Tuesday, April 23, 2019

STAR EAGLES: Reflections on Kickstarter Project Expectations

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When Kickstarter launched a decade ago, on April 28th, 2009, it helped to create a new kind of business model that allowed businesses and individuals to raise capital for projects in a new way. No longer did creators have to rely on loans, credit cards, and families when attempting to fulfill their dreams of being a toy maker, an inventor, a novelist, a game designer, or a host of other dream jobs. Instead, they could market their ideas to the "crowd" in the hopes that enough people would be interested in the project that they would contribute money to the creator. People could microfund or contribute large sums and support creators in their projects.

Kickstarter is now a vital revenue stream for small and medium scale creators to launch businesses or business projects, but the supporters have evolved as the platform has evolved and not always for the best. Because of the quality and success of a number of excellent Kickstarter projects, the games of Monte Cook Games starting with Numenera or the Battletech video game come quickly to mind, some people have come to believe that all projects should be as professional as these and that backing a project is more like being a pre-ordering customer than being a dream fulfilling patron. To be fair, there are huge projects like Critical Role's recent animated series project that make the patronage component very clear, but as much as I love Cool Mini or Not their highly professional projects have muddied that water somewhat.

None of this is to say that Kickstarter is "only for the small." Indeed, the platform was designed for projects of all sizes and scopes. It was meant to be used by businesses big and small as a means to fund projects that might not otherwise be funded.

And that gets to the crux of the platform. It's for projects big and small that might not otherwise be possible. It is a project enabling platform and not a pre-order system. A perfect example of the kind of small project that Kickstarter was created to enable is the Star Eagles project by Ganesha Games

Star Eagles is a science fiction action game of futuristic space fighter combat using highly detailed 1/285 scale miniature spaceships

Ganesha Games is the kind of one man shop game company that could not have existed before the internet made international communication fast and easy, changes in global banking allowed for the instant sale of international products possible, and batch print on demand services enabled the cheap printing and shipping of rulebooks. The company is currently based out of a flat in Italy and is run by the one man game designing machine Andrea Sfiligoi. They haven't hit the big time, but they make excellent game mechanics and their designs have an excellent reputation. Andrea's Song of Blades and Heroes has inspired an entire community of spinoffs and even resulted in a couple of rule books using the basic mechanics published by Osprey Publishing, a major publisher in the wargaming community.

Andrea managed to build his successful business for years without a Kickstarter, but eventually ran a project called Star Eagles in May of 2017. My guess, I haven't asked him, is that Andrea saw that there was an opportunity to grow his small company into a medium sized company and if this is the case the Star Eagles seemed a good candidate. Star Eagles is a 1/285th scale game of tactical star ship battles that uses a version of the Song of Blades and Heroes system modified by Damon Richardson to be a perfect fit for tactical space battles. The project sought a modest budget of $16,000 with which Andrea would publish a paperback version of the rulebook, tactical movement templates, condition markers, and both resin and metal miniature space ships for use with the game. It was pretty ambitious and it's clear from the marketing material that Andrea had plans for the project should it succeed at a much higher level than initially asked. For example, you can see the proposed game box Andrea hoped to manufacture if the project managed to benefit from economies of scale.

Star Eagles Game Box Concept
Good news for backers was that the project received enough funding to be fulfilled as promised, but the bad news for backers was that it didn't succeed at a level high enough for Ganesha Games to benefit from economies of scale and transform the company from a small to a medium sized gaming company. The project received $26,688 in pledges from 330 backers, of which about 10% would have to go to Kickstarter corporation and whomever processed the payments. That left Andrea with about $24,000 to manufacture the project, but there were some additional complications. First the 330 backers were divided into 11 categories and each of the categories were promised different packages of material ranging from only the pdf of the rules to full sets of minis, templates, dice, etc. All of this from a one man shop with no ability to benefit from economies of scale.

So...how did they do?

There have been some backers who have complained, but from my perspective I think they did an exceptional job. Given that the scale of the project pretty much meant that some of the items, the resin minis, effectively had to be molded by hand, I am really impressed. I imagine the molds were based on 3D printed models based on Damon's computer designs, but the molds likely had to be hand pressed by the production company. Let me walk you through my package, which was the "Two Squadron Starter Package."

Let's start with the quality of shipping. The fulfillment company was Alternative Armies in Scotland and as you can see, the box had a bit of a rough trip.

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Rough as that box looks, it's actually one of the better looking boxes I've had shipped from the U.K. Some day I'll discuss just how brutal GamesQuest shipments have been for my merchandise. Regardless, it's not the exterior that matters, it's whether what was inside survived intact and Alternative Armies wrapped the items up securely.

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Layer upon layer of bubble wrap protected the items inside and they were a sight to behold.

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From my initial glance, it looked like everything was in the package and a later inventory showed that everything was there. While there were some small issues with the "color" of the resin casts, they were fully able to be assembled and had nice detail that will look very good when painted. Of course, "when painted" is a loaded term for miniature gamers as that might be never.

