A Case Study of my Journey down the Rabbit Hole of backing Board Game Projects on Kickstarter
“This your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”Morpheus – The Matrix
It all started when I stumbled across Wavelength on social media. Talk of the game lead me to its active project on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website that I had heard much about but never actually delved into. Wavelength’s colorful, psychedelic art design drew me in like an unsuspecting Alice. I clicked play on the campaign video, and down the rabbit hole I fell.
Mad props to whoever made that video, by the way. If anyone needs a case study in how to hook potential backers and reel them in like a fish, just check out that whole page. After combing through the entire pitch, I wasn’t just excited about the concept, I was compelled to help bring about its existence.
This is the crux of Kickstarter… when a person or group dream up an incredible idea, pitch it to a crowd, and they collectively pledge their resources and efforts to make it a reality. This is old news to many backers and creators who have been using crowdfunding for years. We’ve even reached a point where many desensitized backers call Kickstarter a pre-order system, especially in the tabletop games category.
While that’s not entirely false, there is still something magical about joining a community of passionate dreamers and embarking on a journey of creation. When you support an exciting project and it fully delivers on its lofty promises, there is no better feeling. Fortunately for Kickstarter, Wavelength hit a homerun (just read my review of the game), and I’ve kept more projects on my radar ever since.
Projects that Earned My Pledge and How They Did It
Captivating Videos — Wavelength
Let’s talk a bit more about Wavelength’s campaign video. If you clicked the link above and watched it, you’ll notice something incredibly unique about it compared to most other campaign videos. How much time was spent showcasing or explaining the game? Practically none. You hardly even see a single game component in the entire video, yet it has a laser focus on what makes Wavelength special.
Instead of explaining to us how the game plays, the creators of this video opted to show us the game through the players’ emotions, reactions, and interactions. It paints a very clear picture to its viewers of what they can expect to experience with their family and friends. Most importantly, it briefly and succinctly shows the viewer the exact outcome they want from this kind of game and then leaves the rest of the project page to fill in the details of how they’ll get to that outcome.
Contrast this to many other campaign videos that quickly lose me… Usually they get caught up in fancy thematic narratives with fluffy animations and take far too long to get to the point of why I should back their project. In my opinion, if your campaign video is the first thing people see on your project page, then it should absolutely feature the hook of your concept and nothing else. Let the rest of the page take care of the details, once the hook is set.
I had never even visited Kickstarter.com before encountering Wavelength, but that campaign page had my pledge within minutes because it knew how reach me on a personal and emotional level.
Low-Risk Rewards & Credibility — Tussie Mussie / Sprawlopolis / Seasons of Rice
Wavelength was my form of taking the red pill and falling down the rabbit hole into Kickstarter Wonderland. Button Shy’s affordable, low-risk wallet games kept me hanging around for more.
I initially heard of all three of these games in unique ways:
- While enjoying our recently acquired copy of Wingspan, I heard that Elizabeth Hargrave’s next published game (Tussie Mussie) was on the way with another presentation that would appeal to my wife. Tussie Mussie was also the winner of the 2018 Gen Can’t design contest.
- Separately, I watched Tom Vasel’s raving review of Sprawlopolis that put it on my wishlist.
- Finally, I listened to the Board Game Design Lab’s episode with Corry Damey about How to Win a Design Competition, and of course the competition winner (Seasons of Rice) piqued my interest.
These above encounters were critical for getting these projects on my radar. Each game had an underlying credibility to it that allowed me to put my trust in a design I had never played. Perhaps more importantly, the pledge levels were all at a reasonable price ($10 per game) that gave me little reason to hesitate when clicking the pledge button.
Quality & Consistency — Dice Throne Adventures & Season 1 ReRolled
I was already an owner of Dice Throne Season 2 when this project went live. Having been blown away by Season 2’s character variety and production quality, there was little resistance left within me when Roxley tempted me with more Dice Throne goodness. But there is something to be said for making each little detail of a production a premium feeling experience. When publishers display a high standard of consistency and quality from one project to the next, backers will notice and they’ll return for more.
