4 Ways to Vet Your Board Game Before Launching a Kickstarter

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Everybody wants to be a board game designer these days. We have the beautiful fortune of working in a hot industry that’s always bringing in fresh talent. With fresh talent comes fresh ideas. With fresh ideas comes many more rotten ideas created in the process.

Nobody wants to launch a Kickstarter campaign only to have it fail. Many board game designers are competent in every aspect of board game design, except for testing the premises of their ideas. And hey, no judgment – I’ve made the same mistake and as a marketing guy, I should darn well know better! So with all this in mind, let’s talk about vetting your board game ideas before going through all the rigamarole of launching a Kickstarter campaign.

 

Putting a board game no one wants on Kickstarter is like selling a ketchup popsicle.

 

Remember the phrase “product-market fit.” If you want to sell something, remember that value is subjective and based upon what your audience desires. If they don’t want what you’re selling, no amount of ads, discounts, pretty pages, or anything else will get your game sold. You have to make sure there is real market demand first. Here are four methods you can use as a proxy for product-market fit within the board game industry.

 

1. Send a prototype to a play-testing service before launching a Kickstarter.

I think play-testing services, in general, are a good way to spend money. Play-testing is how we perform quality assurance in the board game industry. The standards are exacting and the process is circuitous. That’s why I’ve plugged the GameSmiths on the blog in the past. I think that their services provide tremendous economic value when you think in terms of time saved.

That said, we’re not talking about quality assurance here. We’re talking about product-market fit. As it turns out, even professional play-testers are gamers first and foremost. Often, if they give a game low reviews even though it’s technically well-designed, it’s because they have the sense that something is…off. That undefined “something” is often a canary in the coal mine of bigger problems with marketability.

In board games, poor product-market fit doesn’t often look like slam reviews from reviewers, gamers, or play-testing services. Poor product-market fit looks like faint praise and 6/10 reviews. This industry is powered by people who are in love with board games, and anything that doesn’t quite seem right will often receive no more than a mediocre review. Paid play-testers often provide reviewer-esque feedback before you go to the hassle of completing a game, printing a short run, and sending a game out to reviewers.

 

2. Go to a Protospiel convention before launching a Kickstarter.

Does paying for a play-testing service seem a bit too clinical? Does the feedback seem a bit stilted and inorganic? Fortunately, there is a way to get real feedback from board games in a natural environment. You can go to local conventions called Protospiels and share your half-finished board games and no one will balk. It’s the culture!

Product-market fit can often be felt long before a game is polished. People feel attracted to a game, even in its rough state, when product-market fit is present. If you take your game to a Protospiel and it’s got typos and a couple of slipshod rules but people still come back for more, then you’ve got product-market fit.

Now here’s the big risk with this approach: it’s easy to see what you want to see. Board game design is super personal. It’s a creative outlet. Designers and even publishers often don’t see the warning signs because, frankly, it hurts to look. It hurts to see that your idea isn’t catching on with your target audience.

With that in mind, let’s talk about more objective ways of measuring interest.

 

3. Release a print-and-play version of your game before launching a Kickstarter.

A lot of the time, you can often launch a print-and-play (PNP) version of a board game long before you consider a Kickstarter campaign. The internet makes this very easy to do. Granted, the kind of gamers who will willingly try and PNP board game are a very small subset of the larger market, but their insight can nonetheless be valuable.

The real key here is this: does anybody want to try your PNP game? If you promote the PNP on a variety of channels, particularly the appropriate ones, and the number of takers is big, fat goose egg, then something in your pitch isn’t connecting. Similarly, if you have a download page and nobody ever sends you feedback, that’s also spooky. At the PNP stage, even negative feedback is a sign that people are truly engaging with your board game. Uninteresting print-and-plays are usually neither printed nor played.

