Passion isn’t a Pitch and 6 Other Ways to Misunderstand Board Game Kickstarter as a Marketplace

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I’ve made my fair share of mistakes while building this business. I don’t sweep them under the rug. In fact, I even pulled apart the broken bits of my failed Kickstarter campaign for my understanding and published them online for public benefit. Being able to analyze and move forward after failure is critical to your success and a big part of getting your game from Start to Finish. This is part two of four in the Failure Recovery series.

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Today, I’m going to be covering six really common ways board game Kickstarter campaigns fall apart. This is based primarily on my observation of Kickstarter as a market in 2018, not necessarily how it was in the past. The market is shifting and maturing, moving inexorably toward large companies with established intellectual properties. That’s not a bad thing – it brings more people into the hobby board game world we enjoy! It definitely changes how you have to approach the business, though.

Mistake 1: Emphasizing passion instead of the game.

Kickstarter started in 2009 as a way for people to fund their passion projects. That may not have been the intention of the company from the get-go, but that’s how the site was interpreted by the general public. For a long time, emphasizing your passion for the project while simultaneously pitching it was a reliable way to appear human and receive funding.

I’m not so sure about that anymore. Don’t get me wrong: passion is a beautiful thing. Passion will see you through difficult times, make you more charismatic, and give you a compelling story that people can rally behind. However: passion isn’t a pitch.

When you make a board game today, you’re on the same platform as CMON and other very high-profile publishers who can reliably pull more than one million dollars per campaign. These companies are very rarely mom-and-pop shops like old-school Kickstarter. They make a lot of money because their products are carefully crafted for the audience, their pitches are extremely strong, and the games are good.

Your game’s fit for the market is more important than your passion. So many indie creators, myself included, emphasize passion to the detriment of the product itself. Passion needs to be at the root of your product. It’s not a selling point.

Mistake 2: The game lacks a hook.

Because Kickstarter is so crowded these days, you need to catch each backer’s attention in a few seconds. The only way your game can survive in this environment is to be a good game and a good product. Good games have clever themes and mechanics. Good products are made for audiences using hard data to figure out what people like. If people like sci-fi and fantasy, you give them sci-fi and fantasy. If people like worker placement, you give them worker placement.

That’s only the beginning of making a good product, though. Even something as ideal for Kickstarter as a $20 fantasy worker placement small box game needs something to catch people’s eyes. It could be great components, a unique rule, or really special art. Your hook can be lots of different things, but it needs to be both tested with your intended audience and strong enough for people to identify your game as “the one with…”

Mistake 3: Poor price point.

An overpriced game won’t sell on Kickstarter. This concludes Economics 101, hope you enjoyed the blog, sign up for my mailing list and Discord

But seriously: you need to pay attention to people’s purchasing patterns. A poor price point doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making your game too expensive. You can make games with an awkward price point that people aren’t buying at the moment. At the time that I am writing this, the campaigns I’ve seen succeed the most are expensive games or light games that are at or under $25. Much of what is in the middle is struggling.

Kickstarter is a giant open data set. Use hard data to figure out what price point core rewards are going for on successful campaigns. Try to match that price point.

Mistake 4: Poor components.

Lackluster components won’t necessarily sink a board game Kickstarter, but they won’t do it any favors. Having custom meeples, miniatures, or something creative and eye-catching helps a lot. In a lot of ways, it functions as a hook.

For better or worse, board gamers sometimes equate components with value. Do some research on Facebook or Board Game Geek to see what components gamers find valuable. You’d be surprised how often manufacturing price and perceived value don’t match up. I did one poll where wooden cubes scored higher than cards on value, despite cards costing three times as much to print and requiring extensive art creation.

Mistake 5: Poor art.

You have a few seconds to catch people’s attention. Art needs to not just be good in traditional artistic terms, but also good for product design. While there are a number of ways you can ensure your art is well-made from a tactical and technical standpoint, the most important thing to remember here is: test your art with your audience.

It’s impossible to know what art will resonate with people without running it by an audience. If you have a Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram account, try using those sites to see what people think of your art. If your art receives far higher engagement than your typical posts, that’s a very good sign. Every single art piece should ignite passion and interest in others. Otherwise, you could run into a situation where your game isn’t eye-catching enough to stand out in a crowded market.

Mistake 6: No reviews.

