In any creative medium, there will always exist a divide between the “mainstream” channel and that vast estuary of Other: the indie scene, the alternative press, the counterculture, and the other small communities that come together to make up that brackish intermediary. Not everybody chooses to acknowledge the divide, which (to be fair) exists for and serves no party but the publishers and distributors, but that doesn’t make it any less of an economic reality. Wherever art is marketed and consumed as product, there will always be the underground.
However, not all media create an environment that is equally hospitable to the creative underground. Anything that can be digitally condensed, such as text and music, naturally opens itself up to alternative forms of distribution; physical items with a small footprint, such as chapbooks, can be both produced and distributed relatively cheaply; but larger, bulkier forms can prove more troublesome. For instance, the board game scene–although it is a counterculture in itself–is primarily dominated by several large publishers and distributors who all follow relatively the same model, particularly in the U.S. (note that this isn’t necessarily the case with roleplaying games, which have a physical presence closer to that of a book).
That’s why John Clowdus of Small Box Games is so important. If there’s the board game equivalent of a chapbook press, he’s it. Fortuitously, SBG’s latest Kickstarter project, The Nile Ran Red, happened to coincide with the Entropy launch, so I seized the opportunity to interview John about his publishing model and general practice, both as a game publisher and a designer (to date, everything Small Box Games has produced has been designed by Clowdus himself).
“I created the company 7 years ago to self-publish my first game, Politico,” John explained.
“I had a few game designs that I had completed, and I found that shopping just one game was difficult enough, but I had several already completed, as well as many more in various stages of development. Printing on Demand was just becoming a thing, and I hopped on board, and haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run, and I’m really looking forward to what the future holds for this company.”
Self-published board games, though they are in the minority, do exist beyond SBG, especially following the rise of crowdfunding. However, many of these self-publishers still outsource their manufacturing and distribution, often overseas. One thing that makes Small Box Games unique is that the manufacturing is all done in-country, and that everything else is done in-house. It’s all about community: “I’ve built a really solid relationship with several printing and manufacturing companies here,” John explains, “and honestly, until either they go out of business, or I do, I’d have a hard time using anyone else. They’ve done really good by me.”
“Also, staying ‘small’ gives me a platform that I really enjoy; I love having the rapport I have with Small Box Games’ fans and customers. I have vested interest in everything, from the initial idea to the finished product, and it’s important for me to be able to see the fruits of that process. I could measure it by dollars and sales (which I have to do to some extent; I do rely heavily on this company for income), but I measure it more by my customers’ enthusiasm and enjoyment of the games I publish.”
The third unique element to Small Box Games’ formula is that every game they produce is a limited, often very small, print run. This gives the company a chance to experiment with different designs and settings; if a game is eventually reprinted, it is often more of an renaissance than a revival.
“My initial print runs for games are small, sometimes as small as 200 or 300 games. When I reissue a game, I try to take into account anything that anyone may have brought up. Sometimes these changes are noteworthy, sometimes they’re not. When I reissue something, I’m doing it to get it out to more people. I don’t expect anyone to own more than a single copy of one of my games, but sometimes people do.”
The limited-issue model also allows Clowdus to experiment with unique presentations for his games, as he has done with the latest project, The Nile Ran Red. “The Nile Ran Red is something I’ve been working on for around a year. It’s gone through a lot of changes, but the core idea has been the same: one thematic universe, one box, three games. It’s set in mythological ancient Egypt and features 3 independent card games: Lords of the Sand (2-4 players), Crimson Sun (2 players), and Rise of the First Dynasty (3-5 players).”
One of those games, Crimson Sun, is actually a reimagining of Clowdus’ earlier design, Bhazum. “This was I game I published 4 years ago that maybe had 150 copies printed. Response to the game was good, and it’s something I’ve wanted to reissue for a while, but I’ve grown a lot as a designer and publisher in the last 4 years, and to bring that game up to speed, it received a lot of upgrades. Again, this was done because most of my newer customers don’t own Bhazum, just trying to bring that game to more people. That, and it’s a great 2 player game that fits perfectly into The Nile Ran Red collection it is offered in.”
“It’s an awesome collection of games and I think is a great cross-section of what I do as a designer and what Small Box Games does as a publisher. If you’re already a fan, you’re going to find more of the kind of stuff you like. If you’ve never heard of or had the chance to play a Small Box Games game, it’s the perfect introduction.”
Clowdus also has a number of new designs on the horizon, including some stuff that’s “a bit out of my usual wheelhouse, design wise,” but I was sworn to secrecy on the particular details.
Although it by no means garners the sales of the likes of Fantasy Flight Games or Wizards of the Coast, Small Box Games has accumulated a small but dedicated following. However, it took some trial and error to get to this place. The company’s biggest challenge so far has been
“just competing with all of the other games. Keeping your customers and fans happy, because most people have X amount of disposable income for games. I try my best to make good games and to run a company that people want to support, not just because I make entertaining games, but because I love doing what I do, and they know what to expect of the me, the company, and my games.”
One of the things that has helped convince players to spend their $X on Small Box Games recently has been the consistently expressive artwork, but this wasn’t always the case. Small Box’s older titles featured artwork that could best be described as functional and unobtrusive. This changed in 2011 with the release of Omen: A Reign of War.
“Omen changed everything for Small Box Games. I had this design that really, really needed superb illustrations and that my old minimalistic aesthetic just wasn’t going to work with. Once Omen was done, I realized that getting really good illustrations wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, and I haven’t looked back. I’m lucky enough to have formed a pretty good relationship with several talented artists, and it’s really worked out to be great.”
Relationships were a running theme in our conversation—John is also close friends with a couple of other independent board game designers and publishers. “Matt Loter [designer of Glamazons vs the Curse of the Chainmail Bikini, which will almost certainly feature on Entropy at a later date] is a close friend of mine. Aside from being a helluva lot of fun to hang around with, he does some really interesting stuff with game design.” Case in point, Glamazons combines negotiation, RPG-style combat and dress-up paper dolls. “Colby Dauch over at Plaid Hat’s a friend, and it’s amazing to see where he has taken his company and how he has grown his brand. We actually started doing this right around the same time, and went totally different directions with what we were doing.” Dauch is the publisher of the wonderfully story-rich board game/bedtime story Mice and Mystics, as well as the upcoming Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game.
When asked what inspired his game designs, John replied,
“Man, everything. Music. That’s weird, I’m sure? I get a lot of ideas, or at least the seed of an idea, from lyrics. When I’m actually in front of the computer working on a game, music is always on. Mythology. History. The illustrations I commission. Sometimes I’ll have one idea for what a card or whatever is going to do, and then I receive the art, and I get another idea for what the card should do, based on its colors, or pose, or whatever. I’ve been a Magic player for 18 years, so I’m sure that shows through in my designs one way or another.”
Simple rules, complex interactions, fast playing times and tough choices are among the hallmarks of John Clowdus’ game designs, which often present players with the option to play a single card in a dizzying variety of ways. These are all elements that resonate with me, so I guess you could include me among John’s “strong little community.” I am most definitely supporting The Nile Ran Red campaign, which closes in just 3 days.
Small Box Games is a small board and card game publishing company situated comfortably south of Atlanta, GA. The company is run by John Clowdus. As a game company, Small Box Games focuses on making high-quality, short-run hobby games with a strong emphasis on card games. All of their games are professionally manufactured in stateside facilities and feature professional art, high-quality cards, custom boxes and full-color rules. They personally handle the packing and shipping of each and every game they sell.