see how close the forecasted demand versus actual demand is. If this rough calculation doesn’t work, at least a good effort was made amongst collaborating publishers.

  31. Thank you for posting this, I hope it helps consumers to understand how this process works! There is a lot of very useful information in there, and it helps me understand more of areas I wasn’t as familiar with. I also like seeing the choices you as a publisher have made to support retailers; it makes a huge difference to those livelihoods.

    That said, I do disagree with one part of your article – that retailers shouldn’t take preorders from customers before knowing our allocations. I am a small retailer in the UK, so my experience is filtered through being a small FLGS in another country. We take preorders without knowing our stock allocations all the time – but this is because our alternative is not to sell preorders at all.

    In the UK (using one of the main distributors in this country), we find out on a Thursday evening what games are being released the following week. For 95% of games, this is the earliest we know when a game is going to be on our shelves. We have to place our final confirmed orders by midday Friday. We then get informed of our allocations on late Friday afternoon, when it is too late for us to change anything. In this instance, waiting until we have our allocations is after we’ve ordered uncancellable stock – an impossible situation for a store with a limited budget to deal with any earlier. Yes, we can preorder with our suppliers earlier than this – but as a small store, I can’t financially afford to put in preorders for every product out there (especially as once we preorder, we can’t cancel it). We have to be constantly reviewing every scrap of information we can, and in the end it is still all guesswork at best without those customer preorders.

    Part of the problem is also the knowledge that, if we say no to a preorder because we don’t know how many we’ll get, that customer will immediately preorder online instead, in which case we’ve lost not only a sale, but potentially that customer altogether. We have to constantly judge how many preorders we can take, and only refuse them if our supplier warns us demand may be higher than supply – but again, this is all guesswork too, as often it seems even they don’t know when or how many copies will arrive, or how severe those allocations will be. (This also assumes all available copies don’t sell out in the USA first, leaving none for other countries. This has happened before – though thankfully not with Stonemaier products!)

    I appreciate the system probably works very differently in the USA, but in a system like we have here, we sadly aren’t left with a great deal of options. Do you have any advice for retailers in the UK faced with these difficulties?

    You mention you authorise demo copies for stores – can you please tell me if this is just in the USA, as this has never been mentioned by our supplier in the UK?

    Thanks again for taking the time to write on this subject!

    1. Thanks Rae! And that’s a good point. I wonder if it’s more a matter of communication–that is, making sure the customers know that their game may not be available on the release date, depending on when they order. As long as stores communicate clearly with your preorder customers, it shouldn’t be a problem.

      As for demo copies, I’d recommend asking your distributor about it. We authorize all of them to offer our games as demos to stores at our expense.

  32. I agree that Kickstarter isn’t the answer. In addition to the reasons you listed, KS has birthed an aggressive secondary market which means some backers are buying up games intending to resell. Or the scarcity of the game is convincing someone who DID ACTUALLY WANT THE GAME to resell at a profit.

  33. As a consumer, one thing that may help is simply putting a date on the pre-order. So if you want in on the first run, make sure to pre-order by X date. Of course, then you need a reliable way to get those numbers and it will upset people more if they get missed.

    Another thought is setting up a portal so that retailers can log in, set prices, and accept pre-orders directly via the publisher. Just some thoughts.

  34. I believe there’s probably something to learn from GMT games and their p500 system. Note I’m not saying that p500 in it’s current state could be blanketed across the industry and all problems would magically vanish, but Gene has a very clear idea of initial interest and can likely make some pretty good estimations based on that dataset. I can think of several ways to modify that system, not only to measure unit numbers, but possibly to get demographic data as well.

  35. When you consider that most gamers are following the production and release of many, many games, is this really a problem in the macro. I agree that it is not that long to wait for a second printing, and in that time, other game titles might become available. Also, would it help if there was preordering of the second or third printings?

    1. Ken: That’s a great question. While I’m not sure if it would help with the issues described here, I’ve decided not to accept preorders for other printings because I don’t want to sell something we don’t actually have. Maybe I’ll reconsider that in the future, though, if I know a product is on its way to us in a timely manner.

  36. Can you compare Wingspan with My Little Scythe? It seems that there is an excess of inventory of MLS (based on steep discounting I saw over the holidays, might be an assumption on my part.) Was they buzz too early for MLS? By the time it made it to market, was the buzz over? Did distributors over order? Just wondering how the two products path to the market differed…..

    1. Mark: My Little Scythe has done very well for us so far–I think we ordered the right amount for it.

      The comparison/contrast I’d actually make is to Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, a game I absolutely love and thought was going to be a huge hit. Instead, it’s been a modest hit, and we’re selling through our original order…just slower than I estimated. I think at least part of that is due to the differences in the ways I marketed the two games, though: https://stonemaiergames.com/how-wingspan-took-flight-in-the-first-week/

  37. So if their was a better way for all 3 parts of your system to communicate would be the best option. The first thing is you need pre-order info which if you had your own website or app like BGG website you could track basic interest of the game via click or time spent on page. I notice many non-released games being added their before first print runs have finished.Then implementation of a store pre-order front could have it that retailer, distributor and producer know how many products are directly wanted and this can be compared to time spent on page allowing of a creation of a algorithm to better predict demand If having the money for production is issue maybe have people pay half of game for pre-order and make sure those funds reach the producer. The board game market is tiny compared to other entertainment markets and I’m pretty sure that because of how niche it still is and greater acceptance and growth won’t occured until some major hurtles are taken and I wished more publisher and distributers would report on their issues at hand. So thank you!

  38. I managed supply chains for a living for 20+ years. I currently teach business operations & Supply Chain Management at Shippensburg University. Plus I own and manage a board game cafe. Jamey has put his finger on a big issue with this industry. I have been observing and dealing with some of these issues for the last 3 years. It really needs to be addressed for the good of the hobby and the industry. Many folks think competition is between game stores or publishers. But competition is between supply chains. Supply chain management is not easy but it can be done, Right now I see very little of even the basics of SCM being done by any of the distributors or manufacturers/publishers. They are the primary elements of the supply chain that need to put methods in place. Retailers will abide by the methods established. Right now information flows only one way (from publisher down) and not in a clear methodical way. (e.g., this is the first I have even heard of Wingspan and its popularity). Information should flow both ways. Forecasting should include input from every element of the chain. There is much work to be done here for the good of the industry but not sure there is anyone leading the charge.

  39. There’s a stark lack of predictive tools in the distribution system. A lot of it has to do with the fact that at all tiers of this business, most companies _suck_ at communicating with each other.

    But at the end of the day, the market that demands product is also highly intolerant of the realities of creating, manufacturing, and delivering said product.

    And yet, it’s not realistic to expect your average end consumer to have to understand the full function of the pipeline that got a game into their hands (or didn’t), no matter how much transparency and education you throw out into the world.

    So I don’t think the problem is solvable, at least not with the current state of technology. Someone talked upthread about improving the speed of manufacture, and that would definitely help, if it were actually possible (not sure it is).

    I’ve published both board and RPG games, and the reason I print RPG games domestically is because it cuts the turnaround from reprint order to product in hand by 60% or more — like, 2 month turnaround instead of 4 to 6. But for things other than books, the domestic manufacture market simply isn’t price-competitive, and China (and other overseas options) are at present always going to run pretty slow relative to that, especially when you have to layer in slow overseas shipping times.

