My Kickstarter board games: The Bad, the Worse and the Ugly

A while back I wrote two blog posts about the awful Kickstarter experience I’d had with Glory to Rome: Black Box Edition. Concluding the second of those posts, I said that I’d do an update post when I finally received the game – this is that post.

  • Note 1: The game arrived ages ago, not just recently, so don’t date this as such. The reason for the lateness of this post is that I wanted to wait until a trilogy of Kickstarter disasters had run their course. They haven’t, but a (nice) comment here by Cambridge Games Company’s (CGC) Ed Carter prompted me to do this now.
  • Note 2: I don’t hate Kickstarter: I am talking here very specifically about three instances where I’ve had crappy experiences with items I’ve backed on it. I have backed a few other things via Kickstarter and am sure I will do so again. However, the likelihood they will be board games is very slim indeed.

So with those caveats out of the way, on with the show.

The Bad: Glory to Rome (Black Box Edition)

Glory to Rome boxI’m not going to go over this again; you can read about it first here, and then here, for the gory details. However, I will add a bit of a conclusion (and no, I’m not going to comment on the various stories about CGC and its staff).

As suggested in the conclusion of ‘Part 2’ linked above, I haven’t returned to my local games store. I’m more than happy with a combination of my FOGS – friendly online games store, Board Game Guru – and Amazon or eBay; plus game stores I find on my travels.

As for The Black Box edition of Glory to Rome, I never played it (despite it being everything they’d said it would be). It sat staring at me from the shelf for a month before I traded it away. In its place I got the rather silly Leaping Lemmings. The original Glory to Rome, with the Kickstarter expansions, is still on my shelf – but also unplayed since. Will I also trade this one away? Very probably.

The Worse: Fallen City of Karez

Fallen City of KarezWhile the Glory to Rome experience was bad, it was made worse by two factors: it being my first Kickstarter game, coupled with high expectations of the product itself. This meant anything coming later was going to have to go some to beat it – I think Karez has done so.

The game funded on Kickstarter on October 7, 2012, smashing its $7,500 goal in one day and going on to a whopping $66,087 pledged by 960 backers. A ridiculous 18 stretch goals were met during its rise, from miniatures to dice to fiction to box inserts. And Essen pick-up was available – which was a month after the closing date…

Golden Egg Games said from the start  those backing the game with miniatures wouldn’t get them at Essen (I didn’t go for them anyway). But we were led to believe the base game was always going to make it, even if some stretch goals wouldn’t (they’d be sent later). Here’s a timeline from the game’s Kickstarter page during the project:

  • September 26, 2012; Update 9: Apparently the rulebook, box design and art were now ‘finished’. They also had dice ‘samples’ – not exactly promising with less than four weeks to go until Essen.
  • October 12, 2012; Update 19: One week before Essen and one after the campaign closed, came the Essen pick up survey. They even quoted the “insane” deadlines in this post, but also said “…we just started producing the very first copies of the game!” There would be “a very limited amount”, reserved for backers at Essen.

This was a game I was pretty excited about, so I headed into the bowels of the higher numbered halls on the Thursday to grab my copy. On arrival, I was told that the shipment hadn’t arrived – try again tomorrow. The same thing happened on Friday, but they were sure Saturday would be the day – and sure enough, it was!

But on Saturday, I was asked very politely if I wouldn’t mind not collecting my copy. They had very few and I’d be doing them a big favour. Please? We’ll post it for free soon, they said, when the bulk of them arrive. Well, I’m nothing if not patient…

