When Kimi Hughes, the owner of Golden Lasso Games, launched her first Kickstarter campaign for Decuma: The R&D for Your RPG, a tarot-inspired card game, she had no idea whether her endeavor would be successful. Hoping to meet a goal of $10,000, she wound up wrapping her 30-day campaign with over $54,000—enabling her to not only get her product out into the world but to walk away with some profit, too. “I thought maybe I’d sell a couple hundred copies,” she says, “but the campaign funded at 540% with 1,771 backers.”

Hughes is one of thousands of tabletop game makers turning to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms to bring their dream projects to life. Tabletop is, by a landslide, Kickstarter’s most popular category in the gaming space.

In 2020, successful Kickstarter campaigns for tabletop games and accessories pulled in upward of $233 million—up from $176.3 million in 2019—according to the gaming news site Polygon. It was the category’s biggest year ever. So far in 2021, Kickstarter has launched nearly 4,500 gaming campaigns—more than 2,700 of which were for tabletop games. Of those, more than 60% met or surpassed their funding goals.

Fellow crowdfunding platform Indiegogo also saw significant growth in 2020. “We saw a 177% lift in 2020 tabletop games, from the average of two years prior,” says Enzo Njoo, Indiegogo’s head of outreach.

Tabletop is lit

Anya Combs, director of games outreach at Kickstarter, says one of the key reasons that 2020 was such an explosive year of growth for tabletop gaming was the Covid pandemic, which forced everyone indoors for months on end.

Last year, the global board games market grew by 20% over 2019, according to DW, an international news and media site. The market research firm Arizton Advisory and Intelligence predicted that board games would see a compound annual growth rate spurt of approximately 13% from 2020 to 2026—a surge driven in part by Covid-related lockdowns.

But to chalk up all of tabletop’s recent success to the pandemic would be shortsighted. Tabletop gaming has been enjoying expansion for years. In 2019, Grand View Research estimated that the playing cards and board games market would reach $21.56 billion by 2025.

“Tabletop has been having a moment for a long time,” Combs says. “A lot of it stems from this retro nostalgic aspect, and many point to Stranger Things and the resurgence of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Tabletop provides a level of play that people needed during Covid. There’s something very genuine about sitting with your friends and sharing in a communal way.”

Wisdom of crowds

Kickstarter and Indiegogo are undeniably helping to drive the tabletop market by opening doors for creators to finance and build community around their products, but it’s not just micro publishers taking to the platforms. Big and midsize game publishers are getting in on the action and using the space to launch their projects, as well. In many cases they are barreling past their initial funding goals.

Skybound is a multi-platform entertainment company founded by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman that publishes games and comics affiliated with the Walking Dead, among other Skybound IP. The company turned to Kickstarter in 2019 to launch Trial by Trolly, a party game created in association with the webcomic Cyanide & Happiness published on Explosm.net. Running for 30 days, the campaign for Trial by Trolly reeled in more than 55,000 backers, and a total of over $3.5 million. The initial goal was $69,420.

Garima Sharma, v-p, product and strategy, and head of direct-to-consumer at Skybound, attributes the success of the Trial by Trolly campaign to a few factors, including the loyal community that the Cyanide & Happiness team has cultivated; the fan and community engagement with and gamification of the campaign itself; the campaign’s word-of-mouth marketing and awareness marketing; and the product’s gameplay and ease in learning.

Skybound also saw great success in crowdfunding Valor and Villainy: Lludwick’s Labyrinth, an adventure fantasy game. Starting with a funding goal of $50,000, the campaign drew in more than 5,100 backers and closed after raising over $550,000.

Another fairly recent Kickstarter campaign that blew up was that of the multiplayer tabletop card game The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls by Studio 71, in association with Maestro Media. In 2018, the game reached its initial funding goal of $50,000 within one and a half hours and eventually surpassed $2.6 million.

The Kickstarter campaign for the expanded edition, The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls Requiem, performed even better. Launched in June, the board game’s funding goal of $100,000 was met in under three minutes. Within 90 minutes, the campaign passed the $1 million mark, and ultimately closed with over $6.7 million raised.

“For The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls Requiem, we wanted to go even bigger than we did with the first game, so we added many more backer rewards and incentives, and heavily engaged with fans on social media in fun and often hilarious ways,” says Javon Frazier, founder and CEO of Maestro Media. “We exceeded our goal by 6,620% through a combination of community challenges, social media engagements, and brand affinity.”

Though the primary appeal of Kickstarter is its ability to enable game publishers to raise money for their projects, the marketing power and ability to interact with prospective buyers is arguably an appeal that’s just as strong—if not stronger—for established publishers.

“A Kickstarter campaign is an extension of your marketing—and marketing is really difficult in our digital age, as we’re beholden to a lot of advertising,” Combs says. “Millennials and Gen Z are hip to that and hate advertising. So the ability to skip ads is really key in the digital space.”