    If your end consumer were willing to pay, say, double what they pay right now for the exact same games, it might get more feasible to print domestically and reap all the speed benefits that would come from that … but I think it’s likelier that some sort of disruptive technology improvement would produce a speed win long before consumer attitudes on price would change.

  40. There are tons of comments and I’ll be honest, I didn’t read most of them but I did read the whole post by Jamey..
    ..I’m stricly a consumer and the only way I can see things changing as to what’s hot and stays hot is less games ultimately being released. I can’t imagine that’d happen until companies consolidate more or just go out of business which will equal less products on the market. I dunno, that’s not per say a fix, but more of an end result of people trying to siphon through a deluge of new games annually.
    Personally I’ve taken a step back, reduced my intake of rviews so I don’t follow the hype train as much. I sold every game in my collection that has was unplayed as of bgg con 2018, and am much more selective now.
    Jamey, do you see any signs of a trend towards gamers slowing down purchases? Or it’s still everyone desperately seeking the weekly new hotness?

    1. John: It’s hard for me to say from my limited perspective. I can really only answer for our games, and I do a bunch of different things to try to keep games alive after the novelty of newness wears off. It seems like it’s always been: Some games catch on, and some games don’t.

  41. Have you considered any mechanism where customers could choose to delay their order for some sort of credit? I’m thinking the way Amazon will let you do delayed shipping.

    Maybe call it a Good Neighbor program or Community Steward discount. Offer $5 and their name on the official site for choosing to delay until the next run. I’m sure some folks would love special flair to use on BGG or other communities.

    It doesn’t get at the root of the problem but it is something that might relive some pressureI. I’m not sure how that would work with the distributor and retailer model but perhaps there is a nugget of an idea there worth pursuing.

      1. Who will bear the $5? If it is Stonemaier, then how to confirm payments are legit? Sending out all those payments would be quite annoying.

        Not to mention that $5 is a significant portion of the profit on a $55 MSRP game. Distributors are likely only pay $22, and there is all of the manufacturing costs, freight, and royalties.

      2. For sure. Happy to bounce ideas around. There are some ways you might be able to minimize the burden and maybe even benefit a bit.

        For instance you could keep it simple and send out unique coupon codes that retailers could give anyone who pre-ordered. They’d be sending people to your online store instead of theirs but it might be worth the good will as they’d have something they could give rather than nothing.

        Unique codes would let you track which stores used the code the most. That might be interesting datadto explore. Even if they leak out, you benefit from people ordering from you. It shouldn’t be too technically difficult either.

  42. The wingspan experiment showed that it’s possible to build buzz around a game without kickstarter. What I wonder is whether the short timeline between preorder and delivery is actually hurting you here. A pre-order with a longer lead-time would allow you to make manufacturing adjustments in response to pre-orders without making too many people wait.

    Think of it like a shifting timeline pre-order:
    Order your first run, and open pre-orders in two ways:
    1) Direct pre-orders as early as you can reasonably guarantee delivery timeline from your website with the delivery date listed based on the expected arrival of the game.
    2) Retailer Pre-Orders (with the retailers using a Stonemaier owned pre-order system for tracking) begins around the same time.
    Both 1 and 2 are pulling from the same pool of games, and if the pre-orders exceed the first print run, the delivery timeline shifts to the second printing automatically.

    This would allow you to gauge demand early enough to get the second printing started ASAP. The pre-order timeline is shifting for consumers so they know when they can expect to receive their game at the time they order it. The trick here is that people can order from you directly, or from their local store if they prefer. But the local store pre-orders are entered into your system directly rather than being surprised by retailer pre-orders that far exceed the available copies.

    You could still use the distributors to handle the logistics of getting copies of the game to retailers if you want. Or you could direct ship to the retailers and share the cost savings of skipping distributors. Either way is probably doable.

    On the flip side, if the pre-orders are lower than the first print run, you aren’t stuck with too many copies of the game.

    This isn’t all that different from Kickstarter, of course, except that it would keep the retailers involved. Maybe for larger retailers, you could arrange some advance copies for in-store demos during the later pre-order period. You could have a handful of copies that get passed around between stores, etc…

  43. Would some combination of what Adam and Ken said above work to manage expectations? Out of a first print run, you could offer x through direct preorder from Stonemaier and x for preorder via retailers, through some centraiized first-come, first-served system only for retailers. Retailers could continue to take preorders after the first print run is spoken for, but it would be clearer to them when things roll over to the next print run, so they could manage customers’ expectations about when they’ll get their games. Customers who missed out on that first print run might feel more “I should have preordered sooner” and less “you said I’d get it in March but now it’s coming in May.”

    Having been blown away by the Wingspan reviews that came out on Jan 2/3, I’ve also been wondering how much they drove sales — and now I’m wondering if there’s something with timing there: if you had seen them earlier, or if you had made them public earlier, would that have helped close the time gap between gauging demand and ordering the next print run?

    1. Elizabeth: Thanks for chiming in. One key distinction here is that we don’t sell to retailers (distributors aren’t a fan of us doing that).

      As for the reviews, I did hear early, private reports from those reviewers that helped me make the decision to proceed with the second print run.

  44. Is there a chance you a underestimating how strong your brand and track record is and that your minimum print run should be larger? Have you ever been stuck with an over supply of one of your games? In other words, are you being too conservative?

    1. Chad: It’s certainly possible, though I learned with Between Two Castles that even a fantastic game (in my opinion) with our brand doesn’t necessarily charge out of the gate. It did well, but for that one I should have been a bit more conservative. It’s a guessing game for every game. :)

  45. While we’re brainstorming (meaning no idea is too outlandish), betting markets always seem to end up giving you the most accurate depiction of reality. Find a way to create a “game futures” market where folks are incentivized/rewarded for getting it right, and players in the market will do the work for you towards developing an accurate forecast.

  46. Sounds like counting on 2nd and 3rd print runs from a publisher of your magnitude, and a little bit of patience, is the answer.

  47. Let’s put it this way, if you take this game and put it on Kickstarter (comparable buzz generation wrt to your tactics on WS). At this point with your name, brand, and production quality, it’s pretty much guaranteed you would make minimum 1-2m$ in gross (Tang Garden being a good comparison) so yes I feel you were being conservative. Don’t be afraid of being wrong and trust your instincts.

  48. This article has gotten a lot of responses, so I hope I am not duplicated something I missed in the other comments.
    If I recall correctly, one of the things your P500 article discussed was the upfront costs that you would need to eat if the game never made it to the printing threshold. How about using a P500 only for reprints? It does not help your problem with running out of copies for Wingspan, but out of all of the suggestions I don’t know what does, unless the printers change the way they work. I am surprised at how quickly you are able to get the second printing of Wingspan. I would imaging printers fill up their schedules as well, so getting fit into a printer schedules also has to factor into how long it takes to get the next run. Even once I know there is demand, it takes time to get scheduled at the printer, and then to print, and then to ship, and then get to distributors, and then to retail. By then some of the buzz has died down and people have moved on, meaning the demand may be less than you initially thought. Its tough, and I don’t know how other industries manage.

    Now back to P500, A lot of talk lately in the industry is about many games being 1 print run only, and a P500 would help publishers make the decision about the second print run.

    1. John: Thanks for your question about using P500 for reprints. I see what you’re saying, but I really want the vast majority of reprints to go to distributors and retailers (from whom we do get great numbers for second printings in particular).

