If I Returned to Kickstarter…

15 October 2018 | 55 Comments

3 years ago, I was in the middle of my final Kickstarter project (Scythe). I didn’t know at the time that it would be my final campaign; that was a decision we made the following summer, and then I formally addressed it on this blog a few months later.

Since then, Stonemaier Games has published 3 new games, 6 new expansions, and a bunch of reprints. For each of them, we’ve simply made a bunch of copies, sold them to distributors, and shared them with our community and beyond. For a few of them, we’ve also accepted direct pre-orders ranging from 0-60 days before we received the product at our warehouse.

It’s important for me to note up front that this method has worked quite well: Compared to my 7 tabletop Kickstarter projects, which raised a total of $3.2 million over, our non-Kickstarter revenue since mid-2016 (after delivering Scythe) totals around $14 million. I’m constantly experimenting, learning from my mistakes, and trying to evolve Stonemaier as a publisher, but I’m pleased with what we’ve done post-Kickstarter.

I actually didn’t realize how well this method would work until I immersed myself in it. I quit Kickstarter as a creator and focused on other ways of building community, improving the product, generating buzz, gauging demand, finding funds, and shipping the product worldwide.

So for quite some time now, whenever I think about crowdfunding, I really struggle to think of a reason why I would use Kickstarter instead of my current method. This is a bit hard to explain, so I’ll try to use an oversimplified analogy:

[UPDATE: If you’re about to read this analogy, especially if you’re visiting here from Reddit, here’s the deal: This analogy is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of what Kickstarter is. I love Kickstarter as a backer and a creator–my company would not exist, nor would it have grown to what it is, without Kickstarter. The whole point of this analogy is that this is genuinely how I view Kickstarter for Stonemaier Games after immersing myself in other publishing techniques over the last 3 years.]

Let’s say you want to make some chocolate chip cookies for your friends. You’ve made them many times before, and you have a great, well-tested recipe. You’ve already bought the best ingredients. You even know which friends like chocolate-chip cookies and which don’t. You now have two options:

  1. You make the cookies. When they’re ready a few hours later, you invite your friends over to eat them.
  2. You wait to make the cookies. Instead, you confirm with each of your friends that they do indeed want the cookies. Many of them have their own ideas about what the cookies should be. Based on their preferences, you end up with 4 different versions of the cookie, including add-ons like sprinkles and frosting. Finally you start to make the cookies. You spend the next 6 months telling your friends exactly what the ingredients look like, how your fancy new oven works, and that the baking process is taking longer than you expected. Many of your friends are really excited about the cookies, but a few claim publicly that they’re overhyped. Eventually you ship the cookies to your friends, though several of them moved and didn’t update their address (they still want their cookies, though). The post office also mishandles several packages, and the cookies arrive in crumbs.

Which method would you choose?

I’m trying to illustrate how it’s difficult for me to even comprehend why I would use Kickstarter instead of my current method, despite my experience and success as a creator. For those creators who always use Kickstarter, you may look at my world through an equally distorted lens.

I think it’s a problem that I can’t even imagine the possibility of using Kickstarter in the future. I’m way too dismissive of the idea. Even if I don’t ever return to Kickstarter as a creator, I need to at least know the value Kickstarter could add to Stonemaier Games. I’m too far on the outside looking in (despite all of my articles about crowdfunding and entrepreneurship).

So on Thursday I’m going to write a post about what it would look like if I returned to Kickstarter as a creator (I intended to do it today as part of this article, but it’s almost dinnertime, and this is already long enough). I need to be able to put myself in those shoes again.

And honestly, in the brainstorming I’ve done so far, I’ve gotten excited about the hypothetical idea of returning to Kickstarter. It’s exciting to be in the throes of a Kickstarter campaign, the sense of ownership instilled in the backers as a result is unparalleled, and Kickstarter’s “follow” feature significantly expands our reach. I could actually see it working for my civilization game.

If you have anything you’d like me to cover in Thursday’s article about the elements of a modern Stonemaier Games Kickstarter project, please let me know so I can think about it. Thank you! [Update: Here is Thursday’s post, If I Returned to Kickstarter, Here’s How I’d Do It.]

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55 Comments on “If I Returned to Kickstarter…

  1. […] If I Returned to Kickstarter…: This entry was a preamble about how I struggle to view Kickstarter as a viable alternative to our current publishing methods. It wasn’t meant to bash Kickstarter, which is the misinterpretation that made this post go viral–rather, it’s about perceptions and the importance of examining options that you’ve stopped even considering. […]

  2. $3.4 million vs $14. That is fantastic.

