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Cracked LCD- The Kickstarter Carnival

The first Kickstarter project I ever funded was the revised black box edition of Glory to Rome. The idea was that the publisher, Cambridge Game Factory, had hired an actual artist (Heiko Gunther, a name to watch) to redo the whole thing since the original edition was one of the most notoriously ugly games on the market. Among the stretch goals was a signed apology from the first edition’s illustrator. I like the game- sort of an advanced San Juan-style tableaux builder with some decent interaction- so I felt like it was a good project to support. I finally received the game last week, after almost a year of excuses as to why the game had not been produced or shipped. Many backers still haven’t seen their games, and the excuses continue to mount.

I’ve only backed one other Kickstarter, and that was Road to Enlightenment. I’ve played several other board games that have gone through the crowdfunding process including Empires of the Void, BattleCon, and Lyssan. Uniformly, these games have been good to almost great, with every single one characterized by the same shortcomings. Apart from Small Box Games’ consistently great offerings that have gone through the process, they are all somewhat underdeveloped, underbaked, and unpolished at a rules and mechanics level. The quirks of inexpensive Chinese contract-job production are evident in many- box labels bubbling up and peeling away, strange moldy smells or dampness, and murky printing. And these are the games that have actually shipped. Who knows how the piles and piles of Kickstarter games in various stages of funding will turn out, but I’m betting “unprofessional” and “unfinished” are among the descriptors.

I know people love Kickstarter, and there’s this romanticized idea that it’s this kind of punk rock DIY way to get your board game (or video game) made. I love that idea too. But the punk rock DIY spirit isn’t a carnival-like atmosphere of shrill shilling, with banner ads hawking game projects left and right on major board game sites, promising ridiculous stretch goals to people who pay way, way too much for random games. Every time I see the Kickstarter logo, I just think of a carnie, barking their patter into a bullhorn, trying to get you into to see the Bearded Lady. And take your dollar.

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In an industry where you’re looking at worldwide sales figures of 5000 representing a very successful title, the idea that you can get people to pledge to support whatever otherwise unmarketable board game idea you have with zero financial risk is an appealing one. There are board game projects on there (and on similar sites) that are getting close to a million bucks in funding. Even established, long-standing hobby game publishers are jumping on the crowdsourcing bandwagon- and jumping off the traditional business investment one. It’s a smart marketing trick. I call it carpetbagging.

Kickstarter and the crowdfunding craze area perfect enabler for the board gaming world. Between the “Cult of the New” (gamers that wildly careen from new game to new game) and the “gotta catch ‘em all” consumerist mentality that sites like Boardgamegeek.com foster, it’s not exactly hard to part “backers” from their money- even if you don’t post a rulebook or have any evidence that you’ve ever designed, developed, and manufactured a board game before. Flashy art, a compelling title, and a popular concept like “zombies” are apparently all it takes to get fifty grand out of board gamers for your vaporware. Where the hell was all of this money in the hobby before Kickstarter?

There’s a gold rush mentality that has been going on since Alien Frontiers blew up, the first high-profile, high-dollar Kickstarter board game- not to mention video game projects that have just exploded in money. Alien Frontiers opened the floodgates, and now it seems like four out of every five new games that I see have a Kickstarter logo somewhere nearby. When I see that logo, my interest plummets- no matter how cool the game looks. Call me old fashioned, but I like for the $60-$100 board game I’m buying to be vetted and developed by a professional publisher that knows what the hell they’re doing. Experience counts, and so do taste and quality.

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There’s a lot to be said about someone like Zev Shalsinger or Christian Petersen selecting a game for publication and deciding to invest capital in its development and manufacture. That means something- that the company is taking a measured risk and is putting their money behind their product. Kickstarter games are asking YOU to invest YOUR capital into THEIR product. I’m sorry, but I think that’s kind of fucked up, regardless of this idea that the market is deciding what gets produced and regardless if “investing” just means that you get a copy of the game. It’s particularly fucked up when you’re buying games more or less sight unseen in the good faith that the game that you’re buying is actually going to be any good. Or even played.

