Breaking into the board game industry: Alley Cat Games share their journey into tabletop
For many, working in the board game industry would be a dream come true and we’re no exception. At Alley Cat Games we feel like we’re living the dream! We love making games and if you’re reading this blog then you might want to get into making games for a living too.
This post is by no means a ‘how-to’ guide for breaking into the board game industry but a reflection on our experiences and journey into working at and for Alley Cat Games. So who are we talking to about this today?
Caezar Al-Jassar - Lead Developer, Co-director
Simon Milburn - Games and Business Manager
Jess Hancock - Sales and Operations Manager
Ross Connell - Communications Manager
(Caezar and Kuly winning a best idea award for Alley Cat Games in 2016)
Can you tell us your introduction to Alley Cat Games?
Caezar Al-Jassar: I started Alley Cat Games “officially” when our first game: Lab Wars launched on Kickstarter as a satirical but hobbyist game for scientists. It was featured in a number of huge science news outlets such as Nature News and Science, which gave Alley Cat Games a much-needed springboard into the board game industry. We initially intended to be a science-themed publisher, but quickly realised that “real-world” themes were more what we wanted to do. The rest is history!
Simon Milburn: I joined Alley Cat Games as the first full-time employee in January 2019 as the Games and Business Development Manager. My role started off very broad as we were such a small team but as more team members have come on board I’ve been able to focus more on developing our games.
(Alley Cat titles - Dice Hospital, Chocolate Factory and Welcome to Dino World)
Jess Hancock: I’m the newbie at Alley Cat Games! I’ve been the Sales and Operations Manager since May of this year. My job is to get our games in stores so you can buy them. This involves working with distributors, monitoring stock levels, and dealing with the logistics of moving games around the globe once they have been manufactured. My role is part-time, so I also work for an RPG publisher EN Publishing and manufacturer LongPack Games.
Ross Connell: I joined Alley Cat Games in August 2019 which makes this my one year anniversary! The main focus of my job is as Community Manager, which as you’d imagine revolves around talking to people from all walks of life, but one thing we all have in common is a love of board games. Another thing I love about working with Alley Cat is that we discuss lots of areas outside my role. Just today we were giving our feedback on the box art of an upcoming SECRET project and as someone who loves seeing how things are made these internal discussions are always exciting to me.
(Some of Ross's game collection - sorted by colour!)
How did you get into board games?
CA: I’ve always loved games in general. My dad bought me an Atari when I was child in Iraq and when we moved to the UK at the age of 4 he bought me a Commodore 64. Every 5 or so years I would get a new console (but usually one that had been outdated for years!!). It wasn’t until I was 11 that I was introduced to Warhammer 40k and then Magic: The Gathering at 13 that my love of board games grew to something from a solo activity playing video games to a bustling fun social activity in board games.
SM: I suppose I ‘seriously’ got into board games within the last ten years or so. My friends and I used to play Risk a lot and we had weekend-long Risk competitions we called ‘Riskivals’. As I explored more versions of Risk (Godstorm, 2210, Star Wars, Legacy etc.) I found that I really enjoyed the variety and some of my friends started picking up other board games such as Battlestar Galactica, Citadels, and Ankh Morpork. The rest is history!
(Hero Quest board game)
JH: I had a copy of Hero Quest as a child, which my brother took on a family holiday when we were in our 20’s. This game helped me rediscover my love of gaming. I watched TableTop with Will Wheaton to learn about modern games, and then joined a regular weekly board game and RPG group. We’d meet up most Saturdays and play games from midday until past midnight. We’d meet for an RPG every Friday evening too!
RC: I’ve always loved games and puzzles my whole life. Some of my earliest game-related memories involve my Grandma, playing things like Dominoes, Yahtzee, Mastermind, and card games like Gin Rummy. However, it wasn’t really until my late 20s before I got more seriously into board games as a hobby thanks to game nights exploring my friend's collections. I love trying new things so them showing up each week with a different bag of games was like a dream to me. I was hooked, so when they moved away I started my own collection.
(Lab Wars - Alley Cat Games first release)
At what point did you start to consider joining the industry professionally?
CA: My best friend’s little brother (who went on to design the ITB smash hit: Sub Terra) gave us one of his card prototypes just before we went on holiday to Spain. We played it there and decided to “pass the time” to design our own game. That eventually morphed into Lab Wars, Alley Cats first release, and the rest is history.
SM: I started playing with the idea of designing board games quite early into getting into the hobby, but it was in the Summer of 2017 that my friends and I entered a board game design competition with the goal of eventually getting a board game published. This is the point that I always look back on as my first steps into the board game industry.
(Coffee & Dice - Jess's board game store)
JH: I love teaching and sharing games with people. I started running board game areas at conventions like IndieCon, ConTroll, and WynterCon where I’d teach and demo board games. This escalated into opening a board game cafe in 2017. My degree had a module in small business enterprise, so running my own business was something I’d wanted to do since graduating university. The cafe closed in January 2019, but I wanted to remain in the games industry - hence working with Alley Cat Games now!
RC: I’ve got a background in film and photography and decided to start capturing my board game plays on Instagram. The lightbulb “this could be a thing” moment started when I was contacted by Osprey Games to take product photography for them, and it just kind of went from there. As I continued to get work in the industry my mindset switched from, this is fun, to could this be a career?
(Simon demoing Solar Storm - Dranda Games)
What first steps did you take to make it a reality?