  • November 9, 2012; Update 20: The first update since before Essen tells us: “I got my first sample copy 10 days ago, I examined it thoroughly and had some crucial corrections for the printer, as some of the components do not match our benchmark of quality.” Lucky I didn’t grab one at Essen two weeks earlier then… The new plan – delivery in early December.
  • December 9, 2012; Update 21: Oops! Missed it again: “The games are currently being shipped to our distribution facilities in the US and Europe (by sea freights) and should arrive in mid January. The other rewards should be finished by the time the game arrives, so we expect that most of you will get your rewards by late January till mid February. ” There goes Christmas.
  • January 19, 2013; Update 22: That’s one SLOW boat: “I cannot give an exact date but I estimate that we can expect to get the main shipment at our warehouse this late January till mid February.”
  • March 5, 2013; Update 23: Perhaps with oars, guns, drugs and illegal immigrants? “The Chinese shipper is holding up our container at the Chicago port terminal.”
  • March 15, 2013; Update 24: The game arrives in the US warehouse! 7,000 miles down, only 3,000 miles to go…
  • April 22, 2013; Update 25: Six months after I could’ve collected a copy at Essen and counting: “We are still in the logistic phase of shipping the base game throughout the world…European backers…will receive their games soon.”
  • June (yes, June) 6, 2013; update 26: “Most of you already got shipping notices, which means that your copies are making their way to you.” Hilariously, this update also included the announcement of Golden Egg’s second Kickstarter project. Funnily enough, I didn’t back it.
  • July 3, 2013; update 27: “European shipment update: …the new estimated date for the shipment to arrive at Amazon’s depot is by July 20. We can expect the games to go out about a week after they are received.”

The base game arrived late in August, with no expansions, 10 months late. I picked a mini expansion up at this year’s Essen but I’m pretty sure I’m still waiting for more bits to arrive – but I’m past caring.

Talking of expansions, another problem was the impression (true or false) they were being designed and altered on the fly; hardly what you want from a game that had a clearly hard to balance semi-coop idea at its heart. Lines like “I’ve redesigned the expansion…”; “I managed to adapt the…expansion to fit…” – separated by a few days each time – did not inspire confidence!

I’ve played the game only once since its arrival, so can’t fully comment, but an average Board Game Geek rating of 5.3 to date seems a little harsh – but not too harsh. The rulebook is terrible, there are serious balance issues, the board (while lovely) is far too busy, and it seems to overstay its welcome. More plays will tell, but I’m not holding out much hope.

And while Golden Egg was apologetic and informative throughout, as CGC before them were, they’ve gone the other way in dealing with game complaints since its arrival. I haven’t heard anyone except them claim the rulebook is good, for example – something they seem to be defending to this day. Guys – the rulebook is a shambles.

So while the delays were probably on a par with Glory to Rome’s, at least that was a good game. I’m still hopeful we can make a fun game out of Karez with some more play and some house rules, but after a year of waiting it was a crushing disappointment.

Ace of Spies 01The Ugly: Ace of Spies

But whatever I may feel about the previous two games, there can only be one winner in the battle of the shitty Kickstarters – the customer service disaster that was Ace of Spies.

While I still have no intention of buying anything from CGC again, or probably from Golden Egg, I’d buy 10 of their most expensive products before I’d buy anything from Albino Dragon, the outfit behind Ace of Spies.

Some 461 backers pledged $21,054 by June 20, 2012, comfortably beating Ace of Spies’ $15,000 goal. Not a huge amount, but plenty for a small box card game. Again, Essen 2012 collection was my shipping option.

  • July 10, 2012; Update 14: “… for now it looks like we’re still on schedule for October.”
  • September 22, 2012; Update 19: Here we go again: “What I can do is apologize for the wait and tell you that we are doing absolutely everything we can on our side to make sure there aren’t any delays. I’ll send out updates for every major milestone such as going into pre-production, deposits paid, finishing pre-production, first prototype, etc.” I’m guessing (because I wasn’t told) Essen is out then?

Essen simply wasn’t mentioned. It came, it went. They had no booth – so how was it ever going to be possible to collect? We were never informed. No apology to Essen backers, no explanation. Delays are one thing, this kind of poor service is a bit more.

  • November 28, 2012; Update 25: Still no apologies on any updates since September. “We approved the last file today so Ace of Spies is now approved to start production. To give you an idea of what that means as far as timelines, we’re looking at the game being completed in mid January.”
  • January 16, 2013; Update 28: Still no apologies. “We’ve just been notified that our games should be here between February 11-18.”
  • February 16, 2013; update 30: Apologies? Nope. “Ace of Spies should be in our warehouse by Wednesday so that we can begin shipping the games out.”
  • February 17, 2013; Update 33: An apology! But not for the four months of delays – for the fact they’d managed to make the game essentially unplayable (without putting stickers on your cards – because that will look great) by cocking up eight of the cards. They’ll be shipped later. I’ve waited four months – how much longer can it be?
  • March 4, 2013; Update 35: “We’re waiting for Michael Fox and Mark Rivera to get their copies of the game so we can make sure we didn’t miss anything…” So, more than two weeks after the problems were spotted, they haven’t managed to get the designers copies of the game..?!
  • May 12, 2013; update 39: “The international shipments will go out with our international shipping bundle which should be at the end of this week.” This was the final update. And of course, there still wasn’t an apology.

