Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kickstarter my heart

I suppose I could be considered a veteran of Kickstarter now, at least in regard to board games. In the past two years, I have purchased most of my new games through KS (thanks to influxes of Christmas/birthday money and income from selling items locally), backing fifteen projects in the process; all but one of those were board games, so I am fairly well-versed in what makes Kickstarter work, at least from the perspective of a Canadian board gamer. Most gamers, like me, use KS as a way to discover new games and to pre-order games that are known quantities, so it both a tool for investment and for consumption. I thought it was a good time to share some of what I have learned through using KS in these past two years and to evaluate the relative success or failure of my time on Kickstarter.

How does crowdfunding (board games) work?

Kickstarter (or Indiegogo or other similar sites) allow entrepreneurs to raise funds directly from investors by posting their projects online. There needs to be a specific product as a direct result of the project; it cannot be funding anything vague, unclear, or ongoing (such as salary income). Musical artists raise money for albums, authors raise money for publishing books (not for being paid for writing them, though), and game designers and producers raise money to produce their games (board or video), among many other types of projects. The investor pledges a certain amount of money, which is only paid if the project successfully funds at its deadline; up until that final moment, an investor can modify or remove her pledge, but they are locked in as soon as it funds. The investor will receive periodic updates about the project until it finally arrives in its finished form in her mailbox.
Board games have been a huge part of Kickstarter, and there have been a few dozen games that have achieved widespread popularity as a direct result of their use of KS to launch their designs. It has allowed independent designers direct access to gamers, and it has encouraged an entire community of game designers to connect and support one another. Several smaller companies have been established and flourished in large part due to their presence on KS (Indie Boards & Cards, TMG, and others), and more are emerging all the time. Most designs are close to complete, including prototypes, rules, and playtesting, and KS is usually the final step to determine the level of production.

Designers post their projects with information about their project, including the intended shipping date, pieces included, risks of the project, and rewards depending on funding level; they often  also advertise bonus content available "exclusively" through KS, and then they encourage funders to advertise their projects to others by setting "stretch goals" at higher amounts of total funding. The consumer can fund any amount they wish and pick whichever reward they want from the ones included. After a time period set by the designer, the project either funds or fails, and the designer either begins to prepare for production or running another campaign.

What makes me back a project?

After some reflection, I determined that there are five primary factors that affect my willingness to back a project. They are not necessarily in any kind of priority order, as some factors are more influential at times and not at others. As a rule, a project needs to satisfy at least four of these factors for me to look at backing it, but it does depend on how attractive each factor is.
1. Established reputation - I am much more ready to back a project when the company or designer or artist or game has a reputation, such as when it has already been released. I suppose that is why I often end up backing projects that are for expansions for games, or for new editions. I have ordered several games without playing them, but I was able to research them well enough to know that I would like them.

2. Promotional items - the more stretch goals and limited items a project has, the more appealing it is for me. Most KS campaigns state that "exclusive" items may be available afterward in limited quantities, but at increased cost and decreased availability, so the best way to make sure that you get them is through KS.

3. Cost (including shipping) - The project has to have an attractive cost, and shipping cannot be unreasonable. Of course, one of the things that makes me able to order more through KS is that I have some friends who are willing to let me use their US shipping address; if not for that, I would order far fewer items.
  4. Campaign itself - There is something about the nature of the campaign itself that can be attractive. An involved designer can make a huge difference, and receiving regular updates and communication makes me much more likely to back a project.

5. Timing - a short window between project funding and production can make a huge difference in my willingness to back a project (just as a longer window can be a significant deterrent).

What makes me hesitate to back a project?

1. Shipping costs - One of the biggest disincentives for backing is high shipping, especially to Canada. Some projects are much more Canada-friendly, but the shipping is often obscene compared to the free shipping many projects receive within the US. If I ever moved farther from the border, I would have a hard time justifying some of the purchases I have made through KS.

