Kickstarter: Now with Rounder Corners!

KSAs part of my ongoing not-all-that-regular series on Kickstarter, today I want to take a look at the wide world of Stretch Goals.

As I explained in the Kickstarter Basics article, every KS project comes with a Funding Target – The Funding Target of a pledge would generally be (more-or-less) the minimum amount that designers have worked out they need in order to actually make the game – the costs of making the bits and pieces, and getting them out to the buyers: you don’t want to pitch it too high, because if you set the bar at $100,000 and people pledge $99,999, then you don’t get a penny, the whole thing fails.

Funded On other hand, if you hit $100,000 on day 15 of 30 (or 5 minutes into day 1 for some projects…), what happens then? Whether you’re a designer who believes they have a great game that people deserve to know about, or simply a business looking to make more cash, chances are that you aren’t just going to think “job done” – you want more people to keep coming along and backing the project for the rest of the funding period. To make that happen, a lot of people turn to stretch goals.

A stretch goal is a sort of unofficial extra target for a KS project- they’ve already hit the funding target, so the project is going to happen, but this is a way to keep people engaged, and hopefully make it all bigger and better.

Making it Better

Maybe you launch a project for a game, and set a target of $20,000 – as soon as you pass $20,000 you know you can make your game. Maybe if you got $25,000 you could use a higher-quality card-stock, so you add that as a stretch goal. If you get to $30,000, the dice included could be custom dice rather than generic ones. At $40,000 maybe you have enough cash to make 20 different cards for each deck in the game, instead of 15.

In an attempt to keep driving traffic to the Kickstarter page, many projects will drip-feed the stretch-goals: announce 1 or 2 to begin with and, as the targets are met, those goals are “unlocked” and you can announce the next one – this keeps people coming back to check in on things, and generates a buzz around the game.

More cynically, it allows designers time to re-balance if funding goes a lot better (or worse) than anticipated, but however you look at it, it helps generate a sense of progression. Lots of projects will have late stretch goals that the designers always planned to include, but they announce them just before the end, in order to provoke a late surge in funding.

 

Money for nothing

(NB: All the numbers quoted in this section are hypothetical)

There are always issues with stretch goals, and one major issue is cost.

Imagine you launch a project where the game costs $40, and you have a funding target of $20,000. Assuming no optional purchases/wonky international shipping charges etc, that’s 500 backers you need to get funded. Imagine if, instead, you get 1000 backers. That’s $20,000 more than you were expecting. However, you now need to produce 1000 copies of the game, not just 500.

This is where it gets complicated. It probably doesn’t cost twice as much to produce twice as many copies of the game – you still only need the same number of pieces of art, the same number of designers, and the factory still has the same amount of set-up work to do. Equally, it doesn’t cost the same to produce 1000 copies as 500 – you need twice as many raw materials, you have twice as many boxes to ship etc.

On this basis, you probably have some money to offer extras as stretch goals. Let’s say that the original $20,000 was $10,000 of art, design, set-up costs, and $10,000 of raw materials and shipping. Your 1000 backers have increased your revenue by $20,000 dollars, but only increased your costs by $10,000 – that’s $10,000 spare.

StretchQualityBut what do you do with that $10,000? – say you decide to have extra art, or commission nicer art from your favourite artist – $5,000 more spent on art probably has no real impact on your ongoing production costs. However, if you decide to upgrade that card-stock, it’s a different matter: if you improve materials, you impact the whole of the project – instead of $20 per copy on materials, you’re now spending $25 – that’s not just $2500 on components for the first 500 copies, but $5 for every extra copy you sell. This means that for all future stretch goals, you’re working with a reduced margin, as each new pledge of $40 now only brings you $15 to play with, not $20.

A lot of this has to do with economies of scale, particularly with Miniatures games. Broadly speaking, to make a miniature for a game, you need to spend a fair amount of money paying an artist to sculpt it. Then you need to spend a fair amount more on getting a mould made to cast it in plastic. Once you’ve done that, actually squirting plastic into the mould probably costs a fairly trivial sum

SculptStretch
Aside from the sculpting cost, this is no more miniatures than you were making anyway.

Using hypothetical numbers, you might need to spend $250 to get the sculpt crafted, another $245 on a mould, but be able to produce copies of that new figure for $0.50 a time. If your campaigns raise figures somewhere in the millions of dollars, you can offer a stretch goal like “extra sculpt for miniature x” with a fairly static cost: you hit your sculpting and moulding cost as a 1-off, but then have no additional materials cost for making 3 figures each in 2 poses as you previously had for 6 figures all in the same pose.