There are still some Kickstarters out there that go live without reviews. I don’t believe reviewers are the gatekeepers that they used to be, but it’s still a gigantic red flag when a campaign has no reviews. (Product-market fit, I believe, is more relevant than reviews, but I spent basically five points on that already.) You need social proof and reviewers act as testimonials to the quality of your product.

You need to print a few copies of your game from a print-on-demand supplier to send to reviewers. Thankfully, it’s easier than it’s ever been to get started with the actual printing process. For that matter, you can reach out to the majority of small reviewers by Twitter DM. The cost is relatively low compared to the rest of your project and the consequences of not having any reviews are too severe.

Mistake 7: Treating Kickstarter as the endgame.

Last but not least, one of the biggest strategic business errors you can make on Kickstarter is to only think about Kickstarter.

Sure, if you’re just making a single board game because you really want to see your name on a box, thinking about the Kickstarter campaign alone is fine. If you’re purely pursuing a passion project and don’t have your eye on distribution, designing other board games, or running a sustainable business, then you can treat Kickstarter as the endgame.

But if that’s not the case? Well, whether you’re trying to design a bunch of games, make passive income, or build an enterprise, your journey will not end with a single Kickstarter campaign. You won’t just fund and, POOF, all your dreams have come true.

In short: don’t just build a board game, build a business.

Board game Kickstarters can be complicated to run. Hopefully by spelling these common pitfalls, you can avoid them and fund successfully. Recognizing pitfalls is a great way to avoid failure.

If you have any additions to what you see above, please let me know in the comments 🙂

How to Price Your Board Game

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Cardboard costs a lot of money! Board gamers are accustomed to handing over hundreds of dollars at a time on board game shopping sprees. If you look on /r/boardgames or Board Game Geek, you can find no shortage of “shelfies” where people have hundreds of board games. You might even get the impression that board gamers are not price-sensitive at all…

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Price matters. The amount you choose to charge for your board game says a lot about your game. Naturally, as the price goes up, fewer people will be interested in purchasing. But how does that explain $150 monsters like Gloomhaven?

Price isn’t just a number

Before you set out to apply a price to your board game, ask yourself these questions:

  • How complex is my game?
  • What components does it come with?
  • How long does it take to play?
  • How physically large is the box?

Price isn’t merely the amount of money that someone has to pay to get a copy of your work. It’s one of the most useful pieces of information about your game available to a board gamer. It is shorthand for the above questions. Along with your box, the theme and mechanics of your game, and the reviews you receive, board gamers will make a decision to buy or not to buy.

Different price points have different psychological effects on people. A $19 game is an impulse buy – people usually don’t think too much about spending that amount of money. For that price, they expect a small game without a whole lot of parts. On the flip-side, people are perfectly okay shelling out $100 or more for a giant game like Gloomhaven or Food Chain Magnate. Those games come with lots of parts and are complex, long-lasting games. There’s a lot going on there!

If you’re not sure on price, start here…

When choosing a price for your game, you’ll need to do something I often advise: look at similar games on Kickstarter and Amazon. Make sure you take into account the complexity of your game, the components included, the length, and its physical size. I even recommend you go to a local gaming store to look at the boxes, still shrink wrapped, and compare them to their prices. That can tell you a lot about how board gamers value games.

Naturally, any price you come up with will need to cover your manufacturing costs. A general rule of thumb to follow is “five times your landed cost.” That is to say, your game should cost gamers five times as much as it costs to print and ship the game to your warehouse. For Kickstarter campaigns, you might be able to push this down to “four times your landed cost.” As always, though, run the numbers and don’t rely on rules of thumb without closer analysis.

Still, I must reiterate: don’t merely think of price in terms of monetary exchange. It’s an important part of signaling the kind of game you have created and how much is in the box. The value of a game is not just its parts, its art, or the amount of hours you can play it before getting bored. The value is in the eye of board gamers and their expectations.

Here are a few examples:

Santorini – $25.98 on Amazon

Santorini is a sharp game. It’s a very intelligent abstract strategy game in which you competitively build towers in an effort to be the first person to stand atop one. It’s a really simple concept that has all sorts of profound strategic implications. From its simplicity comes its complexity.

It has great plastic components – these neat towers that stack and give the game a great physicality. For goodness sake, the box is linen! Yet here stands for a mere $25.98 despite having really good components. What gives? Are they trying to be competitive with pricing? Is the manufacturing cost deceptively low?

