Frank Branham asked me to write an article about the trials and tribulations of self-publishing Eight Foot Llama's latest card game, Who Stole Ed's Pants? Hopefully I can provide some insight to anyone that is considering a similar path.
I started designing Who Stole Ed's Pants? in my spare time in 1999, and ended up playtesting and throwing away large chunks of what I came up with for about eighteen months. During much of this time I had no decisive plans about what I would do when the game was completed. I was hopeful I could get it into the hand of other gamers, but I didn't know how I would make that happen.
Lucky for me, at Gencon 2000, I signed up for a seminar called Spit and Bailing Wire run by James Kyle of Glastyn Games (formerly called Galloglass Games). The subject was the shoestring game production. James was in the midst of his HellRail 2nd Perdition success and was building high-quality games in his own house. From him, I learned not only about production, but also about the numerous internet resources for game parts and industry advice. Most importantly, I learned that producing your own games is actually a viable idea. I had heard tales of the need to immediately spend $15,000 to build your game once you were done developing it, or else no one would give it a second glance. I was quite relieved to hear there was an alternative route.
By Spring 2001, I finally had a ruleset I was comfortable with. Gone were the board, the dice, and the concern with motive for the crime. In its place were witnesses of fluctuating credibility and a simple one-action-per-turn system that led to interesting choices for the players. I made games with a Canon Inkjet, a Xyron cold laminator, and a heavy-duty German papercutter. It took a fairly painstaking hour to make each game, but I was excited about it, so the time passed quickly enough.
Gamer feedback was quite positive between area cons (my thanks to Jim Burns for assistance there), Gencon 2001, and local gaming groups. But since the game was desktop published, I was nervous about sending it off for professional review. But I did get a copy to John McCallion of Games Magazine, and to my shock, he liked it enough to make it runner-up family card game of the year. Based on this, I began to suspect I'd be laminating myself into an early grave if I kept making the game at home.
I then had two options: self-publish or get licensing with an existing company. Mayfair had picked up James Kyle’s HellRail for its 3rd Perdition, and James encouraged me to at least take a look around for potential interest. I inquired at a number of company booths at Gencon about submissions, and while everyone was very helpful, I suspected that I was one of about a hundred people who called them every day saying they had a game idea. Additionally, card games are expensive to publish compared to books, and it seemed the big companies were therefore even less inclined to invest. I decided to take the plunge.
The printing houses I had heard of were Carta Mundi, Yaquinto, Paragon, Delano, Quebecor (thanks to Eric Lang of Anoch Game Systems for that one). I was originally planning on printing about 1000 copies of the game, but I found that the per-game cost would be prohibitively high. The price started to get reasonable around 2000 copies, but really isn't attractive till around 5000. Carta Mundi, in fact, sets their minimum run at 5000 copies. Who Stole Ed's Pants? has 95 cards and 4 player mats, and it also has a bag of 14 glass stones which I knew I'd be spending considerable time packing. So, between financial concerns, my own inexperience with the industry, and a fear that I'd be seeing glass stones in my sleep for years to come, I decided to go for the lower-profit, lower-risk route with 2000 games. I chose Quebecor World of Canada, due to their price quote and their proximity to me in Massachusetts.
The programs I had used to make First Edition Who Stole Ed's Pants? (Visio, mostly) were now useless. QuarkXPress and Pagemaker seemed to the most popular publishing packages for professional printers. While Quark was more expensive, I found that virtually every printer accepted it, so I went with that. I'm glad I did, as it was very easy to learn and to use. I was able to lay out the whole game in short order and get the files off to Canada in early September.
From there, it was a lot of waiting around. This was stressful, since I was new to it all and I had some trouble getting information as to the project's progress. I passed time putting stones in bags (thanks to all who helped there!) while trying to keep my 7-month-old son Joshua away from them. I signed off on multiple sets of proofs from the printer, with each of us FedExing them back and forth between border shutdowns from September 11th. I made my second trip to Canada for the final press approval, and had the games two weeks later.
Who Stole Ed's Pants? Second Edition looked great, except for one thing: Quebecor had forgotten to round the corners on the cards. At first, this only bothered me a little, so I accepted the games and filled the first few orders. But a few days later, it grated on me, so I called them up. Much to my surprise, they took the games back, unpacked them, cut off the corners off the cards, repacked them, and returned them to me.