OgreExtra
Once you hit $635k, that’s an extra Ogre – for ALL backers.

If you’re adding figures, rather than simply adding variety, the costs are still small – up until they aren’t. Even if it only costs you $0.50 for a single miniature, Rising Sun, CMON’s most recent Kickstarter received over 30,000 backers – that’s $15,000 to give each backer 1 extra miniature, using our hypothetical figures. By the time you reach a certain level, even if the per-unit cost is very low compared to the static set-up cost, you have a very limited amount of slack in the budget. That’s why most Kickstarter projects will see the stretch-goals spaced further and further apart as the pledge total gets higher.

 

Numbers?

As I mentioned above, all of the numbers I’ve used here are hypothetical. I don’t know how much it costs to commission a sculpt, or to move from sculpt to cast to mould, or to make a figure once you have all your moulds ready to go. I’m pretty confident that the start-up costs are much higher than the ongoing ones, but I don’t know the numbers. I’m not claiming to be an industry insider, nor an expert, and I hope that no-one goes away from this (or any of my other) article(s) having been mislead in any way.

– since writing this, I’ve found This Interesting Article, which isn’t really looking at the same thing, but is still interesting in terms of money, numbers and board-games. 

The problem though with the internet in general, and Kickstarter comment sections and forum discussions in particular, is that everyone’s an expert. You can confidently expect dozens of folks with no experience of miniatures casting to come along and announce to all that making X “only cost Y,” or “definitely cost at least Z” – maybe some of them are right, but a lot of them won’t be, and this can lead to a lot of bad-feeling as backers feel that the creators of the project are simply profiteering, rather than ploughing the money back into the game. This is particularly problematic, because there’s a chance it might be true – some Kickstarter creators are small, independent start-ups, desperate to get their game to market, and incredibly grateful to anyone who has helped realise that dream. Others are multi-million-dollar companies for whom the goodwill of the buying public is just a resource like any other, to be judiciously managed on the road to maximum profit – they’ll give stretch goals where it will help drive sales, but never so that it’s going to cost more than it generates.

 

Great Expectations

Big Board Game Kickstarters have been a thing for several years now, and people have expectations. They expect stretch goals, and if it’s an established company like CMON, they will have expectations for what those stretch goals should be, and how often they should come. With the sense of entitlement common to most millennials, as soon as those expectations fail to be met, you can expect them to start baying for blood.

Azrael In the Massive Darkness campaign, there was a fair amount of anger when the $675k stretch goal was the Miniature for a new player-character, Azrael the High Elf, and the 710k stretch goal was the class-sheet pad for the Noble Warrior. As Azrael is a Noble Warrior, a lot of people cried foul play at this point- this was one stretch goal, they argued, disguised as 2, to give the false impression of smaller gaps between goals.

Now, CMON are big enough that they didn’t care – they knew the project was going to break a million dollars, so both goals were happening anyway. It’s also technically true that Azrael could be played as a different class, so it was technically an extra thing, even if people didn’t like it.

Aeon’s End is a marketplace game (think Dominion), so the Stretch Goals in their KS campaigns generally take the form of new cards for the marketplace, increasing the variety. Each time a few thousand more dollars were notched up, another card was added for backers, a spell here, a gem here. Some of these cards are now simply part of the game, whereas others are either Kickstarter exclusives (backers get them, others don’t), or “Promo” (backers get them at no extra cost, others may have the chance to buy them at a later point).

With 20+ stretch goals unlocked by the time the campaign ended, having raised more than 10x the original target figure, this one would have to be classed as a success.

Right?

ThickBreach Well, unfortunately, this campaign suffered a bit of a PR fail with one of the late-ish stretch goals.

Every game of Aeon’s End requires a set of cardboard “breaches” –the holes in reality through which player-characters fire their spells. In the original game, these were fairly thin and bendy, so people were fairly happy when the 80k stretch-goal upgraded them to thicker card-stock.

Some also commented that they would prefer their breaches with rounded corners. However, they seemed a bit puzzled when the $275,000 stretch-goal appeared, “round corners for breaches” – this seemed to put noses out-of-joint for a number of reasons: firstly they’d already “used up one stretch-goal on breaches,” secondly there was a perception that making the breach corners rounded shouldn’t cost any more than having them square [as far as I can tell, most people have now come over to the idea that it would cost more, which sounds plausible to me, although I really don’t know]. Thirdly this coincided with the gap between stretch-goals going up from $10,000 to $15,000, which most people felt warranted a more exciting reward.

