Why Your Boardgame Kickstarter Sucks #2: You Now Have No Obligation To Deliver

Kickstarter backers pursue their only remaining recourse against a delinquent project creator

If you gave me $20 and asked me to go to Krispy Kreme and pick you up a dozen donuts, but I came back an hour later and said I spent it all on hookers and have no donuts for you, you would likely be a little upset. Of course, some of the blame lies with you for spending $20 for a dozen donuts, but did you really do your research before you committed to this investment in donutty goodness? What’s my track record for successfully purchasing donuts? How often do I instead spend money given to me on hookers? Could you get those donuts cheaper some other way–say, hopping in your soccer mom minivan and driving three minutes to the Krispy Kreme yourself?

Scenarios like this are going to be more and more likely to play out now on Kickstarter, thanks their latest Terms of Service update. In a further effort to remove themselves from any sort of responsibility role for their wreckless marketplace of mostly garbage ideas and products, Kickstarter now clearly spells out that it’s A-OK if project creators screw up royally and leave backers completely empty-handed. From the new terms:

[Backers] must make every reasonable effort to find another way of bringing the project to the best possible conclusion for backers. A creator in this position has only remedied the situation and met their obligations to backers if:

  • they post an update that explains what work has been done, how funds were used, and what prevents them from finishing the project as planned;
  • they work diligently and in good faith to bring the project to the best possible conclusion in a timeframe that’s communicated to backers;
  • they’re able to demonstrate that they’ve used funds appropriately and made every reasonable effort to complete the project as promised;
  • they’ve been honest, and have made no material misrepresentations in their communication to backers; and
  • they offer to return any remaining funds to backers who have not received their reward (in proportion to the amounts pledged), or else explain how those funds will be used to complete the project in some alternate form.

And while Kickstarter claims that this update “simplified the language” and “subtracted lots of legal jargon”, all it really did was remove any obligation from project runners (and from Kickstarter itself) to ensure project completion (or refunds for backers). Let’s break down each of those bullet points using our hooker-donuts example to show just how ridiculous the new terms are.

Post an update that explains what work has been done, how funds were used, and what prevents them from finishing the project as planned

Well, I walked into the Krispy Kreme and picked out the dozen donuts. But then Maria the Town Prostitute (you know, the one who always hangs out in the Krispy Kreme) offered to glaze my donuts, if you know what I mean. She has your $20 now.

Work diligently and in good faith to bring the project to the best possible conclusion in a timeframe that’s communicated to backers

Hey, I made it all the way to the Krispy Kreme and ordered in 15 minutes, and I was back here to report my status to you just 20 minutes after that! (Yeah, Maria’s efficient.)

Able to demonstrate that they’ve used funds appropriately and made every reasonable effort to complete the project as promised

I spent that $20 in Krispy Kreme as I said I would. And have you seen Maria? It’s entirely unreasonable to expect a man to be able to say no to her.

Been honest, and have made no material misrepresentations in their communication to backers

I considered making up a story about being mugged by Tony the Town Mugger, but instead I told you the whole and complete truth.

Offer to return any remaining funds to backers who have not received their reward (in proportion to the amounts pledged), or else explain how those funds will be used to complete the project in some alternate form

Well, I don’t have anything left of the $20 you gave me, but Maria had half a Bostom Kreme donut left. It’s yours if you want it! (Try to eat around the lipstick marks.)

And there you have it! Despite blowing the entirety of your pledge on a 15-minute romp in the Krispy Kreme restroom, I’ve fulfilled the terms of service as outlined by Kickstarter, so they’re not going to do anything to me. You want your $20 back? Kickstarter does say I “may be subject to legal action by backers,” but are you really going to come after me for $20? And even if 300 other folks asked me to pick up their donuts and lost $20 too, are you all really going to be able to organize some sort of class-action effort to get it back? Go right ahead, but I can just point to Kickstarter’s new and improved terms to demonstrate that I’ve fulfilled the obligations they outlined for me, so you’re going to need one helluvan expensive attorney to get back your 20 bucks.

Obviously this donut-hooker scheme is far from realistic, but in a more likely scenario where a project creator mismanages (or “mismanages,” as Enron executives might call it) campaign funds, it would be even easier to come up with plausible explanations for why all the cash is gone and you’re getting nothing for it.

