Cellar Rats, Rahdo, and Early Birds: An Interview with the Creator of Forge War

15 June 2014 | 15 Comments

I’m really excited to share today’s interview with you, as it’s one of my favorites on this blog so far. I really like a lot of what Isaac Childres has done with his campaign for Forge War, so I wanted to get his insights about those positive elements, as well as dig deeper into some interesting decisions he’s made that I don’t necessarily agree with. Despite being very busy with the first 10 days of his campaign (and the Origins convention), Isaac took the time to reply at length. Thanks Isaac!

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forge war 11.      Can you describe Forge War in brief (readers can go to your Kickstarter page to learn more) and why you’re passionate about it?

Sure, so Forge War is fairly heavy Euro game in which players are guild leaders attempting to complete quests by sending out adventurers equipped with weapons that the players must forge using weapon designs purchased from a market in conjunction with metals and gems retrieved from a mine. I think people are getting excited about it because it has two fairly unique game mechanics – the idea of quests resolving over time and the idea of resource collection through abstract spatial reasoning – and these mechanics are integrated very well into the overall game experience.

I’m passionate about it because I designed it to be my ideal game. I love it, and I’m happy that so many others will now get to experience it, as well.

2.      I’ve subscribed to your blog for a while, and I’ve really enjoyed the variety of posts there—it seems like after a certain point, rather than just posting about your games, you decided to write about anything board-game related that you were excited about. Can you talk about the evolution of your blog and how many of your current backers went directly from your blog to back the project on Kickstarter?

Well, I started writing a blog over 3 years ago to talk about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign I was running. I then started getting into Flash game development and started posting about that, too. It’s always been just an outlet for me to free-form talk about all my creative projects. I never expected anyone to read it, it just felt good to get that stuff out into the world.

About a year ago, when I got more serious about launching this Kickstarter campaign, I started writing reviews of board games for the blog, as well, and the reasoning was two-fold: it was a good way to get increased traffic to the site and it showed potential backers that I know what makes a good board game. And sitting down and thinking critically about other board games has also helped me tremendously in improving as a designer, which is great.

Now, whether all that effort actually actually got somewhere in bringing people to the Kickstarter page, it’s very hard to say. I can tell you that of my ~1000 backers, Kickstarter is telling me that 12 came from my website and possibly 3 from my newsletter. In addition, about 80-90% of the traffic coming to my site at the start of the campaign was from Reddit, where I had posted my latest blog about an adaptation of the Cones of Dunshire specifically to get increased traffic through to Kickstarter.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that even after 3 years, I didn’t really have much of a loyal readership. The board game reviews brought in more traffic, but it was almost exclusively Google searches that didn’t stay after finding what they were looking for. That’s probably not the answer you were looking for, though…

I can tell you that there are other huge advantages to writing a blog. First of all, oh my gosh, I had no idea how much I would be writing once my Kickstarter launched. Replies to e-mails, updates, comments on the project page and on BGG. Communicating with backers becomes a full time job and you need all the practice you can get. Writing a blog really helped me practice writing conversationally, which I think has been a huge boon in my campaign.

In addition, even if you didn’t have much of a loyal readership before, you will after. And showing your readership that you are established as a writer will help with that, as well. Plus, as I said before, it’s easy for potential backers to go to your site and see you’re not just some dude out for their money, but that you are passionate about what you’re doing.

forge war 33.      The $1 “cellar rat” reward level was a creative and thematic way for people to get involved in the project even if they couldn’t afford the full game. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to include a $1 level and why you chose that particular reward?

Haha, when I wrote up that reward, I had no idea the project would be as successful as it is. I am going to have to slay so many rats now, I just hope it doesn’t suck up too much of my life shooting that video.

But, yeah, $1 rewards, you’ve talked about these. A lot of people don’t want to commit to your project right away, so you need something simple that they can commit to so you can send them updates and win them over on the project. Plus, the $1 reward is an opportunity to create a talking point. People come to your page and are like, “What? This dude is gonna kills some rats?” And then they’re engaged. They scroll down to see what you’re talking about.