In addition to using Kickstarter to break through the noise and reach audiences, publishers leverage the platform to get a feel for how attractive their product will be to potential backers. The more hubbub a tabletop product’s campaign creates (and yes, the more funding it pulls in), the better the odds of seeing that product succeed beyond the Kickstarter expiration date.

From buzz to box store

In some cases, a game can even get scooped up by a big-box retailer as a result of crowdfunding buzz. “Games in big-box stores often started as Kickstarter projects,” Combs notes.

Consumers can now buy The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls at Target, just as they can Renegade Studio’s Scott Pilgrim Miniatures the World, which was created in association with indie comics publisher Oni Press, the publisher of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. Oni has the gaming rights to the IP and launched a Kickstarter campaign for it in 2019.

However, historically, crowdfunding and big-box retailers didn’t exactly go hand in hand. Retailers tended to turn their noses up at games that were launched on Kickstarter and viewed the platform as a threat to their publishing partnerships: crowdfunding campaigns produce a limited number of the product exclusively for donors, initially bypassing retailers. But increasingly retailers are recognizing Kickstarter as a viable launchpad for games that could ultimately serve their bottom lines.

“I think a lot of the early stigma that surrounded Kickstarter from the retailer perspective has faded,” says Steve Ellis, senior v-p of games and operations at Oni. “On the gaming side, early on there was a lot of questioning from our retail partnerships. It was like, ‘Hey, why are you guys doing this? You should just sell these games to us like you always have. Kickstarter feels weird and like an affront to me as a retailer.’ ”

As Kickstarter has blossomed into a gaming fund-raiser, retailers have become keen on getting involved in campaigns and getting dibs on promising products early in their development. “Retailers are more accepting of publishers selling direct-to-consumer in various forms than they used to be,” Ellis says. “I think over the past year everybody needed to make moves to survive. Three or four years ago, when we started, I don’t think we would have done a Kickstarter. But now the market has changed and it’s more acceptable for a publisher to run one for their games.”

Some Kickstarter campaigns now tout retailer pledge offerings. Frosthaven by Isaac Childres, Kickstarter’s most successful tabletop campaign of 2020, let bricks-and-mortar retailers place deposits for access to a separate pledge manager (with reduced prices) that was open past the main campaign’s expiration date. To participate, a retailer had to pledge $30 or more. In all, the campaign garnered nearly $13 million.

Positive feedback loop

One ripple effect from a successful tabletop Kickstarter campaign is that it can raise awareness of a publisher’s related IP, including other games, graphic novels, and comics. Oni, for example, has seen a recent Kickstarter campaign for its Mountain Chamomile Tea Dragon Plush toy (which raked in more than $250,000 after setting an initial goal of a mere $5,000) catalyze interest in other products under the umbrella of comics artist Kay O’Neil’s Tea Dragon Society graphic novel series. Oni publishes both the Tea Society children’s graphic novels and, in association with Renegade Studios, the Tea Dragon Society Board Game.

“The amount of people who bought the plushie with the games or the books was very high,” Ellis says. “Most people were either like, ‘I already own the stuff so I am getting the plushie,’ or, ‘Oh, this is amazing, I’m getting everything.’ That was strong for us. The conversion rate of people who didn’t already know about it were typically all-in on the products.”

That a Tea Dragon Society toy can stimulate interest in Oni’s related games and comics isn’t surprising. The toy works as a kind of merchandising extension of the game, and there is a tight feedback loop between the gaming and comics communities on Kickstarter.

“I think, at their heart, games and comics are all about storytelling and immersing players or readers into fantastical worlds that are exciting,” says Oriana Leckert, Kickstarter director of publishing and comics outreach. “There is a ton of crossover between comics fan and gamer communities on the platform, and that mirrors the IP pipeline of comics to films. Once you have created an exciting and immersive world, why not render it into as many formats as you can?”

Crowded Funding

Indie tabletop publishers that aren’t affiliated with established popular content or working with a generous budget can have a tough time getting attention on Kickstarter—especially when there are mammoth publishers like Marvel in the game.

“If you’re a small publisher, you’re presenting what you have on the same platform as people who have money to have fantastic artwork, gorgeous videos, and market the heck out of their campaigns,” says Jennifer Howlett, cofounder of Oddfish Games. Oddfish has run successful Kickstarter campaigns for eccentric games such as Adventure Scents, for fragrances designed to accompany fantasy games, and for Cooking with Dice, an RPG cookbook. “It can be hard to be seen amid all that noise.”

Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are oversaturated largely because they’re so effective. “Thanks to Kickstarter, the traditional gatekeepers were removed from publishing games, comics, you name it,” Ellis says. “If I am an individual creator and I want to put my product out into the world, there is now a viable platform for me to do so with Kickstarter. This is wonderful, but it also floods the market. Tabletop gaming is exponentially better than it was a decade ago, but at the same time there is a lot more of it.”

Making a game plan

Though publishers of all sizes are raking in money and attention for their tabletop projects on Kickstarter, it’s critical to understand that running a successful crowdfunding campaign isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand; it’s a lot of work.

