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Funding Your First Game

Daniel Zayas wrote this. I hate how long this is, and it isn’t long. It’s also not the only thing you should read. Read some books. Go wild! Just take this for what it is mostly as a brief primer on what I believe you should do.

Test your game. Play your game as many times as possible with as many strangers as possible. Be open to suggestions. Always ask people what they think should happen if there is a rules clarification. Your game will improve. Always try to collect an email.

When your game is finalized, pay someone who makes a living being an artist for art. Don’t skimp on this. Kickstarter is a visual medium. You will not do as well as you should if you skimp on professional art. Don’t be cheap. Support artists. Just pay for the damn art. Okay good, I think you got it.

Get a quote from at least three manufacturers. Make sure each of them understands the complexities of your game. If you have different versions of your game, don’t. That’s for future complicated projects. Get this one right first. Understand paper stocks. Understand wood. Understand boxes. Understand plastic. Metal. Whatever is in your game. Ask the manufacturer what you should be worried about and what you are not asking them. They should have more nuanced advice for you. If the communication is bad, the production will be bad. Run away.

Understand the pricing of your game. Understand shipping terms like ExWorks and Freight on Board and Delivery Duties Unpaid. Understand the estimated weights and dimensions per unit. Understand how many units the manufacturer plans to box into a case. Understand which ports are closest to the manufacturer.

Continue to play the game with as many people as possible. Digitize it on Tabletop Simulator if you have to. Make sure the game is always being played as often as possible with as many new people as possible. Continue to ask for emails.

Make three prototypes. The Game Crafter is pretty good for this, but Print and Play and countless others exist. Ask your manufacturers wh quoted the game who they recommend. Connect with Board Game Reviewers & Media on Facebook. Hire content creators, especially on Tabletop Backer Party. 😉 Pay them money if they accept it. Buy them coffee if they don’t. Treat them well and help them. It is worth it. You can have one content creator forward your game onto the next with prior notice of this arrangement. That is normal. Be normal, you weirdo. And be nice to media, for Christ’s sake.

Go into as many board game Facebook groups as you can find and talk privately with the admins about how best to market your game in their community. DON’T JUST POST ABOUT YOUR GAME IN THE GROUP. That’s dumb. You’re not dumb. You’re a polite and creative individual with a heck of game they want to hear about. Or maybe they don’t. If they don’t like you, run away. There are many communities.

Talk to pledge managers (such as BackerKit) freight forwarders, and fulfillment centers. With your understanding of your product weight and dims, get estimates for the minimum print run going to each destination you plan to ship to. Plan for all of them to go to the US. Then plan for all of them to go to the UK. Then plan for all of them to go to Australia. These are your three primary markets. Also, people in Canada are people. These are just estimates and ideas, but you will use these later to plan shipping estimates. Get advice from freight forwarders. Get advice from fulfillment centers. Get advice from pledge managers. Keep asking dumb questions. There are no dumb questions. If they are bad at communication, run away. There are plenty of services out there.

Build your campaign. Pay for a good and short video to use as the main video. The more entertaining strangers say your video is, the more likely you picked the correct length. Backers like to see half of the video as world-building and half as gameplay explanation. Just make your damn video. Be your charming and creative self.

The first thing someone should see in the campaign is the image that will make them buy immediately. If you don’t do this, then you are bad and you should feel bad. You’re not bad but definitely do this, please.

Nobody reads. Nobody reads. Nobody reads. Are you still reading? Yeah, ‘cuz my words are bad-ass. But under the context of purchasing things without regard to whether they need it, nobody reads. They just look at the shiny thing and click the back button. Use that to make people buy your game. Make your shit visually entertaining.

The next section should visually teach them how to play. Yay, shiny! But how do I use it?! This should be achieved in 5-10 steps, with each step showcasing components as you teach them the game. You are not teaching them the full game, just explaining the holy trinity: Who am I? Why is this fun? How do I win? Generally, you will link them to a how-to-play video and a rulebook and the tabletop simulator version here.