Rounded There was a fair amount of grumbling and mockery in the Kickstarter comments and, aside from various jokes along the lines of “next goal: even rounder corners,” one comment in particular leapt out at me

“Ok I asked for round corners a while back but i dont think its SG material. Its something than you just do because its something that you do….. I dont think round corners justifies 15k really.”

Lack of apostrophes aside, it’s fairly clear what they mean – and clear that they’re not happy

I think a lot of this ties back in to that sense of entitlement I mentioned earlier. This guy has backed the project, and he now believes that this entitles him to more free stuff at regular intervals: at the time, the project was trending toward $300k, which would have meant 3 gems, 4 spells, and 2 relics (incidentally that’s the exact ratios for a standard marketplace), as well as 2 Nemesis and a Mage, all of which others would need to buy as a separate expansion (probably around $20), and a few extra dividers and basic Nemesis cards not available elsewhere. That’s on top of a base game that will now be slightly bigger and better quality for everyone than when the campaign launched.

Assuming they thought the game was worth the $65 tag when they backed it, it’s pretty hard to see how a backer could be unhappy with what they get here – the extra content and the value for money vs RRP are all fairly clear.

 

Too small unless stretched?

But of course, it is an assumption that they thought the original project was good value – I know that there have been KS campaigns in the past which I have looked at and decided that the basic pledge wasn’t worth my money.

Also, up until a Kickstarter project finishes, you can edit or cancel your pledge, without being committed to anything, so there are people who will jump in early, with a strong expectation of cancelling later on if the project doesn’t tick enough boxes for them along the way.

Numenera Stretch Goals

That seems a bit backwards to me, but as far as I can recall (it was a long time ago), I deliberated on the 9th World for a while, and backed it late on, having been swayed by the extra stuff they’d unlocked – if it had stayed in its pre-stretch goal state, I’d probably have kept my money.

Still there definitely are people who pledge early, do so without any real thought of backing out later, but who still bring their fairly subjective feelings about stretch-goals along, and demand to be heard.

 

I think that’s about enough on Stretch Goals for today. Next time in this KS mini-series, I want to continue the theme that we’re starting to touch on – the idea that being a Kickstarter backer somehow gives you “rights” that a mere buyer doesn’t have.

 

 

Value for Kicks

About this time last year, I wrote a couple of articles about Kickstarter (see them here and here). Kickstarter continues to fascinate me, both as a Funding platform, and for the social dynamics which go on there. With 4 projects that I have backed and am awaiting delivery of, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the topic before deciding whether to dip my hand in my pocket once more. In part, this is just doing some thinking out loud for my own benefit, but I hope it will be interesting to others too.

 

The projects I’m currently waiting on were backed in May 2015, Jan 2016, July 2016 and December 2016. They were supposed to be deliver in April 2016, October 2016, April 2017 and Jun 2017. It doesn’t take the most observant eye to spot that 2 of these are late, one of them by nearly a year, and it seems pretty clear that the other 2 will be delayed as well – let’s look at them individually.

 

Apocrypha

ApocryphaBoxApocrypha is the disturbed long-lost sibling of the Pathfinder ACG –same design team, and some foundational common. However, it has definitely evolved in its own unique direction, along with an urban fantasy / contemporary horror theme that sets it apart from earlier adventures in Golarion. It was funded by a monster Kickstarter, which wildly exceeded its funding goal, thereby unlocking a ton of stretch-goals, meaning it was never going to hit its projected April 2015 delivery date.

The most recent update is predicting August (2017) for them to start shipping the core box, with the retail release coming a few weeks later. The various expansion bits are currently projected to be with us by November, or at least “before the end of the year” with the retail releases stretching from “in time for Christmas” through to early 2018.

Overall, the Apocrypha Kickstarter hasn’t been a great experience. For a project that was supposed to take just under a year, it’s now looking like 27 months minimum, just to get the base game, nearer to 3 years for the expansions. I don’t think that there’s any real reason to expect the worst (some of the gloomiest forum trolls are predicting bankruptcy at any moment), but it’s definitely been a grating process – I actually voted for this on BGG as one of the most anticipated games of 2016. By the time it appeared on the 2017 nominations list, my enthusiasm had faded.

