Kickstart me baby! (sorry, no minies)

uncle moneybagsI’m putting myself on Kickstarter*. I reckon a £20,000 target should do it. And you’re all going to back me. Why? Because I’ve got a plan.

About 90 per cent of the games you’ve bought on Kickstarter are crap. And worse they have no resell value, because everyone knows they’re crap. So what’s the solution to all this wastage? It’s not as if you can STOP spending money on Kickstarter now is it?

That’s where I come in. For a mere £20,000 I could, just about, give up the day job. Sure, I’d be on the poverty line, but maybe things such as ‘food’ and ‘clothing’ could be bought if stretch goals were reached. Not that there would be any stretch goal rewards.

So what’s in it for you, I hear you ask? Because that’s what board game related Kickstarters are about, right? They’re not about taking a risk and helping someone try and fulfil their dream (and who might possibly fail). No. They’re about cold. Hard. Gain. But let’s for one minute pretend we’re not board game Kickstarter people – let’s pretend we’re normal Kickstarter people, who see the potential in something and take a (cheap) punt.

Here’s the deal. For just £20,000 (one 73rd of what Zombicide 2 made on Kickstarter, or one 31st of Sedition Wars) I could become a full-time game designer for a year. Instead of spending a few tired evenings each week after work trying to work on prototypes I could spend 40 or 50 (maybe more) hours each week dedicating everything I’ve got to design.

Of course I’ve not got much in the way of credentials to back me up right now. I’ve got one published game, Empire Engine, which has been pretty well received (well, it’s currently ranked higher that Sedition Wars on Board Game Geek); and another game is with a published and should be out in 2016 (too early for more details, sorry). But that’s one or two more games than many of the designers you backed on Kickstarter had, right?

The games I design will be put in front or real publishers with genuine track records in getting high quality games to market; publishers with experienced rules writers, graphic designers, game developers and playtesters – as well as strong relationships with manufacturers and distributors. And while some may take the games to Kickstarter anyway, at least they’ll be companies you know you can trust.

Of course there’s a risk that none of the games I design within the year get publishing deals: I’m not arrogant enough to guarantee success, but I could guarantee that I’d put everything I’ve got into making it work – my heart and soul. If you go in knowing that, so not expecting a physical product, how could you be disappointed if I give my all?

I’d be happy to blog regularly on my progress, the process and involve people in testing. I could even put questions out to backers when I had interesting problems or decisions to make. And imagine how great you would feel if I did get some games published: you’d really be a part of it, rather than just backing a game that’s already (allegedly) finished.

I expect I could even sort our some sort of discount on the games that did (in theory) make it to stores: I could probably sell them at little over cost to backers. But then I wouldn’t want to guarantee that, because then it’s all slipping back to commerce; about expecting results; about capitalism over creativity. Which is why this will stay a dream, rather than a reality. And that’s a shame.

I genuinely think this could work. I think it would take a designer with more clout than me to pull it off, and I think it would need cast iron guarantees of physical results for backers if it games were published. But as the success of Patrion, and Kickstarters for publishers such as The Dice Tower have shown, paying creatives a monthly wage is something some people are willing to do (for an end result).

As there’s little money in it for the average board game designer, people who want to make a living from it are essentially forced into making their own company and self-publishing – that’s where the most potential profit is. I doubt most of these people want to be dealing with manufacturers in China and shipping games out of their garages, while trying to price cards and chits and dice. They want to design; they have to sell.

Maybe in a generation or so the hobby will be popular enough to sustain the full-time development of game designers – either through increased revenue through higher royalties on sales, or from game publishers becoming cash-rich enough to take more designers onto staff (as Plaid Hat is now successfully doing). Until then, I guess I’ll stick with the day job.

* I’m not really.

In with the old: Is it time for traditional board game publishers to step up to the plate?

out of touchI decided a year ago to largely avoid games on Kickstarter. I had three terrible Kickstarter experiences in a row (read about those here) and, with a 0% strike rate on Kickstarter versus a 100% hit rate in terms of games from shops, I went with the sensible odds.

Now I’m not here to rain on Kickstarter (again); I’m sure at least one in 10 Kickstarter games is pretty good and if you fancy a gamble, knock yourself out. And if my best avenue to get a game of mine published was through a Kickstarter company, I wouldn’t hesitate.

What I want to talk about is the fact traditional board game publishers seem woefully off the pace in terms of getting their message out and if they don’t get with the program, they could be a few years away from trouble.

