Tapiru: A Bubble Tea game was developed rather rapidly in 2019 in preparation for the autumn rendition of Tokyo Game Market—a huge bi-annual analog gaming convention (with one additional annual convention held in Osaka) that welcomes established board game publishers and amateur hobbyists alike…with a heavy emphasis on the later. The game was later re-released via a Kickstarter campaign in 2020.
Tapiru was not only my first board game as a designer…it was also my first Kickstarter campaign. And although my numbers are very, very modest, I still thought I would share the whole process of how I went from “fun idea” to “funded idea”.
A lot of my own personal story is intertwined here so I apologize that it’s not a strictly technical designer’s diary or step-by-step account of running a kickstarter campaign and/or self-publishing a game.
The (Overly Verbose) Prologue
Like most people, I enjoyed analog games as a child (Mahjong, Risk, Stratego, Hotels, to name a few) and even as I grew older, I somehow managed to pick up a new game every couple years although I never really sat down to play them more than once or twice. It wasn’t until I started working at a design agency with a semi-subsidized “club activities” program that I was reintroduced to greatly expanded world of board games.
I am forever grateful to the co-worker who started the Board Game Club at work since it’s really all thanks to his masterful instruction abilities that I sat and watched him explain and then lead a group in playing Werewolf and some other games one evening in the office free space. He was also the person who introduced me to Tokyo Game Market and the existence of indie and self-published board games! (Btw, my former co-worker has released his own games at GM too!)
It was at my first Game Market that I had the beginnings of a notion to design my own game…but that flying fancy was quickly grounded and filed away under “Future Todos & Wishtos”.
I probably didn’t have enough confidence in myself at the time. It ended up taking getting married and debating leaving Japan (and therefore easy access to Game Market) to give me that extra push to sit down and try game design. And I resolved not to bite off too big of a chunk at once…I decided at the very start that I would make a simple two player game with familiar mechanics (rather than aiming for heretofore-unseen-by-the-world levels of innovation and complexity).
My first idea for the game was based off a pun (yes, the so-called lowest form a humor), a recent news story I had read about marriage fraud, and some graphics I already had made for another personal project. But I was struggling to mould the right mechanics into my theme.
At this time, bubble tea was being majorly hyped in Japan and I joined the craze by following the latest shop openings and filling up my belly (and iPhone camera roll) with boba. I honestly loved the different branding design almost as much as I loved the drink itself.
The clock was ticking on my goal to get a game finished and printed by November 2019. I already had paid for booth space so I was financially committed. I decided to replace my first concept with a new one that revolved around the popularity of bubble tea and the visual appeal of the brands. I already knew the tapioca pearls would lend themselves well to being number representatives and I was inspired by the cute alpaca game アルパカパカパカ (Alpacapacapca) in having the cards build into something.
I owe everything about Tapiru to the inspiration I found from other board games (mostly games I had discovered at Game Market) and the popular bubble tea brands in Tokyo, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I hope in the future I can perhaps come up with more innovative mechanics, but I probably will always be majorly influenced by something or other. (In fact, I already know my next game is going to be borrowing heavily from the sport of figure skating!)
Prototyping, Testing, and Designing
I started making a prototype of my game using Figma because it was a free tool that was rising in popularity amongst the UI/UX design community. Figma focuses on design for digital products…rather than traditional print—which does make it less than ideal for board game design. There isn’t any CMYK options along with some of the other useful functionality that Adobe Illustrator offers. In addition, most printing presses are accustomed to handling Illustrator files and may even require you to submit an Illustrator file. So if you design in Figma, at some point you will probably need to use Illustrator. But, as we know, Adobe subscriptions are expensive…and since I had recently left the design agency I was working at, I lost my company-provided access (the next company I joined actually used Figma coincidentally enough!) so I started with Figma and ended up doing 98% of my design work with it.
I began with some basic B&W pieces that had simple line drawings which I printed out at the nearest 7-11 so I could playtest at home with my husband. I live in a suburb of Tokyo so taking the train into the city to meet my friends not only takes about 3 hours roundtrip…it also can cost me around 2,000 yen (approx $20 USD). When I did go into the city, I usually used the time to actually drink bubble tea with my friends rather than playtest it. So, apart from my (pretty critical—in both senses of the word) husband, my direct playtesting was very limited for Tapiru. Fortunately, some of my friends were able to play the game without my presence and give their feedback…but I missed out on seeing their actual setup and gameplay which would made for better user testing.