So as a backer, what can you do to protect yourself?

How Backers Can Prevent Non-Delivery and No-Refund Situations

Kickstarter does get one thing right with its terms: it reminds backers that they have an obligation not to be a moron with their Kickstarter backering. So how can you avoid being a moron as a backer?

  1. Don’t back new project creators. You see a project you want to back, but the creator’s profile shows “0 created, 0 backed.” If you back this project, not only are you giving someone $20 to pick up donuts for you, you’re giving that $20 to someone you just met and know nothing about. Just like eBay feedback of olden days, let the project creator show they’re worth your money by first investing in other projects.
  2. Research a project’s plausibility. Can this project deliver a 200-component game for $15 in 3 months as they claim? The less likely a project is to make its financial or schedule obligations, the more likely backers will never see anything at all from the project. Projects should come with realistic delivery dates and demonstrate they’ve done signficiant work soliciting bids for project fulfillment. If a project seems like too good of a bargain, likely its creator doesn’t know how much it’ll really cost to complete the project, and they’ll blow all your money finding out the hard way they can’t deliver.
  3. Pay attention to the risks and challenges section. The bottom section of every Kickstarter campaign page requires project creators to enumerate all risks and challenges associated with the project. Many Kickstarter projects will fill out this section with statements akin to “there are no risks” or “everything is done, so risks are minimal.” Never back these projects. Even many-time successful project creators should know there are always risks, and just because they don’t anticipate hitting them doesn’t mean they couldn’t. Point me to any Kickstarter campaign and I’ll be able to name one to a hundred risks and challenges it doesn’t list but should. If a project claims to be risk-free, it’s almost certainly riskier than most.

How Kickstarter Can Prevent Non-Delivery and No-Refund Situations

Kickstarter Omni-Global Corporation knows what it’s doing. It shifts all risk associated with projects away from itself and creators and onto backers. This ensures Kickstarter gets paid (it keeps its percentage even on totally failed or clearly fraudulent funded projects). Kickstarter’s obligation to a project ends as soon as it takes its cut and gives the rest to the project creator. Any backer with a grievance at this point has zero recourse with Kickstarter–even to get back the chunk Kickstarter took for themselves if the project falls through. This will ultimately get Kickstarter into a ton of trouble down the road: that they profit from felonious transactions. Kickstarter must immediately implement some morally-necessary changes so that it isn’t just a middleman to fraud and utter business incompetence.

  1. Kickstarter must put more effort into vetting project creators. If someone was using your front lawn to ask strangers for $100,000, you’d probably want to know a bit about this person. Kickstarter allows exactly this, but the only thing it looks at for its project creators is that they have a bank account. You know who else has bank accounts? Criminals. And regular honest people, sure. But when Kickstarter allows a project to go live, it’s doing so knowing nothing about the person launching the project. Just what is Kickstarter doing with its cut of a funded project? Certainly not running simple background checks on its creators to weed out known thieves and con men like it should.
  2. Kickstarter must dramatically increase its standards for projects. If you went to a bank and asked to borrow a large sum of money, you’re going to have a novel’s worth of forms to fill out. The bank will end up knowing you better than you know yourself after you’re done giving them all the information they seek to protect their financial investment. They’re going to want an incredibly detailed report of what you’re doing with their cash. Yet Kickstarter projects go live and fund daily with a paragraph or less about their plan to create the product being pitched. A project with lots of information is more likely to be a genuine, well-planned project with a higher likelihood of succeeding. Kickstarter should require just as much of a written plan from project creators as the government does from defense contractors responding to Requests for Proposals. If you can’t print out a Kickstarter campaign’s project proposal and use it to beat its creator bloody should they squander your money, then it shouldn’t have made it to the public eye in the first place.
  3. Kickstarter (and Amazon) must refund their fees for failed projects. Whether a project fails due to incompetence or clear fraud, Kickstarter always gets its buck. This is morally and ethically wrong, and possibly illegal. When a project fails, the 5-10% Kickstarter and Amazon take should be refunded to backers. This alone would help ensure that Kickstarter does a little more due diligence before letting just anyone panhandle on its pages.