      As for the speed of the second printing, we had already made the non-printed components in the fall, so when I started to see the buzz for the game in December (and some of the private responses from reviewers), I authorized the second printing to begin. It takes the same amount of time as any other printing, but it just seems fast because the retail release date isn’t until March 8.

  49. Forecasts will always be forecasts :) But i understand the issue. Waiting a couple of months for a reprint shouldn’t be such a big deal for gamers, in particular for products/brands well established. If you compare it with standard KS times, backers are usually pledging way more than half a year in advance, while incurring in higher risks! I know that there is a lot going on, with increasing production and diversity, a more globalized offer and demand and different ways of accessing games strongly depending on your location. That this is a fast era, where we have moved from wanting something now, to wanting something way before it actually exists. And to buy and immediately start to look for the next big thing. Too much FOMO… I’m always amazed of how many people own so many games that were never, or rarely been played! A contradiction in terms of economic rationality and sustainability (with an exception for collectors ;). Naturally this high turnaround makes it even more difficult for all those in the creation, manufacture and supply chain. Well, guess these are just musings, without offering much to solve the issue at stake. Except for the need of some “slow gaming”.

  50. The easiest solution to ease the issues othe retailers are seeing would be to not ship any units until there is a viable number to ship. 1 or less per store is not viable. So you sell direct your 10k units (or however many) and you prep for the distributoon/retail run to follow that will give the industry a viable taste. The biggest issue seems to be that you’re trying to do 2 things at the same time that you simply cannot do. Does that require foresight or insight on your behalf? Hindsight even? Possibly. Cancel the retail releases until summer and call it a learning lesson.

  51. If you aren’t aware of it already, the beer game (beer distribution game) was a big eye opener for us when I was working at a smaller game publishing company. The bullwhip effect can be nasty even for successful products. Information transmission through a multi-level distribution network can be extremely dangerous for publishers.

  52. I agree that blaming any one leg of the publishing, distribution, and retailer process probably isn’t the thing to do. But, it also bothers me that you basically state no one is at fault here. There are reasons demand is often so much higher than supply, and the industry is failing to do a good job at predicting this, whatever the specific reasons are. Something, somewhere, is failing, and this doesn’t happen on it’s own. Don’t get me wrong here – I understand that there’s no simple solution to this. But, how can you fix the problems if you don’t or can’t attribute the reasons this is occurring to anything or anyone? Isn’t the first step in solving a problem being able to find and attribute the cause(s)?

    1. Ruben: Well, what I’m basically saying is that there is no foolproof solution for this problem, nor is there a specific source of the problem that I’m aware of. We’re all working with imperfect information.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Jamey. I realize what you’re saying, and that there’s no specific source of the problem. The problems seem to originate, in my opinion, because the industry as a whole needs a significant overhaul to run properly. What other industry is so heavily reliant on Kickstarter, then a long wait time so the product can be manufactured in China? Then, to top it off, board game reviewers often have copies of the game several months in advance of the release date, causing demand to rise even further than initial expectations. Then, even before many people have received the game they were so looking forward to a year or even a couple months ago, new games have been announced, reviewers are showing off these new games, and that once “must have” game gets lost in a sea of new games, and the cycle just keeps going.

        As a consumer and a hopeful game designer, this is very frustrating. I think your article was excellent because it began a much needed conversation, and I know one person can’t change the way things work as a whole (but hopefully can start the process!). I just hope the industry begins to work together to solve these issues, and that includes working with reviewers more closely so that consumers are not always feeling like they’re “left behind” in the whole process, unless they happen to kickstart a game or are lucky enough to get in on the initial print run.

  53. The solution (theoretically) is simple: shorten the manufacturing leadtime. If this game was an app in the app store, or an mp3 file to download, there is no problem. Or, if print on demand services across the globe provided the same quality as a mass producer like Panda.

    Just for the sake of brainstorming, what if Stonemaier offered (after the first run was sold out) a PnP version for $15. Sure, the consumer would miss out on all the niceties of the production version. Maybe the $15 could be credited to the 3rd or 4th run of the game? I pay $15 in January to print the game myself, then I pay my balance of $35 in May to get a 4th run printing of the game.

    1. Yes, shortening lead time would be great.

      On the issue of PnP, and important function of a publisher is to control for quality.

      1. Understood. Just brainstorming.

        What if there was a “basic version” of the game: no box, no dice tower, no nice plastic card insert, maybe cubes instead of eggs), gets shipped to you in a plastic bag for $25 or $30. Would still get professionally printed cards, and player mats. (This would just be an option instead of waiting months for a second printing).

        The goal is: How to reduce the leadtime to get this game to the consumer?

        The challenge is we consumers have come to expect wildly customized components to improve the game experience (bird house dice tower, etc.), and since those are custome built, they have long leadtimes.

  54. […] Stonemaier on Supply and Demand Jamey Stegmaier talked about the difficult task of forecasting demand for board games. “ Publishers don’t know the demand for a new game until they announce it, reviewers discuss it, and people play it. And most importantly, demand is uncertain until people can actually buy it. Until then, the demand is purely hypothetical.” Source: https://stonemaiergames.com/an-open-letter-to-distributors-and-retailers-from-stonemaier-games/ […]

  55. Do you feel that the top influencers in the space could help you predict demand if they were engaged at the same time as distributors/retailers.

    It seems that with their experience dealing with prototypes and wide sample size of comparative games, they’d be a valuable data point on the subjective side of demand planning.

    Obviously they already get involved with previewing/playing/reviewing, but I didn’t know if you’d ever posed the question of anticipated demand. Perhaps engage them earlier with a time sensitive NDA if you’re worried about leaking info.

    1. Brian: Definitely! In fact, the early feedback I got from several key influencers (reviewers who received advance copies of Wingspan) reinforced my decision to move forward with the second print run so early.

  56. Idea: Pre-game promos. Sell them with a $5 off coupon (or % off) for the game when it comes back in stores. Win-win. Consumer gets something in relation to the game they want (a promo, like a card or first player token), keeps some portion of the anticipation, and this gives you data. This will also give you more data to work with to predict demand. Sure, people with the game will buy it and give the coupon to a friend, but you can still gage demand with data and a fraction of the cost of a full production.

    Interesting article, thanks for sharing your experiences.

  57. I had a notion recently that it might be helpful if KS had a survey option to both garner interest and provide a pulse to the developer as to the level of commitment to an idea rather than solely a pledge of denomination. If enough votes came in, with of course the voter knowing the cost to print &ship, then even if a small percentage later change their minds, it could very well give a good estimate for demand. Actually, it could serve as a sort of certificate to show publishers, a proof of interest.

    Wanna-be-designer, Chris Mixis

    1. Ok, 😋 that’s actually a ridiculous idea since the pledge already accomplishes that. I’ll quietly walk away now…

  58. My suggestion, and apologies if it’s been mentioned before as I haven’t read the 100+ comments, is that you send a disproportional amount to non-US distributors. US customers typically enjoy free shipping while a large part of the world have to endure very high shipping costs. Personally, I chose not to preorder Wingspan via Stonemeaier, even though I enjoy discounts due to being a Stonemaier Champion. Because of the extremely high shipping costs I, instead, pre-ordered locally and I’ll be very disappointed if I miss out in the first run because the retailer was allocated only 1 or 2 copies. Sending the “extra” copies to non-US countries would help to re-balance the shipping cost issue.