The communication over the course of the Kickstarter has been mixed – it certainly hasn’t been the wall of silence that seems to plague some projects, but I do feel like they weren’t really upfront with just how long things were going to take – last spring we were being assured that it wouldn’t be as late as (that) October…

All of the mutterings coming out of the play-test suggest that this will be a good game, and that it will be a game with enough difference to make it worthwhile for those who already own multiple Pathfinder sets. Hopefully it will be able to capture our imagination, and actually find a place in our gaming schedule.

As far as I can work out (difficulties around historic exchange rates), I spent somewhere just under £100 on this. I think it may even have been my 2015 birthday present! As the most recent campaign update was keen to point out, that’s noticeably less than the cost of buying it at retail is likely to be (probably a saving of around £35 based on the dollar prices and current exchange rates). Still, if the 1-hour game time is accurate, that’s 20 sessions it will need to clock up before it meets my “value for money” formula. I’ve assigned a slightly arbitrary 3-month grace period from when KS games actually arrive to when I start adding them to the ‘not value for money’ sheet, and I’ll be interested to see whether it can make it.

Numenera

9th worldBack at the end of 2015, when I was still expecting Apocrypha to arrive on time, I got an email about Lone Shark’s next project: The Ninth World – a skill-building game for Numenera. Perhaps with a bit of wilful self-delusion, I assumed that this meant they had finished the design stage of Apocrypha, and backed this one on a bit of a whim – the setting was novel, as was the mechanic, and I’m always interested in anything new and cooperative.

Of course, hindsight is 20:20 and looking back now, a lot of disgruntled Apocrypha backers point to Numenera as a major example of Lone Shark stretching themselves too thin / not getting one product finished before making a start on the next one.

For a lot of the time, Numenera has felt like the forgotten project – whereas Apocrypha has at least been handed off to the printers where (we assume) the blame for further delays lies with someone else, Numenera hasn’t got nearly this far. In November, a month after we were originally going to be getting the game, the design was “almost done,” by February, they were doing some playing around with layout that would make things a lot more streamlined going forward. There have also been art-issues apparently.

The last official stab at a date for this came in mid-March when we were told that they are looking at a street date of “no later than the 4th quarter of this year” and that the “plan is to fulfill to Kickstarter backers first” – all positive noises to have it at some point during 2017, but still pretty vague, and not all that reassuring given the delays we’ve faced so far.

Looking back at my Kickstarter account, I was quite surprised by just how much I’d spent on this – probably somewhere around £65. Given that I probably backed it more out of misplaced goodwill for the company than anything else, this feels a lot like a write-off for me: I periodically forget that I’ve even backed it, and the only time I start hunting for information updates will be in the wake of looking into Apocrypha. With a slightly shorter play-time than a lot of the other games on the list, this will need 16 sessions to hit the value marker – I can easily see myself selling it on at a fairly early juncture in the hope of recovering (some of) my losses.

 

Massive Darkness

My biggest complaint about Zombicide, was the lack of a proper campaign mode. As such, I was VERY interested in Massive Darkness– another game from Cool Mini Or Not and Guillotine Games, with a fair number of similarities to Zombicide, but designed for campaign play, with a more developed system for levelling up and gaining loot.

massive-darkness-preview1

I gave CMON kickstarters their own article last year, and there hasn’t been that much change in my general thoughts. They are massive projects, funding is when, not if (and “when” is usually after about 4 minutes). Expect lots of stretch goals, lots of complaints about stretch goals (some legitimate, others not), plenty of pushing of optional purchases, then significant delays before your pledge actually arrives. When it does arrive, you’ll generally have something that’s cost you a bit less than the retail content would at the FLGS, plus a decent-sized pile of KS-only stuff.

The distribution of stretch goals and optional purchases in the Massive Darkness campaign felt odd, and it was irritating to pass on exciting optional purchases, (like the box that contains a Hellephant!) whilst unlocking yet another not-very-interesting Wandering Monster.

Largely because of the cost of picking up extra content on the secondary market for Zombicide, I ultimately decided to back this one. I have wondered several times since whether that was a good decision or not. The overall art-style wasn’t as nice as Zombicide (lots and lots of very pointy hats), and the character skills/classes seem a lot less interesting than originally billed. The $8, Kickstarter Exclusive add-on to use Zombicide characters and minis in this (and vice-versa) was probably the clincher, although I resisted the urge to double-up on this particular item, as a thing to sell later. This was probably a poor decision financially (confident I could flog it for double cost in the future), not sure if it was good or bad morally (I don’t want to be the person who backs KS projects just to sell on at a profit, but weirdly, if somebody doesn’t do it, a lot of people miss out on the opportunity to buy these things.) Anyway, that’s a whole different rabbit-hole.

