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A Look Into The Wild Economy Of Tabletop Board Game Funding

Tim Overkamp shows the game "The Settlers of Catan."
Britta Pedersen
dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images
Tim Overkamp shows the game "The Settlers of Catan."

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, tabletop board games were having something of a renaissance, with popular games like The Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride becoming mainstream additions to family game nights.

Then, COVID-19 hit and, as Quartz reported, it changed how many hobbyist board game creators approached the industry. But for many people who suddenly found themselves stuck at home under lockdown, the pandemic also spurred newfound interest in strategy games that require creativity and concentration. Board game hobbyists had more time to spend learning about new games coming out, while newbies to the scene were discovering a world beyond classics like Monopoly and Clue.

Then, on March 30, the board game Frosthaven — the dungeon crawling, highly-anticipated sequel to the hit game Gloomhaven — surpassed its funding goal of $500,000 on Kickstarter in mere hours. Today, it is the most-funded board game on the site ever, with nearly $13 million pledged toward funding the game's development. Only two projects have ever crowdsourced more funding on the site.

Frosthaven's success seemed to exemplify a shift that has been happening in the tabletop gaming community for years: toward games that are not only focused on strategy and adventure, but also a new type of funding model where fans have more say than ever in which games move from the idea stage to their living rooms. And hobbyist tabletop games are a different breed of entertainment altogether.

"You have mass market games, which are Monopoly and everything that you find at Target or Toys "R" Us, and you have hobbyist games, which you typically find at your FLGS — your friendly local gaming store," said Cree Wilson, the programming and tabletop gaming manager for Comicpalooza. "Then there's this blurry line of stuff in between, which I've heard sometimes called entertainment gaming, and it's games selling tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of copies, but isn't selling millions yet."

For many of these smaller games, funding from fans has proved essential. Hasbro, the company that makes games like Monopoly and Connect 4, earns hundreds of millions each year through everything from game sales and licensing deals to its TV and film business. But funding models are far different for newer or smaller game makers. These makers have become part of one of the country's most popular quarantine hobbies, but they've done so through a mini-economy that relies on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter.

It makes for a unique experience that can line creators up for success — and it isn't specific to Frosthaven. Games like Dark Souls, Ankh: Gods of Egypt, Cthulhu: Death May Die and Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon are among those that earned multiple millions through crowdfunding.

Creators use Kickstarter like a social media site, an advertisement and a fundraising tool all in one, and they use it more successfully than nearly any other game creators on the site. In 2019, fans pledged more than $176 million toward tabletop games — up 6.8% over the previous year, according to Kickstarter data gathered by the entertainment site Polygon. In all, more than 1 million people pledged to games on the site last year.

For fans, the benefits of pledging can go beyond the games themselves. Fans can earn special gifts from game makers in exchange for their support. And often, pledging toward a game can end up costing less than waiting to buy it in a store.

Another factor motivating fans, Wilson says, is fear of missing out.

"The FOMO on Kickstarter is real," Wilson said, adding that often people will pledge because they don't want to miss out on a game their friends will be getting.

It's a feeling that Ash Mehra can identify with. Mehra, a 27-year-old board game fan and medical resident in Miami, said she checks Kickstarter every day, and has spent about $1,200 on the site, pledging to games like the Terraforming Mars Big Box and The Age of Atlantis. She said there "definitely is a visceral thrill, an endorphin rush" to watching games she has pledged money to not only reach early fundraising targets, but then stretch them due to momentum on the site.

Fans like Mehra are already on Kickstarter — either awaiting their favorite game-makers next move or looking for new games to try out — so connecting with them and pulling in funding pledges is almost inevitable.

"For the board game community, there's a culture of looking on Kickstarter ... and being more willing to fund things," said Isaac Childres, the CEO of Cephalofair Games and creator of Forge War, Gloomhaven and Frosthaven. "It's like a larger avenue for board game creators to use that automatically picks up a following."

This is what makes Kickstarter so attractive to individual makers and less attractive to other gaming industries — like video game makers. It takes a lot of startup value to create your own video game, for instance, but for board games, you only need a good enough idea and a well-placed Kickstarter page to gauge public interest.

Once a maker has proven success, it's easier to build on that success. Raising millions from fans "is a pretty strong sign of there's demand," said Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who has studied crowdfunding, entrepreneurship and games. "And I can go to investors. And that also means that if I deliver a good game, I can go back and do, [for example] Fire Haven."

It's not a perfect system. Childres says he devotes much of his success to Kickstarter, but adds that there are "upper limits" to the size of the community on the site. While their engagement is deep, he said, it can only carry a game so far.

"When GloomHaven was published and all those people on Kickstarter got their copy [and started] raving about it, that's when it sort of was able to reach a wider audience outside of Kickstarter."

And there are drawbacks to the funding technique, too. Creators are responsible for everything if their goals are reached. They have to print the games and send them to their customers on their own — a process that can be grueling, time-consuming and even detrimental. One board game creator miscalculated the amount of money it would cost to ship games and lost his house due to the unexpected financial burden.

But, for many creators, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Childres said it's hard to imagine where he might be without crowdfunding. Offering his game Forge War as an example, he said had he "somehow found the money to publish it on my own and get it into stores, I don't think anyone would have paid attention to it."

Now, he's one of the most successful hobbyist tabletop board game creators in the country.

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