One Week from Kickstarter Launch

Last night, I used a carshare to bring home enough fruit, snacks and meal ingredients to keep me well fed through Friday, when Lagoon launches on Kickstarter. I splurged with some fancier fare and comfort foods that I’ve not much had since quitting my job in October. Over the past weeks, I’ve not always eaten as regularly as I should to sustain my 14-18 hour work days. So I stocked up and won’t have to worry now about not eating well or losing project time to shopping.

This morning I had a cord of firewood delivered. I’ve been dreading running out of wood for the stove that heats my speakeasy basement where I prefer to work, and have been rationing it for weeks. Even more, I’ve been dreading the time I’d lose having to deal with getting more wood. Stacking a cord takes time, and my main dry wood storage area is up a good flight of stairs from the street where it’s dumped. Fortunately, my incredible housemate Adam helped me stack all the wood and clear the wood debris from my driveway. It was a gorgeous fall day, and I was so glad to be outside if only for an hour.

This afternoon I went to the baby shower for one of my best friends. It’s the first social engagement I’ve been to since New Year’s Eve. They came down from Seattle for the shower, and I made an exception to my no-social-engagements productivity policy to see them. Just after hopping in a Car2Go to drive across town, I got a text from my neighbor and close friend Amy. She’d seen me walk by her house and was offering a ride to the baby shower. Sweet timing! So I bailed on the Car2Go and doubled back to hang out with her and Josh while they got ready. A tough Hokusai jigsaw puzzle sat unfinished at the table, so I worked on it while we talked. We three started this puzzle together at our circle’s NYE weekend at the coast, and it felt good to be working on it again.

The baby shower was packed with close friends, and I stayed way longer than I had planned to allow myself. It was the first time I’d seen any of them since the holidays, and it felt amazing to be back in my community for a few hours. They showed me so much love, support, and encouragement. It reminded me how lucky I am, and how awesome it will be to have a social life again in a couple weeks! This was a much needed boost as I head into my final week preparing for the Kickstarter.

And as a bonus, I left the party a lot closer to securing health coverage since quitting my job! Oregon’s health care exchange has suffered the challenges many states have, and my application has been in process for more than a month and a half. One of my friends at the party has a top position at the exchange, and can help get my application moving again. It would be really, really nice to have health insurance again starting in February.

Now I sit by a hot wood stove typing away on this blog post. Let me give you a quick tour of Three Hares Games headquarters:

By the Stove

Kickstarter video set. AKA my basement. I do most of my work down here.

Prototype Construction Station

Lagoon prototype workbench. The stack of boxes at the back are filled with laser cut hex tiles and tokens.

The second photo is the other side of the speakeasy, with my game table set up as a prototype workbench. There’s a bar too, but I don’t work there. :-)

This space has always felt special to me, like a retreat from the world — and from my life. But now, this beloved space is where the first steps in my new life are unfolding. It isn’t removed from the world, it currently is my world. I’m looking forward to expanding my life outside these walls again very soon, but for now this is a pretty sweet place to be as I buckle down for the Lagoon Kickstarter. I’ve got my food, I’ve got wood for my stove, I’ve got love from my friends, and a renewed drive to power me through what’s ahead. That’s a pretty good list of assets if the apocalypse were ahead, so I think I can handle anything short of that too.

A Revolution in Game Design

This past weekend, I attended a convention (UnPub) focused entirely on playing unpublished board game designs. The official program included 68 different games presented by dozens of different game designers. Members of the public turned out in droves to play these games, and so far 7 games earned publishing contracts! It was a phenomenally well-run event, and I made sure to express my tremendous gratitude to founder John Moller and to this year’s ace organizer Darrell Louder.

I brought Lagoon, of course. My goal was primarily to test the usability of various graphic design elements, but also to confirm with repeated plays that everything continues to work well. Happily, Lagoon was very well-received at the convention. The only problems that emerged are minor graphic design and wording issues that are easily resolved. I met dozens of designers, wonderful players, and a handful of new publishers. Quite a few times, I met someone new who had already heard of Lagoon and reported hearing only good things about it. It was a new experience for me, and rather humbling.

Best of all was the new friends I made, and the good times spent with friends I first met at GenCon and Metatopia last year. I continue to be blown away by the unusually high concentration of amazing people in the board game industry. As a general rule, publishers and designers are eager to help and support each other. I really enjoyed the chances I had to play other designers’ games, offer feedback, share lessons I’ve learned, and otherwise give back to the community some of the generous assistance I’ve received.