The next section would normally be all the pledge levels. If you have kept this simple and made one pledge level, this is more of a list of components. Make the components as big as they need to be for people to see them easily. Fuck scale. Make sure they understand each component.

The next section is usually the stretch goals. I hate stretch goals so I am not going to teach you about them. But know they exist and if you want to use them, just don’t cuz they suck and are fake.

The next section is explaining that you are not the only fan of your game. Here are a bunch of people who say this game is rad. You should have quotes from people by now, both official media and otherwise.

The next section is shipping. You have estimates now. Use those and explain the actual cost of shipping. DON’T SUBSIDIZE SHIPPING. You charge every penny of shipping and don’t feel bad about it. There are people who think that is wrong. I don’t care. This is my post. Whether you charge in the campaign or via a pledge manager is up to you. There is no right answer, just don’t shortchange yourself.

Be sure to throw a shout-out to retailers here and give them a way to reach out to you. I am not going to teach you here how to sell to retailers. Just know that if you do not price your product correctly, you will not be able to offer them their expected margins.

The next section is the team. Wait, you did this by yourself? Fuck off. You have an artist, you have a game designer, you have a list of repeat playtesters who should be recognized. You have possibly brought in some freelancers to help with marketing and communication and logistics.

The next section is Risks and Stuff. Talk about all the work you did by following the advice you read here and thank me personally because I wrote this for you and I enjoy the attention.

Anything outside of the sections I listed above, just be really cautious. Nobody reads, and better yet, nobody scrolls. They don’t care about all the extra stuff. You want to quickly get backers the information they need to make an educated purchase decision. That’s it.

When you launch, just send an email telling people who played your game that they can buy it. Tell the communities you are a part of that they can buy it. Talk about all the famous media people who loved your game. As you fund or not, always be respectful and positive, especially when communicating to backers and the gaming community at large. If you don’t fund you can try again later. It’s all good. No money is wasted if it means another person got a chance to hear about or try your game. Just try your best and then if you fail, try again.

3 Old-But-Good Engagement Hacks

Mid-campaign slumps are for chumps! All kidding aside, sometimes posts like these will come from the random interactions I have with the gaming community. I hope they are helpful or at least entertaining.

I was hanging out in the Infectious Play Livestream, as I normally do most Wednesday mornings. Today’s topic was to discuss your favorite stretch goal reveals. True to form, the conversation wandered off-topic (in the best ways possible), and I got to be a smarty-pants Kickstarter historian. Within the conversation, we discussed a few engagement hacks in campaigns that I think were not widely adopted afterward, but are still relevant opportunities to excel in crowdfunding.

1. Let Backers Decide Content

In 2017, Dead Man’s Doubloons had an interesting approach to the game’s final form by allowing backers to vote on BoardGameGeek which direction the campaign’s pirate map would lead them, and which stretch goals would be unlocked as a result. This served a few purposes. Backers were constantly re-engaging with the campaign, championing their pick in fun, rivalrous discussions in the comments. Also, because the polls were hosted on their official BoardGameGeek game page, it served as an organic traffic booster, benefiting them on the front page of many BoardGameGeek users while the campaign was live. Involving backers in the creative process instead of tying their commitment purely to monetary goals is a great thing for you to try in your campaign.

2. Flash Goals

Somewhere in the vast archives of the Internet, there is a remark from me about how I thought this next hack is a terrible idea. The risks, although true, vastly paled in comparison to the benefits, and I am happy to say I was wrong in dismissing the approach.

In 2018, Jordan Draper launched the Tokyo Series campaign. In this project, Jordan launched what we would eventually call Flash Funding Goals or more generally Flash Goals. Tied to the amount of time it takes to reach a certain goal, backers could directly influence a major upgrade to all games. In the Tokyo Series campaign, the goal was to upgrade all games with metal coins if they made $50,000 in 72 hours. They more than achieved that goal, and Jordan went on to raise more than $250,000 in that campaign.