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The shot below gives a good sense of what the ships will look like when assembled.

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And a wide variety of ships were provided to allow for a good gaming experience.

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Close up, you can see some nice details and you can see how some thought went into making assembly easy for hobbyists.

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As nice as the resin figures where, it was with the metal figures that the set really showed its quality. These casts were fully complete and didn't require any assembly.

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They also featured some pretty cool designs. 

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If I did have one small complaint, it would be that the bases were of the same resin as the miniatures rather than the clear plastic shown in the initial Kickstarter. It's not a deal breaker, and these will look good painted, but they would have had more utility as clear plastic. That aside, the ability to set the dice in the bases is a nice modification.

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The cards were of good cardstock and had good illustrations of the ships and all of the statistics you need for play.

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 A real strong point was in the templates. It's likely that these were done by Litko Plastics, since Ganesha has some templates available from that supplier, and they always do good work. Many of these templates work for all Song of Blades and Heroes based games.

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The turning template is really well designed and intuitive.

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 Overall, I think that this is an excellent project from a small company. I wish they had been more successful as I would have liked to see what they could have done benefiting from economies of scale, but this is a yeoman's effort and is exactly what Kickstarter was designed to allow.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons with 11 Year Olds is a Great Way to Spend Spring Break

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A couple of weeks ago, my daughters History and Mystery asked me if I would be willing to run a D&D adventure for them and their friends as part of a Spring Break sleepover party. My response was as excited as it was swift. After dancing a quick "I win at life!" jig, I told them that I would be more than happy to run an adventure for them and their friends. My daughters and I have been playing My Little Pony: Tails of Equestria - The Storytelling Game for a little over a year, so they have a good amount of role playing game experience. As excited as I was at the prospect of running a D&D game, I wanted to make sure that the event was perfect and that it spread the love of D&D to a whole new generation. This meant that I had to approach the event with a plan, not just any plan, a master plan, ...mwa..ha...HA!!!

The first thing I did was ask James, one of my regular gaming group, if he would be willing to play in a D&D session with me and my daughters a week before the sleepover. I would have asked the entire gaming group, but our schedules are extremely difficult to juggle and we are lucky if we can get together once a month. James has one of the more flexible schedules and he not only agreed, he was as excited as I was. I knew James would be a good player mentor to bring over as he and I met when I was running 4th Edition D&D Encounters at a local game store with a group that included young teens. He's helpful without being condescending and is always "all in" to making sure others have a good time. That session was a great success and the girl's experience with My Little Pony meant that they didn't really need mentoring at all. The only real challenge was character creation. We built the characters using D&D Beyond and I began to see the first hints of what it's like to play D&D in a "post-Appendix N" world. While my daughters love to read, they haven't read a lot of what's in Appendix N or even much derivative of it. The closest they have is Adventure Time, How to Train Your Dragon, My Little Pony's D&D episode, and Norse Myths. Those go a long way, but they don't go all the way. Explaining the Paladin class as "what Finn is" works fine, but explaining what a Bard is or the nuanced differences between Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard took some time. Time well spent though as their friends had even less connection to Appendix N literature and derivatives, and zero exposure to Tolkienesque archetypes.

Having turned my daughters into the player mentors for their own gaming group, the time came to choose the adventure I'd be running. While I am happy to wing it with my own group, though we do post wing it book keeping to maintain world consistency, I wanted to have something with a solid structure that could be run in a short time. I did what any reasonable person would do and asked my friends on the Book of Faces for their advice on what adventure to run. I was quickly met with a number of responses regarding HOW I should run an adventure for young gamers. An answer to a question I didn't ask, and answers that didn't really provide anything I didn't know. Much of it was very good advice, but it wasn't advice that a 20+ year gaming veteran who has run games for tweens at game stores in the past needed. I needed advice on an adventure that could be run in four hours. I received some good recommendations, but they either came too late or were for Pathfinder. In the end, I looked through my own gaming collection to see what I could run and settled on the first Dungeon in a Box adventure: Caravan of Peril. This was an ideal choice.

David Crennan, aka "America's GM," designed the Dungeon in a Box product to fill the exact niche I was looking for and I've been a fan of his from the Saving Throw Show for quite some time. The great thing about Dungeon in a Box products is that they come with almost everything you need to run a vibrant and immersive adventure, right out of the box. All you need are the D&D rules. His box includes all the character miniatures you need, battle maps, a flexible short adventure, and some great replay value due to some evergreen content in every book. In this case, there are three pieces of evergreen content: a random caravan generator that allows you to populate any caravan with interesting characters, a random events table that is very flexible and much more in depth than a wandering monster chart, and a new type of magic item that adds depth to a campaign without breaking the game system. Below is a picture of the contents of Caravan of Peril, along with additional minis representing the player characters.

