On April 26th, 2010, an unknown board game publisher took a chance with an unknown designer, teaming up to fund a game’s production through very unconventional means. Sixty days later, gamers were watching when Alien Frontiers did more than just defy expectations. The game wove a thread between two industries primed for rapid growth: crowdfunding and tabletop game publishing.
Once all of the pledges were in, Alien Frontiers raised $14,885, setting a new record as the most-funded gaming project on Kickstarter and casting both publisher Clever Mojo Games and designer Tory Niemann into the spotlight. According to Kickstarter staff, Alien Frontiers was only the 48th gaming project to be successfully funded on Kickstarter, and among those 48, it was only the 4th board game. These days, a million dollars won’t garner a top-10 spot among Kickstarter’s most successful tabletop gaming projects, but back in mid-2010, the tabletop industry wasn’t watching Kickstarter until Alien Frontiers turned heads.
Alien Frontiers was unique among its predecessors, showing the early indications of a break-out commercial success. The game coupled an engaging play experience with high production values, and served as an early entry in a new class of games that merge thematic American and strategic European game design styles. But given the amount of historical significance being granted to this project, how then, did the unlikely combination of neophyte publisher and game designer come to be? Like most good gaming stories, this one has its fair share of luck.
After misplaying a few rules in Kingsburg, a game with similar “die rolling as worker placement” game mechanics, Tory Niemann stumbled upon what he felt was a superior experience, providing him the foundation to create Alien Frontiers. Tory got to work, and this new mix of mechanics spurred strong initial reactions, giving Tory hope that this might be his first game to reach market. As luck would have it, Tory also had a family tie to an up-and-coming publisher. David MacKenzie, who had recently formed Clever Mojo Games, was the brother of Tory Niemann’s sister-in-law’s father-in-law. Let that one sit for a moment as your work through the family tree.
Prior to Alien Frontiers, Tory Niemann had designed a party game by the name of Hook, Line, and Sinker, and shopped the game around to several major publishers. Unfortunately for Tory, none of those publishers took notice, and that experience influenced the path of Tory’s future efforts. After giving David MacKenzie an early look at Alien Frontiers, Tory began consulting with David on the development of the game. A strong working relationship quickly followed, and given David’s strong interest, Tory never felt any hesitation about partnering with a small independent publisher. That relationship remained untested until the uncertain element of crowdfunding entered the picture.
Tory Niemann had not anticipated his game getting the crowdfunding treatment. “I was very wary about using crowdfunding, mostly because I had never crowdfunded anything before, or backed anything. I didn’t know what to expect,” told Niemann. In his eyes, the few game projects to date had been of very niche interest, and a $5,000 goal was especially lofty for a board game. “I was pretty uncertain about it, but David MacKenzie really wanted to do it. He saw the direction things were going, and it all worked out,” admitted Niemann.
Like most good gaming stories, this one has its fair share of luck.
The decision to launch a Kickstarter project actually came rather late in the game design process. According to David MacKenzie, “It was very near the end. We were ready to publish it, and were already working with the artist to get the artwork done.” But what makes Alien Frontiers so special, given that the bar for success was so low relative to today’s standards? The answer is in how Clever Mojo Games conducted its Kickstarter campaign, acting in ways that would appear to be common sense today, but were quite novel four years ago. Kickstarter provided the tools, but Clever Mojo was first to master the technique.
David and Tory were not shy about building hype prior for Alien Frontiers prior to launching its Kickstarter campaign. “We tested Alien Frontiers for a full year, playing it 2-3 times a week, and I would often go on BGG to post photographs and ideas about the game development,” told David MacKenzie. This was not a surprise launch of a half-baked game design, and David was making sure that his audience knew. “I was very open about what we were doing, and it built up a community in advance.”
As the project progressed, David provided frequent updates, as often as twice per day, which was unheard of at the time. Crowdfunding would later become known as a practice that allowed backers to develop a personal stake in the projects they help fund, but Alien Frontiers was one of the first gaming projects to actually deliver on this sense of engagement.
After Alien Frontiers arrived at stores, its initial 1,000-copy print run soon sold out, leaving gamers begging for more. All of the hype and support that had built up around the game manifested in one of Kickstarter’s keys to success: the fear of missing out. Alien Frontiers quickly began selling for well above its original asking price on secondary venues such as eBay and the BGG marketplace. The secret was out, and gamers wanted in.
