Albert Mach wants to help you lead a Viking clan. He wants you to compete for honor and treasure and the control of islands. He wants you to tame the wild dragon. And he wants the masses of the Internet to bankroll all of it.
That’s because he’s a board game designer. When I talked to Mach, he and his two brothers were about two weeks into a monthlong fundraising campaign to launch their first game, Vikings of Dragonia. Mach had never made a serious go at creating a game before but figured why not — we’re living in a golden age of board games, after all. The Settlers of Catan, first published in Germany in 1995, introduced many Americans to so-called Euro-style board games — games with elegant gameplay, deep strategy, compelling themes and attractive art. Since then, the quantity, quality and variety of new board and card games seem to increase every year. Attendance at gaming conventions has boomed. One of the biggest, Gen Con, set its sixth straight attendance record this year. Sales of games are swelling, too: The hobby game market had an estimated $880 million in sales in 2014 in the U.S. and Canada, up 20 percent from the year before, according to the pop-culture resource ICv2.
And now there are more games being made than ever. The crowdfunding website Kickstarter has become the go-to place to finance a passion board game project. “The barrier to entry is much lower, especially with board games,” Mach said. “All you need is a pencil and paper.”
The most famous Kickstarter success story to date may be the bawdy party game Cards Against Humanity. The game successfully raised a relatively modest $15,000 on the site in 2012 and has gone on to become a cultural phenomenon. Some games, though, have raised a mint during their Kickstarter campaign alone. The table below shows the 10 game projects that have raised the most money on Kickstarter, their total pledges and their number of backers.
|Zombicide: Black Plague||20,915||4.1|
|Reaper Miniatures Bones II||14,964||3.2|
|Zombicide: Season 3||12,011||2.8|
|Reaper Miniatures Bones 3||13,465||2.7|
|Dwarven Forge’s Modular City Builder Terrain System||2,719||2.4|
|Zombicide: Season 2||8,944||2.3|
|Dwarven Forge’s Caverns-Dwarvenite Game Tiles Terrain||3,950||2.1|
|Kingdom Death: Monster||5,410||2.0|
Kickstarter and other funding platforms like Indiegogo play two roles in the board game universe.
First, they are a handy way to gauge the market’s willingness to pre-order a game. Designers show up, explain their game idea on a Web page, often with photos and a video, and ask for pledges. That lets a designer learn, in real time, what the demand for his game is. If the fundraising goal is met, the game is made. And in return for a significant pledge — $50, say — donors typically get a copy of the game.
Second, they are democratizing tools. Internet crowdfunding has done the same thing for game designers that blogging platforms did for writers: turned them into publishers. In the absence of outlets like Kickstarter, designers would have to pitch games to traditional brick-and-mortar publishers. Those publishers would then typically have control over a game — they could tweak its theme, its artwork and its marketing campaign. Self-publishers can retain control.
These dual roles have led to a flurry of board game activity on Kickstarter in the past few years. Thousands of new games have been funded, and the subject matter of the games is broad, in part because of low startup costs. David Gallagher, the site’s director of communications, told me that a board game project might need as little as $500 to get off the ground — much less than a video game hardware project, for example.
Luke Crane is Kickstarter’s in-house board game expert and resident dungeon master. He sees Kickstarter as the latest in a series of board and card gaming milestones. Dungeons & Dragons, first published in 1974, crystallized role-play gaming. Magic: The Gathering, which debuted in 1993 and became a smash hit, spawned countless expansions and still boasts a competitive professional circuit. The Settlers of Catan, and its first English-language edition in 1996, gave many their first taste of German board gaming kultur. That game has sold over 15 million copies.
And then, in mid-2009, Kickstarter launched.
Since that debut, pledges to board and card game projects on the site have totaled $196 million, according to the company. Ninety-three percent of that money went to successful projects — those that reached their fundraising goal. For comparison, pledges to video game projects, including hardware and mobile games, have totaled $179 million. Of that, 85 percent went to ultimately successful projects. On Kickstarter, analog is beating digital.
The trend in the number of successfully funded games coming out of Kickstarter is dramatic and shows little sign of slowing. A total of 3,870 table-top game projects — including board games and card games — have been funded since the site’s launch. (It’s less clear how many are funded through the traditional publisher route. I looked for good data on this point but was unable to find any.) In the past couple of years, more than 100 new games were funded every month, on average.Project 500, for example, was like Kickstarter before Kickstarter was cool. It was Project 500 that eventually funded the game Twilight Struggle — the best board game in the world by some measures.">1
Designers are swapping tips, too, about how best to play the Kickstarter game. There are websites with reams of advice on how to successfully launch a board game on another website. Stonemaier Games, for example, hosts a whole section of Kickstarter insights on its site. Board game media plays a role as well. Internet reviewers — like Shut Up & Sit Down and The Dice Tower — point out new and promising games and publicize them on blogs and podcasts and through social media. Other websites — primarily the popular BoardGameGeek — assemble ratings, photos and comments on games and gaming.
Given the online fluency of many gamers and game designers, you can’t just throw up a game idea on Kickstarter and expect to strike it rich. (And it’s probably folly to expect to strike it rich in the board game business at all.) A successful campaign requires careful, Web-savvy preparation to try to pique the interest of potential donors. “You’re trying to create that hype,” Mach said. “The first two days on Kickstarter really make a difference.”
This gaming gold rush hasn’t been without its blemishes, however. The Federal Trade Commission recently launched its first ever crowdfunding case. One board game fundraising campaign had earned well over $100,000, but the company that was supposed to actually make the games never did. The man behind the company, Erik Chevalier, agreed to a settlement with the agency.
For most, though, it’s ultimately a labor of love. Mach has no pretentions of huge monetary rewards or of quitting his day job, at least for now. “We do it for the love of the game,” he said. “We want to get this game out there.”
Mach, meanwhile, won’t have the chance to make the Vikings of Dragonia. The Mach Brothers received pledges of just over $13,000, short of their $22,000 goal. For now, Vikings of Dragonia exists only in the brothers’ heads — and in the form of fewer than 20 prototype copies floating around. But Mach is not deterred. I spoke with him again after his campaign ended, and he plans to continue to spread the word, online and off, and even offered to make a new prototype for me to play.
“We’re going back to the drawing board to see what we can change for our next relaunch,” he said. “We’re definitely going to do a relaunch.” It’s for the love of the game, after all.
Read more: “Designing The Best Board Game On The Planet”