Although we’re each building our own games, the feedback and input from our players and peers make game design a collaborative effort. Together we’re building something bigger: a strong community of game designers and seasoned game testers. This seems to be happening at an unprecedented scale in the past few years, with a growing number of conventions and events focused on bringing designers together. This was UnPub’s fourth year, and I believe Darrell said attendance exceeded all three prior years combined! Other events with a focus on unpublished games and their designers include Protospiel and Metatopia, which are also young and thriving.

Historically, game conventions have focused on bringing players together. That’s awesome and important, but I think the emerging phenomenon of events focused on bringing designers together is going to be huge for gaming. Just think back to the scientific revolution, which was made possible by better communication and collaboration among far-flung scientists who previously labored alone. That’s not so different from the transformation that’s happening in game design today.

We game designers now have our own conventions, we have a ton of real-time design conversations happening on Twitter, and we have more reflective discussion taking place on blogs, podcasts and on BGG. Not to mention innovative game design roundtables like Building the Game: Something From Nothing. Game designers have never had better access to each other, and I believe a new renaissance in game design will be the inevitable result.

It may take 6-12 months for a designer to get a game polished enough to pitch to a publisher. Then it may take another 6-12 months before the game hits the market. That makes for a 12-24 month life cycle from game conception to game publication. That dramatically slowed the pace of design innovation in the old world order, because a given game would only be seen by other designers once it was published. Only then could they be inspired by it. Today, the exchange of ideas, inspiration, and cross-pollination is happening realtime. Game design will flourish as a result.

The magic of table top games is that they give us new ways to connect with each other and share engaging experiences face-to-face around a table. It’s no surprise then that the community of designers striving to deliver this magic understand the importance of connecting with each other in pursuit of our common goal. We’re extraordinarily lucky to also be joined by a small army of veteran game testers skilled in providing spot-on feedback. I believe the growing strength of this community is going to drive a revolution in game design, and subsequently expand the appeal and reach of board games in our society dramatically. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s beginning. People in our technologically-mediated culture are desperate for ways to connect without a computer between them, so let’s put our heads together and give them ever more magical ways to share amazing experiences face to face, around a table!

My First FLGS and Stretch Rewards

I just got off the phone with Patrick Nickell of Crash Games. We talked about the vagaries of stretch reward planning, setting prices for board games, and lots of other topics. I remember watching Patrick and Michael Coe hustle their butts off promoting their Rise! Kickstarter campaign at my first BoardGameGeek Convention back in 2011. At the time, I was testing the waters to see if the board game industry and convention life would be a good fit for me.

When I got back home, I noticed tweets from Patrick and Michael about hanging out at the Game Depot, a game store in Tempe, AZ that is near and dear to my heart. At the end of my first year of college at Arizona State University, I sold my textbooks back to the bookstore and walked directly over to the original tiny Game Depot location to spend that textbook money on my very first Magic: The Gathering cards from proprietor Dave Pettit. That moment changed my life. And of course it was only the first of many, many visits to Dave’s store to buy Magic cards. When I go back to Arizona for the holidays, I try to visit the very large current Game Depot store to say hi and buy a game.

Because we share a connection to my old FLGS, I was delighted to meet Patrick and Michael at GenCon this past summer. Then at BGG.CON this past fall, Patrick answered a lot of my questions over breakfast about publishing and offered future help should I need it. Today I was grateful to accept that help. We discussed more of the lessons he has learned as a publisher, which he is eager to help me benefit from. Patrick is incredibly passionate about games, and one of the highlights of my BGG.CON was watching an animated Patrick attract a sizable crowd clogging all the aisles around the Crash Games booth on the last night of the con for a raffle he’d been promoting the whole con.

Returning to the business of Lagoon, I spoke with my rep at Panda for an hour and a half yesterday, going over every detail of the revised Lagoon manufacturing quotes I received last week. We made a few tweaks to the specs for the base version of Lagoon, but mostly we talked about possible stretch rewards and their cost. As I explained in my last post, a lot of possible stretch reward enhancements to my game were lumped together into a “maximum” version of Lagoon for which Panda also delivered a quote.

This is a good start, but it still doesn’t tell me what the cost of each individual enhancement is. That’s critical information I need in order to sequence my stretch goals at funding intervals that will pay for each stretch reward. In a lot of cases the costs can be inter-related, so it isn’t necessarily easy for Panda to break out each component’s cost separately in a quote. So I had a lot of questions for my rep about the relative costs of different enhancements, and fortunately he was able to give me a reasonable ballpark estimate on the costs of many things. When he didn’t have an answer, he promised to get one for me.