This was the biggest outlay I’ve made on any Kickstarter project so far – nearly £110. Again, it was primarily funded by birthday money, but that’s still a hefty chunk of table time required to be “good value” – 22 sessions.

One interesting title that Massive Darkness can claim is the last game I paid out for before knowing we were going to have a baby that wouldn’t arrive until after he had appeared. Obviously that doesn’t really impact the Kickstarter process, but it does influence whether or not it will get played much. Again, I hope that this will turn out to be a good game, and worth my while – if it isn’t then I might be able to sell it (either the whole thing, or just some of the stretch-goals) to balance the books.

 

Legends Untold

Legends Untold is one of many cooperative dungeon crawlers seen in recent years. It comes from a new design team, who came to prominence at last year’s UK Games Expo. I had the chance to sit down and play a few turns with one of the game’s designers during my lunch-break, and had been monitoring it since.

This one was launched on Kickstarter right at the end of last year, and I think it’s fair to say that it surpassed everyone’s expectations with the level of response. With a funding goal of £12,000 to make the project happen, this ultimately raised over ten times that amount.

LegendsThe designers have created a whole world in which this game takes place, and clearly have grand plans for the future: higher level adventures, options to explore the world in different ways, and different sets which interact in different ways – to be honest, by the end of the campaign, I’d lost track of what exactly is coming when.

This was a much more reasonably priced project to back than the earlier ones – £24 for the original game, double that if you want the extra set which ended up being created thanks to all the stretch-goals.

I would definitely have preferred if the project had stayed at its initial size, which would have made this a far lower-risk undertaking, but in the end I opted for both boxes on the basis that i) I’m a terrible completionist, and wasn’t clear on whether I’d be able to get the second box in the future if I didn’t back now, and ii) this kind of independent start-up is the sort of project that Kickstarter ought to be for (at least in my opinion). I wanted to be part of something like this, helping to ensure that the industry doesn’t fall completely under the sway of international mega-corporations.

In the last month, the inevitable email has arrived, announcing delays to the project (the Kickstarter unlocked too many stretch goals, and it’s going to take much longer to produce everything). We’re now looking at September/October. ish. Very tiresome, but not particularly surprising: once again, we’ll see when this arrives as to whether it was worth it- at the very least, I reckon I’ll be able to play one box and (if I don’t like it that much) sell the other to claw back some money.

 

The Future

After the Massive Darkness campaign, and again after the Legends Untold project, I told myself that I was done with Kickstarter. I have plenty of games already in the house, or due sometime in the never-never, so that paying out more money for an untried game, appearing at an unspecified point in the future, looks like a bad deal. I expected to back Zombicide Black Plague Season 2 when it eventually appeared, but that was it.

Right now though, that resolve is being tested, with a couple of very interesting projects on the horizon.

Gloomhaven

I had hoped to pick up a review copy of Gloomhaven, but with all the supply issues the game has suffered (i.e. they could have printed 10x as many copies as they did and still sold out comfortably), there wasn’t one to be had.

GloomhavenFortunately for the many who missed out, there is a reprint coming, via Kickstarter, live right now. It funded in about five minutes, and hit the million dollar mark within a day. This would be another big beast of a project, not quite breaking the three-figure barrier, but getting pretty darn close. It’s not an impossible difficulty to overcome (I still haven’t spent most of my birthday money) and in a world where my gaming time wasn’t being eaten up by a baby, I’d probably back it without thinking twice. As it is, I’m torn between forking out for something I might not have the time to play, and missing another opportunity to get a game that’s been getting some fantastic buzz.

Aeon’s End

aeons-end-card-game-boxThe other project is one which launched a few weeks ago: the second wave of content for Aeon’s End. I’ve talked a bit about Aeon’s End on here, I’m really enjoying this Fantasy Co-op deck-builder, and as you know by now, I’m a bit of an expansion junkie so, at first glance, this looks like a no-brainer. That said, there are issues.

On the positive side, this Kickstarter offers new content for a game that is all about trying different combinations. It also comes with (slightly vague and non-committal) promises of improved component quality: thicker card, replacement tokens, a streamlined box, and maybe even an end to the strange glossy card-finish.