    It’s very frustrating to continually being slugged with outrageous shipping costs (not blaming Stonemaier), while US customers have free shipping. I’m sure it costs more than $0 to ship a game from St Loius to, say, Las Vegas.

    1. Thanks Phil! Quite a few copies of Wingspan went to international distributors, and for the preorder we ran (direct orders from Stonemaier), we had copies in fulfillment centers in Canada and Europe to keep shipping costs as low as possible for customers in those areas. US customers did not have free shipping.

      1. Thanks Jamey. I’m just excited to get the game and will be a little disappointed if I miss out on the first run. Fingers crossed.

        I thought US-based Champions got free shipping on all orders from your website.

          1. So… as a thought – I live in Australia which attracts a US$30 shipping fee with the Champions discount, which makes it very expensive to have the game “now”. I, instead, chose to pre-order from a local retailer for a much more reasonable price with an expected availability date of early March – I’m happy to wait if it costs me significantly less. Given that the Champions sales were so much higher than estimated, and that the US customers, which make up the majority of the orders, get free shipping, my suggestion is that a greater proportion of copies get allocated to non-US (and possibly non-EU) destinations.

          2. My comment was cut short as I accidentally hit Enter, but I won’t bang on about it any more.

            Thanks Jamey – I’m very happy to hear that you’re working towards using a local fulfilment company. I love the idea of the Stonemaier Champion program but, in it’s current format, it doesn’t really help those of us in Australia (or NZ). Having a local distribution point will help to address this.

            Whatever happens, it won’t discourage me from being a Champion once my current one lapses. Stonemaier has the best game development/production philosophy bar none.

  59. The way I see it is that the problem was that the information ‘Wingspan will be a hit, look at all the pre-orders my store has!’ is something that the retailers knew, but you didn’t. But what your article didn’t make clear to me was whether the retailers knew *before* or *after* you produced the 10,000 units. When did they start taking pre-orders?

    1. Laura: That’s a good question. I talked about the first-run quantity, but that doesn’t really give retailers a good idea of how many copies they need or how many they’ll get from their distributors. They started taking preorders on January 2 (same as us).

  60. But how many full-production-quality ‘what you see is what you get’ copies did you need to have made in order to generate the result that the customers are racing off to the retailers and putting in a pre-order? 1? 10? 100?

    Is there a way to change things so your manufacturer makes as samples, sends them to you, you do whatever else you do generate buzz with them, and open the game up for pre-order at the retailers, and then wait however long it takes for the buzz to take hold (or, alas, not). Clearly you didn’t need even a month this time. Then you call some representative retailers and see how the pre-order situation is, and then call the boardgame manufacturer and say: Right, We Have the Final Numbers Now, make me 35,000 copies (or whatever seems reasonable).

    This would mean that retailers and customers were spared unhappiness when demand is high, at the cost of some delay in receiving the game. Would the delay be a source of its own unhappiness, significant enough to offset this?

    1. Laura: We had 12 advance copies that we sent to reviewers and used for nice photos. Those are the first assembled copies, so they’re only available at the tail end of the manufacturing process, well after the overall quantity has been established. At that point, all components have been made/printed–they just haven’t been assembled yet.

  61. Hmmm, I wrote ‘manufacturer makes {this many} as samples’ but with angle brackets, and this seems to have been interpreted as formatting. Sorry about that.

  62. The design diary is what got me hooked and ready to preorder Wingspan, but that is because of the game play, theme, and SM brand. I think you could have hooked me earlier with a good description and image (see Dec 5 design diary), and held my interest for a few months until the preorder was available. Not as long as a KickStarter campaign, but releasing a bit more info earlier so you can gauge interest closer to the time you need to place the order to the manufacturer.

    Perhaps allowing people to sign up for updates, get more ‘behind the scenes’ design info, ‘wish list’, ‘reserve a copy’, etc. might tell an interesting story and give you some trends on when, and how many, people are hooked; ‘call to actions’ (i.e. single clicks instead of surveys). For example, I would have clicked on every option to get early info for Wingspan, but you would have seen my stat drop off quickly for Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig because I mostly play 2 player games and have low interest in a 3+ player game (despite the 2 player variant).

    I’m curious how the distributor came up with the 10,000 number: guess? previous sales data (based on SM or all sales)? do they have a forecasting tool but not the right data?

    This article got me to dusting off a project. I have a machine learning model that takes BGG stats and spits out a prediction (my rating); what would happen if it tried to predict sales (it can’t – I just thought the exercise would be interesting)? I added BGG Hotness as an input and used Tom’s top 10 CoolStuffInc sales as training data (unfortunately just rankings, not numbers). Results: top 10 most likely games to appear in the January list (rank highest to lowest) = Azul, Spirit Island, The Mind, Architects of the West Kingdom, Sagrada, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game, Reef, Century: Eastern Wonders, Azul: Stained Glass of Sinatra, KeyForge. Betrayal Legacy just missed the list and Pandemic: Fall of Rome appeared when I modified I few settings. Will Gugong make the list? Will Chronicles of Crime, Railroad Inc and Camel Up hold their spots…we’ll have to wait until Tom posts January. Sorry, back to the topic at hand: as Rene mentioned above it would be difficult to actually acquire and determine the factors affecting demand – I doubt AI is going to solve the problem for you – but maybe you just need one or two more good data points to give you more confidence in ordering [or not] an extra 5-10k units for the first printing.

  63. Jeez remember when it took 8-12 weeks to ship the most basic items through UPS or the USPS? A few short months is nothing and really people need to chill.

  64. I know no one wants to change a release date and sadly it is almost the industry standard these days. But I really think with this many shipments coming in so close it might have been best to hold the release till more supply was received in the states. Jamey I would like to go over our allocation process to our stores with you as well if you want send me an email.

  65. As a consumer, I didn’t know I wanted Wingspan until (1) I knew what kind of game it was (2) I saw the production quality and most importantly, (3) I saw the strong positive reviews. So perhaps the key to gauging interest would be telling consumers more about the game and asking them to sign up for an e-mail list if they’re interested. That would provide some indication of how strong the demand is looking… but until the reviews are in, all that is a big guess. You were right to be cautious. Elizabeth is a brand-new designer and while the Stonemaier name will definitely sell games designed by Jamey, I understand not wanting to take a risk above 10,000 on your first new designer not working on a spin-off. And let’s be honest – the Stonemaier reputation was instrumental to giving this game the sort of popularity that several similar and excellent recent releases didn’t attract. Also, sales of other bird games were not at all impressive, so I don’t think the distributors could have provided a better guess.

    And you forget that first run copies nearly always have typos or other flaws that you then have to send out correct components for – do you really want more than 10,000 copies like that? It’s much wiser, in my opinion, to do several print runs and be able to make those corrections. And if it wasn’t for Chinese New Year, you wouldn’t have even had that big a delay. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really do wish we didn’t have to share one copy of Wingspan, passing it around, with 20+ people… but we’re happy to have the copy we have, the owner of the copy is happy that it’s getting played, and we’ll happily grab our copies when it finally comes out… hopefully with the expansion!

  66. Hey Jamey. I read the article and want to comment on it for informational purposes. I have not gone through all the comments, myself – that’ll be something I do later. So if I repeat things you’ve already heard, I apologize.

    I own two retail stores in Colorado. One has been open since 2006, the other since 2015. Prior to that I was in retail management (shoe stores) from 1992 until 2003, when I bought my first company (also a game store, that I subsequently sold to do what I’m doing now). So, I’ve watched a lot of time pass in the retail world, and might have a few insights for you.