Who knows how well it worked. Some people think it’s weird, but I’m going to have fun shooting that video.

4.      I’m sure I’m not alone that Rahdo’s ringing endorsement of Forge War caught my attention and sent me directly to your Kickstarter page to learn more. Do you have any stats to share to show the impact of Rahdo’s review?

I wish I had more concrete stats, but you know how suspect Kickstarter’s numbers are. I can tell you that, as of right now, Kickstarter says 25% of backers are “direct traffic,” which apparently means there’s have no information on where they came from, 17% are from BGG and 8% are from YouTube.

How much of that was Rahdo? I’d guess a very large percentage.

But no matter where the backer originates, Rahdo’s review gave the entire project a strong credibility. You land on the page and see that Rahdo called it the best board game so far this year; even if you don’t know who Rahdo is, you’re going to pay attention to that and want to find out more.

All I can say is that Rahdo’s impact was huge. Gargantuan. I’ve been studying Kickstarter projects for over a year now, and I was expecting to fund around the middle of my campaign. Not in 25 hours. That’s just crazy.

forge war 45.      Okay, it’s time to talk about early-bird rewards. I’m sure you know how I feel about them. You had an early bird reward level ($54 compared to the “actual” price of $59) that was set to expire when the project funded, but then when the project funded, you extended the early bird reward until Monday at noon (which happens to be right now as I’m writing this question). You’ve currently raised $48,748, largely from the 801 backers at the two early-bird levels.

Last week when you reached your funding goal, you sent out an update that exemplifies exactly why I’m against early-bird rewards: “The problem is that I don’t feel that the majority of the board gaming community has even had a chance to know about the game yet. And if they have, they may not have had time to make an informed decision….” You go on to say that you want to give “potential backers a full 4 days to discover the project, see if they like it and back it.”

Let’s be honest here: Doesn’t this seem a little odd to you? We’re talking about a game that won’t be delivered to backers for 8 months (February 2015), a game funded by a 28-day Kickstarter campaign…but you’re giving backers 4 days to find out about the project for the best price? Granted, you didn’t know the campaign would fund that quickly, but you showed by extending the early bird deadline that the $54 price is viable on a broad scale. If you can afford to charge 801 backers $54 for the game, why not give every backer that option?

I’m not suggesting that you change it now—it’s too late for that—and we’re only talking about a $5 difference in price, but it just seems completely unnecessary to me, given that you have a great game and a very well put-together project. You may not have raised $48k in four days, but I definitely think you would have funded, and you would have gotten those backers at some point in the project (and for what I consider the “right” reasons, not a gimmick like early bird).

Okay, after all that, here’s my question: Given what you’ve learned from your experience with the early-bird reward level over the last few days (and the impact it’s had on the project after the early-bird deadlines expired), what would you recommend for other project creators?

Haha, all right – the hard-hitting early bird question. To answer it directly, I still think that early birds are hugely important to first-time creators. The only thing I would have done differently is that in that small time period between when I saw Rahdo’s review and I launched the project – when I knew the project was going to fund more quickly than expected – I would have changed the early bird to a specific time period rather than having it go until funding and then having to go back and change it later.

Okay, so let’s talk about why. Like I said before, despite my best efforts, I had no following going into this project. And then you couple that to the fact that people on the internet are flighty by nature. They click around and then forget what they were doing. If you don’t have some incentive for people to buy into your project sooner rather than later, I think a lot of people are going to slip through the cracks of the internet.

This was especially true on my project because I had a digital version of the game on an external site. My wife kept telling me it was a bad idea – that people were going to go to the Kickstarter page, see that I had a digital version, say, “Oh, that looks cool – I’ll check that out when I have more time,” and then completely forget about the project. I needed some way to give people incentive to come back (or probably more accurately, pledge and then check the game out when they had the time to decide whether to keep the pledge), and I really think the early bird did that for me.

