The Do's And Don'ts Of Kickstarter Board Games

Rising Sun Figurines, by @MWChapel, BoardGameGeek.

My name is Haoran and I am a board game addict.

You probably already knew that.

But I'm just as addicted to something else: to the seductive appeal of the Kickstarter board game.

A Facebook ad for Tang Garden (Screenshot: Haoran Un, Facebook)

I see this all the time. Because Zuckerberg knows what I like.

I like being part of the in-crowd. I love the idea of being in on the ground floor. Of having some influence over the final design and production. Of knowing about the new cool thing before everyone else does, and having it, owning it, smelling it.

I'm addicted to the email updates and the photos of games in production, that continue to whet my appetite. I'm addicted to those stretch goals, which promise gorgeous real metal coins, deluxe wooden, silk-printed pieces, gorgeous art and the near-ubiquitous 3D figurine.

I'm addicted to receiving emails from Australia Post or DHL or Toll, and the joy of receiving a package in the mail, and more joy as I realise it's a present to me, from me, via a game designer on the other side of the world.

My current tally is ... well, I'm not going to tell you. Definitely in the double digits. Hopefully not near triple digits yet. Some have been great. Some have been terrible. Many have been mediocre. All have been exciting.

Having said that, I've had my share of bad experiences too. I've learned lessons the hard way. School of hard knocks, and all that. Someday, you too, might want to buy one of these games. In which case, this article is for you.

Please. I have made these mistakes so you don't have to. Heed my warnings.

Some thoughts.

Mythic Battles: Pantheon

Gameplay trumps game pieces

Look, I love pretty components as much as the next nerd, but at the end of the day, some of the best games in the world are just a stack of cards, and a few wooden cubes. A pretty game is no guarantee of a good game.

Conversely, there have been some horrific games with delightful pieces. A few years ago, I made a blanket rule of not backing any game with 3D figurines, because that told me they'd spent more time on style over substance. Fortunately, that situation has been improving in the last few years.

Once you know it's a good game, then you can pimp your game to the nines. For that reason, I'm quite fond of kickstarting Deluxe editions of existing games that are a known quantity. Quite often it'll be an exquisite and collectible re-print, but which has had plenty of reviews and high scores on BoardGameGeek.

Read the rules

The devil, as they say, is in the details. The details are in the rules.

Or at least they should be. If there aren't rules, avoid the game like the plague.

Read the rules. Figure out if the game designer has lovingly crafted decent rules, or if they've slapped together nonsensical rubbish. Because really, you want to figure out if this game is fun. More importantly, figure out if it's your sort of game.

If possible, try to watch a review and a playthrough. If they've provided a print-and-play PDF, even better.

Life's too short to play bad board games.

Glory to Rome. A glorious game; a terrible Kickstarter horror story.

Back proven performers

Much as Kickstarter originally came about to let amateurs crowdfund dreams that might never have been made professionally, there are so many Kickstarter horror stories out there that the backer must beware. The fact is, even the best game designer in the world might be hopeless at publishing and producing board game.

There a million ways in which publishing and producing a game can go wrong—getting burned on shipping, factories closing down, underestimating the cost and over-estimating efficiency, going bankrupt.

I've had one Kickstarted campaign take 2 years to deliver, only to go bankrupt shortly after. I've also been on the end of a scam where the crowd-funder was reprinting a known, very good game (Odin's Ravens, a classic 2-player-game). They took the money and ran.

If you want to be assured you're going to get what you paid for, go with a known designer and/or a reputable publisher who've published more than one game in the past.

Print and Play copy of Paperback, by Tim Fowers. Not Vapourware.

Beware Vapourware

Being mindful of the above, please back a game, and not a concept.

Let me give you a checklist:

  • Are there rules?
  • Is there a working prototype?
  • Has it been play-tested?
  • Have they finalised the rules, or are they still changing things?
  • Is there a game publisher?
  • Have they had it reviewed by anyone reputable?

Bonus marks if they've provided something you can Print and Play, so you can check for yourself if this is a game you want to back.

Replayability is not all it's cracked up to be

Many Kickstarter campaigns tout replayability as one of their design features. This is an overrated virtue, methinks.

That might be the case if you only ever Kickstart ONE board game, and play it once a week for a year. But let's be honest. You'll get your all-time favourite games to the table fifty, one-hundred times. But if you are an addict a collector, you'll have many many games on your shelves. There are other games, superb games that will sit on your shelf and get played 10 times.

So budget for 5-10 plays. A learning game or two, a handful of games with an experienced group.

The game designer, however, will have play-tested their game hundreds of times. They will appreciate the benefit of a randomised start—perhaps a board with tiles like Catan that you can shuffling and arrange. But that's just one more level of complexity, and for me, the best games are elegant and simple. Games with replayability often come at the cost of simplicity, and that is a grievous sin.

