Design for FOMO

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been listening to Alex Blumberg’s StartUp podcast lately. It’s really outstanding. He was one of the main guys behind This American Life and Planet Money. Really, he’s a masterful audio storyteller. So far, his episodes are primarily centered around finding a partner, as well as investors to fund his new business. He needs to convince people to believe in him with a lot of money: $1.5 million to be exact.

In one episode, he notes that a key to receiving funding is to convince potential investors of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. As in, if they don’t invest, right here, right now, they’ll miss out on this incredible thing. They’ll regret it forever. For example, one of the investors, who is a billionaire from Twitter, has FOMO from missing out on Air BNB, which is now a massive success.

I think our hobby has something special about it, oddly enough, that really allows for more FOMO. That special thing is our limited print runs. I know that I pre-order some titles because I’m concerned I won’t be able to get them for quite some time, if ever, if I don’t do so. This is especially true for expansions, such as Summoner Wars decks. With video games or books or TV, the data is floating in the cloud. You’ll never not be able to get it. Hell! They’re re-releasing games from my childhood now.

But, a board game may never come back. This is why I was willing to pay $150 for a copy of the Memoir ’44 Air Pack Expansion. It felt like a safe investment.

Board games, as a physical good, that must be expensively produced, warehoused, and shipped, are less perennial. The margins are low and capital is limited, even for successful publishers. Dungeon Run, Plaid Hat Games’ second release, sold out of its 5000 copy print run. Yet, Colby wasn’t sure whether it was a good investment to immediately do another printing. That game has been out of print for years now. And it was successful!

How then, can we ethically and responsibly create FOMO for our games? This is something very key to me and Josh’s plans for some of our upcoming designs. Therefore, I want to discuss it more broadly. Yes, I realize comparing board games to the FOMO of tech start-ups is a bit hyperbolic, but I like the concept and think it’s a fun thought exercise.

The Mystery Box

Publishers like Asmadi Games and AEG have limited mystery boxes. You can see Asmadi’s right here. What’s in the box? Hopefully not a head. It’s fun! Get it. See.

Cards Against Humanity did this brilliantly last Christmas with their 12 Days of Christmas special. For $12, customers received 12 gifts, one each day, none of which we knew about. It was really cool and an incredibly fun experience for me.

I think the mystery box is brilliant for a few key reasons:

  • Receiving stuff in the mail is fun. It’s less common these days and that makes it special.
  • Getting a deal is fun. $77 for $150 worth of games (the Asmadi deal)? Shipped? I can’t resist such a good deal.
  • Not knowing is fun. If you think about it, this is why people love serial TV series. As much as we hate it, we also love waiting for next season’s premier.
  • It being limited is fun. Plus, the fact that I get to do the unboxing and share it with others? Well, that’s a nice bonus in an age of “look at me” social engagement.


Kickstarter is FOMO wrapped in a fatty piece of bacon. The entire site is based around FOMO. Let’stick these off, and frankly, many of these should be obvious by now.

  • There is an actual countdown clock.
  • There is a sense of obligation. If YOU don’t back it, IT might not happen.
  • The need to belong is present. There are many others who thought this was a good idea. You don’t want to not be in the group, right?
  • You get your game first. I think this is not the most enticing treat, but it’s important for some people. And, it has led to controversy when violated.
  • The ecosystem has evolved to be Fomolicious.

Let’s discuss this last one a bit. Over time, the Kickstarter ecosystem for board games, specifically, has evolved to mean:

  • Free domestic shipping and discounted international shipping. That’s a deal.
  • Discounted price. That’s a deal.
  • Additional content included that’ll be sold separately. That’s a deal.
  • Early bird pricing. That’s a LIMITED deal. But, a controversial one.
  • Content or goodies exclusive to your KS backers. Also, quite controversial.

The exclusives has many side effects, some of which are anecdotal, so it’s difficult to gauge how problematic or good they are. I’ve read that some retailers (and consumers) are concerned about getting the full product if they didn’t back via Kickstarter. Then again, I’ve heard some backers exclaim they desire an incentive for buying early. This article isn’t about debating the merits of Kickstarter tactics, but bringing them up as a potentially good (or bad) example of FOMO.

The Preorder

This is similar to Kickstarter, but worth bringing up individually as it doesn’t come with Kickstarter’s expected ecosystem. The Preorder, as employed by folks like Plaid Hat Games, Stronghold Games, Portal Games, and GMT (with their P500) includes bonuses such as:

  • Discounted price
  • Receive the game first (again, wobbly in value for me, but hey!)
  • Variable goodies, such as Promo cards, signed copies, doodles of cows, and assorted items from the marketing closet

Something special about both the Preorder and Kickstarter is that you get a more personal connection with the creators. You’re emailing your favorite publisher directly instead of buying it from the store or Amazon. That can’t be discounted. Personal bonds are a great bonus of our industry. Leverage them! Every interaction with your customer is an opportunity to excite and please them.

The Art Project

The indie label is tossed around a bit liberally in board games. Board games are such a small business that a lot of big players, like Stronghold, or Rio Grande, and TONS of Kickstarter publishers have 1 or 2 employees who also have day jobs. But, for the sake of this, let’s use indie to mean passion projects that are done to be done. Almost like art and design for the sake of it.

