Kickstarter Lesson #209: The Hook

5 January 2017

We recently decided to publish a new game submitted to Stonemaier.

It’s a lovely game. When the latest version of it was submitted to us, we played it once and immediately wanted to play it again. It still needs some work, but there’s a solid, entertaining, creative foundation to it. I’m sure I’ll talk about it here someday with more specifics.

The one big challenge with this game is something I call the “hook.” The hook is the element–or, as I’ll discuss below, the elements–of a product that catches your eye, draws you in, and makes you want it.

For my Kickstarter campaigns, I always tried to have different types of hooks like a must-have component, a unique mechanism, eye-catching art, and something special about the campaign to get people excited. I don’t think one hook is enough for a Kickstarter campaign.

In the post-Kickstarter world, multiple hooks still make a difference, but a single powerful hook can make a product stand out. It’s just that I’d rather check off as many boxes as possible.

Here are the types of hooks I’m thinking about for this new game. I’ll talk about these in reference to games, but they apply to any product or service. I’ll mention some examples from our product line:

  • Art & Design: Scythe box art (and the art and design throughout the game) seems to connect with the gamer zeitgeist
  • Component: custom wooden buildings in Viticulture stood out in a field of Euro games with generic cubes
  • Mechanisms: Between Two Cities’ partnership-in-a-competitive game mechanism
  • Name: Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia (my co-founder thought of that subtitle. I love it!)
  • Marketing: the mystery and unknown elements of Charterstone seem to be appealing to people who like that sort of thing
  • Theme: Scythe’s alternate-history world really captured my imagination
  • Narrative: Euphoria’s backstory was a huge element of engagement during the Kickstarter campaign

Just to be clear, I’m not just saying that I want our games to have an interesting theme or a unique mechanism. Being interesting and unique are interesting qualities, but they’re different than the hook. The key to a great hook is that it grabs your attention. It stands out in a crowd.

Of course, everything I’m talking about here is, to use the technical term, loosy-goosy. What hooks me may be different than what hooks you, and that’s okay. In my opinion, the important thing is that I at least consider those different elements as I develop, publish, and market a game. It’s even helpful as a filter: If a game doesn’t have many hooks, perhaps it’s not one I should continue to design or consider for publication.

What’s the last time a product hooked you? What was it that caught your attention and made you want to learn more? Was it enough for the ultimate hook, for you to actually buy it?

 

26 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #209: The Hook

  1. Painted miniatures or a beautifully designed game board have always been a hook to me. Also a rulebook with lots of example graphics hook because I see that as a quick to learn game. Just some thoughts from an old geezer. –Jeff in Texas

  2. Some combination of art, graphic design, and theme (which all have to work together) is the biggest thing for me. Frankly there are games that are probably mechanically better games that I’m less interested to play than mechanically weaker games because the art/design/theme brings the game to life.

    Any easy example of that is if I had to pick between vanilla Risk and LotR Risk, I would always pick LotR Risk because of the theme (that has the benefit of being fleshed out by the books/movies) and the fact that stories about what’s happening flow out much easier, even if you aren’t using any ‘extra’ elements of the game as compared to vanilla Risk. That said, I would rather play a game with more interesting mechanics than Risk.

    The design choices I’ve made with both the game I brought to the design day last year as well as the next one I’m working on now are very reflective of that importance of theme/story in games to me (To the point where the ‘epic’ in epic nerd games has the double meaning, referencing epic poems as well as the contemporary use of the word’). Part of the Epic Nerd Games adventure this year will be figuring out hiring artists and having the art reflect that same level of thematic hook.

    This is getting to be a bit of a long comment but I think everything I said above really points to something that I believe is also true in your games. Those hooks only work when they’re more than just hooks but something that runs deep into the very core of the game design. Viticulture has fantastic buildings, but it has them because the game is meant to have them with that level of eclectic artistry that you can see running through every aspect of the game. Another example of this would be the Item Meeples in Gamelyn Games’ Tiny Epic Quest. They work because they have the 8-bit zelda game feel the entire game has. Hooks that are just tacked on to try to pull in extra attention don’t work nearly as well.

