The Truth About Digital Board Games

14 June 2018 | 49 Comments

Two years ago, I signed a licensing deal with a company called The Knights of Unity for a full-AI digital version of Scythe. Yesterday, now in conjunction with Asmodee Digital and after several extensive rounds of beta testing, the game released on Steam Early Access.

It’s been an interesting journey, so even though I’m still very much a novice in this digital realm, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned along the way. Parts of this post were influenced by a great discussion I had with developer A. Gerald Fitzsimons, who also happens to be the designer of an upcoming tabletop game called Banker of the Gods.

What do you mean by “full-AI digital version”?

In this post when I talk about digital games, I’m referring specifically to full-AI versions. That means the digital game knows the rules of the board game. In Scythe Digital, when you decide to attack another player, the computer knows the rules of combat and helps guide you through them. The AI also acts as digital players you can compete against.

This is in contrast to physics-driven digital games like on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. Those games are meant to simulate the feel of having a game on the table in front of you, but the Tabletopia version of Scythe doesn’t know how combat works. You need other human players to use these types of games.

I like that both options exist. The physics-driven platforms are great for playtesting and demos, and if you know the rules to the game, it can be a way to connect with people around the world. They’re also a LOT faster to implement–Tabletopia created the digital version of My Little Scythe in weeks.

There are also digital apps that augment tabletop games, though some of what I’ll discuss in terms of budget and scheduling applies to them too. And there are AI platforms like Boardspace (which Euphoria is on) that simulate the board game experience on the web-based platforms.

Why would you license your game to digital? Won’t that hurt tabletop sales?

My primary goal for pretty much any decision I make at Stonemaier Games is how to bring joy to more people. This applies to digital games in several ways:

  • They can help people learn the game more easily than reading a rulebook.
  • They allow people to play a game a lot more often than the tabletop version because it’s faster and easier to set up.
  • They help people play with friends and strangers around the world.
  • They invite people to a world they may not otherwise experience if they don’t play tabletop games.
  • They’re more affordable than tabletop versions.

As for actually undercutting tabletop sales, the data I’ve seen indicates that digital games actually increase tabletop sales. I think that’s because they help reduce the barrier to entry, giving people a chance to find something they love and bring it to their table.

Please note that I do not consider digital games to be a revenue-seeking endeavor, at least not for Stonemaier Games. It’s important to me that the developer of the digital game–more on that in a second–is profitable and that we break even, but it’s exceedingly rare that a digital game port makes a lot of money.

How do I pick a developer?

I’ve actually tried for years now to have Viticulture made into a digital game. Two different developers–both very nice people–have spent months working on it, with no final result to show for their efforts.

This experience has made me much more likely to work with a company (even a small company) in the future instead of an individual. Also, it simply may not be worth it for that individual, as they’re risking a lot of time for what could be a minimal reward. Companies typically have their risk spread out over multiple projects, and they seem to have a better grasp of budgeting and timeframes.

Recently I’ve been searching for a company to finally make Viticulture Digital a reality, and I’ve been requesting this information:

  1. An estimate of how much up-front investment they would need from Stonemaier Games based on an 80/20 back-end revenue split (Stonemaier gets the 20%).
  2. An estimate of how long development will take.
  3. An estimate of when they could start working on the digital game.

There’s a lot more to discuss, but I’m starting there. The companies I’ve contacted–companies that specialize in digital ports of tabletop games–are:

  • Asmodee Digital
  • DigiDiced
  • Handelabra Studio
  • Mobo Studios
  • Playdek
  • Temple Gate Games
  • The Knights of Unity
  • Fay Games

That’s certainly far from an extensive list, so if you have any recommendations, please mention them in the comments.

How much does it cost?

While the biggest cost is simply paying for developers’ time and expertise, there are other costs too: graphic design, music, art assets, 3D models, etc. The total cost can vary greatly based on the game, but the number I’ve heard from several companies is $100,000.

Now, that doesn’t mean you need to pay $100k out of pocket. That’s where the 80/20 back-end revenue split comes into play. That means for every $10 of profit the game makes, the developer gets $8 and you get $2. This seems to be a pretty common split.

As a result, the up-front cost to you can be much lower–somewhere between $0 and $20k. For Scythe Digital, we basically just paid for the music, with Asmodee funding the rest of the costs.

Please keep in mind that you having a game isn’t enough for a developer to say yes. They will want to see that there is a significant audience for your game in terms of quantifiable sales of the tabletop version.

Could you use Kickstarter?

