Making a mistake about outsourcing

I’d like to tell you all about a mistake I made.

A few months ago I asked for quotes from games manufacturers. I found these partly by googling, partly through looking through the forums at Board Game Geek. I asked almost everyone I could find, got emails back, and put the answers into a spreadsheet.

The manufacturers came from all over the world – except the UK. It turned out that it was really quite difficult to get boards, tiles, or boxes made in the UK. In fact, I’d say it was impossible. There is, as far as I know (and I have done a lot of searching and asking other people where they got their games made) absolutely no one printing boards in the UK. I found one UK person on Twitter who makes boards by hand. No printers do it.

Going overseas was the only option, at least for the boards, tiles, and boxes. Cards can be done in the UK, and I got the playtesting cards done here. Cloth boards might also have been an option, although for this game the design of the board was such a vital part of the game and was so far set that I really didn’t want to undo all that work.

There were basically three places to get game components from: the US, Germany, or China.

I looked at all the quotes. I looked at splitting up the work – what if I got the cards in the UK, the tiles from the US, and the board and boxes from China? I didn’t actually have any quotes from German companies, although I did have a couple of nice emails saying that unfortunately the timescales were too short for them to work with me. (They didn’t mention Brexit, but I do wonder whether it coloured their responses.) Many of the US companies seemed to actually produce in China, which potentially landed me with two lots of shipping and two lots of import duties. Quite probably some of the EU companies also get components from China.

I was unsure what to do. Some of the options were very expensive. Some of them seemed to take forever to be made or to ship. Even the cheaper options had added costs – shipping, VAT, import duties.

I decided to get a prototype made by one of the Chinese options. I sent off the artwork, and waited for the finished game to appear. And as I waited I started to rethink my decision. I became quite anxious about it. I realised that I had asked no questions about the factory in which it would be produced. I had asked no questions about the working conditions. In my previous job I had lobbied for stricter supply chain legislation in the Modern Slavery Act, meaning that businesses would need to ensure that no forced labour was taking place in any company in their supply chain. I had basically ignored my own recommendation.

So, I looked back through my email correspondence with the manufacturers. I saw some massive red flags which I had ignored. It was more than possible that this company wasn’t one factory at all – that they were in fact outsourcing within China. If that was the case, then there was no way I’d be able to tell what the working conditions were like.

The quality of the prototype when it arrived was also a red flag. It wasn’t particularly good quality, but more than that, it wasn’t consistent. It just didn’t go together well. The board and the box seemed very different, somehow. The cards didn’t seem to be the same colours as the tiles. It highlighted my fear that each part had been outsourced separately. I couldn’t continue with this manufacturer.

I looked at some of the other options on my list. I followed up a few of the US companies and found that they also outsourced some services to China. The problem was not China per se, but the outsourcing. If I want to be sure that there is no forced labour in my supply chain, I need to know that all the pieces will be made in one factory and that the working conditions in that factory will be good.

I found another couple of options, more expensive than the original company, and spoke to them. I looked them up on Board Game Geek. I asked people in the industry. And I have now settled on a manufacturer in Hong Kong, who charge more, make the game in their own factory, and were happy to answer my questions about working conditions.

Of course, I am relying on their word for it. I haven’t seen contracts with their staff. (I know, of course, that Hong Kong is currently in a state of protest and I am in solidarity with those protesters. I am not concerned about protests impacting on shipping times – and if they do, then the people of Hong Kong protesting is more important than this game being on time.) I feel much more confident about conducting a relationship with this factory. Other people have seen photos of their game being printed and cut, the sort of photos which they would be unlikely to get if the process was outsourced.

Ignoring my gut instinct and going for a cheaper manufacturer was a mistake. I got the prototype from them, and that was a mistake. It cost me time, sleepless nights, a small amount of money, and some self-respect. Changing to a company which produces in a single factory and was happy to talk about working conditions and the safety of the printing materials was definitely the right thing to do. I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

5 thoughts on “Making a mistake about outsourcing

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  1. I would be happy to pay a premium for an ethically produced product. Once you are sure of the supplier this fact ought to be noted on the box and in advertising. Thank you for being so conscientious. In Friendship Chris R.

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      1. True. But if you’re optimizing for the non-slavery option then you should consider casting your net further.

        My own criteria for clothes shopping with my girlfriend these days is to walk into a store, look at the first three articles near the door. If they’re all made in China then we walk out. If even one isn’t, then we proceed with caution. I’m willing to buy from any country that isn’t China these days. I know this sounds Sinophobic but that’s not my intent. You can’t create an honest t-shirt for $6 so people should know better. Upperclass stores like Nordstrom here now have clothing tags which indicate “ROC” which of course is the Republic of China and a dishonest way of trying to hide the pedigree.

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      2. I’m slightly confused by your first comment. How do you suggest casting the net further? If there are no companies printing boards in the UK then is it your opinion that I should put the game on hold while I set up such a company?

        I’m interested that you draw the line at an entire country in terms of clothing. Would you buy items from the Amnesty International catalog which were produced (by a verified process) by people in China?

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