A tracking email. A ring of the bell. A knock on the door. The Kickstarter box(es) being prised open to find all the brilliant board game goodies that you’ve been patiently waiting for. There really is nothing like it. The feeling of elation, curiosity, excitement. Backing Kickstarters can be really rewarding and grant you exclusive content that is a completionist’s dream. However, crowdfunding is not foolproof. It is a big commitment from you, the backer. Whether you are new to Kickstarter or a veteran pledger, you need to make some big considerations before handing over your money.
To Back or Not To Back?
Crowdfunding can be a daunting and uncertain world. Will you get what you were expecting? How can you trust that the project will go ahead, even if fully funded? Is the game going to be any good when you get around to playing it? The fact is you cannot guarantee that your Kickstarter campaign will have a happy ending. The sole responsibility for the fulfilment of the Kickstarter project belongs to the project manager. Kickstarter insists that the project manager must do everything they can to fulfil the pledge. Yet there have been times where this has not happened; the project fulfilment has ground to a halt and backers have been left empty handed. I’ve had friends who have been in this position and it sucks. Does this mean that you should avoid Kickstarters altogether? Absolutely not.
The Perks of Kickstarter
Kickstarter helps board game manufacturers create and distribute new games at a scale and variety that was unprecedented a couple of decades ago. I would go as far as to say that the “Golden Age” of board games would not have been so successful without Kickstarter to help board game designers bring their ideas to fruition. The fact is Kickstarter is all about risk-reward. You offer to fund someone’s project in the hopes that it is realised. If it is, you get your reward for helping the project get off the ground.
When to Back Away...
The key to avoiding situations like those above is to manage that risk and select those projects that present as little risk as possible. When I am looking at a Kickstarter that I want to back, I have high expectations of those running the project. If they do not make the grade, then I protect my interests (and pockets) and move on without pledging. As a result, I haven’t had any mishaps so far and all my Kickstarter pledges have led to fulfilment. There were hiccups, and I’ll talk about those too, but first let me share with you what I look for before backing a Kickstarter.
WHAT Does the Campaign Look Like?
When it comes to games, it can be all too easy to judge a book by its cover. “All style and no substance” is something that I am always at risk of falling prey to and, I must admit, I have fallen for it in the past. For that reason, it is important to add this caveat: just because the game looks gorgeous does not mean it plays well. Just because the campaign is flashy does not mean that those running it are competent.
Putting the 'Art' in 'Kickstarter'
Personally, I find artwork is a big deal for a few reasons. When game designers invest a lot in the look of their game, it shows that they really care about it. Take Ben Bauchau’s work for the zombie-pocalypse game Until Daylight, for example. The unique artwork captures the dynamic movements of the characters and their rugged appearance as they adapt to a dystopian, apocalyptic zombiverse. The art brings the game to life. It also shows how the creators want to make an atmosphere around their game through its superb presentation. Other games that caught my eye for that same reason were Oceans and Grimslingers: Northern Territory. I enjoy playing a game that is aesthetically pleasing to me, though a truly great game can make me ignore the fact that I don’t like the imagery. Aesthetics are not the be all and end all and they certainly aren't top of everyone’s list. Nonetheless, artwork is something that I consider.
Presentation does not just mean artwork, either. It also refers to the components. What is the quality of casts looking like (if the game includes minis)? Do they have prototypes printed or produced for you to look at? Tiny Epic Quest did an exemplary job of this, presenting us with the adorable and innovative “itemeeples”, including demonstrations of how they worked and prototypes to show how they were designed. The components need to be up to scratch, otherwise the game can feel off. I know this sounds a little odd (perhaps pedantic), but if a game uses plastic components when wooden ones would have worked better, or vice versa, it can really impact the enjoyment some people have of the game. (The pieces in Dragoon, for example, are great).
