- by Alyson Shane
Randy Hoyt builds websites and runs Foxtrot Games, a small board game publishing company that successfully raised funds on Kickstarter for the jungle-themed Relic Expedition and the Chinese lantern-themed tile game Lanterns: The Harvest Festival.
You’ve successfully crowdfunded two tabletop games: Relic Expedition and Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. Can you briefly describe both games?
Relic Expedition is a jungle adventure game where players act as Indiana Jones like explorers trying to find a set of ancient relics hidden in the jungle. The board starts small, with only a few of the tiles revealed. As players explore the jungle, new tiles are revealed and the board grows in unpredictable ways. For 2-4 players, it plays in about an hour.
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a tile-placement game set in imperial China. Players act as artisans decorating the palace lake with floating lanterns. On your turn, you place a tile, which gives every player (even your opponents!) a lantern card based on the orientation of the tile. Players dedicate these lantern cards in various sets to become the most honored artisan before the festival begins. Also for 2-4 players, this plays in about 30 minutes.
Why did you feel that the crowdfunding model was the best way to promote tabletop games?
When we finished designing and developing Relic Expedition, we had a really fun game on our hands that we knew a lot of people would love. We could have submitted it to other publishers, but I think there were two main reasons that we did not. (1) We wanted full creative control over the final product, and (2) we wanted to gain the experience of crowdfunding a physical product. I think crowdfunding made sense for us because we didn't have the upfront cash or the audience, and Kickstarter gave us a way to find a bit of both.
Crowdfunding isn't right for every tabletop game, and it's not a magic bullet: it turned out to be a lot more work than I would have expected. We plan to continue to use crowdfunding for our projects for the foreseeable future, but I suspect that at some point — or at least for some projects — it won't make sense.
You’ve used Kickstarter for both campaigns; why and how did you choose it over other crowdfunding options available?
There is such a strong board game community on Kickstarter. A few people I know have tried other platforms, and they just haven't had anywhere near the success they've had on Kickstarter. If you want to use crowdfunding to raise money for a tabletop game, I don't think there is any other good option right now.
How big was your budget before you launched each campaign?
With each game, we have spent about $4,000 on artwork, review copies, video work, and marketing before the campaign began. We started Foxtrot Games with $10,000 set aside to develop Relic Expedition. We thought the extra $6,000 would give us enough of a buffer in case things didn't go exactly as planned. But as first-time creators, there was a lot about production and fulfillment that we didn't really understand or appreciate until we went through it.
A lot of little things happened along the way (a miscommunication here, a mistake we didn't catch there, a few inaccurate estimates everywhere) that all added up to the project costing more than we had planned. We ended up needing about $15,000 more than we had raised, our initial seed money plus $5,000 or so more. We did have almost 1000 extra copies of the game, and we were fortunate enough to sell a good portion of those in retail to earn back some of our initial seed money.
After Relic Expedition, we had a much better idea of what we needed to do to make a board game that could be profitable. That project had almost twice as many backers, and we are on track to make back a lot of the money we lost with Relic Expedition. On top of that, we have inventory to sell and a much better plan for selling it than we did the first time. We haven't mailed rewards to backers yet, so there is definitely still room for unexpected costs ... but we are in much better shape than we were at this same point in our first project.
How far along were your projects before you felt ready to launch the crowdfunding campaigns? In hindsight, would you have preferred to be farther along, or to have crowdfunded earlier?
The game mechanics were complete for both games before we launched; I think that's essential. With board games on Kickstarter, people aren't backing an idea: they are backing the manufacturing of a game that is finished. This isn't true for every category on Kickstarter, but it's definitely true for board games.
When we launched Relic Expedition, we were not as far along as we should have been. We should have had the box cover done, and we did that with Lanterns: that's a really important piece to sell the game and to set the tone of the project. We should have had more game artwork done so that we could have sent prototypes to reviewers earlier and recorded a game play video earlier: we did both of those things with Lanterns, and they helped quite a bit.
It's interesting now to look back (two years later) at the game play video we recorded during the first week of the Relic Expedition campaign: I only showed three colors of relics because that's all we had done! We finished the first version of all the artwork for the base game during the campaign, but we still had a lot to work to do after the campaign. We had to design the rulebook and the box. We also had to rework some of the pieces: we went through four different versions of the backpack trays before they worked like we wanted, and we changed the colors of the relics once after getting a color proof. We really should have had a lot of that done earlier.
It's not bad to have work to do after the campaign. With Lanterns, we intentionally left some things until after the campaign, things like creating the production files and designing the back of the box. If you don't reach your goal, you would hate to have wasted money on files that you don't need.
How did running the two campaigns differ from one another? Did you learn anything from crowdfunding Relic Expedition that you successfully applied to the Lanterns campaign?
The Relic Expedition campaign funded on Day 30 of 35. After the initial rush, we had a lot of agony trying to figure out how to improve the campaign page and how to get the word out. We spent a lot of time and money on the game itself, but we should also have done so much more to prepare the campaign and promote it in advance.
It's hard as a first-time creator to know what you need to do. For example, we didn't have a video teaching people how to play the game when we launched. We scrambled to make one during the first week; that and everything else we did under the gun during that first campaign took quite a toll on us. We did a much better job preparing and promoting our second campaign in advance, and we funded on Day 6 of 30. That made the campaign so much more enjoyable. I often jokingly tell people asking for advice, "Reach your goal as quickly as you can." It really makes a lot of difference in the trajectory of the campaign — and on you emotionally as a project creator.
