The Great Smokey Mountains are amongst the worlds oldest on earth and the most visited national park in the US National Park System. This is the setting for TJ Swing's newly funded board game Hike It! Hike It takes players through a back packing trip in the Great Smoky Mountains where players will have to plan routes, check out scenic spots, learn skills, manage the gear and pace, and of course be ever vigilant of bears. I was able to get some of TJs time and ask a few questions about his process and the game.
My name is TJ Swing. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio (USA) and am married with 4 children (19, 17, 14, 2). During the day I work in the digital marketing field. My hobbies include playing board games, hiking, disc golf, woodworking, and rooting for the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
What brought you into game design?
It was after my last hike of the season back in 2018 that I was sitting around wishing I could get back out on the trail - but I don’t care for winter hiking. The mixture of emotions and experiences the trail provides when you are out there for multiple days is exhilarating. You are disconnected from civilization, you hope you have everything you need to survive on your back, and you are responsible for physically hiking yourself from start to end over thousands of feet in elevation gain. Once you get done, there is a ‘high’ that is hard to describe, but it is like an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that lasts for weeks. You feel like you conquered something incredible through your decisions, choice of gear and the skill sets you have accumulated over the years.
Once you get done, there is a ‘high’ that is hard to describe, but it is like an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that lasts for weeks.
So sitting at home after that last hike I was trying to think of ways to re-capture that ‘feeling’. At that point I had been into board games for a few years, so one of my first thoughts was to see if there were any hiking themed games that replicated that sensation. I tried Trekking the National Parks and Parks, and although they are amazing games, they did not give me that same realistic, boots-on-the-ground feeling of backpacking.
So I decided to play around with the idea of what a realistic hiking board game would look like by toying with ideas on a whiteboard. Over time I began to document my thoughts, game play ideas, rules structure and even designs on the computer. Then I moved to a meager prototype made with index cards, poster board and stolen meeples from other games I had.
From there it just kept on going and going until I was hosting Hike It play-testing parties at my house for my friends (some hikers, some board gamers, some neither). I just kept on iterating and progressing the game over the years.
What is currently your favorite game to play?
I don’t have a #1 really, but ones that get to the table the most are Lost Ruins of Arnak, Concordia, Viticulture, Energy Empire, Targi, Monster on Board, Dune, Istanbul, Wingspan, and Great Western Trail. I just recently got Mosaic and Endless Winter last week and I have a feeling they will quickly become a favorite as well.
Why did you choose the Great Smoky Mountains as the setting for Hike It?
I moved down to Knoxville, Tennessee right after high school for 4 years and fell in love with the state, the mountains and the Tennessee Volunteers football team. I visit Tennessee at least once a year for a football game or to hike in the Smokies. Knowing the park as well as I did made it an easy choice for the map of Hike It! Also, the park hosts a robust system of over 900 miles of trails, which make it easy to build a board game around since Hike It uses the actual trails, camps and scenic spots on its board. I guess it didn’t hurt that it is also the most visited National Park in the country with close to 14 million people a year.
Do you find design groups helpful to the successful design of your game?
Absolutely. Not only were these groups tremendously helpful in keeping me pointed in the right direction, but in also being honest with myself. It's easy to talk yourself into an idea and feel it is the best thing since sliced bread, until you present it to others who have similar or more experience than you. After doing this a few times you quickly realize that you NEED other people’s help and advice when working on a massive project like game design.
One of the best things to happen to Hike It was meeting Ron Halliday on Board Game Design Lab(BGDL) two years ago. I was posting some stuff about my board/map, asking questions and preferences on design choices, and Ron kept chiming in with thoughtful and useful comments and recommendations. After a few days, he said that he was a professional cartographer and also a board game designer and that he would love to help with the game. I immediately accepted and we have been working on it together every day since. Ron has helped elevate not only the game’s board/map, but the entire game play as well.
What was your favorite part about the design process?
I love the problem solving aspect of game design. And EVERYTHING is a problem! These problems can range from balancing issues, playtime management, UI/UX considerations, or rules conflicts. I am a natural problem solver (or I like to think so), but I really enjoy the creative aspect involved with problem solving board games. Since they aren’t real, and just games, you can really come up with some cool, creative solutions to problems that maybe wouldn't really work in everyday life.
What surprised you the most so far in your journey?
Hike It! Has had two lives on Kickstarter. The first one was back in 2020 and it failed miserably (12% funding w/ 200 backers). The second one just ended a few days ago and it was a success ( 230% funding with over 1,200 backers). The key difference between these two campaigns was self-publishing preparation & marketing.
