How to Back a Game on Kickstarter
While planning out content for On Golden Age, I listed at all the different factors that have contributed to the popularity, or what some refer to as the “golden age,” of gaming.
By far, the internet is the major influence, which really shouldn’t be surprising. From websites for gaming enthusiasts, social media enabling meet-ups, videos showing people how to play games, to online reviews; there are a lot of resources that didn’t exist 10–15 years ago.
One interesting aspect of this is the rise of crowdfunding: ordinary people investing into board game projects; propelling innovation in both design and distribution.
On that note, it’s hard to overstate the influence the crowdfunding site Kickstarter had in the increasing popularity of tabletop games the last 6 years, and indeed as a major contributor to Kickstarter as a whole, with 6000 tabletop game projects earning $360 million in Kickstarter's entire existence, with a third of that total raised in 2016 alone. Just in the first six months of 2017, 957 tabletop game projects were funded, earning $69.8 million from backers and accounting for 24% of all total successful projects on Kickstarter. The train is not slowing down, either. As of this writing, there are 598 live game projects on Kickstarter. My jaw dropped reading these stats.
I know a lot of people just getting into tabletop gaming likely wouldn’t participate in Kickstarter campaigns. It’s crossing a fine line between having a few games on the shelf that you play every so often, to becoming a bit more, well, serious. But I want to encourage people getting into tabletop gaming to at least check it out; browse a few of the popular and featured game projects on the site. There is an amazing amount of creativity on display here, and you could be looking at a game that may generate a huge buzz later, if it isn’t already.
So here’s a bit of terminology for the uninitiated.
Campaign - A campaign (or project) is a page hosted on Kickstarter that serves as a sales pitch for potential backers to evaluate. Often there will be a video introducing the game or the designer, and below there will be additional information, photos, descriptions, and foreseeable challenges. Campaigns are time-limited, typically a month. If the campaign reaches its funding goal by the end of the time period, funds are released to the project creator to go forth and manufacture the game. Kickstarter makes money by taking a cut of the final total: 5% as a fee, and anywhere from 3%–5% for credit card payment processing.
Project Creators - This is the game designer, project developer, or a publisher who has set up a campaign.
Backers - These are the people like you and me who pledge money to a project creator’s campaign. Backers submit a credit card number, and if the campaign is successful, the cards are charged.
Rewards - This is what backers get when they pledge certain amounts of money to the campaign. The standard reward almost always will be a copy of the game. Often there will be different pledge levels or tiers for different rewards, such as multiple copies of the game for group or retailer buys, or additional perks like, for example, getting your likeness or name incorporated into card art. These will all be listed on the right side of the campaign page.
Early Birds - To generate a fast early buzz on campaigns, sometimes creators will set up limited early bird pledges that offer rewards at a discounted pledge level. Once they are filled up (typically limited to 100 backers), these tiers are locked.
Stretch Goals - To keep a campaign exciting to backers when the funding goal is reached, project creators may set additional funding achievements to unlock. A common stretch goal would be upgrading the components of the game, like using a higher quality paper stock for the cards, for example. This encourages current backers to spread the word and get more people on board.
Kickstarter Exclusives - A common practice is to make a version of the game exclusively for backers that won’t be sent to retail distributors. An exclusive could be a specially marked box cover, additional figures, or extra cards that may not be available in the future. It encourages potential backers on the fence to pledge right away, as opposed to waiting for a retail release and likely missing out on the extra content.
Add-ons - These are extra goodies that are not part of the rewards or pledge tiers, but are purchasable after the campaign is over. Examples could be card sleeves, metal coins, or an artbook.
Updates - Kickstarter encourages project creators to provide frequent news updates to backers during the campaign and after funding. This is the primary method of communication between the creator and backers.
Pledge Managers - To help project creators track logistics and fulfillment, third-party applications like Backerkit and Crowdox are frequently used. These work by sending surveys to backers so they can confirm their rewards and add-ons, calculate and pay for shipping, and finalize their delivery address. Like Kickstarter, these services typically take a cut from the final total raised and have setup fees. A project creator with a successful campaign should be prepared to forego around 15% of their final total to Kickstarter and a third-party pledge manager.
Fulfillment - This is a third-party logistics service that project creators hire to box your game up, get shipping labels processed, and send to parcel/postal services for delivery. Kickstarter has a global reach, so often multiple services will be used to cover different backer locations (Europe, Asia, U.S/Canada, et al.) This is yet another investment that a project creator needs to work out.
Regardless if you are a Kickstarter veteran or a beginner, here are some info and advice I wish everybody can remember about crowdfunding to help them stay happy backers.
Kickstarter is a funding platform, not a store or a pre-order system, so there is risk involved.
By far the biggest misconception that I’ve seen with new backers is that they treat Kickstarter as a store or a pre-order system, considering themselves customers and not investors. Certain established publishers use Kickstarter all the time as a way to raise initial capital by crowdfunding rather than investing in projects internally. This has worked out fantastically well for them, so they tend to use language that may imply you are ordering a product from them. Whatever they say, it is important to remember that Kickstarter is an investment platform, and that carries a burden of risk. Some campaigns are riskier than others.
