Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

 

Hello! Jonathan Woodard here, writing for Game Creator’s Social Forum.

The hobby board game industry has been abuzz this week with discussion of the latest Kickstarter project to turn bust. On March 18, Phil Kilcrease posted an update to Smash Monster Rampage (along with several other) Kickstarter projects titled “The State of 5th Street Games”

Reading this final update is three parts heartbreaking and one part irritating; it’s easy to resonate with the author, especially as he opens:

Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to run a board game publishing company. Starting 5th Street Games in 2011 was a lifelong dream for me. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, I'll be filing a personal Chapter 7 bankruptcy within a couple weeks and shutting down 5th Street.

I have similar aspirations, and I’ve come face-to-face with financial ruin before, so this part hits me especially hard. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a Kickstarter project creator fail to deliver, and blame it on financial shortfalls. Obviously, this is the Internet, so the standard caveat of “Never read the comments” applies, but being an aspiring game designer and publisher with dreams of Kickstarter, I decided to wade in. Backers, as might be expected, run the gamut from ‘understanding’ to ‘furious’ to ‘threatening legal action’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as annoyed as the next guy when the creator of a KS project I’ve backed reneges on their promise (and depending on who you ask, legal obligation) to deliver or refund. But one comment in particular jumped out at me.

He didn't just screw SMR people. From /r/boardgames reddit: This also means the following Kickstarters will never get made, and the backers won't get their money back:  Chroma Cubes  Ghosts Love Candy  The following games will be distributed via Game Salute, and backers will need to pay additional shipping fees if they want them:  Smash Monster Rampage  Mob City  Farmageddon expansions  Unknown:  Baldric's Tomb - Open for Business expansion

I was taken aback. Every piece of advice I’ve ever read on conducting multiple Kickstarter campaigns outlines two things in no uncertain terms:

  1. It’s likely going to be more expensive than you expect.
  2. Never try and ‘pipeline’ your campaigns. Satisfy all backers, THEN launch campaign #2.

This is when I started down a rabbit-hole. From the creator’s profile: 11 created | 0 backed. My sympathy began melting into something resembling disappointment. I felt like: Here I am, driving myself to anxiety over the prospect of launching my first KS campaign, and here’s someone who has flown in the face of all the prevailing wisdom of the community, been successful in collecting a lot of money from a lot of people, and has now become an instrument in undermining Kickstarter’s credibility among the masses.

My next discovery in this dig was a post two months prior, sounding the all-clear. “As requested, quick ‘no news’ update:  …We’re still on track for its arrival as before; shipping out to you by March.” I spend my days working at a tech startup in Boulder, CO (and several others before the current one), and the one inescapable truth about running a business is that you must have a grasp on your cash position. Budgeting, financial forecasting, and cashflow management aren’t as sexy as “being a board game publisher” (or any other kind of business owner), but unfortunately that’s impossible without the former. An upcoming cash crunch two months out should be blindingly obvious.

I have a strict personal policy against negativity and shit-talking, so I don’t want any of the above to come off as either; however, I also firmly believe the words of Brandon Mull: “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” If all of us in the tabletop game design and publishing community don’t learn something from this unfortunate situation, then we’ll end up with nothing but the downsides and a lot of finger pointing.

So what are my personal takeaways? After finally grasping this constellation of circumstances leading to 5th Street’s demise, I flashed back to a happy hour with a good friend, and perennial supporter of my freshman board game effort Valour. The design and development process is intense, and the harsh reality I’ve been facing is that the effort to complete a board game doesn’t scale linearly with the complexity of rules, but more like exponentially, or possibly even factorially. Every player action can interact with any other; any resource can impact another through second-degree effects on economic systems; length of play exacerbates these and all other complexities, as committing four people to a three hour game which may not even conclude satisfactorily is a huge ask.

After discussing my recent progress and most recent newsletter update, my friend told me flat out:

“You realize, this may have been a bit too much for you to take on as your first foray into game design.”

And I worry that he’s right. Did I, in my own way, underestimate and overcommit just like these Kickstarter project creators? Can I refocus myself to prevent this from happening to me too? I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to take a look at this early on in my career (read: before I’ve collected anyone’s money). I’ve made a wide array of public commitments to finish this though, and I am committed to doing so. My hope is that by recognizing the scope of what I’ve committed myself to will help keep my eyes on the prize, but in a more strategic way.

At the end of the day, we board game creators and designers are naturally idea-driven people. We see game concepts and mechanics in our everyday interactions. For people like us, the new and the shiny are always going to be more appealing than the grind of finishing, but I think it’s important to constantly take stock of what we have in-flight and have a healthy respect for the scale of effort involved.

Jonathan Woodard blogs about board game design, related nerderies, and occasionally other stuff at http://woodar.dj. He tweets at @woodardj.

 

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