I don’t know the answer for sure, but my belief is that they keep this game under $30 to attract the right audience. It’s considered a light game, and while it can accommodate 3 or 4 players, it’s really best for 2. The game doesn’t have the sheer grittiness or complexity that more hardcore gamers crave, but it has a light, poppy appeal that makes it a great gateway game. That’s why they price it under $30 – to keep it in gateway game territory.

Twilight Imperium – $109.99 on Amazon

Twilight Imperium is notoriously complex. It’s for 3-6 players and games routinely exceed 4 hours in length. The sheer amount of components can easily fill a large table. I lifted the box once in a gaming store, and I can swear its heavier than the stones I used to build the retaining wall outside my house. This game is a monster!

This game is huge – game length, player count, component count, and box size. The price tag merely reflects what the game is. Now, yes, Fantasy Flight does have to charge a lot of money to break even on all those parts. That’s true. This game, however, scratches a very specific itch for board gamers who love heavy games. That’s why they’re willing to drop a fat hundred bucks on it. Buyers perceive a great value in the game which justifies the three-digit price tag.

Ticket to Ride – $44.99 on Amazon

Ticket to Ride is an old classic. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably played it. It’s a great game. It’s what many gamers would describe as a “medium-sized game.” Appropriately, it is priced at a middle of the road price: $44.99. Anything $40-50 generally implies that a game takes about an hour to play, can entertain 2-4 people, and doesn’t skimp on components. All of these things are true for Ticket to Ride, and the price justifies this.

Pricing board games is about far more than simply breaking even on manufacturing costs. It’s yet another way to signal values to prospective customers. Board gamers are accustomed to looking at games, and have internalized an intuition about what to expect out of games priced in a certain way.

Have you ever bought a game because of the price tag? Have you ever walked away from a game because of the price tag? Share your thoughts, experiences, and questions below!

How Cons Can Help You Get Your Board Game into Retail

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If you want to get your board game into retail, you’ve probably heard the advice “go to cons.” But what exactly do you do at board game conventions? Why are cons so useful for getting into retail or even launching a Kickstarter?

We will answer these questions and more in this week’s post.

But first, Molly and her company are currently running a Kickstarter for The Million Dollar Doodle, a new creative party game. Check it out here!

Molly's latest game, The Million Dollar Doodle, is live on Kickstarter!
Use the hive-mind to design brands. Pitch your ridiculous companies.
Win a million dollar investment or crack up trying.

Molly Zeff cold emailed me about her board game, Wing It, which is in over 300 stores across the world. I don’t normally answer cold emails, but her story is just too good to leave untold. And that’s how we wound up on an enjoyable video call for over 2 hours!

Below, you will find an edited transcript of our video call, transcribed by Scribie. The original call was over 30,000 words in length but was so information-rich that I’ve split it into three posts of which this is the second. (You can read the first here and the second here.)

What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What exactly do you do at board game cons or trade shows?

Molly: It helps you get into retail if your product, you, or your company, is recommended by other retailers. So getting referrals is important and it’s something that can happen easily at a trade show like GTS, the Game Manufacturer’s Association Trade Show, since there are hundreds of retailers there.

For example, people meet you at GAMA or at another, regular board game convention, they see your game, and if they’re excited about your product they may spread the word to other retailers. A lot of the indie retailers are friends and just in general are a tightly-knit group. Although not as many retailers attend game cons in general, the same principle applies to Origins because Origins has a lot of the retailers from GAMA. Make sure you attend both GAMA and Origins!

Brandon: Yeah, that’s good advice.

Molly: Yeah. Look around for the retailers. Also, if you go to Origins, add a day because there are several board game stores in Columbus, Ohio. If you’re not full time in the game industry and you can add a day off work, try to do that. And if you’re ableto, you can even work a half day remotely and then go on store visits, because they’re more often open during the afternoon anyway.

And keep in mind that retailers will talk. Remember, that’s how we spread from about 11 to nearly 60 stores in four weeks in 2018. It was because the retailers played the game, in fact, a ton of us played it for hours one night at GAMA while retailers there also gave me advice, and then they spread the word.

I’m not saying that will automatically happen. Of course I can’t guarantee that, nobody can, but at least I had the experience of being together with retailers, and then they shared the story. Someone the next day had actually heard what happened the night before with all of us and said, “Oh, you’re Molly, you’re the one with the cheese. I’m going to buy your game.” It turns out one retailer had spread the word. 

And also be authentic. One of the retailers said, “You were authentic. That’s why we liked you, because you sat down on the floor at the bar and you had your cheese.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s just who I am, I want my cheese.” I really like cheese a lot. It’s one of my favorite foods.