 

4. Run ads on Facebook and see how many people sign up for your mailing list before launching a Kickstarter.

Last but not least, there are some elements of your board game that may not best suited for feedback from gamers. Oftentimes, gamers respond to art long before they respond to gameplay. If you ask for detailed feedback, you’ll receive feedback on gameplay but not first impressions. So how do you test first impressions? Use a system entirely based upon them – Facebook ads.

Like I mentioned above, this is best suited for testing art. Create a simple landing page with Mailchimp that will gather emails. Then create a simple ad containing some art for your game and a two-sentence pitch. Set the audience to board gamers within the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Set your budget for $10 total or so. You can always increase this later.

If you find that people are willingly handing over their email addresses for $1 each, that’s a good sign. If each email costs more than $2-3, something is definitely off. It could be your pitch or it could be your art. Either one can pose a big problem for product-market fit.

 


 

Vetting your core ideas before launching a Kickstarter campaign is vital. It’s difficult emotionally, but thankfully, there are a lot of ways you can do it. You can take any of the above methods or substitute your own. The most important thing here as that you test your ideas and make sure you have good product-market fit. If you nail that, everything else will be a good deal simpler.

How do you vet your ideas before launching a Kickstarter? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you 🙂

5 Reasons Why Board Games are So Popular in 2019

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Board games have been absurdly popular for the last several years. In 1999, the possibility of the board game industry experiencing a massive renaissance like the one we’ve all been witness to was laughable. The business was shaky to its core. There were relatively few fans, the supply chain was rocky, and raising funds was hard. Then, serendipitously, one by one, the obstacles toward the modern board gaming landscape fell away. We now have ScytheGaia ProjectTerraforming MarsGloomhaven, Root… The list goes on.

So what happened?

 

 

Why the Question “Why Board Games are So Popular” Matters to You, the Developer

First, let’s talk about why the question matters in the first place. Many of you know I’ve gotten really into the discipline of marketing. Marketing isn’t just about selling people random stuff they don’t need, unless you are, quite frankly, a hack. It’s about figuring out what people like, why they like it, and how to give it to them.

When something as seemingly random as board games becomes very popular, it makes a marketer’s Spidey sense tingle. Understanding the emotional origin behind people’s connection with board games is very important if you’re a publisher. You’re not just trying to make the greatest worker placement fantasy game…you’re trying to make a game that satisfies the emotional needs of your customers.

History provides context. That context can be used to explain why board games have become popular. That can, in turn, help us make great games or even predict whether or not board games as we know it will last.

 

1. The Internet and Social Media Made the Communities Possible

Board gaming is an obscure enough niche that it can’t justify the existence of a TV network, large magazine, or other traditional media outlet. Prior to the modern internet, especially social media, there wasn’t a particularly good way for people to connect over their love of board games. Social media allowed people from all over the world to connect around common interests. This, in turn, allowed people to express demand in ways that enterprising creators could take note of and act upon.

 

2. The Internet and Social Media Made Us Want to Log Off

Simultaneously, the very same tools that made board gaming as we know it possible – the internet and social media – came with a whole bevy of problems. Humans, biologically, are not programmed to talk to faces on screens. We need other people, physically, in our lives or else we suffer. We become lonely and isolated – one of the biggest problems of the modern age.

On top of that, the modern internet qualifies – in my opinion – as a social supernormal stimulus. A supernormal stimulus being anything that’s really attractive and not natural, such as junk food and it’s delicious calvacade of fats and sugars that our ancestors would never have been exposed to. Social media is a very normal part of socializing now, but some people are reacting – at least in my anecdotal evidence – with a sort of revulsion to that. They turn to more “wholesome” hobbies like board games. People want a form of escapism from the supernormal stimuli of modern life.

Now all that said – this is not why people prefer one particular game over another. This is not why people go out and buy Terraforming Mars or Azul. It is my opinion that this modern feeling of overwhelm creates a desire for a tangible social experience – which board gaming provides better than most forms of entertainment available today.