CA: I guess it’s when I realised that Lab Wars could be “a thing” and we put it up on Kickstarter. Its success (and subsequent lessons) taught me that I could do this potentially full time, albeit, with a lot of work put in.
SM: My friends and I continued to work on our games and formed Dranda Games. My own, previously mentioned game design eventually fizzled out but we continued to work on another game, which eventually became Dranda's Kickstarter success, Solar Storm. It was at this point I started to look into gaining more experience in the industry and fortuitously came across a post from Caezar in the ‘Board Game Trading & Chat UK’ Facebook group. He was reaching out to find an assistant and I got in touch with him to offer to volunteer for an hour a day in exchange for some experience and guidance for Dranda Games.
(Jess at a convention with EN Publishing)
JH: After my board game cafe closed I decided I wanted to remain in the games industry. I had no plans to be a game designer as that really isn’t my skill set. Instead, I took a look at my professional experience and skills that a business would be interested in hiring me for. My experience was in sales, marketing, and events management, so I looked at games companies looking to hire for roles related to these fields. Most jobs in the games industry are part-time and on a freelance basis - so be prepared to juggle a few roles at time and learn about self-assessment tax returns!
RC: I continued to build up clients for my photography work, in my spare time on top of my day job. I also had a few years of experience working in events (theatre, festivals, trade shows) so was curious about learning more about board game conventions. I reached out to Alley Cat to see if I could join the team at UK Games Expo, and not long after that event, I saw a post by Caezar about a part-time job role with the team. I applied and luckily got the role!
(Ross's photograph of Tinderblox prototype copy)
At what point did you think you’d ‘made it’?
CA: The first year after Lab Wars launched was pretty tough in many ways in all honesty. However, the experience from that, and our second Kickstarter: Cauldron Master allowed me to focus on creating an amazing experience and game. At the same time I met up with Mike Nudd who designed one of my favourite games: Waggle Dance and he offered to start helping to develop some of our games. It’s this collaboration that made me realise my own strengths and weaknesses and that Mike helping to develop our games with me, really gave ACG a much-needed burst of life. When Dice Hospital launched and the first day was a huge success beyond my wildest dreams, that’s when I knew that Alley Cat Games had made it.
SM: After volunteering for about 8 months, an opportunity came up to work at Alley Cat Games with Caezar and I jumped at the chance. Even in my first few months at ACG, the reality of working full time in the board game industry was still sinking in, so it didn’t feel ‘real’ for a very long time. Getting past my first year at ACG felt like a big milestone.
(Caezar and Simon playtesting a game)
JH: For over a year now I have been making a living purely from jobs in the games industry - a goal I set for myself at the beginning of 2019. Being paid to go to Essen last year and check out all the new games as part of my job was a great moment. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I’ve “made it” though, as I'm constantly looking ahead on how much more I want to achieve. There’s so much to learn in the games industry, so I don’t think I’ll ever be done!
RC: My photography business continued to grow and I was working with Alley Cat Games part-time but I still had my day job. For a number of months, I was working really long hours, workdays often being from 7 am until 10 pm but after a few months, I knew I made the right choice and decided it was time to quit my University job and take the plunge. It's been a bit of a blur since then and I'm still working hard to ensure I keep learning, moving forwards, and improving at everything I do.
(Ross and Caezar at ACG HQ)
Do you have any tips for anyone trying to get into the industry?
CA: As Simon says below, there are lots of routes of getting into the industry. Make friends with industry professionals, such as publishers, designers, rules writers, artists, ANYONE connected to the industry, and just learn and listen to their experiences. While you may not want to do exactly what they did, it may inspire you to get in contact with someone in the industry or do something your own way. The industry is however quite tough. And if you want to join it to “make money” I wouldn’t quit your day job just yet. My personal experience of Alley Cat Games was that I was kind of forced into it because at the time, no-one wanted to hire a postdoctoral fellow from Cambridge who specializes in Molecular and Structural biology for a non-scientific role. I’m glad no-one hired me for the jobs I was applying for though, as I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else now.
SM: Do it because you love it and if you love it enough you’ll find a way! There are many routes into the industry including, but not limited to, designing, reviewing, rulebook editing, live playthroughs, and many more! Find which one you like doing and do it well and often!
(Ross, Caezar, Jess and Simon streaming upcoming release Eternal Palace during GenCon 2020)
JH: Being enthusiastic and knowledgeable about games is excellent - but not enough on its own. Know your skills, experience, and what you have to offer that makes you different from the 1000’s of board game fans applying for the same opportunities as you. Apply for lots of roles and always ask for feedback if you’re unsuccessful. Be active in the online board game community and at conventions, as this is where you’ll find volunteering opportunities and job postings.
RC: My shift into the board game industry was driven by curiosity and an absolute enthusiasm for the hobby. As Caezar says, I think getting to know others in the community, whether that’s players, volunteers, or those working in the industry is a good starting point as not only will you get to know some fantastic people you’ll also get a look at the reality of how hard you need to work. We don’t do this for the money, but because this is our passion and we want to see the community thrive and grow. Think about your strengths, then work at finding out how you can transfer them to the industry.
(The Alley Cat Games booth - UKGE 2019)
There is no one way to break into the industry, and as you can see from the Alley Cat team we have experience from a wide array of backgrounds that have brought us to where we are today.
Have you worked or volunteered in the board game industry? We'd love to hear about how you got these involved, so share your stories in the comments below!