So whether you’re investing your life savings into potato salad or just hoping to pick up a fun new boardgame, Kickstarter has now made it far easier for you to get screwed out of your money. Proceed with extreme caution because all of the risk is now explicitly on you, backers.

Why Your Boardgame Kickstarter Sucks #1: “Unanticipated” Delivery Delays

Dammit, my game got re-routed to Botswana again!

This is the first in a series of articles I may or may not write about why Kickstarter sucks, why your Kickstarter campaign in particular sucks, and why puppies are awesome.

There’s something to be said for immediate gratification. Two somethings, in fact. One, it’s immediate. It’s right now. It’s not tomorrow or next Tuesday, and it’s certainly not three Christmases from now. Two, it’s gratifying. It’s satisfying. It can even be a little bit pacifying. (Sorry for rhyming; I’ve been practicing for a rap battle. Word.)

Kickstarter is the antithesis of immediate gratification. Unlike walking into your local game store and seeing that shiny new copy of Morbid Death Horrificness: The Dice Game you’ve heard so much about (maybe even played before) sitting on a shelf, Kickstarter has no shelves. It has ideas. It has hopes and dreams and promises of better things to come. Someday. Not today. Not next Tuesday. In six month. Or maybe three Christmases from now. You pledge, you pay, you will get your fucking boardgame when it’s good and ready.

Horrendous Backer: A copy of Morbid Death Horrificness shipped free to the US in a tiny coffin. Canada, add 20 American dollars. Rest of the world, add one blood sacrifice.When you do spot a Kickstarter campaign at which you just desperately need to throw your money, while your gratification may not be immediate, you can at least take some consolation in the fact that you can estimate when you will feel gratified. For instance, if you were to back Morbid Death Horrificness: The Dice Game at the pledge level depicted on the right, you can safely assume you’ll be rolling in blood (that’s the game’s main mechanic, after all) in time for Halloween 2014. Should October 1, 2014 come and go without you receiving your game, there will be hell to pay. And I’m not talking about the expansion, Morbid Death Horrificness: Hell To Pay either.

Of course, September 2014 is just an estimated delivery date for this pledge level. In fact, you might get your copy of MDH:TDG even earlier! Wait… no… that would never happen. Far more likely, you will get your copy late. After Halloween. Maybe even after three Christmases. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nor are there consequences for the Kickstarter project creator.

Timely delivery is one of the biggest problems with boardgame Kickstarter campaigns. Looking just at my own personal history of backed Kickstarters (yes, I still back projects, despite my belief in Kickstarter’s suckiness), fewer than 30% of the projects I’ve backed have been delivered on time. One project, still delivering status updates (including a recent proof unboxing) is over a year late. No project I’ve backed has ever been delivered early.

Some Kickstarter worshippers may argue that this isn’t a problem, so long as you get your promised rewards eventually. Those few weeks or months of delay could be due to manufacturing or quality issues, and you’d rather have a good game late than a bad game now, right?

The problem with this argument is that Kickstarter requires estimated reward delivery dates for a reason: to keep project creators honest and realistic. When a project creator puts an estimated date of Janutember 20XX, it’s hopefully because they have a well-tuned development and delivery plan in place which takes into account the numerous risks associated with their project, establishes mitigation methods for those risks, and provides a road map to an on-time, high-quality product delivery. When a project is delayed, it means the project creator messed up somewhere. Art was delivered late. A potential production delay was not anticipated, and alternate plans were not put into place. Ease of shipping was overestimated. For whatever reason, someone screwed up, but the only person who pays for the mistake is the project backer. And here’s exactly how a backer suffers from these delays.

  • Loss of interest. It’s tough enough for Kickstarter projects to maintain their buzz between the time of successful funding and final delivery. Everyone who was super-excited when Morbid Death Horrificness was announced might not give a crap about it a year later when the much better Horrible Dying Morbidness is released by a different publisher. Congratulations, backer: nobody gives a crap about your shiny new game now.
  • Personal game schedule impacts. Some backers like to plan out their gaming schedules to ensure their shiny new Kickstarter game hits the table. A delay means a game might sit on the back burner when it bumps up against the release of other purchases.
  • Delays point to other issues. There are clear differences in the level of professionalism between one Kickstarter project creator and the next, and it usually shows from day one of the campaign. But when a project is delayed, it points to basic issues in a publisher’s development process. And when there’s one issue, there’s generally more. The game probably wasn’t playtested enough. There might be component consistency issues. Unfortunately, since delays come at the end of the project, it’s too late at this point for backers to pull back their support from a publisher who clearly has issues meeting its commitments.
  • Utter lack of accountability. As of today, there are zero consequences for a Kickstarter project delivered late. Because of that, there is nothing incentivizing a project creator to deliver on time. So why should they try? If a delay is likely but could be overcome with some extra effort on the part of the project creator, there’s nothing compelling them to put in that effort.

