Punchboard Media: Conversations Between Turns - Running a Kickstarter
Chris Kirkman was in a state ahead of the Legends of Sleepy Hollow Kickstarter launch. I'd seen it before when others launched campaigns, and I wanted to take his mind off the part of the Kickstarter he couldn't control -- its reception after he clicked the "launch" button. I thought a distraction might help pull him away from obsessively refreshing the campaign, watching it inch toward funding. This sprawling interview, covering the history of Dice Hate Me and its complex relationship with Kickstarter, is the result. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
Eric Buscemi: Alright Chris, you’re a grizzled veteran of the board game industry, so let’s go back to the beginning, during the frontier times of Kickstarter. What was the very first campaign you ran? What made you decide to do it? How’d it go?
Chris Kirkman: My very first Kickstarter campaign was for Carnival, truly way back in the wild west days of Kickstarter - August through October of 2011. The campaign ran for a month and a half and, wow, what a slog that was! I had $5,000 set aside in savings and the hopes of raising $5,000 more on Kickstarter in order to make the game, and I had no idea if it would succeed. We ended up making $34,436 by the end, which was enough to put it in the top 5 highest grossing campaigns at the time. It was an unbelievable ride.
As for what made me decide to do it, Cherilyn - my wife at the time, and also the designer of Carnival - convinced me to read a book called The Monk and the Riddle, a book by Randy Komisar. In it Randy talks about his time in Silicon Valley as a sort of temporary CEO for start-ups. He gives his own story, as well as many others, in order to speak out against a “deferred life” - where people just continue to toil at a job for the time being until they’re able to do what they really want to do. It’s a truly inspiring read, and he encourages people to take a chance and “create a life while making a living.” The day after I read it I got a business license for Dice Hate Me Games and the rest, as they say, is history.
Eric: Let’s dig into that history a bit. Over the next two years, you successfully Kickstarted a number of games from TC Petty (Viva Java, Viva Java: Dice), Jason Kotarski (Great Heartland Hauling Company), Darrell Louder (Compounded), Daniel Solis (Belle of the Ball), and Ben Rosset (Brew Crafters). Reading that list now, it’s an impressive collection of industry names, but at the time (unless I am mistaken) they were all unknown. How did you find each of these designers and come to publish their games? And what made you decide to go the route of publishing other designers’ titles and not pursuing publishing your own?
Chris: That old adage of “being in the right place at the right time” was certainly true when it came to finding talented designers. After I started my evangelism blog, Dice Hate Me, in 2010 I started following the independent design space and became incredibly active on Twitter. It was on Twitter that I met John Moller, the founder of Unpub - the Unpublished Games Network. In 2011, I met John in person at Origins Game Fair and he introduced me to TC Petty who was shopping around a game design called DeveJava, a semi-cooperative game about brewing coffee. It was unlike any other game I had ever played, so I knew I wanted to be the one to publish it. It took a little convincing on TC’s part but I got him to trust that I knew what I was doing - and this was before Carnival had even hit Kickstarter! After Carnival’s success in October all fears were relieved. We went to Kickstarter with VivaJava that following spring.
The Unpub network has really been a blessing in finding good designs. Because of John I got involved with Unpub and eventually met Darrell Louder when we traveled up to Dover, Delaware for Unpub 2, the second gathering of gamers wanting to test their unpublished games. I had a chance to play a version of Compounded before then and was pretty well convinced it needed to be a Dice Hate Me Games title. So I signed it, and it was tested at Unpub 2 along with VivaJava, which was on Kickstarter at the time.
Origins has turned out to be a great place to meet fledgling designers, as well. I met Jason Kotarski at Origins in 2012 and he had a little game called Over The Road. I didn’t get a chance to play it at the show but a few of my friends did and they insisted that I take a look at it. So I asked Jason if I could take the prototype home with me. That became the Great Heartland Hauling Co. which we Kickstarted in the fall of 2012.
