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Peanuts and promises – how board game designers get paid

This question comes up from time to time – just how do board game designers get paid?

So, I’d like to get into this and clear up any misconceptions out there.

First off, the headline here is meant to be comical. Of course, we don’t actually get paid in peanuts and promises, but some may feel it’s not too far off the mark. There are very few game designers who can make a living doing this full-time without any other source of income. It’s hard to make a living strictly as a board game designer due to the payment structure, long development timelines, and uncertainty. You just never know when your next game will get signed, how many years it will take after this time before you see your first nickel for it, or if your game will do well (or even see the light of day!).

I’ll start by saying there is a distinction between freelance game designers and game designers who work in-house at a game publisher. I’m the former, as are most game designers, so I will focus most of my attention here on freelancers.

In-house game designers

I will say a quick piece about in-house game designers. Like in most companies, this position would be paid either by the hour or the individual would be on salary. You’d take home a regular pay cheque just as you would in most jobs. Some of the larger publishers, such as Funko, have their own staff of game designers, whereas with a really small publisher, and I’m talking where this is a one-man or one-woman show or it’s run by a small handful of people, the owners may do everything, including game design. But many of the small to medium publishers look outside their walls to find game designers with great games.

Freelance game designers

This is where freelancers come in. Freelance game designers create games on their own and pitch them to publishers in hopes of getting their games signed. If a publisher likes what they see in a game and are interested in working with the designer, they will take a prototype and do further playtesting. They may or may not ask the designer to do some more development work, but ultimately, they will make the decision whether or not to sign the game.

By signing the game, I’m referring to the process of the publisher offering a contract to the game designer for the rights to the game. Once the details have been ironed out, if the designer signs the contract with the publisher, typically they will have agreed to be paid in royalties.

Getting paid – how royalties work

So, let’s say you’ve signed your first game with a publisher. Congratulations! That’s awesome news. But how and when do you see any money from this?

Each time a copy of your game is purchased, a percentage of this sale will go to you. But don’t worry, you won’t have to cash handfuls of $0.12 cheques that come in every day. Instead, these royalties will be banked up and paid to you regularly, according to the agreement in your contract. You can expect most publishers to pay this either on a quarterly basis or every 6 months, usually within 30 days from the end of this time period. They should also be able to provide you with details on the number of sales of your game when they issue the payment.

How much you earn from royalties depends on the details of the contract. Typically, publishers will pay between 5-8%, but keep in mind that most base this on the wholesale price of the game, not the retail price. The wholesale price of the game is normally about 40% of the retail price.

Check out this excellent infographic from Cardboard Edison outlining expected royalty rates.

So, what would that mean for you? Let’s say your game was sold in retail for $50 and your agreement pays you a royalty of 5% on the wholesale price. We’ll estimate that the wholesale price is $20 (40% of the retail price). That means you’d receive $1 for every game sold (5% of $20). If they managed to sell 1,000 copies that quarter, you could expect a $1,000 royalty cheque for that three-month period.

But what if your game sells next to no copies or the publisher changes their mind and decides not to produce your game (keep in mind either of these scenarios can definitely happen)? Well, you might have been lucky enough to receive an advance against royalties, also just referred to as an advance.

What the heck is an advance?

An advance means that the publisher will pay you upfront some set amount of money for the right to be able to publish your game. Now, keep in mind that this is an advance against royalties, so you will have already received your payment of royalties based on some set number of game sales.

Let’s look back at the previous example to show how this works. Say your publisher gives you a modest $700 advance against royalties. In that first quarter, 1,000 games were sold, netting you $1,000 in royalties. But you’ve already received a $700 advance, so the first $700 of these royalties was already paid to you upfront. That means your first royalty cheque would actually be $300. You still made the same $1,000, you just got most of it much earlier. The good news is, even if they only sold two copies, you’d still get to keep the $700.

Now, keep in mind that not all publishers provide an advance. This is often limited to the larger companies with a much bigger budget but that’s not always the case. It’s certainly something you can discuss with any publisher you are considering signing with. If you do sign on with a small publisher and your game will only be their second game to go to Kickstarter, it is less likely that you will receive anything upfront. They will be running the campaign to gauge interest and gather the capital necessary to get the game manufactured in the first place.

You may also be fortunate to have a publisher pay you a small amount in order to hold onto your game for a longer evaluation period if their queue is backed up but they are still interested in your game. You may have an agreement with them that they have three months to review your game, but if they need more time then they will have to compensate you for this. Again, this is more likely to happen with a larger publisher as opposed to a smaller one. However, you’ll want to set limitations on how long any publisher can hold your game as well. If they take forever to get back to you, you may be missing out on an opportunity with another publisher.