With some positive hindsight, Tory Niemann has definitely warmed up to the use of crowdfunding, as he is proud of the legacy his game has left. “Alien Frontiers proved that game crowdfunding could be done in a really big way. After Alien Frontiers did it, everyone said ‘it does work, so why don’t we try it? It proved that (Kickstarter) was a viable funding option for people who wouldn’t be able to bring their game to market otherwise.”
It is also worth noting how far into development the Alien Frontiers product was when its Kickstarter campaign launched. Video games had not yet seriously explored crowdfunding (it would be nearly two years before Double Fine provided the video game industry with its break-out moment), and tabletop games were a much safer bet. Gamers got their copies of Alien Frontiers quickly, and given the open nature of its playtesting, they knew that they were getting a quality product before ever committing a cent. It was the perfect jumping off point to convince gamers of crowdfunding’s potential.
The impact in Alien Frontier’s wake was massive. Tabletop crowdfunding projects were easy to scope, given that publishers only needed to cover a game’s factory production and shipping costs. Crowdfunding also provided more benefit that just some quick cash: established publishers knew they could use such a large source of pre-order data to more accurately size print runs to accommodate follow-on sales. Once publishers saw the potential for intelligent risk-taking, there was no turning back.
Those familiar with Alien Frontiers may know another name attached to the project: Game Salute. Having just debuted as a service company to assist crowdfunded game creators with fulfillment, Game Salute quickly stepped in to help Clever Mojo meet overwhelming demand. The 3,000-copy second printing of Alien Frontiers sold out before it even arrived, and while shipping 1,000 games out of your garage is one thing, 3,000 qualifies as a logistical nightmare. David MacKenzie knew that he needed help, and Game Salute was a natural fit.
Following the success of Alien Frontiers, Tory Niemann was hard at work designing expansions such as Alien Frontiers: Factions, and over on the business side, the new Clever Mojo Games/Game Salute partnership continued to push the crowdfunding envelope. Clever Mojo signed Sunrise City as its sophomore effort, and funded both it and Alien Frontiers: Factions with simultaneous Kickstarter campaigns.
Kickstarter’s key to success: The fear of missing out
“Some of my publishing friends said I was insane to try that,” confessed David, but the bold move paid off. Both campaigns funded well above their goals, raking in over $100,000. Clever Mojo Games had first made history, then proved that their success was not a fluke. Tough times loomed ahead though, as the publisher would continue to take risks, but fail to follow some of the original crowdfunding blueprints laid down by Alien Frontiers.
Sunrise City was a Kickstarter success story on the surface, but Clever Mojo was preparing for even greater long-term sales by producing additional copies. Unfortunately, the young publisher’s inexperience led to a misread of future demand based on backer activity, and a significant overproduction ensued. According to David MacKenzie, “it hasn’t sold that well. It’s a game that everyone likes once they play it, but getting everyone to pick it up and try it is not an easy sell.” Clever Mojo had not throttled back, though, and now found its resources stretched thin while juggling an ambitious total of ten different projects spanning various stages of development. The Sunrise City miscalculation had left the publisher in a lurch.
This stumble ultimately led to Game Salute absorbing Clever Mojo Games, with Game Salute CEO Dan Yarrington buying out David MacKenzie, who then stepped away from business operations to focus on producing games. Although their roles had changed, Dan and David continued in their attempts to innovate, first by creating their own game-specific crowdfunding site, Springboard. That experiment did not make it past the beta stage, though, as its inaugural project Leprechaun’s Castle was unsuccessful. Still, Game Salute continued to act as an early adopter for new crowdfunding ventures, attempting to publish Monsters & Maidens through Jumpstart City. Although this new venue had a unique take on crowdfunding, pioneering early-bird discounts and focusing on pre-project hype, Game Salute’s gamble was again unsuccessful.
Game Salute continued to veer from Alien Frontiers’ winning formula by amassing a long series of delayed projects, testing its customer’s faith in the crowdfunding process. One key detail from the original Alien Frontiers was that it was Kickstarted well into the production of its artwork, enabling a quick turnaround of the finished product. For the game’s 4th edition, it received an artistic overhaul, but this time around the funding came first. The added complications of artwork caused significant delays, and fans were vocal in their disappointment.