As for Ben Rosset, I actually met him at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA in the fall of 2011. He was one of a few designers there testing out unpublished games in the open gaming area. I played two of his designs, one of which eventually became Mars Needs Mechanics. Because of the Unpub network we stayed in touch and at Unpub 3 in 2013 he showed me a design all about managing your own brewpub. That eventually became Brew Crafters, which we Kickstarted that fall.
Finally, Daniel Solis was an acquaintance that I had known through Twitter. When he moved to Durham in 2011, I believe, we practically became neighbors. We would game together from time to time and he’d show me iteration H or J of a game that he’d been toying with for a year or two called Belle of the Ball. I watched that game go through so many changes until I played it at Unpub 3 - and that’s pretty close to the version that became our Belle of the Ball, Kickstarted in the fall of 2013.
Eric: At this point, you were well known enough as a publisher to run the 54-card game design challenge, which led to the six “rabbit” designs being Kickstarted together. How many entries did you get in the contest, and what percentage of them were quality games? Were you nervous about trying to publish six games -- even if they were small box card games -- simultaneously?
Chris: When I came up with the idea for the 54-card Game Design Challenge in the fall of 2013 I figured I’d get 20 or 30 games; after all, the deadline seemed fairly short. I ended up getting 108 entries. My mailman was so confused. He’d show up every other day with box upon box. There were boxes everywhere – in the living room, the kitchen, my office. They were multiplying like rabbits, ironically. I enlisted the help of a lot of friends that December to help me go over all the entries. I took a bunch with me to Delaware for Darrell and TC to evaluate at our annual Dice Hate Me Christmas gathering. After the first ten or so games that started off by making a 3x3 grid it was pretty evident that not all of these were going to be winners.
I would estimate that out of the 108 that about 30% of them had some promise. That’s not to say that the rest were worthless, by any means. And many of the designers who participated have told me over the years that the exercise really helped them to learn to design within constraints. There were actually a few games that didn’t make the cut that the designers continued to work on and were later successful in the marketplace. Dan Cassar’s Blood of an Englishman is one of those. It’s a great game, and it was a lot of fun back then, but there were just so many games that I couldn’t do them all.
I was originally only going to publish the grand prize winner and then put that game together with two independent designs that I had signed - Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game from Ben Rosset, and Pie Factory from Bryan Fischer. I figured since they were small and fairly inexpensive they’d do well as a three-pack on Kickstarter. However, there were just too many good designs in the finals. Four winners were chosen by the panel of judges and I decided to just publish all four - Diner (the grand prize winner), Easy Breezy Travel Agency, Isle of Trains, and The Fittest. Admittedly, I was nervous when I put them all up on Kickstarter in the spring of 2014, but since the design challenge had created such a big buzz and the design community was so supportive I thought we might do alright. Thankfully, we did! We pulled in over $60,000 for that campaign and most of those Rabbits are still in print. Isle of Trains even has an officially licensed German version - and an expansion coming next year!
Eric: Considering this string of successes, anyone that’s read this far probably thinks this Kickstarter publishing thing is really easy. Let’s dispel this notion by talking about what happened next. In 2014, you launched Nat Levan's New Bedford, which was your first Kickstarter project that was cancelled instead of funded. In 2015, you launched Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle's Monster Truck Mayhem twice, and it was cancelled both times. And in early 2016, you launched the TC Petty III experience, with two games of his -- Club Zen and Don't Get Eated -- which was also cancelled. What do you think happened with each of these campaigns? Why did New Bedford succeed upon relaunch, while Monster Truck Mayhem didn’t? What did you learn from each of these failures?
Chris: In order to truly talk about what happened with Dice Hate Me Games and Kickstarter starting in 2014 I have to get pretty personal. In early 2013 Cherilyn and I separated. It was an amicable split, thankfully, but it wasn’t an easy one. To preoccupy myself I dove headlong into my work, which is one of the reasons 2013 was one of the busiest on record for DHMG. By the time of the aforementioned campaign for the Rabbits in spring of 2014 I was pretty strung out. A few weeks after that campaign wrapped up my father passed away from an unexpected stroke. I went into the summer con season of that year deflated and with a heavy heart.
