Welcome back to Kickstarter Wonk! We are technically a week late, yes, but these are not normal times. While I do want to keep the focus here on new and upcoming games, the fact is that we’re in a time of upheaval, a time to throw some weight behind forces that have been working for justice and equality in one form or another for decades. Now, the tabletop roleplaying community is neither at the forefront of this nor has really been all that great at the equality and diversity thing over the years, truth be told. In spite of that, there are many people in our community coming together to support both those who are protesting right now as well as those victimized by the pervasive racism we see every day. To keep this slightly gaming relevant, I’d encourage all of you to check out the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality on itch.io, and know all proceeds are split between the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Community Bail Fund.
In these truly strange times, there are still Kickstarters going! Volume is still significantly reduced due to COVID-19 (there’s a pandemic, too! Every studio is going to pan this year as too far-fetched), but those who are still out there trying to get their products off the ground all deserve a look. Beyond Kickstarters we’re also going to take a look over at a competing crowdfunding platform, and see if it’s going to pass the sniff test.
Red Bean: Dragon Slayer is maybe not sophisticated as far as mechanics go, but the presentation and form factor is slick as hell. RB:DS is a single player dungeon crawl that takes place on a deck of playing cards, with the red cards representing the “overworld” and the black cards representing the “cavern”. The game is mostly moving through the world, getting to the next card and following prompts, but I’m still excited by the format. For those of you interested in a new presentation of dungeon crawls, or for those of you looking for single player games and/or slick design, this is with checking out. $22 gets you a physical card deck.
Let’s go even further with interesting card decks. Alice is Missing is a GM-less mystery RPG that takes 90 minutes and takes place in complete silence. Characters communicate entirely by text messages, incorporating new clues and prompts as time ticks off on the game’s 90 minute timer, complete with soundtrack. In addition to playing with communication and exposition in very neat ways, Alice is Missing almost accidentally provides a game that’s perfect for online play, and a “Roll20 edition” of the game is available at the three higher reward tiers. For a game that both adds more structure to a session as well as plays with the limits of communication in a really intriguing way, Alice is Missing is definitely worth checking out. $10 gets you a PDF, but in these socially distanced times it may be worthwhile to go to a still-reasonable $20 for the Roll20 Edition.
The Epic of Dreams is an interesting take on a fantasy RPG, combining some elements of OSR design with mechanics intended to emulate high fantasy. The central mechanical conceit, that the game is ‘diceless’, is kind of a canard. The mechanic, called “Circle of the Muse”, is based around players trying to guess a number that the GM comes up with in their head…this can (and possibly should) just be replaced with a d20, but I’ll give points for creativity. While calling this a diceless game makes me roll my eyes, I do appreciate the economy of mechanics and their flavor. You can check out a two page core mechanics spread on the campaign, and if mythic/heroic fantasy is your bag this may very well be a solid game for you. $10 gets you a PDF.
The campaign for Neurocity isn’t long, but the goal (already met) is fairly modest and the PDF tier is cheap. What gets me about Neurocity is that it’s apparently a “subterranean city complex…ruled by an ever-watchful supercomputer”. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that designer Gavriel Quiroga is writing a serious version of Paranoia. That particular link aside, Neurocity is taking cues from games like SLA Industries and A|State, and putting it all together in a much more compact system than either of the above. I’m intrigued, though I do wish the campaign gave a bit more context around the focus on “psychology and existentialism” noted in the subheading. This could be extremely my bag, it’s also one of the few Kickstarter campaigns I’ve read that I think should be less concise. €6 (~$7) gets you a PDF.
Dancing With Bullets Under a Neon Sun is a Cyberpunk reskin of The Black Hack. In the past I’ve been fairly lukewarm on Cyberpunk/D&D fusions (Carbon 2185 is a good game in spite of being based on 5e), but The Black Hack is a pared down and also very smart d20-based system. I think it’s just crazy enough to work, frankly. The game shifts stats away from the six traditional D&D stats to fit the game’s aesthetic, doubles down on retrofuturism both in style and mechanics (I’m not the biggest fan of 80s-style hacking but if you’re going to do it go all the way), and generally leans into Cyberpunk and away from fantasy, even if OSR is still the guiding principle. Also worth noting: the team includes Paul Gallagher, best known for his excellent system-agnostic supplement Augmented Reality, and the soundtrack is being done by Heimat der Katastrophe, who also did the soundtrack for Mörk Borg. $7 gets you a PDF.