On the downside, this second wave of Aeon’s End – called War Eternal – features completely new graphic design, with everything being made bolder and brighter. As far as I can tell, this is mostly Tom Vassell’s doing – he complained in his review that he didn’t like the art of the original, and inevitably everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. Of course, all the people who didn’t have any issue with the art didn’t say anything – and therefore it gives the impression that everyone hates the art.

MisMatch
Does anyone else find this as jarring as I do?

Whatever my preferences for aesthetics, I’m much more bothered about things matching (or not). I still feel a shudder of pain every time I walk past the bookcase and see the newest volume of a series of novels towering over the earlier instalments because it wasn’t available in paperback yet (seriously, why do they print novels in hardback?!) As ridiculous as some might find it, it would pain me to play a game where half the cards where done in one style, and half in another. For a good contender to be my new favourite game, it seemed like I was out almost before I had got started.

Then came the update pack (it had already been announced, I just hadn’t got the message properly). If I back the expansion, and send them a photo of the stuff I already have then – for $10 – I could get replacements for all the cards (for a game that’s mostly cards, that’s 90% of the game for only $10).

AeonsNew
This doesn’t feel especially post-apocalyptic to me

Personally I much preferred the earlier art, and thought it was a much better fit for the gritty, post-apocalyptic theme of the game, whereas the new design feels stark and jarring, the colours a bit too garish. That said, the new style is tolerable, and providing all those cards for a fairly nominal fee is a really good deal (of course, it does require you to back the second wave of stuff to get it, but they are running a business, not a charity [and if you NEVER plan on getting the later wave of content, why would you care about the cards being different?]). Ultimately, it looks like this is the only real opportunity to get everything matching unless I want to a.) never expand beyond the first wave, or b.) re-buy the whole thing at full price later on.

Green Horde

GreenHordeZombicide: Black Plague was the biggest hit of 2016, and more content for it has seemed like an obvious win. Just a few days ago, Cool Mini Or Not announced the second wave: Zombicide: Green Horde. Details are still very light, aside from the fact that it’s going to have an Orcs and Goblins theme to it but, assuming it’s mutually compatible with Black Plague, this ticks a lot of interest boxes.

Zombicide has been a bit squeezed for table time in this baby-shaped world, and I already have stuff that I haven’t really used – NPC Box 2 and the Deadeye Walkers – struggling to make it to the Painting Table. However, as the likelihood of this arriving in under a year is slim-to-none, it seems safe to assume that the landscape will have changed by then, one way or the other.

Sadly, the Kickstarter won’t be live until the End of May – after Aeon’s End and Gloomhaven have both closed, so I’ll need to decide before I get to that point- all three seems like it will probably be too much.

I’m sure I’ll end up taking the plunge on at least one or two of these (it’s like someone deliberately timed it to have two of them be live on the week of my birthday), and inevitably, that will lead to another article in 6 months’ time, complaining about how they’ve all been delayed. You can all tell me then that I should have known better, and waited until retail…

Going on an Adventure!

 

im-going-on-an-adventure When we first got into board games, a lot of what was being played seemed to be about building and controlling – lots of worker placement games. Settlers of Catan was about building cities and getting resources. Carcassonne was about control of the growing road and city networks of the area. Even Ticket to Ride was ultimately about getting control of the crucial Rail networks before anyone else could.

In recent times though, I feel like there’s been a bit of a shift. Certainly in terms of what gets played in our house and, I think in terms of what’s being made. Not that there aren’t worker-placement/area control games still being made, but the alternatives out there are growing in number and (generally) in quality.

The new fashion in games seems to be the Co-operative Adventure/Dungeon-Crawl game. Now, the instant I write those words, I’m aware that I have a problem. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of agreement on what a Dungeon-Crawler is: you’d think that it would definitely involve going through a dungeon, but whether the most important element is finding loot, battling monsters, or a bit of both, is open to debate.

Just sitting down to make a list of all the Dungeon Crawlers and Co-Op Adventure Games out there proved an impossible task. I asked Board Game Geek for their suggestions, and got an incredibly broad range of responses, much more than I could put into a coherent article.

In the end, I decided that the easiest thing to do was to look at these sorts of games from a purely personal perspective – obviously your experiences may well be very different to mine, but hopefully it at least means that I can be clear on what I’m talking about.