    In the retail landscape of the 90s, of course, the internet did not have even the hint of the impact it would eventually have on brick and mortar retail. Neither, by the way, did big box stores like Target or Wal-Mart. The threat those stores posed to the local family-owned store was looming, but no one had yet been seriously affected. The economy was booming, strip malls were being built everywhere, operating costs (and health insurance in particular) were cheap, and wages were less than half what they are now (and still capable of allowing a full-time employee to actually afford a reasonable lifestyle). Even more importantly, banks were more than willing to give a company a sizable line of credit, one they could draw on throughout the lean months when needed, then pay off when the Christmas season hit.

    Because of all this, cash flow for a retail business was an entirely different animal than it is now. Every company I worked for, and every company my friends worked for, maintained more than enough stock on hand to meet the needs of a bellwether day/week/month. If something was popular it was available; no need to worry about lost sales. If something wasn’t popular it got put on sale so that the costs could be recovered and reinvested into the next thing; no big deal. In fact, sales were a major attractor to customers, so nothing was ever really a “bust” because it simply turned into marketing.

    Enter 2000 (the dot-com bubble burst), and 2001 (the September 11th World Trade Center attack). And by now, of course, Wal-Mart and Target were having major impacts, and the internet was seeing massive growth.

    Throughout this decade local retailers struggled with the impacts. Banks became less willing to give out lines of credit. Costs were dramatically on the rise (health insurance chief among them). Because of the now-active housing bubble, wages were falling behind in the ability to keep full-time employees happy. “Consolidation” was a thing, as larger companies acquired smaller companies, refining their look and offerings, or simply shutting them down to make more customers for the main flagship.

    Distributors were now feeling the pinch. They couldn’t simply keep a ton of stock on hand, ready to sell to whoever asked for it. Because, frankly, fewer and fewer people were asking for it. They were shipping smaller amounts of product, more frequently, as stores did their best to maintain an on-hand quantity that was just adequate enough to meet the needs of their stock turn. And they were making these shipments in an environment where shipping companies were dramatically increasing their own pricing to absorb the skyrocketing costs of fuel, insurance, and labor. So they, too, started going to an on-demand stock system. They would only order what they felt they could reliably sell, thus keeping their own cash flow in line.

    So, of course manufacturers eventually followed along. Fantasy Flight Games was the first game company I saw who deliberately took a stance of only starting a print run when fully half of that print run was already sold. It led to some amazingly frustrating situations. In September of 2008 Arkham Horror was out of stock and unavailable for the following four months, starting during a month when everyone wanted to play a “horror” game, and not ending until after the Christmas season. In fact, that game landed back on my shelves on December 27th, as Fantasy Flight also had a strict “street date” policy that kept distributors from shipping the product the moment they had it, despite it being an item that was only coming BACK into print, as opposed to an item being newly introduced to the market.

    The housing bubble burst in 2007, of course. Amazon’s rise to power was visible, now. Wal-Mart was finally everywhere. And stores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and even Target, were getting into the specialty board game business as consumers turned toward “repeatable” entertainment experiences that would save them money in the long run. And when companies like that called the distributors or manufacturers and said, “We’ll take all of this item,” they were of course given it, which made the smaller retailer even less nimble than they had already made themselves.

    Few of these influences have been mitigated over the intervening decade. Many of them have actually been exacerbated. I think the entire system is incredibly stressed, and that is simply the way of things now. Margins of error are nearly non-existent. Every decision has to be exactly right, or the effects will have lasting impacts across the entire landscape.

    There are lots of things I haven’t even gone into. Wizards of the Coast consolidated its distributor list multiple times (and eventually eliminated direct-to-retailer sales altogether). The disappearance of smaller, local distributors was only hastened by these moves, putting a lot of power in the hands of companies like Alliance and ACD, who of course wanted to continue the new cash-flow model they had been forced into during the prior decade. And when the large distributors started their “exclusives” battle, things got even worse. The small local shop was already only occasionally going to be able to meet a $500 minimum order, and now they have to pay attention to more than one distributor because they will otherwise not have everything that a local consumer expects to see when walking into a game store. Occasionally became rarely.

    Now let’s factor in the frantic release schedule of games, and the rampant “expansion-itis” that has hit so many different popular lines. X-Wing was a great game when it came out, taking up a few square feet of slat wall and selling incredibly well. Now it dominates the back half of some stores (and it’ll grow at least three times this year), and if those stores sell even half as much X-Wing product as they used to move when the line was only a dozen SKUs, I would be shocked.

    So, you have gun-shy stores unwilling to purchase more than a week’s turn. Which creates gun-shy distributors who don’t want to be saddled with more product than they can sell through to reliably get back their investment. Which, of course, creates uninformed publishers who don’t have any real idea what the demand on their product lines may actually be.

    So, who’s going to take the risk, first?

    PS – That got far longer than I thought it would. I apologize for that. But I hope you find some reasons for your predicament in there. And I’ll be happy to further the discussion if you want.

    1. Thanks, Jeff! I really appreciate you sharing this. I can definitely understand the risks a store takes when they decide to stock a product. I’m guessing it feels similar to when I’m deciding to invest $100,000 in a new game, not knowing how it will sell but knowing that we won’t get any revenue from distributors until after the release date. So much risk in this industry!

  67. A suggestion: Find a few larger stores around the country and start selling direct to them. They will be more willing to take a risk (or, frankly, are a better operation and thus more accurately know what a “risk” is and is not). If you had come to me and asked me what I planned to order for Wingspan I would have told you 36 copies across two stores. That is 300% to 400% more than most new games I buy (if I buy them), which is also information you could have gotten from me. If you get a dozen accounts all saying the same thing, I think you will be far more informed about your own position.

    Instead, I told my distributor I want that. They simply lumped that number into all their other stores’ orders (and many stores won’t even commit right now; they’ll simply wait to see what kind of position they are in when it comes out), and passed it on to you. So, my 36 copy order was unremarkable in the context of the number they passed on to you.

    Not that they are concerned about how many I actually want, by the way. If they don’t get enough copies of a game to meet the demand upon release, they will simply allocate it based on volume. My order of 36 will turn into perhaps half a dozen, I suspect, when Wingspan actually releases. Unless it’s a dud that no one else wants. Then I HAVE to take all 36. Afterall, I committed to them…

    1. I appreciate that, Jeff. But timing matters. Selling Wingspan wasn’t a problem after we already made it and reviews were released. The time we’d need information like that would be before we even start making the game. Do you think you would have reserved 36 copies of Wingspan 6 months ago?

      1. Yep. Based on what I know about you and your company, if you and I had had that conversation, I’m assuming I would have had all the information then that I have now (look, feel, gameplay, cost, etc.). That’s what I would have based my decision on. That, and the “risk” of backing a company I know has success.

  68. Hi Jamey, I’m talking way out of school here, but could this be more a question of “why” rather than quantity? What I mean is, have you found that positive reviews, or releasing artwork, or X tend to be the motivators for why people are buying? It would seem that a mathematical model using AI could help with this problem. If you for example have be have discovered any direct correlations to the number of highly positive reviews for a game, the number of customers who already own Stonemaier Games (BGG stats), additional factors like buzz (Reddit/BGG posts, etc)., time of year, etc. those could be fed into the model and given past order quantities used to predict (at least) early demand. The great thing about AI models is you can feed them historic data and they forecast results (which are almost always wrong), but then you give them the actual results and they “self optimize” to make more accurate forecasts. This model can then be tested against an entirely different set of data (for a different game) and can be tested for accuracy. I’m no expert here, but if you could use another games historic data to accurately predict the demand Wingspan had, it would be great for the industry.