There are other things that Kickstarter is doing that have changed the gaming culture. It’s created a greater sense of dilution, with more and more titles available or on the way. Yet I rarely see anyone talking about, playing, or discussing most Kickstarter games beyond some flurry that may occur around the time the game actually ships. There’s so many flash-in-the-pan titles I see come and go, and never hear from again- even if the game manages to make it into retail distribution. Accessories, expansions and reprints are starting to appear on Kickstarter, with the long out-of-print Vesuvius Incident showing up recently. It’s a game I would have bought from a retailer in a heartbeat. But I’m not backing it and if it doesn’t get printed then I’m sure I can find something else to do with my time and money. I didn’t even back the Ogre Kickstarter, and that’s one of my favorite games. I’ll gladly order it from my favorite online retailer when it gets into distribution- and after I hopefully do not hear about production issues or other disappointments. Stretch goals be damned.

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There are already so many great games out there that are barely played. Do we really need to be throwing our money at every “project” that comes along, in the vain hope of discovering some incredible new game that will last, what, six months in regular play rotation ? Or is the ratio of junk to jewels being skewed by the access to your gaming budget that Kickstarter affords armchair designers and the carpetbagging major publishers? Would we really miss the glut of zombie games, ersatz Euros, Space Hulk clones, and other ephemera if they didn’t get published?

I’m not saying that all Kickstarter games are bad or poisonous to good gaming- Tooth and Nail: Factions is a recent example of a really great on. Nor am I saying that there aren’t promising projects out there, or that I hate the DIY spirit and think it should all be “corporate” at all. What I’m saying is that I’m not backing the crowdfunding concept as a way to get high quality, well-designed games to the table in any kind of reliable way. I’m not trusting my money with someone who may or may not make a great game that I may or may not be able to ever play or even get rid of. Assuming that the game actually ships.

Now, that guy that is Kickstarting the salt-firing anti-bug shotgun- he may actually be worth backing.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

24 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- The Kickstarter Carnival”

  1. It’s over now, but because I love David Sirlin’s games, I’m going to pimp this anyway.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sirlin/puzzle-strike-3rd-edition-shadows-expansion

    This is how you do a board game Kickstarter right IMO. It’s not a new idea that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a revised edition of an existing game, plus it’s funding the expansion set for the same game. The stretch goals were awesome too. They got more stuff in the base box, which actually came from the fact that they did it before with a separate optional “upgrade pack” for the older edition of the game. Now it’s all included in one box. This isn’t a guy saying “I have this great idea really!” It’s an established designer saying “Look, we actually made a good game already, and distributed it. We want to make it even better now, and we know what we’re doing.”

    Not to start a Puzzle Strike vs. Dominion debate here, but Puzzle Strike basically fixes every issue I had with Dominion. I actually don’t care if I ever play Dominion again. One of his other games, Yomi, is a card game that simulates basically a Street Fighter match between two different characters. It is hands down one of my favourite duelling games ever, and a strategic rabbit hole if I ever saw one. It goes deeeeeeeep.

    1. Puzzle Strike is really good, I never actually reviewed it…but Yomi was one of my picks for GOTY 2010. Brilliant, tight design.

      I totally agree about what you’re saying with Kickstarting something established like that- it’s why I backed Glory to Rome. It makes more sense. You’re inviting people to effectively preorder an enhancement to what they already know and what has already been proven in the marketplace.

      What Small Box is doing with Kickstarter like the Omen upgrade is in this vein too.

      1. Yes, that sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would feel confident backing on Kickstarter.

        Side note: Awesome, another PS/Yomi fan! There needs to be more of us. My wife’s sister is a fucking card shark. The funny thing is that she has two other girlfriends that are even more brutal than she is. I need to get these girls to play Yomi. I bet they’d kick my ass.

        1. Yomi is definitely a card shark’s game. Watch out!

          You should take a look at BattleCon- there are some things that I think it does better than Yomi.

          1. I’ve heard of BattleCon. It definitely sounds intriguing. It looks like a pretty different experience from Yomi, though I think it’s interesting that they incorporated range into the calculations. That’s one thing Yomi lacks, though it makes up for it with heavy valuation of the cards in your hand and how much you should dump into a combo, for example.

  2. I’ve felt this way since GMT Games started doing P500 – if they don’t have faith enough in their game to produce it (and they *know* what it is like), why should I sight unseen?

    1. P500 is different though- you’re pledging to purchase, but they don’t charge unless the game goes into production. There’s also the surety that GMT is going to produce a game that is consistent with their product line, and they have a reputation for quality designs. They also go to great lengths to post materials to give you a sense of what you’re buying. And if you’re buying a Richard Berg game, you know what you’re getting into and you know that you will likely never play it.