Other Alternatives

While the arrangements above are the most common ones, you may also meet some publishers who offer you a different method of payment. In particular, a small publisher just starting out may want to have you more involved in the project to have more hands on deck, as running a Kickstarter or otherwise getting your game published can be a lot of work.

They may agree to share some portion of the profits with you, at least for the initial print run. Or they may make some other arrangement. This could be more profitable for you but may also take more of your time. It’s also easy for a publisher to claim a lot of expenses for the project, which would cut into any profits. So, if you’re offered some type of profit-sharing agreement, I would recommend also including a minimum payment in the contract. For example, following the Kickstarter campaign, you will be paid 20% of the profits or $1,000, whichever is higher. That way, you’re guaranteed at least some compensation.

Escalating royalty rates

Some publishers may also agree or will already have something in place to compensate you even better when sales of your game do really well. In this case, everyone wins! For example, you may be offered 5% on the first 5,000 games sold, but this may increase to 6 or 7% for any sales above this. This is known as an escalating royalty rate and it is something I have included in almost all of the contracts I have signed.

Do you have any questions about how board game designers get paid? Have you seen any other interesting arrangements?

I’d love to hear from you.

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    This information was quite helpful. I have been play testing my proto type since November 2018. I have been fine tuning the rules based on feedback from players. I plan to continue testing until the end of March.
    At what point should I find out who to approach about publishing the game?

    Hi Gabrielle!

    When your game plays well consistently and the only feedback you’re getting is ways that might make it different, not better, you’re probably getting close. Also, if people are really enjoying your game and asking you where they can buy it, you’re definitely on the right track!

    It’s helpful to also do some blind playtesting, where you just hand over the game and instructions, and observe new players trying to figure it out. Avoid the temptation to interject, just site back and take notes.

    Good luck with your game!

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks so much for this insightful article. From your experience, typically, how long is the royalty period duration? That is, over what time period does the royalty apply? 5 years? 10 years? Indefinitely?

    Great question, Ryan.

    It would depend on the length of the contract and the agreement to the rights for your game. For example, a publisher may stipulate that they will own the rights to your game for 5 years. They would pay you royalties for all games sold up until that point. There is usually a stipulation that if no further re-prints of the game are made and a set amount of time has passed, then the designer will retain the rights to the game.

    I hope this helps!

    I know this is an old post. But how likely are publishers to take your game and change it?I’m sure that’s a difficult thing to answer, as every publisher and game is different, but in your experience, has this happened? That’s one thing I’m worried about. If I go through the trouble of play-testing over a 100 games before I pitch it, I don’t want them to drastically alter it after that. I’m okay with minor changes, but nothing that affects the spirit of the game.

    Thanks for the question, Brad! It definitely does depend on the publisher.

    From my experience, I’ve had 2 games that have hardly changed at all other than improving upon art and graphic design. I had another game where the theme changed slightly from animals sneaking out of the zoo to animals sneaking into a party, along with some minor development changes around the number of each type of card and slight rule modifications. Yet another game I was co-designing with the publisher, so we made changes together as we developed the game, but he was completely in charge of art, design, and promotion.

    All were great experiences.

    If you are concerned, one of the best things you can do is talk and keep in close communication with the publisher. Make sure they buy into your vision and love what you have designed. If they love it just the way it is, they may still make minor changes, but will likely stick to what makes the game great in the first place.

    Most publishers will ask questions about how comfortable you are about changes or re-themes. If they sense major hesitations or defensiveness, they may take a pass. So, you need to be open to at least some level of change.

    Ultimately, it is the publisher’s right to make changes. They may not make many, but they do retain the right to do so.

    I hope this helps!

    Such an amazing article! Two questions for you Joe. 1. For someone doing this for the first time, which publishers would you recommend? 2. If in the future I want to make the game available for digital version, do I need permission from the publishers of the physical version?

    Hey Paul! Thanks so much for your feedback as well as your questions.

    1. This depends completely on what your game is about, who the audience will be, how complex it is, the theme, and many other factors. It’s best to create a shortlist of publishers that would be a good match for your game. You want it to complement the rest of their lineup, not compete.

    2. Just make sure this is all discussed and outlined in your contract. If they want to own the rights to a digital version, you will have to agree on the terms, otherwise, you may have to find another publisher to work with.

    I hope this is helpful!


    I designed a game that I think is a best seller. I know, even ones thinks this. As an Uber driver, I’ve had a chance to share this game with many of my passengers, which have given me a lot of feedback. All of it has been good. Everything from the packaging to the design, to the game itself, has been great. I really feel, as well as all of my passengers that I have a winner and that they could see this game in every Las Vegas gift shop. My question to you, do game companies right out buy games from an individual?