    1. I understand a lot of the data isn’t available until after the first print commitment, but some is. Just a thought, at our company we have a couple contests a year to anyone who can develop a process or AI model to solve a given problem. The winner usually gets a paid vacation or some other monetary incentive. Why not crowdsource this problem? This blog post is a great conversation starter, but why not ask the community, which I know is comprised of many people in IT and other high skill professions, to design a model or strategy that could work better for SM? You may get 50 crazy proposals, but 1 could be a gem. For the cost of a few free games, you might get a brilliant new method that would benefit SM for years to come.

  69. I think the problem is pretty simple . As a publisher you want to have a certain amount of mystique around your products. You don’t want the hype-train to leave the station too quickly. But at the same time you need info from the consumer as to whether they’ll buy it. As an established publisher, is it possible to pre-sell to publishers? And by that I mean get them to pay 10-20% of their commitment cost up front. That way it lessens the load on you a bit. And in return maybe they can do the same with their retailers. And, in return the retailer can do that with the customer. Everyone gets some skin in the game. But it’s nothing that they wouldn’t spend eventually anyway. And what would that 10-20% do for you? It gives you the flexibility to get another print run going earlier than may be the case . It would take a new mindset, but you never know.

    1. “As an established publisher, is it possible to pre-sell to publishers?”

      Yes, it’s possible–many Kickstarter creators do that. But it’s not an option I’ve considered with our current model, as it would result in us needing to release details about the game way too far in advance of the actual retail release date.

      1. Why does that matter? You wouldn’t need to release those details publically although i dont see the issue with that either. Details build hype. I mean we’re not talking 3 years in advance or anything.

  70. Then unfortunately Jamie, I think you may have an official conundrum. If you can’t give people info, I just don’t see how it’s possible to determine if they’ll want the product. With hundreds of games entering the marketplace, and especially if a game is coming from a new designer (regardless of the Stonemaier stamp of approval), I just can’t see how you can expect commitment without details. Is it possible to reserve a production spot for a time that you think might be beneficial for getting things going on production . And, in the event that the game doesn’t need a reprint right away you can slot in another print run of something else (either and evergreen product or a new game)? Just spitballing her.

    I get that you want to be able to hit the market with keeping things under wraps until you hit us with sustained news right up to release. But I think in this flooded game market right now, you need to be the one to create flexibility for yourself, if you want the element of secrecy.

    Just my opinion. Not looking to ruffle feathers (pun fully intended). 😂

    1. “I just can’t see how you can expect commitment without details.”

      I don’t expect commitment–that isn’t something I’ve said I expect.

      Really, this is a problem with no solution. It is not possible to estimate demand with 100% accuracy before the first print run. Even with a Kickstarter, you’re just gauging early adopter demand.

      The system I have works well. Honestly, if the Chinese New Year didn’t impact the schedule, the second print run of Wingspan–which was initiated because of the demand I saw for Wingspan in early December–would have arrived at almost the same time as the first print run. So it’s my fault for letting that impact the schedule

  71. So…..here’s a comment about the elephant in the room. It’s not just this industry, it’s everyone who gets products in China. Chinese New Year is exceptionally disruptive. It’s not just the time taken off, it’s the quality control issues at factories as they begin to ramp production back up. Here’s an interesting article. The question is, can those companies (not board game publishers, but the bigger fish) not start to influence China to st least keep factories open at minimal levels during CNY in order to facilitate a smoother transition once people return. Even if there were bonuses offered to people who stay. This is not about working conditions, etc which I know are terrible, this is a strictly economic perspective. Especially since the Chinese economy is struggling a bit right now.
    https://www.genimexgroup.com/blog/manufacturing-in-china/chinese-new-year-impact-manufacturing/

  72. I’ve got 2 ideas, hopefully not too similar to what has already been suggested:

    1. Pick some trusty “Bellweather” stores in different sales regions. When you get the distributors’ estimate, you can also ask these Bellweather stores what they think, given the same information (maybe with some concept art). They can give you a more granular estimate for their store. If all stores report higher than normal interest, bump up the distributors’ estimate. If they report lower interest, be more cautious. And if it’s mixed, with some higher and some lower, it might be more a of a judgment call. Is the higher interest MUCH higher, with the lower interest only slightly lower? Maybe a small increase is warranted. In any case, I think extrapolating from the brick-and-mortar stores can help, but I’m not suggesting you double the production run if a store that would usually order 2 copies says they’d like 4 instead :)

    2. I’m a believer in Big Data, analytics, etc.Instead of expensive algorithms, I think you can glean some good info at home. Call it Small Data. For example, you’ve already got a game in development, but haven’t started production. At that point, announce the game publicly and set up the corresponding pages on your site, etc. Within a week or two, you can count how many threads are there on BGG, how many people have joined the FB page, how many views of your website, how many reddit threads, etc. You can compare these numbers to other newly announced games, although having historical data here would help. You could look at your own previous games, or other games with a similar theme, to see how the same metrics compare. That could give another way to extrapolate (there’s that word again) interest before you order the manufacturing.

    Good luck! None of my friends locally have Wingspan yet, but I’m excited to try it!

    1. Thanks for sharing these ideas, Ryan! The first idea is something I’m looking to implement the next time we have a new game. I have a small list of retailers and distributors I would talk to in confidence as a focus group to help decide the initial print run quantity. As for the second idea, I love the concept of pulling all of those different data points together. I sort of did that when I originally announced Wingspan, but I did it in a very “soft” way–I didn’t use any type of algorithm or formula.

  73. Something I have been wondering the last few weeks, mostly while watching the announcements of the second, third, and presumably fourth printing of a certain woodland game, is how much does unfulfilled demand help or hurt a game’s overall sales. To use the lingo of the day, does ‘FOMO’ of a game with a limited (or incremental) production run create an even larger demand for the game in the long run. Or does the delay cause people’s attention to move on to ‘the next big thing’ and total sales are lower than if supply had been able to meet the initial demand. (Note, this all assumes that the game is good with solid reviews.)

  74. In some ways it’s an intractable problem: demand can’t be accurately forecast, really. And even then, it changes once people get it into their hands.

    But what could help is giving the retailers and distributors who are at least willing to try a leg up. You mention the distributor had no reason to give you a low number, but they had no reason to give you a high one either. It’s zero risk either way for them. They get, at worst, annoyed retailers. But retailers don’t exactly have much choice of distributor. Equally allocation means no retailer is rewarded for spotting the game early and ordering a bunch of copies, as they only get 20% of what they ordered, same as the retailer that orders the day before the cut-off.

    Would it be possible to guarantee distributors a certain number of copies, if they order before the print date. And have that feed up the chain so retailers can do the same with the distributor and customers the same with the retailer (I think Issac actually did this for the Gloomhaven reprint with a specific US distributor). It’d be a lot of extra admin across the industry, but not enough that it doesn’t seem really worthwhile? Or are the lead times just too long to make it feasible?

    Regarding Kickstarter, I actually disagree. I know you have other reasons for not using KS, but actually it does solve this precise problem you are having now: how many copies to print in the first run to satisfy initial/early customer demand.