    Although it’s hard to tell with Scythe distorting it. It’s a very good distortion though :)
    Would Scythe have been as big if it did not start with a 17,000 size snowball to roll down the hill? Who knows.

    I’d supposed you might have to privately compare Viticulture or Euphoria sales with the sales of Charterstone. Perhaps that would a more realistic statistic. Maybe the long tail of those games and the fame of Stonemaier when Charterstone was released balances itself out.

    Would Charterstone and B2CMKL be even bigger now if they had a KS snowball to begin life with, plus distribution? If you only come back to KS with a super special Scythe like game then you might never know. You might put it down to the game and not KS. Maybe you should try it 2 more times to find out.

    1. “Would Scythe have been as big if it did not start with a 17,000 size snowball to roll down the hill?” I doubt it. That’s actually how I’d sell the idea of another Kickstarter to retailers if I did it–“let’s make another Scythe together.”

      But even without Kickstarter, I think Scythe would have done pretty darn well. So if I were to calculate what you’re proposing, I would still need to include some percentage of Scythe revenue over the last few years.

      “Would Charterstone and B2CMKL be even bigger now if they had a KS snowball to begin life with, plus distribution?” That’s a tough question. It’s hard to tell.

  3. Kickstarter is life-destroying for creators. I can make a ton of money on Kickstarter but it costs me my health, and all the ad money and the 10% fees, and the thousands that go to pledge manager software, and the shipping, and the tariffs/customs, and the insurance, and the fulfillment, and the people who want “custom orders” and the liars and con artists, plus all your friends think you are rich and want a piece of you… it is still worth it for me, but it it’s a long dark road and sometimes we walk it alone.

      1. It is tough for people like me who don’t blog. (I know you encourage people to do so anyway in your book, but it is tough when the climate can be so hostile on social media.)

        Your 10-14 day campaign is the best idea. GROWL was 21 days I believe, and it was a good length for my lack of preparedness, but ideally I would already be prepared and could handle a much shorter window.

        I find it frustrating that board gaming on Kickstarter has evolved into a scenario where the creator basically already has to have the money to begin production with or without Kickstarter. Small print runs are expensive so we take massive risk by either a) only fulfilling the Kickstarter or b) overproducing games and going to retail, which includes trade shows and all that. First time publishers have to be able to support their products by either relying on the Amazon system, and/or working with distributors and retailers. It’s a lot to learn, but I don’t see the margins working in order to have (as you say) “a long tail” of life, unless the game is expensive. Chaosmos is $60-$70 and I get a better margin on it than my $14-$24 game, despite the new game having over 8,000 preorders.

        Great articles, thank you.

        1. “I find it frustrating that board gaming on Kickstarter has evolved into a scenario where the creator basically already has to have the money to begin production with or without Kickstarter.”

          That is tough, especially for newer creators who genuinely have no idea whether or not their project will fund.

  4. Hi Jamey,

    Are you thinking about this specific to Kickstarter or looking at the crowdfunding approach in general. If your writing goes that way, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on whether any other platform could be viable and what would make you consider them instead.

  5. As always, I appreciate your honesty and willingness to engage with your community.

    I have to admit, when I first read this headline I got very excited about a potential return to Kickstarter. All the points you bring up are valid and are definitely well thought out. And the comments so far have covered most the bases.

    But here’s the thing…

    I would still love to see you run a new Kickstarter project. A lot has changed in 3+ years and if nothing else, you could use this as an opportunity to refresh a lot of the lessons you taught us early on in your career. I imagine some pretty epic updates covering all major stepping stones throughout your new crowdfunding journey. What’s changed? What’s the same? What previous bits of advice would you now have to amend?

    I’m aware my desire for you to run a new Kickstarter project is a bit selfish, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’d love the opportunity to follow along. Just think of all the avid Kickstarter backers out there today that were not a part of your earlier projects. I never had that chance personally. I buy most my games these days via Kickstarter and would love to add one of your projects to my ‘backed campaigns’ page and follow along. Again, selfish I know. You’re in a unique position to further educate the masses here.

    I’m happy knowing this is all on your mind. 2 posts in a row dedicated to a “maybe” is better than a definite no ;)

    And on top of everything I just said, you would be delivering a rad new game! Win/win if you ask me.

    1. Jason: Thanks for your thoughts, and I appreciate your curiosity about having me run a Kickstarter project in the future. You make some good points about what I could learn from the experience and share with my readers.

  6. You might consider using Kickstarter for a game that’s strongly compelling but only to a niche audience, like a very heavy game in terms of gameplay weight than you’ve done before. Let’s say you had an idea for an amazing game, but it was extremely complex and had a 4 hour playtime. That might work best on Kickstarter because of the uncertainty of how it will sell or be received. You might even release it under a new brand or a new “label” (like Stonemaier Grey Label or something like that).