More than a month later, my cards arrived – guess I got lucky. On July 7 one of the designers, Mark Rivera, posted on the Kickstarter page: “Michael and I, the designers, are still waiting for the fulfilment of the replacement cards. Such a shame.” Unbelievable. As another commenter noted, “If we ran our games business like this, we would be out of business by now”.

The game? It’s pretty good actually; definitely worthy of its 6.55 average rating. The producer, Albino Dragon? no comment…


Well, I guess there’s one obvious one – I won’t be backing a board game in this way on Kickstarter again. I don’t care who or what it is, its simply not going to happen. And I’m not just listing my worst three; these have been my only three Kickstarted board games.

However, I see this as the fault of the way board game companies (big and small) have gone about using Kickstarter. They make idle promises they have no way to guarantee they can keep, give dates that are fictional at best, and then wonder when everyone is disappointed when they crash at every corner.

And the average quality of the games coming from Kickstarter is poor, at best. Sure, some are pretty good, but the really good designs are still almost exclusively going through the traditional distribution and design channels: if your design is good enough, tested enough, and you make the effort to get it in front of publishers, it is likely to make it.

If not, enter it into competitions, make it print and play, playtest it more, hawk it to every reviewer or name you can find. And find out why it isn’t making the step to the next level. Is it too long, poorly themed, unoriginal, over complicated, aimed at the wrong audience, unbalanced? If so, but you’re still determined to stick with it as-is, then maybe go to Kickstarter – but ask yourself why you’re doing so and have a pretty damned good answer!

And if you do, be realistic. Start a company, say you’re going to be making a particular project as quickly as you can while getting it right. Seek every piece of advice you can about components, shipping, distribution channels – EVERYTHING. And then do it all over again, taking into account (or even expecting) the worse case scenario; people aren’t going to mind a better produced game than they expected arriving early!

Making a game like this is not a game, as it were; this is people’s money and you shouldn’t be taking that fact so lightly. It’s a business – just because a bunch of people you have never met decided to bankroll it, it shouldn’t let you think you can go into it half-arsed. You have a responsibility to each and every backer to try your best to fulfil your promises – so make those promises realistic.

Ace of Spies: A four-sided game review

Ace of Spies is a small box card game that manages to take up as much table space as most big box behemoths. It should play in under an hour and combines simple set collection and ‘take that’ mechanisms into an enjoyable little package.

'That' board, plus a few of the Ace of spies cards.

‘That’ board, plus a few of the Ace of Spies cards.

The rulebook isn’t great, but just about does the job. For example there are a couple of annoying inconsistencies between the rules and the cards (‘spy gear’ in rules, ‘tools’ on cards, for example); or no explanation of what happens if there’s a draw.

The bulk of the game is the 150+ cards; three different coloured city decks, plus a mission deck. In short, players will collect cards from city decks to complete their missions. The cards are of reasonable quality stock, with nice back prints, art and flavour text.

Also included are a few meeples and counters, plus a scoreboard that goes up to 25 – in a game where you are often going both up and down in score (often by numbers such as 9 and 13) and where you need 75 to win. Who thought this was a good idea?

Note: This review is after only a few plays of the game (with six different people involved and having played two, three and four-player), but these threw up enough interesting reactions and observations for me to think it was worth putting a review together.


Ace of spies is very easy to teach, as much of the game is like Ticket to Ride. For example, you have route (Mission) and train (City) cards; you can draw 2 face up or blind cards, but taking certain strong face up cards means you can only take one; on your turn you do one thing – draw three Mission cards and keep at least one; and completing these Missions is going to get you the points that win you the game – or negatives if you fail to complete them.