There is a low barrier to entry on Kickstarter these days. People are seeing how much cash a successful game campaign can raise, so garbage board gaming projects can proliferate. Using common sense, however, it’s generally easy to weed them out. On the campaign page, there are little or no photos or videos of the game. There are poor descriptions with spelling errors, confusing pledge levels, and an unrealistically low funding goal. There is language used like “I’m a game inventor” or “I’m raising money for game patents”, which are not real things. If a project creator compares their game to Monopoly or any other mass-market game from the last 40 years, it’s clear they have not done any research. There is no indication that the creator has thoroughly playtested the game outside of friends or family. The “risks and challenges” section is vague or they didn’t bother to fill it out. Their creator profile may show “0 created, 0 backed”, meaning they’ve never backed a Kickstarter project, nor created one previously. This is obviously a high risk campaign. The consolation is that most of these poor or potentially fraudulent projects don’t have a prayer to get funded.
A good campaign will have a descriptive video or clear illustrations showing exactly how the game is played, and often a link to download a draft rulebook. Pledge levels will be easy to understand, and funding goals will be realistic. Much of the artwork and graphic design of the game and components will already have been done and on display. They already have a plan for global fulfillment and shipping. This is a low risk campaign.
There have, of course, been serious campaigns that have been funded and the creator has failed to deliver. It’s usually not intentional, but due to poor planning, inexperience, and bad circumstances. Maybe the creator didn’t plan out the costs of stretch goals and the budget is depleted faster than expected, or they find themselves in a dispute with another publisher over the rights of the game, or maybe the money was mismanaged and used to start a publishing company instead of funding the actual game. The creator can’t do much but send a mea culpa to backers and move on, or worse, they disappear without saying anything. Kickstarter will encourage project creators to deliver rewards, but there is only so much they can or are willing to do in these cases. Fortunately, this does not happen too often. Out of the thousands of games delivered over the last 6 years, I’ve only seen a handful of high-profile failures.
Even with a good-looking legitimate campaign, a good rule of thumb is to check their profile. If it says “0 created 0 backed” and the campaign is for, let’s say, a massive miniatures-based wargame with a pledge level at $300, be wary before investing. It doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to deliver (creating plastic miniatures that look good and are still affordable is really tough to pull off), but you need to consider the risk of losing that money and getting nothing in return, or waiting a long time due to the inexperience of the creator.
Delivery will almost always be delayed.
Be highly skeptical of given delivery dates, unless the project creator has a bunch of campaigns already under their belt. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen upset comments like, “This was supposed to be a Christmas gift for my partner/child!” after a project creator announces a delay. Don’t count on it arriving by your birthday next month. Even established publishers who don’t use Kickstarter rarely announce exact dates on retail releases, preferring to use quarterly estimates (Q2 2018, for example) on when to expect a game to arrive at stores. They don’t want to deal with the fallout of missed release dates and disappointed fans and retailers.
Manufacturing a board game, especially one with different versions depending on pledges, requires a lot of milestones and fingers in the pie. If any of those milestones has a hiccup, whether it is a printing error, quality control, freight delays, a union strike at the dock, a backlog in customs, or a fulfillment center that overpromises and (literally) under-delivers, the game’s delivery is going to be held up. Unexpected things happen, even with the most carefully planned out schedules.
Another thing to remember: a lot of games these days are manufactured in China. If a production schedule is at all close to or during February, it will be affected by Chinese New Year, when factories are shut down for a few weeks. This can cause a manufacturing backlog before and after the holiday and inexperienced project creators may fail to take this into account.
Out of all the Kickstarter campaigns I’ve backed (21 as of this writing), only Scythe from Stonemaier Games has delivered on time. In fact, I believe it came a month early for me. This is a rare occurrence, and was so emotionally and mentally tough on the project creator that he quit using Kickstarter for future projects.
It is customary for backers to receive a copy of the game before a public release, but that doesn’t always happen. Make peace with how you feel about that.
This ties in with the delay issue I talked about above, and I’ll give you a real-world example of how this can happen. Often times, a project creator will want to have their game done in time to have a big release at a yearly major gaming convention. Gen Con in August is a prime target. It is the largest tabletop convention in the U.S., and having a presence there is vital for many game publishers and designers. However, it’s a significant financial investment to have a booth at Gen Con, requiring solid commitments and planning months in advance. If there is a notable delay in the manufacturing which causes fulfillment to slip a few months for the backers, then the project creator has a tough decision to make. Do they go to Gen Con without a game to sell and just run demos, likely eating a huge chunk of their budget, if they still have any left? Or, do they air freight cases of the game to sell at the booth a few weeks before backers get theirs, risking goodwill from backers but recouping costs of being at Gen Con? I personally have no issue with a project creator selling a game at a major convention while fulfillment to backers is still ongoing. I don’t feel a strong need to have it before anyone else; I will get it soon enough. However, that is just my own feeling, and I can see both sides of this issue.
Project creators are humans.
A large or established publisher has challenging logistics to deal with for sure, but they have a product that typically delivers to retail distributors, maybe 10–12 unique addresses. Kickstarter project creators may have thousands of unique addresses to deal with, often with different combinations of deliverables. It is tough to begin with already, but easily turns into a nightmare if backers, for example, fail to keep their delivery addresses up to date when requested, don’t read updates, or don’t submit pledge surveys on time. Again, backers are investors, not customers. From articles and posts I’ve read from project creators on this topic, the biggest headaches come from backers who don’t get information in on time and, worse, behave poorly in comments, communications, and email towards the project creator. Keeping that in mind, backers have a responsibility to help keep project creators sane. Realize that they are a person, they are likely not a big team dedicated to customer service. They can make mistakes, of course, but assume that they are working as best as they can. Help them do that.
Ultimately, it is such an amazing feeling to know that you played a part in helping someone take an idea out of their head, off their kitchen table, and put it out there: to grow, to evolve, and become an experience that you share with others. That is what crowdfunding is all about. And it’s downright magical.