Kickstarter is an incredibly powerful tool not just for securing the funds to create a game, but also for marketing the game itself. In this article, I look at the very specific niche of “tabletop puzzle games” and using case studies, go through what works well and what might not be working quite so well.
What is a ‘tabletop puzzle game’, and why am I so fixated on them?
Tabletop puzzle game, play at home escape room, mystery box, puzzle board games… Whatever you want to call them. I’m a Game Designer, and even in our industry we haven’t settled on an exact name for exactly what it is we make. Or an exact genre for that matter. But, in general terms:
Tabletop puzzle games are a specific sub-genre of board games that are typically (but not always) single-play mystery experiences, packed with puzzles to solve. Think “you are trapped in a room and you have 60 minutes to escape”, or “you’ve inherited this mysterious box. You solve the puzzles and complete actions with a singular goal in mind. These games are often collaborative, not competitive, and they’re best played either solo or in a small team.
Some notable examples from Kickstarter include:
- Mysterious Package Company’s Filigree in Shadow that raised CAD $606,530 in 2016.
- Journal 29’s Revelation that raised USD $130,855 in 2018.
- Codex Silenda’s Book of Puzzles that raised USD $210,108 in 2018.
- The Mystery Agency’s three games that raised £96,068 in 2020.
- The Detective Society’s Disappearance of Claire Makova that raised GBP £73,581 in 2020.
Sometimes tabletop puzzle games remain quite niche, popular in the “Puzzle People” communities where 3,000 or so of us share and chat about our favourite new puzzle games. Others break into the mainstream. You might recognise some of the following:
And why is this topic so interesting to me? Well, it goes back to the idea of the communities who play these games. In other words:
“The “Puzzle People” communities where 3,000 or so of us share and chat about our favourite new puzzle games”
The most successful Kickstarter groups capture the attention of these people first. A successful first day means a game is all the more likely to be a Kickstarter “Project We Love”, and thus be shown to thousands, if not millions of new players out there. And it all starts with those Puzzle People. But marketing your game to such a small group comes with it it’s own challenges.
Show Me the Numbers
To support this article, I went through every single English-language Kickstarter funded game in this ‘genre’ I could find, and compiled them in a spreadsheet here. In the time it took me to finish the spreadsheet, I managed to drink three cups of coffee. But hey, I enjoy crunching numbers whilst absolutely buzzed and excited. So here they are:
- I was able to find 80 games in this genre since 2015
- Most were from the USA. A whole 35%.
- The next ‘most’ was the UK, with 25%.
Of course that might just be Kickstarter deliberately showing me British Kickstarters because of where in the world I am, but I was still surprised to see it.
- Canada and the Netherlands were the next most represented countries, with 8 and 7 campaigns respectively.
Which companies are raising the most TOTAL moolah?
Well, to make things fair I converted all currencies into USD. These figures are accurate as of May 2023, but given currencies fluctuate they may not accurately represent what the Kickstarters took home at the time.
At the very top, we see:
- The Shivers, who raised $576,892.00 for their game
- Mysterious Package Company (and their sister company, Curious Correspondence) who raised $501,637.00 on their most recent 2022 game, $446,281.00 in 2016, and $310,792.00 in 2015.
- iDVenture, who consistently raise between $271,494.00 — $394,314.00 on every campaign
- Spectre & Vox, the small British team who raised $308,764.00 in 2020
- And last but not least, PostCurious’s impressive suite of games raising at most, $290,088.00 in 2020.
Which campaigns have the highest number of backers?
The numbers start to look interesting if we instead filter the spreadsheet by number of backers. At the top we see:
- Again, The Shivers at 6,794 people
- Mysterious Package Company drops off the top-10, with one notable exception: Doomensions, which was a collaboration with Curious Correspondence. They had 5,338 backers.
- iDVenture shoots right up to the top with a spooky 3,980 backers across both their campaigns, a year apart.
- PostCurious, with a consistently high number of backers, their highest being 3,734 on Light in the Mist.
Which campaigns have the highest spend per customer?
This is when things get even more interesting. I decided, out of interest, to divide the total raised by number of backers to see how much people are spending on campaigns. Or in a cynical way: Which companies have the richest backers?
- A Killing Affair, a new name, comes in at top with just 86 backers who spent each $257.28 on Blind Faith. This isn’t surprising since the lowest pledge level was $125 and the highest $335.
- Mysterious Package Company is no surprise here, with a very high cost of individual games. Their campaigns see between $238 — $249 per customer spend.
- The Enigma Box is a new name in the top list again, their 2017 campaign saw an average spend of $221.