Now, I will reiterate my original complaint that there is a risk present. Reaching the goal or not will set the pace, good or bad, for the remainder of the campaign. But in most cases, the benefits of the organic evangelizing and the flexibility afforded in some campaigns have made this a non-issue in practice.

From what I have learned of Skybound’s Wonderland’s War campaign (not yet launched at the time of publishing), you will have a chance to see this method in realtime.

3. Planned Narrative Reveals

This last one won’t work for every campaign, but in some ways, I wish it were universal.

Many moons ago in my Eagle-Gryphon days, we started down the path within campaigns of addressing backers “in-character” based on whichever game we were crowdfunding that week (yeah, that many). The person in charge of writing updates at the time also happened to have a degree in English, so creative writing was a great fit and the backers had a lot of fun with those updates, even to the point of tricking some fans into thinking the company had been ruthlessly acquired by a corporate overlord, as reflected in some social media hijinks.

I remember us getting in trouble for that one, but I still believe it was worth it.

Later, I went down an animation narrative path with my own When Cutie Met Patootie. Even within an arguably abstract game, I was able to build a universe through video chapters revealed each week of the campaign. I’m not sure if it led to more sales as the campaign struggled regardless, but it was a fun creative and collaborative effort that I reflect on even today in my campaign planning.

Have no fear. All of this is leading to a method I think worked better than the other two and something I encourage you to try out.

A few months later, James Hudson experimented with similar storytelling reveals in the Guardian’s Call campaign, first releasing an animation for the lead character, then following up with some written/artistic narrations of the other characters. This was further developed into what we now know as The Narrative Reveal System, debuting in the Tidal Blades campaign. The system is such that a creative story in the universe is told via sometimes daily updates. The updates explain seamlessly within the narration a number of things, such as game concepts, stretch goals, added content reveals, or component upgrades.

I imagine we will see something similar in the campaign for Wonderland’s War.

Wow, Skybound is getting a ton of love in this post. It makes sense, given that Ian Moss, one of the guys in the live stream, is one of the game designers. In any case, I hope this post was helpful and you go out and experiment in crowdfunding.

3 Ways to Charge Shipping in a Crowdfunding Campaign

There is generally some confusion in how to charge backers shipping, and which one will best serve a specific campaign. I will propose three solutions that are most commonly used.

1. “Free” Shipping

Free Shipping as advertised in a campaign is anything but. However, backers enjoy seeing this not just for the perceived savings, but that they will be charged once, they see the final price, and their lives are made simple in the transaction, the goal of many campaigns.

This shipping method is arguably the riskiest and most difficult to get right due to a number of reasons. Firstly, you are gambling with your production timeline as shipping rates do adjust over time. What is true about your shipping estimate today may not be true tomorrow. Secondly, you are sacrificing a percentage of the shipping costs to the platform, arguably not making the most profit per backer you could be by using other shipping charge methods. Thirdly, you are technically subsidizing shipping costs into your MSRP this way, usually unevenly. This means that even though shipping goods to the Philippines is sometimes more costly than to the US, for example, customers are paying the same cost.

I say all this because I do want to highlight at least one company that has made it work, at least partially so.

Good Games USA has prided itself on establishing direct connections to fulfillment partners in the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. For the Guild Master campaign, this allowed them to more easily bake the shipping cost into the cost of a pledge. Thinking about the margins they would otherwise lose in traditional distribution (50-60%), plus the marketing allure of “free” shipping, I imagine this is a net positive for their debut of new products via crowdfunding.

2. Separate Shipping in the Campaign

Another common way to charge shipping is via the crowdfunding site’s native tools. You can build a shipping chart per pledge level that, at least on Kickstarter, will be a secondary dropdown shown to backers when they click on a given pledge.

Early in the days of crowdfunding, this was accepted as the default way to charge shipping and people used it without a lot of thought into alternative methods. Since then, thought leadership has progressed the conversation to cite this as the worst method of the three options listed here. While you maintain the benefit of charging once for each backer within the campaign, you still have to deal with sales and logistics problems around the method.