 

3. The Supply Chain Changed

People began to connect over their love of board games. At the same time, people felt a desire to play board games to get away from modern hyperstimulation. Completely unrelated to either of these occurences, something else was going on simultaneously.

Internet access and lax trade policies made it possible to manufacture games across the world. Board games are difficult to manufacture because there are a lot of parts. It used to be tough to find a printer for a reasonable price unless you were a really big company like Hasbro. Now, it’s very easy and takes a couple of days.

Revolutions in the print industry as well as the logistics industry made the supply chain for board games go from being very complex to sorta complex. There are still barriers to entry, mind you, but they are a lot lower. This allowed smaller print runs, which in turn allowed games to be made around niches. At the same time, you could identify profitable, in-demand niches by checking in with the growing board game community, which was by now both an online and offline entity.

 

4. Kickstarter Changed the Profit Model

You might find it remarkable, but we managed to make it this far into the article without mentioning Kickstarter. Created in 2009, I don’t remember seeing much of the site until 2012 or 2013, well after the widespread adoption of social media. With a simpler supply chain providing lower barriers to entry for pleasing a newly connected community, now all that was missing was a way to make the money to print the games.

Oh, hello, Kickstarter.

You probably know how this story ends. Board games have taken over Kickstarter, accounting for as much as 30% of the revenues they bring in. When Kickstarter entered the scene, the last barrier to entry – money for printing – fell away. This, in turn, opened the floodgates for a thriving culture of board game creators to create a steady stream of board games for board game fans. Regardless of Kickstarter’s future, their contribution to the board game industry is and always will be monumental.

 

5. A Culture of Creation Developed

Last but not least, there is one remaining element that helped make board games as popular as they are. That is board game designers themselves. A massive culture started to develop around board game design. If you don’t believe me, just type “board game design” into either the Twitter or Facebook search bar. You’ll see men and women from all over the globe who are passionate about making board games. There are entire cons dedicated to play-testing board games (Protospiels).

The culture of creation is yet another tributary into the mighty river of the modern board game industry. It may be the most important, too. The internet, social media, and the global supply chain are here to stay. Kickstarter may or may not keep their business model as it is today, but that’s not terribly important as long as the demand for board games continues to grow. The passion of creators is what keeps a steady supply of board games coming out today.

 


 

By thinking about why board games are so popular, we can better understand gamers and their ultimate desires. From there, we can continue to make games that are emotionally satisfying.

Why do you think board games are so popular today? Let me know in the comments below!

 

(Jamey Stegmaier has written an article recently called Top 10 Reasons for the Rise in Popularity of Tabletop Games. It’s another great take on this subject, and I encourage you to read it.)

6 Right and Wrong Reasons to Make a Board Game

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Making board games is really difficult. A lot of people who decide to make board games can’t tell the difference between the right and wrong reasons to make a board game. I want to talk about this in depth today because your motivations will seep into everything you do – for better or for worse.

 

 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about the future of Kickstarter, board gaming, and those of us who strike it out on our own to make games. Much of what I’ve discussed is only superficially about board games. The deeper messages are based on business strategy and the ability to plan for the future. This is where your motivations become really important. The right reasons will keep you going in the tough times and the wrong ones will eventually push you out of the business.

 

The Wrong Reasons to Make a Board Game

 

Wrong Reason to Make a Board Game #1: A Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

Some people see multi-million dollar Kickstarter campaigns and become excited about the financial prospects of the board game industry. You’re smart enough to know that campaigns like that are rare and almost always the result of teamwork. Yet you may still aspire toward that sort of campaign.

Assume you made $4 million like Rising Sun. Let’s say it’s made by a team of five people – a low estimate, honestly. Now let’s say there is a profit margin of 15% on it, which is pretty high for a niche product with physical inventory. You are then left with $120,000 before taxes. That is roughly equal to one year of salary and benefits of a decently well-paid white-collar professional in an urban area once you add healthcare, dental, vision, and the taxes your employer pays and you never see. Seriously, try this online calculator out if you don’t believe me.

