Gameplay detail of Zombicide Season Two: Prison Outbreak, a Kickstarter-funded board game that raised $2,255,018 on Kickstarter.
Climb the ladder. Slide down the chute. Score on the triple-word tile. Don’t pass go.
You remember all those cardboard commandments, don’t you? Well, times have changed since you were last clad in dingy sweatpants and rolling dice in your rec room.
The board games of today look extremely different from the ones you may remember growing up with. Where once your job was to bankrupt your fellow players, or be the first to go around a loop, modern board games ask their (largely adult) audience to trade wheat for sheep, to finish building a road in the city of Carcassonne, or to help the CDC fight off a global health crisis. Over the past three decades, as players have matured, their board games have grown up too.
And now, with the social media/funding platform Kickstarter, they’re ballooning in popularity. Over 13,000 people have invested in a board game about robot turtles. Over $2 million has been raised for expansions to a game about zombies. But mention the project-funding machine Kickstarter to a group of gamers and you’ll hear as many people screaming, “Kickstarter is killing board games” as people chanting, “God bless Kickstarter.”
“In 2013, games overtook film as the largest Kickstarter category by money pledged (with only a fraction of the number of projects launched),” explains Luke Crane, Kickstarter’s community manager for games. A new board game project is launched almost every day, and more and more of those projects fund successfully.
But in this democratic business model, does every game that gets funded deserve to be funded? Is every company that successfully launches its first game ready to be a company? I wanted to know how a flush of cash and support affects brand new companies, companies that can now dive head-first into the board gaming world in a way more direct than ever.
“Kickstarter was built as a funding platform for creative projects of all kinds.” Luke Crane continues. “The board gaming community adopted the model and started teaching us how it could be used to make amazing and fun games.” And take it from a die-hard board gamer: A lot of the games coming out of Kickstarter are extremely fun, inventive, and original. But for many small business launching their first game on Kickstarter, the experience often feels like biting off more than they were hoping to chew.
One of the issues that keeps coming up when I talk to these new game designers is the time commitment. Donald Mitchell, whose “micro-game” AlakaSLAM was recently funded, said, “We were originally going to be doing two to three [Kickstarter Campaigns] a year, and now I can't see doing more than one a year. Disregarding research, the entire process takes at least three months of your focus.” A lot of that has to do with properly marketing your Kickstarter campaign. Before you hit the button to post your campaign, Kickstarter strongly suggests that you make a video to hype your game, that you think hard about all the things that could go wrong, and that you make the best case you can for your game. Which makes sense, right? If game developers didn’t shine up their game boxes and fan out their cards, the games would be backed by their grandparents alone.
For some young designers, the ups and downs of a campaign—from the first burst of support to the final minutes of the funding window—can be fraught with angst and uncertainty. Anthony Conta, of Urban Island Games, felt the pressure midway through the campaign for his game Funemployed. “Once we received so much of our goal at the start, we expected a lot more to come in the following weeks. However, like with so many Kickstarter projects, we hit a mid-campaign slump which was super brutal.” Many games fund early, but begin to peter out after they hit their goal.
The Doom That Came to Atlantic City, a project that was abandoned after its creators raised $120,000.]
Post-production, too, can prove extremely challenging for small gaming companies. A wildly successful miniatures game, Kingdom Death: Monster, was so over-funded, and had such technically specific plastic miniature pieces, that they’ve been delayed on multiple occasions. Reading the updates that the creator Adam Poots released is like watching a man tear out his hair. As Tim Rodriguez, of Brooklyn Indie Games, and multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns explains, “If you’re going to publish games, you have to start understanding what it means to run a business, and fast.”
The demands of the target demographic, a group of dedicated gamers with high expectations, puts added pressure on designers. Tim continues, “You can’t go into a campaign half-baked with an idea. People expect more from game publishers in particular.”
With all these troubles and tribulations that new game designers go through, it still brings games right to gamers' doorsteps. As the board gaming hobby continues to grow and expand its audience, the game makers need to keep up. When fresh new talent constantly funds itself, it’s up to the old guard of gaming to continue to innovate. So whether these games are tough on the makers, it could end up being vital to keeping a healthy gaming culture.
But what of the duds? What of the games that come out that are, by all accounts, bad? And what happens when a game is funded and cheats its backers? Each game project (well, all projects on Kickstarter) offer tiers of rewards for backing the project. With board games, that usually amounts to an ability for consumers to effectively pre-order the game. But in a very notable case, the Doom that Came to Atlantic City made a ton of money… and disappeared.
Is Kickstarter good for the gaming community? After interviewing lots of board game designers, players, and gaming companies I have to say yes, it is. Is it easy on the designers? No, of course not. But neither is making a game from scratch, blind-pitching it to investors, and getting it onto shelves across the country. As Donald Mitchell elaborates, “It gives us a sense that people are actually interested in our games,” and in a world full of half-started ideas and under-funded brilliance, sometimes a little kick in the ass is all a good game needs.
Follow Giaco Furino on Twitter.