Although I think Tapiru could have been much improved and more fine-tuned if I had devoted more time to playtesting, I believe my saving grace was my early decision to use familiar mechanics so I was able to leverage the fact that these mechanics had already been heavily tested and were successful in other games. I was also fortunate to release my first version as a very small run (only 50 copies) at Game Market which worked as a prototype release before the Kickstarter campaign. However, I wasn’t able to get a lot of feedback since I was only at the convention one day and didn’t have a dedicated play space, amongst other factors (including my own shyness limitations). I don’t know if relying on a convention for test-playing will be a viable method for me, personally, so I plan to ask people online via Facebook groups as well as reaching out to acquaintances with a shared interest in either games or the theme. I also hope to rely heavily on my lovely friends and family again.
After playing with the B&W prototype, I started translating the rough shapes to colorful graphics—starting from my favorite part: the brands. I researched different popular brands in Tokyo, Taiwan, and Hong Kong by searching Instagram hashtags, as well as by simply looking for them in my daily life (I even got a cup from a kaitenzushi chain!). And using a bit of basic math, I figured out how many brands along with how many tapioca cards would be needed in order to offer variety and keep a balanced distribution.
Since I did my own design, it was easy to reiterate and make adjustments. I did struggle in choosing an overall style at the beginning (sketchy, cutesy, clean, etc.) but I looked heavily to Oink Games for inspiration. (Oink Games fans will probably notice I strived to compact my game to the standards of their signature box size; I really admire their utilization of space).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to completely emulate their minimal but beautiful graphic style but I was able to create more unity in my illustrations using their work as a guide. It was important for me to heavily reference the original, famous tapioca brands (since that was a major sparking-joy point for me: seeing the brands in the game) in a somewhat satirical/punny manner and produce a baseline of continuity between them.
If you are able to do your own graphic work and enjoy doing it, I do recommend doing your own art for your first game at Game Market. It’s can be very expensive to hire an artist (and rightfully so), although a professional artist will give you a much more finished look with their experience and talent. It’s good to keep in mind that an artist may only provide the illustrations that will be used on the cards/box and you may need to negotiate or hire someone else to do the design or layout if you cannot do it yourself. Some indie publishers (aka “circles”) at Game Market are made up of small teams of illustrators and designers, while others often use the same illustrators over and over.
I do think that the audience at Game Market is much more accepting of a wider variety of art styles and polished vs unpolished looks, as where Kickstarter backers tend to be looking for more standardized professional publisher quality hinging around extensive art and detailed components (since every campaign is gorgeous nowadays) so if you are going purely for Kickstarter, you may need to invest quite a bit of resources towards art and component design.
I am a graphic designer so I really wanted to do the work. But I also couldn’t afford to hire anyone but myself. I will talk in Part II of this article about how much money I actually made from my campaign.
Going to Press
From my researching on publishing for Game Market, it appears that domestic publishers need around 2 months to complete the printing process…which is pretty quick turnaround. Many printers offered Game Market campaigns and reasonable prices (although Taiwan and China tend to be more affordable). Quality varies between printers, as well as their component offering, so it can take a lot of work to find out what printer is right for your game. Out of the many choices, I think Board Game Mill is the most highly recommended and it’s easy to find proof of their beautiful production quality which includes games from Saashi&Saashi and many others.
I really hope to use Board Game Mill in the future, but they have a minimum order quantity of 200 games. And in the summer of 2019 as I was finishing up the design of Tapiru, 200 games just seemed impossible. I didn’t even know I would deal with the logistics of 200 games (storage, getting them to Tokyo Big Sight where the convention is held, etc).
I ended up using BoardGamesMaker.com for my first small run of 50 games. BGMaker allows you to print from a single copy up to as many your bank account allows…but they don’t really make economical sense for mass printing. As an on-demand printer, they offer digital printing which, in my experience, is a bit more grainy than what you get from offset printing. Offset printing has higher setup costs (therefore higher MOQs) but scales well with price: the more you print, the cheaper it gets. Digital printing is always expensive but gives you the ability to print only a few copies in order to stay in your budget.
I used the BGMaker website to really explore all the different options for components, such as flip boxes versus standard boxes. Already during the design phase, I had decided to limit my types of components by sticking to all tiles of the same height and thickness—with only two different lengths. I had explored using additional acrylic pieces but I had a decent amount of tactility with the tiles already and I needed to cut costs anywhere I could.
To lower costs, I opted to pack games myself. This also worked out well since I hadn’t quite finished the rule sheet yet. I planned to print it separately via a domestic online printing service, then fold it at home, and pack it into the boxes. For 50 copies, this was tiring but very doable. For a larger scale release, I would not recommend it. Be sure to confirm assembly costs with your printer before agreeing to anything.
