Criminals: An Experiment in Card Game Publishing

Around 2006-2007, I was involved with a small startup game company called Robot Martini. We focused at first on making small card games by friends. The whole thing didn’t work out. But we did make some cool games.

Flash forward to 2012 when I heard a rumor that the company behind DriveThruRPG was starting their own print-on-demand card game service in 2013. I had been looking for a chance to branch out a bit, following the success of Get Bit! This was a chance to publish a card game in a way that was relatively low risk to me and would let me get a game out there that might have been a challenge to find a traditional publisher for.

From the Atomic Sushi Ashes

Several possibilities came to mind, but one of the old Robot Martini games jumped to the front: a game called Criminals, a design of my friend and game design mentor Kory Heath and developed extensively by me, patterned after our favorite psychological games like Werewolf. It was a game that we had worked on quite a bit, playtested heavily, and had gotten some positive reactions when it was first released, despite the fact that not a lot of the game was printed. Plus it’s not that complicated of a game: the cards are simple, and mostly just different color variations for each player.

I brought the game back to play again at our regular game night and remembered why I liked the game so much: it really does create some great stories, and creates a different experience than anything I’ve ever played (Werewolf and later games in the genre, like The Resistance, included.) Playtesting and more development let me fix a few issues that players had with the original edition (thanks to the magic of Boardgamegeek), as well as expand the game from 6 players to 9: a much better range for party games. I also put out a call for help with reviewing the rules and got multiple helpful volunteers that let me hone the rules sheet to be as effective as possible.

Investments and Other Business Talk


In the meantime, I recruited my friend Chris from CMYKompany to do the graphics and layout. I wanted a professional look for the game, and I knew I wasn’t going to be the guy to make that happen myself. One of the advantages of DriveThruCards is that there’s a flat fee for printing double-sided, full color, full bleed cards. (Definitely an upgrade from 2007 when we first made Criminals by printing B&W on cardstock using my Kinko’s employee discount.) By hiring a professional graphic designer, I created a risk: print-on-demand meant I didn’t have any printing costs (or fulfillment, or any number of other business expenses), yet making the best version of the game possible was important to me. I estimated that in order to cover those costs and a few other miscellaneous expenses (though not counting my recently founded LLC), I would need to sell around 200 copies in order to break even. I was confidant.

Criminals went up on DriveThruCards during its initial “soft launch” period on February 14th of this year, following a (relatively) painless process of upload and proofing by working with their very helpful staff. On the day it launched, I bought 10 copies for myself, playtesters, and rules reviewers. My initial plan was to just promote through my own social channels until the official launch.

Just through my posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, I sold 24 copies in February (not counting the ones to myself). DriveThruCards official launch ended up being delayed until the end of April. After an initial rush of sales in the first week, there was a clear drop-off. Some more self-promotion lead to 7 sales in March, and another 7 in April before the official launch. Post launch, with the full promotion efforts across the OneBookShelf site networks lead to… 0 sales. I’ve sold exactly 1 copy since the full launch, and that was done directly. Even being featured in a DriveThruRPG newsletter didn’t lead to any sales.

To date, I’ve sold 39 copies total, with no sign of it picking back up. Despite the lack of sales, Criminals has stayed in the top 10 hottest games on the site. (At the time of posting this, it’s at #10.)

Lessons Learned

Obviously, it’s all a bit disappointing. However, I’ve learned a number of lessons as a result.

First, self-promotion through my own channels can only go so far. I had incorrectly assumed that since I had a decent number of Twitter followers and elsewhere that I’d be able to translate that into a decent number of sales. Let’s just say I don’t have 1000 true fans quite yet.

Second, my attention has been divided these past few months with other projects (that I’m still working on finishing up.) I haven’t been able to focus on actual, real, honest-to-goodness marketing efforts (including the very basics of sending the game to reviewers), and I hope to try some of that soon, by using DriveThru’s publisher tools and some other outside advertising. I already have my doubts I’ll break even on the project overall, so I’ll continue to lump those expenses into lessons for future products.

Third, I had a few games that I was considering for DriveThruCards. That seems a lot less likely now. I had considered a Kickstarter for Criminals and rejected it for directly selling the game. I’m pretty sure now that a Kickstarter for any of these games would do better just for the marketing engines built into Kickstarter.

Related to that, getting a game put out by an existing publisher and into stores is many more sales than selling through a website like DriveThruCards. Get Bit! has had at least 10,000 copies printed across multiple languages. Few games are going to be that successful. However, even though it can be a long, frustrating process to publication as a freelance designer, the potential rewards are much higher. I am likely going to be shopping Criminals around to publishers, since I still believe in the game.

I do still like many of the features of DriveThruCards, and there’s some really great games on there. I recommend checking them out and buying a few (especially because you can save on shipping that way!) It’s just as a publisher, it didn’t quite go the way I imagined… which is probably the case for every self-publisher ever.

For another view, check out Daniel Solis’s (much more positive) results on publishing Koi Pond.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. I would be surprised if this article doesn’t at least double your sales–particularly since I just ended up buying this game, myself. 🙂

    • I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was part of my goal of posting this 🙂 Thanks!

  2. Dave – thanks for posting about your experience to date. DriveThruCards is a network-effect business meaning that the more publishers that participate with more products the more customers are attracted to the site for its selection of cool games. The more customers that are attracted the more publishers are attracted to offer their titles there because they start seeing decent sales. The problem with such a business is getting it spun up, getting that network started. We’ve seen this with other marketplaces we’ve launched so we know it is a multi-year process to get it going. DriveThruCards is in its first months of that process, and unfortunately that means that sales will be slow for all publishers here in the beginning.
    Also too, sales tend to follow more of a long term trickle pattern than a “spike and disappear” pattern that you see more through traditional retail channels. Now that you have it set-up, Criminals can sell for the next hundred years.

  3. Thanks for the article Steve, I’m in Calgary, AB and am interested in game development, I’ve been eyeing out different ways to get started and found this very helpful. Also really interested in trying your game too. Thanks.