The Campaign Itself
Materialistic desires put to one side, a much more practical (and arguably more important) point to consider is how the campaign itself looks. Is it easy to understand? Can you navigate the various bits of information alright? What kind of information is included? What’s missing that might seem important? I’ve been on Kickstarter campaign pages where there was precious little information about gameplay (some where the game rules weren’t even finalised yet). Sometimes, there is some information about pledge levels and artwork, but few – if any – reviews about the game.
On the other hand, I’ve seen some games on Kickstarter where the campaign was arranged well and very clear. Sometimes, through learning more about that game, I found it too similar to one I already owned. Other times, it wasn't what I originally thought it would be like. The point is, if the campaign page is missing information and/or seems hurriedly or carelessly put together, it is a good indicator to us that the campaign manager(s) might not be as invested in the game as I’d like. More information about the game can be found in the comments, of course. This can assuage some fears about a lack of information, and I’ll have something to say about that shortly.
Stretch goals are sometimes a divisive aspect of Kickstarter campaigns, like Early Bird pledge tiers. I have backed campaigns that explicitly chose not to include stretch goals. I still find that stretch goals can make a big difference to how the campaign looks; that is to say if the campaign offers a lot to its backers by way of stretch goals, I am more inclined to give them a pledge. So, it is also worth seeing what the stretch goals look like, if any. I have had to avoid some games, despite superb stretch goals and add-ons, working to overcome the fear of missing out and taking into consideration the rules, for example (more on that later). The point is, stretch goals aren’t everything, but they can be a great motivator if other aspects of the game and its creators are already looking good.
For now, let’s say that the game appears to look great. The artwork is superb, the components look good and the campaign is well-organised. Excellent, we can put a tick next to how the campaign looks. But before you type in your card details, there’s more to consider.
HOW Does the Game Play?
Of course, before you back a game, you must determine if it is one you would play. This might seem like a no-brainer, but trust me when I say that games which look like sure winners can sometimes turn out to be dust gatherers that never hit the table. I’ve fallen foul to a couple of games like this. They seem as though they will be superb additions to the collection, but the rules are too confusing or convoluted, or the set-up is far too arduous to go through it often, or the actual gameplay turns out to be painfully boring.
The Beauty of Video Reviews
In my experience, a good Kickstarter campaign will have reviews and, better yet, review videos. The cynic in me tends to take the starred reviews featured on the page with a pinch of salt. A review video, however, is what I’ll lap up for sure. The great thing about review videos is that you get to see how the game works. I believe that knowing how a game plays is such an important part to figuring out whether it’s right for you.
Does the theme work for you? Is the theme worked into the gameplay? Is it soloable/co-operative/competitive? How do players interact? What does the setup look like? What kinds of mechanics are involved? Review videos usually answer all these questions. I check the videos out and listen to what the reviewers have to say. Any campaign that has a few gameplay or review videos gets a big plus from me. Even if I find that the game isn’t to my liking, I am still grateful for having the chance to hear about the game.
I remember a Kickstarter campaign with a beautiful looking board game. The minis were exquisite, the aesthetic was fantastic, and the campaign seemed well-run. When it came to a review video, however, there was postponement after postponement. The same, too, for a gameplay video. In the end, I found out that there couldn’t be a reliable review video or gameplay video because the rules had not yet been finalised. Alarm bells were ringing. I didn’t go through with the pledge as they were working on rules right up until production. There was no way to know what game I was going to get. (I later gave in and purchased the game and, sadly, discovered that I was right to think it wouldn’t play well.)
A Sucker for the Rules
Some campaigns will also share rules as part of their campaign. This is a godsend as it allows you to figure out right away if the game is what you were expecting. At the same time, it also lets you know that you are backing something that has been play-tested and developed to a point of completion, meaning you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Read the rules and familiarise yourself with the game. This way you’ll know all about set-up, gameplay and mechanics – key things to know before making a pledge.
Print & Play is sometimes offered by campaigns, and these are another resource for figuring out how the game works and, most importantly, whether it works for you.
