The Mystery Gift (Business Brilliance #9)

18 February 2019 | 39 Comments

There’s a chocolate company I really love called Lake Champlain. Their truffles are huge and delicious, but they’re really expensive, so I typically wait until the day after certain holidays to buy a few boxes at a discount (a business practice I avoid for Stonemaier Games).

When I was checking out, this banner appeared at the top of the page:

A mystery, you say? And it’s chocolate? I was intrigued. So I clicked the banner, and it took me to this page:

Oddly enough, I don’t like surprises, but there was something exciting about the prospect of getting a little unknown element in the package. I also liked that even though I was paying $5, the chocolate is valued at “well over” that amount. $5 is no small amount, though I already had $40+ worth of chocolate in my cart, so it didn’t seem like much to add a little more (classic “foot in the door” technique).

Last, I was able to select dark or milk chocolate (I chose dark, though I like both).

What does this mean for other companies and entrepreneurs?

My biggest takeaway from the experience is that it delighted me. I love doing things that positive emotions in customers.

And yes, it’s an upsell, potentially for a product that Lake Champlain is struggling otherwise to sell. And my impression may change when I actually receive the package (I’ll post a photo when it arrives).

But at the moment of purchase, the prospect of a mystery gift made me happy. So I think it might be a technique worth paying attention to.

What does this mean for Kickstarter creators? 

I’m not so sure this method of a “mystery” reward or add-on works on Kickstarter. Kickstarter’s guidelines state, “Projects can’t mislead people or misrepresent facts, and creators should be candid about what they plan to accomplish.” It’s a fuzzy area, but despite that, I’m not sure backers would respond well to it.

Depending on the project and what the mystery is, I think this technique could be used on the pledge manager. At that point, it would likely feel similar to how I felt while buying the chocolate. I think the challenge, though, is that it depends heavily on the project. I think consumables (food) and art may work well, while entertainment projects and their backers may not benefit from it.

What does this mean for tabletop game publishers?

I was trying to think if a mystery gift could work on the Stonemaier Games webstore, but here’s the challenge: Purchases from our website are heavily brand-dependent. If you buy a copy of Scythe, you probably only want other Scythe-related products. And if the mystery product is something you want, you probably already added it to your cart or already have it, meaning the mystery could create redundancy (or the concern for redundancy).

I doubt it would add the same level of delight as mystery chocolate. I think maybe it could work if we had a variety of universally used products–things you could use in a number of games that weren’t too expensive–but our metal coin sets and realistic resources are $30. Dice are another option, but even our custom dice are fairly game-specific.

So it’s probably not an approach we’re going to consider (unless someone mentions a brilliant idea in the comments). There might be other tabletop game publishers whose product lines might allow them to make it happen, though.


What do you think about the concept of a mystery add-on gift? In which situations could you see yourself saying yes to it, and in which situations would you not consider it?

UPDATE: The mystery gift ended up being dark-chocolate quinoa crunchies. Yum!

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39 Comments on “The Mystery Gift (Business Brilliance #9)

  1. I’d see these in three categories:
    1 – Universally used but “generic” gaming accessories, but with Stonemaier branding. Things like 1st player tokens, dice towers, dice trays, whiteboard/pen (for scoring), containers, ziplock baggies, maybe even X-shaped rubber bands for box storage
    2 – “Bonus” bling upgrades for games, that *could* be purchased, but maybe not. You could offer this as an option by marking it as “Select your favorite 3” and one is sent at random. This could be things like red, rose, or yellow glass beads for Viticulture (for red, blush, and sparkling wines), transparent colored stars for Scythe, speckled eggs for Wingspan, etc. Some people will buy all of them, but some might just want “some” bling. You potentially could limit these to only being purchased in this way, but it would drive completionists crazy.
    3 – Stonemaier Gear – Hats, laptop stickers, slap bracelets, pins, patches, etc. Could be branded with games or with the SM logo.

  2. Lay Waste Games is doing something similar: their newsletter included a sign-up link for people interested in their upcoming game, Life Siphon. So if you sign up before the KS project goes live and pledge for the game, you’ll get something secret and exclusive.

    1. I don’t know that I would want that with a tabletop game though. I feel like I would prefer getting products that I know. Especially when there are so many good known games that I could choose from. I feel like this is difficult to pull off in the tabletop gaming industry.

  3. I could see some sort of generic gaming aid or bling being useful – something like a bit bowl, a few upgraded tokens (that might become a set over time) or score pad (I picked up a nice Spiel des Jahres one last year at GenCon). You could also have promo cards or player aids in cases where they aren’t already included in the game. Just a few ideas that came to mind.

    The more I think about it, the more that upgraded tokens begins to appeal to me. To provide an example, Jenifer Ham of Gamer Glass creates sets of glass meeples as well as individual glass meeples. Those are upgraded items that you could build into a nice set. I’m sure there are other upgraded components that would build up nicely into a complete set over time.

  4. Folklore did the mystery add-on and people were excited and it had great potential, but were generally disappointed when it was a player tray that was only really useful if you bought 2-4 of them.

    I think for a new or still expanding IP mystery gifts can work, but the item would have to be useful in it’s own right not requiring buying multiple sight unseen.

  5. I’ve done something similar after a KS project (offering random surplus items at a discount) with good reaction, but I haven’t run it as part of a KS itself.

