Brieger Development and the Studio Model

It’s been a pretty wild ride in boardgame development since I’ve left Apple. I’ve been thinking hard about what’s next for me and for my business, and wanted to share some of that with you.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, I focus on development of titles for small and medium size publishers, refining games from the prototype form into the final product. Often, that includes working with the original designer of the game, IP holders, graphic designers, and whole host of freelancers alongside a rigorous playtesting program.

As my workload has grown, I’ve hit a limit in the number of hours I can give each week. I love all the games I work on — and wanted to be able to do more games this year without sacrificing any quality or the relentless focus on playtesting that’s built my portfolio.

The Studio Model

When you look at how creative work is done in other industries, you’ll find studios and design agencies are the default model. The current hobby boardgame industry runs primarily by licensing designs from independent designers, similar to the book industry, with only larger companies having employees who can solely focus on design and development.

As the boardgame industry grows there are a significant number of publishers who are expanding their catalogues, but don’t yet need multiple full-time employees handling development. One of the hardest things as a publisher is that your time and attention is limited — which can put a cap on executing creative work. Hiring an external development studio helps free up that time to focus on their core business. All of that is to say: this is a model that works, and demand is currently pretty good.

As I grew my workload over the past 2 years of freelancing, I was reaching a similar attention cap. The solution — bring on talented colleagues who can help with workload and get projects done in collaboration with the partnerships I’ve already developed. I started last fall with 2 contractors, and am pleased to announce that Brieger Development is expanding to 5 members to start 2020.

Meet the Team

John Brieger, Michael Dunsmore, Brenna Noonan, John Velgus, Chris Solis

John Brieger – Developer & Studio Head

John Brieger is a game developer based in Sunnyvale, CA with a background in qualitative research. His recent clients and licensees include Tasty Minstrel Games, Indie Boards and Cards, Deepwater Games, Thunderworks Games, and many more. He also writes the boardgame advice column #PlaytestingTipOfTheDay on Twitter.

Chris Solis – Producer and Project Management

A tabletop games producer with credits including Exceed Shovel Knight, Exceed Dead Cells, Temporal Odyssey, and more, Chris is a former UX Researcher with 2K Games and game producer with Level 99 Games. Chris enjoys bringing worlds to life through games.

Brenna Noonan – Developer

A lifelong gamer, Brenna Noonan has been developing, producing, and marketing board games since 2017. Her credits include Everdell and its expansions, A War of Whispers, Anomaly, and Archmage: Ascendant, among others. Brenna loves games that have a strong storytelling or narrative element, and that encourage the player to make significant choices. She can often be found poring over RPG books and tweaking her Magic decks.

John Velgus – Developer and Editor

John Velgus is a game designer and developer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recent clients include Indie Boards and Cards, BARD Games, Underdog Games, Perplext, and Zobmondo!! He enjoys games of all kinds and is serious about fun.

Michael Dunsmore – Developer

Michael Dunsmore is a game designer and developer who has worked with Smirk and Dagger Games, Alley Cat Games,, Crafty Games and more. A former professional ballet dancer he brings his creativity and knowledge of entertainment to create games that connect people through interesting player interactions. He is the co-designer of We Need To Talk a 2019 release by Smirk and Laughter Games.


What’s Next — A Sneak Peak at 2020

I’m tremendously excited to be bringing on team members with new skill sets for 2020. Expanding our scope of services means we can offer clients access to new ways of making great games. We are planning on 16 titles for this calendar year, with 7 wrapping in the first quarter.

Planned 2020 Releases and Kickstarters:
Folded Wishes – B&B Games Studios
Chrono Corsairs – Tasty Minstrel Games
The Lost Worlds of Josh Kirby – Bard Games
Long Shot: The Dice Game – Perplext
Trekking the World – Underdog Games
Floor Plan – Deepwater Games
Roll Player: Fiends and Familiars – Thunderworks Games
Loot of Lima –
The Refuge: Terror from the Deep – B&B Games Studios
Roll Player Adventures – Thunderworks Games
7 Summits – Deepwater Games
Catastrophe – The Original Sasquatch
Tabriz – Crafty Games

+many more unannounced titles
(and probably a few we haven’t even been hired for yet)

See more of our work on our website

How to Accelerate Your Boardgame Career and Ruin Your Life

August 9th, 2018
Adapted from my Twitter thread.