What sorts of tools did you use to market your campaigns? Do you feel like you did so successfully, and if not, what could you have done differently?
We did a much better job with marketing and promotion for Lanterns, and we did most of that work before the campaign started. We had started to gather a mailing list when we released Relic Expedition, and we announced to that list that Lanterns would be our next project about three months before the campaign. We shared different pieces of artwork on Twitter and Facebook as they were completed. I also wrote some blog posts about the preparation work I was doing, and a couple of them got shared quite a bit before the campaign. I attended Gen Con and ran some playtests and demos.
Those events went incredibly well: I met some people who became very avid fans of the game and our company, and I also got the confirmation I needed that the game was ready. I mailed about 25 prototype copies to reviewers about 6 weeks before the campaign, and many of them published positive reviews. Those reviews helped promote the campaign to their audience, yes, but more importantly they gave people who found the campaign through other means an idea of whether or not the game was right for them.
During both campaigns, we advertised on BoardGameGeek (BGG). With Lanterns, I waited until we had reached our goal to run those ads. I felt that BGG users would be more likely to back Lanterns after it had already reached its goal. I know that seems backwards, but there's a lot of uncertainty when you back a campaign that hasn't funded. If you pledge, have you spent the money? Maybe. You only get charged if the campaign funds, which may or may not happen. If you pledge, you can’t really spend that money elsewhere. Or if you pledge you might forget that you backed the project (thinking it wouldn’t really fund anyways) and then decide to spend your money elsewhere. It’s just not worth the uncertainty for a lot of people. Once a project has reached its goal, it’s much more straightforward and certain: you pledge, you give the money, and you get a game.
Can you explain how you managed the Lanterns campaign?
Even with all the preparation, running a campaign is still a crazy time. I know project creators who plan everything with a detailed timeline, and I know project creators who fly by the seat of their pants. I lean towards the planning side, but I think it'd be foolish to try to plan everything. It kind of feels like running through a timed obstacle course. A lot happens during the campaign, and you have to be flexible and adapt as it happens.
I took the first day and the last day of the campaign off of work. You get a lot of visibility to a campaign when you first launch, and I wanted to be sure I could answer questions and comments quickly. I planned the dates for the campaign so that I wouldn't be out of town for the first weekend or the last weekend. I had worked to schedule as many reviews and interviews as I could before the campaign, but in those first few days I got a lot of requests from people I didn't know to do more of them. I had 12 review copies on hand that I could send out at a moment's notice, and I ended up mailing out most of them. I checked Facebook, Twitter, and BoardGameGeek quite a bit, responding to questions and sharing updates and comments as they came in.
Sending out regular updates is important. You want to keep the campaign in people's minds and keep them excited, which makes them more likely to share the campaign with others. But you also don't want to annoy them, so updates need to be meaningful. I averaged about two updates a week. Before launching, I had written the text for the first update. It provided a list with links and other information for backers to share the project with others, and I posted that a few hours after launching.
Beyond that first update, I would write the other updates at least the night before and then send them out during the day. I had brainstormed ideas for content that could be used for updates. If there wasn't any news to share, I wanted to be able to share some interesting backstory about the project. The Relic Expedition campaign needed more of those kind of updates because it didn't fund as quickly. With Lanterns, we also had some artwork that backers could vote on, so the news around that process gave me regular content for updates. In fact, I had written the text for an update about one of the components in Lanterns (the favor tokens), but I didn't end up needing that to fill an update during the campaign. So I saved that for after the campaign while we were waiting for the games to cross the ocean and get through the port delays.
What were your biggest challenges during your campaigns?
There's a lot you can do during the campaign to promote it: it could be a full-time job for multiple people. If you have the time, that's great. But if you don't, you have to be really smart about how you spend the time you have. Promoting the project before the campaign works well to get other people excited about it so that they will promote it during the campaign. I spent some extra time beforehand to put things in place to make other things like mailing out review copies take less time: I had extras printed and someone else at the ready to mail them out if I needed them. Again, it feels like running through a timed obstacle course: the better you prepare, the more you can accomplish in that time.
What’s the most valuable advice you could share with aspiring crowdfunders?
You absolutely must share your project as early and as often as you can to get feedback. I know the temptation to have everything perfect before you show your game or your Kickstarter page to anyone. The longer you wait to get feedback from people, the more you will have invested in it and the less you will be able to change. The first few days of a campaign are the most important, and you really want your page as good as it can be right from the start. We made a lot of mistakes on our Kickstarter page for Relic Expedition, and we got some good feedback after we launched; but it would have been much better for us if we had addressed some of those issues before we launched.
I'll give you one example. For both games, I wrote a script for the video and created a really rough storyboard to send to the person creating the video. With Relic Expedition, I didn't want anyone to see this: it was too rough and didn't represent the high quality bar we wanted to set. With Lanterns, however, I realized that feedback was so important. I posted the rough storyboard on YouTube and shared it on Twitter and Facebook so that I could get people's feedback. A few people gave us feedback, and I was able to incorporate that into the final video. We got a lot of feedback on every aspect of the Lanterns campaign from a lot of people, and I knew the campaign page was in good shape when we launched it.
This post is part of the #CrowdfundingCrashCourse series. You can find the entire series of interviews and summary posts here.