Musings on the Kickstarter Trend in Board Gaming

Over the last few years, the board game industry has seen a complete shift in the way it operates thanks to Kickstarter. Today, unknown designers of no-budget projects can make widely successful products. While this is an exciting trend for aspiring indie designers and publishers, it has its fair share of limitations and problems. I have been developing these thoughts for many months now, and it is time to put them in writing. I have identified two reasons that Kickstarter campaigns may struggle or not reach their full potential. Firstly…

1) Prohibitive prices. I cannot even count the number of times that the following has happened: I see a new game appear on BoardGameGeek’s “Hotness” list. I think it looks awesome. I view the game’s Kickstarter profile. I close the page when I see that it is $80 or more for a single, basic copy of the game. And I don’t think I’m the only one here who has had that experience. KS projects have gotten increasingly more expensive over the last few years.

I would argue that Tasty Minstrel Games (right here in Tucson, AZ) has been at the forefront of the Kickstarter trend since the beginning. Eminent Domain was the first big KS of which I was aware, back in November 2010. It more than doubled its funding goal, weighing in at $48,378 from a goal of $20K. The pledge necessary for a basic copy of Eminent Domain was a measly $35. Admittedly, as a card game, it’s production cost was probably on the lower end, but TMG still managed to make waves in the gaming community from it.

Since then, we as a community have seen huge price inflation, and it’s really the fault of the industry itself. In a market so thoroughly saturated with indie projects, companies running KS campaigns need to strategize means of differentiating their campaigns from the rest. Assuming that gamers are working off of a limited budget (and/or trying not to get in trouble with their spouse), they must be choosy regarding which games will garner their support. Companies know this and work to incentivize you to choose their game. How do they do this? By adding chrome.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I love the so-called “toy factor” in a board game. Games that include top-notch components are more eye-catching, and thus draw more attention from potential buyers. However, better components equals higher production cost equals higher price, especially for games with small print runs. As more and more indie designers join the fray, there is a greater need for individual companies to make their games stand out. What’s more, this trend of high-priced games shows little sign of stopping. Yes, TMG has recently been successful with its “Pay-What-You-Want” model, and the current micro-game trend provides an affordable alternative to three-digit games, but gamers who seek products with custom dice, painted miniatures, Kickstarter goodies, and big linen-finish boxes are going to have to continue paying through the nose.

I would like to pause here and clarify something. I don’t mean to imply that high-dollar KS games are bad or that companies should not sponsor them. Lord knows plenty have succeeded with flying colors (Steve Jackson Games brought in just shy of a MILLION DOLLARS on the Ogre KS. That is certainly nothing to sneeze at.). All I mean to say, and maybe this is just my graduate student budget talking, is that 200-some dollars for Cthulhu Wars is a LOT of money, especially considering…

2) The risk factor. Kickstarter has produced some excellent games, but it has definitely had its share of problems as well. As KS becomes increasingly prevalent, I have sensed many gamers getting tired of it. KS is plagued by fraudulent campaigns, uncommunicative publishers, production issues, cancelled projects, lateness on delivery, and hyped-up games that just turn out to be bad. Certainly, some of this is to be expected, but even high-profile KS campaigns like Odin’s Ravens, Up Front, The Doom That Came to Atlantic City, Dark Darker Darkest, and HeroQuest have had major issues, rustling jimmies in the BoardGameGeek community, and serving as a reminder of the risks of pledging support to an often-unknown entity.

Back in the early days of Kickstarter board game projects, there was a sort of novelty to supporting a campaign. It felt good to say that you were partially responsible for the creation of the project, and it was cool to have your name in the rules. The sense of urgency caused by a limited window of time in which people could pledge created an exciting need for teamwork among backers. It was fun to anticipate the game’s arrival, to have the finished product before anyone else did, and, more than anything, to participate in the next big thing in board gaming.

Fast forward to 2014, and this “next big thing” is rapidly becoming a source of widespread frustration for gamers. Do I think Kickstarter should stop being used? Certainly not. I myself have supported multiple campaigns, and I’m glad I did. Do I think game companies should stop making high-quality games with high-quality components? Certainly not. As gamers, we love awesome figures and cool, custom dice. Do I think high price-points are bad? Certainly not. Just because I cannot personally afford them doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be high-dollar games on the market. Your money is your money to spend as you please.

Kickstarter is a great resource, most of the time. I just want to encourage the gaming community, both producers and consumers, to be aware of these factors as new projects continue to develop.

Thank you for taking the time to read this! I would love to hear any comments you have!

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6 responses

  1. Interesting observation, since I see quite the opposite. While there certainly has been a rise in miniatures games on Kickstarter (with their inflated prices), lately it seems that the most successful games are cheaper.

    Coin Age, for example, raised $60k+ on a $3 game. Tiny Epic Kingdoms is at $250k+ on a $16 game. It seems a game with good artwork that is $15 or less is almost guaranteed to succeed.

    Otherwise, it seems that the rising costs of standard hobby/euro game on Kickstarter are simply mimicking the rest of the industry. Have you seen the cost of a typical game from Queen or Fantasy Flight lately?

