Mark Cooke: Building a Career in Board Games - DoodleMeeple
Mark Cooke

Director of AireCon, COO at PSC Games, CEO at Bright Eye Games and Admin at Board Game Trading and Chat UK

Building a Career in the Board Game Industry

Mark is the head of an annual, play-focused convention in Harrogate UK called AireCon, he’s the COO at PSC Games, CEO at Bright Eye Games and is an admin of the ever expanding Facebook group, Board Game Trading and Chat UK.

Hi Mark, thanks for talking to us here at DoodleMeeple!  You might remember me trying to catch you at AireCon to talk about DoodleMeeple back in March when we were just building the site, that was incredibly well handled considering the looming pandemic! Now you’ve run a convention with the threat of last minute cancellation (due to the imminent first lockdown), I bet you feel like you can handle anything! 

meeple

What I love about AireCon, is that despite its growth, it has always maintained the feel of a play-focused event, with interaction and gameplay coming first. How do you feel conventions like yours can help Creators to develop their games, following, and skills if they’re looking to follow a publishing career path in the board games industry?

Conventions in general are a great way of being in the same place as a bunch of other people that are passionate about the hobby, they’re a great way to arrange meetings, get a sense of what people are talking about and find out what others are working on. They also allow for spontaneous moments of bumping into someone, or being introduced to someone, and finding a connection, perhaps a way of working together, or just getting some useful advice. AireCon is great for this due to the relaxed nature of the event, there’s plenty of time to sit with people and find ways of collaborating, exhibitors also generally have a bit more time to be able to talk to you about what you have to offer as it’s a bit more chilled out than some of the larger conventions.

What I love about your path is that you started with a passion for games and did something (launched the first AireCon) because you love it. What that’s led to is a chief-exec role in a well known board game publishing company (Hush Hush Projects, makers of Fog of Love), a successful growing board game convention and a role in another game publishing company. I think, one of the most important things in life, is the pursuit of happiness, even if it seems scary to make a change, or put yourself in uncertain situations. What kind of advice would you give to folks, who aren’t happy with what they do but have a passion for something else?

I would say to try and find ways of engaging with that passion to test it out, for some people that’s enough to realise that they would prefer that thing remain a hobby or a passion, rather than a job, but people’s experiences of that will be very different. Using board gaming as an example, there are so many roles connected to board gaming that gets that game from an idea in someone’s head to people playing it on a table, so there’s lots of points of entry. If you’re serious about turning it into more than a hobby I would suggest starting by volunteering, perhaps at a convention or to playtest games, or proofing rule books. Get your name out there, engage with groups on the social media platforms and let people know that you’re looking for a job. I’d also say that you still need to be passionate about the role you will be doing, not just the end product. In my role at PSC games, I am interacting with games daily, but most of my job is in project management, making sure things run smoothly and getting the games into production, that could just as easily be making furniture or toothpaste! If I didn’t enjoy project management, I wouldn’t enjoy the job I do, just because it’s connected to my passion.

Rodney Smith at Airecon, watch it played

Can you share one or two tough experiences you had to push through on your journey to finding a career in board games, and how you overcame them?

One of the biggest challenges is the scarcity of roles, they are there, but a lot of people are going for every role because so many people are passionate about games. Before I started AireCon I was already volunteering at other conventions, I was running smaller monthly games nights and engaging in the community. By building up experience and contacts, it gives you a better chance at finding a role. I was introduced to Hush Hush Projects through  mutual contact that I’d met through a Facebook group, I met PSC Games at AireCon when they were exhibitors, and their experience of that showed them that I was a good project manager. From working with the PSC team, we realised we worked well together and from that decided to start up a new studio, Bright Eye Games.

You’re now also an admin for Board Game Trading and Chat UK, (a Facebook group closing in on 20k members). I love when you took over, that you were experimenting with new ways to engage the community. With those looking to find their way into games as a career, can you share some tips of community engagement and building? Whether is your best social media tool, or type of content, or tone of message?

