Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Bad Medicine Kickstarter postmortem

The dust has settled, and the Bad Medicine Kickstarter is done. The final result: 1,066 backers raised $30,130 of an $8,000 goal. That is well beyond what I ever expected when I started out.

I’ve seen other creators come up with these kinds of studies, and folks have asked me to write one up. Here’s a few observations I have.

It’s not enough to offer a good game. You must offer a good product.

I’ve spent the last 15 years intensely studying good game design. But publishing requires studying a game through a different lens: what makes a good product?

I caught a wave of backers from the medical and pharma industries. I feel that most of them didn’t back Bad Medicine because of its well-thought-out rules (although I worked hard on those). They backed it because it’s a funny game about a subject that’s near and dear to them, and there aren’t many of those out there. The price was right, and my campaign page explained the game thoroughly through graphics, text, and a clever video with good production values.

I think my study of successful (and unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaigns really paid off. I tried to make the campaign page easy on the eyes, and I spent a long time on the campaign video, as well as the two tutorial videos. All this made people confident in pledging their money.

It’s funny; I see new designers posting pictures of their prototype on its first test, asking what people think of the look of the game. Or they’ll ask about the look of their components before showing the rulebook for review. I think those new designers are looking at making a good product, but they don’t know yet how to make a good game. And yet for a Kickstarter, all you ever get to see is the product; you won’t be able to tell if it’s a good game until you actually play it!

I’m still getting used to wearing a publisher’s hat, but I hope I get better at looking at making a good game that is also a good product. It’s not impossible; Tasty Minstrel, Stonemaier, Dice Hate Me, and Minion do this on Kickstarter all the time. But it’s not a skill we can take for granted, and I want to get better at it.

Look past your national borders.

Going in, I wasn’t expecting Bad Medicine to get much traction from outside the US. I thought Big Pharma and its advertising was a uniquely American phenomenon. I considered not even shipping outside America.

I’m very glad I changed my mind and signed with Spiral Galaxy Games to fulfill Bad Medicine in the EU. Over 27% of my backers were from outside the US. I got a surprising number of backers from Australia, and I noticed a movement of Korean backers working together to get good deals on shipping.

Time will tell if I calculated shipping correctly, but I’m optimistic that I won’t regret my worldwide reach. I’m so happy that my game has gotten enthusiastic recognition from people around the world, from Scotland to Kuwait to Singapore. This is an amazing time to start a business; the world has gotten ridiculously small.

Kickstarter doesn’t have to be just a pre-order system.

This is one of the recurring complaints I hear about Kickstarter, that it’s a glorified pre-order system, and there’s no need for people to really back games when they’ll just appear on store shelves a year later (and likely forgotten the following year).

I’m really happy that I found a few opportunities to engage my backers. For example, I wanted to make most of Bad Medicine’s cards look like small prescription slips. I wasn’t sure what the best font was for the cards, so I posted a few samples of the different fonts, and asked my backers which one they preferred.

The conversation took an unexpected turn. My non-American backers pointed out that prescription slips look completely different outside America, and linked me to some examples. This was a bummer, but it was also an opportunity. I noticed that the example non-American prescription forms all had yellow backgrounds. So I ran another poll, asking two questions: do you prefer a blue or yellow background (with sample images for both), and do you consider yourself from the US, from outside the US, or a bit of both?

It turns out that both US and non-US backers preferred the yellow background. So instead of going with a blue background that didn’t mean anything to a quarter of my backers, I have a card front that reads like a prescription slip almost anywhere in the world. Plus, I gave my backers a chance to get involved in the game’s final look.

I also had backers making fantastic suggestions for the game, reminding me to make sure the box will fit all the cards if they’re sleeved, pledging extra money to customize some of the cards, and voting to make one of the stretch goal components capsule-shaped instead of pill-shaped. Pretty good for a so-called glorified pre-order system!

Have most of your art done, but not all of it.

I initially regretted not having my art completely done when the campaign launched, and a few would-be backers complained to me about the “prototype-y” look of the game. In retrospect, I should have had more art done before the campaign started.