Recently, I announced that I was leaving my job as a User Experience designer and User Researcher at Apple to freelance in the boardgame industry and spend more time with my family. While I’ve loved working for Apple, I’m looking forward to having lower pressure and a less rigid schedule – and a little more focus on taking care of my mental health. A big thanks to all the people in the boardgame industry that are willing to pay me money to make people happy.

– John

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Image of rising sun board game and kotahi

How a Random New Zealand Man Became a Character in Rising Sun

Adapted from my Twitter thread.

Rising Sun and Kotahi

In March of 2017: CMON Games launched Rising Sun on Kickstarter – an area control game designed by Eric Lang. It was a huge success – bringing in over 4.2 million dollars from more than 31,000 backers.

Description from the publisher:
Rising Sun is a board game for 3 to 5 players set in legendary feudal Japan (up to 6 players with the expansion). As the Kami descend from the heavens to reshape the land in their image, it is up to each player to lead their clan to victory. Use politics to further your cause, negotiate to seek the most profitable alliances, worship the Kami to gain their favor, recruit monsters out of legend to bolster your forces, and use your resources wisely to be victorious in battle.

As the project grew more successful, they unlocked bonus stretch goals to add new monsters – including one for the Kotahi, pictured below.

Fast forward to January 2018, when Japanese BGG user Yoshida Shindo (LogicWolf) starts a thread asking “What is Kōtahi?”

Even a cursory amount of research shows the Kōtahi isn’t a real Japanese Monster. There’s zero literature or historical references on it. In fact, “Kotahi” is actually a Maori word!

Apparently, the Rising Sun team must have been doing their primary research on Wikipedia without checking other sources. Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Kotahi on the “List of Legendary Monsters from Japan”

This was actually only added to Wikipedia in September of 2016, then changed to the above in a quick series of successive edits.

BGG User Casey Smith (SwissQueso) was the first to notice that searching for “Manawa Bradford” on facebook brought up the profile of a man named… you guessed it: “Kotahi-Manawa Bradford”, from Dannevirke, New Zealand.

The IP used to edit the Japanese monsters page also edited the Dannevirke wiki page, supporting the theory that Mr. Bradford or a friend of his was responsible for the edits.

I reached out to Kotahi-Manawa and he confirmed the story. A friend of his had made the Wikipedia edits, based on an in-joke about how he gets angry when he games. Prior to my reaching out, he was unaware of the existence of Rising Sun or his presence in the game.

In Conclusion:

Do your research and verify your sources, and, when possible, consult a expert on the cultures you are basing your boardgame on and bring in members of that culture as co-designers, developers, or artists.

Cultural appropriation aside, it’ll prevent you from including fake Wikipedia entries as characters in your game!

Kotahi Art- Adrian Smith
Rising Sun “Kotahi” Art – Adrian Smith

UPDATE: 1/25/18 CMON commented back to me: “We have been in contact with Kotahi, and him and his friend will be receiving copies of the game, including the Kickstarter extras to ensure they get the Kotahi miniature.”

They also posted a New Zealand TV station’s interview with Kotahi-Manawa on their Facebook page in which he says CMON admitted they “got tricked.”

Playtest Like a Researcher: Basics of Observational Playtesting

In boardgames, there isn’t a formal term to cover the set of boardgame playtesting techniques that are about observations of play rather than post-game feedback or questionaires.

I’d like to propose “Observational Playtesting”. For me, these techniques have strong parallels with observational research in a number of other disciplines, such as anthropology, behavioral economics, and cognitive psychology. I work as a designer and user researcher for a large retailer, so my playtesting techniques are very informed by a User Experience background.

 The video games user research community is much more developed than the boardgames one, and many of the top labs there already use these types of research practices to conduct playtests.

In Observational Playtesting, you are trying understand the player experience of a game, paying close attention to the ways they feel and react to moments during play. The best ways to be wholly focused on watching and taking careful notes as testers play (video / audio recording can be helpful too).

If you’ve only taken notes or collected feedback forms at the end of a session, you miss most of what you can potentially capture. The experience of your game happens during the game, so it’s silly to only measure and record data afterwards. Limits of human memory and a number of powerful cognitive and psychological biases make observational playtesting the best way to capture playtest data that is difficult to collect or skewed in post game feedback. In part, this is why many top designers have started asking remote blind testers to video record their game sessions.