- Similarly, The Detective Society rears it’s head as the company with the 4th highest spend per customer at $215. This again makes sense, since they were selling whole seasons of games.
- Interestingly, or painfully, the 5th is a Kickstarter campaign called The Boundless Library which was never fulfilled. Backers pledged an average of $200.
How about Player Spend by Year?
- In 2015, I found 1 Kickstarter and it raised $310,792.00 (per backer spend of $240.74)
- In 2016 I found 3 Kickstarters and they raised $590,410 (per backer spend of $139.47)
- In 2017 I found 2 Kickstarters and they raised $422,142 (per backer spend of $207.64)
- In 2018 I found 3 Kickstarters and they raised $38,250 (per backer spend of $24.51)
- In 2019 I found 10 Kickstarters and they raised $389,792 (per backer spend of $51.24)
- In 2020 I found 18 Kickstarters and they raised $2,275,464 (per backer spend of $90.29)
- In 2021 I found 20 Kickstarters and they raised $1,059,446 (per backer spend of $63.03)
- In 2022 I found 19 Kickstarters and they raised $1,589,997 (per backer spend of $83.18)
What the heck happened in 2018? Well, I don’t know, Kickstarter reported record funds, so maybe folks were just spending their money in other categories. It was a uniquely record-breaking hot summer, perhaps folks weren’t spending a lot of time playing board games? I tried looking up significant events in 2018, as well as any major scandals that might have impacted consumer trust in games. Ethiopia signed a big peace deal with Eritrea, which is awesome, but somehow I don’t think it had much of an impact on Kickstarter either.
My conclusion is that 2018 was a record low year for puzzle games simply because: The biggest names in the industry at that time simply didn’t run any campaigns that year. Yes, I’m looking at The Mysterious Package Company (who raised $446,281.00 and $310,792.00 the years before), Escape Room in a Box (who raised $135,429.00 the year before), Simulacra Games (who raised $244,175.00), and Enigma Box (who raised $177,967.00 the year before).
How to market your puzzle game on Kickstarter
Okay, so now we can get to the part of the article you’re really here for:
How?! How do I do it?!
The answer: There is literally no right or wrong answer.
I don’t have the answer. Folks who create campaigns that end up being funded $1m + also don’t have the answer. Following every trick in the books won’t guarantee a successful Kickstarter campaign.
So instead, what we can do is look at what other campaigns did well. I’ll use this article to look at what some of the most successful Kickstarters in the ‘puzzle game’ niche did well, and some pitfalls to avoid.
Make Good Games: A Case Study of, Well, Everyone!
A successful Kickstarter starts months and years before you actually hit ‘Publish’ on your campaign. It starts with making good games. With good games, comes trust.
But wait, I’ve never published a game before!
That’s why I’m going to Kickstarter!
There are other ways designers can build up trust with their audience, so fear not if you’re planning your first game! Why not try:
- Making a short mini-game that backers can try out?
- Publishing mini-puzzles on social media?
- Sending your game to ‘influencers’, and reviewers ahead of the campaign?
Case Study: Detective Society’s Murder on the Moon
The $1 Pledge Mini Game
In their most recent campaign, The Detective Society are seeking backers for Murder on the Moon, a murder mystery puzzle game set in space. Now, The Detective Society have published many games so there’s no doubt they’re good at what they do. But this time they have added something unique to the campaign: a “mini game”, which backers can gain access to for just a $1 pledge.
This mini game is digital only, accessible via an online password protected portal. For backers new to The Detective Society, it means they can try out their puzzles before committing to the full game.
The $1 pledge is similarly very smart. Backing a Kickstarter campaign means receiving their Kickstarter updates. It’s like giving away a $1 ticket to an event where you get to advertise a full priced product over and over (*cough cough* like those cheesy Home Convention Shows I somehow keep applying for free tickets to). The Detective Society have the duration of the whole campaign to convince an individual backer to pledge the full amount for the game.
The Early Bird catches the wriggly worm of Kickstarter success
Since this is probably the most important point to make, I’m doubling down on it from a slightly different angle:
A successful Kickstarter starts months and years before you actually hit ‘Publish’ on your campaign.
By making good games, you naturally build up an audience. Having an audience before you start a Kickstarter campaign is probably the single most important thing you can do for the success of your campaign. So, what do I mean?
- Have a strong social media presence
- Build up an email marketing list
- Attend conventions, meet your customers
- Have good press about your company and games
I won’t go into all the details, for each of those bullet points is it’s own pillar of marketing. Plus, building up a presence won’t be the same between two companies. The company killing it on Tiktok might not be focusing on their emails. The company with 500,000 customers on their mailing list might not have time for a convention, and so on.