Alluring Presentations & Illuminating Playthroughs — Sleeping Gods
Sleeping Gods was Kickstarter’s biggest challenge yet in successfully acquiring me as a backer. The $70 base pledge is a tall order coming from a publisher and designer that I have no prior experience with. On top of that, this is a style of game that I have never even played before. The art and presentation are certainly alluring, but the pessimism was strong within me.
How am I supposed to know whether I like a storybook adventure game? Won’t this just feel like a more clumsy, fiddly version of a video game, book, or movie? What if I start playing and quickly discover that I blew $70 + shipping on a game that is clearly not for me?
I had plenty of reasons to stand my ground and let this campaign ship sail, yet I ended up backing Sleeping Gods. Ryan Laukat, you sly dog. So how did he do it?
Well, that dang artwork and concept was so well imagined and executed that I wanted this unique game to work for me. I think this kind of thing happens all the time to us gamers. Just look at something like PARKS, Camel Up, Horrified, or plenty of others. Strip away the gorgeous artwork, the inviting theme, the killer components, and much of what makes those games shine is lost. PARKS becomes a generic resource collector, Camel Up becomes a luck-infused dice roller, Horrified looks like an off-brand Pandemic copy-cat . Moral of the story: don’t underestimate the value of a unique theme, quality art, and thoughtful production.
The stellar presentation of Sleeping Gods wasn’t enough on its own to get me to bite. I still needed to find something within the gameplay that made me say, “Ooo, this looks fun!” Who helped me to uncover that fun? None other than Rahdo, himself.
Oddly enough, my opinion on games hardly even aligns with Rahdo’s. Usually when he says, “Too mean,” I say, “Just right.” Yet, I’ve found Rahdo’s run-throughs to be extremely valuable in communicating the puzzly tension of certain games. It took me a lot of deep digging into the project page and beyond, but Rahdo is exactly what I needed to push me over the edge on both Sleeping Gods and the next game I backed, Calico.
Alluring Presentations & Illuminating Playthroughs — Calico
Like Sleeping Gods, Calico is game that tempted me initially but required more effort to earn my pledge. I could tell it filled a similar niche as Azul and Sagrada, which have been big hits with my wife. But on the surface level, I had no way of knowing whether this one would measure up to its competition and justify its place on our game shelf.
Once more, it was Rahdo’s runthrough that uncovered the excruciating tension lurking within Calico’s gameplay. Before watching his play-through, this was just a cute puzzly quilting game with cats, and I was mildly interested. After watching his play-through, this was an agonizing feline challenge with colorful, crunchy decisions, and I was a backer.
These kinds of video previews that not only show how a game plays but how a game feels to play are often critical factors in earning a dip into my wallet.
High Standards & Hot Streaks — Loot of Lima / GPS / Sequoia / Mountain Goats
Perhaps the most important thing a publisher can do for long-term success is maintain a high standard of design from one title to the next. A mediocre game can often do more harm to a small publisher’s library than its short-term sales are worth. When I catch onto a publisher or designer that is on a hot streak, I will preorder and pledge to every title they throw at me until they lose my trust. If I’m burned by a design team, it’ll take a lot of convincing from critics to get me to take another chance on future games.
My current list of auto-purchases include any Capstone Games’ light-medium weight titles, any Cole Wehrle design and/or Leder Games titles, and games published by BoardGameTables.com. I’ll also seriously consider every new game put out by Matagot, Roxley Games, Stonemaier Games, Facade Games, Reiner Knizia, and Osprey Games due to their several hits of the past few years.
BoardGameTables.com have proven themselves with both On Tour and QE. I appreciate their attention to detail and love of quirky designs. My fingers are crossed for their next batch of games coming soon including Loot of Lima, GPS, Sequoia, and Mountain Goats.