One need only look at the sparse “Risks and challenges” section of virtually every boardgame Kickstarter campaign to see how well-planned most campaign schedules are. Some projects make vague references to “unanticipated issues” and will later blame those same issues for any delays encountered. But because there have been hundreds of successful Kickstarter boardgame projects, this blanket excuse is now borderline unethical. A project creator need only go back and review all of the many, many “unanticipated issues” that previous projects have faced, and now they can anticipate them, mitigate them, and resolve them so that they do not impact timely product delivery.

Instead, project creators seem to generally ballpark their project delivery based on a handful of conversations with their printer, tacking on a month or two for delivery and fulfillment, and that’s that. A project creator certainly won’t pad that date much, because seeing an anticipated delivery date too far in the future might scare off potential backers. Why post a realistic delivery schedule when you’ll suffer no consequences at all for specifying a sooner date and missing it? If it takes you five minutes to fill in the “Estimated Delivery” box on your Kickstarter campaign, then your Kickstarter campaign sucks.

Another reason this issue is so frustrating is that it can be fixed right now by the combined efforts of project creators and Kickstarter itself. Here’s how:

How Project Creators Can Prevent Delays:

  1. Thoroughly research past Kickstarter fulfillment issues for projects similar to yours. If they happened to someone else, they can happen to your project too. No hiding behind the “unanticipated issues” disclaimer anymore.
  2. Plan for risks. If there’s a chance an issue could impact your project’s schedule, you need to plan for it. For instance, if your project’s artist is unable to work, have another artist lined up to complete the work according to your original schedule.
  3. Develop a detailed risk management plan and schedule. If you have two paragraphs in your Kickstarter’s “Risks and challenges” section, you do not have a risk management plan. This is a project, and all projects have risks that should be documented and managed. This page at The Project Management Hut can teach you how, and it even offers a useful template for your first risk management plan. Here’s a similar page with pretty pictures and fewer big words at WikiHow. Bonus: a risk management plan will also help you detect risks to your costs–something that definitely does impact the project creator.
  4. Share your plan. If your backers can see that you’ve anticipated risks, they’ll feel better about pledging their support. Even if they don’t read your whole plan, they’ll be impressed that you’ve done your homework and have contingency plans in place to help ensure your product ends up in their hands on time.
  5. Hold yourself accountable. Yes, you can currently get away with murder when it comes to delivering a Kickstarter boardgame project on time. But you shouldn’t. If there is something in your power as the project creator you can do to fix an issue and prevent it from impacting the timely delivery of your project, you should do it. If not, be prepared to offer compensation later. Let’s call them “delay incentives”–stretch goals for when your schedule stretches. For instance, if your project is just a week or two late, send individual and personalized (not mail-merged!) messages to your backers apologizing for the delay. At one or two months late, offer backers a free print-and-play expansion. At three months late, offer refunds, plain and simple.

How Kickstarter Can Prevent Delays:

  1. Mandate risk management “training” for project creators. Even if it’s just putting together some slides and templates, Kickstarter needs to actively provide the resources for project creators to enhance their risk management techniques.
  2. Track and publish delivery metrics. Presently, Kickstarter provides no mechanism for potential backers to determine a project creator’s on-time delivery rate. Yet creating one is dead simple. Here’s how to do it: When a project creator delivers their product, they push a button. Backers get an email asking if they received their rewards. If so, they do nothing. If not, they push their own button. (Presumably, the creator works with the backer to resolve any delivery issues.) Kickstarter tracks these button-pushes, intervenes if a large number of backers push the “no, it hasn’t been delivered” button, and publishes a report on each project and project creator’s page comparing when the project was estimated to be delivered and when most backers reported actually receiving their deliveries.
  3. Punish frequent late deliverers. Right now, one particular Kickstarter boardgame publisher has a string of delayed deliveries, and they seem to be learning nothing from it. If a creator becomes a frequent delinquent, mandate additional risk management training or more detailed risk management plans, pulling the plug on the creator altogether as a final resort.