Even after I get all these numbers though, it’s still not as straightforward as it seems. The cost of almost every component shrinks gradually as the number of units you produce goes up. Suppose the minimum print run for your game is 1500 copies, and a given enhancement adds 40 cents to the unit cost for the game in a minimum print run. That same enhancement might cost just 38 cents in a 2500 copy print run and maybe only 32 cents for 5000 copies. Unfortunately though, that kind of precise cost information simply isn’t available to me. Comparing the minimum and maximum quotes for Lagoon, I can make a rough estimate of how the costs scale for individual enhancements. But it’s guesswork, especially if you’re looking at a lot of possible stretch rewards lumped together in a single maximum quote. And I don’t think Panda would be amused if I submitted a couple dozen different manufacturing quote requests to cover all the possible configurations.

A few cents here and there may not seem like much, but it adds up because the manufacturing cost is multiplied about 5-6 times to get the game’s MSRP. If you underestimate the cost of all your stretch rewards by a total of just 20 cents, that could amount to $1 or more in lost revenue when your game is later sold in retail stores. Hobby games are expected to have nice round prices like $19.95, $24.95, $34.95, etc. It would be awkward to change the MSRP of your game from say $19.95 to $20.95 in order to cover the 20 cents in stretch reward costs you weren’t able to accurately predict from the information your manufacturer provides. Such errors eat into profits, which are razor thin in this industry to begin with.

This is why I was up until 3am last night building out more details and funding scenarios in the financial model I’m building for Lagoon’s Kickstarter. I already have a pretty good idea what possible stretch rewards I’d like to offer for Lagoon if it’s economically feasible, but I need to do more brainstorming, focus grouping, and then more calculating, calculating, calculating. And as if on cue, Jamey Stegmaier today posted a new Kickstarter Lesson about the value of including a must-have component in your board game. More food for thought!




Finding My Community, Doing the Math

Yesterday I met up with Teale Fristoe of Nothing Sacred Games while he was visiting Portland. I showed him Lagoon, we played a cool bird watching prototype game he brought, and then we played his delightful Kickstarted game Corporate America. All of this was the product of our randomly connecting on Twitter.

By now, this is a pattern I’ve repeated many times. At each of the four game conventions I attended in 2013, I shared a hotel room with one or more fellow game designers I knew through Twitter: Ben Rosset, Jason Tagmire, Kevin Kulp, Seth Jaffee, and Adam McIver. That’s a pretty phenomenal lineup of fun, creative and helpful lads that I wasn’t prepared to have my world rocked by when I reached out to them about sharing a room. I wanted to save money, but the real payoff was the amazing late night conversations, shared inspiration, and resulting friendships. I met dozens and dozens of other Twitter acquaintances at these conventions as well, and these connections have accelerated my learning and game development tremendously. If you’re a game designer, your community is on Twitter.

My primary intention with this blog is to document how I’m spending my many hours a day working towards the Kickstarter launch of Lagoon, so I’ll shift focus to that now. Using recently revised manufacturing quotes from Panda, I started building a financial spreadsheet to help me determine if I can manage to make a profit by publishing Lagoon. My early tinkering suggests that at low print runs, the margins are thin to non-existent. And I don’t even have to pay a designer royalty to someone else! This is where Kickstarter fits in, giving me a chance to earn the support of backers who will springboard me into a higher print run with lower per unit costs.

I’m hoping I can publish Lagoon with an MSRP of about $35, but it would be a lot easier if I could make it $40. Setting a game’s price is tough. On the one hand you want to set the price at a level that makes profit conceivable, while on the other hand you need to set the price at what consumers expect for the size, weight, and components in your game. I haven’t figured this all out yet.

Back to the spreadsheet, my financial model currently uses guesses for the weight of a single copy of the game as well as for the freight shipping of the whole print run from China (awaiting better numbers on these from Panda). The weight of the finished game typically drives your cost to fulfill Kickstarter rewards, since each copy has to be individually mailed to each backer and weight often impacts the postage. Overall, the cost of shipping is just huge. Frankly, it seems getting a handle on shipping alone is probably a bigger job than all the other financial planning I need to do. This is mainly due to the trials presented by getting reward copies of the game to international backers. Fred Hicks of Evil Hat does a brilliant job of laying out why this is so hard. The wildly enterprising Jamey Stegmaier figured out a complex but effective way to reduce international shipping costs, but it requires a mountain of logistical planning that makes my head spin. For a while I was actually considering not offering international shipping at all so I could just stick my head in the sand on this and avoid facing what will be an unpleasant compromise no matter how I slice it. Welcome to business, David!

