In 'No Honor Among Thieves,' players lead a crew of thieves to steal the most wealth. (Carpe Omnis Games)

Anatomy of a Kickstarter: How one game designer raised $46,000 to make his game

You could be forgiven for thinking that Kickstarter, the online platform that allows people to pledge cash to support causes they deem worthy, is easy money. A quick Google search for “weird Kickstarters” returns delights such as crystal bacon strips and a sword-handled frying pan on which to cook them. Real people pledged real money, to the tune of $2,700 and $46,000 respectively, to bring those ideas to life.     

Viral curios aside, rising above the noise on Kickstarter can be a challenge and, consequently, many worthy projects fail to raise enough money to meet their funding goals. Kickstarter’s rules require that a project meet or exceed its funding goal to receive any money. As of this writing, only slightly more than a third of the well over 300,000 projects that launched on Kickstarter have been successfully funded.

Adam Watts of Carpe Omnis Games took to Kickstarter this past August seeking $28,000 to fund the printing of his heist-themed board game “No Honor Among Thieves.” The game places players at the head of a gang of thieves, with the objective of, as Watts explained, “trying to stage heists to end the game richer than everyone else. You can achieve more if you work together with other players, but doing that opens you up to the possibility of betrayal.”

A 2014 graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he studied Game Design and Development, Watts had hoped to work in the video game industry after graduation but ended up working as a web developer instead.

“Everyone in my graduating class and major was also looking for video game jobs at the same time, and there really aren’t all that many at any given time,” Watts said. “So, I ended up getting a job as an ‘interactive brandthropologist,’ which was kind of a broad job description. It was basically web developer with some additional duties … At that point, I was like, ‘The best way to become a game designer starting from where I am now would be to just start making games.’”

The game that Watts later made grew out of his combined love of heist films as well as fantasy.

“The most direct influence was actually a novel that I was reading at the time. It’s called ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ by Scott Lynch. It’s basically fantasy ‘Ocean’s 11,'” Watts said. “That got me on a low fantasy, criminal stories kick, where I read a bunch of similar stuff in a short period of time … [I then] had the idea for the basic heist mechanic that hasn’t really changed … then everything else just got layered over the top of that over the course of probably a year or so.”

With a theme and core mechanic established, Watts began to flesh out “No Honor Among Thieves” by adding mechanics and systems while stripping away those that didn’t quite pan out. Watts also organized playtests of the evolving game, which gave him the opportunity to solicit feedback from other game designers as well as gamers of all stripes, from hardcore hobbyists to relative newcomers.

“I like to playtest with a couple of different groups,” Watts said. “There’s a game design group that I’m part of locally that meets every Thursday evening … Their advice is really good because they’re all working on their own game, and they can point to specific mechanics and say ‘this is what you need to change’ or ‘hey, have you tried this from this other game that I’ve played that you haven’t’ …. I also like to put it in front of people who don’t play board games as much because they tend to tell you when things aren’t fun. They give you a more general sense of how the game is progressing.”

After working on “No Honor Among Thieves” for almost two years, Watts began preparing to launch his Kickstarter, a process that took another six months. Watts emphasized the importance of creating a striking and polished Kickstarter page.

“You’re not going to get another first impression,” he said.

With this idea in mind, Watts ensured that before launching the Kickstarter, he had prepared a video pitching the game, sample game art to show potential backers how the game would look and a logo to anchor the game’s visual identity.

Though he managed to create an impressive Kickstarter page, Watts also needed to prove to potential backers that “No Honor Among Thieves” didn’t just look good on Kickstarter, it was actually a game worth playing. At the same time, he also needed to promote his Kickstarter within the board game community to draw more backers to his Kickstarter. Thus, Watts sent copies of “No Honor Among Thieves” to board game blogs that would then review the game. These reviews, in addition to creating buzz, helped assure potential backers of the game’s quality.

“The one thing for a game Kickstarter, you really, really need is the reviews,” Watts said. “You need to send [the game] to reviewers and get third-party, objective people to tell everyone that this game is worth their money.”

Once he launched the “No Honor Among Thieves” Kickstarter, Watts went out of his way to promote the campaign, hoping that if a wide enough audience was aware of his game, enough people would chip in for him to meet his funding goal.

“During the campaign, I did interviews with different podcasts and blogs, I got more reviews posted, I talked about it on different forums, I did an Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit. I wrote a designer diary on boardgamegeek.com and I ran banner ads in a lot of different places,” Watts said. He conceded that the banner ads were not particularly effective, but he remarked that engaging with the community on boardgamegeek.com was essential for his campaign’s success.

Although the “No Honor Among Thieves” Kickstarter was on track to reach its funding goal by virtue of Watts’ solo efforts, the unexpected intervention of other aspiring board game creators helped push Watts’ funding total well above his initial goal.

There was another Kickstarter running at the same time as mine for a game called ‘Endangered Orphans of Condyle Cove,'” Watts said. “At some point during [that campaign], one of the people who backed my campaign, who also backed their campaign, mentioned my project in their comments section … The guys running the ‘Condyle’ Kickstarter decided they really wanted my game, so they started encouraging their backers to give me money, to the point where they made my campaign funding a requirement for a stretch goal on theirs … It was pretty great.”

With his Kickstarter successfully funded (and then some), Watts now faces the daunting task of producing “No Honor Among Thieves” and shipping the 1,500 copies his backers expect by May 2017. His days consist of “wrangling artists” and managing the other myriad aspects of producing a game. Expectations for “No Honor Among Thieves” are high, but Watts is not worried about disappointing his backers, at least when it comes to aspects of the game’s production that he can control.

“If I have to stay up for two days straight to make sure all the files are ready for the printer, whatever,” he said. “But the factory in China shuts down in February for Chinese New Year, and that’s probably going to delay things a little.”

But, despite his trepidation, Watts believes that “No Honor Among Thieves” is mostly on track.

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