The Hunger (To Design) Games: Or All About Entering the Arena of Game Design Contests

There are many paths that lead into the Indie Jungle – the “self-publishing” path, the “crowdfunding” path, the “pitch to a publisher” path and even the “print-on-demand” path. However, there is another path that many new game designers often overlook, one that can be uniquely fun, creatively challenging and infinitely rewarding…the “game design contest” path.

For those who are completely unfamiliar with game design contests, they are challenges put forth by game industry leaders, publishers, convention organizers and members of the gaming community. In these challenges, participants are invited to design a game – usually with a set of restrictions or parameters and some sort of prize for the winner.

The Indie Jungle is ripe with these cutthroat arenas where designers willfully enter the creative Thunderdome to see who comes out on top. Many enter. Not many leave victorious.

So who would be crazy enough to spend countless hours designing a game to be scrutinized by judges and competitors under restrictive conditions and a tight deadline with a very high probability of losing?

Well, me, for one.

There’s just something about entering a contest that scratches my game design itch. To be fair I’m not drawn to every contest, but I will admit to having entered five contests so far. Even if I wanted to enter every contest it would be impossible, as there are far too many out there. For purposes of discussion, I’ll group them into three categories: JUST FOR FUN, POTENTIAL FOR PUBLISHING and COMMUNITY-BUILDING.

Just for fun ^

The “just for fun” contests are exactly what they sound like. The gaming community usually presents them in an effort to provide a fun and interactive challenge.

Board Game Geek as several of these challenges that range from a “Mint Tin Design Contest” (everything must fit into a tiny mint tin) to a “24-hour Design Contest” (you need to submit your entry within 24 hours of the contest announcement). Board Game Designers Forum has a regular “Game Design Showdown” with restrictions and themes that alternate monthly. And podcasts such as Building the Game with Jason Slingerland and Rob Couch might occasionally throw out a design challenge to listening fans. By and large, these contests don’t have much in terms of an actual “prize” (it may be as little as bragging rights for being declared the winner). Instead they are a chance to simply work on your design skills, engage with fellow designers and – you guessed it – have fun.

Potential for publishing ^

Button Shy Contest Entry "Circle the Wagons"
Button Shy Contest Entry “Circle the Wagons”

The second type of contest I’ve categorized as “potential for publishing.” These contests are associated with an actual publisher that is hosting the contest. An example of this is Dice Hate Me Game‘s “Meta Games” contest, where contestants have to devise the best game in which the title of the game and the core mechanic of the game are one and the same. Another example of this is Button Shy Games‘ “Wallet Game Design Contest,” where contestants have to create a compelling game using no more than 18 cards. Even Hasbro Gaming Lab recently held their “Next Great Game” contest with a $25,000 Grand Prize to help make your game a reality through Indiegogo.

These contests obviously have restrictions not unlike the “just for fun” ones, but they also have the added bonus of your game actually getting published if it wins! I know from experience that you can in fact get a game picked up just by entering a contest, as my game “Circle the Wagons” co-designed by Danny Devine and Paul Kluta recently won Button Shy’s 2016 contest and is set to Kickstart in April 2017. (Woot!)

Community Building ^

The third type of contest I’m calling “community-building.” What do I mean by this? Simply that it falls somewhere in between “just for fun” and “potential for publishing.” These are contests that tend to have a higher profile than a podcast challenge or an online forum competition, but don’t promise a publishing contract to the winner. However, if your game does well enough, such contests can shed some positive light on your game within the gaming community…and might even attract the attention of publishers.

A great example of this is a gaming convention contest, such as SaltCon‘s Ion Award, KublaCon‘s Game Design Contest or Geekway to the West‘s Mayday Games Design Contest. Entering one of these contests – or winning, for that matter – comes with no guarantee that your game will get published, but it will get publishers’ eyes on your game, and that is something significant! At the very least, it will give you face-to-face time with the judges and other designer finalists – connections that are invaluable to your success as a designer.