As mentioned in the method above, you will play a timeline game if you charge for shipping within the campaign. Shipping rates adjust periodically each year and you will potentially lose a lot of money as the rates adjust. Secondly, a lot of backers today will feel tricked by a pricepoint advertised when a different price is shown to them after shipping is automatically added to the pledge right as they are backing. Lastly, you are still being charged the percentage by the platform, increasing your shipping costs or eating into your profits per backer.

There are companies today who make this method work. I think this option is best used by small-box games, where a $15-20 pledge and the additional $5-10 in shipping still feels like an inexpensive buy overall.

3. Off-Platform Secondary Charge

In recent years, the focus for most publishers has shifted away from barely funding a project to thriving in a crowdfunding environment.

Today, numerous pledge management services exist, such as BackerKit, PledgeManager, CrowdOx, and Gamefound, to name a few. These services allow for robust custom order forms for backers beyond what native platforms offer, so backers can more easily buy add-ons and secondary products post-campaign. Pledge management services also allow backers to pay as they are able within a much longer timeframe for the items they want.

While a publisher’s products are being finalized and manufactured, they can continue to make sales of that product. Depending on the platform you use, you might actually save costs per sale on the shipping amount charged to backers, compared to crowdfunding platform native percentages.

Whichever option you choose, just make sure to do as much research as possible when it comes to internal shipping costs. It is one of the more difficult things to properly plan in a crowdfunding campaign.

Marketing Your Crowdfunding Campaign in 2020

At the end of every year, I do a look ahead to the future and see how I can help creators make a big splash in crowdfunding. Here’s what I think you should prioritize in 2020 when it comes to marketing.

1. Explore Under-Represented Narratives

In 2019, I was routinely asked if I was supporting the such-and-such game campaign and the unfortunate answer was generally no. In fact, I probably supported a tenth of the number of campaigns in 2019 that I was all-in on in 2018. That is not purely due to the growth in the number of campaigns or fatigue or personal tastes. I just wasn’t inspired by the majority of stories being sold to me.

Theme and art are truly the gateways to your crowdfunding campaign. That is not a new phenomenon. The problem in 2019 is that things got to be same-y. There are numerous examples of this if we look at themes broadly. A friend recently shared a VICE article discussing how strategy games have held on to Western Civilization’s colonial definition of “progress.” This arguably racist and ethnocentric model has grown to be both a problematic narrative culturally, but also a tired and uninspired look at the genre and its predominant mechanisms. Purely as a pragmatic approach, you should be looking in 2020 to sell theme and art that looks at the world (even an imagined one) from a fresh perspective.

Let’s take the often-remarked saturation of zombie themes in tabletop games as one example. I don’t feel this way, but many do, so it is worth discussing. I don’t know of many tabletop games which explore the perspective of the zombies themselves, or of alternative histories such as neolithic zombies, or of popular culture IPs like Pinocchio the Zombie (think about it from a Frankenstein reanimation perspective). Zombies in the examples above are just one opportunity for new perspectives.

A few crowdfunded game titles come to mind in this regard. Spirit Island by Greater Than Games is hailed for its interesting use of anti-colonial themes. Scythe by Stonemaier Games is the often celebrated alternate history game combining industrial farming and sci-fi mechs. Ascensum by Sprama Game Labs is a campaign launching in 2020 where you are the Lovecraftian cultists and are working together to bring about the end of the world. You can accomplish the same flipping and reimagining of common tropes and perspectives within sci-fi, or pirates, or even historical games. Get creative with thematic hooks to drive traffic to your game concept organically. It will be the number one thing you accomplish to market your campaign in 2020.

