How New Creators Changed the Game on Kickstarter in 2017

Posted by Daniel Zayas December 13, 2017 in Awards

It’s easy to lump successful Kickstarter campaigns into one batch and attribute their riches attained to expensive viral marketing, in-demand artists, and expert staff. The truth is a bit more nuanced and grassroots, especially for new creators. I am writing this post as a way to build context for all the new creators in 2017 and explain all the beautiful changes which happened this year. Many campaigns were developed by veteran Kickstarter creators, but a majority of trends we take for granted at the end of 2017 were heralded in by first-time creators who caught fire and made 2017 a year to remember.

Kickstarter Became Less Indie

Whether you supported a five-time Oscar-winning design and effects company, the founder and creator of TeeTurtle, a 20-year old publisher adding crowdfunding to their schedule for the first time, a manufacturer’s first campaign under their relatively new publishing arm, or a 13-year-old video game studio, it cannot be denied that former outsiders to the crowdfunding process have decided the Kickstarter processing fees are worth the effort after all. This trend is both a good or bad thing, as more mainstream companies using Kickstarter legitimizes the platform and bring in backers who stay and back other campaigns, but will inevitably raise the bar for innovation on the platform for indie creators, possibly pricing them out of competing in any notable way.

Here’s what Ryan S. Dancey, a director of Alderac Entertainment Group and one of the project leads for the Thunderstone Quest campaign, had to say on their decision to use Kickstarter:

“We think Kickstarter is now a major market for tabletop games, and we want to be in that market. Kickstarter gives us the opportunity to do larger and more expensive games than we could not comfortably target for the traditional 3-tier channel due to the differences in the business model. And Kickstarter gives us a 1:1 connection with our customers we lack in other markets which allows us to do a better job communicating with them and sharing the fun of what we’re publishing and promoting. While we’re happy to be a part of the Kickstarter ecosystem we are also firm supporters of brick & mortar retail stores which is where most of our new games are sold. Kickstarter is an addition to our business, not a fundamental shift away from friendly local game stores.”

The juggernaut of marketing that is a Kickstarter launch is more than most mainstay publishers could hope for at a fraction of the advertising budget. These products will often go on to hit distribution, and brick & mortar retail releases, but even that is not a sure bet anymore. Because of this, retailers are starting to look more and more at Kickstarter campaigns as a buying model for their store stock. Look in 2018 for this trend of larger companies with larger budgets trying out Kickstarter for the first time.

Gaming Furniture and Accessories Came into Their Own

As Geek Chic’s high-end tables closed their doors, new upstarts were on the scene to fill that gap in a big way. Table of Ultimate Gaming, BoxThrone Modular Board Game Shelving System, and Game Toppers all came to the forefront of 2017’s Kickstarter lineup, each funding a segment of the market for their specific brand of gaming furniture. For Patrick Meyer, owner of Wood Robot and creator of the Table of Ultimate Gaming, it was a “perfect storm of consumer demand, production technology, and experience at delivering solutions such as this.”

Dan Blacklock, Founder of Cloud Puncher Games and creator of the BoxThrone Modular Board Game Shelving System, had this to say on the topic:

“We’re right in the middle of the Golden Age of board gaming. As the hobby becomes more and more mainstream, board games are becoming a regular part of the household. Just as TV stands, media units, DVD racks, and sectional sofas were created to make TV time a more enjoyable experience, board game furniture is ramping up our board gaming to maximum enjoyment levels. Every creator of board game furniture can trace their Eurekas back to a personal need, and with the surging number of board gamers, more and more people are finding that they have these same needs. So these Kickstarter campaigns are a beacon to board gamers, new or experienced, and a lot of them feature novel ideas that will only be expanded on over the next few years.”

Kevin Burkhardsmeier, the founder of Game Toppers LLC, had this to say on the evolution of third-party upgrades to the gaming experience:

“I believe the experience that board gaming gives us is what people are looking for. That is why gaming accessories are all the rage. We like to trick out our games to enhance that experience. A Game Topper does exactly that. It upgrades every game you play on it because of the elevated experience. That is why I designed and brought Game Toppers to market to upgrade their play experiences at a portable, affordable price.”

Though not a furniture campaign, Kevin reminded me of the explosion of third-party gaming products in general from new creators, especially that of Everlasting: the Best Wet Palette for miniature painting. It is worth noting that in 2018 the market of “not games but helps gamers” will continue to grow.

Graphic Minimalism Had a Heyday

Almost as a response to the lack of customization Kickstarter offers creators in the campaign storylines, creators in 2017 started to actually model their products and campaigns to best be displayed on the stark backdrop that is Kickstarter. There were many campaigns this year which I think would not have fared as well in years past, but were praised this year for their black box designs and elegant componentry decisions. Consumers went wild for new creators in 2017 via campaigns such as Turing Tumble, The City of Kings, and The Island of El Dorado, all with clean and graphically-minimal products, sometimes with campaigns to match! Even Consentacle, a game described as a “mutually satisfying Human x Alien romance,” can be considered visually minimal by typical sci-fi graphic design standards.

I got a chance to chat with Daniel Aronson, game designer of The Island of El Dorado, on his art direction choices:

“I always try to keep everything minimal to quickly get to the meat of the content. Minimalism makes information easier to digest. There is a lot of information that goes into a Kickstarter campaign. The more you can break that information down into bite-sized chunks, the more likely that people will digest the information. That goes for a Kickstarter campaign and gameplay itself. The design of game components should be easy to understand. Nothing worse than not being able to figure out gameplay because of bad design. For me, it’s more about the function of minimalism design rather than its aesthetic. It boils down to making it easier for the end user.”