Molly at PAX Unplugged 2019

The power of referrals in board game distribution

Molly: You can also do this a little more intentionally. I have a toy store in St. Louis, it’s one of our only toy stores, ’cause I don’t usually visit toy stores, and I found that early on I wasn’t selling too many of them. I was either told [occasionally] or was thinking that our product is a little above age level for these stores.

But guess what? Because we do well at this one toy shop in Boston, Boing! Toy Shop, and Happy Up, which is a toy store in St. Louis, I started talking to the toy store owner from Happy Up and I mentioned to her…

“We’re not really even trying to get into toy stores.” I told her about my trip to almost 70 board game stores in October and all that. And I hadn’t gone on my second Upper Midwest trip yet, and she had ideas about toy stores to recommend to me in the Upper Midwest, and also in D.C. She recommended specific stores, and when I visited those stores, I was able to say, “Shawnta’  from Happy Up in St. Louis actually recommended your store.”

I would even say that when I called in advance. “I’m a game designer and publisher, and Shawnta recommended your store.” And they would say, “Oh, I love Shawnta.” People knew who she was.

Brandon: That’s smart, yeah.

Molly's latest game, The Million Dollar Doodle, is live on Kickstarter!
Use the hive-mind to design brands. Pitch your ridiculous companies.
Win a million dollar investment or crack up trying.

Molly: ASTRA is the toy store world’s version of GAMA. And I thought they were going to be [geared towards an audience that was] too young for me. 

But the first two toy stores Shawnta’ recommended both bought products right in front of me. They made a decision on-the-spot. (That is not normal).

One owner ordered 12 (Wing It) right in front of me, another ordered 32 (of both games) in front of me. They just got on our website and just did it… So I learned, “Oh, there’s a new market I haven’t explored.” And how did I do that? By just chatting with a retailer [the one from Happy Up] and getting the idea that maybe toy stores could work.

Brandon: Referrals are one of the primary ways that I actually get business these days. If somebody is happy, they’ll tell a friend, and then that’s incredibly powerful. And when you’re talking about retailers, I can scale from 11 to 60, like you said, very, very quickly.

Just having somebody’s name to mention is a wonderful icebreaker.

Molly: Also, always collect business cards. Especially if you go to a place like GAMA, but really anywhere, always collect business cards for follow-up.

The biggest way we spread now, as I alluded to or maybe mentioned briefly earlier but didn’t get into much detail, is I go to a city or a region and I just try to cover as many stores as I can in that region. So right after Origins, I visited over 30 stores across Ohio in different cities. I would just look up “Canton board game store”, “Dayton board game store”, “Cincinnati board game store”, and I would figure out my plan from there using Google Maps. Then I also looked at nearby cities like Detroit.

It’s draining. It is really hard, and it’s draining, and I’m really tired on these trips sometimes. That’s okay. You put the work in, then you’re following up with over 30 stores.

Brandon: Yeah, ’cause a lot of times, you’ll just find a whole bunch of metro areas close to one another. It’s hard, in most parts of the US, to get more than two hours from one place to another without running into a major metro with over 100,000 people, which is enough to have a board game store somewhere.

Molly: Just to summarize [from all 3 parts of this blog series], we talked about how to get into stores by walking in the door for your very first stores, in cities you live in or cities have a connection to.

We talked about the GAMA Trade Show and spreading the word among retailers and really playing [games] with them and going to the bar at night and making friends. We talked about cold calling stores.

And then we talked about the personal connection and we talked about getting referrals. Lastly, I got a little into these really big regional trips

Brandon: This has been very good! I’ve got a single question left for you…

This is Molly visiting the store Vault if Midnight in Detroit during her tour of over 30 game stores after Origins, which took her all over Ohio, the Detroit metro area, and a little bit of northern Kentucky. She began going on more of these tours in 2019.

Parting words of advice from Molly

Brandon: What advice would you like to tell yourself when it all started? You go back in time, you get to give yourself one piece of advice, what’s it gonna be?

Molly: You’re going to make a lot of friends and so when it gets really hard, just remember you have these friends who are there to offer advice. That’s what I view it as, anyway, networking is making friends.

I would say it’s going to be really hard, it’s going to be tough and you’re going to have times when it’s financially a strain, it’s okay to pay yourself a little more than the minimal amount you could possibly imagine. And…

Gosh, it’s a really good question. It’s a really good question in that it makes me reflect on what I didn’t know.