Me, I'd prefer to have one optimised board, crafted for the best gameplay from game one.

Similarly, don't be tempted by stretch goal expansions. I have strong opinions about board game expansions. If it improves the game, it should have been in the original. If it doesn't improve the game, then don't add it at all.

Gloomhaven (second printing, Kickstarter). A mind-bogglingly heavy board game that will cost you a small fortune to ship.

Avoid the Australia tax, part 1: Look for the Australian-friendly logo

You know about the Australia tax. Board games, which have a high weight-to-cost ratio, suffer from both the Australia tax, as well as large shipping costs. I once tried to Kickstart a game for USD$15, which is an absolute bargain. But the best shipping they could do (allegedly) was USD$65. I slowly backed away.

Things are better than they were. Some companies will now offer Australia-friendly shipping. Which is to say, knowing there is a small but vociferous board-gaming community in Australia, will arrange to ship a pallet of games to one of several local distributors, who will then arrange for shipping to your door. This allows them to ship a game such as Gloomhaven, a 9.8kg monstrosity which is double the size and triple the weight of many of my other board games, for only USD$10, which is an absolute bargain.

Avoid the Australia Tax, part 2: and team up with other Kickstarter-addicts

On BoardGameGeek, I discovered a group of people who organise Kickstarter orders to Sydney. Because if you're buying one game, sometimes you're paying $50 for a game, and $50 for shipping. But if you're pooling together buying ten games, You only end up paying $10 for shipping, and suddenly you no longer just have a Kickstarter exclusive, you also have a Good Deal (TM), and seriously, who can resist a good deal, eh?

I could go on, but I won't.

Look. I have my problems. I'm working through them. I'm backing less games and backing better games. I'm chasing that elusive trait known as self-control. I'm trying to only buy board games I'll love.

Don't waste your money on bad board games. Buy good board games, because there's just so many out there. And as sure as night follows day, there'll be more coming soon, to a Kickstarter near you.


    Who is Haoran and why I haven’t I being seeing more of him? I love reasearch intensive output with the author’s whimsy sewn in to the article for good measure.

      Haoran is one of the developers at Allure Media, and he works on Kotaku along with Gizmodo, Lifehacker, and all the other sites that the company publishes. It just so happens that he's also a massive board game geek, and every now and again he very graciously puts together some thoughts that I'm grateful to be able to share with everyone here.

        Tell him to he’s awesome for me. I don’t dig boardgames that’s much but I enjoy enjoyed being taken on his journey very much.
        His writing style would be good for retrospective pieces on older franchises (ya know, like Wonder Boy and Gradius). I’d love to see more of those in general!

        Last edited 09/07/18 2:12 pm

          That's easy. Hey @haoranun, someone would like to say thanks.

            Twice you make this mistake [/godfather accent]


            Last edited 09/07/18 3:31 pm

              @zombiejesus Summonsed, I have been.

              @alexwalker your mistakes have been noted.

              @superdeadlyninjabees Hiya! It me!

                I would be very interested in regular rundown of the games you've liked and not liked. Or maybe several shorter lists grouped by game type with some thoughts on why each one is good or bad.
                Kotaku needs more boardgame talk.

          And, thanks! I really appreciate your kind words.

          I do have thoughts about retro gaming, which I guess I'll have to write about at some point now!

    All of this. We just invested in ZOMBICIDE : INVADER (should've been called Xenocide damn it) and it's a.) a very, very proven performer, its models come from CMON games, a proven source of quality miniatures and its ruleset is released prior to the game coming out, during the kickstarter for us to all appraise. Upon seeing all of this, I was more than happy to drop a couple hundred on it all. Postage all up was around 60 bucks aus, the game and all extra purchases put me around 500ish (I bought more than a few extras, plus the expansion) and all I can say, is I feel, given what I spent on the other Zombicides on Ebay etc, I've more than saved a LOT going this route :)

    Yeh, Kickstarters a new goddamn addiction...

      I got Kingdom Death, Stonebound Saga, Grim Slingers and Bears vs Babies from Kickstarter; so far I haven't felt like I have made too many poor investments.

        Backed KD:M both rounds now. Extremely happy and have a group of mates that enjoy the challenge.

          I think its messed up that the update rolled out so quickly after release and left backers behind, but otherwise I love the models.

            You mean KD:M?

            To be perfectly fair the game is still perfectly functional under the old 1.0 rules. The 1.5 update just extends the campaign a bit longer by adding one more "boss" and a new event to reflect the extension (which in gaming terms is the hardcore mode after you clear the main story). But for all intents and purposes most of the game is intact besides a few balance changes. Everything else is just optional scenarios, rules and expansions

      I've been quite impressed with the last couple of CMON games (The Yanks who own the company say "C Mon" but I can't help but channel Lleyton Hewitt every time I pronounce the company name). Eric Lang has added a lot of solidity to their gaming line-up.