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  3. I don’t believe the author should have mentioned Dark Darker Darkest alongside Odin’s Ravens or the Doom that Came to Atlantic City. That’s pretty harsh considering DDD delivered a game on time (for most). I think a lot of it was just preconceived notions of a game that had been in development for years before being taken to kickstarter.
    The major problem that DDD had was that the designer released photos of game components well before he found a publishing company. Whether it was decided from the beginning or as a production decision, some of the game components were made into expansions not included in the base game. These became stretch goals.
    That was the major issue. Everything else during that campaign was pretty minor, and Queen Games actually changed quite a bit at the requests of the backers.

    1. In my original article, I certainly did not mean to suggest that Dark Darker Darkest and Odin’s Ravens had the SAME problems, just that they both HAD problems.

      In the end, Queen Games did make things right for backers of DDD, I’ll give them that. However, the fact that they were so ready to short-change backers in the first place was, in my mind, the major problem. Regardless of Queen’s positive response to the backer uproar, their willingness to knowingly deny rewards to the very people who were making their project a reality seems conniving and disrespectful. Backers shelled out big bucks on faith alone to support a designer whose track record is sub-par, and as a “thank you,” Queen was planning to withhold rewards, requiring them to spend more money if they wanted the whole DDD package. I think this certainly should be noted alongside the Odin’s Ravens fiasco. The problems were definitely not the same, but they both served to deepen the distrust of Kickstarter just a little more.

      My article was not meant to document one and only one type of problem that arises on Kickstarter. I was more trying to analyze several large-scale issues that have happened, DDD definitely being one of them.

      1. I think we’re going to have to disagree here. While you’re not intentionally making a comparison, of the games you list as kickstarter “fiascos”, DDD was the only game to deliver a product. Disagreeing with how a kickstarter was conducted is a matter of opinion. Failing to produce a game that was promised to backers and either willfully taking or irresponsibly mispending backers’ money is another story all together.
        While I don’t agree with Queen’s direction of the campaign at the outset either, they changed and accommodated the campaign’s stretch goals. This resulted in everything originally planned for the game (that David had released previously in photographs) with a lot of additional content as well.
        While you claim that this should be noted alongside something such as Odin’s Ravens or the Doom that Came to Atlantic City simply because it had problems, I wholeheartedly disagree and say that it should be noted that at the mid way point of the campaign, Queen realized their errors and made amends (see fulfilling campaign promises vs. defaulting). I do not agree that DDD’s kickstarter issues “served to deepen the distrust of kickstarter”, or was on the same level of campaign failure / deceit that any of the other games you listed did.
        Furthermore, there are any number of other campaigns you could have chosen to add to this list that truly WERE fiascos (see Katalyka), and yet you chose a game that was ultimately delivered on time.
        While I understand some peoples’ complaints about the content they believed was a part of the original basegame (which David claims it wasn’t and was a mistake to release prior to finding a publisher), it was clearly a misunderstanding. Many games are designed as a whole and then split up and released as expansions for various reasons. Had David not released photos of the game’s content in his excitement, DDD wouldn’t have made your list at all.

      2. Thank you for your comments.

        I didn’t put Katalyka in there, because I wanted to keep my post short-ish. Lord knows there are dozens of projects I could put in, but I didn’t want this to turn into a mere list of failed/troubled Kickstarters. BGG already has that list. The reason I chose DDD was because it was from a well-known, well-respected company. Katalyka was a small-time, self-published dream.

        Moreover, regarding my comment about such issues deepening the distrust of Kickstarter, I stand by it. Yes, Queen delivered on time. Yes, they made right by the backers after they expressed dissatisfaction. But I must come back to my first point here: their willingness to short-change gamers in the first place. Queen Games, along with every other publisher out there, is a business. To stay in business, they have to make money (see Economics 101). I get this. I get the reasons companies make expansions; it is a useful, continued source of revenue with less risk than an entirely new game. I get why companies might want to withhold certain bits and components, and re-sell them as an expansion, as much as I don’t care for such a practice. To be fair, this is not just Queen Games that does this. They just happened to have a particularly high-profile situation. You’re right. If Ausloos had not released the initial photographs, all us gamers would have been living in ignorant bliss.

        But he did. Now, every time I buy a game from Queen (which won’t be often), I’m not thinking about what I’m getting, I’m thinking about what I’m NOT getting. Call me cynical, but I’m too busy thinking about what they COULD be including in the base game, that they are just choosing not to. Clearly, you know your game market, too. In the case of Queen’s latest game, Tortuga, you know full well that they have at least one expansion ready to go. They COULD put it in the base game, but they won’t. And let me reiterate, I understand the business side of this. I really, really do. That being said, the problem I see is not the way Queen is doing business. Like I mentioned, all these companies are doing the same thing, so I can’t fault one single company. Thus, maybe this is more a critique of the larger industry, but the practice of denying incentives, known and unknown, to the very people who are making your product a reality seems like these companies are making the ITEM their priority, not the CUSTOMER. And that, my friend, is the problem.

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