      With P500, I see it more of a message that the company has a limited production budget and wants to ensure that they are producing what GMT customers want to buy- you’re not funding some crackpot game designer’s wack-ass idea or bankrolling someone’s first-ever attempt at designing a game and getting it manufactured in China.

      I’ve not ever really been against P500 like I am with Kickstarter…GMT also doesn’t aggressively market their P500 line outside of mailing lists and on their Web site.

  3. This is why my Kickstarter backings are from more established creators (Double Fine Adventure Game, for example). There’s a better possibility of getting a finished, quality product, and at least there is some accountability if that doesn’t get delivered. The only way I would back anything else is if they seem to have a lot done already, meaning you’re more likely to get a finished product, though its still a risk, I’ll admit. I probably wouldn’t have backed FTL if it didn’t seem like they had so much already done.

    This is why the only boardgame (or miniatures game, I guess) that I’ve backed so far has been Relic Knights. Its made by the company that made Super Dungeon Explorers, and they had a whole game session and rulebook posted before I backed it. Though I did get too drawn in to those damn stretch goals.

    1. Glory to Rome is an interesting case because it was from a established creator (Cambridge Game Factory) and it was an already designed, already well-known game. It SEEMED like the possibility of getting that finished, quality product delivered as promised was good. But that issue of accountability that you raise completely buried them.

      This is a game that was IN STORES before backers, who financed its manufacture, got it. I didn’t get mine until a full month AFTER it showed up at CoolStuff, at a 30% discount off of what I paid for it. Talk about a slap in the face.

      But who’s accountable? Nobody. CGF’s rare emails (they usually just posted to BGG) had this “aww, shucks guys” tone and it was excuse after excuse without anyone in their organization ever just flatly saying “hey, we fucked up, we got in over our heads, and to be dead honest we weren’t ready for this nor were we committed at a business level to it”. They completely pawned off the accountability. And there is no buyer’s recourse- no refunds. I tried. After about eight months, I didn’t care about the game and just wanted my $45 back. If I had gotten it back, I could have bought it at CSI and had enough for an X-Wing Core set to spare.

      So beware of that…I think you’re LESS likely to see that from a company like Double Fine…but who’s accountable if the games sucks?

      1. I never said there was much accountability in cases like that, just some. Tim Schaefer and Double Fine are well known in the industry, and if they put out a crappy product or don’t deliver, its going to hurt their reputation. Mind you, how much that’s worth is highly debatable.

        1. But their reputation in the industry, despite fan appeal, is already in the dumpster. Brutal Legend didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Tim Schaefer and Double Fine are not names that sell AAA games anymore.

          I loved Brutal Legend.

  4. Kickstarter is the wild blue yonder right now. Caveat Emptor. You have no recourse if the shit hits the fan. This is why I avoid it like the plague. Take it as a lesson learned and stay away from now on.

  5. I’m backing a few Kickstarter games right now; Damage Report, Mars Needs Mechanics, and Viticulture, all of which are ending in a few days. I don’t just give away my money for every project. I research the product, see if the creator has finished any other games, and if so, what kind of reviews they get. Pictures of prototypes, print-and-play copies sent to popular websites for preview, and an overall ‘professionalism’ determine if the project gets my backing.

    Anybody who throws their cash at the latest zombie-based thing is an idiot that deserves to be swindled. Have some standards and common sense. If the creator doesn’t seem reputable, then chances are they aren’t.

    1. But what about the example Barnes gives with Glory to Rome? How much more reputable does it get? The game was an already established hit with the only complaint being the artwork. I hear what you’re saying, and to each their own..but until there is some recourse for a poorly delivered product I wouldn’t even back Bill Gates on a Kickstarter project.

      1. It’s a bit of a flawed example because Cambridge Games Factory had a reputation for that kind of mess before this reprint. Which adequate research on the company would have turned up.

  6. The example of Glory to Rome is redundant. This is an established company that fucked up. They just happened to do it when they used Kickstarter. But they obviously had the potential to screw up and may well have done so when not using Kickstarter. It wasn’t the use of Kickstarter that caused them to mess up – they as a company did.

    Yes, there is the sense of dilution but it’s only a sense. It’s obvious when looking at the list of projects which are professional and which aren’t – just steer clear of those that aren’t. Also those that do get produced but aren’t that good won’t get to mass market and can be ignored – you don’t have to track every one!