    Alex

  3. For me, the Viticulture buildings don’t distinguish the game from the million and one (thankfully going down in recent years, shaped wood is increasingly becoming the standard, which back when Stone Age came out represented a standout deluxe production) Generic Euro Cubes, that’s what the glass beads do. For buildings? I think most publishers would have represented them with cardboard tokens of some kind rather than either cubes or custom cut buildings. You’re point still stands, Viticulture has a production standard that, well, stands out as a definite hook.

    Last time a product truly hooked me… Honestly, probably just realizing the art style you’re going with with Charterstone, though I was already hooked due to the pure Euro Legacy thing. that I’m very intrigued by how it will pan out.

    Ignoring products of the future, though… Hm. There was Mechs vs Minions, with the specific hooks of component quality to price point ratio (minor compared to the other two, but does make a difference), solo playable (even if they don’t think it is, I saw Rahdo’s run through, I see nothing about the game’s mechanisms that won’t work solo), and interesting mechanics done in a way I haven’t seen before (most programming games you reset your program between rounds. The inability to do that, that your earlier actions to do what you needed to do short term can therefore become inefficiencies in the system long term, is really interesting). It’s still in shrink, but it worked well enough to get me to purchase it, possibly that? Maybe the art shop I got a print for my sister in law for Christmas? Not sure how much that hooked me vs ‘stumble across the exact thing I needed at the right time, then look through the options to see if they had her favourite animal’ [they did]

    I think it’s important to note that while I definitely agree that having hooks on multiple levels is useful – Different people respond to different hooks, even between people with similar overall tastes what captures each person’s attention will be different – no product needs to have [i]every[/i] conceivable hook.

    1. Thanks for sharing some of your hooks, Stephen! I totally agree that products don’t need to have every hook. It’s something I want to consider as a designer, but if certain hooks are really strong and others are weaker, I think that’s okay.

  4. Scythe’s art, setting/backstory, and components definitely hooked me. Chimera Station’s unique specializable (!) alien workers hooked me as did Anachrony’s mech suit minis that actually carry the cardboard worker tokens. Fog of Love as a ‘romantic comedy’ game, winning by being the happiest in Pursuit of Happiness, and being able to ‘save’ your game progress in 7th Continent were all conceptual hooks for me too.

  5. Tiny Epic Quest’s Item Meeples along with the theme and art made it an instant back. Typically what hooks me is hearing positive reviews of a game from multiple sources. For example, Captain Sonar and Mechs & Minions this year recieved such unilateral praise that even though they wouldn’t typically appeal to me based on the types of games they are they became must-haves because I didn’t want to miss out on the experience everyone else was raving about.

  6. Generally as far as a hook goes. Something unique. If it’s a theme like commissioned or box size efficiency like to let games. They are quite good. That is something. I like what EGG does with there little indentions for finger dents to make opening boxes easier.

    EGG also tends to have punch board bumping out lid box so I don’t need to use punched out sheets to raise the insert tova level were bits inside won’t fly around.

    You are good with box sizes IMO. With euphoria being the only one that has some wasted space.
    So those are small hooks I see gamers with shelf space issues being aware of.

  7. It is always graphics for me. At least as a first hook.
    Graphics tell stories, set my imagination on fire and we’re all hooked by a good story, aren’t we? If I’m on the Mount Olympus fighting the Titans or on the sunny hills of Tuscany, caring for my crop, is the story that my imagination is telling me that makes me cast those dice once more.
    What I would like to see more, is games built around a real story that develops itself as you go further. Like you’re reading a good book, or movie for that matter. The more you learn, the more you want to know. You play and you have fun each round, but the game keeps you around its board also because you want to learn more about.
    Some games are built around a story (Shadows over Camelot) but in the end the actual playing doesn’t really rely on it, others take that a step further (Arkham games), to throw only 2 examples.
    So, my 2 cents, anything that helps telling a story, either if it’s a cool drawing, an awesome miniature (awesome doesn’t always mean a monster or a knight), or a mystery, a secret, or anything in between, this is where I believe the hook(s) should be.

  8. Theme and narrative are really interesting examples – I’ve played a bunch of Euphoria and I finally got a chance to play Scythe and had a really great time with both – but the stories that underlie those worlds don’t really form a big part of the game play experience. I can see how those worlds are interesting and how people might want to dive into them, but the manner of engagement with that lore and that world building seems fundamentally different during a campaign and talking around the subject than it is when playing the finished thing.