Obviously, postgame feedback from the players is still very important and still leads to lots of design improvements. I’m not saying stop having those discussions, but rather that your tests will be more productive if you also use observational techniques.

 I’ve talked a little bit before about this topic before on “Playtest Like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests.” In this post I’m going to dive into what types of data I like to capture while I’m observing a game.

So – what am I looking for?

Key Moments:

At the core of what you want to be watching for are key moments of engagement from the players – the times when the players are most or least engaged with the game, its systems, and their interactions with the other players. While I’m not suggesting attaching galvanic skin response sensors or anything, broadly, if the graph of players engagement looks something like this:

Sine Wave Graph

You want to be tracking the circled moments that lead to those upturns and downturns. (the local minima and local maxima)

Keep track of which moments felt good or exciting! Which moments felt boring or confusing? At the same time you’re streamlining your game to clear up weird rules edge cases and bad interactions, you also want to be streamlining it to deliver maximum fun!

Writing down quotes:

Part of understanding player experience is watching what they say to each other or in reaction to key moments during play. Bring those quotes up during feedback: e.g “You said that you ‘wasted a turn’ when you took that action – how did that feel?”. This helps players contextualize feedback, and can prompt on experiences that they might not have otherwise remembered. It puts players in the moment of their experience, and helps compensate for some of the cognitive biases that affect what parts of the game players will give feedback about.

Bringing quotes up at the end helps you mirror understanding of that quote back to the player: confirming that you understand what they meant.

Player confusion and questions:

Understanding the learnability of your games rules and systems is significantly easier using observational techniques than by gathering endgame feedback. I like to note every question players ask during the game (even when they are just wondering and not looking for an answer). These indicate points of potential confusion from players or areas of the game they are particularly engaged with (sometimes both). You’d be surprised how much you can get out just writing down each question players ask, as you can then iterate your components and rules to answer those questions without you there!

I’m also watching for hesitation when making decisions, and when players check printed reference material such as player aids.

Boredom and dips in engagement:

Over multiple tests, you can look for particular times during play that boredom might cluster. Good indications of boredom are: Spending time on their phone when it is not their turn, asking “who’s turn is it?”, looking away from both the other players and the game components, and leaning back away from the table and the game.

Time sub-elements of the game:

How long a round of turns around the table takes. How long a player’s individual turn takes. See if rounds tend to drag on as the game gets toward the conclusion. It also helps you figure out how game length and pacing might change if you added a step, or shortened the game timer.

Watch player dynamics

If your game features player interactions, watch emotional and strategic responses to their moments. How do people feel after the action space they wanted is taken just before their turn? Do players use more aggressive tactics after being attacked for the first time?

Paying attention to inter-player dynamics gives you an idea about how players respond to certain design choices you’ve made, and gives you an idea about how they might react to changes you could introduce.

Final Thoughts

Observational playtesting is a powerful way to capture playtest data. This is a surface level look at some of the things I watch for, but a lot varies test to test and where a game is in its design and development cycle.

I encourage you to be taking notes continuously during play – you’ll be able to iterate quicker and gain valuable insights from fewer tests. When you move to remote blind testing, try getting testers to video-record their sessions so you can capture similar data.

If you are hungry for more formal research-focused resources, I highly recommend checking out:

Want more on observational playtesting?:
My interview with Cardboard Architects (audio)

Advanced Boardgame Playtesting Methods and Practices (Video)

Playtest Like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests (blog article)

Working on Multiple Games

image of games I am currently working on

Now obviously, a lot of great games have been made by designers who have only worked on a single game at a time, but below represents a few good reasons why you should have more than one thing going at once. I am currently actively testing 4 games (meaning I run at least 1 playtest a month for them). A typical month sees me running about 15 playtests.

A short list of the advantages of working on multiple games:



You learn a lot just from going through the design and testing process on a game. So why not learn those lessons faster by working on more than one thing? Exposure to how to test and analyze design problems for games of different mechanics, genres, lengths, etc are all useful game design skills. This is one of the reasons playing other designer’s prototypes is such a valuable experience as new designer. You’ll learn as much about what not to do, as things to improve your own design, so working on more than one project will help you “fail faster’.

Switch focus.