But I learned how valuable it is to not have everything done at the start of the campaign. Backers want to be involved, and the opportunity to see the game evolve, especially with backer input, is one of the best things about Kickstarter. So in my next campaign, I will aim to have the art 80-90% done when the campaign launches. No less, but no more either.

Reach out to more reviewers earlier.

I sent review copies to about four reviewers, and advertised on a couple of podcasts. That wasn’t bad, but one of my reviewers was late, so the campaign should have had more reviews on the site. I should have sent out three times the number of review copies, and I should have sent them out two months in advance instead of one. Speaking for myself, if I see a Kickstarter campaign from a publisher and/or designer I’ve never heard of, I default to skepticism until I see a trusted name in the review section.

Of course, there’s a larger conversation to be had here about the trustworthiness of Kickstarter previews, since a lot of them are paid. But I know that a lot of reviewers won’t preview a game they didn’t like. It’s not worth the money if it means a lack of credibility. So at the very least, a Kickstarter preview shows that the game has at least passed a basic bar of competence, and is worth a more involved look.

Don’t be afraid of the alpha backer.

Before I launched, I was really worried about hypothetical “squeaky wheel” backers who would want me to bend over backwards to accommodate a whole host of unrealistic demands, from cheaper shipping to lower pledge levels to unrealistic components in the box.

Thankfully, I didn’t get anyone like this! I did have a lot of enthusiastic backers who shot all sorts of great suggestions my way, but none of them were rude or bossy about it. My backers didn’t want to dictate my game to me; they just wanted a voice in the conversation. Talking to them in the comments was excellent; I got to see where they were coming from, and I was grateful they had such a stake in the game.

I’ve learned a lot from reading Jamey Stegmaier, and one thing he suggests (and I wish I could find a link to this article!) is to never just outrightly deny your backers a suggestion. Instead, if a backer wants to see something in your game that can’t be done, it’s best to explain the obstacles to that suggestion, and ask the backer what they would do in your situation. They understand almost all the time, and because you gave them the opportunity to look at it from your point of view, they feel like they have a stake in the decision.

I can see how some creators find working with vocal backers difficult. But if you’re willing to give them your ear, you’ll emerge with your most enthusiastic supporters.

Pounding the pavement beats the Early Bird.

I’m not a fan of Early Bird reward levels. Sure, they may build critical early momentum, but you pay for that by disincentivizing backers from raising their pledges late in the game, as well as the obvious loss of goodwill you’ll encounter from people who stumble onto your campaign late.

Instead, I did a bunch of campaigns. My tour took me from Boston to Baltimore in the weekends leading up to my campaign launch. UnPub was an especially critical convention, with a bunch of early backers signing up for my mailing list there. By marketing my game (and making sure people signed up for my mailing list) well before my campaign launched, I built a lot of momentum at the start of my campaign without having to lock backers into an early-bird reward.

Mind the combinations.

One of my regrets was that while I offered a multi-game level (3 copies of the game) and two limited customization levels (name a bit of a drug, and name a side effect), I did not have an uber-level that combined all of them until the last day of the campaign. It wasn’t a bad late update, but it’s possible I could have gotten another high-level backer if I offered it earlier.

It’s not over when the campaign ends.

Of course, I expected this, but it bears repeating: even though the visible part of the campaign is done, the invisible stuff is in progress. I’m working with the artist and the printer now to get my game in my customers’ hands by September. I’m confident I can do it, but it’s not work that will do itself. My biggest nightmare is Bad Medicine becoming one of “those” campaigns that promised but never delivered. I want to be able to launch another Kickstarter later this year, but I won’t do that until I have this one signed, sealed, and delivered.

It’s been an amazing ride so far. I can’t wait to send the game off to the printer!

The Formal Ferret game design manifesto

I don’t have a lot of time to write today because I’m tending to my Kickstarter campaign. But in one of the many interviews I’ve done in support of the game, I brought out a manifesto I’d been working on.