2. Train Your Audience

One thing Tabletop Backer Party has pioneered in social media is this idea of tailored daily content and weekly shows. I can tell you now that the group has grown and thrived under this structured content plan. As a seasoned member of the group, you always know to expect Mail Mondays, or Tabletop Tuesdays, or an episode of Tatiana Art on Tuesday nights. As a new member of the group, you have an easier entry point to engage with the community. This is not an accident. It is vastly more important to building a community where members expect to see content on a schedule and then you deliver on those expectations or go beyond them. Today, board game groups run by publishers are not doing enough to solicit routine engagement in their communities, and structured daily content can help. I hope this idea will further cement itself into publisher marketing strategies in 2020.

Here is a really great example from someone I admire, but could also improve in this regard. Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games does a weekly livecast every Wednesday morning from his publisher page and other regular weekly offerings via his blog and YouTube. Where this quality scheduled content hasn’t yet translated into his business routine is in his various Facebook Groups dedicated to each of his company’s games, such as the Wingspan Board Game group. I imagine even having not read this we might have seen more weekly tailored content surrounding those communities in 2020, but it is worth mentioning that even the best of social media publishers have not yet made this a priority. Look for creators doing planned fun things in their various communities to keep backers involved and interested.

3. Personal Interactions

In 2019 I asked people how many events they attended marketing their game. I asked how many emails they acquired, how many Facebook likes their posts regularly accumulated, how many people were in their special Facebook Group, how many Retweets.

In 2020, I am shifting that question to, “With how many people have you had a direct positive connection today for your game?”

Social media in large sectors have started to become more private and direct. Whether you look at Facebook Messenger user growth with brands, Direct Messages being used as marketing strategies on Kickstarter, Snapchat, Instagram Stories, Tik Tok Live, etc., people care about access. They want direct access and the immediate special connection that only direct access can provide. They want a memorable moment akin to the experiences they have at the gaming table joking with friends. How you do that can range widely, although spamming your game website URL to your Facebook friends list is not at all what I intend for you to get from this tip. Here is one great example from a friend.

Marshall Britt of Leder Games and Yanaguana Games has filmed a public Monday Mug Mentions for about a year now every week on his personal Facebook page. He doesn’t actively publicize it, but it is publicly available to his non-friend followers for viewing and engaging. In most of these videos, Marshall just talks about the things in the games industry he wants to discuss, sometimes while playing Crokinole. He regularly repeats what people are commenting on in the video and responds to those comments, making the viewers’ personal experiences special and engaging. When Leder Games or Yanaguana Games has official announcements, those just happen to be the organic content he wants to discuss, further marketing those brands in a special and personal way that isn’t really repeatable in a mass email.

Another great example is the I’d Back That Kickstarter series by Gloryhoundd. In this show, Gloryhoundd, Dr. Gloryhogg, and Greg Dickson show off the latest Kickstarter game campaigns and discuss whether they are backing it. Many times you can catch them comparing the cost of a game to the relative cost in Chipotle burritos.

4. Why Buy Now?

One of the biggest hurdles you will face in a 2020 tabletop game campaign is that people assume your game will eventually be sold in physical game shops or online for cheaper than they would otherwise back it. This is largely due to the largest and most popular games eventually making it to those sales channels for cheaper than they sold on the original crowdfunding campaign. Unfortunately, selling in traditional retail channels could not be further from the truth for most people crowdfunding today. But perception is the reality online, so your only choice is to make your campaign a must-attend extravaganza. I don’t have the answer to how you make a spectacle of your specific crowdfunding campaign, but I hope you have fun with the idea that you must create one.

One piece of advice I can offer here is that the answer in 2020 is probably not related to how you present stretch goals.

Some of the most interesting uses of stretch goals in recent memory began as 48-hour exclusives. In an effort to fund more quickly, creators offered a component or benefit exclusively to backers who supported them within 48 hours of the campaign launch. In 2018 and 2019, creators did a lot of experiments with how stretch goals were presented, from branching choices voted on by backers, to embarrassing social tasks recorded for backer entertainment. Flash funding goals were a strategy where creators advertised that all games would be improved in some big way if the funding goal was reached within a certain period of time, usually 24 or 48 hours. Most recently, the Car Wars Sixth Edition campaign set up pre-funding goals, where future backers would unlock content and upgrades by doing social tasks before the campaign launched.