 

Adventures

Mistfall First of all, the Co-operative adventure games. I think the definition here is fairly simple – it has to be cooperative, with the players working together against the game, and it has to be an adventure. The adventure aspect is the harder one to define, but generally we’re looking for a sense of narrative and progression, with a defined end-goal.

A lot of games out there are looking for the most points/gold/etc. after X rounds, or once someone builds their nth Y: those are not the sorts of games we are looking for in this exercise. A lot of the time, finding and defeating ‘the boss’ will be a common theme, but not exclusively. Quest-style objectives, exploring locations, delivering messages, or the good-old escort quest all work in this vein too.

The 2 true Big Beasts of gaming in our house over the past 3 years or so both fit squarely into this category: Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (the clue was in the name for this one) – I’ve talked a fair amount about these two elsewhere in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here.

Our next big Adventure game looks like being Mistfall: Heart of the Mists. To an extent, this is me doing things the awkward way round, as this is a “standalone expansion” – playable by itself, but probably designed more as an add-on. I’m doing things backwards, simply because I won a Kickstarter copy of this. It’s a fully co-op game where your hero has a fixed deck that you can upgrade as you make your way through a randomised board set-up, fighting various monsters en-route to a final objective or showdown. If it turns out to be any good, we’ll probably end up going back for the original.

 

I think the biggest challenge for an adventure game is story – too often, especially if a game has lots and lots of expansions, the game complicates to a point where you lose track of the story. At the other extreme, if you’re making a game really story-heavy, it can lose its replayability value – certainly the thing which dissuaded me from getting Legends of Andor was a sense that we would all too quickly reach the point where we had completed all the quests enough times to not to bother again. Middara is a very striking game visually, that has caught my eye, and it looks incredibly thematic, immersive etc – but again, the element of concern was what I’d be left with once we’d played the campaign through once. In the end, I passed on this as I just didn’t have enough spare cash around.

Dungeon Crawl

Descent The Dungeon Crawl game is a type that’s fairly new to us, and I hadn’t really realised until very recently just how controversial the term was, or how difficult it is to pin down games in this area.

For one thing, if I’m thinking about getting a game for us to play at home, I’m still looking for that fully co-op experience. The difficulty with Dungeon Crawlers, is that often there’s a need for a Dungeon-Master to take charge of the monsters, meaning you only get a co-operative experience with a big group (1 versus many). These may well be good games, but I know from experience, they aren’t going to offer what we’re after.

As an aside here, it’s worth mentioning Descent, which seems to be a lot of people’s #1 pick for the best modern-day Dungeon Crawler, but which does require an “Overlord” to play the Monsters. On this basis alone, I’d never really considered it in the past. Recently though, Fantasy Flight have released an app which automates the monsters, and allows a fully coop experience: this has brought it back on to my radar, and lead to the genesis of a plan which looks something like “Next time I review something big that I don’t really enjoy, try to trade it for Descent.”

Dungeons

DungeonWorldIt’s also hard to discuss “Dungeon” games without running in to that biggest of beasts, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of people who play Dungeon Crawlers have played D&D at some point and, inevitably, comparisons will be made. It’s virtually impossible to offer the breadth of options and thematic immersion in a 2-hour board-game that you can get from a pen & paper RPG masterminded by a sentient controller. As a result a lot of these games can feel like a trade-off between experience and time/resource investment.

Exploration is also a big concern for a lot of people: for them, a Dungeon Crawl should involve an ever-expanding board, where you move through and uncover things. In this situation, a static board feels to some like a lack of exploration opportunities.

For us, a Dungeon Crawler probably needs some kind of linear progression, although it doesn’t need to be randomised. I think Loot is also an important element, stuff we find just as we progress, and stuff we gain as a reward for beating some of the bigger baddies.

 

Current Favourites

massive-darkness-preview1 The Dungeon Crawler that’s occupying many hours of my attention right now is Massive Darkness. Coming from Guillotine Games and Cool Mini Or Not, the Team who brought us Zombicide: Black Plague, this is a game ‘based on the Zombicide engine” but with its own twists. There is a more linear nature to the game, as Heroes grow more powerful over the campaign, and the large “Wandering Monsters” don’t just carry loot items and weapons, but some of them will actually wield those against you.