So instead, here’s how one puzzle game studio did it:
One of the companies who has historically done very well on that “community” front is Mysterious Package Company. It shows with their latest 2022 Kickstarter campaign, Doomensions. MPC is the kind of company that historically built up a lot of intrigue and FOMO with their customer base — a “join our mysterious society”, before mysterious societies were available, and “we will drop this mysterious box at midnight and there’ll only be 15 available” in a way your local designer t-shirt label probably does today. They also ran a message board called Curios and Conundrums, as well as countless invite-only message boards and Facebook groups that blurred the lines between fiction and reality.
But that’s not all, with Doomensions they collaborated with Curious Correspondence Club who are the organisers of the annual Puzzletember event in September, a free puzzle activity that pulls big audiences. Small, but mighty, Curious Correspondence also had a track record of shipping their own compact envelope games and a dedicated community that probably didn’t have too much overlap with the older, most established, higher spend-per-customer MPC.
It’s a good example of Kickstarter collaboration (more on that later), but more than anything just how building up a community and track record over years and years can help when it counts.
Make Beautiful Games: The 3 Seconds to Make an Impression
Research shows that most people make a first impression of a person within 7 seconds.
Some people say it’s actually 0.1 seconds…
…And in the video game world, the statistic often thrown around is “5 minutes”.
I don’t know if anyone has ever researched how long someone spends on your Kickstarter campaign page. If they have, I couldn’t find the numbers. But lets assume it’s a really short amount of time.
So how can you make an impact?
- Use the Title and Subtitle to explain what the game is, and what is unique about it.
- Use striking visuals and short and snappy headers to take users on a visual journey through your campaign. Who are you? What is your game? Why should they back?
- Show, don’t tell. Include as many eye-catching images as you can — photographs, animated GIFs, illustrations.
But none of these are particularly new or ground breaking ideas, so let’s look at some case studies from the puzzle world:
Pretty Game vs Pretty Campaign
Case Study: PostCurious’ Light in the Mist
Or as you might know it, the prettiest game on the market. Like, ever.
Light in the Mist was a collaboration between PostCurious and illustrator Jack Fallows. Looking at their campaign, it seems like they knew their strength: The physical game itself was incredibly, incredibly pretty. Therefore, the Kickstarter campaign focuses on photographs of the game first. From hand-drawn tarot cards, gorgeous box poster, and add-on prints I’m quietly seething I didn’t pledge for at the time.
Both creators are well known for creating really high quality and beautiful games. But when they came together and made a Kickstarter for Light in the Mist? It was just pure…
Case Study: The Shivers
Or as you might know it, the prettiest looking campaign ever.
On the other hand, we have the most successful game in the genre: The Shivers. Can I just print out this campaign page and frame it? The Shivers put a lot of time and effort into making their campaign page absolutely gorgeous. From high quality animated GIFs showing the game, to eye-catching illustrations. It’s a very image-heavy campaign, but it paid off.
The TLDR; If you want to make a good first impression with your puzzle game, do like PostCurious or The Shivers and put the most visually appealing thing about your game on a pedestal.
The Power of Puzzle People
Now is a good time to bring it back to the very first thing I said in this whole article: The puzzle game community. The English speaking puzzle game community is around 3,000–5,000 people strong. They hang out in Facebook Groups, Discord Channels, Reddit, on social media and at in-person events (don’t believe me? Try Puzzled Pint!)
If you’re launching a Kickstarter campaign for a puzzle game, your campaign will live or die by how well you engage the puzzle community.
Kickstarter campaigns that do well are often:
- Are from creators who are active, helpful and kind in the Puzzle Community. In fact, I think almost every campaign I’ve ever backed was because the creator made a personal effort.
- Sending out previews of the game to reviewers, ‘influencers’, and other game designers in the industry.
- Actively nurturing their own community, whatever that looks like. Do you have an ARG? Why not try setting up your own Discord channel or message board about the game.
Case Study: Lost in the Shuffle
From an Unknown Designer to Successful Campaign
Lost in the Shuffle is a really lovely case study and card game that launched on Kickstarter in 2022. It’s a very deceptively simple game. It’s quite literally just a deck of cards. Objectively (and no shade here) there’s nothing particularly eye catching about the visuals either — handwritten text, black and white illustrations, and a sketchy pencil-like quality. It was also by a solo game developer, Spencer is Puzzling who was relatively unknown in the industry.
