Lessons Learned from Rhine Valley and Stonemaier Champions

26 April 2018 | 22 Comments

Earlier this week, we closed direct pre-orders for Visit from the Rhine Valley, a new expansion for Viticulture. So today I thought I’d talk about how this process went, as there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that other creators might find useful.

Announcing the Game

I’ve been trying to significantly close the gap between when we announce a new product and when we release the product. Typically there’s a key constraint that prevents us from doing this: If we want to send direct shipments to distributors in Asia, Australia/NZ, and Europe, we need to tell distributors the product exists while the product is still at the factory in China (i.e., 3 months before the release date). However, as soon as we tell distributors a product exists, it’s no longer private information–retailers will learn about it, and so will consumers.

Fortunately, we didn’t have that constraint on Rhine Valley, as it comes in such a small box. It’s very easy to ship to distributors from the US, even if it takes a little longer to get to other regions. So with it shipping out of China in early March, my plan was to hint at it in our February 28 e-newsletter and then formally announce it on May 2, followed by direct-order fulfillment a few weeks later.

But…I made a dumb mistake.

Instead of just hinting at the expansion, I put a tiny thumbnail in the e-newsletter, thinking that no one would be able to read it. A few hours later, an enthusiastic subscriber had enlarged it and posted it on BoardGameGeek.

Suddenly my broker was inundated with calls from confused distributors. People were going to retailers asking for an expansion that hadn’t been announced, and those retailers were asking their distributors why they hadn’t been told. All anyone knew was a name (no MSRP, no SKU, no release date).

So I apologized to distributors and retailers and decided to bump up the announcement by one month to March 28. In the future I’ll use generic thumbnails like on “Eat a Shoe” below:

Direct Pre-Orders

When we announced the expansion, I opened pre-orders for the expansion on our webstore. This may seem like a normal thing for a publisher to do, but it was actually a reversal on a previous decision.

Specifically, for our last 2 releases (Charterstone and Scythe: The Wind Gambit), the only way to order them before release was from a retailer. I didn’t want to deal with the logistics of fulfillment, especially given how far in advance we announced those products. Both ran a little late, so for our customer’s sake, I’m glad we didn’t collect pre-orders 6 months in advance.

However, I heard from some people saying that they wish they could just pre-order from us. That way they know they’re getting the product when it’s released, and some people like going directly to the source (I think that might be particularly true for any of our original backers who still follow what we make).

Plus, with Rhine Valley, there was such a short gap between announcement and when we would be able to start fulfilling the pre-orders. Also, our broker/warehouse, Greater Than Games, now has a fantastic employee (a friend of mine, Alex Schmidt), who manages individual fulfillment. We link Shopify to the warehouse via Shipstation, which largely takes me out of the process.

Last, while I’m not looking to take sales away from retailers–that’s why pre-orders for Rhine Valley were at full MSRP and why I feature links to both our webstore and our retailer locator–a little extra cash flow now instead of 2 months after the release date certainly doesn’t hurt.

Length

We ran into a predicament with Rhine Valley distributor orders: Within a day or so of us making the announcement, my broker had enough orders to cover the entire first print run (and more).

So I asked my broker a question that I will be asking whenever we announce pre-orders for a new product: On exactly which day do you need to finalize distributor orders? This was important for me to know so I could report the total number of direct pre-orders to my broker, and that amount would be deducted from the total available to distributors.

The day turned out to be April 24. So that morning I closed pre-orders and reported the total to my broker.

The total was 413 direct pre-orders, which was a little more than I expected. I figured most people would just order from their preferred retailer, especially since we were offering it at full MSRP. But I think our Champion program my have boosted that number.

Stonemaier ChampionStonemaier Champion

Two months ago, we launched a recurring membership program called Stonemaier Champion (read my article introducing it here). The core idea is that for $12/year, people can support the 100 articles and 100 YouTube videos I create each year, and be rewarded with some perks.