The Kickstarter for this game wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, so we still only have fairly sparse information on how it’s going to work. A lot of people took issue with how much (or how little) depth the gameplay will have, but it definitely looks interesting, and I’ll take the plunge, although only for the base game and the Zombicide cross-over kit. (For an $8 add-on, you can use 15 Zombicide Survivors in Massive Darkness, use your Zombies as Monsters, and play the Massive Darkness heroes in Black Plague, which feels like a massive boost to game-play variety without taking up too much shelf-space). There are some fairly impressive add-ons available too (the Hellephant looks very cool, but will be available at retail once I’ve had a chance to check whether I actually like the game)

SuperdungeonBox I’ve also recently acquired Super Dungeon Explore, a game which feels like it can only be a Dungeon Crawler with a name like that. As we were looking for the co-op experience (“Arcade Mode” in SDE), we started with the Forgotten King box, meaning that we have a slightly unusual twist on aspects of the game, [it’s a stand-alone expansion, playable by itself, but it means that we have “expansion-y” things like forest tiles, but not tiles to represent an actual dungeon! (these came in the original box)].

The thing I really like about Super Dungeon explore is the way that killing monsters gets you loot- it’s a very direct correlation (draw a loot card for each monster you (collectively) killed this turn [max 3]).

Emerald Not all loot will be of the same standard / the same use to your particular character, but overall, you do get a good sense of powering-up as you go along. The basic game comes with a fairly limited set of monsters, but as I got the game in trade, swapping for a review game I hadn’t paid for, I didn’t mind spending a bit on a couple of expansions to get some more variety: the monster and hero options now feel fairly ample, although I’m undecided on whether I need more tiles. A “Legends” box which will introduce a campaign option is currently in the works, but I’m not sure on whether that is compatible with Arcade Mode, so it’ll be a case of keeping an eye out.

 

Pocket-Sized

PocketCrawls There are some truly massive games which exist in this genre, leading to an inevitable reaction as people lurch to the other extreme. In recent times I’ve come across a few attempts to create a pocket-sized Dungeon Crawler, something which has generally been done with rather… mixed success.

100 Swords is a bit of a mash-up: half dungeon-crawler, half deck-builder (ala Thunderstone, albeit greatly simplified). I reviewed this one for Games Quest, so I’ll let you go there for the full details, as a TLDR version, I’ll just say it’s an ok game, but it’s clearly limited by its size.

Side Quest is a rather more interesting offering – everything is still rather stripped down, as you’d expect from a game of this size, but you have some meaningful decisions to make, decent scaling for varied player-counts, a good sense of progression, and even a reasonable amount of theme coming through. The art is all stock-images, and aesthetically, this game is kind-of underwhelming, but it’s a pleasant enough way to pass half an hour.

One Deck Dungeon is another game in this wave: sadly, the realities of real-world economics meant that backing this game on Kickstarter outside North America would have meant paying almost double the RRP by the time postage has been factored in – I gave it a miss on that basis, but will keep an eye out for a retail appearance.

 

The Future

Middara The next year or so looks like being a veritable golden age for Co-operative Adventures /Dungeon Crawlers and although I’ve not had a chance to play any of them, there are a whole list of things in the near future: the two that particularly caught my attention were Sword and Sorcery and Midarra, both of which looked tempting for trying to get in on a very late KS pledge, although I ultimately decided to stick with Massive Darkness, and didn’t have the cash for others. Beyond that, there’s Darklight: Memento Mori, Masmorra, Gloomhaven, Gloom of Kilforth, Aeon’s End, Fires of Eidolon, and Folklore: The Affliction, all due out within the next 12 months, none of which I’m likely to be able to afford, but any or all of which I’ll happily review if I can get my hands on a copy.

Just to pre-empt the spammers, yes I have heard of Dungeon Crusade. No, I’m not interested in backing it on Kickstarter (maybe it’ll hit retail and be amazing, but right now it just looks like a confusing mess).

This article has been a bit vague, a bit of an overview. Hopefully I’ll be able to get into some more specifics in future, but I wanted to set the scene first.

I’d be interested to know what games other people out there are playing in this area. Are there any I’ve missed out that you’d recommend?

Kickstarter: Cool or Not.

KS 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.

Cmon

cmon 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).

Gets you thisWithin 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?

Vault Weapons 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

Wulfsburg
I’ve got my copy, which a fair few KS backers aren’t happy about…

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.

Flamethrower
Come on, who DOESN’T want a game involving a steam-punk nun carrying a flamethrower?

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.

Cool Future?

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).

massive-darkness 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.

BelleBeast
Not too bothered about having Beauty and the Beast on my Pirate Ship (nor the 3 little pigs either, but they cost extra)

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…