    The bit you talk about, how demand changes after people get it into their hands – that’s totally true and KS does not help you predict that demand. However, I would argue that Wingspan hasn’t reached that point yet. It’s only just reaching people, and that second wave of demand (or indeed, disinterest if the game isn’t great) that happens when KS pledges start arriving is only now just happening for Wingspan.

  75. “Would it be possible to guarantee distributors a certain number of copies, if they order before the print date?”

    If they ordered before we went to print, yes. But at that point they know very little about the demand for the game.

    As for Kickstarter, say we had run a Kickstarter for Wingspan, and it had 5000 backers. How many additional copies would you have made for distributors/retailers? (Hint: It’s a trick question.) :)

  76. I go to GAMA every year and play test as many games as I can to determine what games we may want to carry in our 8 stores. We often preorder with distributors at the trade show. When publishers and/or manufacturers try to pitch new games through other channels like distributors, Cons and on-line buzz they miss the opportunity to connect with the people who are actually stocking their games and giving the preorder numbers to the distributors.There are many good games vying for shelf space and retailers are the ones who ultimately decide what goes on those shelves. There are a lot of good games in this industry but, too many companies are run by people who are good game designers or hobby enthusiasts and not by competent business people.

  77. “We sell games at full MSRP on our website so we’re not undercutting brick-and-mortar stores (even though that logic doesn’t completely make sense, as people still have to pay us for shipping).”

    This is a straight up lie. You discounted Wingspan pre-orders. You are also discounting the new Euphoria expansion by 20%. Additionally you are discounting base Euphoria right now, a game that has been sold out at distribution for about a year.

    Preparing for another disappointing allocation from distributors for Euphoria expansion and having to explain to my customers why I am charging full MSRP when they can buy from you for 20% off and get it months sooner. Not selling your own games at MSRP tells the community that you yourself think the MSRP is too high. We get a 45% discount off MSRP what you are telling us about the new Euphoria expansion and the base game is the MSRP is actually ~20% less therefore we are overpaying for the game from distributors and distributors are overpaying for the game from you.

    Also, you fail to explain that the 10,000 wingspan games produced were for WORLDwide and you yourself sold over half of them direct. So who’s fault is it for the abysmal allocation? Yours and yours alone. You made the decisions for the print numbers and you made the decision to sell the game direct for a discount.

    1. Yes, during the 4-day preorder period for the Euphoria expansion, we discounted Euphoria products. My statement holds true for the other 348 days of the year. If you’re concerned about a publisher discounting for a 4-day preorder, perhaps you have bigger concerns to address your store. Can you name a publisher who doesn’t discount their products for a preorder? And among the many, many publishers who discount their products during a preorder, can you name even one that offered such a short preorder period out of respect for ongoing retailer sales afterwards? I’m not trying to bemoan other publishers, but it’s just interesting that you’ve chosen this as your battleground.

      All of our print runs for every product are for worldwide distribution–there’s no explanation needed there.

      1. I think his issue was not you seliing at at a discount as much as you claiming you dont., when you do. And you didn’t respond to the claim that half of the 10k was sold direct (and here you should incl. Flat River as you know Amazon Direct is their only sdales channel despite how much you try to avoid that by sayin you dont sell on amazon)

  78. It’s interesting. I’m not seeing much here that is vastly different to the situation in the German games industry 30 years ago – save for a few things that makes the same basic problem more acute.

    The basic root of the problem seems to be the combination of a number of factors.
    – the long lead-time between being ready for manufacture and actually making a sale means that it’s really, really hard to accurately predict consumer demand so far in advance of the product getting into consumers’ hands;
    – production runs are relatively short. There are big discounts for volume, but that can be a trap all by itself as missing a sale is annoying, overproducing can sink you. Plus it’s not easy to adjust the size of the production run, as the manufacturing base will also be used by other businesses. Unlike (say) the car industry, you cannot keep something in production over a long period of time and simply adjust the production volume to better fit the actual, rather than expected, sales.

    It was a big problem for the mainsteam German publishers; they had to print enough copies of a game to make it worthwhile, but if the game didn’t take off you could be left with a lot of unsold stock (can anyone remember “Giganten”, the pieces for which are STILL turning up in new games thanks to someone betting the farm on it being the Next Big Thing?). But they could at least rely on two things – a certain number of “evergreens”, which would keep selling, and the SdJ prize driving an extra 200,000+ sales (at which point you could afford to finance a few duds).

    But the advent of the internet, KS (and the entry into the marketplace of smaller publishers) has had a number of effects making this basic problem a trickier one to navigate. Firstly, you have the hype machine; the never-ceasing demand for new information, new games, FOMO etc etc. Most games no longer have 6-12 months of sales to make their money back – they have a few weeks -before the consumers’ attention is caught by something else new and shiny. Secondly you have a much bigger field of products and competitors vying for (albeit somewhat increased) attention and money; 30 years ago, there might be 20 really interesting games published in a year, now there can be that many in a week. Finally there is an interesting dynamic between what people are prepared to get interested in months in advance of production, and how interested they are in the same product when it’s out and people can actually see it and play it for themselves. With the speed at which information moves, if something is great people hear about it and want it even more; if it’s a dud, they’ll hear about that too.

    A long tome ago a wise man* once told me that the easiest way to make a small fortune in board games publishing was to start with a large fortune then publish some board games. (* okay, it wasn’t a wise man at all; it was Martin Wallace). A lot of the time I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to walk into a Vegas casino and put all the money on black.

  79. Hello James, sadly I became aware of Wingspan by the time pre-orders were done. I have read a good portion of the comments, but not all. So I don’ know if this was addressed.

    Is there a reason why printing can’t be more dynamic? You indicated that you had to estimate your initial print run, and that’s a set number. The thing is as the game gets more public,and pre-orders go in, there’s data indicating the actual demand. I don’t know how feasible, or practical it is to gather this data. Isn’t there a mechanism to adjust the print number as demand increases, instead of you know, having to order another set of copies to be printed?

    1. Audie: That’s a great question, and I’ll share the timeline with you, as it might help:

      August: I tell the manufacturer the quantity, and they start making the non-printed components. This is the only time that we can adjust the quantity.
      September: My manufacturer starts making the non-printed components.
      November: The game finishes production and begins the 1-month ocean freight journey from China to the US.
      December: I start talking about the game (this is around the time I receive the game in our warehouse).
      January: I start accepting preorders for the game.

      In the case of Wingspan, just in case demand exceeded supply, when we started making the batch for localization partners (it started in October), I added on 5000 non-printed components. When I saw the great response in early December, I authorized our manufacturer to use those components to start making the non-printed components for the reprint. Unfortunately, they didn’t complete production before the Chinese New Year.

  80. “It isn’t the retailers fault, though accepting preorders before knowing your allocation may not be a great idea.”

    I’m a retailer. Typically, we don’t know whether a game will be allocated until we’re placing an order *after* distributors have received the game in their warehouses and realized they don’t have enough to fulfill their preorders.

    My preorder was placed with my distributor long before that, usually before I had preorders from customers in my store. I’m not fond of accepting preorders because there’s no guarantee I can fulfill them. Still I do it and in most cases it works out, except for the rare birds like Wingspan. Gloomhaven, etc.

    If we only had a crystal ball in which we could read the future…

    You can only do your best based on research, etc. But like you said, anticipated demand is just a theory until consumers actually have the game in their hands and play it.

    I’m looking forward to the next shipment in April.

