For Board Game Collectors, Crowdfunding Offers Rewards at a Great Risk

This is quite possibly the most common piece of graphic design that you’ll see in the tabletop gaming hobby today.

I’ve written about Kickstarter and the current crowdfunding craze—specifically its impact on the gaming hobby—quite a bit, not just here at WorthPoint, but also elsewhere. Crowdfunding has emerged as another example of the kind of democratization that the Internet fosters, and although that certainly is an overwhelming positive social and political effect there are definitely issues that crop up when you’re talking about democratizing the development, manufacture, and production of a consumer product.

Crowdfunding—not just through Kickstarter, but through services such as Indiegogo and Gamesalute—has become an incredibly important, pervasive trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Every day I see at least two or three new Kickstarter board game projects and usually just as many video game projects that I’ve never heard of.

This trend has dramatically changed how people buy games, in particular tabletop games. Game players and collectors that spent the last couple of decades waiting to read reviews or to play a friend’s copy are diving in headfirst, hoping to be among the first to get their hands on these up-and-coming titles. People are “backing” these projects with millions and millions of dollars in exchange for the fruits of these fledgling developers’ labors along with “stretch goals,” exclusive content, and additional bonuses or incentives not otherwise available.

Right now, it is absolutely a speculator’s market, particularly with some of these successful Kickstarter games hitting eBay, post-campaign, and pulling in many times their initial value. Boss Monster, a great $25 card game with an old-school, 1980s-video-game theme, just released at retail, but its Kickstarter edition is selling for more than $150. Miniatures games, with all the frills offered to backers, are hitting values of $2,000 or more.

The people behind “Cthulhu Wars” asked for $40,000, and got $1.4 million. Backers committed up to $525 to get the game, as well as an assortment of exclusive “stretch goal” items. The game will be widely available in retail, but some of these exclusives might escalate dramatically in value… if the game turns out to be good.

It’s too early to tell, but some of the rarer Kickstarter titles could skyrocket in the aftermarket value in years to come if they become desirable enough among collectors and player. Titles like the upcoming “Cthulhu Wars”—a fantastically expensive but outrageously over-produced game based on the works of HP Lovecraft—could become a highly sought-after collector’s items. The signs are right; limited production, exclusivity and desirable subject matter.

But that’s a huge “if,” particularly when you’re talking about games that may never even see the light of day. When you back a Kickstarter board game project, you’re effectively contributing your funds to a pool to finance the production of the game. The goal is a target number set by the designer or publisher at which point they’ll produce the title. There have been many Kickstarter projects that have failed. Worse, we’re only just now getting to the point in crowdfunding’s short history where shady business and questionable failures are starting to occur. The bubble may be about to burst, particularly if game players and collectors start mistrusting these campaigns.

This past week, a very high-profile (and overfunded) Kickstarter campaign for a game called “The Doom that Came to Atlantic City” was cancelled by the game’s designer despite the fact that the game had raised far more than its target. The designer stated rather plainly that his lack of experience in game production, coupled with some other issues, foreclosed on the possibility of actually manufacturing the game. It’s also been revealed, anecdotally, that this individual has a history of courting investors and squandering the funds on personal purchases. As for the backers who contributed more than $122,000 to this project, there is no recourse, since backing a project isn’t purchasing a product and there is an inherent risk of losing your investment. Them’s the breaks, kid! 

Doomed indeed. One backer contributed $2,500 for this game, along with incentives such as a trip to Oregon to meet the designers and have dinner with them. Also, a T-shirt. This person will see none of it, because this project went down the tubes.

There are still plenty of traditional publishers out there selling games the old fashioned way, and the bulk of games that will remain in the minds and desires of collectors will still originate chiefly from these sources. However, there are established publishers, such as Steve Jackson Games, that are using Kickstarter to produce niche titles that otherwise would not be budgeted. This company’s campaign to do a super-deluxe edition of the classic 1977 wargame “Ogre” pulled in more than a million dollars—after years of languishing while the company debated its marketplace viability.

“Ogre” will release this year and in very limited quantities; I’d expect its $100-retail-price to double or triple within six months once backers receive their copies and a small number are released into retail. But this is a known property from a known designer—not some fly-by-night operation that may not be on the up-and-up with the spirit of crowdfunding.

The long-story-short version of all of this is that for game collectors, it’s a strange time. There is a veritable flood of new titles being made available and competing for crowdfunding dollars. Some of these games, if they are made, could become very rare commodities. Others may be too obscure to notice. Anyone choosing to back crowdfunded board game projects should hew close to the old “caveat emptor” chestnut and don’t expect to get your investment back if the game turns out to be terrible or if it never even makes it into your hands.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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