  7. Great read. Thanks Jamey!

    BTW: You have a typo at the bottom of the third paragraph. “Stonemaier as a publisher, but I’m please with what we’ve done post-Kickstarter.”

  8. “The post office also mishandles several packages, and the cookies arrive in crumbs.”

    Is this really unique to Kickstarter or is this something that’s easier to handle since you ship smaller numbers of pre-orders and the rest are handled by distributors?

    Would you make a game as deluxe as Scythe’s top tiers not through Kickstarter? Many of the KS games that are expensive tend to have so much content and cost they wouldn’t work in a retail environment. Heck look at the two versions of Brass, deluxe was KS and retail is a smaller box. Seems if you want the tricked out versions Kickstarter is the cheapest way to get them all at once.

    1. Brian: That’s a great question. It isn’t unique to Kickstarter, but it’s a lot easier to address when it’s a few damaged packages versus hundreds. So yes, it’s a matter of scale.

      I like your question about deluxe games as well. I think in general, I’m pretty hesitant to make games that aren’t deluxe in the first place–I want all of our games to feel deluxe out of the box.

      1. The resin resources that came with higher Scythe come to mind. I ordered them separately for Charterstone and so they seemed a lot more expensive. I think depending upon the expansion for Euphoria I might have to get them for that game as well. For some reason premium resources and money when it’s a non-miniature game is the key to making it really deluxe.

        Your talk in the new post about expensive games being good for KS might explain why CMON does big KS for the bigger more expensive games. Harder to find a retail audience for a run of $100+ games not to mention all the expansions.

        1. Brian: That’s true, CMON does it, though kind of in the opposite way I described: I would use Kickstarter to offer less than MSRP on a game and include some substantial bonuses, but I think CMON usually charges MSRP on Kickstarter plus shipping (though their bonuses are more substantial than what we would offer).

  9. Seems to me that when it comes to publishing a first game, KS is the choice more because it’s there, not because it’s a good system. It’s a terrible system for this type of product – one that blatantly uses KS as a preorder system, precisely what KS says it’s NOT.

    For new / small scale designers i’d like to see an open site that can work much like GMT’s P500 system on the preorder side. That works perfectly for a preorder site as that’s exactly what P500 is, and has been for sooooo many years.

    I’d also like to see this same site be able to be a front end store for anyone who wants to use it. I was thinking of someone like Alban Viard when this came to mind, not a store, not a warehouse, just a central way to connect gamers to producers to buy the game they want.

    And I’d love to see “stretch goals” be able to simply lower the cost of a product instead of having to scrabble around to provide bonus content and the likes. Let a product be what it is. Leverage bulk production opportunities and stop faffing around changing things and adding risk and complexity. Again as KS isn’t officially a shop, price reductions make no sense in their classical model. But here… hell yeah preorders hit 1,000 we can take $10 off the price. Apparently I’m a fool for suggesting people wouldn’t love that though according to some!

    1. I define a pre-order system as one where a company has already finalized and produced a product, and they’re accepting orders for it. Otherwise there’s a funding element to it–crowdfunding–and it’s not a pre-order. Based on that definition, it’s exceptionally rare that projects on Kickstarter are pre-orders.

      1. Well again this is a phrase open to interpretation, call it what you want, but designers only really need a system to register interest and secure funds when the demand is proven, no? Plenty of room for all the current design and production uncertainties that haunt KS to some extent.

        1. “designers only really need a system to register interest and secure funds when the demand is proven, no?”

          Gauging interest and raising/security funds is part of what you can do on Kickstarter (the other core elements are generating buzz, improving the product, building community, and streamlining worldwide fulfillment).

  10. I imagine Jamey only has time to skim read a lot of the messages. He actually said he would consider Kickstarter for an expensive game with a high RRP ($80-$100).

    This is what I was suggesting with the release of a Special Edition version of Scythe – with all metal minis etc. So the RRP may be nearer 3, 4 or even 5 times the high RRP that Jamey refers to.

    So yes I think Jamey and I were singing the same song. Maybe my phrasing was confusing, either way, it’s nice to see he hasn’t got his head in the sand, and will still use KS when required (It could mean big releases for the future)

    1. Kickstarter is meant to be used to create new things. So in a way, yes, Kickstarter helped to create and grow Stonemaier Games, and it’s been exciting to use other ways to make and sell our games over the last few years.

  11. Do you think that new game designers who have 0 published games and, obviously, who do not have your pedigree, access to resources etc. should use ”Kickstarter” to get funds or should they do crowdfunding on theyr own website? Or are there some other alternatives today?

