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Publisher Diary: Hall 5 Lessons Learned, or How to Participate in SPIEL with Your First Game

by Taras Tomyshch

First, let me make a short introduction for those who haven’t read my previous diary. My name is Taras, and I’m a software engineer and (this is official now) a beginner board game designer. Together with my friend Alex, we created al-Khwarizmi Games, a brand named after the ancient Persian mathematician, the patron of algorithms, while also being a nod to our primary jobs. In 2022, we self-published our first two games — Space Expatriate and Ave, Leo! — and presented them at SPIEL ’22.

Given the emotions that overwhelmed me after that event, I decided to put my thoughts into this article with the hope that it might be useful to other dreamers like us.

Lesson 1: Fight ’til the End

I could have started with my trip to Essen, but something significant happened the week before. As I had committed to releasing the game at SPIEL very late, the estimated production date was basically a week before the event.

A few days before production, I got a call from my friend who was doing a TTS mod of the game. Oh, my goodness, there was a mistake in the text! To make things worse, it wasn’t a grammar issue, but a wrong section heading in the instructions. As a result, in addition to being confused by the new game, the poor players would get even more confused by the mistake. I sat down and tried to talk to myself: “Well, that happens. I can explain the error while selling the game, or add a form on a website where people can request a corrected component. In the end, it’s not an expensive error.”

But come on, how would my selling process look like when it started with self-defense? The whole idea of self-publishing was driven by a simple statement: “We can do it no worse than big players.” So apparently, we couldn’t?

I took a deep breath, and it cleared my mind. Why did I decide that it was over? The next day I made hundreds of calls. Fates smiled at me. The factory accepted the change and did the impossible; they reprinted the element and managed to pack everything before Sunday October 1st, a mere four days before the event.

Now I realize how many other things could have gone wrong and brought failure, too, but I don’t blame myself. As in many good board games, the only way to chase after the leader is to risk heavily. I did, and luckily it worked for me this time. God save me from doing that again and help me to learn…

Lesson 2: No One Owes You Anything Just Because You’re Small and New

Do it properly or don’t do it at all — there is no try.

Lesson 3: Releasing a Game Is a Game All Its Own

It’s good to have a person dedicated to booth assembly. It’s cool when someone posts on social networks for you. It’s great when a designer makes advertising assets for you on a daily basis. But when you’re a small company, you do most of the things on your own.

We arrived a few days ahead of SPIEL ’22. After fifteen hours of driving a van from Austria to Poland and then to Essen, we deserved some rest. It was a national holiday in Germany, so we thought we had no other choice. (Apparently it was possible to start assembling your booth on that day, but thankfully we didn’t know that.) We had a delicious dinner in an authentic restaurant in a small beautiful city near Essen and spontaneously attended a concert of organ music in a gothic church. I was thinking of a meeting with my Space Expatriate co-author the previous day in front of a van full of newly produced games. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time. After a month of slight but constant worrying about the printing, it was good to feel relief for a short time. After that, new challenges began.

From left: Alex, Taras, and Ihor in front of the Opel Movano

That cozy place in Ratingen, Germany

Our booth in Hall 5 cost us approximately €1000, with roughly the same amount spent to rent furniture from the Messe. At the fair we saw a lot of third-party services, so we assume we could have done it much cheaper. On the other hand, maybe this is possible only for bigger companies that assemble more sophisticated booths. We will investigate this before the next event.

Alex vs the old man

There were many cool ideas around. I swear one day I will just dedicate some time and walk through the shiny streets of Messe halls without any particular destination point, just enjoying the show.

We had a four-meter horizontal banner, one standard vertical roll-up, beer coasters with game logos, and, obviously, flyers. (Lesson 3.1: QR Codes Also Need Pre-production Proofreading.) It seems that the best job was done by a handmade, scaled-up model of Ave, Leo! both in the new-release media show and at the booth as it attracted children and even the Messe’s Instagram account noticed it.

The box is bigger on the inside

As our van was more than two meters high, we had to reserve a place at P2. Well, that is okay if you’re just walking to the Messe from there, but when you’re a publisher there is always something to carry in your hands. Daily sprints with boxes were not the most pleasant part of our journey (but great cardio). Obviously, bringing the whole print run with you to SPIEL, especially if you don’t expect to sell more than a hundred boxes, is basically not the best idea.