In addition to our half portion of Kickstarter campaigns, I did want to take a look at an emerging crowdfunding competitor which is targeting the tabletop realm specifically. Currently, crowdfunding as a paradigm is dominated by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and crowdfunding campaigns for tabletop games in particular are overwhelmingly hosted on Kickstarter. While Kickstarter has a solid games team (lead by none other than Luke Crane of Burning Wheel fame) and has helped the community through events like Zinequest, they are still effectively a monopoly, and the tensions that arose in the leadup to their staff unionizing should serve as a reminder of the risks inherent in relying on one provider.
Enter Game On: Tabletop. Game On: Tabletop is a crowdfunding platform specifically tailored to board game and role-playing game designers and publishers. In this case, “specifically tailored” pertains mostly to campaign feature set, including more flexibility in campaign design, dynamic scripting for elements like stretch goals, and most notably, integrated pledge management, a particular pain point for current Kickstarter users. The team behind Game On: Tabletop did strong and effective market research, and have introduced a product that, as far as the people running the campaigns go, is head and shoulders above the existing offering.
The interface for backers, on the other hand, needs some work. The campaigns page has six views and only one filter: language. If you wanted to, say, look through campaigns by their funding total, you can’t. You can sort by funding total, but that shows both campaigns and late pledges. You can filter by campaigns, but that’s organized by date. Kickstarter’s browsing options manage to be both more flexible and easier to read. What I will say is that trying to show campaigns and post-campaign late pledges in one view does make things more complicated, and I understand why the developers wanted to simplify here. Still, this could have been done better.
Let’s talk network effects. There is one live English language campaign on Game On: Tabletop at this writing. There’s one live German campaign, and four French campaigns. In addition, most of the campaigns are from established companies; there aren’t nearly as many small solo and indie efforts here as there are on Kickstarter. These are two different phenomena, but both pertain to network effects. First, language. Kickstarter is an Anglocentric platform, if not even US-centric in its audience. There is a massive market for games in languages other than English, and though Kickstarter does reach that to a degree, the backer network is not nearly as large as it is for English games…meaning games in French or German have much less downside risk when they pass over Kickstarter for a different network. I will note that even though I complain about how Game On: Tabletop organizes their browsing filters, they have a language filter and Kickstarter does not. That’s a big deal, especially if you aren’t looking for English games.
The second consequence of network effects has to do with who’s running the campaigns currently. Ulisses Spiele is well represented, as is Green Ronin and a number of mid-sized European board game and RPG publishers. While the effects of Kickstarter Anglocentrism are on display clearly here, so are broader network effects, or lack thereof. These are all organizations with the resources necessary to market their own campaigns; that means that these are the organizations that currently lose the least by opting not to get their share of the wandering eyeballs on Kickstarter. All told it looks like it’s going pretty well, Green Ronin is ending their “Book of Fiends” campaign with around $40,000, a respectable quantity for a supplement. What’s not obvious is if Game On: Tabletop is adding to that success.
To be perfectly clear, lack of network effects isn’t an indictment of Game On: Tabletop, nor is it saying much about Kickstarter other than they were there first. Still, it’s the perfect illustration of why being a second mover is hard, even when you’ve made significant improvements to the product for paying customers, the people and companies running the campaigns. My hope is that Game On: Tabletop can build on the successes it’s had so far, in non-English campaigns and established publishers, and expand from there into a solid Kickstarter competitor.
At the moment, Kickstarter is winning in volume. Currently, the number of campaigns on Kickstarter dwarfs the number of campaigns on Game On: Tabletop, even in just the “Tabletop Games” category. That said, for writing one article a month, it’s worth it to check both sites. I don’t necessarily expect to see many campaigns fitting my requirements coming from Game On: Tabletop, at least not at first. That said, if they’ve got their pledge management and fulfillment features tacked down, they may be seeing solid growth in the coming months and years. I’m rooting for them, if only because more competition is always a good thing.
2020 hasn’t ceased being a weird year, but there are still designers out there, trying to get their games seen. In addition to looking at a few of these games, we also looked at Game On: Tabletop, a new crowdfunding competitor that could take on Kickstarter with a few tweaks and a bigger audience. What will next month bring? At the rate we’re going, I hesitate to even guess. Even so, I’ll be here and see what designers are coming out of the woodwork in the next Kickstarter Wonk!
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