Kickstarter’s rules have always been a little vague about digital products. In essence they say that you must be the creator of the product, and if you’re using the project to hire a developer, you’re not really the creator. I think it’s all in how you talk about the game–if you talk about your digital “team” and how you’re the team leader, you’re probably fine.

There have been successful digital port Kickstarters, though it’s an uphill climb due to the high development costs in relation to the low reward prices. Evolution successfully made it happen last year thanks to their method of using exclusives to push backers towards higher reward tiers (only 127 people chose the no-frills $4 reward).

What other details do you need to figure out?

Once you pick the developer you’re most excited about and start to talk about the budget/schedule, there are a number of topics for which you’ll want to state your preferences. These include:

  • Are you primarily looking for a one-stop shop that handles the art, music, graphic design, etc, with you serving more as a consultant (this is what I did with Scythe Digital), or are you looking to be heavily involved in the process?
  • What platform do you want the game to launch on, and what platforms would you like it to expand to? Scythe Digital is starting on Steam for PC, and it will expand to iOS and other formats.
  • How do you see expansions and promos working in the digital game? For example, do you want to start with the core game and add expansions later as DLC (downloadable content)?
  • What’s your priority in terms of single-player against the AI, local pass-and-play multiplayer, and online multiplayer? My personal top priority is single-player against the AI, followed by online multiplayer.
  • How detailed of a tutorial do you want? Like, a separate tutorial that actively teaches players how to play, a tutorial that helps players as they’re thrown into their first game, or simply a digital rulebook you need to read to understand the rules?
  • How much do you want the game to resemble the tabletop version? Remember that you’re crowding a table’s worth of content and information into a screen that might be as small as a phone. Also, you can do certain things in a digital game that aren’t possible on the tabletop, like animations. If you want to see a game that combines these factors extremely well, I recommend Playdek’s Lords of Waterdeep.
  • Who will distribute the game? You might have a developer who is really good at programming games, but are they good at selling them? Learn about their weaknesses early on and perhaps leverage partnerships to address them, like what we did with Asmodee Digital and The Knights of Unity.
  • How do they plan to price the game?
  • Do they have an “early access” strategy that is fair and equitable to early adopters?

What else have I learned?

I’m excited about Scythe Digital, just as I’m eager to move forward with Viticulture Digital. Charterstone Digital is also in the works.

But I have to say that I’ve learned not to expect much from these digital games. None of them has ever remained even remotely on the original projected schedule. So while I hope that they’ll become a reality and be great, my expectations are very low. This has helped keep what could be a stressful process relatively stress-free for me.

This is, however, the main reason why there’s very little chance I would ever make a tabletop game that relied on a digital app. I don’t want to sit on a completed game for months or years while waiting on the app.

What are your thoughts?

What do you think about digital ports of tabletop games? Do you have any favorites you’d recommend or any insights you have from experience working with (or as) a developer? As a consumer, is there anything you’d like developers and/or publishers to know?

***

If you’re curious, Scythe Digital is available here.

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49 Comments on “The Truth About Digital Board Games

  1. Were there any studios that you spoke with that would have worked with a lesser revenue split with a larger investment in the development of the game? So if you could contribute $80k, they would have had an 80/20 split in the other direction?

  2. I don’t know a lot about most of these developers, but I am familiar with Handelabra and Playdek. Handelabra made the digital version for Sentinels of the Multiverse, and it’s super great. I love it.

    I didn’t actually know Playdek made digital board games, but I do know they’re working on Unsung Story (link below). Unsung Story started as a game by a different company and they basically let it fall apart. Playdek bought the rights from them, and the KS went from probably the worst run Kickstarter project I’d seen to easily one of the top 10. I haven’t actually seen their work, but their communication, transparency, and honesty are top notch. To be clear, this means that I paid money to a different company (Little Orbit), and Playdek paid Little Orbit for the right to develop this game and then give it to me for free. Neat.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/littleorbit/unsung-story-tale-of-the-guardians

  3. Have you considered sites like Boargamearena.com or Yucata.de or boiteajeux.net? I know I saw Euphoria on boardspace.net. I really like these sites for games with asynchronous play, as I can make a move thet check back later. I imagine games cost less to create on these platforms, but may have smaller audiences, and perhaps provide less revenue. Curious to hear your thoughts.

    1. Regarding Yucata.de: it costs nothing, but it needs a volunteer developer who wants to develop the game in his/her free time. Also there is no money to be earned, because Yucata is a free and non-commercial site.