    I’m not really sure what to take away from that as a player or as a designer, but I find it interesting that the type of hook needed to get someone into a game isn’t necessarily that strongly related to how it is in the game itself.

    1. Greg: That’s true, I wouldn’t say the backstory plays an active role in the experience of playing Euphoria and Scythe. I think the story in those comes comes from the encounter cards (Scythe) and markets/recruits (Euphoria), so it’s more player-driven.

      1. Oh aye, it’s definitely there and something that adds to the game and I’d go a bit further in talking about how the theme comes through the games (The art on the character cards in Scythe for example is far from generic and the faction specific abilities gives some hints as to the nature of those factions) – but I find it interesting how something that’s a relatively minor part of the game experience can be a major part of the Kickstarter experience.

        The reverse is also true, mechanics that really add something to the gameplay experience in a way can be difficult to communicate across Kickstarter.

        1. “I find it interesting how something that’s a relatively minor part of the game experience can be a major part of the Kickstarter experience.”

          This is a really keen observation, Greg. There are games with stunning art on the cards, yet while I’m playing, I don’t even notice. But if those same cards are posted on Kickstarter, they can play a huge role in my decision as a backer.

  9. I like many different types of games and am conscious of many different hooks. For me, these include:

    – innovative or unusual game mechanics, particularly when games have very asymmetric powers/positions for different players but are still well-balanced (I’m a game designer and playtester so maybe being interested in mechanics is not surprising) – a recent kickstarter example is Gavin Birnbaum’s QE (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/209136/qe) which has a great no-holds-barred bidding mechanism and is now influencing mechanics for a couple of other games currently being developed in the London Playtesting community.

    – Games which are ‘game systems’ and can be used for multiple different and varied games, especially if short, simple and portable so good for taking on holiday or carrying around in your pocket. Wibbell++ (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/180845/wibbell) is a recent kickstarter example.

    – simplicity and economy of design for abstract games. ‘Go’ is the classic here. For modern abstract games, I can be hooked if I think “why has no one, including me, never thought of that before!” or “people could still be playing this in centuries to come”.

    – Quality production and components that have tactile appeal (I’m a live roleplayer so games made only with traditional materials like wood, cloth, leather appeal if my characters can play them in-character in a historical/fantasy/reenactment setting) – Mijnlieff (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/72667/mijnlieff) has both this and the simplicity hook above for me.

    – Historical narrative and theme (esp when this is integral to game rather than a bolt on) – Twilight Struggle is a great example here

    – Designer – this is never the only hook, but a game from a designer (like Reiner Knizia) with a great track record will at least mean I look hard at it.

    – Silly name or theme, esp when coupled with eye-catching art – I backed Temp Worker Assassins (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/198791/temp-worker-assassins) on basis of that and enthusiastic sales pitch at UK Games Expo last year. On subsequent play I found it also has interesting combination of worker placement with deck-building mechanic.

    – Replayability with different starting conditions so that even though you’ve played the game before you have to work out strategy and tactics from scratch. Something else may need to hook you in first, but replayability is something I think about before buying. NB I finally and belatedly got round to playing Scythe for first time this week and want to now try it again with a different nation. (You don’t need me to tell you the artwork and components are also great).

    1. Dave: Thank you for sharing this detailed list! I appreciate the thought you put into it. I like that you highlighted the designer and replayability (when people purchase anything, utility plays a huge role in the hook).

  10. Jamey,
    I agree with others; it’s kind of a complete package of design/ innovation/art, etc. that hooks me. However, if I had to choose one hook, I’d say the art/look is crucial because it’s the first thing you come across when encountering a game. “Yardmaster” and “Secret Hitler” are both games that caught my eye due to the beautiful simple and clean artwork. I backed their Kickstarter campaigns immediately. Stonemaier Games has capitalized on this hook by providing stunning artwork in their games and game boxes. I remember seeing the box of Charterstone at GENCON this year and instantly wanting to learn more about the game due to the clean and whimsical artwork. I’ve actually found myself checking on the progress on Charterstone in the last few months. The anticipation of what’s inside the box is a great hook. That being said, please give us some more details Jamey, haha.

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