2. Canadian dollar - The loonie has taken a dive in the past month, and since most projects are funded in US dollars, that means higher prices for me. It's usually not enough to fully deter me, but it does make me think twice when I have to pay 10% more than I did a few months ago just because of our currency.

3. Timing - Sometimes it's the wait time for the project that deters me, but it's usually the timing outside the project that is the biggest deterrent for me. Usually that means that I either do not have enough funds to back a project, or I have too many projects I am already backing at the time.
4. Risk of the project - There are well-documented stories of people getting poor products in KS. It is, after all, an investment in an essentially unknown project, and there is actually no requirement for project designers to follow through on their promises, even though they have taken money from backers.
5. Availability afterward - If a game is likely to be readily available afterward, and the promo items are not enough to make me buy the game, I'm not likely to back it.

Projects I missed out on

For every project I have backed, there are several that I could also have backed along the way. Despite the significant volume of projects available, there are only three projects that I am truly disappointed to have missed in my two years of Kickstarting. Five Iron Frenzy Kickstarted their new album, but that was before I was on KS, and I also just forgot about it at the time. Fleet: Arctic Bounty came at a time when I did not have any capital to invest in new projects, and the campaign seemed to indicate that they would be using KS again in the future. And Cult Classic was a truly genuine Kickstarter - an independent game from a little-known designer that actually looked like a lot of fun. I just completely forgot about it and missed out on it before it expired. There are others I missed, of course, but those were the only three that I actually regret not backing, since they met most of my criteria for backing and just either came at the wrong time or slipped my mind.

But most of the projects I have passed on are subject to several of the aforementioned deterrents. Projects such as Keyflower: The Farmers, Belfort: The Expansion Expansion, and The Resistance: Avalon had great reputation and decent cost, but they were also going to be readily available afterward and had few promotional items. I probably would have backed Cinelinx, but it came at a time when I was already backing several other projects, and I'm not sure with whom I would play it. Coup looked like fun, but the stretch goals were not enough to make me want to get it before I played it. The hardest one not to back was Tiny Epic Kingdoms, which just concluded in the past month. It had a great price, lots of fantastic stretch goals, and it looked like fun, but I was not sure if I was going to play it enough to justify ordering it, and the weak Canadian dollar made it more unattractive.

Evaluating projects

This brings me to the heart of what I wanted to do with this post: to evaluate my purchases so far and to reflect on whether KS has been a good idea for me or not. I can only officially evaluate projects I have received, but for the projects that are underway, I have done my best to evaluate them, since I know whether a couple of them will be worth it already. For each project I have backed, I have given a few comments, as well as whether it is a hit or a miss, including the degree to which it has hit or missed.

The P Eight Six Project ($30, shipped)– As a fan of P86 over the past fifteen years, I felt a certain connection to this project, which helped to fund their Wait for the Siren album; plus, it was a birthday gift from my wife. I was slightly underwhelmed by parts of the album, but that’s to be expected considering that lead singer Andrew Schwab is the only original member left. Still, I’m glad that P86 is still doing their thing, and Schwab’s book The Tin Soldiers was a solid reflection on the issues facing men today. And I’m still looking at being part of the Indiegogo campaign for their new album. Verdict: Slight hit.
Evil Baby Orphanage ($40 + $8 shipping, arrived April 2013) – My wife wanted to back this flippant card game because of the inspiration from John and Hank Green, so I consented. We enjoyed seeing the project develop and how the Nerdfighter community embraced it, but the initial game itself was underwhelming. It seems like the expansions will fix the issues, but we have not played them yet, even though we have had them for almost a year. That said, it is a lot of fun to enjoy the sense of humour of the cards, and the artwork is also a lot of fun. Verdict: slight miss.

Among the Stars: The Ambassadors ($76, shipping included) – The expansion to Among the Stars hit all of the targets: great reputation, fun campaign, great price and availability, and a lot of promotional items. The game had been on my wishlist, so it was pretty automatic for me to order it. One of my best KS deals so far. Verdict: huge hit.