If you are getting hung up or stuck on a design issue, working on multiple games lets you take a break and switch focus. Let’s say you get a bunch of feedback about the player powers in a game, but you can’t figure out the design solution right away. You can sit on that feedback and spend a little design time on it each week while focusing on another project instead.

Test more frequently.

If you are stuck doing revisions, or haven’t had enough time to make a new prototype from revisions you’ve already designed, you can still show up to game nights / playtest sessions with your other game(s). Since this happens pretty frequently (you’ll have lag time in making new versions), it means you’ll be able to test more consistently. And that also is helping you build your own name in the design community, as well as keeping the wheels turning on your learning process and thinking about game design.

Test more consistently.

You can test different games with different audiences, and don’t miss getting any tests done because the player count, interest, or timing wasn’t right to test one of your games. That way, you are never missing out on audience. If you’re tabling at a convention, it helps to have games of multiple themes and lengths, so ideally you can have something that appeals to most people walk by.

You won’t be overly attached.

If you have more than one game, you won’t be as attached to your baby, and you’ll be able to make more objective decisions about cutting things out of it (or even scrapping a whole game). It’s easier for you to make the decisions, and its easier for playtesters to provide critiques.

Some parts of this article built out my replies in a thread over on BGDF, and some from a conversation with Jeremy Commandeur at a recent prototype night

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Playtest Like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests

I am fanatic about testing my games, and over the just the past year, I’ve run hundreds of playtests (232 in 2017). My background is in user experience design and design research and I run user studies for a major retailer. User experience design is all about analyzing behaviors and using data from studies to drive change, and techniques from UX research have been incredibly valuable in my playtesting and design process for tabletop games as well. I wanted to start my posts on board game design with a series on how to improve the quality and quantity of your playtests.

Stop playing in your own tests:

One of the easiest ways to increase the quality of your playtest data is to stop playing in your own tests. I’m not saying NEVER play your own game, but try to avoid it whenever possible. Play your game for fun, or solo to test mechanics, but if you have a group of playtesters at a table, don’t play with them.


You can take better notes:

If all you are taking is notes on audible feedback or a getting players to answer a questionnaire at the end of the game, you’re missing 90% of what you can be capturing from a session. Not playing the game makes you more able to catch little moments for the other player. You can note every time players hesitate about a move, are unclear on the rules, miss a trigger or step. When playing, it’s easy to just say “oh this is how you do that” and keep moving, but making a note every time it happens will help you expose issues and identify trends.

Not playing in the game lets you spend far more time thinking about the way each player approaches the game. This helps especially when you are looking for areas of the game to streamline or cut rules. Players aren’t always able to articulate which parts of the game slowed them down or confused them at the end of the game, because they often understand the game and its systems better at the end of a test than they did at the start or during the middle when they had issues.

Use hidden information:

Not playing in the game lets you investigate the game from multiple perspectives. You can get up from your seat and watch the game from different perspectives, you can ask to see the cards in a playtester’s hand or their hidden objectives at different points. This lets you ties moves to a motivation of a player, look at and analyze how different sets of information impact play style. You can check which cards were discarded or put on the bottom of the deck without interrupting the flow of the game.

and finally, but perhaps most importantly

Don’t bias the data:

If you are playing, every action you take during the game is teaching other players. If you remember to take your 3 coins at the beginning of each round, it’ll remind them to take them as well. So if it turns out that players forgetting to take their coins is a often forgotten rule, you won’t know (or it will take you much longer to find out). Similarly, if there are non-intuitive strategies or unusual moves, you might demonstrate them instead of seeing how players find those strategies for themselves.

 Keeping yourself out of the game lets you see players exploring your game’s systems without bias. You won’t know what interesting situations can really emerge if you are influencing players’ paths through the game systems by being part of the decision making flow of the game.

Final Thoughts:

Hopefully, you’re convinced you should be taking notes instead of playing in your own tests. Now if you are at a convention and someone comes by your table alone, it’s still better to play with them than to not test at all, but broadly, try to stay out of your own tests and just focus on understanding your players.

Questions? Comments?
Post em below.

More articles in this series:
 4 Myths about Playtesting

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4 Myths about Playtesting:

I am fanatic about testing my games. My background is in design and design research and I run user studies for a major retailer. User experience design all about analyzing behaviors and using data from studies to drive change, and techniques from UX research have been incredibly valuable in my playtesting and design process for tabletop games as well. I wanted to start my posts on board game design with a series on how to improve the quality and quantity of your playtests.