Living in a board game boom time

While non-high street board and card games are still a drop in the ocean compared to most corners of popular culture in terms of sales, this is as good as it has ever been for the hobby in many countries. The US in particular has seen a strong rise in interest, while countries such as the UK and other parts of Europe are also experiencing a growing acceptance of games.

This is most obvious in high street stores, with the likes of Target and Walmart in the US and Waterstones and WHSmiths in the UK deigning to stock the occasional game that doesn’t suck. This means everyone publishing games should be seeing some sort of rise in sales and it’s easy to see that as a sign to ‘keep on keeping on’. But when this growth curve flatlines, which it probably will, traditional board game publishers may get a shock.

Because while many traditional publishers keep doing what they’ve always done in terms of marketing, a new generation of start-ups is Kickstarting its way into the industry. And these people are tech savvy, learning as they go, and recovering from their mistakes as they move forward. So where are the new consumer battle lines being drawn?

It’s all gone quiet over there

Every time I listen to a podcast, I am bombarded with Kickstarter adverts. And, once the ads finish, I’m oft bombarded with a Kickstarter ‘preview’ or five telling me how I can go and back these games RIGHT NOW! Yup, free ads following the paid ads.

And then they bring out this episode’s ‘special’ guest – who could it be?! Reiner Knizia? Stefan Feld? Mac Gerdts? Zev from Z-Man? Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder?! No? Oh. It’s Billy Nochops  from Our First Games speaking reverently about how he used to play D&D and how he made up a game and now he wants me to back it because, you know, what else am I going to spend my money on?

When I go to BoardGameGeek, the spiritual home of most hobby gamers, the majority of the banner ads and competitions are for Kickstarter games – and the videos section is going that way too. Twitter is awash with them, while ‘going viral’ is pretty much the Holy Grail of any Kickstarter board game project. And so it should it be – we live in the age of social networking, where one free Tweet could end up doing you more good than a $2,000 convention stand.

Kickstarter project leaders also realise their games need to be played and their voices need to be heard – especially with so many Kickstarter disasters having muddied the waters for some buyers. So again, they’re innovating – getting paid previews done, sending free games to the top video reviewers, and now increasingly putting out free print and play versions of some (or all) of their new game for anyone who wants to give it a go.

And they’re also using the spaces between the traditional June/October release windows to snap up that gamer dollar in the 10 months a year we’re largely left pining for new games to spend our hard earned cash on. And then there’s apps…

Board game publishers: bring your reputation to the party

Traditional publishers, and by association designers, seem to think it’s OK to largely ignore the new media. They tend to have a website (although good luck finding one that’s well maintained), a Facebook page (some even post on them!) and maybe a Twitter account. I can only presume they think that Spielbox, Essen, GenCon and a press release will do them just fine, thank you very much. And for now, in the boom, it probably will.

You only need to look at, say, ANY INDUSTRY to see that ignoring the internet is going to bite you in the ass long-term. Publishing was a classic, and music too, then retail – while I’m sure there are examples across the board of companies being last online and the first onto the scrap heap.

Of course some publishers are getting it right. Once the traditional release windows start coming around you won’t be able to get Stronghold Games’ Stephen Buonocore out of your headphones (and very entertaining he is too), Plaid Hat has its own podcast, while Queen Games has taken to Kickstarter like a duck to water. But they tend to be the exceptions, rather than the rule – and few get it right in all avenues.

So this is a plea to traditional publishers – start taking the internet seriously before you fall so far behind the young Kickstarter companies that you risk becoming irrelevant. Most of the best people in the industry work and design for the big publishers but you need to wake up and see that the world is moving on around you.

Get on with it already!

You are in a great position. Board game consumers, unlike many traditional retail areas, LOVE most designers and publishers. People and firms in the industry tend to have good reputations, again knocking the general retail/business trend, so there is not a popularity hump to get over – just a technological/forward thinking one.

And more importantly, board gamers want well tested, well designed, well laid out and graphically outstanding games. They want solid release schedules, games that don’t need an expansion to make them work, and that they can pop online and buy today rather than hoping to get it in 2015 in the two-day window it’s in stock. We want arbiters of quality, taking the best games they find and producing them, sending others back to the drawing board where they can be improved upon BEFORE they come out.

So what do you say, traditional publishers and designers? Is it too much to ask to bring your website up to date and get one of your employees to regularly tweet and run Facebook competitions? To get your designers on the phone with The Dice Tower, On Board Games and the rest for interviews? To get your games to the video reviewers to coincide with pre-order campaigns as Plaid Hat does? I don’t think so.

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.