And I would say it’s okay to call up the stores that are your friends and just schmooze a little and then see if they want to order. That’s totally fine to do. You’re building a relationship in the best cases that’s not simply a business relationship.

Yeah, also just to learn to take care of myself and to try to go to bed earlier on these big trips because that’s really hard. Getting enough sleep when you’re staying with people and they get up earlier is always gonna be a challenge. So I’m trying to say this with compassion to myself from two and a half years ago…

Reach out to people you can rely on when you need to rely on them, and try to be okay with being human with retailers.

Brandon: Yeah, people are surprisingly decent. You reach out to them with a big idea and most people will be, at a minimum, courteous. And some people will change your life in incredible ways that you can’t even comprehend at the time.

Molly: We do get a lot of advice, we also get support in ways I didn’t expect. One of the retailers I visited in October, who was one of our very successful retailers with Wing It, said to me when I was visiting his store, “Why are you doing Kickstarter?”, and I was like, “Well, because it has marketing benefits and we don’t just have $12,000 laying around.” And he said, “I can loan you the money. I can put $12,000 on my credit card.”

Brandon: Oh my goodness.

Molly: I’m still gonna run the Kickstarter, but he might be a backup plan. We don’t know for sure.

Brandon: That’s good to have, honestly. That’s good to have.

Molly: Yeah. [Back to your question], I think that I would tell myself to try to find ways to take care of myself ’cause it’s something I can do right now. And also just to drag yourself out of bed when needed.

I would tell myself that I have those days when it’s just… I’m really tired and I’m just not feeling super motivated ’cause I’m worn down or because I’m not feeling great or whatever. I would tell myself, “Just try to get up for one hour and just work hard for one hour and just see if that pushes you enough to go,” ’cause I could use that advice a lot.

Brandon: I have a technique for slow days. I call it “just write three words,” that’s all you have to do, you just have to open up WordPress and you just write three words and you can adapt this to anything you do. And it’s like starting small, like what you said, that works. I don’t even know how it does, it just does.

Molly: Yeah, I’ll say when I’m having those days maybe I get up and make three calls and I’m allowed to go back to bed if I really need to…

Brandon: Yeah, but by the time you get to that point, you won’t, it’s like, “Oh I don’t really wanna go running 2 miles,” and you actually get the endorphins and you want to continue it, that kind of thing.

Molly: I’d also say to remember that if I have someone to work with, that really helps. So that’s one of the hardest things, I’d say, of doing this full-time. I have my co-founder by phone, but that’s a little different, you know, by phone or by text. He also has a new baby.

Brandon: Yeah. That makes it hard.

Molly: So he’s launching a child and a new product around the same time.

Brandon: Oh goodness. I don’t know how these folks do it, because I’m engaged, I work a full-time job, I got family, I got friends, I’m like, I don’t know how these folks balance all that stuff, and they have a baby too, that blows my mind.

Molly: You have a partner in your fiancee and my partner has me.

Brandon: That is true.

I’ve asked all the questions I’ve got in mind. Is there anything else that occurs to you?

Molly: People can reach out to me if they need some coaching or support…

Brandon: Awesome.

Molly: And almost everything I said is replicable. I think that was the word you’d used originally;it’s all replicable except for the trips that I do. As I mentioned earlier, you can probably do almost everything else.

It’ll be challenging, and it’ll be hard on top of a full-time job, but if you’re making a game, you’re already doing that on top of a full-time job, so it’s just adding, you know, the sales work.

If you’re nervous about sales, don’t fret about it. Try it out and you’ll get better and it’ll become a skill. You get tougher and find ways to decompress whether that’s playing a rowdy song you like or reaching out to a friend about how hard sales is. You get one good win out of 10 calls, let’s say, or 20 calls, maybe you don’t sell any, and you just pick up and do it again. Just keep plugging through, ’cause you’re your own best salesperson.

Brandon: Pretty much, and yeah, by the time you start really feeling the impact of your work, that’s when things are truly snowballing.

Molly: There you go.

Final Thoughts

Molly has a lot to teach us about how to get your board game into retail, both directly and through distribution! Trade shows like GAMA are really important, as are referrals. Be patient, be persistent, and be kind to yourself. You’d be amazed how far you can go this way!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth, three-part interview! You can read the first post here and the second post here. You can back her current Kickstarter campaign for the Million Dollar Doodle here.

Now go forth and get stocked 🙂

Title photo credit: By dooley, posted to FlickrCC BY 2.0 license.