    1. Bruno: I think Kickstarter is an excellent way to publish your first, second, or even third game if you’re looking to run a company (even if it’s just a one-game company). Stonemaier Games wouldn’t exist without it. If you’re strictly looking to be a game designer, I would suggest submitting your game to a publisher.

  12. It’s interesting that the difference is so distinct from before and after Kickstarter. I’ve followed you since Scythe (and loved it). Since then I’ve become a retailer and buy all your board games as they reach my distributor (Let’s Play Games and VR Distribution… though one day I’d love to go direct!). But I must say, if I saw your games pop up on Kickstarter again I would HAVE to back you. And for my own ten cents worth I think the buzz the Kickstarters generate is pretty awesome. Plus, I do like feeling like “I helped Jamey make this game.” Even though you could make it on your own, for sure, it’s still nice to know I was part of the Kickstarter.
    Using KS as a pre-order or initial order might be an option… I know it’s something you’ve looked at before as not really what KS was for, but in this case perhaps it would be worthwhile?

    1. Oliver: I like the way you put it: “I do like feeling like “I helped Jamey make this game.”” That’s the creative ownership I mentioned in this post, and I agree that it’s quite powerful.

      To me, a pre-order is if a company has already made a product and are just selling it in advance. We do that now, but I wouldn’t want to do that if we used Kickstarter, as I would want that sense of creative ownership.

  13. Well, now I want a cookie.
    Seriously though, from your perspective, it makes sense not to go back to Kickstarter. You’ve got the reputation and funds to do it the more profitable and preferable method.

    1. Also, Christian, I’m curious about your perspective as a designer: If a company signed a game that you designed, would you be more or less excited if they told you it was going on Kickstarter?

      1. Well, I’m no just a designer, so my perspective is a little skewed on that. I’ve run Kickstarter projects before. The last one I ran was for Rise of Tribes for Breaking Games. Not that long ago. I also made all the video, graphics, etc for the page.

        After showing you guys Fate of the West, Derek and I briefly talked about showing it to a few publishers we knew would take it to Kickstarter. Then I thought, why would I do that when I already know I can do that myself? So… Fate of the West is going to Kickstarter lol.

        So to answer your question, no, I wouldn’t be thrilled if a publisher was taking it to Kickstarter because i can do that. Unless of course that company adds something huge, like reputation and distribution that I can’t. Obviously, Stonemaier can Kickstarter and distribute much better than us.

        There’s also the question of this: I was told, when coming into the industry, that designers get small percentages because the publisher takes all the financial risk. That made sense, but I know that many companies that take designers to Kickstarter use the same percentages as if they were risking their own money.

        Now, after years of working on the publisher side, I know it’s not just the financial risk. There’s obviously more work on the publisher’s side than the designer. Still, I wonder if that lack of risk shouldn’t raise the usual designer percentage. I’d be curious at what kind of deals are struck. My guess is it varies per publisher because no one is openly discussing terms and it’s still fairly new.

        So back to answer your question… lol, It all depends on that company. Some companies, like yours, don’t need Kickstarter to move product. Some use it as a marketing tool, but could move product without it and do. Both of those types of companies I would be happy to work with in or out of Kickstarter. But if a company needs Kickstarter to make a game, well so do I, and I can do that.

  14. Does selling to your established audience keep your relationship insular?
    Would returning to Kickstarter open up your audience to new players and customers who wouldn’t otherwise find you?

  15. Hi Jamey, strategy is as much about saying ‘No’ as it is about saying ‘Yes’ to the various options we are presented with. For our new 3rd game, ‘Rats to Riches’ we seriously considered a Kickstarter project for February 2019, having self-financed the first two games. We created a list of pros and cons and linked these to our strategic imperatives and came up with the following conclusions :

    * There are so many Game Kickstarter projects out there that its difficult to differentiate your offering and get onto peoples radar screens

    * The average target appears to have dropped and is generally unable to jump start an effective launch

    * Once you start a project you are effectively cutting off any other retail or distribution outlets until all pledges have been met some 6 months later

    * Any games expos during this period are effectively show-and-tell and not commercial opportunities

    Our over-arching belief was that time is of the essence and that its essential to get to retail as soon as possible.

    Were any of these considerations part of your decision not to continue with Kickstarter ?

    Best regards,


    1. Graeme: These are excellent observations, and I bet a number of creators haven’t thought of these, so thank you for mentioning them. Of them, my relationships with retailers and distributors probably played the biggest role in my decision to stop using Kickstarter, though even that reason wasn’t among the top 3 reasons at the time.