Now, it is no secret that I dislike stretch goals. I think they are mostly made up when considering the newest creators, and detrimental to the manufacturing and fulfillment process for experienced ones. Most newer creators are not funding dramatically enough to warrant significantly larger print runs. So the units stay relatively as planned +/- 500-1000 units, and no “scale of economy” exists to justify stretch goals. Larger creators are negatively impacted by timelines and even manufacturing capabilities when they overshoot their ambitions for a grandiose game experience via stretch goals and consistently miss their desired fulfillment dates.

Monolith recently posted about their reworking of stretch goals in future campaigns to discount the game via monetary credit in the pledge manager instead of expanding the game content. Their reasoning was that crowdfunding campaigns are so delicately balanced that traditional upgrade and expansion stretch goals actually damage the company and their ability to deliver the final product. Retail typically expects a 50 percent discount or more if you use a distributor. So from the publisher’s perspective, Monolith would not be as damaged financially to offer a 5 percent or 10 percent discount direct to backers as an incentive, especially on a monumentally successful crowdfunding campaign. This would also not hurt their timeline for delivering the games to backers.

The problem with the Monolith strategy (in my opinion) is that crowdfunding has always been a social event. Being at the launch party always been as important as the product being purchased. It’s why book signings exist, and why red carpet events exist, and why Red Bull is handing out free cans at Gen Con. Spectacle sells, and a 5 percent discount is not inspiring to most backers. The people who were always going to buy the product are there, but no new blood will be injected due to a 5 percent discount as the primary benefit. I’ve never made a purchase decision, on Kickstarter or otherwise, on that basis.

That’s a long way to say don’t focus on stretch goals as your primary marketing footprint in 2020. Here’s a different strategy that I think will pay off.

5. Video Video Video

This is something that I will probably repeat until forever, not just a 2020 marketing guide. You need to have your product regularly shown to people in video format. That isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s mandatory. You need preview content, commercial videos, playthroughs, interviews, and other creative content surrounding your game. And in crowdfunding campaigns, guess what? You the creator are also part of the product. So it is important to tell stories that inspire people to support you and your game in 2020 via livestreams or prerecorded content, hopefully featuring you the creators of the project. Here is an example late into 2019 from Unsettled. While they didn’t get a lot of preview media prepared in time for the launch, this video is currently being celebrated in board game communities as one of the best examples of a great Kickstarter video in 2019.

“But I am not photogenic! I’m awkward and I can’t words good!” I want to point you to the amazing marketing and social media team at Big Potato Games. Specifically, their Tik Tok channel and their loveable potato stuffed mascot. You can learn a lot from watching these videos even if you don’t currently use the platform, notably the future forms of short-form storytelling being used by gaming brands. Your potential for video marketing in 2020 is only limited by your imagination, not your personal appearance or on-screen acumen. If you do use the Tik Tok platform, follow me (no apologies for the dancing)!

6. Have Fun!

Whichever way you decide to market your crowdfunding campaign in 2020, know that you have supportive communities and resources available to you. I regularly recommend Board Game Spotlight, Board Game Exposure, Board Game Design Lab, Misfits of Tabletop, Solo Board Gamers, Board Game Reviewers and Media, and Tabletop Backer Party as the best communities run by the kindest people currently available to crowdfunding creators. Additionally, if you are not already consuming and supporting the Tabletop Backer Party Shows: Backstage with Bebo, Tatiana Art, The Breakdown, and Theme First, or educating yourself through the Stonemaier Games Kickstarter Blog, the Board Game Design Lab Podcast, and the late great James Mathe blog, I encourage you to dive into all of that great content.

Reach out to gaming communities and figure out what they are excited about. Make friends and connect to people and your 2020 crowdfunding campaign is more likely to be a success. Most importantly, have fun. See you all in 2020.