    Hi Joseph! You’re right that everyone thinks their game is great, so I’m glad that you’ve acknowledged this and that you’re listening to feedback from others as well.

    So, the traditional approach is to pitch your game to publishers and if one wants to publish it, they will offer you a contract. If everything is agreeable and you sign this, they will take your game. They can then change the name, mechanics, theme, art or anything they choose, as they now own the rights to your game. They will plan to publish your game and get it out into the world in whatever method they choose (crowdfunding, distribution to retailers, conventions, etc.) as long as all goes well. But there is also a chance that the publisher or market will change direction and it will be returned to you and never published. Not often, but it does happen.

    You as the designer will get a royalty on the sale of each game, paid regularly (most likely quarterly or twice per year), and maybe an advance up front as well.

    I hope this is helpful!

    Joe, Thanks for getting back to me. From your reply, it sounds that these publishers will not outright buy your game. Like giving you a large sum. Is that right? If they did, can you give me an estimate? This game I created is not some fantasy game with lots of cards and pieces, it’s a series of gambling games put together. Many people said it was a very clever idea the way the game works. Right now, I’m trying to decide, if I want to sell it to someone (publisher) or do a Kickstarter and do it myself. Thanks for your knowledge.

    How do I protect my game from someone claiming it was theirs?

    Hey, Dallas! The best thing to do is have your game well-documented. Also, playtest a lot so that a lot of people will remember your game, and make sure to write down the names of your playtesters. It’s unlikely someone will steal your game, as it is a tight-knit community, but having good records can help in those rare occurrences.

    Hi Joe! I am wondering how do you keep track the actual number of copies of game sold. Isn’t it quite possible for publisher to lie about the numbers? Let’s say your game sold for 20k copies, but publisher only pay you royalty of 7.5k copies. I wonder if this is a concern if I’m to work with small publisher.

    Great question, Shawn! While it is impossible to know for sure the exact number of copies a publisher has sold, if they are reputable and have been honest with you about everything up to that point, you will have more trust in their numbers. Also, they should be able to let you know how many games they have printed and you can gauge sales based on the number of BGG ratings your game has (a certain % of customers will likely rate your game), availability of your game in stores, and if it comes down to it, your contract should indicate that you have the right to request an audit of their books. Keep in mind though that you will likely be the one paying for the audit, so you want to be sure that something feels off before pursuing this. It could also damage trust. Just a few things to keep in mind.

    Would it have killed you to throw in a few paragraph breaks. I stopped reading early on in the Wall of Text

    Hey, Robert! Thanks for letting me know about this. It looks like the format got completely reset. Everything looked fine in the editor and I simply hit “update” and the formatting was restored. I hope this makes it easier to read! Thanks again.

    Thank you … good to know info!! I’ve set no expectations yet, the process has been fun!

    Hello, Joe. Thank you for the article. I am wondering if a company asks for a prototype, should it be professionally made?
    Thank you

    Hi Joanne! I wouldn’t recommend making a professional prototype if you are pitching to publishers. Just make sure it is functional, all the icons and graphic design make sense, it is well-playtested, and of course, that it is an amazing game!

    I have a question, me and my friends have been making a board game for 2 years how would we go about trying to sell it if we are still sophomores .

    Thanks for the question, Jonathan! It would depend on whether you want to self-publish your game or license it to an established publisher (the more traditional approach). Each has its pros and cons.

    Self-publishing will likely involve crowdfunding your game, which includes marketing, building an audience, paying for art and graphic design, figuring out manufacturing and logistics, doing customer service, and a whole host of other responsibilities. Essentially you are running your own business and taking all the risks and rewards that go along with this.

    If you are pitching to publishers, you’ll want to have a sell sheet, short promo video, rules, pitch, and a prototype ready to show publishers. You can find publishers online, research them through the Cardboard Edison compendium or Tabletop Publishers dossier, or discover them at conventions.

    You can also search for specific info on all this in my blogs.

    I hope this helps!

    Can you please provide me with the names of any publishers for Christian board games?

    Hey just stumbled with this. Does something like this apply to the visual artists as well that work on the game? Is there a difference for an artist that works for a publisher vs someone that did the art for a self-published game?

    Hey, Jose! Payment for artists and graphic designers generally work very differently than for game designers. Whether working in-house (rare) or freelance (the norm), they are generally paid after the completion of their work or paid some up front and the remainder upon completion. So, they don’t need to wait until the game is released and won’t be impacted by the number of copies. They may work on an hourly rate, rate per piece or a rate for the whole project.

    I hope this helps!