  16. With such good production values and great gameplay, you have reached a ‘must buy’ (or at least consider heavily) status. In that way, you could do without Kickstarter and still gain followers and sales.

    I can see you going back to Kickstarter for exceptional releases – particularly those with high costs. Should you wish to release a deluxe version of Scythe with all expansions and metal figures, the sale price would naturally be quite high.

    Even though a large number of people may respond to a survey confirming their desire to purchase, these don’t always turn into sales. Using the Kickstarter program would give you more security to turn a ‘dream’ project into a reality.

    The other instance I would expect to see you back on Kickstarter would be if you were to do a new print run of a game that you’ve already released. As your sales of Euphoria, Viticulture etc. are already in a lot of collections will there be the demand for a re-release of them ?

    As board games are hitting more tables and in more homes, new fans will be looking for games, but do you take the risk of producing x,000 new games that sit in warehouses, or do you Kickstart and ascertain the current demand for older games.

    1. Steve: Thanks for your question. We’ve reprinted Viticulture, Euphoria, and our other games a number of times–I wouldn’t use Kickstarter for a reprint. We fund reprints from sales of the previous print run.

  17. This analogy, while quite understandable, is not perfect. I think you forgot some poor souls, who do not have the money to make cookies for their friends. Who indeed need money from them months in advance to make the cookies. Without it there won’t be any cookies, and those might be the best cookies in the world.
    So while I get that KS in not for you anymore, this post makes it look like it should not be for anyone. I applaud your choices to get away from KS and I really think that a lot of big and successful companies should as well (khmm, CMON). I hate the preorder feeling of KS. But a lot of companies do not have this choice. They want us to taste their cookies, but need or money and trust.

    1. I absolutely agree, and this post wasn’t intended to discourage people from using Kickstarter. I was merely trying to illustrate how I’m struggling to comprehend what Kickstarter could do for Stonemaier Games, and I think that struggle is a problem (for me).

  18. I’d be interested in any comments, based on your case knowledge, re how much Quartermaster Logistics, who handled Pandasaurus KS fulfillment, reduced the work of fulfillment and the quality of their services.

  19. Great discussion that I’m looking forward to follow.

    A potential benefit I’m thinking of is that you get a higher margin from direct sales. So even if you sell less you might earn more. Or you could use this to lower price for consumers.
    Tim Fowers has built a fine business by skipping the middleman. In other industries there are a lot great companies that sell better products at lower price because they sell directly (I just bought an amazing cycle this way. Saved 50% on cost). You have the brand to do it yourself.
    Direct-to-consumers is not just through Kickstarter of course, but Kickstarter is one strong marketing platform for this.
    I would love to hear your take on this aspect.

    1. Jacob: That’s true about direct sales, though we don’t need Kickstarter get direct sales (see My Little Scythe, The Rise of Fenris, Between Two Castles, Scythe Encounters, etc…). I think sometimes Kickstarter is equated with direct sales, but there are many other ways, especially for an established brand.

      But I can’t deny that we’d get a lot MORE direct sales on Kickstarter than we do with our current method. I think that’s attributed to the streamlined worldwide fulfillment options that Kickstarter enables, as well as the ownership backers feel when they’re getting in on the ground floor.

  20. My goal is to do exactly as you did. Kickstart my first maybe second game until I have enough capital and following to manufacture and ship directly to fulfillment centers. I’ll use a Shopify store (I’m addicted to creating Shopify stores). I can’t say enough good things about Shopify. It even integrates with most of the favorite fulfillment companies.

  21. I’d love for you to mention how you would now tackle the “Just wait for retail” vs “Kickstarter Exclusives” vs “Get a discount on the game (BUT for international backers, money conversion and shipping means it would be cheaper to get it at retail anyway)”…

    I saw for some time the KS industry went kind of like this:

    1. Kickstarter Exclusives
    2. No KS Exclusives
    3. No KS Exclusives but stretch goals will be made into an expansion to be sold later
    4. Same as #3 but nicer components as KS Exclusive
    5. Same as #3 but 1 part of stretch goal expansions will be KS Exclusive
    6. Kickstarter Exclusives again

    What are your thoughts on this? As a still occasional KS backer I personally loved how you ran the Scythe campaign best (no KS Exclusives, amazing price for backers, ability to pay for tiers of upgrades, Canada Friendly & free shipping), but there aren’t many campaigns that still provide such good value for Non-KS Exclusive rewards.

    So I’m curious if you would keep your new campaign with the different reward tiers and no Exclusives? And how much pre-production would you do? I like the small bit of collaboration that KS Backers get to be involved in, but at the same time I do want to see a game mostly realized and hopefully with a minimal wait time.

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