And yet, Lost in the Shuffle was funded with over 480 backers.
So what did they do right? Well, besides making a game that was really good, they did a few things in the community really right:
- They sent out copies of the game ahead of time to a number of reviewers and ‘influencers’ in the puzzle game niche.
- They were active in the puzzle communities, kind and thoughtful about their responses to threads.
- They appeared on talk shows, podcasts, and the like.
It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this *hands you a collaboration*
The puzzle game niche is small, and we all know each other. But that doesn’t mean that bringing other creators can’t add something new to your campaign.
Game design skill, illustration skill, marketing skill… No one person is perfect, and no one person can do it all…
… So there’s always something to add by inviting a collaborator into the fold. A number of Kickstarter campaigns have been very successful in their collaboration, such as:
- Doomensions, a collaboration between Mysterious Package Company and Curious Correspondence
- Light in the Mist, a collaboration between PostCurious and Jack Fallows
- The Medusa Report, a collaboration between Diorama and Sherlocked
I myself will be collaborating on a puzzle experience later in the year with Enigmailed.
THAT SAID: Just be careful out there when you do collaborate — protect yourselves, protect your heart, and protect your intellectual property! Make sure the person or business you’re collaborating with is able to fully commit, is someone you trust, and has a track record of successful delivery of projects.
Paid Ads, and All That Jazz
Not being intimately acquainted every puzzle game’s budget and ad spend, I can’t give any case studies for this — but I will say as a marketer myself, one of the important things you should also consider is Paid Ad Spend. This is the part of your campaign where you cast your net wider than the Puzzle People group and try to attract folks with overlapping interested.
Here are a few tips:
- Define your target audience, specifically the demographics and behaviours of the people you think will be interested in your campaign
- Utilise the video and visual content you’re creating for your campaign and repurpose it for any advert campaign.
- Retarget interested users. If anyone has interacted with your website or brand in another meaningful way, now’s the time to reach back out to them with ads.
Other, outside of the box things you might want to try
Kickstarter is all about experimenting. Especially in the puzzle game niche. What works for [big popular company] or [indie solo developer] might not work for you, so you should try and forge your own path. Figure out what makes you and your game unique, and lean into that.
Create a Series of Puzzles to Support the Campaign
Puzzles that link into your campaign can be used on social media to advertise the game, or just as a way of keeping folks engaged and interested in your campaign. Doomensions did this well.
Offer Limited Edition Content
Remember when I said I was kicking myself for not adding a print onto my Light in the Mist order? You can be absolutely sure I’m getting all the “limited edition” add-ons for the projects I back today.
Offer Retail Copies of your Game
Don’t forget to include a pledge for retailers interested in stocking your game.
Last but not least: When to launch your campaign?
In the puzzle game niche, it’s more important not to launch at a particular time of year, but to be mindful not to launch at the same time as another campaign. We’re a small but mighty group, and the last thing you want to do is ‘compete’ for the attention of the same 3,000–5,000 people.
Yes, the community is collaborative, but at the end of the day your backers don’t have unlimited money. I myself can commit to backing a new puzzle game a month. But two a month? Three a month? I’ll have to be more careful with my pledge. Making your players choose between your fantastic game and the next team’s fantastic game is no good for your business, or for your audience.
If you have launched your campaign at the same time as someone else, take a leaf out of Diorama and The Detective Society’s group and see if there’s a way you can work together and make a fun spin on it!
Mairi, what the heck?! You wrote so many words! I’m not reading all that.
Okay, okay, okay I got carried away. It’s all that coffee I drank, remember? Here’s the short version, with animated GIFs:
Make sure the game you’re Kickstarting is good. Enough said.
Prove to people you can make a really good game. Previously published games? Great! Nothing previously published? Send this game to reviewers, press, and influencers.
Start early, and build up your community. Your game will live or die by how well you’re able to mobilise your community — so don’t leave it up to chance!
Make really, really pretty games. It’s worth investing in graphics or illustrators.
Engage the Puzzle Community! Make a mini game, or share mini puzzles. This one is a bonus because you can also show off how fun your puzzles are.
Collaboration can be good. But also make sure you protect yourself!
Paid Ads = Good. They get your game in front of new, non-puzzle people.
Don’t launch your game at the same time as another game. It’s not ‘competition’, it’s just logistics. Puzzle people are a small group, don’t make them choose.
Thanks for Reading!
All that’s left to do is to go out there and make good games and launch them on Kickstarter.
Oh and, don’t forget to tell me about the games you launch. Mainly because I want to support your cool puzzle project and shower your campaign with love and attention!