The Game Crafter holds game design contests regularly and I put them into this third category, as well. While every TGC contest is different, most seem to be structured to reward the winner with a small cash prize and opportunities to promote the game on their online shop. Sometimes the judge is a publisher but there is no guarantee the publisher will be interested in snagging the winning entry for their lineup.

Reign Makers
Reign Makers, Game Crafter Contest Entry

I have entered two contests via The Game Crafter and both have been great experiences. One game has resulted in signing with an Indie publisher who saw my entry on the public game page and expressed interest in it, and we hit it off from there (“Reign Makers,” Escape Velocity Games).

Still another contest, the Cardboard Edison Award, exists to recognize great unpublished board games. This contest is especially intriguing because it attracts a slew of judges from the tabletop gaming world, including designers, publishers, developers, podcasters and more.

How to prepare ^

contest photoAs you can tell, there are plenty of chances to flex your designer muscles in a contest. Whether or not entering a contest is the right decision for you…well, only you can decide that. But I can tell you that there are a few things you should be prepared for if you plan to draw your proverbial machete and hack your way through the Indie Jungle via this path:

  • Temper your Expectations – The numbers are always against you in a contest. I’ve seen anywhere from 20 entries up to hundreds, often with established designers attached to them. If you are planning on being deeply disappointed with anything less than a “first place” publishing contract, then you might want to steer clear of entering altogether. The spirit of contests is to encourage community engagement and share new ideas all while crafting games to be shared. Winning is the gravy, to be sure, but feast on the experience itself.
  • Effort vs. Reward – It takes hard word to make a great game, let alone one that will outshine all others. You need to be realistic about the time it will take to do all that’s necessary to build a rock solid entry and decide if it’s worth the effort. I approach a contest with the mindset that it is giving me a set goal to achieve a game design; whether I win or lose, at the end of the day I will have a game that I can be proud of. Contest deadlines in this regard can be great motivators for designers that are otherwise prone to procrastination.
  • Final Art vs Prototype Art – Some contests require “final art” (i.e. your own artwork or artwork commissioned by you, or art from the public domain), whereas others just want playable prototypes. Know which you’re getting into before diving into a contest. This is almost certain spelled out in the contest rules, but if it isn’t explicitly clear you might want to follow up with the contest creator. Don’t sweat it too much if your final art isn’t the prettiest in the pageant, as you will ultimately be judged on the game play…but if it isn’t at least somewhat appealing you won’t even make it to the finals for the judges to actually play.
  • audience photoKnow your Audience – Respect what style of games the judge, publisher or contest host is into. If it’s a publisher looking for family-friendly fare, don’t give them “Zombie Demons from Dystopia.” (Although that does sound like a fun one, now that I’m thinking about it!) Also, research the publisher’s current catalog of games. If they already have a supervillain game, they probably aren’t looking for another one.
  • Don’t Force It – If you’re like me, you’ve got plenty of old game ideas and half-baked prototypes buried deep in the back of your game shelves. You may be tempted to pull one of these out and dust it off to see if you can reshape its theme or mechanics to conform to a new game contest. Your inner voice might say something like, “Sure, I originally designed this as a steampunk cooking game but I’m pretty sure I can tweak it to become an underwater farming game.” In these instances, resist the temptation to cram a square peg into a round hole. That’s not to say some aspects of a previous game idea can’t make their way into a new concept that works for a contest, but your game will likely benefit from a wholly fresh approach inspired by the contest’s theme.
  • Learn from Feedback – Often times the judge will provide comments about your entry. While you may not be overjoyed to get any negative thoughts or constructive criticism, don’t dismiss this valuable feedback! It is almost certainly coming from a source with a history of game design or publishing success and it is being provided in an effort to help improve your game. If you set aside your personal bias toward your game, you may just see a flaw that the judge also noticed and be willing to explore ways to correct it.

In the end you may win, you may land a contract, or you may enter the arena only to see your game get crushed into oblivion by the competition. But one thing is certain – you will have grown from the experience and thickened your skin to someday return to the arena, a better designer for it. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Steven Aramini is a board game designer. His The Indie Jungle will be a regular feature on The Indie Game Report. You can follow him on Twitter.

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