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Dealing with Board Game Manufacturers
Sam Schirmer - 05/02/2015

The Elephant in the Room

If you're looking to create board games, you're probably going to be doing business with Chinese companies. There's nothing horrible about that, really, but it's definitely the reality of the industry. Mystic Ape Games is a bit of an anomaly, in that we a) live in a metro area that has a large, thriving board game economy, b) have three guys in our company, and c) live in a central part of the USA. This gives us a ton of options since we can either pick up parts or have them shipped to us pretty cheaply, and we have the manpower to assemble things by hand. Most small board game startups aren't so lucky, and the best "bang for your buck" when it comes to outsourcing manufacturing and labor is found in China.

Being the Ape that handles the business side of things, I've had a fair amount of experience dealing with manufacturers, both domestically and abroad. I'm going to dump some of the things I've learned/noticed here. Hopefully some of it is useful to someone.

Competition is stiff.

Whether you use a B2B web portal, like Alibaba, or if you simply seek out a particular manufacturer based on name/reputation, you have one major negotiation point: Chinese businesses are cutthroat as hell. If you're not getting adequate communication from a manufacturer, just threaten taking your business elsewhere. That is the #1 line that would get me a same-day, usually instant response. Now, be an adult about it (after all, you don't want to come across as flighty or disrespectful), but when I had 4 unanswered Skypes/emails and a week-long radio silence, those magic words got me a response within a couple hours.

Also, in my experience anyway, prices are about as firm as Keith Richards' face. Always try to negotiate, and feel free to mention other quotes you got from their competitors, but beware: Chinese plastics manufacturing seems incredibly incestuous. A LOT of them source specific parts and moulds from other companies in their area, so don't make things up. Half the time, they already know what their competitors charge for things, and they'll either ask for a signed quote stating your assertions or straight up refuse to honor it.

Shipping sucks.

Chinese prices are usually 50% or less than that of American companies, but there's a major catch: shipping really sucks. If you just need a few dice and they can fit it in a FedEx box, you're just dealing with standard international shipping rates (~$20-50). Where things get a little crazy is when you're ordering thousands of full games from an overseas manufacturer. If they need to put your shipment on a pallet, prepare for sticker shock.

Most companies I've dealt with will load the stuff on a boat for free (yes, a boat). What happens next is the messy part. Before they ship your stuff, they need to know where to actually ship it. Again, this is on a boat... you need to give them a "port of destination," which is where your stuff will end up in about a month. If you live on a coast... great! If not (and usually, even if you do), you're going to need to arrange for a trucking company to unload your container, then load it onto a truck and ship it to you. This comes with a multitude of other headaches, like the fact that a lot of companies will only ship to a business address that has an external loading dock. Multiple blog posts could be written about logistics, but I'm no expert, and it's kind of boring, so I'm not going to go into that here.

So in a nutshell, you have the Chinese company load your stuff on a boat, ship it to a US-based port, and then arrange for a trucking company to transport your cargo to you, probably at a rented warehouse somewhere. This stuff is not only a pain in the ass to deal with, but not cheap. It's also not taking into account other possible expenses, such as insurance, any additional labor charges (for loading/unloading pallets), fees, tariffs, and the fact that lemons are way harder to return-to-sender if there's a major problem with the games. Shipping prices vary by market prices (oil, etc.), shipping companies, and even the manufacturer you use, so I can't give an even somewhat accurate estimate. I can say that you're almost certainly looking at multiple thousands of dollars, though, depending on the size of your shipment.

So I repeat, shipping really sucks.

Stuff takes a long time.

However long you think things are going to take, multiply it by four. Really... everything takes a long time.

"But I just need one custom die! It can't be that hard to tool a single mould and just pack it with the rest of my cookie-cutter parts!"

Massive misconception. Believe me, that was my exact line of thinking. Remember how I said Chinese manufacturers are really incestuous? Remember that company that said, "Yes, we can make your custom die for 25% less than everyone else... and of course we can also supply your game box and cards!"? Well, they can't. Not themselves, anyway. With very few exceptions, you're not dealing with "full-stack" board game manufacturers. No, you're dealing with a custom plastics company that creates car parts, fish tanks, broom handles, and custom dice. They have some business partners that make all their boxes, and a print shop that makes their instruction booklets. Even if the lead time for tooling your die is only two weeks, the printer has a three week turnaround, and the box company has been backed up for a month. All of a sudden, you realize that instead of being two weeks ahead of schedule, you're a month behind.

This is all aside from the fact that even now, in 2015, it takes about a month to ship things via boat. The Mayflower, in 1620, took 66 days to sail from Europe to North America. Just some food for thought.

So why does anyone use China?

Even after dropping $2-5k on shipping and dealing with the headaches that come along with doing business in China, it's still way cheaper than doing business domestically, with few exceptions. Yes, you still have to deal with the cliches (bad quality control, lead, language barrier, different time zones), but when China is willing to make a custom die for under $0.50 per piece while Chessex is quoting $11 + shipping (per die, true story), you start to understand why thousands of US businesses make the same decision every single day.

We're trying our hand at using all domestic sources, but there are some things we're finding were clearly initially manufactured in China, even if made specifically for an American company. We're doing it mostly out of principle (greener, supporting local economy), but if we were operating on a larger scale and/or making a game that would otherwise be economically unfeasible, we'd need to lean on China as well.