    Established publisher = guaranteed quality game on time. Really?

    LIke all such ‘democratic’ processes, Kickstarter is going to ‘produce’ a lot of dross but there will also be the odd gem that comes through. Take how the internet diluted music as an analogy – plenty of dross but the gems still manage to get noticed. And in reality this is also true with the traditional publishing route – plenty of average (admitedly not terrible) with the odd gem.

    Game Salute also help to sift the wheat from the chaff.

    But as to your last statement of it being a reliable way to get those gems to the table? In the right hands, yes. In the wrong hands, no. But that’s true of anything.

    1. you are ignoring a vital part of the Glory to Rome issue. Using kickstarter caused CGF to take customer money waaaaay earlier in the process. CGF could have screwed up if they had used their own money to fund the new edition, but then they would be beholden to whatever creditors/stake holders they normally would.

      Since they used crowd funding, they were beholden to every backer who gave them 50-100$. and CGF didn’t treat them the same way a company would treat a stockholder or owner.

      1. This is big part of the problem with most Kickstarter projects. The person asking for your money is typically doing so BEFORE key milestones in the design, development, and production process.

        Another problem is that despite the “backer” nomenclature, the people giving their money to these beggars are not stakeholders, investors or, really, even “backers”. They’re people effectively preordering a vaporware product in the hopes that their money will get it produced. The whole “backer” concept is marketing in itself. It makes people feel like they’re investing, bankrolling creative projects, and participating in the process. All you’re doing is preordering. Usually with very little that’s concrete to base a purchase decision on.

        CGF certainly didn’t treat their “backers” as stockholders or owners…especially not with giving the game to retailers to sell at a discount months ahead of when “backers” recieved their game.

    2. That’s true Nigel, it isn’t necesarrily Kickstarter’s fault that CGF screwed up so spectacularly and the blame certainly isn’t with them. The blame is with CGF, and also the _process_ of Kickstarter and its inability to provide “backers” with any kind of security, insurance, or even a damn refund. It’s an accountability issue. With CGF, it was an established company so there’s a reputation. With all of these fly-by-night outfits throwing stuff on Kickstarter…who knows how many of those games will see the light of day and how many will be delayed a year, two years once they run into unforseen issues. And if you “backed”…you’re screwed.

      The smart Kickstarter marketers are VERY good at making it seem like their startup outfit is totally pro…it’s not hard in this day and age to put together some very professional-looking materials. I could post a Kickstarter project for my fabled board game Milch und Gherkin and do a bunch of really awesome looking graphics, talk about all of these stretch goals, and even post a picture of the factory where I will hand-assemble the games. But that doesn’t mean any of that is true, and that doesn’t mean that when it comes time to contract the job to the Chinese printhouse that will be making the game that I have any clue of what I’m doing.

      CGF made mistake after mistake and they’re a company run by people that were assumed to be professionals. But the man running the show has a “real” job that he was doing the whole time, and they made tons of mistakes in terms of logistics, shipping, printing…pretty much down the line.

      “Backers” trusted them, and got fucked.

      1. Yep, you’re right, crowd funding in the Kickstarter vein is open to be abused. There’s nothing wrong with the principle of crowd funding but the way it is implemented does mean backers could end up losing money if the project isn’t real or the creators of said project are incompetent (or worse). But a lot of decent projects (not just games) have come good as a result of it – projects which wouldn’t have materialised any other way. As with most things there’s good and bad but with Kickstarter does the bad outweigh the good?

      2. Count your blessing that you got the product. Poor Zeyez buyers are going on 18 months with no product or update.

  7. I played Alien Frontiers a couple times last night, once with the expansion. Fun game, I like it a lot. I got it through the AF expansion kickstarter. Clever Mojo sent out the core game almost immediately after the funding closed and the expansion took about six months from their projected date. They were apologetic and very forthcoming with updates throughout the process. If they put another project up on kickstarter I will at least give it a look. They’ve earned that in my opinion.

    Other decent kickstarter games I own/played; Cards Against Humanity (always a drinking party favorite), Sunrise City (Clever Mojo, meh), and D-Day dice. I didn’t get D-Day dice myself, and I don’t think I will, but I think it really turned out with nice game mechanics and good components.

    Bottom line, I rely on previous experience and expect delays before I commit to any kickstarter project. Maybe someday I will back one of the bajillion ipad cover projects.

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