Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Board game journalism and Kickstarter

The audience for $100+ board games on Kickstarter is small if you compare it to video games. The largest Kickstarter ever for this kind of game, Frosthaven, had 83,000 backers, with even half that considered a major success. Altar Quest had 5,355 backers pledging $620,000. But then, the companies making these games tend to be very small, and if your Kickstarter project makes you a million dollars in revenue in advance, that is already quite good. So, how do you get your board game Kickstarter project to be a success?

This week gave me some insight in the answer to this question. I am not suggesting that anything I observed is somehow morally wrong, but it does show some of the mechanics of advertising niche products. And while a "hype" affecting just something like 10,000 people might seem trivial, I am pretty sure that the larger hype machines work in very similar ways. The board game example is just much smaller, and thus easier to understand.

Next week, on January 19, the Kickstarter project for Primal: The Awakening will go live. How do I know about that, and what the game actually is? Because I am subscribed to several channels on YouTube which specialize on these more complicated board games, frequently with a focus on Kickstarter board games. Channels like BoardGameCo or Quackalope or One Stop Co-Op Shop or the King of Average. Channels which, due to the small size of the potential audience, each have around 20,000 subscribers. And each of these channels, and a few smaller ones, received prototype advanced copies of Primal: The Awakening, apparently with instructions to release their video reviews of the game this week.

Now, I've been (rarely) at the receiving end of a "review copy" of a game (not board games, though). If you don't get them too often, receiving a review copy of a game makes you feel kinda special, and it certainly provokes some amount of goodwill towards the people sending it. It doesn't prevent you from writing a honest review. But then, apparently the channels that frequently criticize Kickstarter board games quite sharply (like Shut Up & Sit Down, or No Pun Intended) didn't get a copy of the game. The game seems to have been sent out to people likely to like it, and speak well of it to their 20k subscribers (each, but then there is probably a lot of overlap). And if those pre-Kickstarter reviews get 10k people to pledge for the game next week, that would be quite a good return on investment on making and sending out those prototypes. As a form of advertising for a niche product to a niche audience, this is all very well done.

This might be an "everybody wins" kind of situation. For the YouTubers the prototype review provides interesting content attracting viewers to their channel at the moment where people might be most interested in it. For the viewers, a review which includes somebody explaining how exactly the prototype game works is giving them a lot more information about the game than they could have gotten on Kickstarter. I now know that Primal: The Awakening is a "boss battler", with not much story or exploration, and probably not the game for me. But I am pretty sure that there will be a good number of people who rely on these channels for their board game news, and who will be pledging to that particular project because of those reviews. So the game company certainly also wins.

One very good reason to promote your game with sending out a prototype to reviewers is that this constitutes a kind of proof how far into the development the project of making the board game actually already is. This isn't Star Citizen. If reviewers can receive a prototype board game, set it up and play it on camera, the viewer can be pretty certain that the game isn't a total pipe dream. The core gameplay and some of the artwork is obviously already there, and it is just a matter of finalizing the game and producing it. Which still can easily take a year or two. But I had 100% of my board game Kickstarter pledges delivered, eventually. And while you can still end up with a game in your hands that turns out to be not of your liking, that is something that can happen with regular retail games as well. I thought I would like Journeys in Middle-Earth after watching reviews, and turned out to be wrong.

So while I can feel how good marketing produced hype at just the right moment on YouTube for their niche product, I can't really blame them, or the board game "journalists" that participate in the exercise. These prototype board game reviews appear to me to be much closer to the eventual reality than the marketing material that video game journalists get when a game is announced. And thus these early reviews are a lot more helpful to judge whether you want to participate in the Kickstarter or not.


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