    Best regards,

    Tina
    Here Be Books & Games

    1. Thanks for your note, Tina. Do you think it’s worth pushing distributors a bit on this? In the case of Wingspan, they knew their exact allocations nearly 2 months ago. I would like to work with them to better communicate shortages to retailers far in advance (as I do in our retailer e-newsletter).

  81. Hey, Jamey. A 3AM sort of thought or three for you here. Something I’m *sure* won’t solve your problem, but might expand the space of discussion.

    Theoretically, you could use a split delivery model (depending on what exactly is the bottleneck in a given project). Say, ship a low art ‘version zero’—something that can be scaled on demand, even printed regionally—with fancy components to follow. With different bottlenecks, a digital-version-first pipeline has been used by some. This would at least allow some flexibility in buzz generation and managing the different ‘kinds’ of gamers—even though it’s obviously not a properly baked idea.

    Another version of that thought is that the consumer goes home with a ‘box A’ and a ‘box B’ and the job of putting the contents of B into A is left to them (along with the joy of punching out the tokens). We see this done already with minis added to underlyingly cardboard games as ks bait, but you could also do it as a production hedge—you make higher latency components in bigger batches and package them for warehousing efficiency rather than presence (while still having them fully deliverable to the consumer). It obviously increases logistical complexity and packaging (you need to deliver pairs of boxes, perhaps even from different origins), but partial overproduction should be less of a burden than unsold full games.

    Theoretically, preorders could be flexible. You could imagine a system where people could (let’s say) be offered a rebate, a game extension, or a discount on a future product if they were willing to surrender an early slot on the queue. You’d set this up so that you don’t make the offer until the point that you know you are thoroughly oversubscribed.

    Theoretically, you could sell reservations for money even if delivery is through brick-and-mortar (though of course that approach needs the distributors to be fully onside).

    Theoretically, you could imagine selling people a box with a ‘trailer’ in it. Something fun, maybe playable, different from, but related to, the actual game. It comes with a code, activate this by date X to receive your full game by date Y (maybe with a range of Xs and Ys, maybe with these updating over time).

    All of these are versions of the thought, ok, so what *can* you deliver scalably, on short notice.

    But at the end of the day, the best solution would seem to be for Panda-or-whoever to have highly robotised and rapidly reconfigurable plants on every continent, so that production could track demand week-to-week without being behind container ship latency for anything but durable, superpopular items. Or for 3D printing to get us to the point that every game is a print and play!

    P500 is weird to be on the receiving end of, as a consumer. KS too. Brick and mortar preorders, too. In every case you’re guessing what you’ll want and waiting a variable amount of time (and always more variable than you think, even when you already know how variable it is!) for delivery. So, yeah, that’s the other end of the equation: how do you engage the customer so that they feel sympathetic to the randomness, if the randomness cannot be avoided? You have a brand, a sort of fan club. KS sells the illusion that the backer is part of the project (though the falser that is the better for the ultimate prospects of delivery, I often suspect—well, no, I exaggerate a little). GMT provides not only P500 but actual *subscriptions* to make people feel they are part of a club, part of a lifestyle. The folks at Buttonshy (who seem to be a tiny business dealing almost entirely in playing cards and envelopes, but still face immense variability in demand) do all of these things *and* are high-touch and personable. But all of those things fail as you scale out to the ‘normal’ consumer. Hm. I worry that it’s evil, but perhaps the world needs people as fun and talented as NPI to help explain and mitigate the *delays* in projects, and not merely to build the buzz?

    1. Stephen: I really appreciate you thinking through this in search of a solution! Overall, it makes me want to talk to Panda about speeding up the printing portion of the process. My perception is that it takes 2 months after the files are 100% approved (just the printing and cutting portions of a game, not the non-printed components or assembly), which seems like a long time.

  82. 10K seems like a ludacrisly low amount but others have said you have admitted that was all you had funds to make, so i would say in either case the buck falls with you despite what you might say in this post.

  83. Jamey, there are a LOT of comments here, and while I couldn’t read all of them, it looks like you did, and you responded to most of them as well. That’s real dedication to furthering our hobby, and I appreciate your willingness to give us the inside look at the risk of negative feedback. There’s guaranteed to be at least one, always.

    It seems like some people lash out when they can’t get the game they want right away, and they seem to throw unfounded accusations that publishers are doing it to build up hype. I can’t make sense of that theory — why would a publisher want to miss out on the best time to sell their game? Yes you now have staggered print runs for the next several months and that’s more success than you hoped for, but you might have sold double that if everyone could have completed an impulse purchase the first week of the release. Maybe a foolish and unethical person might mistakenly think this is a good tactic, but if you were to only read a couple of your articles or watch your YouTube videos, it would become apparent very quickly that you’re too smart and too ethical to try to pull a stunt like that.

    The poster before me said it’s still your fault if you can’t afford to print a bigger batch up front. Maybe that’s a valid argument if this is something anyone with deep pockets can do just as well. But not every big company (in the board game industry or otherwise) want to produce the games you produce, nor could they have done so. So no, I don’t want Stegmeier Games replaced by big companies that don’t produce the games you do. So if we have to wait to get a great game from a boutique publisher like you every now and then, I’m happy to pay that price than be denied that opportunity all together. Is achieving the best result under the given set of circumstances still a fault? Not in my books.

    There’s probably no easy or practical solution to this. Either you’ve already considered it like the P500 system and found reasons why it doesn’t work for you, or the solutions are interesting in theory but unrealistic in practice, like publishing multiple versions of the games so that the lower quality edition can always be produced in a snap. (And really, I’d still rather wait for the prettier version, isn’t that some of this games appeal anyway?)

    I guess I’m trying to say, thank you for your openness and transparency, and I appreciate your efforts and understand your choices.

    And please continue to do just as you are doing — reflecting on your experiences whether good or bad, turning everything into a learning opportunity, educating the hobbyists who share your passion, and making great games in the process. I’m really glad you’re in this industry and setting a high bar or example.

  84. Jamey, May I recommend the book by Donald J. Wheeler Understanding Variation: The key to Managing chaos, I cannot stress enough to you how important it is to get your data on a graph, you need to see it and the trends will become quite clear. Cause if you win the speil award your company is forever gonna change, if it were me, I’d hire a firm to do this for Asap. Every game you don’t sell is one you’ll never sale.

  85. Jamey, have you ever thought of working with a digital platform? Fantasy Grounds is for RPGs but I can’t see why they couldn’t make a rule set for your games. They have dice rollers built in, token art, maps(game board). They are kickstarting their new version now. It seems like it would be more profitable, and after launching a few games on a digital format you could find a ratio of how that converts to hard units sold. I have every hard copy of a book that I also purchased on FG and I’m sure you’re looking at 50% of that group being the same way. It would also allow everyone to play the game on launch day while waiting for their hard copy. You could do the same as most RPGs and books launch on KS as hard copy and PDF. Everyone wins and you get more data points without having to go through a KS every time.

    1. Thanks for sharing this idea, Aaron! We do often work with Tabletopia to bring our games to life for people who want to play in that format (as people could do before Wingspan launched), but among the many reasons I make games is to allow people the opportunity to turn off their screens for a while. :)

      1. That’s an awesome reason to make games, and that’s why you’re so successful at it. Thanks for being so accessible to the community you serve, and engaging in an open discussion about the industry. It’s amazing that you take the time to reply to these comments.

        Best Regards,
        Aaron

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