The crowdfunding landscape was filled with new challenges that did not exist when Alien Frontiers first launched. Back in mid-2010, stretch goals were unheard of, and Kickstarter did not even track due dates for rewards. A promo pack for Alien Frontiers’ 4th printing turned into a case study for stretch goals run amok, where the original plan for a six-card product ballooned include sixty cards, three mini-expansions, and a dice set. With zero flexibility to change the due dates set at the campaign’s start, the promo pack became yet another delayed Game Salute product.
In the years since Alien Frontiers first appeared, David Mackenzie may have learned that catching lightning in a bottle is no easy task to repeat. However, all parties involved seem to have weathered the storm, and David has a message for gamers: “I just want to make sure people know that Clever Mojo Games is not dead.” And he’s right. David quickly rattled off four recently-funded games that the publishing label will be delivering this year (King’s Forge, Princes of the Dragon Throne, Monsters & Maidens, and Magnum Opus), as well as two upcoming games that will soon be seeking funding.
While Game Salute has had no shortage of successfully-funded games (they’ve been involved to various degrees in a whopping 150+ titles), the company also seems to have turned a corner in addressing the legitimate criticisms cast towards many of these projects. Yarrington and his crew have been proactive in addressing complaints, and have remained involved across all community channels. The company has gone so far as to write an in-depth look at the production of a typical board game, highlighting risk areas along the way in the form of die rolls, and concluding with a line-by-line status of every Game Salute project.
To prevent further bad blood, Game Salute is also revisiting its use of crowdfunding. Yarrington laid out those plans, explaining that “we’re starting to tone that back a bit by just delivering a lot of the campaigns that were done in the past and then only focusing on the bigger projects. That’s just a virtue of becoming a bigger company. We can’t spend as much time on little projects.”
There’s also an added dose of realism, as the expansions for another Game Salute title, Nothing Personal, were crowdfunded with an advertised 17-month lead time. This caused complaints from a new angle, but according to Yarrington, this is his company being as up front as possible with its customers, even if it discourages them from participating in the campaign. Game Salute is maturing at the same time as Clever Mojo Games is attempting to get itself back into the limelight. It’s a combination that just might work, and Yarrington expects the company’s slate of games to be back on schedule by this year’s Gen Con.
Following the success of Alien Frontiers, designer Tory Niemann also went through some of his own struggles, as most of his follow-on design work too closely resembled Alien Frontiers. That distance was finally achieved when Niemann worked some new mechanics into the gold mining-themed Pay Dirt, but Clever Mojo Games was unable to take on another project. Instead, Tory reached out to another friend who had recently launched a publishing business, and Patrick Nickell of Crash Games signed Pay Dirt. Much like Clever Mojo, though, Tory’s name is only recently back at the forefront of gaming, as Pay Dirt‘s publication was encumbered by a slew of artwork issues. Only recently, Pay Dirt‘s development was completed, and it brought in $45,000 on Kickstarter, putting the game on pace for an October 2014 release.
The Alien Frontiers story continues this summer as well, with the Alien Frontiers: Outer Belt expansion edging closer to release. Most of the credit for Alien Frontiers: Outer Belt goes to a Clever Mojo playtester by the name of Randall Bart, who first created the expansion back in 2010, but Tory Niemann did originally consult on the project. Niemann recently shared some of his thoughts on the expansion, explaining that “It’s got some really fun concepts to it. It doesn’t change the core game experience in the same way that Factions does, but it adds another thing that’s interesting to be doing along with everything else that’s going on in the game.” As Clever Mojo prepares to move on to its next chapter, Game Salute is using Outer Belt as an opportunity to do the same, forgoing the usual Kickstarter funding in favor of traditional pre-orders, which opened earlier this month.
Kickstarter has become many things to many people, but four years ago, it was just a way for two guys to get a great board game into player’s homes. Since then, game crowdfunding has ballooned into a $100M+ annual industry, where through Kickstarter alone last year, tabletop gaming raised $52.1M alongside $45.3M raised for video games. Now, an entire segment of the tabletop industry has sprung up around crowdfunding, with publishers such as Tasty Minstrel Games, Dice Hate Me Games, and Crash Games carrying the banner. They and many others were directly influenced by the success of one game: Alien Frontiers. If you haven’t played it yet, you should. After all, it’s more than just a great game, it’s an important part of tabletop gaming history.