In our case, this location was dictated by conditions, but next time we will fight for a parking slot that is closer. A few days before the event you’re even allowed to drive the car inside the hall and unload everything with no rush. The way Messe organizes this event, in our opinion, is brilliant.

Many people managed to place everything at their booths, but they had to sacrifice a lot of space, which we used as a playtesting area. By the way, for our ten square meters, we ordered two 120×80 cm tables, two 80×80 cm tables, fourteen chairs, a stand, a trash bin, a hanger, and a shelf, which luckily didn’t arrive. (We forgot to put it into the order.) Geometrically it looked okay, but in reality, we had a hard Tetris job of fitting all of that in our booth. Luckily, our American neighbor Matt Petering, the author of Distrix, made our life easier by providing foster care for two of the chairs.

We also prepared a cashless payment solution. On the first day, we let people choose to pay with cash or card and met a lot of surprise. “Card…? At SPIEL?” I felt I was ruining a fundamental SPIEL tradition, but over the next few days, as cash probably started running out, people used the cashless option more frequently. Due to a heavily loaded network and the bad quality of the terminal, many times it didn’t work for us, but no deal was interrupted because of that. PayPal helped in the worst-case scenario. Our conclusion: not a must, but good to have.

Lesson 4: The Fewer Assumptions the Better

We had a big advantage in arriving early, but we didn’t always use it. For example, as we didn’t have sophisticated things to assemble for the “new release” media show, we decided to go there long after set-up time had started. We assumed that our place in the show had already been predefined, but instead it was “first came, first serve”, so we ended up at the far corner of the hall. At least we got a place – I heard some teams that arrived the next day couldn’t fit at all.

As for the effect of the new release show, for us it was a bit of a disappointment. The description of the event says it’s a way to reach the press and open new B2B contacts, but most of the time we were just talking to nearby exhibitors and buying one another’s games. I mean it was fun, and we indeed met interesting people and heard inspiring stories, but I expected much more.

One nice surprise was meeting Justin Bell, a contributing author for Meeple Mountain. I had requested a review from them sometime before SPIEL and unfortunately they had rejected the request due to a lack of resources. At the show, though, they found me themselves and grabbed a copy.

Lesson 5: Your Crew Is Your True Gold

When we attended SPIEL as visitors back in the day, we usually reached hall 5 approximately on the second or third day of the event. We don’t remember it ever being crowded, so we expected people at our booth only on Saturday. Well, the first people were playing Space Expatriate three minutes after the entrance opened. I can hardly remember a time when our tables were not occupied.

We had some meetings booked in advance, so we of course brought a team with us. Our good friend Mateusz arrived from Austria, and we also found an awesome couple from Germany, Jenny and Johan, who run the board game channel Spielemuschel on Instagram. We had thought this group would be enough, but luckily another of our friends, Oleg Gul — who always joined our SPIEL journey but wasn’t supposed to work at the fair — helped us a lot.

From left: Johan, Jenny, Taras, Oleh, and Alex (Mateusz had already left)

I think you need one person dedicated to each table as a rules explainer and someone “on reception”. Your own time, I would dedicate to meetings and exploring B2B contacts around the show. Our folks kind of volunteered — they got from us free tickets, games, and T-shirts — so obviously we didn’t want to steal SPIEL from them. We agreed that they would work half a day. Without them, life at the booth was really hard. Honestly, for the whole week, we had no single lunch. We definitely will prioritize the question of people for the next event.

By the way, we were looking for someone German-speaking to support us with rules explanation, and this was most beneficial for Ave, Leo! as this game was played by children, among others. You will survive at SPIEL with English, but each additional language is a good welcome bonus, of course.

Lesson 6: You Need to Prepare for SPIEL like a Kickstarter Campaign

One important thing that I discovered at SPIEL is that our games are quite good. Approximately 80% of people who played Space Expatriate bought it in the end. (I mean, one or two copies for the group.) This may sound like a good result, but if you have two tables and the play session takes around one hour, that gives you 14-16 sessions per day. Even with a good conversion of demo-to-sale, that equals 10-12 copies sold. What really helped was that sometimes we could conduct a 5-10 minute demo for a person, and that was enough for a deal. I have no idea how good we are in sales, but we had to exercise a lot.

