Tell us a bit about yourself and Formal Ferret games
I’ve been designing board games since 2000, but I was really bad at it first. As I found more game designer groups and got more experience under my belt, I got better. My first game, Prolix, was published by Z-Man Games in 2010. Battle Merchants followed in 2014 from Minion Games.
I wanted more control over my designs, so I in late 2014, I founded Formal Ferret Games, which is the main outlet for my games. I’ve published three games under the Formal Ferret label: the party game Bad Medicine, the strategy game The Networks, and the word game Wordsy.
Your first game Bad medicine was on KS back in 2015. What did you do to build up a following before the release?
Luckily, I’d already built up about 2000 Twitter followers over the years from my first two games. I published blog posts about game design, and I helped playtest games at conventions. So I was already a known quantity!
Your next game was The networks which got over 2000 backers. Why do you think The networks was such a hit?
First off, it’s funny. The moment you sit down to play, you realize your network is running shows like “Get to Know Your Lower Colon,” and you know exactly what your thematic starting point is. A lot of people consider The Networks to be the board game version of Weird Al’s movie UHF. My German players have compared it to the early-90s computer game “Mad TV.” I’ll take that!
Second, the theme of running a TV network has been a bit of a holy grail for a while. Lots of games try it, but it never seems to work out mechanically. I covered my thoughts on why in my designer diary for the game on BGG:
Because of this, The Networks is the first board game to implement the TV network theme in a way that’s resonated with the public. I wish I could say I’ve planned it all along, but really, I think I just backed into it!
Then you did an expansion for Bad medicine and that failed to fund. Why do you think it failed?
I think the biggest reason was price. As I’d expected, I’d made some mistakes in the first printing of Bad Medicine, the biggest being using a distribution consolidator to sell without specifying to them a minimum freight cost – in other words, distributors buying my games from the distribution consolidator would pay for shipping unless they ordered at least, say, $500 worth. That’s a common practice, but not one I was aware of, so I paid for shipping both to the consolidator and then to the distributor, which meant my check from the consolidator was tiny; too small to fund a reprint!
So the funding goal for the expansion was for both the base game and expansion combined. That was not necessarily a mistake; I believe that when a Kickstarter fails to fund, that is pretty far from a worst-case scenario. Had I priced the funding goal for just the expansion and raised $14K when I needed $20K, I don’t know if I’d still be a publisher!
Another pricing factor was that in the first campaign, when we hit a stretch goal, I put it in the game’s box. So when we unlocked a stretch goal for punchboard, into the box it went. That went great for the Kickstarter campaign, but when it came time to sell the game, I needed to price it at $30, not $20 as I’d originally envisioned, because the punchboard cost so much. So I had to charge that amount for the base game in the second campaign, and I think that turned a lot of people off. Bad Medicine is the kind of game that sells well at $20, but $30 is a big ask.
You also did an expansion for The Networks. That was a big success. What did you do differently on this expansion campaign?
Exactly what I learned from Bad Medicine. The funding goal only covered the printing of the expansion. This is safer for me nowadays; the success of the base game means I have some capital to play with, and I ordered the largest print run I’ve ever had! So I’m lucky to have enough security to get away with this trick.
Secondly, all stretch goals that feature extra stuff, like fancy bits or new cards, will come packaged as separate products. I started doing this with The Networks, and it worked great; that huge reprint of the base game is actually my fourth. It wouldn’t have been possible if the stretch goals from the base game would have been part of the original retail product.
What was the biggest thing you learned from your last campaign?
Be careful with add-ons in pledge managers! I offered free replacement Network Cards for a few things I’m tweaking, and I let people order extras as add-ons. This meant that everyone thought they needed to buy the replacement cards as add-ons, when they’re getting them for free.
What is your best marketing tip during a campaign?
If you’re only marketing during your campaign, you’re doomed! You have to start your marketing well ahead of that. If you want media to preview your game, you should be starting a dialog with them three months beforehand. They need time to write or film their preview, and of course, you’re not the only person they work with! You also need to be at conventions and on social media, making a name for yourself. Publish articles, discuss your journey. Gather names on your mailing list. You should have enough people excited and motivated to back your game on Day One that you have momentum to carry you through the Valley of Sadness in the middle of your campaign.
What is your main tip to handle the mid-campaign drop of new backers?
Don’t freak out. Expect it! Keep your backers engaged. Talk to them. Post updates. Make polls. Ask for feedback on any bits of art coming in at the last moment. You don’t need to implement every bit of feedback you get from backers, but listen to them, and make it clear that you’re listening. That will hopefully keep people talking about your campaign.
I think advertising here helps, but you have to be willing to spend. You could technically spend just $40 on a Facebook ad campaign, but you won’t notice any results from it. And making a bunch of ads and aggressively, Darwin-ingly comparing them for the right tone and approach is really helpful.
If you can attend a large convention during your lull, that could get you a small uptick. But don’t count on getting more than a couple of dozen extra backers from it. Unless you have a huge booth, you’re likely not going to get the throughput you’d need for a huge push. And DO NOT EVER attend a convention when your campaign launches or ends, unless you have a lot of backup at home ready to handle backer questions!
What´s your thoughts regarding stretch goals?
My backers love them! So I have them in all my projects. Are they a bit of a Skinner box? Sure, but I think the backers understand that, and they’re opting in anyway. And I find they’re a nice way to add polish to a product, while allowing me to strip the game down to a minimum viable product that I’d deliver if we just squeaked over the funding goal.
All the same, I try to keep my stretch goals realistic. I don’t promise anything I haven’t priced out. And for the first Networks campaign, when I had hit all my stretch goals with a few days left, I told my backers that there were no more stretch goals coming. Any new stretch goals would be based on guesswork, and could impact delivery of the game.
I also only promise content-based stretch goals if I’ve already tested them, and if the art is already budgeted for them. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is how a few RPG creators detest stretch goals. It’s because RPG stretch goals will tend to be exclusively content-based, and will most likely have to be done between the time the stretch goal is it and the time the product is manufactured. A RPG that hits a lot of stretch goals risks serious delays, because there are so many new promised sub-goals that need to be written, proofread, and illustrated. It’s another example of how well board games work on Kickstarter; for us, we just need to test our stretch goals beforehand, and if we don’t hit those goals, we haven’t sunk too much time into it.
So stretch goals are rewarding to backers and could add a nice layer of polish to a game. But they’re risky, and I encourage creators to study all that can go wrong before making promises to backers.
What is your comment in the debate about paid vs unpayed reviews?
I don’t want to see paid reviews, although free review copies are perfectly reasonable. I don’t mind paid previews (what a difference a letter makes), as long as they’re fully disclosed as being sponsored content and not an objective review. It’s a good way for a content creator to get paid to keep doing what they love, and for us publishers to get word about our newest projects out there. I just want viewers to know when they’re watching sponsored content, versus objective, unbought opinions.
And while we’re at it: I’m fine with negative reviews of my game, so long as the reviewers played with the correct rules, are being honest, and are playing in a reasonable context. To that last point: if you play a 5-player game where everyone is learning, and the players tend to be AP-prone, I don’t want to read a review that the game takes too long for what it is. Try it in a more realistic setting before passing judgment!
Where can people reach you?
Gil currently has a new Kickstarter up for an expansion to Bad Medicine. Check it out before it ends!