Kickstarter vs. Retail: Distributing Your Board Game

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Kickstarter vs. retail: it’s an epic battle for the ages. We live in a world where over $165 million of the tabletop game industry’s $1.5 billion was raised on Kickstarter. Obviously, retail’s going the way of the dodo. So it goes.

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Not so. Retail is a lot bigger than Kickstarter, but Kickstarter is a lot flashier. In reality, both forms of distributing board games serve different purposes.

As someone who’s keenly interested in your motivations as a board game creator or business owner, I must confess there is no one-size-fits-all answer. How you respond to the matchup of “Kickstarter vs. Retail” is very dependent on your goals. For that reason, I’d like to weigh the pros and cons of both.

Kickstarter vs Retail

Kickstarter Distribution Pros

Let’s start with the obvious pros of Kickstarter. First and foremost, there are far fewer formal restrictions on what you can and can’t make. You can make products that wouldn’t fit in well in a traditional store. Kickstarter basically lets you create what you want as long as it doesn’t violate their Terms of Service and there’s a reasonably good chance you can fill orders.

Kickstarter also doesn’t restrict whether you can go to retail after the campaign. Many creators have launched their Kickstarter campaigns and wound up in retail stores later. You may very well take the same path.

If it were a battle of flashiness and attention-gathering, Kickstarter would win Kickstarter vs. retail. Retail has its advantages, and we’ll cover those later, but no one can deny the sheer rockstar excitement of launching a Kickstarter campaign.

Kickstarter Distribution Cons

Lest you think Kickstarter is a beautiful dream, let’s go over the ways it can be a nightmare. First, it’s an enormous amount of work. I have a 70-something article series on this site that’s been pulling in traffic for almost two years. That’s how much work it is to run a board game Kickstarter. This is not something to take lightly – it will eat up your free time, a lot of money, and you may have to sacrifice some other things you want.

“But that’s the cost of freedom, Brandon!” Perhaps, but a lot of time, freedom isn’t really what it looks like. Retailers report to customers, and if you go through a retailer then you report to them. Take the retailer out of the picture, sell directly to customers, and you report to the customers. The customers are your boss. They’re above you on the org chart.

While you can choose your customers by making different types of products, you will ultimately have to make a product that people want. For board games, that means making a game that a certain set of gamers wants to play. When you create a game for a specific demographic of gamers, that means you’ve achieved the holy grail of business: product-market fit.

Achieving product-market fit means tweaking components, arts, and gameplay to suit your audience. You have to match or exceed customer expectations. Retailers have to do this, too, but often it’s easier to figure out what you have to do to please them. They’ll either tell you outright or you take photos of their shelves and figure out what kind of products they sell.

Finally, there’s one last major issue with Kickstarter campaigns. When the campaign is over, you may lose your audience if you’re not careful. This is less on an issue with retail stores who can passively sell your games on an ongoing basis. Two years after you get into Barnes & Noble, you’ll still be selling games. Two years after a Kickstarter campaign, there will probably be no meaningful engagement on your project page.

Retail Distribution Pros

Once you’re in a retail store, you’re pretty much good to go. Some stores will buy inventory outright and some will buy on consignment. But in neither case will a purchasing manager buy something that’s not likely to sell. They are gatekeepers who are attuned to their markets’ desires.

When people see something in a physical store or even a big name retail store online, it makes it seem more legitimate. That means retail distribution is a good way to reach the “Never Kickstarter” crowd, which is bigger than you think.

Most importantly, you only have to please a handful of retailers to stay in business. You don’t have to deal with hundreds or thousands of gamers. You simply have to please a few retailers. Isn’t the simplicity a relief?

Retail Distribution Cons

Kickstarter is complex, but accessible to the masses. Anyone can launch a Kickstarter campaign, but not just anyone can get into a store. Unfortunately, retail distribution is managed by gatekeepers. You have to know who to talk to in order to get anywhere.

So how exactly do you get a hold of purchasing managers anyway? To tell the truth, it’s not hard but it does require finesse that most people don’t have. You have two options. Option one: find out who purchases games for the store you’re interested in and cold call or email. You put your best foot forward and potentially get the door slammed in your face. Option two: get a mutual contact to break the ice. If you’re well-connected and savvy with tools like LinkedIn or Twitter, option two is more attractive and accessible. If you’re not, option one is your fallback.

What do you say when you get them on the phone, though? Well, depends on who you’re talking to and which store it is, but there are some common throughlines. For one, they probably want you to finish the game. At the very least, you need a prototype and at the most extreme, you need the game printed and warehoused. Anything less and you’ll probably be ignored or brushed off.

Last but not least, each store has a different market and stocks different products. Your products must meet their market. Instead of on an individual level, you must achieve product-market fit on a store level. Otherwise, why would stores with tight margins spend valuable shelf space on you? The best way to figure out what works well in the store boils down to two methods. One, ask directly – starting with cashiers. Two, observe what’s already there and make something like that, but a little different.

Final Thoughts on Kickstarter vs. Retail

There’s no silver bullet. Kickstarter vs. retail is a question that must be decided on based on your needs and your business’s needs. By spelling out the pros and cons above, I hope you can make a more informed decision 🙂

2 thoughts on “Kickstarter vs. Retail: Distributing Your Board Game

  1. Very helpful article, thank you! In your experience, is it a smart strategy to use Kickstarter as marketing tool to attract retailers? I know that was certainly the case for some of the bigger success stories like Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens, but I also realize those are the exception, but not the rule.

    1. I’ve never used Kickstarter as a way to attract retailers. From what I’ve heard, retailers generally have reservations about Kickstarter campaigns. The time frames are long, the distribution is different than what retailers prefer, and so on.

      Now if you make a blockbuster like CAH or Exploding Kittens? All bets are off. They unambiguously showed massive market demand, which changes things quite a bit for retailers.

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