I’m very happy I used BGMaker for my first print because it was a great way to learn about the production process without producing 200+ or 500+ copies (a lot of printers even have MOQs starting from 1,000). I invested around $650 USD into my 50 unit print. That meant I wasn’t going to make any money when I sold my games at Game Market but it also meant I wasn’t going to end up with 999 unsold copies and an empty bank account.
BGM also has the benefit of quicker turnarounds than a lot of large scale offset printers. It only took a couple weeks to get through the whole process from start to games arriving at my doorstop whereas there is a lot more back and forth when you are working with an offset printer and large quantities. In my case, it took 3~4 months with my offset printer where as BGM took 3~4 weeks (excluding a couple weeks of Q&A at the beginning).
But it did take a several hours to assemble everything myself whereas the offset printed games arrived with all contents already packed prettily in the box.
Tokyo Game Market
After paying for printing, shipping from China, import taxes, rule sheets, and my booth fee for the convention…I had to sell my games for about $20 USD to break even. But it was my first game and I wanted to give a special discount to Game Market attendees (which is a pretty common practice) so I sold my game for approximately $19 USD.
Game Market runs Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday having the largest influx of attendees. I only had been able to reserve a booth spot for Sunday but I was still hopeful that I would sell around half of my stock. And things did start out fantastically—we sold 5 in the first 30 minutes! But then things moved a lot slower and we only sold another 15 for the rest of the day. It wasn’t quite half my stock but it was still very exciting. And over the next couple weeks, I was able to sell additional copies through an online shop I setup on Base (which is similar to Shopify).
Game Market is one of the most affordable conventions to join as a seller—although it gets exponentially less affordable if you start perusing the other booths and buying all the wonderful games and goods on offer.
For the 2019 Autumn GM, I reserved the cheapest booth option: a half table that you share with another exhibiter. More expensive options feature full tables or larger booth areas, as well as independent playing tables for attendees to really sit down and enjoy your game with others (rather than standing at your table while you explain it to them). As an exhibitor you also get a free ticket for you and a limited number of your helpers.
※ Due to COVID-19, booth options have changed drastically in price and spacing due to safety measures that must be implemented.
Game Market usually has an initial wave of applications (during which all the Saturday spots are snapped up) and then following waves to fill up the rest of the available space. I accidentally missed the first wave but secured a Sunday spot during the second wave. About 2~3 weeks after your receive your spot, you must pay your participation fees and you will then receive your user/password combination for the Game Market CMS to advertise your wares. You also promote yourself through the official Game Market printed catalog by submitting an image (following their template instructions) about 2.5 months before the convention date. It’s very gratifying to see your name and game in a catalog for the first time!
Game Market starts selling the catalogs (which include tickets) and individual tickets about a month before the convention date. They are even available on Amazon.co.jp.
On the Sunday morning of the convention, we made our way an hour early to the Big Sight hall with a wheely bag full of games, minor booth signage, and a good amount of cash and coins to give as change (important!). You can also setup LINE Pay or other digital payment options, if you chose. There’s not really any Wifi or electric outlets available for you to use, so you need to prepare accordingly. I believe vendors with larger stocks of games can make logistical arrangements so they do not need to carry them in by hand.
I know many of you probably came here for information on the Kickstarter campaign but Tokyo Game Market was the most important milestone for me before even thinking about an international Kickstarter campaign. A Kickstarter campaign can easily fail but if you reserve a spot at your local tabletop convention, you can be almost 100% certain that you will need a game to exhibit…whether it be an early prototype for purely playtesting or a packaged product for your customers to take home.
Interestingly enough, a few of my backers have mentioned that they backed because of the previous release at Tokyo Game Market. So I strongly encourage you to design your next game for your favorite convention (maybe even one that’s not really local at all—Tokyo Game Market is truly probably one of the best ones to be at!) before going straight to Kickstarter.
If you are feeling pretty confident in your game and have experience with production, then you might want to consider skipping the digital on-demand print step that I described here. It could be more cost effective to go straight to 200 copies or even 500+.
But for first time designers like me, embrace starting small!
In Part II of this article, I will go over the entirety of the Kickstarter process including setting up my campaign page, choosing my publisher, and shipping out my games. I hope my experience doing things as an amateur, running pretty much everything alone, will offer some insight and/or inspiration for your own projects.
A final word about game design
Designing a game is a lot like writing a story. Adding or not adding a rule or component is like changing a character’s journey. And there needs to be a satisfying ending.But just as a writer must constantly read and write to become better, I think any potential game designers really just need to keep playing and designing!