Opinion: Crowdfunding is killing board game expansions

Crowdfunding has actually altered the world of tabletop video gaming. Platforms like Kickstarter were initially an automobile for creatives to bring ingenious and extreme concepts to life. With time, nevertheless, the churn of brand-new projects has actually ended up being mainly a marketing structure for style studios to press mounds of plastic and cardboard at ever-increasing cost points. Publishers are taking in countless dollars, players’ racks are reaching a snapping point, however it’s the video games themselves that suffer. The most significant victim of all? Parlor game growths.

In the previously times — not pre-COVID, mind you, however pre-crowdfunding — a parlor game would come out, gamers would respond and provide feedback, and after that the publisher would do the same with a growth if need called for. This was a prolonged procedure, and some video games would not see brand-new material for a number of years. The market was slower then, and maintaining was more like drinking from a faucet than a firehose. That hold-up in between preliminary item and follow-up extension offered the style group sufficient energy and time to craft something significant and inclusive of gamers’ feedback.

There’s no such thing as an ideal parlor game, like there are no ideal computer game. The variety of hours and gamers required to check a video game are beyond the abilities of the majority of publishers, who generally work with volunteers. When a title in fact strikes the marketplace and discovers its method onto a number of thousand brand-new tables, undoubtedly, unknown rough areas and concerns will be found. Errata gets released, and subtle brand-new guidelines or changes get feathered in.

This has actually been managed relatively well the previous couple of years. Dream Flight Games, for example, has actually been understood to consist of cards with errata inside feature-rich growths. It’s likewise revealed a performance history of rubbing the weaker points of its styles, such as including the Cylon Fleet board in the Exodus growth for Battlestar Galactica: The Parlor Game. This was a sideboard which offered exposed Cylon characters more alternatives on their turn, in addition to increasing the consistency of area fights in between the fleets. Both of these adjustments smoothed the pace of play and kept gamers more engaged throughout quieter minutes.

Another example of responsive style is with the outstanding King of Tokyo growth, Power Up! This addition to the popular Kaiju dice-roller included uneven gamer powers to each of the contenders, attending to brand-new taste and character in the style. Besides increased characterization, this likewise repaired a problem where rolling hearts on your dice might typically be underwhelming. With the addition of the Power Up! expansion, you can now spend hearts to acquire new abilities and explore entirely new gameplay mechanisms. What was once a wasted in-game resource is now a sought-after way to experience new content.

This is how it’s supposed to work: A game is released and it isn’t perfect, then designers put their heads down and release an expansion, nudging the game that much closer toward excellence. But this virtuous cycle has been occurring less and less in the era of crowdfunding.

As Kickstarter has come to dominate the hobby, the status quo is now to launch a full line of products right from the get-go. CMON’s campaign for Bloodborne: The Board Game raised more than $4 million in 2019. A big part of the draw was the source material, of course. Fans of Bloodborne want very little from life other than more Bloodborne, and CMON got their attention with an over-the-top bundle. The highest tier for that campaign included nine full-fledged expansions in addition to the hefty $100 base game. When finished products started shipping to backers earlier this year, social media was dominated not by stories or praise for gameplay, but vanity shots of boxes stacked to towering heights.

Concept art of Bloodborne: The Board Game

An early render of Bloodborne: The Board Game used during the crowdfunding campaign.
Image: CMON

Reacting to feedback and naturally allowing a game to mature over time is a lost methodology. Bloodborne: The Board Game attempted to condense this life cycle and respond to player feedback mid-campaign instead of post-release. This is how the included player-vs-player mode came about. It was not part of the initial vision for the game, or the pitch to backers. But many of those backers requested it, so the design team scurried to make it happen. The result, unfortunately, was an underdeveloped addition to the game that is clunky at best, and broken at worst. The system suffers greatly because there is no incentive to attack, so players spend a great deal of time running away, extending the length of play.

This PvP mode was a late stretch goal — something added to the crowdfunding campaign to spur on additional investment. It wasn’t carefully considered, or informed by backers who had actually played the game, and it wasn’t intended to refine the overall experience. It was all about offering more content with the goal to bring in more money.

Another clear-cut example is Awaken Realms’ Aliens-inspired title, Nemesis. The base game is a fantastic sci-fi horror board game, but much of the expansion content feels sloppy and flawed. The primary bonus material for backers of the project was an expansion titled Aftermath. This is a clever idea, allowing participants to immediately play a follow-up mission whose setup is influenced by the preceding playthrough, but the requirements are horrendous. Very few players have the stamina or will to play two three-hour games back-to-back.

So this expansion sits unused, a tremendous waste of cardboard and developer hours. Now that it has made its way into the wild and seen thousands of new playtesters, most would agree that Nemesis needs tightening and a shorter playtime — entirely the opposite of what backers were given.

All of this excess content is developed and paid for and very little of it is being used. What’s more disturbing is that this approach has become normal, which has caused all sorts of additional problems. Crowdfunded games are no longer expected to eventually arrive in stores as retail products. Making matters worse, many of the expansions they come with include additional exclusive miniatures, so backers are pressured into grabbing more stuff than they can make use of in a reasonable amount of time. When it all arrives, sometimes years later, only then do backers realize they likewise need to add a new wing to their homes to store it all.

Now, what if the game has issues, such as Bloodborne: The Board Game’s PvP mode? Since years’ worth of content was pumped out in one fell swoop, backers may not be interested in tossing even more money and (and storage space) at a project in an attempt to fund the solution. Sometimes we see success stories such as the sci-fi adventure game Xia: Legends of a Drift System receiving an essential expansion on Kickstarter a couple of years after its initial release, but other times backers are left in no-man’s land and just struggling for air beneath all those boxes.

Developing expansion content in this new era of crowdfunding is difficult. Instead of reflecting on the design and trying to execute on a refined vision, the design team is worried about expanding the breadth of content with the goal of pulling in more funding. The vast majority of people backing these massive games will never play with even half of the included material. Regularly, the extra content is unwieldy and suffers from lack of attention to detail.

Now we’re stuck in this awful cycle. It isn’t conducive to making informed decisions, so many of us toss a couple hundred dollars at a game and hope for the best. Once the campaign ends, it’s typically painfully obvious that publishers are already heading in the opposite direction and focused on their next project. We’re left in the dust with an occasional update for the next year or two.

The alternative is simply not to back these games. Maybe you keep your resolve and you wait until the game properly releases through retail channels. You do this, and then you realize the game is actually something special, something you want more of. By then, it’s too late. None of those dozens of expansions make it to retail, and your only option is to hope for a second crowdfunding campaign, which may or may not arrive, or sell a kidney and submit to scalpers on eBay.

While crowdfunding is a wonderful resource for board game development, it’s also become quite the poisonous instrument to the industry. It has influenced every single publisher in one way or another. The slow death of the traditional board game growth is perhaps its biggest crime, and one which will continue to affect the method we purchase and consume board video game releases for the foreseeable future.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.