We were told that SPIEL usually doesn’t pay for itself. Your presence at the show is more about advertising yourself and opening new contacts. We didn’t care too much because for us being in SPIEL was a priceless experience — but even so, SPIEL is a yearly golden chance and it’s stupid not to try to use it for sales. Here’s what we concluded based on this first experience:

1) Sales could be much better if people come to buy a game that they already know. In our case, it was difficult because we had our boxes ready too late. With Space Expatriate, I reached some reviewers with digital assets or my Tabletopia version, and I’m really grateful they tried to help. Giveaways on Instagram and a French review by Vin d’jeu brought us some people, but in most cases, people had never heard about our games before. Next time, we need to ensure we have some publicity in advance.

2) SPIEL is a good way not to spend money sending boxes to reviewers. It’s very convenient to agree with reviewers on a loot handover at the show.

3) Of course, it’s good if you manage to schedule meetings in advance and host them at SPIEL. De-virtualization is very beneficial. It is also a very good way to share the box with potential localizers and publishers. Do not underestimate business cards, by the way!

Lesson 7: SPIEL Is Not About Money; It’s About People

And now my favorite part. Let me finally step out from all these pragmatic things, cost optimization, number of sold boxes, etc. SPIEL is just a fantastic show, first of all! Each year that I attended, I couldn’t precisely explain what was so special about the fair; now I finally can. What is happening at SPIEL can happen only there.

Imagine a guy rushing through the crowd somewhere in the direction of the main halls, stopping at our booth, and asking to quickly buy a copy of Ave, Leo! because the game looked solid. Then he added he was from “XXX Show”. When the guy realized we had never heard of it — it took several attempts for us to understand the name was “Tric Trac” — he looked disappointed and confused. Of course, he couldn’t simply leave it at that, so he found an episode of the show on YouTube with Bruno Cathala as their guest. While he was doing that, I silently took a copy of Space Expatriate and offered it to him. He was interested but unsure — then I resolved his internal conflict by saying it was free. He dropped a word of appreciation, then ran away in the same manner he had approached us. “What was that?”, Alex and I said to each other at the same time.

There were also a few retailers who spontaneously bought a couple of cardboard boxes from us. Invoices – later, payments – later, good memories – forever.

Or another good one. It was the evening of the third day of the event, and I could hardly speak. Half an hour before the end of the show there was a company playing Space Expatriate. They were tired the same as me, but instead of playing, the guys started to make fun of the game. One of them was doing irrational moves, the other was making jokes about him because, obviously, his scoring was far from successful. I had a feeling they were trying to break the game, which made me a bit irritated. I was thinking it wasn’t a good time for this kind of testing — than all of a sudden, one of them stopped and said, “All right, I like this game. I want to localize it for a French market.” “Surprise, surprise”, said the other one. I smiled and offered to meet the next day to discuss details. Who knows, maybe it was a start of a great partnership…

SPIEL and al-Khwarizmi Games

In my diary about Space Expatriate, I already wrote one sad but honest thing: We were okay with licensing. We went into self-publishing because we believed in the games we had made and wanted to give them a chance. It’s funny because now we need to think about what we’re going to release at the next SPIEL. Publishing is a lot of fun, but it’s another full-time job and we already have one. We would be happier to concentrate on the design still.

The thing is that while the games are not different from prototypes at all, now we somehow have many more people considering those for a co-print. The whole idea of publishing your first game is to break an “egg and chicken” problem. Everyone wants you to have published games before, and how can you do that? Maybe we should have gone with Kickstarter, which we don’t like, or we should have focused on events hosted for game submissions. Now I understand that it would have made more sense to reach out to small publishers, but we couldn’t know about them because they are often under the radar like we are. SPIEL didn’t give us all the answers, but it revealed one thing – it’s definitely not over. We need to keep moving, be clever, and learn a lot. Finally, we’ve started to be treated seriously at least by some.

There is a German online shop, Aroshops, that lists our games now. Their business model is to work with small indie publishers and help them grow. We met their Chief of Operations, Markus, at SPIEL and, of course, made a crazy deal that was possible only in the world of small players. Poor Markus had to make multiple sprints to P2 with a trolley full of boxes. After the last one, pale and breathing heavily, he stopped and told us one thing. “At some point”, he said, “we will be sitting at the fair and making jokes of these times.” Oh gosh, I’m looking forward to that!


Taras & Alex


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