Reflections on Kickstarter and Gen Con

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A commenter on my Gen Con Kickstarter roundup asked how Gen Con has changed with the rise of Kickstarter-funded board games. The truth is, since this was only my second year, I’ve never known a Gen Con before Kickstarter. Certainly, though, there were a host of games I saw during the show that had been funded through Kickstarter, and it seemed like much more than last year (though I don’t have actual figures on that).

Just for kicks, here’s a list of Kickstarter-funded games that I saw in final (or nearly final) form at Gen Con. I’ll get to a little more analysis below, but you can see that it’s a huge list. Most of these debuted this year, though some of these were around last year. I’ve linked those that have been covered or mentioned on GeekDad before.

Keep in mind: these are just the games that I happened to see at Gen Con. I’m sure there were many that I missed.

As I said, it’s hard for me to pinpoint how different Gen Con is before and after Kickstarter, but my perspective as a gamer and reviewer is that it has had a tremendous effect on the tabletop games industry as a whole—and since Gen Con is the biggest gaming convention in North America, I’m sure the effects carry over.

What I’ve noticed as a reviewer is that many game designers and publishers have turned to Kickstarter, with more all the time. For game designers, it’s a way to publish your idea the way you want it—instead of pitching your idea to a publisher, who might take your core idea and completely retheme it, you get to pitch your idea straight to the consumers (who might take your core idea and suggest that you retheme it, but that’s a different story). For publishers, it can serve as a way to gauge interest so you can decide whether it’s worth investing the capital to publish a game. Or, for publishers who are already set on printing up a game anyway, it offsets the up-front costs and works as a preorder system. (I’ll note without commentary that there are many I’ve talked to who complain about this particular use of Kickstarter.)

There are a host of new game publishers that wouldn’t exist without Kickstarter—some have only one game in their catalogs; others have built up a loyal following and continue to use Kickstarter as the default platform for each game.

I think I was surprised a little by the sheer number of Kickstarter games from small publishers (say, a one- or two-person company) that had a dedicated booth at Gen Con. Booths aren’t cheap—I’ve talked to many people who didn’t rent a booth because it was simply too expensive. So for a small company with only one funded game to rent a booth, that’s a pretty big investment, particularly if the game wasn’t ready in time to sell at the show. I suppose time will tell if the cost of the booth pays off in future sales when the games are ready for retail.

Many traditional publishers have taken to Kickstarter in the past couple years. Days of Wonder used it for their Small World app and a deluxe collector’s edition of Small World, but their regular line up (including the 10th anniversary edition of Ticket to Ride and this year’s new Five Tribes) were published without any crowdfunding. Eagle/Gryphon Games has launched several Kickstarters over the past few years, some for reprints of older games and some for new game designs.

Of course, there are still plenty of board game publishers who aren’t using Kickstarter. Asmodee Games had one of the largest booths at the show, and they’re still doing things the traditional way. Fantasy Flight Games is another big publisher that always has so many buying customers that there’s a line to get into their booth—and they publish games with high-end components all own their own dime.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Kickstarter isn’t the only option for publishers who don’t have (or don’t wish to spend) the capital to print a game first and then get it to market. Greater Than Games, publisher of the very popular Sentinels of the Multiverse series, decided to skip Kickstarter this time around and go straight to their fans. (I mentioned it in a Kickstarter Tabletop Roundup.) It’s working: they’ve got just a couple days left in their pre-order campaign, and they’ve pre-sold over 3,500 copies already. I spoke briefly with Christopher Badell at Gen Con, and he said that running their own pre-order makes sense primarily because of the shipping: Kickstarter doesn’t allow you to automatically calculate shipping for different regions and keep a single pledge level for a title. So publishers are constantly creating either several reward levels for various types of shipping, or offering free (meaning subsidized) shipping—but either way, they’re often losing money on shipping, particularly internationally. With their own pre-order system, Greater Than Games can set a fixed price for the game itself, and figure out actual shipping costs based on where you are. The Kickstarter and Amazon fees were not the main reason for the switch, Badell explained.

Plaid Hat Games is a publisher that hasn’t run any Kickstarter campaigns, but has been using its own pre-order system with success. Their big Gen Con release was Dead of Winter, which had already generated a lot of buzz. I overheard that around 400-500 copies of the game sold out on the first day, but a lot of gamers pre-ordered it so they could get their copy as soon as possible. Colby Dauch builds up buzz through the Plaid Hat website by posting a lot of information about a game—similar to what you’d see as a Kickstarter update—well before its release, but instead of stretch goals and pleas for pledges, you just buy it or you don’t. Its publication doesn’t depend on hitting a specific target number.

If you’ve been attending Gen Con for a long time, I’d love to hear from you in the comments: do you feel the convention has changed significantly with the advent of Kickstarter? If so, for the better or worse?

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