Most rules questions seem to be answered with, ‘it’s like Ticket to Ride’. But thanks to pretty much enforced take-that backstabery (via interrupt cards) and a lack of a board in favour of simply laying your sets on the table, the game doesn’t feel like it once you get going. People I’ve taught have immediately seemed comfortable with the game thanks to the similarities, but no one has complained it’s actually like Ticket to Ride in feel.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m a fan of trick taking games and of Ticket to Ride, as well as the pulp noir style, so I was off to a good start – hence backing Ace of Spies on Kickstarter. I’ve enjoyed my plays to date and am starting to see some depth behind the nasty nature of the game. But I haven’t been grabbed as I’d hoped I would be, mainly because the player interaction hasn’t really felt satisfying compared to a card game such as Jambo, or even Guillotine, where it feels more thoughtful.
  • The thinker: I’m torn on this one. I can see there is some depth in the special actions, allowing for some deeper strategic play – but essentially there’s only one route to victory. Also you’d think six face-up cards to choose from (plus blind draws) should lead to people usually getting what they want, but this means poor luck of the draw is only exacerbated more. For these reasons Ace of Spies is a nice light filler that can draw a smile, but it will not become my go-to game.
  • The trasher: One word – meh. I was nodding off in the rules explanation and the game never captured my imagination. Forced ‘take that’ just seems contrived; I want to choose my strategy, not have it forced on me. Also, despite a nicely wrought theme I couldn’t connect it with the game play – which just screamed ‘rummy with knobs on’ from the rafters. Either let me build something worth building, or let me properly mess with people – with a higher level of skill, not just the luck of the draw.
  • The dabbler: This is a game I can get right behind. It plays relatively quickly, is easy to pick up and doesn’t require permanent concentration. While TtR is great the board takes a bit of work to keep up with, so if tired/drunk/chatting I don’t tend to do too well; here that element is replaced by a more straightforward ‘screw you’ mechanism that guarantees interaction in every game. And you don’t feel so bad screwing your neighbour when you know they’re going to do it to you at any moment!

Key observations

The rules and special rules - all hail a good player aid.

The rules and special rules – all hail a good player aid.

I’ve found it interesting to watch people ignore the special actions on offer each turn in our early plays of the game. These are very powerful, will certainly turn a game, and are relatively easy/cheap to pull off. I think once someone starts using them, others will see how powerful they are and follow – but why are they not used from the start?

While uncomplicated, Ace of Spies does have quite a lot to keep an eye on. The card designs are pretty but not overly practical in terms of hand management – which certainly doesn’t help matters; instead it makes the game fiddly and we’ve been constantly eyeing our hands to work out what we have/haven’t got each turn.

I think this has led players to ignore the special actions, as simply getting to grips with the basics has seemed much harder than it should. Hand management in Ticket to Ride is incredibly simple – here it can be frustrating and really slow things down.

So, to the special actions – or one in particular. All let you rummage deck/discard piles for specific cards, which is great – but one lets you go through any ‘city’ deck and choose one card from it. Now, each city deck has a similar blend of cards – three of which seem extremely overpowered (but in a fun way). This special ability lets you dump a few cards and grab one of those, of your choice, just like that.

Fear my +1 nastiness card of nastiness!

Fear my +1 nastiness card of nastiness!

Ace of Spies is played to 75 points. One completed mission could be worth anything from less than 10 to about 20. One card lets you steal (and score) any mission from another player – a potential 20 point loss. One lets you take a mission from another player – a potential 40-point swing (your score in AoS ebbs and flows – no points you get are safe; your score is what’s in front of you). There are three of each of these cards, one in each deck. And finally, one blocks any one of these cards being played on you (there are only two of these).

As players start to realise this, the race for these cards could be fascinating – especially as once used they’re removed from the game instead of being put into the discard pile (Munchkin and Zombies!!! designers take note). Will this be a good thing? Hard to say, but it’s a probable disconnect between new/experienced players and could lead to a messy land-grab style start to each game.


I’ll be keeping Ace of Spies, but with some serious reservations. Alongside the overpowered cards issue above, I worry about replayability. While I draw a lot of comparisons to Ticket to Ride, the key element of that classic AoS lacks is a long term strategy and any long term tactical end game plan. There is no ‘longest route’, no joining of disparate track sections in the last turn, no end scoring ‘a-ha!’ moments. I’m not sure the simple bludgeon that replaces it is sufficient in a game that takes a similar length of time.

So for now Ace of Spies is 7 out of 10 for me, with the potential to go up a half point or so – but also to go down to a 5 (or worse). And if any reprint doesn’t come with a simple 1-100 point scoreboard, someone needs to send in the assassin…