Another thing I need to get a handle on is how to plan stretch rewards for Lagoon. Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel Games is a major Kickstarter innovator, and also very generous and forthcoming in sharing how he runs his publishing business. We played Lagoon twice at the BoardGameGeek Convention (he beat me the second game!), and over dinner he was kind enough to share a lot of tips about how he plans his Kickstarter campaigns. Borrowing from his methodology, I requested two quotes from Panda. The first quote is for the minimum quality version of Lagoon, and the second quote is for a higher end “maximum” quality version of the game including several potential enhancements that could be stretch goals. This was good advice, but now I’m struggling to figure out how I might sequence the stretch rewards and at what funding levels they can pencil out for me financially. In theory, higher funding levels should allow me to do a larger print run, which lowers the cost per unit. Those cost savings are theoretically what pays for stretch rewards. I have a call with my Panda rep tomorrow, and am hoping to get more answers about the relative cost of individual game enhancements.

Another publisher I spent time with at BGG.CON was Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games. His Kickstarter campaign for Brew Crafters (designed by my wonderful GenCon roommate Ben Rosset) was in its final hours during the convention, and was blowing through all its stretch goals. As a backer, I was amazed at how smoothly Chris managed the campaign, all his timely and polished communications to backers, and especially a steady progression of exciting and achievable stretch goals. That’s a feat I hope to emulate.

The last night of the convention, I holed up for dinner in the hotel bar with Chris, Darrell Louder of Compounded and UnPub fame, my con roommate Adam McIver (shortly thereafter famous for CoinAge), and pro game photographer Scott King. Conventions are intense, and after four nonstop days it was nice to slow down for a spell and relax with these fine gentlemen during the pandemonium of the massive BGG raffle down the hall. Chris shared a lot of really helpful information about his publishing experiences, and said I could follow up with him if I had other questions later on. I just took him up on that, and am hoping to glean a few more insights into how he made the Brew Crafters campaign dance so gracefully. With the help of all the amazing friends I’ve been making in the board game industry, I believe I can teach Lagoon to do the Kickstarter tango!

Blogging Lagoon

This blog will document my day to day life as someone hustling full-time on a board game Kickstarter. I’m making final preparations to launch my game design Lagoon on Kickstarter at the end of January. As I ramp up for the campaign, I plan to share a rough accounting of what tasks I’m spending my time on, the challenges I run into, and the helpful resources that make my life and business more manageable.

The initial impulse to do this came from a desire to keep some sort of record for myself, because my life is a whirlwind of frenetic activity right now. The idea for Lagoon came to me in May, and from the first play test the core mechanics worked, a complete game was playable, and it was actually fun! None of those three things had ever been true with my other game designs, so Lagoon was special from the start. By August, the response from players convinced me Lagoon was worthy of publication, and I began planning this campaign. I’ve spent the past 7 months refining the design through 100+ play tests. And three months ago today, I actually quit my secure job of 7 years to become an indie board game publisher. Crazy, right?

Early Lagoon Prototype

Lagoon prototype in early July, during a 10-day visit from my friend Aaron, during which he repeatedly asked to play. He gave Lagoon the distinguished award shown above!

It looked that way on the surface anyway. But as these first three roller coaster months of independence have taught me, the most important thing is that I’m learning again in my professional life. I’m challenged every day as I roll up my sleeves to make all the decisions for Lagoon’s development, art direction, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. I’m building financial spreadsheet models to see if I can actually make any money doing this*. All day, everything I do is something new for me. And I love it. Problems pop up, and so far I’ve found creative solutions to overcome them. In short, I’m working 14-18 hour days trying to do everything that goes into a (hopefully) successful board game Kickstarter campaign. Whether I succeed or fail as a publisher, what matters is I’m moving forward. If I call it quits with game design and publishing down the road, I can pivot and move forward in a new direction using the wide range of skills I’m building now. I’m taking responsibility for the direction of my life, perhaps for the first time, and it feels incredible.

I’ve only worked this hard and felt this fulfilled a few times before in my life, and always while driving a creative project of my own. At this point I’ll embark on a bit of a detour from gaming, but I promise we’ll come back to it. I want to share the path that landed me where I am today. The first time I felt fulfilled in my work was during my masters project, building a searchable database of historical events. I learned how to program, and then designed and built a complex web application to return dynamic timelines of events that match your search criteria (it even won a prize!). I was exhilarated by the creative act of bringing something novel and useful into being. But after graduation I fell into jobs doing corporate web development, which was never very fulfilling for me. Disillusioned, I eventually quit and moved from San Francisco to Portland. Don’t worry though, this was way back in 2006 before Portland was everybody’s darling, so rest assured I was ahead of the curve!