And I think comparing those 4 early bird days to the entire life span of the game is a little unfair. As a first-time creator, you need that early momentum. Those first 4 days are by far the most important days of a game’s life. You can’t have everyone thinking they’ll just pledge in the last week of your campaign or you’re going to be dead in the water. Sure, I had some limited premium levels, but they only accounted for about $3000 in funding. I needed as much forward momentum as I could get because now people come to the project, see that we’ve unlocked a bunch of stretch goals and are more likely to back the project themselves.

Sure, there are some down-sides to the early bird concept. Due to its very nature, the early bird has to end at some point or you’re just lying to your backers. And when it does, you’ve now got two disincentives to pledge: the price is now higher, which is a turn off, and you’ve got no reason to pledge right now instead of later. So, yeah, I definitely saw an immediate slow down in pledges when I turned off the early bird, though it was also day 5, so I was bound to see significant slow down no matter what.

I can’t really tell how much each of the three factors contributed to the slow down. I think with the digital version, just general forgetting, as discussed above, is a larger factor than the increased price. And of course natural day 5 slow down is probably the biggest factor.

Honestly, I’m pretty happy with all my decisions. Obviously I don’t have data for the project from an alternate universe where I didn’t use an early bird, but I definitely think the up-sides outweighed the down-sides. Though, now that I have more of an established fan base, I don’t think I’ll use early birds on future projects, though that is also because I don’t think I’ll be doing any digital versions of future projects. Man, that was way too much work!

6.      Let’s get back to applauding your cleverness, because there’s a lot of it in this project. You actually created a way for people to play Forge War online so they could decide if it’s a game for them. Can you talk about the process for creating the online game? How many people have played it since the project started?

So a little over a year ago I had hired an artist to do the 100+ pieces of art that I needed for the game, and he wasn’t going to finish everything for about 6 months. In my ignorance, I thought I was more-or-less done working on the game. I thought, “I just have to wait for the art to be finished and then I’ll put it up on Kickstarter.” Obviously there was a lot more that had to happen (more play-testing, graphic design, marketing, etc.) but I didn’t know that yet and in the mean time, I decided I was going to write an online version of the game while I waited. The reasoning for doing this was threefold: I thought it would be fun to do, I thought it would help me with play-testing the game and I thought it would allow potential backers to make a more informed decision about whether they wanted to join the project.

I have some experience coding in Flash, but it was just a hobby. I had started and not finished a couple games in the past and had learned a lot from doing that, so I thought I could tackle the project. I had to learn a lot of new things, as well, but in the end I’ve got a program that works most of the time.

Now if you want to talk about whether it was a good idea, I’m not so sure. I mean, I’m happy I did it. I find programming mentally stimulating (when I’m not yelling at some vague error), so it was a good experience. Also I’m really happy that it’s there now and people can play it and get a good feel for the game. Plus it’s a pretty big talking point – definitely not something you expect to see going into a board game Kickstarter project. And it did help me significantly with play-testing.

It just took so much time, though. If/when I develop a new game, I just can’t imagine committing so much time to something like that again. I think it would be better to direct those creative energies towards making the actual physical game as great as possible.

But anyway, this is the part where I embarrassingly tell you that I totally dropped the ball on collecting stats for the game. I always intended to write something into the server code so that I could compile all the games played and the scores and everything, but I never got around to it, which makes me very sad. All I can tell you is that page on my website currently has ~2400 hits, so I do think it is helping a lot of people make an informed decision.

forge war 27.      You did something interesting with the game: You offered a “basic” version of Forge War for $45 and an “epic” version for $59. It appears that both versions will be available post-Kickstarter in some form, which I applaud (I’m not a fan of KS exclusives), and the basic version won’t include most stretch goals. I’ve talked about the “premium option”, and I think this is a great example of it. I have heard some concerns, though, that the basic version is a “gutted” version of the game. Do you see it that way? If someone pre-orders the basic version, plays it for a few months, then decides they want more, will they be able to buy an add-on pack to upgrade it to the epic version?