We live in a great time for such projects. The Game Crafter provides tons of excellent print-on-demand products, including printed boxes, plastic standees, and a variety of cardboard shapes now. Print and Play Games features many of the same options, but is also intensely flexible. If you want a custom shape? Andrew can make it. Finally, Drive Thru Cards offers very high quality cards on a per card basis, and Printer Studio offers lovely, professional grade linen cards (at a higher cost, naturally).

When I think of art project, I think of Cave Evil. It’s so metal it hurts. It smashes its battle ax over the phrase “mass market” and just doesn’t care. If you like it? Rock on. If you don’t? Cave Evil will tell you where to shove it.

Cave Evil’s appeal comes from a variety of things. It has that Brooklyn Artisanal pickle vibe about it. I mean, shouldn’t such a thing exist? It seems hand crafted. It’s a labor of love. It had a tiny printing in 2011, saw a “final” reprint in 2013 of not too many more copies. That makes it rare and something that belongs in some collections merely to say “dude, look at this one.”

The Small Print Run

I don’t know how often this is a deliberate tactic, or simply a matter of viability, but some publishers consistently use small print runs, which I think aids them in some cases.

As opposed to a few years prior, Z-Man seems to produce far fewer titles each year, and in smaller print runs. Terra Mystica sold out very quickly, even at its high price, and due to the law of economics, surely increased demand.

Small Box Games has also been doing very small print runs for 7 years now. They could have upgraded to large print runs leveraging lower cost facilities in China by now. But, they haven’t. In a way, I’d say there’s an appeal to their products. They feel humble, reasonable, and have that local vibe that so many other businesses pride themselves on.

The Version

There aren’t too many examples of this, but the one in mind did so well it’s difficult not to mention. I’m speaking of Pairs from Cheapass Games. Do you love Pirates? There’s a deck for you. No wait. You look like a Goblin kinda girl. No no no no no. You want something with that John Kovalic vibe. Here, this is for you.

Abyss from Asmodee has multiple covers, which is somewhat similar, but not quite the same.

There’s something intoxicating about getting a version that is somehow special to you. I think Pairs hit on something brilliantly.

 Summarizing the FOMO

There are a few standout elements to creating a good sense of fear of missing out in our customers. One, and most importantly, is surprise. How can we surprise and delight our customers? Sending a variety of packages through the mail isn’t exactly cost efficient, but I think we can surprise in many ways.

  • Send personalized greetings to our customers. Recognize them for enjoying your products, and remind them that you care. We can do this on BGG, Twitter, our Vlogs, and Newsletters.
  • Provide discounts and sales to your loyal customers. Start with your mailing list.
  • Plan ahead. Print a handful of promo cards with the main game. At holidays like Christmas, or big events like Essen, mail your pre-order customers, or some slew of fans, the promo cards. A stamp doesn’t cost much and it’s a really fun way to get people excited about the game again.

I think we create FOMO with our brand and our personal image. Through consistency and quality people will begin saying “well, I can’t not buy that game.” This takes years, but the payoff is incredible. Really, you want to be the nicest guy or gal around, with good games, great customer service, and a big smile at every opportunity. People should be sad they weren’t there to support you.

Novelty creates FOMO. We work in a niche industry and I think sometimes we forget that. This is especially true for those of us who do this as a side hobby or business and not a bill paying activity. Even if we do create the next Wits and Wagers or Ticket to Ride, it is unlikely we’ll gain the awareness to capitalize on it. Even if we do create a game that by all means could sell 10,000 copies, we’ll probably be lucky to sell 1,000. Therefore, I argue novelty is not an excuse, but a marker to work towards.

I think the Japanese game fair (or whatever it’s called, apologies) embodies this. As a result, we have Love Letter and the micro-game wave.  You see this quite often in indie PC game development. There are some truly weird, bizarre, and incredible games on Steam and your browser.

Customization is intoxicating and I think we need to find more ways to emulate the Pairs experience. The challenge is to do this in a cost effective manner, obviously. But, providing options and flavors for people to choose really ups the ante.

Finally, and most simply, FOMO requires a sense of urgency and a great deal. Present something with a limited time on it, or a limited opportunity, and people may notice.

Surprise. Quality. Novelty. Customization. Urgency.

How do you think we can create FOMO?

7 thoughts on “Design for FOMO

  1. There’s also Martin Wallace’s Game Subscription experiment. People are buying into it FOMO on specific games, and therefore shelling out for other a subscription that includes other games of his that they may not have otherwise bought.

  2. The art print world not only limits edition, but serializes copie. Simple serialization could be powerful.

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  4. “The ecosystem has evolved to be Fomolicious.” Love this.

    Perhaps another example is custom painting your own figures (Warhammer etc.) in terms of customization?
    What if there was somehow an opportunity that backers/customers could customize their version of the game if they bought the (limited) deluxe custom version! I’m thinking some form of web art which they can interact with that then gets printed and sent to them? Maybe this is not viable logistically…

    • I think different paint jobs on miniatures would be fantastic. What if there were 3 versions of the X-Wing pack from Fantasy Flight. Identical gameplay, but 3 different paint jobs? I’d buy all three.

      As for the other, that might be difficult from a logistics standpoint. That’s the trouble with the print medium. Everything has to be made, stored, shipped.

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