I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of Kickstarter and I’ve been backing a lot of different projects, mostly board games and book-related things. But sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming and I pass over pretty nice-looking projects simply because I see that they’re already well on their way to being funded and I figure I can always chip in to something that needs my help more.
[UPDATE: Startup Fever did successfully reach its goal, and is now available for purchase.]
When I first came across the Kickstarter page for Startup Fever, a board game by Louis Perrochon, I watched the video and read a little bit about the game but was on the fence about supporting it — particularly because it was already close to 100% of its goal. But when Perrochon contacted me to ask if I would try out an alpha version of the game, I jumped at the chance, because that would give me a better idea whether I’d enjoy it or not.
So here’s the gist: you’re all startup companies, working on various products in e-commerce or communications and so forth, and your goal is to build up the largest user base by the end of the game. Hiring nerds makes your products better, which brings more users, which makes you more money. Hiring suits for your salesforce increases your income, which you can spend on hiring nerds or on marketing, which brings more users. Of course, when the supply of workers dwindles, the only way to increase your workforce is by poaching from other companies.
So far, due to some travel and various other necessary interruptions, I haven’t gotten to sit down and really play the full game yet, but I wanted to give a short preview before the Kickstarter campaign ends. After failing to find a few gamers in recent weeks (a lot of my regulars are traveling as well), my wife finally agreed to give it a shot, though it was already late so we just went a few rounds to get an idea of how it works. Update: I did get to play a full game last night, but it was too late to edit my post. An additional paragraph at the end explains my impressions based on that play.
The short version: Startup Fever is really cool. As somebody who actually experienced a small part of the late ’90s dot-com boom and bust, I felt like the game does a good job of capturing the progression of a product, from initial idea and a small team of engineers, to the increasing inflow of money, and then to the piles of marketing dollars eventually spent to keep a product at the top of the market. Once products are launched, they compete against other products in the same category, and the winner steals users from the loser. It can be pretty intense competition, but it’s quite fun.
Each player starts with the same number of products (in a 6-player game each person controls two, but in a 2-player game each player controls four). Each product gets a turn to increase its user base, earn revenue, and hire employees. The growth of the user base is determined by a die roll, plus the number of engineers (nerds) that currently work on the product. Each company can also hire a Big Nerd (CTO) or a Big Suit (CEO) which generates more users and revenue across the entire company. Once you hit a certain spot on the user track, the product is launched and becomes public. Revenue is determined by the user base, plus the number of suits assigned to that product. Money can then be spent to hire up to two new employees, either from the pile or by poaching from other companies. You can also retain employees by paying them some more money.
One of the key mechanics is the way that employees move up the vesting track. It takes them four years to become fully vested, and once fully vested they’re easier to poach because they’ll take all their stock options with them. Until then, you’ve got to pay a bit more to poach them. Retaining employees moves them back down the vesting track so they’re harder for your competitors to hire away. But eventually, once the pool of potential hires is low, the only way to get more employees is from other companies — by then you hope you’ll have piles of cash to lure them.
At the end of each round of play, which represents a year, any products which have launched then compete against each other. The product strength is determined by the number of nerds and the amount of marketing money, plus a die roll. Winners gain users, and losers lose users. Depending on the number of competing products, you could move up to 12 spaces up on the users track or down up to 7 spaces (which is a lot).
At year end, all the employees vest one space up the track. Then you can reassign employees between products within your company, and you can allocate marketing money for the next year.
In addition to these mechanics, there are cards which can help you and harm your competitors. You can hire more employees, gain more users, or steal employees. There’s also a scandal card which knocks your opponent’s CEO or CTO out for a year.
Although we got a few of the rules mixed up the first time through, my wife and I both agreed that Startup Fever has some real potential and we’re both interested in trying a full game soon. I’d love to try it with more players, but it works really well as a two-player game, too. I love the way the game has a slow build at first but then eventually it’s a mad rush for money, angling to outspend the competition and hire away their employees.
Perrochon has posted a slew of updates about the game on the Kickstarter page, and also has a website devoted to the game which even has a print-and-play version (though you’ll need a whole lot of little bits). Currently you can pre-order a copy of the game for $50 (which includes shipping), with more expensive options to get a Kickstarter-only expansion, beta versions of the game (which use the Creative-Commons-licensed Map of the Internet from xkcd) and a laser-cut wooden box and pieces. The retail version will be cardboard with wooden tokens, manufactured by Panda Game Manufacturing, who also produced Pandemic and the recent Alien Frontiers — these both have high-quality game components, though they’re a bit heavy on VOCs and might need a little airing out before you break it out for game night.
I like the artwork in progress and I think the retail version will be impressive both in appearance and gameplay. Perrochon has been continuing to refine the rules and make the gameplay flow more smoothly, but we found that after a few rounds we had a pretty good idea of how the game works and could see the potential for some pretty intense strategizing.
I suppose you could always wait until Startup Fever hits store shelves, but if you want to be sure to get a copy (and for a little less than the proposed retail price), now’s a good time to buy in. Visit the Kickstarter page to back the project, or the Startup Fever website for more details. [Note: The game is now available directly from the website.]
Update: I did play a full game of Startup Fever last night with four players, and it was a blast. The game does take a a pretty long time to play — about two and half hours for us (while learning the rules), but it didn’t really feel long to me, especially once products start launching and the game gets really intense. It was also very interesting to see the way that different strategies can work: one player didn’t hire any regular employees the first two years, opting to save up for his Big Nerd and Big Suit instead. The cards can also have tremendous effects when played at the right time, particularly some that let you spend marketing money during the year rather than waiting until year end, or giving a particular product an extra turn.
Although my gamers weren’t too familiar with web startups (and particularly with the idea of vesting), they all really got into the game and by the end the competition was fierce. Remember: the deadline to back the project is next Monday, June 13!