Hmm, I actually have mixed feelings about that $45 level. I conceived of it pretty late in the process when I was getting comments like, “No one wants to play a 3-hour game.” I had the basic variant of the game in the epic version, sure, but I thought backers might get mad at me that I was making them pay for cards and bits that they were never going to use.

Clearly that was a mistake, though. As I write this there are only 2 backers at the $45 level and I think they might have just miss-clicked. And now I’ve got to make an entirely separate game box for 2 people? It just seems like I made a mistake in there somewhere if that’s the outcome.

On the other hand, I do agree with your philosophy of offering something at a low price and then offering what you really want to sell at a slightly higher price. $54 (or $59 now) is a fairly high price point for a game on Kickstarter, and I think the $45 level does help people ease into it. So it serves a couple purposes, but comes with its own set of special down-sides.

And then you ask about add-on packs! Not only do I have to make a special version for 2 people, but I’ve got to make an add-on pack for them as well? No, I can’t imagine I will be doing that, which is all the more reason not to have made that version in the first place.

8.      Is there anything else you’ve learned over the last few days that you’d like to share with other Kickstarter creators?

Running a Kickstarter campaign is so much work and so stressful, but it is also SO MUCH FUN. I have had such a blast getting so much encouragement from so many awesome people and interacting with a positive community that is rooting for me to succeed and make the game as great as possible.

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A big thanks to Isaac for his candor and insights–I really enjoyed this interview, and I hope you did too. If you have any additional questions for Isaac or thoughts about the questions and answers above, feel free to post them in the comments below.

15 Comments on “Cellar Rats, Rahdo, and Early Birds: An Interview with the Creator of Forge War

  1. @Jamey Great read & smart interview. Reading it before my bed time gave me heck of a dreams.

    @Issac Very nice results considering it is your first project. I would love to know your recipe for building up the crowd before the start. Good Luck the rest of the campaign.

    Thanks to you all for the great job that you do. All the Best.

  2. This was a fascinating read, thank you for taking the time to both interviewer and interviewee. As a backer of many many projects, I dislike early-bird tiers and when I am the early bird, despite getting a “deal,” I pledge them somewhat grudgingly. Granted they drive traffic and early momentum and I understand that is very important, but they have a whiff of unfairness about them and gaming is based on fairness. Advocates would say it’s not unfairness but luck, I suppose. But there are myriad reasons why, through no fault of their own, someone may not have heard about a game until late in a campaign. That they should suffer for it seems unkind.

    Here’s the kind of early bird tier I wouldn’t mind seeing: “If we get X# of supporters (or X# of $) at this level or above then early-bird pricing will apply to everyone.” Economies of scale used to lower consumer price instead of adding one stretch goal after another. Maybe it’s impractical or impossible with KS settings though.

    I would love to read a post-mortem interview re: Ortus Regni. They plastered BGG with ads for months before the KS launch, sent out regular newsletters, but look as if they will fizzle out. I think there are valuable lessons to be learned there.

    1. Keith: That’s an interesting concept, but logistically it could be difficult, as you want to limit the number of people who have to revise their pledge. Perhaps this is a way to do it: Set an unlimited early bird price at $40 (for example) and a normal price at $45. Tell backers that if you reach your funding goal within the first 3 days of the project (during which time the $40 price is available), you will leave that level open for the rest of the project.

      You know, I really like that! It gives backers a reason to pledge right away for both selfless and slightly selfish reasons.

  3. I haven’t run the numbers but one caveat is that the project creator will potentially be taking in less total money (unless that discount really bumps up the number of backers), because they are passing their “volume discount” along to the backers instead of spending it on stretch goals. I think it might be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of creators, and understandably so. I can see where they might want to have more cash on hand, or to make their project appear more successful, by keeping the status quo. And the “game” element that reaching stretch goals represents is yet another tool that drives pledges (it’s not necessary to give it up entirely, I guess).