For me it’s that keyword ‘community’, I got stuck into the hobby because I love the social aspect of it, and how board games can be a vehicle for interactions with other people. I think you need to be prepared to put in as much, or even more, than you’ll get out of it, but you will get something out of it! People are very willing to help and give advice, but you should be aiming to do that same thing. Forget for a while that you have something to market or sell, engage with the community, help out when others are asking for advice, and when it comes time you’ll see that people are more willing to engage with you. Pictures always help with content, as it instantly draws people’s attention, making sure there’s a question or something that people can interact with is also helpful.

At PSC Games, you’re the COO, particularly overseeing the production and logistics. I know from making Hero Master, what a luxury it would be to have a project manager overseeing everything. To someone looking at publishing games, you’re the ideal person to explain what a plate spinning exercise it is to make a game… Can you talk a bit about what the management side of producing a game is like?

I’m sure there’s a saying about herding cats? There is definitely some plate spinning required, but thankfully I enjoy that kind of work. There are so many different roles involved in making a game, many more than I think people realise. I think good management of the process starts before the game is ready, taking the time to plan and schedule things in, figure out who will fill all the different roles, setting expectations and deadlines is time well spent. It may seem like time you don’t have, but it can save time and effort in the long run. There’s plenty of people that can give advice about timescales and costs, particularly on some of the industry Facebook groups. It’s still an industry where everyone wants to see everyone else succeed, so I would definitely recommend just asking if you’re not sure of something. Don’t try and rush things – particularly for people that are new to the industry side of things, excitement can get the better of you. Before announcing any dates publicly, make sure to plan everything out, get realistic dates of when things need to happen and then add a bit more on for risk! Sites like DoodleMeeple are extremely valuable to someone like me, it saves a lot of time and energy having a wealth of talent all easily accessible in one place.

I love that you’re building pillars to your profile in the board game industry, that support your overarching career, in hosting a convention, community engagement on Facebook, and your work at PSC and now Bright Eye Games. Similarly, I love that when I start a new project, like Geekings Cards, or DoodleMeeple, that my existing network as a board game artist, then board game publisher provides a great foundation to get eyes on my new project. Would you say that diversifying is a good way of networking, and finding new opportunities?

I think diversifying helps you to get more touch points, and figure out where you would like to be within the industry. It certainly helps you get more contacts and makes it more likely that you will hear of opportunities. I diversify because I like doing lots of different things, I don’t think you need to diversify, but I think it can help to speed up the process.

For me, giving before asking is a really great way of expanding your network. Sharing contacts first, or providing advice or even little bits of work to help out other start-ups is a great way of finding yourself more opportunities. Can you think of examples of this ‘giving strategy’ as your profile in the industry has increased?

I would very much agree with this, as my previous answers probably allude to. I think it’s great to be able to help other people, and it feels very much like a co-operative game, where we can all win together! I started a Facebook group for convention organisers, and have given my advice freely many times. I have a pre-written email of lessons learnt from the early days of AireCon that I will happily share with anyone that asks. With Project Management, or production of games, I will often get involved in threads on Facebook to help people succeed and am working on a side project, CoraQuest, which started out as a lockdown project for a father and daughter, they wanted to look into turning it into a properly produced game, and I offered my services on the production and logistics side of things.

What’s next for you in the industry personally? I know you also work making craft beer, another passion of yours. Is the dream to combine both of your passions? Will we see a Tabletop Tavern emerge, or are you planning on publishing a craft-beer board game?

We love the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of AireCon, and we don’t want to lose that just for the sake of growth, so we have some plans for AireCon which had to be put on hold due to the pandemic, but we have been talking about perhaps a second event. I have the ideas of a beer themed board game, although I think that will be some time off, I get too distracted by playing all the other amazing games coming out! We’re also excited for our new venture with Bright Eye Games, the focus is on making fun, accessible games with interesting themes, and we’ve got some fantastic titles announced already, including a new version of Waggle Dance and a follow up, Termite Towers, Savannah Park from Kramer and Kiesling as well as the retail release of CoraQuest. For now I’m enjoying my roles, and just looking forward to being able to meet up again with people and get back out there to conventions!

What’s your favourite colour Meeple?

Blue is obviously the right answer to this question.

Jamie Noble Frier co-founder of doodlemeeple

I hope you enjoyed reading! I’ll continue to post updates about what’s happening.

Keep making great games!

Jamie, DoodleMeeple

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Find out more about Airecon

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