Before we announced Rhine Valley, we had 263 Champions. While pre-orders were live, that number increased to 434 (171 new Champions). I think that’s at least partially attributed to the perks (free US shipping or a shipping discount on international orders, a discounted pre-order price, and early shipping before the retail release day), as 192 Champions pre-ordered the expansion from us.

The process wasn’t entirely as smooth as it should have been, but I tried to learn quickly. For example, I set up two different product listings: One that everyone could see, and one that only Champions who were logged into Shopify could see. However, there were quite a few existing and new Champions who didn’t notice the Champion listing. I remedied this by altering the name of that product so it would appear at the top of the Viticulture webstore page, as well as linking directly to it on the new-signup confirmation page for Champions.

Some Champions also forgot to add the free-shipping discount code, but that was easy to identify and refund. I also sent out an announcement newsletter specifically to Champions, and that seemed to help.

One other thing I’d like to improve upon is do a better job of encouraging people to become Champions, as there were plenty of non-Champions who pre-ordered even though the cost was almost identical. For our next pre-order, people will actually save money if they pay $12 to become a Champion (getting them free shipping for all Stonemaier orders for the next year, not just the current pre-order) and then place their pre-order. I can’t edit my Shopify store to do this, but I can do a better job of expressing this on our website and in our e-newsletter.

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Overall, I learned some key lessons about accepting pre-orders, and I’m pleased with how this process went. I’m glad we were able to work out some of these issues on a small-batch product, as I have a feeling next week’s pre-order will be significantly bigger (sign up for our e-newsletter here if you’re curious about it).

What are your thoughts on the Rhine Valley pre-order?

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Also read:

If you gain value from the 100 articles Jamey publishes on his blog each year, please consider championing this content!

22 Comments on “Lessons Learned from Rhine Valley and Stonemaier Champions

  1. While clearly unintentional, the intrigue around the Rhine Valley accidental reveal caught my attention. While it apparently caused some grief with your retailers, you may have benefited from the viral marketing surrounding the BGG forum posts.

  2. Economically, how is it helpful to you to increase Champion enrollments if they are paying less than the shipping cost? I realize not all Champions will order from you, but you are talking about spefically targetting customers who are already ordering.

  3. I think Jamey is right here. I work in retailer loyalty program space. The financial guys hate the rewards portion of these programs. The liability sits on the books and redemption degrades margin. The math never works if you look at the redemption transaction only.

    The key though is that you are building long term loyalty. A program should do 2 things: 1) drive the customer’s mind to first think of ordering from a particular retailer (whether it be one grocery store over another or in this case buying games direct from Stonemaier) and 2) drive sales without having to use mark downs.

    1. Dennis: Thanks for sharing! That’s certainly my hope (though I’m not looking to take significant sales away from retailers, just have a small, steady core of people who buy directly from us).

  4. Great insight as usual…thanks for all the info! I have to say… I veryexcited to hear that you will be having a pre-order opportunity for next week’s announcement. Mostly because this falls on my payday- LOL
    Can’t wait!

  5. This is not meant as a criticism, but the one issue I have with shortening the time from announcement to retail is exactly what you said, the print run was effectively sold out in 2 days.

    Whilst I know you will re-print this, probably as long as you do with Viticulture, we board gamers are a covetous lot and I would rather have had enough notice to get a pre-order booked in. I fear that if everything had gone to your plan, there wouldn’t have been time to get the message out there and get a pre-order in.

    How do you foresee this working in the future?

    1. Stuart: Thanks for your thoughts, though I think I should clarify a few things:

      The first printings of our games are often sold out regardless of when we announce them. The unique thing about this print run is that because of the direct pre-order, any customer could pre-order from us within the 25-day window to guarantee they get a copy. During that time I sent out an e-newsletter to all subscribers, as well as an e-newsletter to our champions and multiple posts in the Viticulture Facebook group. So there was really ample time for anyone to pre-order it, and for those who get their information other ways, they can get the game later from a retailer (whether it’s a first or future printing.