In August of 2014 we launched a very successful campaign for Compounded’s Geiger Expansion, but I felt mostly on autopilot by then. The existing fan base for Compounded ensured that we had healthy funding which was good, as I felt I had been neglecting the community outreach that was a hallmark of Dice Hate Me up until then. I had planned New Bedford’s launch early that November but September and October both rolled around and I was woefully unprepared. That, plus the timing, left New Bedford floundering. November, as I soon found out, was a miserable time to launch on Kickstarter with the holiday season approaching and funds going to Christmas presents instead of games that wouldn’t be delivered for 8 months or more.
With New Bedford lurching slowly toward funding I had a serendipitous meeting with my accountant where we talked about taxes for that year. I had just paid taxes on the previous year and I was absolutely floored, losing almost half of operating costs because of offset inventory and all sorts of boring, but nonetheless terrifying, facts that most don’t think about when it comes to running an indie board game company. My accountant said one thing, and I’m thankful he did - you’re going to lose more than you make if you barely fund on New Bedford. And, so, I pulled the plug. It was the hardest decision I’d made so far with the company, but it was the right one.
The happy ending is that New Bedford later succeeded in funding. I think this is partly because of a refocus on the art and the buzz surrounding the game, but also because I chose to be transparent about my reasons for the cancellation. I just wanted everyone to know that sometimes it’s not easy trying to balance everything, and that behind just about every Kickstarter project there are real people with real problems, just trying to do the best they can.
The story behind the Monster Truck Mayhem failures is much more simple: Selling a real-time dice rolling game on Kickstarter is just tough. Also with the first campaign we thought Kickstarter might be taking a turn for the better as far as consumer awareness, so we nixed the idea of stretch goals and just gave everyone all the bells and whistles right in the box. We couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that a lot of people on Kickstarter live for the chase and the atmosphere of going higher and higher on the funding goal and getting more and more added to the box.
So, we cancelled. And when we tried again we lowered all the prices and the funding goal, and broke everything out by price so that we could create realistic stretch goals. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter when you’re trying to sell a real-time dice rolling game on Kickstarter. What will sell in a heartbeat at conventions when people get to experience the excitement in person doesn’t always sell in crowdfunding.
As for the TC Petty Experience, we learned that you shouldn’t package two different types of games together in one Kickstarter, no matter how talented the designer might be. Also, don’t plan a marketing campaign around an inside joke that you think everyone is in on. TC has an online “persona” that we talk about on the podcast and on Twitter from time to time. We played up that persona in the campaign and it turned a lot of people off. So, word to the wise, don’t try to pull off smarmy yet charming unless you’re Bruce Campbell.
Eric: It wasn't all bad news, though. You also ran one of your most successful campaigns in the middle of these cancellations, with Bottom of the 9th. What do you think contributed to its success? Do you feel Rodney Smith of Watch It Played doing a rules video for it made any difference?
Chris: Yes, Bottom of the 9th turned out to be more successful than anyone anticipated. Up until around 2014 everyone in the industry had always said that sports games typically didn’t sell terribly well. Because of that there was a dearth of sports games. So when Darrell Louder pitched me his and Mike Mullins’ idea at PAX East in the spring of 2014 I was ready to gamble because it felt like something the market needed.
Filling a void in the marketplace was one of the reasons for Bot9’s success, but we also had an all-star team working on the game, and so many people had played it and loved it during its development. This deep connection with the game, and the nostalgia that surrounded it, was probably the biggest key to its success on Kickstarter - and also why it continues to sell well in retail.