    But for me, I’m tired of wrestling with, should I pay $60 now and get this game early (likely with a couple of KS exclusives), or just wait and pay $40-45 at online retail. I often resent having to make that choice – I really want to help creators, but I also can’t/won’t always pay that premium. There are so many KS games now, and the more of a premium that I have to spend to support each one, the fewer I can support in total. That’s regrettable.

    Another thing I wish for is just, more fiscal transparency, but that’s probably a pipe dream. It be both comforting (hopefully) and interesting to see how the funds are parceled out. And not just as a pie-graph estimate, but as they are being spent.

    1. Keith: Let’s talk about these two points separately:

      First, the idea of economies of scale and pricing. Say there’s a game with MSRP $50 that the project creator could sell at $42 (including shipping), but if they can make 1000 copies, that price drops to $39. However, they leave a little wiggle room for stretch goals too, which is always advisable. So they do the early bird innovation you mentioned, hopefully lock in the price at $39, and add some cool stuff along the way. I think it’s completely possible.

      Second, I think there are fewer and fewer games being offered at MSRP on Kickstarter. The vast majority I’ve seen in the last year have offered games at a nice discount under MSRP, and they include shipping. So you’re getting a $60 MSRP game for $30 (plus shipping), which is a pretty ridiculous price (in fact, I would say it’s too good, but that built-in shipping cost has forever changed our impression of cost vs. value).

  4. Good to know, re: the first point, thanks.

    Re: the second point, to the extent that a KS game represents, in general, a greater risk than an established game (fewer reviews, reviews based on prototypes, etc.), as a consumer part of my motivation with regard to price is simply minimizing that risk. So while I agree that our impression of cost/value is a little out of whack, what matters from a risk management perspective isn’t what I pay vs. MSRP but what I pay vs. what can I sell this for if I don’t like it or it is, in the end, not well-designed. Once you drive the car off the lot…

    Which is why I think Stonemaier’s money-back policy is an outstanding idea; hopefully more creators will follow that approach.

    But I would add that in general (not to sound snotty, it’s not meant that way), if I am pledging money to a project months in advance of production to help that project greatly mitigate risk and receive a better production price for their goods, I should not expect to pay MSRP for that item because I provide substantial value to the creator.

    I don’t know if you’d want to speculate (if not, no worries), but I’m curious: as a creator, what level of value do you feel that KS backers, as a group, represent vs. for example a distributor who might pay ~40% of MSRP but potentially provides tremendous value through their distribution channels. (Note that I am absolutely not saying that KS levels should be 40% MSRP).

    1. Keith: I definitely agree that the KS price should be lower than MSRP, no question about it. Not only are backers taking on that risk, but they’re giving creators money many months in advance of receiving the product.

      I think KS backers add a lot of intangible and tangible value to a game’s development, even if the game is nearly finished. They are your biggest cheerleaders, and they’re providing you with the funds to create something that you could not create without them.

      Strictly in terms of money, a $50 MSRP game probably cost about $10 to manufacture and $4 to get to a shipping facility (ocean freight, land freight, customs, fees, etc). From there, to ship to someone in the US, it’ll cost about $10. You also have art and design costs that maybe add up to $3 per game, and on Kickstarter you have their 10% fee (KS plus Amazon). So we’re looking at about $17 for a game sent to a distributor and $31 for a game sent to a Kickstarter backer. A distributor will purchase a game for 40% of MSRP, so for a $50 game that’s $20 for a profit margin of $3. On Kickstarter you could price it at $39 and make $8 profit (though that profit likely goes into printing the retail copies of the game).

      Perhaps the end less here is that it’s fairly difficult to make money in this business. :)

    1. More than anything else, unavailability. In China, there’s at least a dozen factories that manufacturers can source to make custom wooden tokens. In the US, I’m sure there’s one, but I’m not aware of it. Same with punchboards and plastic miniatures and so on. Beyond that, cost is a big factor.

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