Frank West took time to explain to me the subtle intricacies of the box design in The City of Kings:

“When we first sat down to design The City of Kings the goal was to create something that was both minimalistic and complex. From a distance we wanted you to see an iconic colorful shape, but as you got closer, we wanted a story to unfold. We wanted to create a piece of art you could stare at for hours and continue to discover things whilst also being clean and simple. In total, there are 25 individual scenes that have been pulled together to tell the story of the armies rising from the ground and marching on The City of Kings, all hidden in a sword which is shattering as the armies move up it.”

I am not as convinced this art style will continue in a big way in 2018, but it is important to note that these new creators in many ways opened that door to show it can be done.

New Creators Made More Money With Wood

Many first-time creators have a false notion that miniatures are the easiest way to garner support for a game. I am here to tell you this is categorically false. New creators made more money hand over fist when they opted for wooden components when plastics would have worked just as well for the depth of gameplay. Clans of Caledonia, DinoGenics, and The City of Kings all demonstrated this in their own way, and were some of the most successful campaigns from new creators this year.

I got a hold of the DinoGenics team via their Facebook page and Richard Keene, owner of Ninth Haven Games and the main designer of DinoGenics, had this to say about their wood over miniatures decision:

“Despite our intention to make a very thematic worker placement game, we knew pretty early on that we would be going with wood dinosaurs over miniatures. Miniatures greatly inflate the costs of production, and for a smaller developer, it is difficult to ensure the quality of the miniatures lives up to standards set by major developers. For our wooden dinomeeps, we also set out to break away from the conventions of most wooden meeples. For one, all of our dinosaurs are laser cut instead of being simply factory machined. This means they have a level of detail that is almost unheard of in wooden game components. Thes added detail helps capture the theme of the game without being overwhelming as plastic components in games often become.”

My takeaway? If you are developing a game in 2018, work out of your game complex components such as miniatures or other plastics and sub in wood. If you are contemplating standees, see how much more expensive meeples would be to give your game that extra weight and tactile appeal.

Specific Player Counts was the Marketing Push

Consentacle made some interesting choices in places other than the theme, and that was targeting the specific 2-player count to further drive home the alien-on-human sexual theme. Similarly, Alone, a completely different alien experience, made use of asymmetry of one versus many. This interesting use of player counts to build support tactic was the most apparent with the rise of the solo game experience, which was staggeringly made relevant in 2017. While many games are still relying on an AI system versus an integrated solo experience (spoiler: When Cutie Met Patootie uses an integrated solo experience in 2018), the fact that solo gamers are being considered as a relevant demographic in such a big way by new and veteran creators alike was staggering in 2017. Games from new creators included solo play rulesets, such as Quodd Heroes, The City of Kings, DinoGenics, Clans of Caledonia, Monster Lands, and the list goes on from there!

Clans of Caledonia did not ship with an AI ruleset to play solo and instead relied on an integrated design. Juma al-JouJou, founder of Karma Games and game designer of Clans of Caledonia, approached solo gameplay holistically and had this to say about the process:

“To be honest, developing the solo variant was super easy. I got it right immediately. I hardly had to make any tweaks. The main question was if I should go for an Automa or not and I decided against it since it tends to be way more complex. Scythe needs a whole rulebook for the Automa rules. Also, it increases the manufacturing cost too much IMHO, especially if you take into account that solo fans are still a minority. A big pro of a simple solo variant is that you can use it to learn the game.”

This may be a bold statement, but I think solo variants may be a precursor to any campaign making a considerable dent in 2018. Even people who don’t want to play solo variants will appreciate the development effort put into adding one.

Thematic and Abstract Mechanisms Got Married in Big Ways

An ongoing trend this year was not unique to 2017, but is steadily progressing along in some big titles from new creators, is the blurring of Euro and American game concepts. This was no more apparent than in Monster Lands, a dice-placement game which funded in the second half of 2017, and The City of Kings, a fully cooperative fantasy adventure board game where you and up to three friends explore, gather, trade and customize your hero. The list goes on from there with many campaigns.

Daniel Schloesser, a founding partner of Second Gate Games and the business operations head in the Monster Lands campaign, explained where their game fits on the Euro-American spectrum:

“I don’t think that Monster Lands reinvents the euro genre. In fact, it is not even a euro game. And that is exactly what makes it so interesting, in that it COMBINES elements of euro gaming (strategic planning, build-up, worker placement) with elements of Ameritrash (highly developed theme, factions with individually defined abilities, battle action, the presence of dice). A pure euro gamer might not like Monster Lands because there obviously is a luck factor wherever there are dice. You have to be able to accept that luck factor, while at the same time trying to reduce it or push it out completely, by cleverly building and planning dice manipulation techniques. The dice offer a thrill in that you (almost) never know for sure what’s going to happen in the all-important adventure phase, but during the game, you constantly influence the odds in your favor. The fact that you are NOT able to calculate everything sets Monster Lands apart from many pure Euro games, which may lead to analysis paralysis. Monster Lands plays quickly and has a very high enjoyment factor.”

I think that as 2018 unfolds, we will start to look at games more on a spectrum of the theme over mechanics or visa versa, even to the point of rendering euro and American tabletop as vague definitions in future years.

Here’s to the New Creators in 2018!

If you are considering launching a campaign in 2018, be cognizant of the market around you. You are not making a game in a void and can benefit from learning from those who have launched their first campaigns this year. 2017 was a paramount year for new creators on Kickstarter. Best of luck and we look forward to seeing what you come up with Let us know in the comments what you plan to launch in 2018!