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The Kickstarter brief: Design


I recently wrote a blog about games with roll and move mechanics on Kickstarter which seemed to garner two general schools of response, one being “surely people don’t seriously attempt to launch roll and move based games in this day and age” and the other being “it surely doesn’t mean certain failure to release a roll and move game on Kickstarter”. Firstly, yes, they absolutely do, on average about twice a month, but there are spikes. Secondly, I’m not saying that it does mean certain failure, but what it does do is make the work of funding much harder. There are many things that make a successful Kickstarter, and the game itself is just one of those parts, but there are certain features that make life much easier when trying to sell a game on Kickstarter. Try to think of some of these parts as a design brief, you don’t need to follow them 100%, but considering a brief when designing can often make the game that results better and the designer that makes it better also. So here are some things to bear in mind when writing your Kickstarter game’s design brief, they are not absolute rules, but they are worth bearing in mind.


Things To Avoid


Unfashionable Mechanics (or at least, their appearance)


Now, all mechanics have their place. However, the tabletop games Kickstarter backers are generally extremely game literate. This means that they can have a tendency to judge mechanics that they see as outdated extremely harshly, fairly or not. This is mainly because they want designers to be at least as games literate as them and if a game appears to have been designed by someone who appears to only be aware of Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo they will be driven away. Probably the king of this is Roll and Move, but even a ‘Miss a turn’ card or option can drive away a large part of the more games literate. This can even go to the point of causing a game to struggle if it looks like one of these games, so odd as might sound, a square board with a strip of spaces around the outside and two stacks of cards in the middle can really hamper a game’s chances simply because it makes it look like Monopoly.


This doesn’t make a game bad, but Retro simplicity and high randomness is not a good fit with Kickstarter. Familiarity with mainstream games is not something that the Kickstarter tabletop backer values particularly highly and will generally cause more damage than it saves.


Saturated Games


On a roughly weekly basis a game will come out on Kickstarter that involves one person laying down a card and a series of other people laying down a series of responses, and then those responses being judged by either an individual or a vote. They tend to do extremely badly despite being easy to grasp and popular in the mainstream. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that if someone wants this game Cards Against Humanity is extremely ubiquitous (ironically for how many clones it has spawned on Kickstarter, Cards Against Humanity didn’t do amazingly on Kickstarter, raising just a little over $15k) and they will tend to buy it instead. Its why (apart from the above) Monopoly clones and Chess variants tend to do badly on Kickstarter, because the original has already saturated the market. People generally are not wondering where they can get their next Cards Against Humanity, because they know where, from the people who make Cards Against Humanity, because they’ve pretty much cornered the market.


The ubiquity of a game in the mainstream does not generally make it easier to fund a clone of it on Kickstarter, rather quite the opposite. Kickstarter is a small market and a little bit of that mainstream availability saturates it very quickly.


Politics and Satire


Much like the dining table, Kickstarter tabletop games is not a great place for politics. There are exceptions, but satirical games as a rule don’t do fantastically. Its hard to say exactly why, but its probably a combination of three things, one, people generally play games to get away from politics, and they like to play games with people who hold differing real world opinions, so bringing it up on the tabletop isn’t always popular. Two, it usually takes at least a year or so to properly develop and playtest a game, even if you’re pretty quick and good at it. If your game is clearly reacting to something that was in the headlines a few months ago people will assume that it has been rushed out, even if it hasn’t. Three, people like a game to last for a lifetime of playing, I’ve got games from when I was a child that I still play, and satire ages extremely badly. If you’ve ever played an old set of Trivial Pursuit and hit an entertainment question about a show that was all the rage at the time and virtually unknown now, you’ll know what I mean. People will be uncertain if that Tiger King game will really hold lasting appeal.


Abstracts


This is partly related to something I’ll talk a little about in the “Dos” section in relation to artwork, but other than that, I’m honestly not sure why it is true, but it is, that full abstracts struggle on Kickstarter. Its actually a fine line between a Euro, which can go great guns, and a full abstract, but if you can tip over the line from abstract to Euro, you’ll do yourself a big favour.


TCGs


Trading card games that is, and to a lesser degree their related cousin the Collectible Card Game. Making a trading card game is not a game design choice, it is a marketing choice, and unless you have a marketing department (and ideally a distribution network) your trading card game will almost certainly fail before it gets half way through its first set of releases. To be honest, even if you have both of those things and a major license behind you the odds of success aren’t great. The issue is that backers are well aware of the graveyards littered with failed TCGs and generally avoid them. Those that do come around tend to be more than willing to drop quite excessive amounts of money on the off chance that they’re grabbing the equivalent of a future Alpha land, but they are a rare breed and unlikely to raise the usually terrifying amount of money that these sorts of games need for a full and successful launch.


Tournament scenes


Related to trading card games are games generally that need an active tournament scene to be successful. The number of games with a thriving and organic grass roots tournament scene is pretty low, and the number of games that raise enough cash to fund a centrally organised tournament scene is even lower, if backers think that your game needs this to be fun then they’ll assume that it won’t be fun. You can have plans for a tournament pack of some sort if things go well, but honestly, keep them to yourself. I’d go so far to say that even including the word ‘tournament’ in the name of your game is a bad idea.


Things To Include


Character Based Artwork


Artwork including figures is worth a lot on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is largely a visual medium, and living figures are more eye catching than inanimate objects, however dynamic said inanimate objects might be. Finding a way to present your game via a figure is a good idea, and generally in non-abstract fashions. For example, if your game is about decorating a room presenting it via a set of decorators will give it a leg up over presenting it via a set of abstract colours.


Tag lines, Elevator Pitches and Five-foot rules


Kickstarter does well with clean concepts, both graphically and mentally. Additionally, inexperienced designers have a tendency to throw too much into games. As such a game that can hook people with a strong tag line, explain it with an elevator pitch and look good from five feet away has a strong advantage.


By tag line I mean a single line that will go just under your Kickstarter title. If you can say something that will fit on that line that will stop people dead and make them need to find out more that is worth a huge amount. If you’ve got a choice between two games, one of which is “A variation on a worker placement game with a rondel mechanic which is interesting because it has card drafting that controls the rondel direction and staggered interlocking placement interaction” and the other is “The worker dis-placement game”, go with the second one.


An Elevator pitch is an explanation of all the cool things about the game that you could get out with someone during an elevator ride. It’s a good idea when you’re nailing down the idea of your game to actually put it into an elevator pitch, you’ll need to when you demo it at cons anyway, if you have to choose between two designs, one of which is clear and punchy when you describe it and one of which sort of meanders off at some point, pick the first one.


To check the five-foot rule, put out your game board and components, then stand five feet away (or further if you’re feeling confident) from them and see if they still look good and ideally that their purpose is still reasonably clear. Inexperienced graphic design can be cluttered and so won’t look good and clear from a distance, generally though, on Kickstarter backers will scan past quickly enough that you want things to look understandable and good with just a glance.


Solo mode

It has become so ubiquitous on Kickstarter as to be almost a joke at this point, but solo tabletop gaming is an increasingly popular hobby niche and if you have a choice to design a game that you can make a solo mode for over one that you cannot, you should absolutely focus on the soloable one. In general, the wider the player count you can manage the better, but be aware that over six or seven players people will expect a more party style experience.


Just remember, you can design anything, there are no limitation on your creativity. As such, by picking to design to a few self-imposed conditions you can significantly increase your chances of success. Are there any other design choices you can think of that seem to result in an increase in, or reduction of, the chances of a Kickstarter being successful?

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