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Great Mistakes Incorporated Reports Record First Year Results

Shit Ideas Greenhouse Brainstorming Sessions, Food Prototyping, Critique Services & Dolls for Dads Drive Record All-time Revenue

Results Produce Record Annual Profit of $0.00 Billion

For immediate release:

NEW YORK, New York — February 6, 2016 — Great Mistakes Incorporated today announced financial results for its fiscal 2015 year ended December 31st, 2015. The Company facebook-posted record annual revenue of $0.00 billion and record annual net income of $0.00 billion, or $0.00 per diluted share. These results compare to revenue of $0.00 billion and net income of $0.00 billion, or $0.00 per diluted share, in previous year. Gross margin was infinite compared to NaN in the 2014 fiscal year.

“The Shit Ideas Greenhouse delivered Great Mistakes’ biggest year ever, thanks to the world’s absolute shittiest products and all-time record pace of brainstorming,” said Jason Paul, Chairman of the Board and renowned burglar/singer/songwriter.

“Everything is covered in danger, but everything is covered in foam,” he added, noting the positive financial outlook for the coming year.

“We taste like fruit and you know it!” said John Brieger, Great Mistakes Co-Founder and lead scent expert. “Ladies love a man who smells like pulled pork.”

Great Mistakes Incorporated is providing the following guidance for fiscal 2016:

  • revenue between $200 and $500 (an infinite increase year over year)
  • gross margins (really they’ll be disgusting)
  • operating expenses of essentially nothing
  • handmade gift exchanges providing non-zero shareholder value
  • the celebration of SIGmas on 9/8/2016

We look forward to new and meaningful growth in the fast paced Dolls for Dads sector during our next fiscal year. Great Mistakes’ board of directors has declared 2016 to be “the year of projects”. We expect between five and ten new Great Mistake product prototypes to be produced this year.

This press release contains forward-looking wish fufillment exercises including without limitation those about the Company’s estimated revenue, gross margin, operating expenses, handmade gifts, and holiday celebrations. These statements involve risks and uncertainties, and actual results may differ. Risks and uncertainties include without limitation the effect of competitive and economic factors, and the Company’s reaction to those factors, on consumer and business buying decisions with respect to the Company’s products; continued competitive pressures in the fastgrowing Dolls for Dads marketplace; the ability of the Company to deliver to the marketplace and stimulate customer demand for new foods, products, and scent-based innovations on a timely basis; the effect that product introductions and transitions, changes in product pricing or mix, and/or increases in component costs could have on the Company’s super gross, like totally disgusting margin; the inventory risk associated with the Company’s need to order or commit to order product components in advance of customer orders; the continued availability on acceptable terms, or at all, of certain components and services essential to the Company’s business currently obtained by the Company from sole or limited sources; the effect that the Company’s dependency on manufacturing and Artificial Intelligence services provided by third parties may have on the quality, quantity or cost of products manufactured or services rendered; risks associated with the Company’s intergalactic operations; the Company’s reliance on third-party snack foods and digital content; the potential impact of a finding that the Company has infringed on the intellectual “property rights” of others; the Company’s dependency on the performance of distributors, pigeon carriers, bakers, artists, dads and other resellers of the Company’s products; the effect that product and service quality problems could have on the Company’s sales and operating profit$; the continued service and availability of key executives and employees; war, terrorism, public health issues, natural disasters, and other circumstances that could disrupt supply, delivery, or demand of products; and unfavorable results of legal proceedings. The Company assumes no obligation to update any forward-looking statements or information, which speak as of their respective dates.

Great Mistakes Incorporated revolutionized personal and group ideation with the introduction of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse in 2014. Today, Great Mistakes leads the galaxy in innovation with products like American Grill Doll, Framin’ Raymond, Stubble Stamps (“Not Make-up, It’s Man-Up”), and Flavor Plates. Great Mistakes’ four platforms — Bad Ideas, Worse Ideas, Spaghetti Based Computing, and Smells — provide seamless experiences across all Bumper Car Dating devices and empower people with breakthrough food services including the Djamba Juice, Caffeinated Pesto, Pie, and Pop Tart Wine Pairings. Great Mistakes’ 10 ish members are dedicated to making the best/worst products on earth, and to leaving the world stranger than we found it.