Eminent Domain: Escalation ($50, shipping to US included) – ED had been on my radar as one to play, so when the expansion was released with the base game at a very affordable price point, I had to pull the trigger. I have only played the base game once, but I enjoyed it as a mix of Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome, and Dominion. I think this will get a lot more life out of it. Verdict: hit.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue: Extreme Danger ($112, shipping to US included) – I took a bit of a risk with this one, as I had not played the game when I ordered it and I ordered the full package, which included the base game, the Extreme Danger expansion, as well as three other expansions (double-sided boards with different settings). We played it recently and recently enjoyed it, and I am really excited about the vast replayability of the game, as well as having another solid co-operative game to go along with Pandemic. Verdict: (looks like a huge) hit.

Council of Verona ($12, shipping to US included) – The idea of a Love Letter-level game set in the world of Romeo and Juliet appealed to me as an English teacher and a board gamer, and the price was right. I have not played it yet, but it looks like it will be a fun game and great resource. Verdict: hit.

Where Art Thou Romeo? (Pay-What-You-Want, shipping included) – This was a “nano-game” of only three cards included as an add-on with Council of Verona, but I just missed it on the first time around. It was a fascinating case as a “true” PWYW [Include link to Crash Games article here] with no recommended fee, so I backed it for $4. I have not played it yet, but it looks like a nice little diversion, particularly for the price. Verdict: slight hit.

Incoming games

One of the more recent development in board games on Kickstarter is the concept of “microgames”, very small games that offer significant play at a very reduced rate. In addition to Where Art Thou Romeo?, I have three other microgames on order through Kickstarter: Coin Age (April 2014), Burgoo (June 2014), and This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us (June 2014). They all cost between $5 and $7 including shipping, and they all look like a lot of fun. And if for some reason they are not that good, they only cost the amount of a cup of coffee. Verdict: (hopefully) hit.
Of the five other projects I have backed that are incoming, three are games that looked like a lot of fun. RARRR! ($23 shipped to US, arrives April 2014) is a card game that features Kaiju and looks like it will partner well with King of Tokyo; Space Junk ($39 shipped, arriving July 2014) is a madcap game developed by some game designers from my hometown, Saskatoon. It looks like it captures some of the feel of Galaxy Trucker, and I'm looking forward to it. Scoville ($55 shipped, arrives Nov 2014) is a Euro game based on the cross-breeding peppers. I won't be able to finally evaluate them until I play them, but they all look really great. Verdict: Awaiting "trial".

The other two I have on order are the Fresco Big Box ($110 including the Alhambra Big Box, May 2014) and Kingdom Builder Big Box ($72, August 2014) both by Queen Games. In these cases, I am essentially using Kickstarter as a pre-order service to get games with all of their expansions that I already knew I wanted at a great price with a couple of minor promos thrown in. There has been some discussion around the internet about how a larger company like Queen Games seems to be defying the true spirit of Kickstarter by using it to market established games, as they are one of a handful of companies – Days of Wonder, Rio Grande, Mayfair, Z-Man, and Fantasy Flight, among a few others – who are fully established enough to launch games on their own without using KS. That said, KS does ensure that all of their projects meet their requirements, so I'm taking advantage of the deals while I can. These were three of my most-wanted games, and I know I will enjoy them all well. Verdict: hit.



It's encouraging to see that I have not made a poor purchase yet on KS, with only one project that I would rate as a "slight miss", and even that may change. I am really cautious about KS, and I believe that my caution has paid off. It remains one of my main streams of new game information and ultimately new games, and I really enjoy the process of being a part of the community that emerges out of a Kickstarter project. I have not branched out yet to projects other than board games, and I think that would be a fun way to engage the arts. I also look forward to the day when I have a project that can be Kickstarted, whether that's the game I am currently designing (for serious), the book that someday I will finally finish (not really serious yet), or some other idea I hope to bring to fruition in the future. Until then, I will continue to enjoy the process of investing and enjoying the many unique ideas that are coming to life through Kickstarter.

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