How Backers Can Prevent Delays:

  1. Don’t back poor projects. This will probably become the first item on this list in every “Kickstarter sucks” article I ever write, but it needs to be said. If a project has no risk management plan, don’t back it. Demand quality and accountability from the projects you back, and project creators will be forced to hold themselves to a higher standard.
  2. Ensure you aren’t the cause of a delay. Hey, dummy. You moved three months ago. You wanna know why you didn’t get your copy of Morbid Death Horrificness? It’s because your old address did. Next time, keep your delivery information up to date, and notify the project creator immediately of any issues on your end that could impact their ability to fulfill a reward.
  3. Don’t just shrug off delays. Sick of getting project updates that amount to the creator passing the buck on why you don’t have your reward in hand on time? Let the creator know! Demand an explanation of why the delay occurred, what parts of the project’s risk management plan (they have one, right?) failed to take into account the risk which impacted the project, and how the creator will prevent similar issues in the future. Then publicize the exchange on the project’s running comments and/or BoardGameGeek so that other backers (and backers of the creator’s future projects) can be kept in the loop.

Project delays should all but go away in 2014 if everyone involved in Kickstarter boardgame projects works together to create a higher standard of integrity and accountability. Like it or not, Kickstarter is a store, at least as far as boardgames go, and we’re all shoppers. We forego our need for immediate gratification when we back a project, and we should expect to be treated with honesty and sincerity in return. And like any store, if the stock boy goes to the back room and returns with your requested product three months late, you probably shouldn’t go back to that store ever again. Board Game Design Idea Generator

How many times have you sat down to design a board game… but you just couldn’t come up with an idea to get you started? Sure, you cleared your schedule to get in some good design time, locked the kids in a cabinet for the night, paid someone to literally whip you into productivity (You’ve all done this too, right? Right???) and yet the best you can come up with is “something with cards, maybe a medieval theme.”

Enter the Board Game Design Idea Generator, a website that does all the hard work for you–coming up with your next great board game theme, mechanics, victory conditions, and even constraints. All you have to do is push a single button et voilà: instant Spiel des Jahres.

Give it a whirl. Maybe you’ll get such delightful combinations as “fighting for survival in an epic simultaneous-action-selection moon battle” or “a trick-taking game about teleporting athletes… while tracking down the hidden traitor.” Whatever it is, the Board Game Design Idea Generator is sure to generate you some respectable board game design ideas.

Also, I’m currently working on a similar project entitled the Random Playtesting Feedback Generator. Save yourself the trouble of diligently assembling prototypes and gathering groups of friends and skip straight to the results with such random critiques as:

  • “There’s too much downtime between turns.”
  • “Why can’t you handle bidding like Power Grid does? That’s such a better game than this one.”
  • “I know you explained it three times and it says it right there on the board, but what are the actions I can do on my turn again?”

[99% Inspiration, 1% Desperation: Board Game Design Idea Generator]

Free Play-and-Play: Escape From Horrible Mountain 2: The Second Escape

The thing I find most frustrating about the many (albeit wonderful) free print-and-play games you see offered on sites like these is that I’m really lazy and don’t like all the printing, cutting, gluing, laminating, flambéing, and bleeding that precedes the actual playing. Honestly, is it too much trouble to ask the designer to come to my house and do all that stuff for me?

Given that, please enjoy Escape From Horrible Mountain 2: The Second Escape, a totally free “play-and-play” game. No printing, unless you want to print the rules and murder some helpless trees who never did anything to you. No cutting or taping or anything else. Just grab a deck of cards and some cubes or other bits, then freaking start playing. And then play again. That is why it is called play-and-play: because you have to play at least twice or else that term just doesn’t work.

If you enjoy EFHM2:TSE, please consider supporting the designer by purchasing him a new Mazda MX-5 Miata.

[Free Play-and-Play: Escape From Horrible Mountain 2: The Second Escape]

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