Last time out, I gave a few thoughts on Kickstarter (and other proto-kickstarter schemes), mostly based around my own experiences. If you haven’t read that one, you might want to go back and glance at it first. I’ve also been alerted to the remarkably comprehensive Kickstarter thoughts of Jamey Stegmaier: I’d seen one or two of these before, but realised just how comprehensive they are – are interesting for anyone in the world of games, and an absolute must-read if you’re thinking of running your own project (thanks for the tip-off Tim).
Thinking about the games I talked about last week, whilst Lone Shark contain some very experienced designers, as an independent games publisher, Apocrypha was a new direction for them, and it made sense to me that they went down the Kickstarter route. Likewise, Indie Board Games, the company behind Avalon were a fairly small business, at least at the time (iirc from the update emails, the games were shipped from the designer’s garage).However, Kickstarter is not just the home of the small independent company, and this week, I want to have a bit of a look at how Kickstarter is being used by one company in particular, and some of the benefits and challenges that can bring for us as gamers.
Regular readers (or people who game with me in real life) will know that I’ve recently found myself sucked into the world of Cool Mini Or Not. CMON (to use the common abbreviation) started off as a website sharing images of Cool Miniatures (or not?) and gradually expanded into making board games that these miniatures could be used in. They run absolutely massive projects on Kickstarter, and last year’s Zombicide: Black Plague raised over $4 million, which made it the largest Board Game Kickstarter project ever (a record since smashed by Exploding Kittens).
Within the world of Board Games, Cool Mini Or Not are not a small company. Whilst I can’t presume to know the state of their accounts, it seems fairly reasonable to assume that when they design a new game, they can do so with a pretty high level of confidence that it will make it to retail. When deciding whether to wait for a CMON game to appear in the FLGS, it’s “when” not “if.” This probably has a lot to do with why they push such an extensive line in Kickstarter Exclusive content, but the fact that they do leads to bigger and bigger projects, and the overall result leaves some unhappy customers on both sides.
For the person who backed Zombicide: Black Plague last year, they can expect to get a TON of extra content on top of the base game. Advertised on the campaign page as “over $500 retail value of content for $150” it includes 23 Survivors (player-controlled characters), 2 Abominations (the biggest, nastiest bosses) a dozen or so character zombies, and 2 extra Necromancers (the mastermind-type characters) who will not be available at retail.
It’s important to keep this in perspective. Whilst the base game only comes with 6 characters, and this is a very limiting number (you use 6 per game, so there’s no variety there), retail customers will still have options: there are already 4 extra Survivors available in the Wulfsburg expansion, and there are other Hero-box expansions which should make it to retail one day, so your experience isn’t going to be that limited in the long term. There will also be some other additional Necromancers (at least 1, anyway) and some unique zombies and the like.
No Vault of their Own?
However much non-exclusive content there is out there, it does still feel like the overall gameplay experience for those who missed out on the Black Plague Kickstarter will be curtailed in some significant respects.
For example, take a little thing like the Vault Weapons – in the game, characters can search rooms for upgraded types of equipment, but many scenarios place a Vault Weapon in a specific location, which pretty-much guarantees you can get your hands on a powerful piece of kit that might make the mission more possible. Again, the base game, comes with two of these, and most of the early scenarios use exactly 2 – for the Kickstarter backers, they will have a further 3, including a weapon that does 3 damage, allowing you to bring down an Abomination – something which is otherwise impossible without digging for the cards you need to create Dragon Fire. If these Vault weapons are not available to retail customers, that makes for a very significant and very real disadvantage in gameplay terms on account of a purchase model.
I don’t mind that people who backed this project, who gave CMON their money last summer, get some extra stuff (and it is A LOT of extra stuff), exclusive sculpts, interesting twists etc. However, the fact that in an area like this, where the new card is just straight-up more powerful, it bugs me. For a game that is so heavily about miniatures, there’s plenty of scope to reward backers with exclusive sculpts, and different combinations of existing things without doing something like this which penalises the retail customers.
Ebay the only way?
It would also be naïve to ignore the fact that there will inevitably be a sizeable secondary market for these bits and pieces: if there’s a particular character you’ve got your eye on, chances are that you’ll be able to pick it up as a one-off, and whilst you’ll pay something of a premium, it should be possible to find some reasonable deals. Most backers won’t physically be able to make use of all the content they get. Again though, what do you think they’re going to sell? Will it be one of the 35 characters they have, or the three extra Vault cards?
If I could go back in time and back the Kickstarter, I would (I’ve hunted around for opportunities to jump in late, but without luck) – as I don’t think I even knew it was happening, that wasn’t a possibility. I know that I was very lucky to pick up a free review copy of the base game, and it feels daft to be getting hung up on 3 bits of cardboard, but that’s where I am.