    2. From the perspective of someone who wants a venue to play boardgames via the internet, I would absolutely love you to port your games to BoardGameArena. Yes, I can play Viticulture on Tabletop Simulator or Tabletopia but a rules-enforced website is a vastly different experience, and I much prefer the non-physics-based interface of BGA even though the presentation is more simplistic. But above all is the number of players. BGA is literally crawling with players, and finding a pick-up game there for the popular titles is very easy. I’m certain Viticulture would be a very, very popular title there.

      The same can’t be said for all stand-alone apps. Though the Ages has a very large amount of open-game multiplayer traffic (as I’m sure Scythe will as well), but there are some great games with great apps where the pick-up traffic is virtually and sadly non-existent. It makes sense, given that a site like BGA requires just one login (be it the more limited free or more comprehensive paid subscription version) for multiple games, whereas each app is its own walled garden. The app has to be a blockbuster (eg TtA) to support a big player base that can spawn a decent pick-up game constituency.

      I wish there was a way that boardgame app developers could tap into a central matchmaking system but there isn’t at the moment and I doubt there will be unless a lot of developers and publishers got together and pushed for it So that’s why I’d love to see Viti on BGA – and quite frankly as many games as possible on it. And I do and will STILL buy apps of the same games their AIs, which as you’ve said are great ways to learn a game. But returning to a by now familiar theme, they’re hit-and-miss for pick-up multiplayer.

      Did I mention how much I’d love to see Viticulture on BGA? Oh yeah – I think I did I’m sure I’m not the only one.

      Congratulations on and thank you for your brilliant games, and I hope I’ve given you some useful consumer perspective.

        1. Jamey, do you know if having your game on Boardgamearena increases or decreases the sales of the IOS/Android/Steam version?

          And do you have more detailed stats/figures/sources regarding the increase in sales of the physical board game once being playable digitally?

          Thank you!

          1. Juma: That’s a good question, though I’m not equipped to answer it. Does anyone here use Boardgamearena? If so, have you ever board the full-AI digital version of the game after playing it on Boardgamearena?

            At one point I did see the Ticket to Ride stats, but it’s been a while–I don’t have a link.

        2. One more question:

          Did you help making the UI and/or AI for the Steam version of Scythe? Making a decent AI is pretty hard and I am wondering if I as a game designer would have to invest a significant amount of time to help create a decent AI.

  4. My primary medium for gaming is electronic which is predominately PC. Tabletop games have become a passion of mine the last three years and I try to find time to play whenever I can although we have a gaming group once a week. Which means I need to play solo most of the time.

    The Scythekick app on iOS has been a god send because it shows exactly how the Automa will move. The rulebook for automa movement is still confusing to this day. Which brings me to the point that I’m sad to hear that you likely won’t invest in digital companion apps for SM games.

    I understand there are two camps in the tabletop world about digital app requirements for boardgames. Today I cannot imagine Mansions of Madness going back to a player being the DM. My opinion to designers would be to use companion apps where it will enhance the experience (more cards/music and ambience) and also the possibility that it can turn 2-x player games into 1-x player games. But the app should never take the focus away from the actual board.

    I am enjoying Scythe and Viticulture on Tabletop Simulator as it removes the setup time of the table and especially when I’m playing solo. I actually use ScytheKick whilst playing solo in TTS. I’m in two minds about Scythe Digital (but I have not played it yet). I love Pandemic on the table but hate the digital iOS version. It feels so “automated”, fast and unpersonal.

    I do hope that in future you use companion apps to enhance the experience but not make it the focus point. Thanks again to SM for excellent entertainment and I cannot wait to see what’s coming down the line!

    Ps. Please ask Berserk Games to hurry up with adding th Wind Gambit to Scythe on TTS..

    1. Rouan: Well, I should clarify: I don’t want to publish tabletop games that cannot be played without a digital app due to my scheduling concerns. That isn’t the case with ScytheKick, which I agree is excellent (it’s not directly related to Stonemaier, but I like seeing developers make cool things for our games).

      I think there are some amazing games that use apps, but for as few games as my company releases, it would be a monumental risk to publish a game that relies on an app.

      As for Beserk Games, I’m waiting for them to implement Tuscany Essential too! :)

      1. If one just wanted a companion app to use in a player dialog with AI on a small number of cards, might it work for prototypes to: use an app like Recorder Plus to record the AI voice with pauses between active voice. Players speak during pauses. Then one could email copies of recording to prototype testers. Crude, but do you think it might work? That way, one could find out player reactions before deciding whether to invest time and money in a real digital companion app.