Why a manifesto? I wrote it after playing a game that ran counter to everything I love in games. It left me unhappy and agitated, but it also made me wonder what I value in games. So I wrote it down.

  • Games played for recreation should be fun.
    • I’m carving out space for transformative games here, which aren’t played for recreation, and don’t have to be fun to be effective.
  • Games should reward players for accomplishing interesting goals.
    • Sounds obvious, but can never be emphasized enough. Games are about incentivizing players to do cool things.
  • Games should not expect players to target or punish the leader.
    • This is a dynamic I personally detest. My favorite games are about planning and building. There are a few games about bashing other players that I like, but most of them have such an awkward balance between building and attacking that they lose my interest.
  • Players should always feel mostly in control of the game. Never full agency, but never none at all.
    • This goes back to opacity and transparency. I’ve been playing a lot of Camel Up lately, and I find the math behind the race beautifully done. You always have a good idea of who’s leading and who’s trailing, but rarely do you have the full picture, and the mechanisms serve that opacity with incredible precision.
  • Games should have lively, refreshing themes.
    • This is a tough balance to hit. On one hand, I don’t mind playing games with the same retreaded themes (and I feel that a lot of them have those familiar themes for a good reason), but I’d rather not design a game with them. I just don’t find them compelling enough, and I think the theme of bloodless colonization in particular is dangerously disingenuous. On the other hand, if you make a game with a crazy theme, you risk distracting players and losing your game’s focus. But I think it’s possible to walk the line and deliver a game with a fun theme and well-integrated mechanisms.
  • Elegance is useful, but is not a goal in and of itself. Complexity has its place.
    • This is a big one for me, personally. I admire elegance and I try to use it when I can. But a heavier game gives me more flexibility, and I enjoy playing games with interesting wrinkles in their rules. I’d rather have a fun but dense game than a game with a few rules that feels disposable. The first game may appeal to fewer people, but they’ll be much more passionate about it. I want to make something that stirs that passion.
  • All board games should look beautiful. Even stodgy economic games.
    • We’re in a new age now. Economic games don’t have to look like prototypes anymore. I’m so happy that Battle Merchants is an example of a great-looking economic game, and I think we could use more.

I don’t expect other designers to write their own manifestos, or to agree with every item here. But it’s a cool exercise to go through. What’s your own manifesto?

Bad Medicine is now LIVE on Kickstarter!

4P wasn’t the only thing I did in January. This is now live on Kickstarter:

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Let’s make Bad Medicine a reality!

On talent, failure, and giving up

Note: There’s no huge announcement behind this post. I’m not giving anything up, or experiencing any setbacks. Perhaps failure is on my mind because I’m about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for my first self-published game in a month, and this stuff is on my mind. Maybe I’m just in a reflective mood. Maybe I just ate some bad fruit.

In any event, I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, and I felt like sharing it here. Nothing more!

If there’s one thing I absolutely believe in, that’s to believe in no absolutes.

Here’s an example. No one likes to fail. Too much failure is a problem. Too much failure disheartens us. There’s a point when you realize the mat of the boxing ring is more comfortable than any other position you could be in at this moment. And all the pep talks in the world won’t get you back onto your feet.

I’ll be honest: The idea that “if you put your mind to it, you can do anything” is complete garbage. No one is good at everything. There are some things in this world that you and I just will never be able to do.

I found a bunch of things I couldn’t do when I was a kid at school. Sports. Foreign language. Singing. I just couldn’t do them at any level of competence, regardless of how much time I put into them. My life became immediately better the moment I gave them up (or in the case of foreign language, the moment I was allowed to give them up, which was when I passed the mandatory state test by one point).

It’s not self-deprecation to realize you can’t do something well enough to be competent. We are all mortals; we all have our limits. Acknowledging them, and working around them, is huge.

If there is something in life that you can’t do, then the sooner you realize you can’t do it, the better. Giving up is not always a bad thing. It doesn’t always mean admitting defeat. For me, it usually means gathering reinforcements.