“It’s essentially a full-time job for at least one person for the duration of the campaign,” Ellis says. “They have to be there 100% of the time to answer questions and deal with any issues that arise. You never know when you’re going to have someone on the campaign that has a big complaint that needs to be addressed, or misinformation you need to correct.”

And a campaign might require more than one person on call, depending on its scope. Sharma estimates that a big Kickstarter campaign can take between five and 10 people to run. “Each person has a different role,” she says. “We’ll have one person for social media, one person for managing the day-to-day page, a couple of people on strategy, a couple of people on marketing, and somebody on operations, customer experience, and community management.”

To be successful on Kickstarter, a publisher must spend months in advance planning and perfecting it pre-launch so it can hit the ground running. “Just putting up images and launching a Kickstarter won’t work if you don’t have a plan with how you’re going to engage on a daily basis and how you’re going to interact with the fans throughout the campaign,” Ellis says. “We spent the better part of six months leading up to the Tea Dragon plushie campaign doing a tremendous amount of research.”

“Typically, we start marketing a Kickstarter 60 to 75 days before launch,” Sharma said. “This includes a series of pre-marketing initiatives, including community engagement, social media reveals, etc. Standard channels overall for Kickstarter marketing include social media, community platforms such as Reddit, press, paid media as well as tabletop-centric websites.”

The usual length of a Kickstarter is 30 days, but Skybound recently saw success with a much shorter Kickstarter. The campaign for Valor and Villainy: Lludwick's Labyrinth, ran for just 17 days, and blew through the roof. “We wanted to experiment with a different format,” Sharma said. “Thirty day Kickstarters are really intensive because you are doing daily reveals—whether it's unlocks or lore or narrative.”

A shorter campaign not only means less work, cumulatively, but wading through less of a lull. “Thirty day campaigns peak at week one and then again at week four, but for the two middle they plateau,” Sharma said. “So really you have two weeks of time in between where there is a dip. We wanted to see if audiences would remain as engaged and we could have a similar experience without really dragging out the campaign. And they did.”

The 17 day campaign worked so well that Skybound is considering a 21 day campaign in the future. “We want to see if engagement defers, but honestly we did not think we lost out on anything with a 17 day campaign,” Sharma said. “In fact the team is not as dead as they usually are after a four-week campaign, and we got pretty good engagement from the community.”

All the ships at sea

A major hurdle that publishers have always had to be aware of are the shipping and fulfillment costs. This issue has been exacerbated during Covid.

“Kickstarter campaigns have always needed to be concerned about shipping/fulfillment costs, and there have been various high profile disasters like the Glory to Rome Kickstarter in 2011 where the publisher famously had to sell their house to pay off shipping debts,” said Gary Kacmarcik, a board game designer. “The difference now is that pretty much every Kickstarter campaign is dealing with problems all at the same time. And they're fighting for space on shipping containers against other industries that have much higher profit margins and can more easily afford the increases.”

Oni is experiencing this shipping and fulfillment hurdle firsthand. “The price of containers has more than tripled in the last 12 months,” Ellis said. “It is Covid-related but also a lot more things are in play than people realize. About the same time as Covid there were big changes in international law for environmental reasons. And that forced a bunch of shipping companies to pull ships out of queue as well and wait on new ships. We had less ships and more demand at the same time.”

Another challenge has been the shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. “So when your thing gets to port it may sit there for weeks,” Ellis said. “Everything has conspired against us. We moved a big portion of our book production company to North America and are happily paying more.”

More to come

Oni Press launched its first Kickstarter this past year because the pandemic took away the in-person engagement that gaming conventions provide and foster. The virtual convention experience just isn’t the same, and that loss of community connection was felt sorely by tabletop publishers and players.

“We were put in a position where we didn't have that same level of direct fan interaction that we're used to seeing at eight-plus shows a year,” Ellis said. “We needed to find a way to bring some of the stuff to our fans, and get the exposure for it that we would usually see at conventions.”

As the world continues to battle the pandemic, tabletop publishers continue to flock to Kickstarter. Golden Lasso’s Hughes is working on her next game, a kids’ tabletop RPG called Magic & Manes, which she will launch on Kickstarter, and Oni is prepping a Kickstarter for the game Birdwatcher, with plans to roll it out this fall. Meanwhile Skybound just wrapped up its outstanding campaign for Valor & Villainy: Lludwik’s Labyrinth and is prepping for a campaign for the sequel to Tidal Blades later in the year.

Kickstarter may have begun surging because of the pandemic, but it’s not going to die down anytime soon. “The gaming community at large almost expects companies to use Kickstarter—or something similar—these days,” says John Power Jr. of Wyrd Science, a quarterly magazine celebrating RPGs (which, by the way, was also successfully launched on Kickstarter). “It’s generally the only—or by a country mile the best—method to get most games to market.”■

Nicole Audrey Spector is a freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.

Correction: Comics artist Kay O’Neil was misnamed as Katie in an earlier version of this story.