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I can still remember the exhilaration of hearing my game, Unearth, announced as the winner of the KublaCon Game Design Contest in May 2006. All of the contestants and our friends were sitting in a small conference room overlooking the massive atrium at the Hyatt hotel in Burlingame. The judges had placed all of the entries on the main table and were going through the games one by one, announcing them in reverse order. When it got down to two games remaining, it seemed inconceivable that I, an amateur, could actually win this contest. After all, Unearth was my first board game I had designed and I had just started wading into the board game hobby. Still, my first effort had won over my friends and family who loved Unearth, and I had made the classic rookie mistake of paying an artist to make artwork for my game. The vibrant artwork embodying the classic “Indiana Jones” theme definitely added another layer of charm.

Fast forward to today, a decade later, and Unearth, my prize winning game, still remains unpublished.

It’s not for a lack of trying. By my estimates, I have submitted Unearth for publication at least eight times to literally every board game company that accepts outside submissions, places like Asmodee, Eagle Gryphon Games, and Bucephalus Games (who published my first game, Kachina). I recall sitting down for a play session with the guys at Slugfest Games (of Red Dragon Inn fame), who were a fun group fast with jokes, but they literally picked my game apart.

I think my best chance was with ZMan Games, where Zev Shlasinger said he liked the game. He also had another submission on hand, Archaeology, a small box card game. He was trying to choose which archaeological themed game to publish. In the end, he decided to go with Archaelogy.
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It’s not like I didn’t keep trying to improve my game over the years. Game play involves driving your trucks to various archaeological sites where you try to get past certain obstacles by playing cards from your hand. If you manage to get through all of the obstacles, you gain a treasure card. The original mechanism to add more archaeological sites was to play a Discovery card from your hand. Over time, I realized this was a bad idea as folks could prevent the game from ending by holding onto their Discovery cards. So, I moved the Discovery cards into the Obstacle deck which seemed to work well. I added new kinds of tools that rounded out the tool deck. My “beer and pretzels” game got less random and more strategic. Still, the changes didn’t seem to be enough.

I hit rock bottom when I entered Unearth into a national Rio Grande Game Design Contest in 2009. The winners of 14 regional contests would earn the right to pitch their game to the founder of Rio Grande Games, Jay Tummelson, at the Chicago Toy Fair. This seemed like a great opportunity. My regional contest was at a game store in Berkeley, and the place was packed with designers, probably 12-15 contestants. The winner would be based on scores from playtesters. As the day went on, crowds of people went through my table, playing Unearth. Some folks frowned at my game as too random and not elegant enough, but others seemed to have a good time. When they announced the winning game, I still believed I had a chance. Unlike my magical afternoon many years ago where my game was called in first place, Unearth was announced as the last place game! Ouch!

From what I have heard from other game designers, everyone seems to have one or more games in their closets that just won’t get published.

These might be our first designed games, or games we and others love, but their destiny seems to be to collect dust in the dark. If I try to look objectively at Unearth, I can see that it lacks what publishers would call “a hook”, that one new mechanism or idea that grabs attention. Also, Unearth has an inordinate amount of randomness. Players draw random cards to try to solve random obstacles in order to win random treasures. It’s a game that might have been good back in 2006, but now in 2016, it feels like a dinosaur, a type of game publishers don’t publish anymore and players have moved on from.
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I have found many parallels in the trials and tribulations of trying to get published whether it’s games or poems, another hobby of mine. Some of my favorite articles about the path to publication are from Poets & Writers magazine. Every month, they feature a different writer sharing their story of success or failure. One such article was “A Short History of Everything” by Peter Selgin (Poets & Writers, Sept Oct 2007, pages 27-31), who related how he wrote and revised the same novel over twenty years, submitting it to dozens of publishers to no avail. Selgin says:

“You hear the stories. How, before it won the Pulitzer Prize, [a manuscript] was rejected by thirteen publishers, including the house that eventually published it…In fact, these are among the very few such tales, rare exceptions to the unwritten law stating that when a book gets rejected, it stays that way.”

The article does not end with triumph, rather: “Were this a successful essay, with a satisfying conclusion, it would end with my novel accepted and its author succeeding against all odds. But, despite, having been short-listed for several awards, [my book] remains unpublished.” Selgin grapples with whether this is failure or success, or some of both: “There is the victory of endurance, the triumph of tenacity, the prize of persistence…The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still maintain the ability to function. For me, now, these two ideas are as follows: (1) After many years, countless revisions and dozens of submissions, my novel has failed to find a publisher. (2) It is a success.”

While I wish I had found a publisher for Unearth, I feel pretty lucky overall given I have published other games and even a book of poetry. It’s easy to look at boxes of unpublished prototypes as failures, but really they were stepping stones on the way to better games, my tools of learning to become a better game designer.