I landed a conservation job using my tech skills to help protect wilderness, and for 7 years was part of a community that helped achieve millions of acres of new federally-designated wilderness areas. That mission resonated deeply with me, but the day to day work was still tech. So I found creative release by building things. I started big, and built a 200 square foot Mongolian-style yurt from scratch. For six years I brought it to Burning Man as the Yurt Cafe, and ran it with my friends as a tea house (with board games!). I built the yurt in a mad two months, learning to make woodworking jigs, hand chisel roof ring mortises, and sew canvas. I’d never been so driven in my life as when I was building that first yurt. But I felt empty after the project, because the passion I brought to it was so absent in the life I returned to. I wanted to change my life, but frankly I didn’t know how and was terrified of the risks I’d have to take to find fulfillment.

Yurt Cafe

Me inside Yurt Cafe.

I continued to live a sort of ho hum life for quite a few years, turning to landscaping and hardscaping projects in my yard for my creative outlet. Then in 2012, my friend Henry and I decided we wanted to work together to build something, anything, for Burning Man. This culminated in an application for an art grant to construct a large art installation we would name Mani Temple. We made it to the final round, but didn’t get the grant. We almost let the project drop, as the construction budget called for a good deal of money. But I wanted to do it even without the grant — to be someone who did the things they set out to do. Henry felt the same way, so I decided to bankroll the project, Henry moved up from San Diego to live with me for a month, and we started in earnest on the construction process. We continued in our respective cities for 5 months. Along the way, we decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to fund a portion of the art installation’s cost (is anyone not embarrassed when they rewatch their first Kickstarter video?). We successfully raised $4501, and surprised ourselves by realizing a vision that just a year before we never would have dreamed of. It was inordinately time-consuming and untold numbers of things kept going wrong, but we pulled it off with determination, good luck, and a humbling tidal wave of help from amazing friends both old and new.

Mani Temple with the couple who chose it as their wedding venue.

Mani Temple with the couple who chose it as their wedding venue.

In contrast to when I had built the yurt, I returned from Mani Temple energized by the realization once more that I was capable of doing great things — that when a project fully engaged me, I could work ferociously hard on it. Two weeks after Burning Man, I formed Three Hares Games LLC, and decided to redirect my newfound confidence into the dream I’d nurtured on again and off again for more than a decade: to design and publish my own games. Thirteen months of increasingly focused design work later, I quit my job to put most of my time and energy into Lagoon and Three Hares Games.

Not long ago, the thought of doing something like this terrified me. But I finally reached a point where the thought of not doing it was more frightening. Once I committed to this new direction, the fear faded. First small things and then larger things started falling into place for me as I connected with supportive game designers, publishers and other industry folks. I was reminded of the quote below, which had helped inspire me down this path when I read it on my friend Gary’s bathroom wall (posted at eye level opposite the toilet):

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

-W.H. Murray

So now three months after quitting my job, I’m in the thick of preparations for the Lagoon Kickstarter campaign at the end of the month. I’m sending review copies out. I’m doing art direction. I’m reviewing manufacturing quotes from several vendors. I continue to playtest the game at any opportunity. I’m hoping to make as few mistakes as I can manage, which is only possible thanks to the veteran industry folks who have generously shared their expertise either publicly through blogs and podcasts or directly with me at conventions and on Twitter. I feel incredibly lucky to be in an industry filled with awesome people eager to help each other succeed. Thank you, awesome people!

Which brings me back to this blog. When I read Jamey Stegmaier’s Kickstarter Lesson #52: Write a Blog four months ago, I groaned because I couldn’t think of anything related to games that [1] I truly wanted to write about and [2] might represent a genuine contribution to the community. But today I decided to start a blog because this is a pivotal time in my life worth documenting for myself. And perhaps blogging publicly about my experience ramping up for and launching a board game Kickstarter campaign could be of value to others as well. I hope so, anyway!

* – Robert Gifford of Geek Chic told me at BGG.CON that if you want to make a million dollars in the tabletop game industry, just start with two million and then you’ll have a million when you’re done. It’s a tough industry with thin margins. Just so you know I’m not totally whackadoodle in quitting my job to pursue this dream, I also do part time consulting work with Green Peak Labs, which is the business Henry started after we finished Mani Temple. Life is funny like that: an art installation that existed for less than a week in a desert in the middle of nowhere can be the catalyst that changes the course of several lives. Of course that’s what Burning Man is all about, but that’s another story.