Now let’s be real – most of us would love that kind of cash to do this kind of work. Still, my point is that this is a best-case scenario in which you’re not even wealthy. Your upper bound in the board game industry, without doing some other kind of work, is the lower bound of the upper middle class in a low cost of living area.

There are right and wrong reasons to make a board game, and money is definitely one of the wrong ones. Yes, you should try to make a profit if you want one. However, don’t perceive the board gaming industry as your ticket to fabulous wealth. It’s not the linchpin in your FIRE retirement strategy.

 

Wrong Reason to Make a Board Game #2: You Hate Your Job or Boss

It’s seldom these days that I see a person truly convinced that board game design will make them rich. However, many want to start their own business because they hate their job or boss. They build a business with the expectation that they won’t make much money, but it will be enough to survive. One of the most foolhardy beliefs I see mindlessly echoed online is “turn your hobby into a job.” Don’t do that – create a larger business and use your hobby and an existing market to establish yourself and create a product.

If you build a business, you need to make it to where you can sell different kinds of products to meet your customers’ needs. Board games may not meet their needs forever, so you need infrastructure in place to switch if you want to. We have no idea how long the modern board game boom will last or if it will at all. Even if it does last, that’s probably going to bring tougher competition. You have to think bigger than board games if you want to see yourself out of the traditional job market.

 

Wrong Reason to Make a Board Game #3: You Think It Will Be Easy

I failed to mention earlier the fallacy of the “quick” part of “get rich quick.” Board games are long haul projects. They take several months at best and can even take years. You have to stagger game releases and work in a team to try to bring in steady income with games. Even doing so, you’re likely to have some duds in between.

It’s not easy! The time taken alone is difficult, but the actual tasks themselves are even harder. I didn’t appreciate how hard making a board game was until this blog took off and I started getting calls from entrepreneurs. We forget how much goes into making a game. There is game design, play-testing (which is incredibly detailed), manufacturing, fulfillment, marketing, and much more. Some things can be created on a lark, but board games – at least made for profit – cannot be created this way. It’s difficult and it requires money and project management skills.

 

The Right Reasons to Make a Board Game

 

These will be a lot shorter because there are no fallacies to point out 😛

 

Right Reason to Make a Board Game #1: You Love Making Board Games

If you really love making board games for its own sake, you should do it. Hoping for large amounts of cash, an easy project, or a way out of things you don’t like will make you unhappy. Yet if game development is truly something you love, it is worth it. Life is short and as long as you meet your commitments and stay in touch with the ones you love, spend as much time as you can doing what you want to do.

 

Right Reason to Make a Board Game #2: You’re Trying to Figure Out What You Love

Not everybody knows what they want to do with their life and free time, and that’s fine. Sometimes you just need a complicated project to focus on for its own sake. That’s where I was with board gaming in 2015 when I started making my own. When there are so many options in life that you don’t know what to do, sometimes picking a focus – any focus – can help set your life on the right track. I was 22 years old and right out of college. Making board games helped me decide what I ultimately wanted to do.

 

Right Reason to Make a Board Game #3: You Want to Work Hard & Learn Quickly

Last but not least, if you’re looking for a challenge, creating a board game can certainly fill that need. Between the game design, play-testing, manufacturing, fulfillment, and business skills, you will find no shortage of new things to learn. If you’re willing to work hard and you just want to learn as much as you can, this is a fun way to do it.

 


 

Knowing the difference between the right and wrong reasons to make a board game goes a long way. You need to understand your motivations so that you can remain productive and happy while you’re making games. Having unrealistic expectations can cause a lot of frustration.

What I’ve discussed above may have made you uncomfortable. I am empathetic to that. My only desire in writing this is to get you to examine your motivations so that you can remain happy while making board games.

Why do you make board games? Let me know in the comments below!