IV Marketing — Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
If you’ve ever been an in-patient at a hospital, you’ve likely had an IV in your arm drip-feeling your body fluids and medications. An IV (intravenous therapy) is a highly effect route of medication. It delivers drugs directly into your blood stream, bypassing any need for absorption or digestion. In the board game industry, if drugs equate to hype and medicating a patient equates to marketing, then companies like Stonemaier Games and Leder Games have perfected the IV Marketing technique.
When I started following these companies on social media, I noticed a pattern in their techniques. Leder Games publishes regular posts on their designer diaries leading up to a game preorder or Kickstarter launch. Stonemaier Games does the same thing on their website as well as creating Facebook fan pages for each game. Through regular updates and social media posts that tease out more juicy information and tantalizing images, these companies drip feed hype directly to their fans and potential customers. By the time the pledge/preorder button goes live, many people are eager to click it.
Meaningful Upgrades & Add-ons — Railroad Ink Challenge
Horrible Guild got me good with this one. It started out simple with a nice pair of roll & writes with a new coat of paint, improved gameplay, and unique variants. But things quickly got out of hand with more expansion dice, epic boards, and giant box to fit everything into. I often roll my eyes at the endless extras that publishers try to cram into their project, but I couldn’t resist these extras.
Often, these crowdfunding campaigns will try to milk their backers by merely offering fancier components, meaningless variety, and questionable add-ons. When I see a publisher trying to tempt backers to purchase 20 colors of player components for a 5 player game, I begin to question their judgment of customer-focused value.
With Railroad Ink Challenge, Horrible Guild kept offering me more of precisely what I wanted. With roll & writes generally being a low-interaction genre, I look to variants and expansions to give me more replayability and keep my brain on its brain-toes. Thus, I can’t resist new challenges within this familiar favorite.
Reliable Brands & Try Before You Buy — Bristol 1350
If you’ve played any of Facade Games’ Dark Cities titles before, then you already have a solid idea of what you are going to get with Bristol 1350. That’s exactly what makes this series so reliably solid. Facade Games has a playbook that their fans love and they have no reason to stray from it. While their productions continue to get prettier and more polished, a Dark Cities game will always be a Dark Cities game.
To help matters further, I had the opportunity to play Bristol 1350 several times as it was being developed. When a publisher knows they have a solid design on their hands, there is no better way to sell it to potential backers and earn their loyal support than giving them a chance to try it before buying it. This often happens through Print & Play, Tabletop Simulator (or equivalent software), or live demos. After having a blast playing a cheap, ugly version of Bristol 1350, you can bet I was absolutely ready to fork over some cash for a gorgeous, polished version. I even went so far as to write a preview for the game because I believed in it that much. The best evangelists are firsthand witnesses, so why not let people get their hands on your game?
Listening & Responding to Backers — Kemet: Blood and Sand
Kemet: Blood and Sand had a controversial campaign journey, to say the least. Loads of backers had seemingly dozens of different complaints as the Matagot’s campaign trudged from one problem to the next. These complaints included confusion about pricing and value, questionable graphic design and iconography, awkward miniature figures, theme-breaking expansions, and more.
These many problematic ingredients seemed like a recipe for crowdfunding disaster. While the campaign was messier than intended, Matagot weathered the storm well. Each major complaint was met with proposals, polls, adjustments, and solutions as Matagot listened and responded to their backers. While some backers abandoned ship, many more chose to ride out the waves or even join in on the crazy journey after seeing the commitment and care from the team behind Kemet. The end result was a nearly 1 million dollar campaign and a game that is much more likely to reach its full potential.
The Importance of a Hook — Whale Riders
Whale Riders has been another interesting project to follow. I’ve recently become a huge fan of Reiner Knizia’s designs, so this one was easy for me to get behind. The part that has caught me off guard is how little support this game received on Kickstarter. The game quickly funded and hit the $20,000 mark, but it seemed to plateau after that and was barely crawling higher every day since (until the typical last-minute bump).
