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Why and how to design table games with branding in mind (2 methods)

May 26, 2014


This is the third post in a series about practical game design techniques. Here are the first and second.

I’ve lately turned my attention from designing games for myself to designing with commercial intent, and I’ve been developing new methods to that end. Here I mumble about two and the philosophy behind them.

But before I strafe you in a hail of wisdom, a warning: though I’ve designed table games for 15 years, I’ve just started designing games to sell, and licensed only one in this new effort (out in November if it stays on schedule). These aren’t the words of experience. They might offer fresh perspective or they might be hooey. I might disavow everything. Constructive criticism is welcome.


An introduction by way of the soda industry

There’s a famous story in the annals of marketing about brand power in the soda industry. You’ve probably heard of the Pepsi Challenge: a promotion from the 70’s-80’s showing most folks prefer Pepsi to Coke in blind sip tests.

The ads weren’t lying. Studies by third parties at the time showed Pepsi indeed beat Coke in such tests.

However, the same studies found another effect: while Pepsi beat Coke in blind sip tests, Coke beat Pepsi in unblind sip tests, where the sippers knew what they were sipping. Coke’s brand was so powerful it overrode the chemistry.

Branding doesn’t have equal power for all product-types. For some, brands are weak relative to other factors, such as price (commercial airlines are an example – most of us go for the cheapest flight no matter who’s offering it, despite airlines’ endless efforts to change that)

But I contend that for board games, traditionally, branding is powerful, perhaps even more powerful than for sodas. Mass market/casual game players especially are loyal to the games they know and ignore everything else. Evidence:

Monopoly has been the best selling board game in the world since the 1930’s – How many products have been the best-selling products in their category for that long? Coke maybe? Maybe Arm & Hammer baking soda? Very, very few. This sustained dominance is probably due to powerful brand associations.

No doubt many games would beat Monopoly in “blind taste tests”, where players learn both Monopoly and another game for the first time and decide which to buy. Yet Monopoly dominates, because it’s a familiar name casual players trust and it’s synonymous with the idea of the board game.

And consider: most Monopoly sets sit unplayed on closet shelves. We buy it more for what it symbolizes than because we want to play it. Another way to put this: we buy Monopoly more for its brand than for its functional purpose.

Bananagrams – I’ve used this example elsewhere but I’ll repeat it because it illustrates the power of game branding. Bananagrams is a huge best seller now, but the same game was also marketed before under a different brand, with nowhere near the success. The branding, not the game, was the difference (it doesn’t seem to have been due to more aggressive marketing). A canvas banana and a funny name can work miracles.



Two complications to this story:

1. Games hobbyists aren’t like casual players. Hobbyists aren’t as loyal to individual games and they prefer novelty. If hobbyists have any brand loyalty, it’s not to individual games, but to publishers or designers. To take myself as an example, I’m more loyal to the Reiner Knizia brand than to the brand of any one of Reiner Knizia’s games.

Historically, the hobby market has been much smaller than the mass market, so where profit was a priority, it paid to design games with the mass market in mind and to think about branding in that context. That brings us to the second complication:

2. The hobby market is growing, and its values may be spreading. What I mean is, more casual players are becoming more like hobbyists in the way they think about games. Likewise, their loyalty to individual games may be weakening a bit. Secondarily, crowdfunding may be making it easier to make a living publishing hobbyist games (Example: Stonemaier Games).

I don’t want to overstate these effects though: the mass market remains bigger, casual players still exhibit more loyalty to individual games, and bottom-line, the biggest hits still usually rely on mass-market adoption to become hits, whether hobbyists adopt them or not.

In addition, though crowdfunding has created a new source of revenue for hobby designers, it’s also creating a lot more competition among them. In fact, the internet generally has created such a focus on hobbyist game design, I suspect the mass market may now be comparatively underserved.

For these reasons, if making money is a priority, I believe designing games with potential for mass market adoption is still the way to go*. If you create a game which is popular among casual players, there’s a good chance it’ll stay popular (and generate revenue) for a long time. Contrast this with hobbyist games, where even revered games go out of print as hobbyists move on to the next new thing (Example: El Grande).

To sum up so far: I’ve argued designing games for mass market adoption is still the way to go if commercial success is a priority, and in that case a game’s brand is as important as the game itself.

That brings us to my central point: if you’re designing for the mass market, put as much effort into designing the game’s brand as you do gameplay. How? Here are two techniques I’m experimenting with:

How to integrate brand design and game design

Technique #1: brand-first design – There’s a rule in journalism which holds you should always write the headline first. Why? The headline is the promise you make to readers. By writing it first, you can better assess its value, and it focuses you on fulfulling it once you’ve committed to the writing.

A game’s title/tagline work the same way: they make a promise about the game’s experience. For that reason, I’ve started creating titles/taglines for games that don’t exist yet, and then designing games to fulfill their promise.

This is how I do it in practice: I wrote recently about my game design workflow, called the 100:10:1 method. In the first step, I write 100 concepts for games, each in a sentence or two. In the past, those have usually described mechanics, themes, components etc, which interest me.