  5. What I would love in digital Scythe:

    – Faction-specific music
    – Animations for workers/character/mechs
    – Professionally-made VO for the characters
    – Painted/custom-paintable characters & mechs
    – Metal minis with the glorious thumping sound when placing them :)
    – Each turn advances a day/night cycle rotation
    – Faction-specific structures

    Probably lots of other things I can’t think of at the moment

    1. Preach, brother!

      (although experienced developers should know enough to say “somewhere between six months and two years, make sure the budget holds”)

  6. I love that digital ports exists. I’ve only gotten to play Scythe face to face once, so I’m looking forward to at least playing against AI.

    1. I would highly recommend getting Scythekick for Scythe on the table. It makes it easy to setup and play against multiple automas! The automas are also hostile to eachother but you can disable that.

  7. Hi Jamie, love the tabletop game! Also when are the metal mech expected to be available for purchase. Coming back to the topic, when would the iOS app be available, I would to love to get it when I am travelling alone. I left PC gaming a long time ago…

  8. Hyped for Charterstone Digital, as I didn’t buy it because I’d have trouble getting the same group together repeatedly (bonus points for replayability without a recharge pack). As for Viticulture and Scythe, I have the former in physical form and will soon pick up the latter, so I’m not sure I’m up to also buying the digital version. I do have a few friends who live far away and that I’d like to connect with online, so maybe that’ll sway me into buying it with them, eventually.

  9. This is a phenomenal list of what makes a good board game app.

    >None of them has ever remained even remotely on the original projected schedule.

    Software Development is an odd thing to schedule in some ways.

    Exploration is a huge part of some projects, and you can pick how long you’ll explore up front, but depending on who has approvals, that’s not necessarily going to land you somewhere specific. How efficiently you can explore and how flexible you are on the solution there can be a huge factor in costs.

    While taks like building buildings do have schedules and deliver on schedules (sometimes), they are much more well understood tasks with far more constraints on what is bulit.

    Software, especially novel things like games, relatively have very unclear lists of what needs to be built, so accurately scheduling that is impossible at the start of a project like porting Scythe to the digital realm without a framework somewhat constraining the possibilities.

    >How much do you want the game to resemble the tabletop version?

    As a mobile developer myself, I’d challenge people who are looking to make products to ask “How can we let this idea flourish within our constraints?”. Scythe is a fairly successful board game, one that has sold multiple expansions successfully. Board games that are smaller may be served with less ambitious approaches. If you are overly stringent about look and feel, especially at a high level, that may greatly increase costs and lower possibilities.

    A less costly but still enjoyable format people may wish to consider is a 2D “moving pictures around the screen” format such as you see with many board games on mobile. This may sell well and meet the market demand, dispite resembling 3D video games less. Look on iOS for Terra Mystica, 7 Wonders, Jaipur, Smash up, and others. Another advantage of that approach is that it can use signifigantly less battery, and keep power consumption down. Some great game ports can be a “warm” affair on a laptop. For many people, this is even preferred over big 3D versions.

  10. Hello Jamie,

    To be honest after testing during the closed beta sessions (I gave some feedbacks of course), I’m not seduced by the way they translated the interface of Scythe and its controls, especially because I understood that it will reach the mobile devices in the future. There are ton of great “user experiences” in mobile tabletop games and I strongly believe that the controls and the way the information is presented has a big impact on the appreciation of a game. For example I really enjoyed Mysterium, Carcassonne, Splendor, 7 wonders, Catan on my android phone despite that most of those games will never reach my shelves.
    Obviously those games are easier to translate than something like Scythe, but I’m naturally more encouraged to play something that I find easy to play and reactive to my inputs that something heavier like Terra Mystica (I have the mobile version as well, but I’m still struggling to understand the rules, etc.).
    These days, a (video)game that requires physical efforts and time to execute an action feels older and more complex than it is. For example, my friends thought that Scythe(board game) was very complex and slow because the set up alone is quite long, but when they started to play they realize that the pacing is relatively fast, and unfortunately I feel there’s still a way to go before the developers of the digital edition reaches that milestone where the player feels that the user interface is there to make his life easier and not the opposite.

    The irony and the dilemma of an adaptation of Scythe as a mobile (or PC) game is that you already made a very elegant and smart user interface for the board game. This interface is so bounded to the game and its identity that making some modifications in order to accomodate it to another medium can create some backlash. But even if I can be conservative on some aspects, I genuinely believe that it’s absolutely inevitable to be iconoclast in order to create the best user experience of Scythe for mobile devices. I’m aware that it isn’t an easy task but achieving that would make a very big difference in terms of attractivity, sales and new comers. In this state you’ll get the fans, but you can get much more.