You mentioned Rodney Smith’s video and I do think that contributed quite a bit to Bottom of the 9th’s legitimacy during the campaign. Rodney very rarely previews a Kickstarter game, but he truly loved Bottom of the 9th and wanted it to succeed. Darrell, Mike, and I am truly grateful that he took the time to support the game because it gave us great momentum in the beginning of the campaign.
Eric: At about this time in the company’s history is when you merged with Greater Than Games. Did you know Christopher Badell, Paul Bender, and Adam Rebottaro well prior? Who first proposed the idea? How long did it take to bring it to fruition?
Chris: Before the merger talks I had known Christopher, Adam, and Paul for about four years. They launched Sentinels of the Multiverse on Kickstarter just before we launched Carnival so we kind of “grew up” in the indie board game space and ran into each other at the various conventions in the next couple of years. Christopher was always a fan of what we were doing and we’d have long talks about how things were going in the community. For the longest time I had avoided covering Sentinels on Dice Hate Me, my review and evangelism blog, so Christopher asked me about it at Origins in 2012. I told him that I had been avoiding superhero board and card games because I didn’t want it to influence a design that I had been working on for several years called Bulletproof. He said he understood, but being the charismatic individual that he is he sent me home with a copy of Sentinels of the Multiverse and, of course, I relented, played it, and loved it.
Because of our constant contact over the next couple of years at conventions I discovered that they had procured warehouse space in St. Louis and were doing fulfillment and sales work for a few other indie companies. In 2014 I moved DHMG’s wares from Game Salute/Ship Naked’s HQ in New Hampshire to the GTG warehouse in St. Louis. From there I started talking extensively to Paul Bender about the best way to market and distribute our games. Shortly after New Bedford’s premiere and subsequent cancellation on Kickstarter Paul suggested a call with me and Darrell Louder about future products. I assumed that it would be about sales and such, but he proposed a merger of the two companies to strengthen both brands, hoping to weather any storms that might come about because of the expanding hobby. Who was I to refuse? We all seemed to hold the same principles of the indie game space, and in spring of 2015 we signed an agreement where I’d become part owner of GTG with Christopher, Adam, and Paul. Dice Hate Me Games would become an imprint under the Greater Than Games corporate umbrella and I would serve as Game Development Director, doing many of the same things I had as head of DHMG in scouting for new designs and helping make those games the best they could be for the market.
Eric: Before the merger, I assume you were in sole control over which games you decided to sign and produce. Now that Dice Hate Me is an imprint of Greater Than Games, do you still have that autonomy? Are Christopher, Adam, and Paul also signing games? Also, how do you guys decide which games will go to which imprints -- e.g. Why was it that Spirit Island and Fate of the Elder Gods went to the Fabled Nexus line and Sleepy Hollow went to the Dice Hate Me line?
Chris: Before the merger I was in sole control of everything. On the one hand it means you’re completely free to make whatever decisions you think are best without anyone saying otherwise or slowing down the process. On the other hand it also means that you are doing everything, from customer service, to marketing, to relationships with distributors and retailers, to graphic design, to game development, to BGG outreach, etc. etc. ad infinitum. It’s exhausting.
As far as signing games and deciding what we produce, that’s pretty much in my purview. My job is to continue to scout for new designs, glean the best and brightest, and bring them to the team for consideration. There are a few designs that I have brought forth that I’ve been adamant about accepting without much evaluation, but for the most part I want all of Greater Than Games to get a chance to see that game and throw in their opinions. We all have our pet projects - Christopher is mostly concerned with Sentinels of the Multiverse products, but from time to time he wants to stretch his creative legs and design something like Deck Building: The Deck Building Game. Adam, Paul, and Christopher will occasionally meet with a designer at a convention and take pitches. But ultimately they send those pitches on to me to evaluate and see if they’re worth our time.
