Meeting of Minds – Sarah Kearns (Boardgame Solutions)
One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.
The growth of the tabletop hobby has been undeniable in the last few years. As it expands so do the various industries around it: game cafes, lending services, conventions, and of course accessories. I do love a good tabletop accessory, be it a lovely set of dice or a brilliantly made insert.
Sarah Kearns is one of the many people who have engaged with this side of the hobby. Starting her business Boardgame Solutions making dice bags she has since expanded into making all sorts of accessories from player mats to card organisation. Sarah was good enough to take the time to tell me all about her business, and answer some questions about this burgeoning side of our hobby.
How did you get started in making tabletop accessories?
When we first got interested in tabletop gaming, we noticed that there wasn’t a great range of accessories out there, and the ones that were available either didn’t ship to the UK or the shipping cost was also as much as the product itself!
I’d always enjoyed crafts from an early age so I had a basic skill set to make our own take on the current items out there. I was also working a 9-5 job where I ran an online store for a national company so I had a decent knowledge of the do’s and don’ts of selling online and shipping, so once we had a few products we were happy with and using in our games, I wanted to (hopefully!) fill that gap in the market for affordable accessories with reasonable shipping costs.
What were the games that really got you into the hobby?
I actually got into board games via video games – I saw a twitch stream where they did a board game night with games like Werewolf, Sheriff of Nottingham and Avalon and until that point I’d only really thought of board games being the “classic” Monopolies and Scrabbles of the world. The next day we went to our local game shop and they had Ticket to Ride, Carcassone and Eldritch Horror, and after playing each of those a few times I was hooked and began discovering all the other types of tabletop games out there. The first bag we ever made was for drawing the monsters from in Eldritch Horror.
You’ve obviously had to learn a lot of craft skills to make the products you do. What do you enjoy making the most and what has been the hardest skills to learn?
Although we’ve expanded our product range lots over the years, it started with sewing bags for dice storage/token pulls during gameplay, and making bags is still the favourite part of my week. I’ll usually plan part of my week so on an afternoon I’ll print and cut all the fabric I need for the outstanding bag orders so I can spend the entire next day just at my sewing machine, with the dog curled up by my feet and a TV series to binge-watch while I’m sewing!
Prior to starting this venture, I’d always thought myself quite “tech-savy”, but I have to say learning the various softwares needed to create our custom products was definitely the biggest learning curve! Luckily my husband was quite adept in these from his background, so he was able to talk me through the basics, and set up some custom templates for me to use day-to-day! I have youtube videos to thank for the rest- in particular the embroidery software needed to convert customer’s logos into a file to be stitched is very much not user friendly, but thankfully there are some very good tutorials out there.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into making tabletop accessories on a commercial basis?
Take the time to see what’s already out there, and look at what you can offer to improve on that, either in functionality or cost. For us, it was definitely making something affordable to make and also ship- whenever me or my husband come up with a new product idea he is always asking “will this improve the game”, whereas I’m always asking “will it ship as a royal mail large letter”?
Think about the games you regularly play, and if they would benefit from a specific type of accessory- this is how our card accessories came about. We’re both fans of playing Magic The Gathering, but we have a really small table, so being able to have a draw/discard tower that stacks the cards rather than being 2 wide was very much welcomed, combine that with our two-tier card holder for your hand and a individual player mat each for gameplay and you’re good to go in the smallest space possible without any compromises.
There have been numerous stories in the press about global pressures on raw materials, Brexit, and shipping being particularly hard on small businesses. How have you found the changing landscape of running a small business?
The last 18 months have been challenging, that’s for sure. Our main issue has been stock, we had 3 main UK suppliers for our 3 main blank stocks (fabric, wood and neoprene) that make up the majority of our goods, and it came to light post brexit that they all sourced their raw materials from the EU, so we almost overnight had price increases followed by very lengthy shipping delays. Fortunately the fabric supply resumed the quickest but we ended up having to deal with a 16 week delay on the neoprene and wood right after Christmas, the issue being container ships essentially stuck at the port because of the backlog of goods and no clear system being put in place for the paperwork.
From my shipping point of view, the new tariffs being charged on goods entering the EU from the outside has had a knock-on effect on our sales to EU customers. Customers are now being asked to pay upfront the import tariff, which on a £10 dice bag is usually around £4, if you add onto that the shipping is also £4 it starts to make goods look unaffordable. We’ve tried to help out where we can on this by offering free worldwide shipping on orders over £50, so it’s one flat rate of shipping for us (as generally you’d need to buy 2 or more items to make up the value) and only one tax payment for them to make.
The Accessories market for Tabletop games feels like it has boomed in the last 5 years. How do you find competing in a crowded marketplace?
I have to say it does seem like it’s a race to the bottom price in some product areas, but I’m proud of the products we make, we’re lucky enough to have been doing this since 2017, and it’s been my full time job since 2019 so we’ve had the time to know what products work and “stress-test” our current products in as many scenarios as possible to ensure we’re offering the best products we can for each specific function.
What I think helps us stand out from the crowd too is our ability to customise. Having the kit on hand for custom embroidery, fabric printing and wood cutting means we can adapt existing products or create new items to fulfil a customer’s specific needs, and even in some cases lead to a whole new product range.
What sort of custom orders has led to you investing in a new product range?
Our two-tier card holder was born out of a custom request. We had an existing customer using our standard card rails but they were looking for them to hold more cards without a larger footprint. With some adjustments to our existing design (and a handful of playtests), we were able to come up with our two tier holder to solve that problem, with the added bonus of having space for tokens on the bottom so it can be used for 2 rows of cards or one row of cards and one for token storage (it’s great for wingspan for birds in your hand and your food supply!).
We now have it available in 2 wood styles so it matches in with our existing range of accessories, all because my go-to for our Magic the Gathering nights is a black two tier holder and draw/discard holder so I wanted them to match!
What are the current trends in game accessories?
With the move back to in person gaming after many people resorting to online gaming in the past few years, we’re definitely seeing more requests for custom items, everything from bags and trays, to mats and coasters! We’ve been lucky enough to produce accessories across a range of requests, from international gaming shows to local game clubs- it’s great to be able to offer custom sizes and product specs as well as putting the customer’s logo on the final products too.
What companies in the accessories space do you admire for their products?
There are some lovely custom dice makers out there, the time and effort that goes into some sets always amazes me! In particular I love my custom dice set from Beholder’s Gaze- they have a lovely chalky finish which isn’t just great for rolling, they also make for great props for product photos as they don’t reflect any light.
I also have to give a big shout out to Midlam Miniatures- their metal miniatures have so much detail, and they have such a wide range available there’s something to fit any possible theme or style or character class out there!
What games are you most excited about at the moment?
I love our Friday Night Magic sessions- some of the new card sets released in the last few years for Magic the Gathering have some really fun new mechanics to play, in particular the dice rolling and dungeons added with the D&D collaboration decks, and the day/night cycles- you’ll often find me playing my vampire/werewolf decks, and I’ve had a lot of fun coming up with some dice tray patterns to fit the themes of the D&D decks.
As to more traditional game nights, I’m always a fan of all things in the Arkham Universe, and some of the new campaigns for Arkham Horror LCG have been really interesting and complex- if only I could stop killing off my investigators with my awful bad luck when it comes to token pulls!
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