But, on the other hand…

I’ve seen people discuss “talent” in the past. Like, a person either has an innate talent at something, or they have no ability. I’ve seen people quit new creative endeavors almost immediately after starting them, claiming they were “no good at it”. They figured if they didn’t feel like a natural at first, what’s the point?

One thing that is important to me is failure. This blog was originally named “Fail Better”. Failure is at the core of iterative design. It’s all about failing, and failing quickly. It’s about exploring the ways you fail. It’s about embracing failure, and figuring out why you’re failing. Because if you do that enough times, you find yourself not failing.

I recently cracked open a box of my oldest game designs from 15 years ago, and it stunned me how bad some of those games were. What was I thinking? If I knew how bad those games were back then, would I have continued plugging away at designing games?

If you’re a game designer, and you’re feeling the boxing glove of failure repeatedly striking you in the abdomen, you can take some time to reflect on your life decisions while you’re lying on the mat. It’s part of the process.

If you feel like you’ve had enough, and you’ve given things a fair shake, no one will blame you for staying on the mat.

But don’t decide on that nap too early. Getting up is part of the process too.

How many women…? Final 2014 statistics!

2014 is history, and so is my year-long project to track the genders of all the people I played with.

Here are the final numbers…

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  • Overall, 26% of my opponents in 2014 were women.
  • If I was playtesting an unpublished game, then 17% of my opponents were women. If I was playing a published game, then 31% of my opponents were women.
  • If I was in a public space (like a game store or a public convention), then 21% of my opponents were women. If I was in a private space (like someone’s house), then 31% of my opponents were women.

I hope no one sees these numbers as authoritative. They only show my personal experience. If anyone else takes up this project, I’m sure their numbers will differ, and they may differ by a lot!

But this project has opened my eyes to the invisible ropes that I feel keep some women from participating in the hobby. I think, in a perfect world, board games could be split more evenly across genders.

It’s also made me think about privilege and status. In order to play and design board games as a hobby, a person needs lots of time off to play games, to design games, to go to conventions, to playtest, to talk on the internet, to network. That person will also need a strong, steady income to afford new games, supplies, and conventions. Finally, if that person has a family, they will need some sort of support in covering family roles while they play and design their games.

In order to have that sort of time and income, that person is going to need a whole lot of privilege. It means a good job with good benefits and lots of time off. It also means passing off familial obligations to loved ones. It’s something that men are more likely to be able to do than women.

I believe that sort of privilege is the primary reason why there are so many more men than women in our hobby, and especially why there are so many more men who design board games than women. I know that’s a pretty big generalization, and there are going to be tons of people who are exceptions. My hope is that we start seeing more and more exceptions as our hobby develops, and we get closer to an even gender split.

Finally, this project has also opened my eyes to people who identify as nonbinary; that is, people who do not identify as traditional “male” or “female” genders. This is still quite a taboo subject, and there are even more ropes and walls blocking me from tracking that as well. Many nonbinary people don’t publicly share their stance out of fear, and I felt uncomfortable asking friends who were just over to play games.

So once again, please forgive the lack of nonbinary data here. Perhaps one day, someone can handle this kind of information much more thoroughly than I have.

I know I’ve been hammering on gender topics on this blog lately. If you’ve found it tiresome, I understand; but I urge you to consider that there are plenty of people who don’t get to ignore things like exclusion and discrimination, because it gets rubbed in their face every single day. The lone woman in an otherwise all-male gaming group. The woman working at the game store who has to deal with customers either hitting on her or ignoring her. The woman who feels pressured to make a move in her game, before the other players start peppering her with unsolicited advice. The woman who has the nagging feeling that she should be doing something more “productive” while she’s playing a game.

I’ve learned so much during this project, and I’m really grateful that I see more people sharing their views. I feel weird bringing it all up, because I’m not a woman, and I don’t want to say anything untruthful, inaccurate, or hurtful. I hope I’ve succeeded there, and I hope you will grant me the privilege to keep writing the occasional post on this topic from time to time if I find something worth discussing.

With all that said, I resolve to talk more about game design in 2015!