        What's blown my mind, I mean I've never seen anything like this for a boardgame before, is the new Cthulu game "DEATH MAY DIE", which looks *outstanding*. Their new promo video and figure (which... surely will attract HUGE postage, but I MUST have it...) which has just... well... I hope people wore their brown pants:

        Seriously though CMON's figures have only improved dramatically over the years. Zombicide Classic had rubbery plastic for its original run which didn't hold a lot of detail. By the time RUE MORGUE season 3 rolled around, the detail was better. When BLACK PLAGUE hit a year or so later, the plastic was refined and changed, the detail had increased and overall, was a much higher quality. Now GREEN HORDE has just hit and the quality is out-goddamn-standing. Having just invested in INVADER, I've seen a few of the finished models via their promos, not the 3d renderings, and it looks like they've upped their standards yet again.

        It used to be that GW was the pinnacle of figure production, but it really, really does look like these guys (and girls!) are giving them a serious run for their money these days? (Don't believe me people? Check out the add on "No Rest For The Wicked" and see their Necro Dragon.... holy shit that thing stands around 25cm high and looks stunning! It was awesome to paint :D (Can supply pics if people want.))

          I was expecting something pretty ridiculous...... not even close. That thing is insane!!!

          And yes, pics of the dragon please! I've just started painting GW stuff. God bless you tube tutorials and washes! 10 year old me could have used both.

      Ive tried to wean myslef off my kd bg addiction =P

      Ive backed a fair few decent games but i dont have as much disposable income these days... that being said i see KDM or Super Dungeon Explore then Im in =P

    I'm I think 20-25 board game kickstarters in and about a 60% strike rate. The worst that was actually delivered was easily the Dark Souls board game. Best by far has been the North Sea games (Shipwrights / Raiders / Explorers of the North Sea)

      Oh damn, Dark Souls was bad??? Seriously??? Bummer!

      In what way was it bad?

        You mean aside from the screwed up fulfillment and the fact the game is trash?

          Fulfillment was perfectly fine for me. The game turned up whole and undamaged. The stretch goal shipment is due very soon.

          The game is good if you like a certain type of game. I grew up playing Warhammer Quest. It's basically that, so I'm totally down with it. Takes a long time to play, though. There are some rulesets on BoardGameGeek that speed it up from a 3 hour game to a 1.5-2 hour game.

            You didn't have any problems with the fact they fiddled around everything between the Kickstarter ending and it going up on backerkit so what you pledged for didn't match up with what you actually got, charged Australians way more than they had said, fucked up the shipping, and the fact that it's over two years since it funded and they're only getting around to doing some of the addons now? Also the fact the game just showed up on our doorsteps out of nowhere without any warning (I never got a shipping notification or anything)

            I really don't like how the game plays. I didn't play Warhammer Quest but I did play HeroQuest and Dark Souls doesn't even deserve to be said in the same sentence as that. I'd happily give my copy away but I can't even find someone stupid enough to take it off my hands.

              Errr, Ok I didn't have any of those problems and it plays fine to me.

              Kickstarter isn't a shop.

              You bought a game still in development. The game changed a bit during that. It sucks that you didn't like the end result, but that's kinda what happens when you kickstart things.
              They charged the same amount in every place: 80GBP plus shipping and the shipping was a bulk order sent to a distribution house in Aus. I don't see how that could have been done better.
              They finished the base game and sent it in a timely fashion. The add-ons are exactly that. Added on to a final product. If it was all ready on day one it would've been like day one DLC. Less than a year to get new stuff made and sent isn't bad at all.
              They CONSTANTLY emailed people with where they were in the production cycle, whne shipping went to each region, and even included pictures of the boxes at each regional warehouse. The only way you couldn't have known is if you never read a single one of their emails and never visited kickstarter or their website. I knew when mine was coming within a two day margin.
              Here is the crux of it. You don't like the game you bought. That honestly sucks. I feel for you. Nobody wants to spend $150 on a thing that they don't like. But that's not all of these issues you're saying. If you seriously want to give it away, I'll take it. I know some board gamers who are pretty short on money and can't afford new games. They'll take it happily.

                Dude, I've backed over 150 projects on Kickstarter, I know how it works. I routinely get 20-30 kickstarter updates every week. I don't pay attention to every single detail, especially when 90% is fluff (and Steamforged Games were constant fluff)

                I care about three points in time:
                - The point the kickstarter ends and takes my money
                - The point they actually take my order on backerkit / send out a survey, or whatever
                - The point my stuff arrives (or doesn't)

                It was not well managed. I've participated in well-managed kickstarters, and it was not one of them. It wasn't terrible - eventually the stuff did arrive, which is better than some - but it could have been handled a lot better than it was. And the actual product could have been a lot better, but as mentioned, I have around a 60% strike rate with board games projects.