One moment from the Rio Grande Game Contest really stuck with me. After the contest had concluded in the game store, another entrant, who did not win, decided to play his game again, just he and his wife, oblivious to the other folks in the room. She obviously loved his game and seemed happy to just be with him to support him. They laughed and smiled as they played cards and progressed through the game. Watching them play, I realized there are many ways to find success as a game designer.

Do you have a story about a game you can’t seem to get published? Please share your story in the comments.

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Scott Caputo

Scott Caputo loves to get creative: doubling up on board games and poems. His publishing credits include Völuspá, Kachina, and the forthcoming, Whistle Stop. By day, he manages a team of casino game designers and by night, he gets soundly beaten at board games by his wife. With her help, he’s busy raising two young boys to be total board game nerds.

9 Readers Commented

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  1. Paul Owen on August 3, 2016

    You have essentially described my story with “East India Company,” which has been to four UnPub conventions and pitched to nine publishers. Seven have declined, one has a copy of the rules (but I’m not holding out hope), and one expressed interest – but it was a wargame company that I didn’t think was a good fit for the game. My low point was pitching to four companies in one weekend at Origins this year and coming up empty. I think “EIC” will go on the shelf for a time while I develop other projects.

  2. Seth Jaffee on August 3, 2016

    Nice read! I have a similar story with All For One. My biggest disappointment in my career, but also arguably the reason I’m a published designer at all.

  3. Norv Brooks on August 3, 2016

    Your mention of the Rio Grande Game Design Contest brought back some memories. I’ve coordinated the SoCalPlaytesting group of game designers in the LA area for several years. We sponsored a Regional contest for the Rio Grande Game Design Contest for 2 years at Strageticon in LA. Good memories.

  4. Teale Fristoe on August 3, 2016

    Great article Scott! I think it’s important to realize that almost everyone with success also has had many failures, often quietly in private. Part of what makes a game designer good is being able to differentiate between a promising project and one that has little hope, and not letting unsuccessful projects slow you down.

    As your article discusses, it’s wrong to even call unpublishable games failures. They’re part of the process. If you never have ideas that don’t pan out, you’re probably missing out on some of the exploration/artistic fun of design!

  5. Joseph Z Chen on August 8, 2016

    Love the way you ended the article. In the end, we just want to have fun and share happy moments together with those that we play with.

    As for Unearth, do you feel like the game is still improving or are you stuck in a rut? Or does the game have fundamental issues that would require a redesign? Or is it that you don’t feel passionate about it and you’ve moved on? I’m interested in what can stall out a game and how to prevent it. Sometimes I wonder if the issues on the game I’m working on are solvable or whether I should take what I’ve learned and start fresh.

    • Scott Caputo Author on August 9, 2016

      Thank you, Joseph. While the spirit of the game is fun, the game does seem to lack a hook and the base mechanic is very random. So, it would seem the game is stuck at the current moment until I find a twist or two that resolve those issues. Also, as you say, I am more passionate about other projects I am working on which seem to have more promise and potential. These days, I don’t waste time on projects that don’t seem to be working. It’s better to just start working on new game.

  6. Gavin V on February 1, 2017

    Thanks for sharing this. I and a friend started designing a game back in 2007 and whilst it languished for a couple of years as we didn’t think there was really any way to get games published KS brought us out of our reverie and we hit it hard again producing really nice prototypes and refining the gameplay to the point where it is a finished game. I am now in possession of my prized spreadsheet where I track all my submissions, approx 67 rejections later (and man those Germans can be brutally frank) but it just makes the fire burn brighter and crystallize the necessary course of action:start a publishing concern and do it myself. Luckily we have recently been developing a much simpler to manufacture game that has had good reception and will be a much easier first prototype-to-publication project before we tackle the flagship oddball Euro. Don’t give up!

  7. Joe Darcy on February 23, 2017

    As an early player of Unearth, including versions before the artwork, I look forward to the day when a game publisher is ready to bring this fun game to market!

  8. Chester Hendrix on September 3, 2018

    Dude – I feel your pain! Went to the same place in Berkely for the same event a different year [same result]. Found the glitch – and decided to self publish… but not in the scale that gets me into brick-and-mortar stores. I find components and self publish 10-20 units at a time, then take them to game conventions, run them as events, and offer copies to those who loved it. Haven’t sold much, but it helps. And yes – I try submissions periodically. The way I look at it in the end is every game I make that works is part of my legacy. I have 16 grandkids. I have hopes that when I’m gone, some of them down the line will be interested. I know if I had [playable] games designed by my ancestors, I would absolutely be interested. Same with my novel [epub makes this much more doable on your own]. So – if it works, and you can’t pitch it, make the prototype as pretty as you can and enjoy it with the people who enjoy you.

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