But now, I’m composing game titles+taglines, or sometimes even packaging concepts. After I have 100, I select the 10 which most excite me, and carry out the rest of the process as usual.

I’ve designed one game this way so far:

Cat Herders: The Cat-Herding Game of Herding Cats


It is, by far, the most visited game description on this site. And this is a game almost no one has played, I haven’t promoted it much or tried to license it, and the gameplay itself may be unsuitable for a broad audience. All this suggests that the method has value.

Technique #2: online branding split-tests – I didn’t invent this method. The author Tim Ferris famously used it to design the branding for his best-selling book The 4-Hour Work Week. But I’ve not seen it used on a table game. The basic version is a method for testing the attractiveness of game titles and taglines, and it goes like this:

You create several different Google Adwords ads featuring different game titles and taglines, for the same keyword, set them to be displayed at the same frequency (“rotate evenly”), and see which one has the highest Click-Through-Rate (CRT), which is a measure of how intriguing the ad is to the audience.

It’ll cost money – a couple hundred dollars to identify a statistically significant winner – which means you should only use it on a game you’re committed to publishing. If you do it right (e.g. you use appropriate keywords, etc.), it can make a tremendous difference to your marketing.

Similar techniques can be used to test packaging concepts or graphic design elements, using services like Optimizely. There are many ways to do this and too many details for me to cover here. But you get the idea.

I’m only just starting to use this technique for games, but I’ve used it for a variety of purposes in my professional life, with good results. I expect it to work for games.

Final Caveats

1. None of this works if your publisher doesn’t want your branding help. Find publishers who welcome your involvement (It shouldn’t be hard – several publishers have told me they wish designers cared more about commercial considerations). Likewise, earn their trust by explaining your philosophy well, presenting amazing, thoughtful ideas, and being sensitive to the publisher’s needs (a publisher has to worry not only about each game’s brand, but also the company’s brand, which adds constraints – your game about orcs beheading each other with piano wire does no good for that family-friendly publisher you’re working with).


2. A brand only really becomes a brand when potential customers are familiar with it and they have positive associations with it (the whole point of branding). That means consistent, long-term outreach after publication is as important as design before publication. Designers with commercial ambitions would do well to consider that a part of their jobs as well. Some might argue that’s a job for marketing folks, but I disagree. Most marketers can’t be as authentic and honest as you can be about what you’re offering, and authenticity and honesty are critical to good branding.

That’s all I have to say. I hope it isn’t stupid. It’s always a struggle to see light through the obsidian storm of one’s own perceptions.

* This is where some hobbyist readers accuse me of arguing for “dumbed down” game design. I disagree and here’s why:

Casual players want and get different things from games than hobbyists do. Hobbyists tend to assume the desires of casual players are inferior to the desires of hobbyists. I think this sentiment is an expression of our ego-protecting tendency to believe those who are different are inferior (a tendency which, incidentally, causes unthinkable amounts of misunderstanding, heartbreak and injustice in other contexts). This isn’t to say there are no such things as unhealthy desires, but rather hobbyists are misguided in thinking the desires of casual players are unhealthy (or anyway less healthy than those of hobbyists).

Anyway I believe a great game for casual players can be every bit as artful and profound as a great game for hobbyists. It just serves needs to which we hobbyists have trouble relating, so the art is lost on us. It certainly was lost on me, for a long time (a subject for another day). Back to essay

Nick Bentley

  1. While branding certainly can make or break your success publishing a board game, I think you left out a very important point with regards to Monopoly. I would argue that although their branding is strong as should be apparent by the hundreds of spinoffs from dogopoly to world of warcraftopoly that the reason it is so successful is simply because of the nostalgia that comes with Monopoly. I would argue that people do not buy monopoly to sit in their shelf because it is monopoly but rather because they remember back to playing monopoly as a kid and wish they could recapture some of the memories that went with it. The problem is that similar to watching some of your old favourite movies from the 80s, watching them now just isn’t the same and why so many copies of Monopoly remain virtually untouched.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I would agree, *except* that sense of nostalgia is part of the brand, by definition. It’s part of the halo of good associations we have with it. Obviously, you probably can’t replicate for a new game.

  2. Makes me think of two anecdotes I’ve heard (not fact-checked, just in case I’m getting these slightly wrong) how good editors can also play a part in getting 100 down to a strongly-branded 1. #1. A boardgame was pitched that, much like Cranium, had different activities on each location; the publishers rejected the overall concept but loved the synonym gameplay on one of the spaces and asked to have that further developed, which ultimately became Apples to Apples. Clever name and a hugely successful brand. #2. Bill Watterson wanted to make his own Peanuts comic, so he pitched a wide cast of kid characters. The syndicate rejected it but they thought there might be an interesting premise with that one Calvin kid and his stuffed tiger.
    Well, with a little self-discipline and applied 100:10:1, I guess we don’t have to leave our luck up to good editors.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Fantastic comment! I love these examples. It makes me wonder who among those I know, in or out of the games industry, might serve as outside counsel in the selection process. I certainly feel myself losing objectivity sometimes as I get more deeply into designs and my focus narrows.

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