Judging what games go to which imprints is based solely on aesthetic and content. One of our grand experiments after the merger was Fabled Nexus. We wanted to put an imprint out there that was separate from Sentinel Comics and Dice Hate Me Games that was a place where we could play in the pop culture space - somewhere outside of superheroes and retro Americana. Since we’ve brought on Mara Johannes-Graham as our Marketing and Sales Specialist, she’s found that the imprint experiment is causing some confusion with distributors and retailers, so we’re likely to start pushing Greater Than Games as the main brand without the imprint distinction. Dice Hate Me Games will continue to be branded as such simply because it’s so distinctive in the marketplace, but it will also be clear that it’s a Greater Than Games product. And as for Legends of Sleepy Hollow, that’s a Dice Hate Me Games venture because of the artistic aesthetic and because it’s definitely retro Americana! You can’t get more Americana than America’s first ghost story.
Eric: So speaking of Legends of Sleepy Hollow, are you happy with how the campaign is going? Is there anything you did differently this time around compared to previous campaigns? Anything you now wish you had done differently in hindsight? Was it considerably harder to promote this game due to its storytelling campaign nature?
Chris: Those are a lot of questions to tackle! And not all of them are easy.
First off, yes, I am happy that the project has surpassed its funding goal and that we will be able to produce Legends of Sleepy Hollow. That said, I had hoped that the funding curve for the campaign would be farther along at this point. We did our best to give backers a good deal with a highly-discounted pledge level and some promotional items but the nature of the project has made it somewhat-difficult to convey the value to prospective pledgers.
Because this game is story-based and we have so many secrets and twists to unveil from Chapter to Chapter we can only show so much that’s in the box. I created a huge components breakdown graphic that shows everything backers will get, but quite a bit of it is grayed out squares, or figures, or the backs of cards. It shows, definitively, that we’re offering as much, if not more, than previously-priced campaigns on Kickstarter. For some backers, however, that’s not enough.
So, yes, promoting and marketing this game has been considerably harder than a lot of previous campaigns that I’ve managed. However, we’ve wanted to remain true to the nature of the game and not reveal too much because we want this game to be an engrossing experience, with a sense of wonder and discovery. We know backers won’t be disappointed once they begin their journey, but we know that there will be a lot of people disappointed that they didn’t back once the game is delivered.
Eric: So, since I know you love this stress-filled roller coaster ride that is running a Kickstarter campaign, what future projects do you have coming to Kickstarter, and when do you think we’ll be seeing them?
Chris: We have quite a few Dice Hate Me Games projects in the queue, some which were delayed while we worked through a production backlog.
One that’s been in the works for about two years now is Isle of Trains: All Aboard, which is an expansion for Seth Jaffee and Dan Keltner’s bestselling Isle of Trains. This will introduce passengers, new train cars, new buildings, and a board, with some extra scoring opportunities. It will also come in our “Chunky Monkey” size box - the same as Bottom of the 9th Clubhouse - which will allow everyone to store the original game and the expansion in the new box! We hope to launch that one on Kickstarter early in 2018.
Another game that many have been waiting to see more of is Home Brewers from Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley. This spiritual successor to Brew Crafters is lighter, and involves dice, a bit of easy trading, and some engine building to craft some strangely awesome home brews. This one has gone through several iterations of development and we finally have it in a great place. We hope to Kickstart that one in late spring.
As for the rest of the stable, we have Code Name: Glass Case (a project title, not the actual game name) from Daniel Solis and Drew Hicks, a puzzle-like tile-laying game where players are constructing museum displays to create an isometric room with various scoring opportunities. There’s also Match Quilt from Lauren Woolsey, another puzzly game about creating beautiful quilts from traditional patterns in order to craft big scores. And, finally, there’s Milkman from Josh Mills, a breezy and fun dice rolling game where players manage their own dairy farms, raising and breeding cattle, gathering milk to pasteurize and turn into whole, skim, and chocolate flavors, and then deliver to customers around town. Josh has been working on several modules for the game such as cheese and ice cream that will allow players to mix and match to add variety, replayability, and advanced scoring opportunities. We’re not exactly sure when these might hit Kickstarter, but I’d look for them later in 2018!
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