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As you can see above, Crennen has provided a battlemap showing the caravan resting for the evening. In addition to the caravan on the map, he also provided a play tile of an additional wagon. This additional wagon becomes important in game play as the adventure continues. There are a number of transparent standee miniatures that have fun illustrations on them and that cover all of the creatures you need for the adventure, except for spiders. Thankfully, Trash Mob Minis has some excellent spiders that are perfect for younger gamers. You need spiders. Finally, there is a world map that hints at the larger setting of the Greenwold. It's a fantastic product and I cannot recommend it enough.

Having selected the adventure I was going to run, the next step was to to my Dungeon Master prep. I carefully put together my DM adventure worksheet, a sample of which you can see below.

The images on the worksheet are from the Trash Mob Mini set listed above and the stats are from the Roll20 SRD Compendium. I find that having sheets with the stat blocks of creatures and space to track damage to monsters is very helpful when running a D&D game. No need to pause and look things up and no need to flip though rule books. With the ability to cut and paste, this is only about 20 to 40 minutes of prep time for this adventure. The harder part was naming all the non-player characters that the kids might ignore. If you look at my worksheet, you'll see that I came up with twelve NPC names and jobs. I was able to use the caravan generator to assign the jobs, but other than the first two names the other names are all mine. I was particularly fond of Harald Pickleshipper, but the players never chatted with him. Having prepped as much as I could, all that remained was the session.

As with the the twins' earlier session, we began with character creation. Let's just say that everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to be a wizard as their first choice. After some discussion of how the different classes complemented each other, we were finally able to get a relatively balanced party. One of the kids even agreed to be a Cleric. The final party was as follows: Claudia the Aasimar Paladin, Emmy the Aasimar Cleric of the God of Magic, Fluffkins the Elf Wizard, Gwynneth the Changeling Wizard who changes the color of her hair every hour, Nummy the Golden Dragonborn Barbarian, and Skybolt the Copper Dragonborn. Character creation took over an hour and most of that time was spent describing the various classes. Everyone knew what a wizard was, but the audience was very unfamiliar with most traditional fantasy classes. They may play Minecraft and Portal Knights, but they don't think about it the same way a D&D player does. It was interesting describing D&D classes in Portal Knights terms instead of the other way around. I helped the kids pick minis for their characters, and the majority of the minis were selected from the excellent Wardlings series by Wizkids games. Every player wanted a pet, and every wizard wanted a familiar, this worked out perfectly. Since pets in games like Portal Knights have little to no "game" effects, the kids weren't disappointed that only wizards could scout ahead using their pets. After assuring one of the players that she wouldn't be facing Demogorgon today (she HAD seen Stranger Things), the group of six young girls was ready for their first D&D campaign to begin.

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The girls role played well during the early role play heavy encounters and seemed to enjoy my various character voices. When I gave one my best "Artful Dodger" voice (which I am certain would horrify my British friends), the girls really engaged with that character. Sadly, that was Ulmeer Tweetweaver and not Harald Pickleshipper. Some of the girls were reticent to "act" and others weren't, but all had a fun time during these scenes as I exhausted myself to make sure that everyone was included in the scenes. I didn't want any one player to dominate time and energy, which is something that can naturally happen even with experienced gamers. Over the course of the journey, the players had a couple of skirmishes and managed to tame an Owlbear, who was quickly given the name Albert the Owlbear. I found this really funny as that's what most Owlbears are called in my regular group too. It was nice to see intergenerational humor, even without shared Appendix N or Monte Python references. I will also add that the flat minis, or minis in general, were invaluable here in showing the players what the monsters look like.

After a few hours, and a few smaller fights, the time came for the first half of the big showdown. Dun, dun, DUNNNNN. In this scene, a goblin tribe sends wolves to harry the camp as they attempt to use a tamed Ogre to haul away and steal one of the caravan's wagons. An exciting fight ensued where the players succeeded in part due to their taming of Albert the Owlbear.

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Having finished the first half of the big boss fight, the second half comes after the players track where this raiding party originated, I looked at my watch to see that it was past eleven at night. I knew the girls would want to have some time to themselves at the sleepover, so I ended the session there with the hope that they would all want to play again in the future.

It was a great time and one from which I learned many lessons, as I always do when gaming with new groups. The biggest challenge this time was conveying a sense of a traditional fantasy adventure when the group didn't have much experience with the genre. For example, I was surprised that my daughters were the only ones who had seen The Dragon Prince or Trollhunters on Netflix. Given that things like Adventure Time are as much a deconstruction of the archetypes of the genre as they are depictions of those archetypes, they only serve a certain level of utility in bridging the gap. All of the kids are still pretty confused regarding why Bards are a thing. And no, I didn't mock Bards. Looks like it's time to pull out some Celtic mythology off the shelves for bed time stories and to point out the places in the Norse Tales where skalds play a role.

Can't wait for the next session.