Hello Dave Clarke. Tell us a bit about yourself and your company Sinister Fish Games.
I had a 6 week long bout of hypomania in 2014 and thought I should write a fantasy novel. My brilliant idea was to write about people doing dungeon crawls, but in a ‘realistic’ setting, and how that might actually work. I figured it would have to be some kind of awful gladiatorial affair, and that the participants probably wouldn’t be doing it out of choice. I wrote about 15,000 words and had a ton of stuff planned out before I started thinking about how cool it would be to have a board game based on the book. So then I abandoned the book and started writing the board game, which never made it off my laptop. That’s textbook hypomania – my brain was being flooded with what I thought were these amazing ideas that I just couldn’t act on fast enough. I’d never had it before, and never have since. So that game never went anywhere. Instead, common sense, Stegmaier & Mathe’s blogs, and mentoring from my old friend Stuart Garside (District 31) prevailed, and I went with a little card game instead.
Since then I’ve been absolutely hooked on modern board games – playing, designing, collecting, and ultimately publishing. I’ve been into RPGs with a light serving of board games since I was 8 years old, and LARP since 14, so I’m not a stranger to geek / gaming culture.
The first two chapters of that unfinished book are here – there’s some excellent swearing in it. What was the question again?
Your current game on Kickstarter is Villagers. What is the game about?
It’s about £22 with free UK shipping, and I’m the funniest man in the world.
What did you do to create a following for Villagers before you launched?
I made a Facebook group for the game, and got people to visit it through a couple of Rafflecopter giveaways. I think it has about 500 members now. Mostly non-active, but we found some very keen playtesters through it, and for everyone who posts or reacts, there are plenty more who just read. I think it’s important to keep posting, even when you’re not getting a lot of interaction. It’s one of those ‘if you build it, they will come’ type situations, as long as the game is actually good. I took the game to a couple of cons and local meet-ups. I think it’s priceless to have validation from people who’ve actually played the game when you’re posting about it. Nobody really cares what I say about the game I’m publishing or designing, but what other people think and post about it is vitally important.
When did you launch and why did you choose that exact time?
We launched mid-May, and timed things deliberately so we’d be at UK Games Expo in the middle of the campaign. I wanted to get the campaign done & dusted before my first child comes along in July, so that was kind of a hard limit for me. We knew the game was solid, and had been getting decent feedback from people who’d played the PnP and never met us face-to-face. If a stranger on the internet is nice to you, and it’s not a weird sex thing, you’re probably doing something right. I almost made a schoolboy error and launched at 7pm. Stuart saved my arse on that one and kindly reminded me what a terrible idea it was. We went live at 1:30pm and funded 3 hours later.
Did you expect getting so many backers?
Absolutely not, in any way. My high estimate before we launched, and a number I’d have been overjoyed to get, was 1000 backers. I had other, more experienced publishers tell me this game had the potential to get 1000 backers. I’m never listening to any of them, or myself, ever again.
Why do you think Villagers has become such a hit?
It has an accessible theme, beautiful art, striking graphic design, and a solid marketing effort behind it. It’s not rocket science, just a combination of quality, graft, and luck. It’s very easy to look at it and say that now, but before we launched it was impossible for me to guess how well it would do.
If there was one thing you wish you knew before you launched Villagers, what would it be?
I like surprises. I wouldn’t have changed anything. Oh, I would have told myself not to bother going to see Solo the other night.
Your first game on Kickstarter was Great Scott! How did that campaign go?
A bit slower than this one – ended just shy of £10,000, and 200% funded. It took over a week to fund, and I fought tooth & nail for every pledge, with zero advertising budget. I was completely broke at the time. When it funded, I lost my mind for about half an hour & could barely function. It was the result of about 18 months research & networking, and I put everything I had into it. I was running a web design & marketing business that my heart wasn’t in, and I spent far too long obsessing over boardgame design groups & BGG, and trying to design more games. I did this to the point that by the time Great Scott had fulfilled and I was deep into designing candidates for my next game, that I was buying food on my credit card and ended up having to get a real job for the first time in 13 years.
That job, at a wide-format digital print shop, ended up being the right place, right time that led to Sinister Fish doing the Removable Sticker Set for Gloomhaven, which completely changed my life. If I hadn’t done Great Scott, or been working at that print place with the ability to make custom cut vinyl stickers, Isaac Childres wouldn’t have given me the time of day, and I wouldn’t have ended up talking Haakon into doing Villagers with me. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Gloomhaven made Sinister Fish a viable business, but there’d be no licensing deal between me and Isaac without Great Scott – it was the shred of credibility that made everything else possible. What was the question again?
How did you build your crowd for Great Scott!?
Facebook and Mailchimp mostly. I spent a lot of time trying to get people in steampunk groups interested in it, with very limited success. During the campaign I posted on any & every vaguely related Facebook group & subreddit I could find, and probably really annoyed a lot of people. Would not do that again. I had a lot of support from friends & family, which I’ll never forgive. Forget, I mean forget.
What was the main lesson you learned from GS that you used on the Villagers campaign?
I learned more about how not to do things. Those are the best lessons. The main one is that it’s a terrifically bad idea for me to design and publish my own games. I’m far too slow a designer, and I’d literally starve to death because I no longer own a credit card. Of course I have several brilliant unpublished designs, because hasn’t everyone, but if they ever see the light of day they’ll be completed as co-designs with someone else. Hit me up if you’re a decent designer who likes eurogames with weird themes.
I took a look at the Kicktraq for Villagers and saw that you so far have had a steady number of backers in the middle of the campaign. And those numbers have been pretty high. What is your secret?
Yeah, I might have looked at Kicktraq a couple of times lately. If I knew why those numbers were so high, and thought I knew how to repeat it, I absolutely wouldn’t tell you. I’ve been running Facebook ads instead of spamming all the groups. They’re converting really well, but they don’t account for the volume of backers we’ve been getting. We’ve been high on the Kickstarter trending lists from the start, and we’ve had some really nice buzz from reviews. At the end of the day, it’s all about the game. Haakon has made something that has simply connected with a lot of people, all I’ve done is try to make them aware of it in a non-obnoxious way.
What’s the best kickstarter advice you ever received?
“Don’t launch at 7pm you f*cking idiot” – Stuart Garside.
If you could change one thing with Kickstarter. What would it be
Deeper stats. Kickstarter should be doing what Kicktraq does, but better.
What do you think is the most important element of a Kickstarter page?
The game. Sorry to be flippant about it, but you can’t polish a turd. It starts and ends with the game, everything else is just window dressing.
Do you have any role models in the board gaming industry?
I’m not sure I know any of them well enough to go that far, but there are certainly people who impress me on a daily basis. I don’t know anyone who connects better with their KS backers than Stuart Garside, and Caezar al-Jassar (Alleycat Games) is a decent no-nonsense kind of guy who runs a nice tight ship.
Anything else you want to add?
Thanks to you Petter, for giving me this opportunity to talk complete nonsense while I should be tending to my Kickstarter campaign. If my numbers have tanked, I’m coming after you.
Where can people reach you?
Via my website, www.sinisterfish.com