      1. Sorry Jamie, but that reply is a very US-centric view of things.

        As I live in the UK, realistically the Champions program does nothing for me. So saying that I can pre-order from you and guarantee a copy really doesn’t apply – especially as the shipping is $24. So, I have to make sure that I pick a retailer that I believe is going to carry enough stock and not get shorted by their distributor and leave me out of the first print run because I was 43rd in line and they got allocated 40 copies (has happened in the past – albeit not with Stonemaier games).

        I appreciate that anything like this is going to sell out, but I guess this is the flip side of not running a kickstarter or you trying to reduce your time from announcement to delivery down.

        I am member of the newsletter, facebook group and multiple BGG forums for viticulture and really enjoyed the accidental reveal, it reminded me of the “old” days of the excitement around the kickstarters.

        Again, this is just an alternative point of view to give you a look at the other side of things, as I sit and wait in hope for my shipping notification from my chosen retailer (Board Game Extras)

        1. Stuart: Most of what I said still applies, but it does help to know the context (i.e., in the future, please tell me you’re in the UK when you make a comment related to regionality).

          You’re right that Stonemaier Champion doesn’t work as well for international customers. It works better than you described, though, as you do get a discount on pre-orders and you get a shipping discount, just not free shipping.

          But the other side of it is that if you did pre-order from a retailer, you’re going to get a copy of the product. I’m always going to let customers know in advance about new products. You said in your original comment, “I would rather have had enough notice to get a pre-order booked in.” You’re definitely going to have that notice. Like, the product I’m announcing this coming Wednesday won’t release until August–there’s still plenty of lead time for you to pre-order a copy from your preferred retailer.

          I think maybe your concern is that we’d print a new game and then sell out to direct pre-order customers (mostly in the US)? I hear that concern, but our print runs are much too big to sell out in that way. They’ll sell out to distributors because distributors buy a bunch of copies in the hopes of those copies lasting a few months. But these print runs are all 10x bigger than direct pre-order demand. :)

  6. Will there soon be a reprint of the Tuscany expansion to accompany all of the juicy new playability of Viticulture et al. ? Would love to purchase the whole set / collector’s edition.

  7. Hi Jamey, I am sure you have full info. about shipment from China. I’d like to ask why you did not ship the expansion from China to EU, AU? As the expansion is small box ( and it’s about 150g/pc of 80pcs pack I think.), it’s easy to ship them out with very good freight charge from China. It’s about 30days of shipment time by train and delivery to EU countries like German.

      1. Yeah, I knew you have full info. ^-^
        FYI, though I did not mean to advertise here, but I’d like to tell if you need any help for manufacturing and shipment in China, you guys always can call me anytime for details.
        It’s a way to give hand to people if they need help, right?

  8. Jamey,

    As I mentioned before, your level of transparency is what makes me admire you as both a designer and moreover a businessman. Few in the industry have done both well. There’s Reiner Knizia and Uwe Rosenberg who are well-respected designers but clearly lack the acumen to attempt to run a business and then you have folks like James Mathe, who is brilliant on the business side of the house, but doesn’t have the cache of success as Charterstone and Scythe. To that end, I applaud you efforts in terms of maintaining a regular and intentional correspondence with us.

    I do want to mention something thanks to Dennis’ comment…I’ve never been one to sign-up for rewards programs (airlines, hotels, restaurants,etc) as the level of effort on my part is never truly rewarded by the vendor to warrant it. On the other end, I’v changed cab;e/internet providers almost yearly, as they continue to do a poor job in incentivizing those whom they’ve already provided service as they continue to chase after new clients (see every deal during the past two decades!). I appreciate what being a Champion means and what it provides. I’m glad to be a champion as it allows you the economic freedom to provide great content.

    Thank you for all you do!

    Cheers,
    Joe

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