On my first campaign, after 2 years of game development, I just plopped it up on Kickstarter thinking that the world would see my awesome creation and flock to it. There were crickets for almost the whole 4 weeks of that campaign. I was confused because I was a “marketing guy” and I thought I had done enough advertising and social marketing to - what I thought was my primary audience - the hiking community. But I should have done my homework and spent a LOT more time preparing for a crowdfunding launch.
If you don't have a solid fan base or a solid business plan when your campaign launches, you could be in trouble.
I’ve learned that you need to be spending at LOT of your time prepping for your online campaign as well as marketing it. This includes, but is not limited to, designing a proper kickstarter page (this takes time and a LOT of iterations), getting your manufacturing estimates locked in, talking to shipping partners (and fully understanding shipping rates, taxes and VAT), crafting the proper stretch goals and add-ons so you are not killing your margins, and talking to as many people as you can about your game. If you don't have a solid fan base (through organic marketing) or a solid business plan (through ‘doing your homework’) when your campaign launches, you could be in trouble.
To answer your question: the amount of preparation and work JUST on the Crowdfunding campaign aspect alone, to ensure a successful and smart campaign, surprised me the most.
What was the hardest issue you had to overcome?
I think the hardest issue was the burn-out. When you are working on something for several years, you will get tired of it regularly. I would put 20-30 hours a week on the game for long stretches of time, and then wouldn't want to touch it for a while. If I tried to force myself to sit down and continue, I would find myself spacing out and not caring, or making bad and lazy decisions. What is funny is that I found that working on another board game design project helped with that. I had an idea for another game about 2 years ago and started alternating my time between the games to give my mind a break from staring at the same graphic designs, rule books or spreadsheets for too long. Then about a year ago I had yet another idea for a game that I would play around with as well. I did not put anywhere near the amount of time into the other games as I did Hike It, but the small creative breaks allowed me to go back into Hike It after a week or two refreshed and full of new ideas.
Do you have any advice for up and coming designers?
“Don’t work in a silo”
I know it's easy to sit by yourself and draw up ideas, test them, and craft the beginnings of a wonderful board game idea, but know that the more time you spend by yourself - without any outside input - the slower you will progress as a designer and the longer it will take your game to go from good to great. Don’t be scared of feedback or criticism. Don’t shy away from opening up to others about your ideas and plans. Seek input from as many people as you can who are smarter and/or more experienced than you.
Like I said earlier, teaming up with Ron and leveraging the BGDL group has helped me grow immensely. My game would not be anywhere near as balanced, strategic and fun as it is today if it wasn't for opening up my playbook to others to critique.
One of my favorite experiences was when we play-tested Hike It at Gen Con this year. It may sound weird, but I wasn't worried. I went into the 5-day testing gauntlet thinking, “I can’t wait for these board gaming strangers to play this game” because I was at a place where I could embrace feedback and criticism. I actually looked forward to it because inside any critical reviews are usually some valuable nuggets of information that I can use to better the game. Luckily we had Hike It so polished and tested by that time that we really didn't get much negative feedback (of any real significance). And that made it an even MORE enjoyable experience because we knew we had a solid game that was ready for the masses. We launched it on Kickstarter almost three months later.
What's next for you?
As I had mentioned earlier, I had another game or two on the backburner, and have been lucky enough to get one of them nearly fleshed out while finishing up Hike It. We are currently in the final stages of playtesting and will be entering the marketing phase in January.
The game is called PIGSKIN FOOTBALL and it is a fast-paced, exciting 2-player American football board game. Similar to Hike It!, I tried a bunch of football board games on the market and found them a bit too “chancey”; not feeling like a real game of football. So I decided to make my own. I baked real stats into the custom dice and card play making every game’s outcome feel like a real game of football. Realistic scores (usually tight), real penalty stats, real turnover odds, and true-to-life offensive and defensive gameplay. It uses set collection, dice rolling and hand management to perpetuate the gameplay, with a fun theme of angry pigs playing football. There is a ton of strategy and meaningful decisions throughout the game, but only takes about an hour to play. You can find more about it here…. https://www.pigskinfootball.games/ .
We expect to launch it on Kickstarter in the Summer of 2023 - after Hike It! is in the hands of its backers.
What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?
Is this an Eastern Tennessee or West Virginian swallow?
If you missed the Hike It! Kickstarter campaign do not panic... You can still late pledge here.