                Also most of the time board game kickstarters are at a playable state before asking for funding. Funding is seed money to pay for the initial manufacturing outlay. Dark Souls seemed to be this, but it actually wasn't a remotely finished game as it turned out, and that really sucked IMO.

                  I haven't backed anywhere near that many, but I'm really careful with my kickstarter pledges. Almost everything I've put money to has delivered me a working product. Some better than others, but most I've been quite happy with. I've been pretty ok with the DS game, but as I said, it's a lot like Warhammer Quest and I knew that going in.

                  If you want it gone, let me know what you want for it. Maybe I know someone who would like it. I'm sure I can find someone if it's not much.

    @alexwalker @haoran I've been bitten by the boardgame bug lately, having just finished collecting *all* available zombicide and an unhealthy amount of whats on ebay for it (I've become an ebay ninja thanks to it...) is there a chance of some sort of regular boardgame discussion on Kotaku for people with what's coming out or what's huge atm?

      Problem is, there's so many board games coming out I can no longer keep up enough to tell you what the absolute cream of the crop is, but I can throw a couple of recent titles that look awesome: Sagrada (colourful! dice-placement puzzler), Azul (abstract, family-friendly, should win SdJ), Century: Spice Road / Century: Golem Edition (an elegant deck-builder/engine-builder that runs at half-place), Altiplano (llamas! bag-buidler), Orleans (Altiplano without llamas). Clans of Caledonia (nice thick euro), Charterstone (the latest and greatest PvP legacy game).

      Some of these will get a write-up once I play them enough times.

        Ahhh, sorry that's not going to cut it. We're going to need a weekly board game post. By you. Weekly. Without fail.

          Tell you what. Send me board games (or convince the publishers to send me games) and I will definitely get more articles up.

            We could just talk Dominion and sigh contentedly every single week?

    All of this. Even for non-game kickstarters. My success record hasn't been great and I think the longest I waited on a project was two years. That was... fun. Now I don't bother buying if the postage is outrageous. ($40 shipping for a book that costs $20 to back... ugh.)

      I'm still waiting on 1 kickstarter, got burned on 1 other that never eventuated. Board/card games however are usually pretty safe as it's hard to screw them up. I've had a few successful ones though too.

    Good article and I agree points raised by the author. Although it nothing new to me I reached all these conclusions few years back. Definitely and enthusiast and addict when it comes to my board games. Collection currently stands at nearly 150 games with some 20 kickstarters among them. I crunched the numbers recently and my avg spend on a game retail is $50 and for a kickstarter $150 (over $3000 spent on ks alone). Add to this that if attempted to rank my top 10 games I don't think a single one would be a kickstarter.

    No matter how much you read the rules / watch vids in the end it always an emotional buy with a KS. I want something unique that you will not be able to get retail. So I tend to always get deluxe version, lots of add ons, play mats etc etc.

    I wouldn't say I have buyers regret either on any of the games even those delayed by a year or those i've not played extensively. The issue with having such a large collection is if you played a different game a week it would take 3 years to get through every game in collection.

    All these rules apply to backing tabletop rpgs as well

    You could just do a word swap and the article would be valid for backing rpgs on kickstarter because its another path to kickstarter addiction

    A life lesson for myself, Never trust that anything is going to be as fantastic as the salesman promises, So find your safety cord and safety net before purchasing. This applies to stock, cryptocurrencies and kickstarters especially.

    If you see a great game, You THINK you want it, it looks great, always ask yourself.. IF IT Fails, Whats my safety-cord/stop-loss, can I resell it, for cost? or for 80% of purchase price? If it funds, but only just.. well maybe you'll take a small loss to get rid of it, if you get 1-2 plays in, cost benefit vs going to the movies, then on the whole, you've broken even.

    Your safety net, IF the game doesn't match your expectations, maybe it has great minis but terrible rules, or vice versa.. can you use those minis for other games you've backed? for tabletop battles, for roleplay? just to paint for fun or practice? Are the rules interesting to port over to other games? could you house rule the flaws and make a whole new game?

    I back games to support other games that I enjoy playing, I have spreadsheets of stat conversions between games, so I can use massive darkness, rising sun and mythic battles in my Dungeon Saga or Myth game and vice versa, and often one interesting rule that people rave about, can be ported over to other game rules. That's my safety net.

      yeah a couple of plays and i’m usually satisfied i got something. my brake even point. i only ever backed conan and zombizide black plague with minis. that was enough for me. no time or inclination to paint minis rather play a game for 10 hours then paint minis. just me but. got dragoon, star realms, brass and fireball island currently fulfilling.

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