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.
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.
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.
5. Look for signs of real enthusiasm and ignore vanity metrics.
Even if you follow all the steps above, you can still launch a dud. Play-testing services focus on what makes games fun, but not necessarily what makes them marketable. When Protospiels start back up again after the virus, people will still hold back criticism out of politness sometimes. Print-and-play fans tend to be die-hards, and thus a poor representative of a general audience. Finally, sometimes your game can do well in ads and flop on Kickstarter.
So what’s a Kickstarter creator-to-be to do? How can you tell if people actually care about your game? Here are some of the best signs I can think of:
- People ask detailed questions about your game that indicate they read your rules.
- You see followers show up on your Kickstarter prelaunch page without any incentive to do so.
- People sign up for your mailing list without an incentive.
- When you send emails, lots of people open them (think 40% or more).
- People take time out of their busy days to watch you live-stream a game.
- Social media ads are far cheaper than average.
- Players share the game with their friends.
None of these signs are foolproof, but together, they suggest that people really like your game. Social media likes are meaningless. People willing to personally reccomend your game to their friends is priceless.
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 🙂