Grail Games’ project seemed to have the complete package for a mega hit (at least in my naive eyes). It combines a legendary designer with an exceptional artist and a proven publisher. The game is accessible, the theme is whimsical, and the price is reasonable. I’ve also come across plenty of advertisements for it in the usual places. I would have placed my money on this game at least hitting six figures. Yet that didn’t turn out to be within reach.
As I’ve thought about it more, I can only come up with one reason why the game hasn’t received more support. The one thing that Whale Riders seems to be missing is a hook. Don’t get me wrong, Whale Riders looks like a solid game on all accounts; that’s why I backed it. But for comparison’s sake, let’s try to find the hook of the above mentioned kickstarter projects:
- Wavelength: That big, beautiful plastic device that allows for grand reveals and dramatic moments
- Button Shy’s Wallet Games: Pretty-looking, dirt-cheap games that pack a punch and fit in your pocket
- Dice Throne Adventures & Season 1 Rerolled: A premium production of a remodeled season 1 and a cooperative expansion to a beloved Yahtzee combat game
- Sleeping Gods: An epic, hand-crafted cooperative story-book adventure
- Calico: A colorful, Azul-like puzzly game with recessed player boards and cats!
- Loot of Lima: A clever deduction game with interactive player shields
- Oath: A quirky strategy game with a gorgeous production and an innovative system
- GPS / Sequoia / Mountain Goats: A bundle of fancy 10-minute filler games that are easy to teach and addictive to play
- Railroad Ink Challenge: The ultimate roll & write package with dozens of custom dice, maps, and objectives
- Bristol 1350: A thematic social deduction racing game that plays 1-9 players and fits into a compact book box
- Kemet- Blood and Sand: A mega hit game reborn and reimagined with improved gameplay, art, and components
Whale Riders has solid gameplay and fantastic art, but the above mentioned games contain all of that plus more. They stand out in at least one major way, while Whale Riders struggles to differentiate itself. Whether its a novel component, fresh concept, killer production, convenient feature, or something else entirely, the more hooks a project has, the stronger its campaign will be.
Jamey Stegmaier understands the importance of a hook. If you are wanting to pitch a game design to his company, the hook is a must. This philosophy has helped Stonemaier games to become the indie publisher juggernaut that it is today.
Just to be clear, I’m not just saying that I want our games to have an interesting theme or a unique mechanism. Being interesting and unique are interesting qualities, but they’re different than the hook. The key to a great hook is that it grabs your attention. It stands out in a crowd.Jamey Stegmaier
Rabbit Hole Review
Kickstarter projects have used many effective tools to earn pledges from myself and many others. These tools include:
- Get straight to the point with your campaign video and page. Why should I be excited about your project becoming a reality? (Wavelength)
- Low-risk rewards and strong design credibility makes the pledge button easier to click (Button Shy’s wallet games).
- Quality and consistency earns attention and loyalty (Dice Throne).
- Alluring presentations and illuminating playthroughs are critical to influencing hesitant backers (Sleeping Gods, Calico).
- High standards and hot streaks are the fastest route to super fans (GPS, Sequoia, Mountain Goats, Oath).
- Meaningful upgrades and add-ons are the best shovels for digging deeper into my wallet (Railroad Ink Challenge).
- Reliable brands and try-before-you-buy is a great way to earn unsolicited volunteers and proactive supporters (Bristol 1350).
- Listening and responding to backers will gain the trust of current and prospective supporters (Kemet: Blood and Sand).
- A solid game will be successful (Whale Riders), but a solid game with a hook will flourish.
This concludes my series on How to Win Backers and Crowdfund Projects – A Case Study. Thanks for tuning in! Do you have any personal examples of how a Kickstarter project won you over? Share below!
Article written by Nick. He is inspired by the stellar work of all the individuals involved in the Kickstarter campaigns mentioned above. He is looking forward to playing these games plus many more (including those on his most anticipated games of 2020 list).