You’ve checked out a couple of videos and the game seems fun. You’ve read the rules and found them straightforward and interesting. Couple this with the way the campaign is mapped out and how the game looks, and it seems as though you have a great looking game that is fun to play which is being driven on by a caring campaign team. However, it is still important to find out a little more about who that team is and what they are like with their backers.
WHO is Making the Game?
When it comes to backing new games, it’s important to know the history of the company or companies running the Kickstarter. A well-run campaign can often hinge on whether those who are running it take care of their backers. A great way to find out is to look at their history of campaigns, their social media and try to find the answers to some important questions. Have they run Kickstarter campaigns before? How did those campaigns perform? Did they deliver the game to backers on time? How well do the campaign managers communicate with the backers?
First Time Lucky?
If a campaign is being run by a newer company or if it is their first campaign, I think it is fair to go into the Kickstarter with caution at first. I’ve backed Kickstarters where the people running it had never made a board game before and have been really pleased with how they handled the crowdfunding process and production of the game. A games producer being new to the scene is not a reason to avoid backing, in my opinion. That wasn’t always the case, of course! There were some campaigns I avoided, not because it was that company’s first game, but because their communications were not always positive, were infrequent and/or indicated a lack of experience that was worrisome to me.
I find it important to know how the creators have done in the past and how well they interact with their backers, as this is a good indicator of what their performance will be like when delivering the game and in the communication following the end of the Kickstarter.
Like, Follow, Subscribe
Social media is a good way to judge the campaigners' investment in their game. You want their belief in their product to be obvious in their interaction and encouragement with their (potential) backers. Games like Dinosaur Island didn’t just look good, they had a really friendly and positive team, Pandasaurus. They spent time promoting the game’s Kickstarter on social media and sharing a lot of information with their backers.
So, the campaign team is communicative, supportive and informative. They show real passion for their game and they look as though they’re going to do what they can, experience or not, to make the production happen for their backers. Do we go for the game yet? Maybe, just one last thing to bear in mind before you put in your pledge.
WHEN Will you Have the Game?
This question is very subjective. It basically boils down to: how long are you willing to wait for your pledge to be fulfilled? I found that I was waiting years for some games. Sometimes there were unavoidable hold ups; at other times the products were slow coming due to mismanagement. Gamelyn Games have always been punctual, and I’ve backed games by other producers that are still being produced in the time it takes for us to back a Gamelyn Games board game and receive it!
The production and distribution of a Kickstarter is, in my experience, never a sure thing as far as timing goes. Something goes awry in the factory; the shipping gets caught up in some bureaucracy in a port somewhere; the Chinese New Year coincides with the game production, slowing things down. Uncertainty surrounding delivery times is part and parcel of Kickstarter. Some experienced producers know how to fulfil pledges quickly, but many fall foul of hold ups and setbacks.
So, to Back or Not to Back?
The key takeaway here is to accept that backing a Kickstarter project means that you will need to wait for your game. Sometimes – though thankfully not often – setbacks will leave you waiting for a long while, even years. Be prepared to wait! Hope that the campaign managers are experienced enough to get the game produced and sent to you promptly. If their estimates are realistic, then that helps. To figure out whether or not they are, try looking at other Kickstarter campaigns, including past ones by the campaigners if they have any, and figure out whether it seems reasonable.
When it comes to Kickstarters, there will always be risk involved. Usually, the risk is quite low. Regardless, it is always worth having some rules to go by. Make sure you’ve given serious thought to whether the risk is worth the potential gain. Hopefully, the list I’ve presented will help in some ways. Of course, there will be points people disagree with and some which might seem obvious. However, this list is designed to do just that: to help you develop your own standards for which campaigns back and which to avoid. Using my own criteria, I have managed to keep myself from jumping onto projects that were doomed to fail.
At the same time, I have missed out on some gems for fear of getting caught out. Thankfully, I haven’t had a project that has failed to deliver (a few hiccups, but no losses). By answering these questions: What? Who? How? When? – I have had positive experiences with Kickstarter. My hope is that you too can use these as tools to put together a careful and considered approach to backing projects. I wish you the best of luck.