    I wish you the best for your next steps in this digital world.

  11. Viticulture is going to take a team of 8 (2 devs, 2 artists, 1 designer, 2 qa, 1 PM) 6-8 months to make. Your devs will average $70k per year, artists $40k, the designer $50k, qa $30k, and the PM $40k. So $185,000 minimum right there. You’re going to need another $10,000 for music, sound, and graphic assets. And that figure for devs doesn’t get you very good ones, if we’re being honest.

    That being said… please make Viticulture happen!

    1. Andrew: Absolutely! Mansions of Madness second edition is probably the most well known (and ranked), but Alchemists and the Unlock series are also up there. There’s an upcoming detective game that relies on an app as well. There are others I’m not thinking of.

      1. Awesome, I’m checking those out now. Thank you!

        I’ve been building my own app-driven game and have found your blog and book to be incredibly valuable for a first-timer who plans to go up on Kickstarter. I’m close to launching, but it always feels like there is more preparation to be done.

        I too grew up in Chesterfield County, so your RTD article is neat to see too :)

  12. I think that this is a fantastic direction for Stonemaier Games to take.

    (Sorry, this is a bit long-winded)

    I only started my board game obsession at the beginning of the year and I’m trying to soak up all the information I can. I spend far too much of my spare time researching games, reading reviews, watching Youtube videos on games and thinking about what games I’d like next. My wishlist is in a constant state of flux.

    Money is a little tight so I don’t have that much to spend on games. I’ve got a nice little collection going, but it is little. I’m proud to say that Viticulture EE was the last game I bought and is my favourite so far.

    I also have a handful of games on iOS and Android devices. For some of those, I also have the actual board game – the physical box – and for others it’s something I’m interested in and want to try out. I’ve also played a few games on Tabletopia.

    From my experience, I get far more out of the games on the mobile devices rather than ones on the desktop. I don’t really have any experience of playing an AI-enabled desktop version but I think I have an understanding of how it would feel to play.

    The best example I can give was when on I was on a couple of longish flights recently. Both times I played a few games of Carcassonne & Pandemic, both of which I had the actual games at home – but I wasn’t at home, I was on a plane. I wanted to get my fix of games right then and there. And I could.

    When I’m at home and want to play a game of Viticulture solo, for example, I’d rather get the board out than sit at the PC.

    But if there was a version I could get for the tablet, that’s a whole different story.

    I know that’s a very simplistic view of things, as there’s a whole background of development and cost and return, but as a consumer, that’s what’s important for me.

  13. Hi Jamey,

    I’m an app developer who specializes in boardgames. I’ve done Hostage Negotiator and Baseball Highlights 2045 in the past 3 years.

    I really very surprised to hear that the “standard rate” is 80/20 in the developer’s favor. You didn’t mention it in your article, but Apple/Google and the other stores take a hefty 30% sales commission, so the 80/20 actually becomes 56%/14%.

    I have always had a hard time convincing any of my prospective partners to turn over their IP for less than the stores make for their commission.How do you feel about only making about 14% on each sale? Is it still worthwhile? Obviously, yes, but why? And would your reasons/attitude change if the game were an older one which was not being reprinted very frequently any more?

    1. Peter: The 80/20 split is calculated after Apple/Google take their commission, so it’s still 80/20 of net revenue.

      My motivation for that 20% is almost purely to break even on anything I spend to create the game (and in the off chance the digital game is a mega hit).

      If the game were an older one, I’m still interested in a digital version.

  14. CGE Digital did a wonderful job adapting ‘Through the Ages’ to a digital platform. I don’t know if they’re worth considering (if you haven’t already)?

    1. Thanks for your question! I’m looking through my Tabletopia statements, and I think I just have a basic designer plan with them. For Scythe, for example, my statement is broken down into Scythe’s free demo setup (575.6 hours played in Q2 2018), Scythe’s premium setup (713.2 hours played), and the Steam DLC (129 hours). I don’t see a mobile option. Have you tried asking Tabletopia? I bet they would share those stats, especially if they provide a strong selling point for them.

      1. Thank you for the reply! That’s really interesting that the premium setup got more playtime. Especially considering the subscription model of tabletopia compared to the purchase model on steam. I’ll make sure I ask them.

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