So there you have it. The entire publishing process took about two months from the time I bought Quark. It was marginally painful, but much of that was due to stress caused by my own inexperience. I plan to be doing it all again next year, with a bit more knowledge and, hopefully, a better game.
I can't overstate the value of the help I've received in the last two years. I heartily recommend joining the Game Publishers Association (www.thegpa.org) to anyone interested in making games. Their members have a wealth of combined experience, and like so many people in this industry, they're just plain helpful folk.
To that end, if I can be of assistance to anyone, feel free to send me an email.
Frank Branham: How did you decide on the rather whimsical theme and name? And did you discard any other themes along the way?
Jim Doherty: Pant theft was the theme from day one. My friends and I were coming up with assorted game ideas in 1999, and I thought the concept of framing other players for a crime had a lot of possibilities. Since injustice is of course not inherently enjoyable, the crime had to be a weird one. Who Stole Ed's Pants? was literally the first title I came up with, and it stuck.
FB: What were your influences for the mechanics of the game? In particular, the mechanic for comparing evidence cards in front of you to the fact cards is reminiscent (to me at least) of Public Opinion cards in Die Macher, or the web preferences in X.Net. But those are a bit more obscure games.
JD: Everything in the game came out of the theme. When I thought about framing the opposition, I could see players planting evidence on each other and changing the facts of how the crime occurred, with the end goal of lining things up to the detriment of others. It just seemed appropriate. I can't point to individual games as influences, but I've been playing a lot of the German-style games over the past few years. They do tend to be the kinds of games I prefer -- simple rules that give lots of options to the players, and I think that's what Who Stole Ed's Pants? turned out to be. I also enjoy the idea that cards or game pieces can be played in entirely different ways, and you can see that in the Who Stole Ed's Pants? Witness cards.
I'm afraid I'm not familiar with X.Net, but I do look forward to my first game of Die Macher.
FB: The mechanic of using witnesses to restrict card play in a category is unique to the best of my knowledge. Any idea how you concocted it?
JD: I know you have a vast knowledge of games, Frank, and you would not use the word "unique" lightly! So I take this as a good thing. Well, I knew there were Fact and Evidence cards in the game, and of course the key decision was how players would be allowed to acquire and play those cards. After much wrangling (touched upon below) I settled on the idea that your ability to do things would be based on "who you knew," and that meant recruiting quality witnesses to your team.
I think that since the Facts and Evidence occurred naturally in the Who, When and Where categories, it only seemed to follow that the witnesses would do the same. Thematically, I just wanted the player with the most influential allies to have the widest possible range of actions.
FB: Why did you make the 4 player a partnership game?
JD: Several reasons. Most of all, it reduces the amount of data one has to process in a 4-player game. If you had three separate opponents, you'd have to analyze three sets of witnesses and evidence and correlate that with what you have in your hand and the facts currently in play. But if it's a partnership endeavor, you have only two opponents to reckon with, so the game moves that much faster.
But there are other reasons too. Downtime is reduced because you can openly scheme with your partner when it's not your turn. The idea of "partners in crime" fits nicely with the theme. And finally, I happen to have a dearth of partnership games in my collection, so my group found it something of a nice change of pace to work with another player.
All that said, the game still works if 4 players act as individuals. I just wouldn't recommend it until you really had the hang of the game.
FB: Were there any other ideas that you discarded or heavily altered while playtesting and developing the game?
JD: Many. It was originally a board game, where players were allowed to play cards if they were in the right place at the right time. While this idea worked, and some liked it, I ultimately felt there were not enough meaningful decisions for the players. I worked to improve this version for a very long time, but I eventually decided the board was the problem, and it had to go.
Then came multiple board-less versions of Who Stole Ed's Pants? Some involved dice, and the idea that evidence cards had only a certain chance of being playable; some involved a fourth evidence category called Motive that did not match up with a Fact, but was instead inherently incriminating; some involved the idea of trading in witnesses for extra cards. The game has been through the grinder, and thankfully my gaming group has been very patient with me.
FB: What made you stop altering the game and decide that you were done playtesting it?
JD: Once the witness system was there, I was finally satisfied with the mechanics for playing cards. I then started stripping out anything that seemed inelegant or redundant, like the concern with Motive for the crime. Eventually I found that I couldn't take out any more, and anything I thought of to add didn't improve the game. It seemed whatever I came up with was meant for a different game. Playtest feedback was quite positive by then, so I figured Who Stole Ed's Pants? was done, and it was time to start thinking about the next project.
- Jim Doherty