Make a Game of It: Passionate designers are using Kickstarter to fund a board game revolution

Vast, formerly known as Trove, caught the attention of Patrick Leder of Leder Games // Photo by Tj Turner

Vast: The Crystal Caverns, formerly known as Trove, caught the attention of Patrick Leder of Leder Games // Photo by Tj Turner

Patrick Leder of Leder Games, a St. Paul–based micro-publisher of board games, was at a loss. He was working on a new game and trying to figure out the best way to make, and play, the tiles that would form the game map. He searched online for examples from other board games, and something caught his eye.

“I was looking for other games where people had used tiles to build dungeons and I just found this work in progress for this game called Trove, which this guy David Somerville had been working on,” Leder recalls. “And I was amazed when I saw it. It was everything I wanted my game to be that I was working on.”

The game’s theme—a knight making her way through the cave to defeat a dragon—sounds familiar, but Trove was unlike any game that Leder had seen. “It’s fully asymmetric with everyone playing by different rules, heading towards different victory conditions. That was its main selling point,” he explains. In Trove, the Knight must defeat the Dragon. The Dragon, however, can win the game by escaping the Cave. The Goblin Horde must defeat the Knight. The Thief must steal items to buy his freedom. Even the Cave itself can win.

Leder read over the entire game twice. He talked it over with others and showed it to them. His mind was set. He made Somerville an offer within 48 hours.

Somerville wanted to find a larger publisher for Trove. But Leder was so taken with the game that he decided to coach Somerville through composing the sell sheet and the important process of approaching publishers. “I helped him with it for a few months and a couple publishers showed interest and picked up the prototype from him,” says Leder.

Patrick Leder demonstrates gameplay of Vast: The Crystal Caverns at Leder Games' office // Photo by Tj Turner

Patrick Leder demonstrates gameplay of Vast: The Crystal Caverns at Leder Games’ office // Photo by Tj Turner

The potential publishers play-tested it, but concluded there was far too much development still needed. Somerville next turned to the several micro-publishers interested in Trove, including Leder who was about to get his wish after all.

“He came back to me in December of 2014 and said, ‘You’re the only one that’s helped me since then, and that makes me trust you more than the rest. And so I want you to be the publisher,’” Leder recalls.

There was still much work to be done. Leder says the version of the game, now called Vast: The Crystal Caverns, that eventually made it to the public is very different from the one he discovered. Eventually Somerville stepped away from the project to allow Leder to push forward full steam ahead. After making good progress, Leder launched a Kickstarter in the fall of 2015, which vindicated his instincts about Vast.

Games for the people

Many products have used Kickstarter to help fund their ideas, but it’s been especially popular with board game designers. “A friend of mine says it democratized what gets published,” Leder says. “Before Kickstarter, a lot of games were about building a castle in Europe, or a village in Europe, or some sort of company, or a colony like in Settlers of Catan.”

Also popular were games about trains, zombie scenarios, and ones where you went on an adventure. Now with crowdfunding sites people can introduce games that would have had no chance at publication a decade ago. Among the successes, a game called Lanterns: The Harvest Festival that involves Chinese lanterns, and another called Arranged! about arranged marriage.

Adam Rehberg, of Adam’s Apple Games in St. Louis Park, turned to Kickstarter to fund his first board game, about becoming the top craft brewery in the country, called Brewin’ USA.

“The idea came to life on the commute home from work thinking to myself, ‘I wonder if anybody has ever cracked a beer and used the bottle cap as a game component?’” says Rehberg. “The idea grew into a tribute to the craft beer industry focusing on the brewing and market penetration aspects of the industry.”

Rehberg entered his game in a design competition hosted by Cards Against Humanity called Tabletop Deathmatch, and made it to the final round. Though Brewin’ USA didn’t win the competition, the feedback from the process led Rehberg to launch a Kickstarter to see if there was enough interest. “If you’re gonna put a lot of time and effort in something, if you can have people help fund your effort, that is I think justification for ‘Hey, you should keep doing this thing, too.’”

There’s also the practical side of it: Board games are expensive to make. Rehberg liked the idea that presales and marketing would drive the funding for the whole project. “Not everyone has $30,000 lying around that they want to spend on some random idea,” he says.

The cost aspect is something Leder echoes, especially with games with miniatures, or molded game pieces. “The big one we’re seeing right now is that so many miniature games are coming out on Kickstarter, and it’s because miniatures have a really high cost to start making them,” Leder says. The molds used to create miniatures, like those included in the second edition of Vast, can run a game maker tens of thousands of dollars.

Designing worlds

Miniature game pieces for Vast: The Crystal Caverns // Photo by Tj Turner

Miniature game pieces for Vast: The Crystal Caverns // Photo by Tj Turner

Though funding is important, the actual design of the game—from game play to physical pieces—is crucial to a game’s success. For Leder, the very first thing he and his team talked about was the theme of Vast.

“I’m very focused on the artistic endeavor of making a game,” he says, adding that everyone involved shaped the vision for the game. “We talked about each role, and what each role meant thematically, and how to stress that theme for that person when they’re playing that role,” he says.

With Brewin’ USA, Rehberg’s day job in package design influenced everything from the game pieces to the physical box the game comes in—something, he says, that makes the game stand out from others. “A lot of [game boxes] are very shallow and long, and they open from the top. This one opens from the side actually, and it has a hole in the side. So when you push it open it doesn’t have a vacuum issue.”

The game pieces bolster Brewin’ USA’s beer theme, with actual beer bottle caps used as money and victory points, and states represented by their own beer coaster–type card that turns into a map of the United States throughout game play.

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Photos via Amazon

Both games had very successful Kickstarter campaigns, with Vast receiving an astounding $650,000. But what is it about these games that drew backers in? Rehberg doesn’t know if there’s one secret ingredient, but he does know what he looks for. “What is the hook?” he says. For Rehberg, it was craft beer.

Leder agrees, saying the hook is what made Vast so successful. It’s a unique spin on dungeon crawler games like Dungeons & Dragons, in which multiple heroes try to make it through a scenario toward a common goal. But Vast only has one hero: the female Knight. The other players, playing as the Dragon, the Goblin Horde, the Cave, or the Thief, are trying to stop her or achieve something different.

He also says that it’s important to make the game simple to teach and learn, but still have depth so people come keep coming back to explore the game more. “One of the hallmarks of modern game design is providing each player with a few solid decisions each turn of the game. Even if the roles in Vast each have one way to win the game each, there are two to three ways for each role to get to that victory condition.”

These games are part of a recent resurgence in the popularity of board games. Leder says for him it’s a nice change from the trash-talking online gaming world, and most board games have a pretty level playing field for competition. Rehberg says the social part of board games is also a plus. “Everything has become so digital these days, and board games are a place where you can actually put your phone away and have some real personal interaction with other people in the world,” he says.

Both designers are full speed ahead on their next projects. Rehberg recently released Truck Off about food trucks, and is hard at work on the sequel for Brewin’ USA. He wants to turn this into a full-time job someday. And Leder hopes to duplicate his original success with Vast: Crystal Caverns, as he plans the launch a Kickstarter for the sequel, Vast: The Mysterious Manor, in January 2018.