    It would be something easy to implement if Backerkit or other post-project software is used. Backerkit’s ‘storefront’ already comes pre-programmed with a tip jar and I frequently get ‘tips’ from backers from anywhere between $1 and $25 (usually in the $1-$5 range). It wouldn’t be hard to change that to a “Get a Random Reward” system where they will get something random, valued at at least $X more than the amount chosen.

    It would require that the creator have some relatively low-cost items available that could be included. I’ll have to give that a try on my next project.

      1. I make game accessories out of wood and leather, so it is a little easier for me. If I have extras of something after a project (or have accumulated extra things over time), I’ll make a post on the KS pages along the lines of “I have X number of discontinued dice cases that normally sell for $30-$40. For $20, I’ll reach into a box and you get the first one I pull out”.

        I’ll normally have several different types of wood in a “extras” box, so they may know they are getting a dice case, but won’t know if it is going to be maple, walnut, cherry or whatever.

        But for the future (due to your post), I’m thinking of something like a true “mystery” bag. For a $5 “tip”, they will get a random item of something I make that usually sells for $10 (I offer several items at this price point). Maybe I’ll offer higher levels as well…will have to give it a little thought. It might be best to keep it at a $5 level.

  6. I absolutely hate this, for children things like LOL dolls are all the rage, 10ish bucks for at most a buck of mystery content and a collect them all frenzy….so successful that there are now a half dozen clones of this, complete garbage with a bit of gambling thrown in. That said I’ve had a kickstarter where a surprise was thrown in, I got a “common” which I used some and threw the rest of it away,

    I might be too much of a completionist to get part of agame and FOMO definitely is a problem for limited or exclusive items.

    1. I see what you’re saying, especially when the primary product is a random collector’s item. Do you think you’d feel the same way about a smaller item (like a pin) that doesn’t impact gameplay?

  7. What about swag? I’d willingly pay a little extra to have a shirt/shorts/hat/etc of the game that I just purchased. It is something that more than one of is never a bad thing and it would also get your brand out in other ways.

  8. With board games in mind, it would be interesting to receive small tokens related to the company itself. I’m thinking things like pins, buttons, post cards, and small items like that. One podcast I listen to has custom bottle caps that they sell at shows and on their webstore, there are different rarities of the caps and there has become a trading community to try to complete your set.

    1. I agree with Amber, particularly regarding pins and buttons–things that can be worn or attached to bags to passively advertise that you’re a fan, particularly for public events. I would totally wear a Stonemaier Games (or game-specific) pin on my Dragon Con lanyard in Atlanta, for example. It would be advertising for a company I like and may generate conversation with those around me.

  9. Hey, Jamey!

    I loved this post. That feeling of excitement really is a powerful emotion. It’s the same kind of feeling I got as a child buying Pokémon cards, just hoping that card I wanted was in the pack.

    I wonder if this would work well on Kickstarter if the “mystery” objects were revealed (say, five different objects) and you just knew you would get one randomly. Then you could be more excited about your “informed surprise” and Kickstarter can’t say it’s misleading because there were clear expectations of what it could be.

    All in all great post! This is a super cool topic!


    1. Tanner: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder if your theory might work if the entire campaign is based on the idea of a mystery/surprise. That way only people who are interested in the mystery will sign up in the first place.

  10. I like all these ideas and I am a total sucker for stuff like this. I’d like to add to the suggestions more ‘swag’ like pens, notepads (company or game-related), pins, hats, dice bags, meeples or other tokens (I really need one that says ‘it’s your turn!’).

  11. You could offer prints of game art. If the art is beautiful, most people don’t care too much what game it comes from/if they own that game. Even postcard sized prints would be cool.

  12. One of my favorite dice companies offers a bag of mystery dice. They are priced slightly less than the usual sets of dice. I almost always throw a bag onto my order when I get other dice because I look forward to the suprise. As a consumer I find it delightful. Sometimes the dice are rare sets, and other times they are sets that are readily available. I could see myself doing this for other add on for games as well, maybe like upgrades or random meeples. However, once it gets past the 5-10$ mark I draw the line. When money is substantial, I like to know what exactly I’m getting.

  13. Some people buy legacy games to constantly generate that exciting mystery gift feeling.

    Creating some universal components might be the way to go like. Some “nice to have” things (card holders, dice towers, expansion sample cards for the game they bought) rather than “must haves” (containers). “Nice to haves” are more exciting.

  14. What about swag? It gets people things they can reuse but also advertises your brand. I would willingly wear the Scythe shirts/shorts/hats/jackets etc. And Charterstone themed swag would be cool. Thoughts?

  15. I agree that a mystery gift could be very brand/product dependent. A couple ideas for board game companies:

    1) A first player token
    2) Resource bins
    3) Fancy/metal dice
    4) A deck of silly & serious ideas to determine first player (there’s a few of these on the market already)

    I’m sure there are a few ideas for some publishers. :)

    I bought a “mystery” clothing item around Xmas for myself. I input my size and got two items I really liked! I knew I liked that brand but was still pleasantly surprised.

  16. What about a laminated/reusible score sheet corresponding to the game purchased, and a Stonemaier branded dry erase marker? It seems to be a modification people frequently make to their games anyway, and depending on quantities you buy/make, shouldn’t cost too much in overhead.

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