Kid Stuff, Serious Business: Picture Books & Board Games

September 22, 2014

If you haven't played board games or read picture books since you were a kid, you've missed a lot.

Both forms have made tremendous leaps in the past couple decades, innovating beyond roll-and-move and trivia, beyond tried and true narratives and concepts.

Even if I can't convince the writer to create a game or the designer to write a story, surely you'll see why simply enjoying the other art form will enhance your work. Grow your family and farm in pre-industrial Europe in Uwe Rosenberg's wonderfully complex Agricola. Luxuriate in the lively watercolors and familiar tales of Holly Hobbie's Toot and Puddle. Both games and stories need tight logical structure and concise, apt words. Unplug, read and play.

Picture book writers and game designers are kin, and a quick look reveals the bloodlines:

  • 1. Idea factory
    Ideas are always simmering in your head. Inspiration comes at any moment because the switch is always on. Kate Messner and Nick Bentley offer two takes on the healthiness of your keeping the motor running.

  • 2. Texture.
    Both books and games are grappling with the role of digital media competing with a traditional paper and cardboard world. Stories and games exist in our heads but the tactile nature of physical books and game boards keeps us grounded. You love the musty smell of books, the turn of a page and books as home d飯r. You lovingly categorize, care for and display shelves of games, even those played as seldom as you read Moby Dick. You love the heft and sturdiness of wooden game pieces and a well-crafted hardcover book. The ethereal, digital world has no such tether.

  • 3. Communal affair.
    You are creating for a small, mixed audience. Picture books are meant to be read to children by adults, out loud, with all the silly voices. A game is a gathering of storytellers creating a narrative around a table.

  • 4. To the uninformed, it's easy.
    Writers and designers have heard comments like, "I would write a picture book/design a board game if I had the time," as if each is something to be cooked up and completed during a week-long vacation. The truth about both art forms, is that the first attempt is a long, grueling education. The successful practitioners have put in many years honing their craft and grasping the entire process from concept to publication.

  • 5. Fat city.
    To the uninformed, a published book or game =you must be a millionaire! "If only I had thought of (insert best-selling book/game title), I would be so rich." A fraction of writers and designers get published. A small fraction of those people make it a career. A miniscule fraction of those people are fabulously wealthy, but those are the people are the stuff of the fat city dreams. The expression "keep your day job" is apt for most.

  • 6. Self-publish?
    Writers and game designers consider it alike. It seems tempting to cut out those layabout editors and publishers who just want a fat cut from the genius that created the work in the first place. Self-publishing works for some, but few artists can match the array of skills needed to pull off coordinating the editing, artwork, production, marketing, distribution and accounting just to get the book or game on a shelf somewhere before the first copy is even sold. The best games and books are team efforts. Play nicely.

  • 7. Crappy first drafts.
    No book or game comes into this world as a masterpiece. Games begin with notecards and markers and pieces cannibalized from board game detritus on the bottom shelf. The game at this point is heavily flawed, has a mismatch of theme and mechanics and will look nothing like the final product many moons hence. Picture books begin with notes on the back of a shopping list, and the first draft on the laptop that night is a chaotic, maudlin affair that needs 17 rewrites.

  • 8. The art comes later.
    Novice picture book writers know someone who "draws very well" and submit artwork with the manuscript. That effort will go from the slush pile to the recycling bin with great speed and accuracy. The artwork for the game board, cards and cover similarly come later. A board game submission should look nice, but going to great expense to replicate a retail product is a waste of everybody's time. Proper submissions of books and games require knowledge of the industry and the specific needs and requirements of the publisher.

  • 9. Critique.
    After months of critical self-evaluation and editing, the manuscript is under 500 words and sings. You love it, and of course, so will everybody else. Your homemade game is complete with painted popsicle sticks and stickers on dice and proofread instructions and a laser printed game board. The whole thing looks like a 6th grade science project but once you get professional artwork and packaging it will take the world by storm. Time for some actual feedback. Critique groups for writers and playtesting groups for game designers are essential. The artist must be willing to accept this unvarnished, objective feedback and consider a major overhaul if the project is boring or needlessly complicated or the characters are flat or the mechanics are flawed or if there simply is no story. After many iterations have whipped it into shape, it is ready for an editor/agent/publisher to look at it.

  • 10. Visions and revisions.
    After all that work, it just needs some price tags and brilliant reviews, right? The editing process has just begun. Professional publishers are in the business because they know the marketplace and what your work needs to get that final roughness out of that diamond.

  • 11. Replay.
    The best games and picture books get dog-eared and scuffed from so much love. Success is a product that is re-read or replayed to exhaustion. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague's How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and Friedemann Friese's Power Grid are good examples of monster hits in picture books and board games, both of which spawned numerous story variations and expansion versions.

  • 12. Copyright. The moment you write your story or game instructions, you own the copyright. Do not worry about someone stealing your work. Beyond the legal implications, fellow writers and game designers are not opponents. They are teammates against the common enemy of disconnection and ignorance.

  • 13. Glamour.
    Wearing pajamas to "work" is a major perk, which accompanies the running joke of personal hygiene being optional. Our ilk must sometimes venture out in public, and like the rock-stars we are, we don't need "the man" telling us what to wear.

    The picture book arena is well-populated with teachers and librarians who love chocolate, dream in metaphors and use emoticons like spare change in some internet tip jar. The board game world is mostly engineers and economics geeks who speak of meeples, spot "the prisoner's dilemma" in everyday life and write blogs with banner advertisements featuring implausible and scantily clad warriors.

    But that's just a veneer. Dig deeper. If you only dabble in one, I encourage you to explore the other.

    Wander, Tinker, Dream.