Backers Against the Wall
I don’t want to give the impression that everything is sunshine and rainbows on the side of the fence of those who did back the game. As mentioned before, delays are just one of those things which happen with Kickstarter, and Black Plague is no exception. Whilst most backers (I believe) have received their base games by now, they seem to be looking at a fairly long wait for “Wave 2” which is where they get all the add-ons, and exclusive content. This has led to a fair amount of fury from those who see people like me picking up the Wulfsburg expansion from the FLGS, and yet have to wait months longer for theirs (as far as I can tell, it’s because the expansion and the exclusives get sent together, and the exclusives weren’t ready.) Wave 2 is also when you get your base game if there was an issue with your pledge manager at the point Wave 1 was shipped – pledge manager is a tool that exists for where Kickstarter projects contain optional elements and add-ons, meaning that the amount of money you’ve agreed to have charged to your card isn’t enough to tell the company what you want. It looks like this Kickstarter had a lot of issues around pledge manager not being updated properly, so there are a fair few backers who didn’t get their game in wave 1.
The internet is also pretty rife with comments about CMON customer service. Obviously, it’s impossible for those of us on the outside to really know the details, but two things seem to be clear: 1.) there are a lot of people out there who don’t think they have received good customer service, due to problems with the Kickstarter, 2.) there are enough people out there who aren’t worried by the customer service they’ve received that they raised over $4,000,000,000 for Black Plague. Last week, CMON launched a new Kickstarter campaign for “Second Tide” the new version of Rum and Bones, their miniatures based Pirate game. It took roughly 7 minutes for them to reach their target of $80,000 dollars, and as I write, just over a week later they’ve broken the $500,000 mark.
One thing I respect about CMON is that their Kickstarter Exclusive ARE Kickstarter exclusives: they are completely straight with people on that, and they don’t suddenly appear later at retail – to get your hands on one, you either have to get lucky at a convention, or pay a premium price on EBay. It’s annoying when those are exclusives which I feel are significantly detrimental to the gameplay (i.e. the Vault cards), but at least it’s honest. In the recently-launched Rum and Bones: Second Tide Kickstarter, there were a few folk asking for Exclusives from the original Rum and Bones, only to be disappointed.
Having discovered the world of CMON and their games has some interesting implications for the future. I was fortunate enough to acquire another couple of their games: B-Sieged and Krosmaster Quest (review copies again), and have splashed out on some Promo cards to use the Miniatures from B-sieged as Zombicide characters (again, KS exclusives, this time from the B-Sieged campaign. £20 for 8 bits of cardboard is ridiculous, but seems justifiable when you’ve avoided having to spend the £150 on the original games). B-Sieged is solid, if not on the level of Zombicide, whereas Krosmaster fell flat for us- it felt more like an MMO than a board game, and the Anime art-style wasn’t what we were looking for (if anyone is interested in trading for Rum and Bones Season 1, or Super Dungeon Explore: Forgotten King, let me know).
It also puts me in an interesting position regarding the future. Modern-day Zombicide spanned 3 or 4 “seasons” of compatible content. Those like me, who missed the Black Plague Kickstarter are hoping that something similar will happen for the medieval iteration, but it turns out the $4 million unlocks a lot of stretch goals, and CMON don’t seem in any rush to saturate the market any more than it already is, at least for a while. People are still optimistic about a season 2, just don’t expect it too soon. In the meantime, news is starting to trickle out very slowly for their next game, Massive Darkness, a game which takes the “Zombicide system as a starting point, … [and] adds all the richness of a dungeon crawl RPG.” – it certainly sounds interesting, and I have been engaging in all the pointless speculation as we wait for further announcements.
I have a choice to make: do I jump in at the Kickstarter stage? If I do, it will probably be knowing that I will get a lot more stuff for my money, but having to fork out the cash a year in advance of getting the game (a game which I won’t even have played, and may not particularly enjoy), with all the intervening months spent haunted by the ghost stories of CMON Kickstarters past.
One thought which I have as I watch the Rum and Bones Kickstarter is “how much of this ‘Exclusive’ stuff do I not really want? Can I back this, then sell some of the exclusives to cover my costs?” – evidently there are already people who do this, and I’m glad, as that will be where I try to patch gaps in my Black Plague collection (I certainly won’t be getting everything) but eventually, the market becomes saturated, and if everyone buys to sell, will there be anyone left to take these things off their hands? Spending money now to get something I don’t want and might be able to sell in 18 months’ time is probably foolish.
Alternatively, I could wait? Wait for Massive Darkness, or for Rum and Bones: Second Tide to get a retail release. If I wait I’ll probably have the opportunity to walk into a shop, and perform an old-fashioned transaction where I give a man some pieces of paper with pictures of the queen on, and he gives me a game, with no danger or complications involved. If I do that, I can wait until others have reviewed the game, maybe even try it for myself – it’ll probably also be a lot clearer whether there is a Black Plague season 2 coming (it’ll probably have its own Kickstarter by then), and I’ll know my options, but some exclusives will have escaped forever…