2016 Hyperbole Games Annual Report

I look forward to my annual reports, because I enjoy the requirement for reflection, being transparent, and just “talking shop” with those who care about my work in the board game space. I must admit this year’s post is a little bittersweet, though cathartic at the same time.

Running a business is difficult, especially a new business. You’re required to learn new things constantly, spend money wisely, and place your limited bets well. You also need to hope people care and come along to support you. A little luck, or perfect timing, also help. To make the sports metaphor, I think 2016 was a rebuilding year. To use the business metaphor, 2016 was the second year of a business that is statistically guaranteed to fail.

I worked harder in 2016 as a publisher and designer than ever before. It consumed me and I poured myself into it entirely. This is the short list of what occurred in 2016, with detailed analysis and commentary to follow.

Conventions

Geekway to the West, Conquest SAC, Dundracon, KublaCon, another whose name I misplaced, San Jose Protospiel, 2 Local Designer Sundays with Games of Berkeley, a game day at Sony, assorted store visits for Cry Havoc demos, GenCon (working the Portal Booth), a few visits to a local stores game night, and a trade only convention in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That doesn’t seem like much, but it’s at least 11+ full weekends devoted to conventions, and several plane flights.

Design Work

  • Finalized balance, rules, and copyediting for Cry Havoc in conjunction with Portal Games.
  • Work on Cry Havoc Aftermath content.
  • Finalized development, rules, and copyediting for Farmageddon: Farm Fresh Edition.
  • Over 100 tests of Solstice, including a bit of blind testing,
  • About 120 tests of Druids, including a bit of blind testing.
  • Another overhaul of Sol Rising to pitch.
  • Concept, prototype, and early testing for Drop. This design is currently on hold. It’s cool, but I want to be able to devote focus to it.
  • About 30 tests of Gaia, including deep blind testing, with extensive balance and development. This design is currently on hold. It’s good, but I set it aside to focus.
  • A few tests of Stumptown, which I decided to cease work on.
  • A few variants of Hocus, which I decided to cease work on.
  • Initial development on Livestocked and Loaded.
  • Lots of brainstorms, ideas, note taking on things I think are legitimately cool and worth pursuing. These include: A Legacy design and a game with Josh that mixes classic Kriegspiel with a Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective style AI/puzzle book.

Publisher Work

  • Farmageddon Farm Fresh Edition Printed. Oversaw the full manufacturing process, new illustrations, new graphic design.
  • Hocus 2nd Printing Printed
  • Designed and launched a new HyperboleGames.com
  • Obtained additional signage/swag to have a proper convention booth
  • Farmageddon pre-order campaign and fulfillment
  • Druids Kickstarter campaign and (soon) fulfillment
  • Customer service, including email and forum rules questions, writing strategy guides, providing variants, discussing balance, emailing replacement parts, and promo cards to retailers and customers.
  • GenCon sale for Hocus through my site.
  • Fulfilling direct sales for orders through my site.
  • Sending large shipments to my distributor’s warehouse in Indiana.

This feels like a lot to me, but maybe it isn’t. Doing a rough calculation of hours using averages, the time spent testing Druids and Solstice alone is about 70 hours. That doesn’t include rules update time, graphic design time, cutting prototypes, and more. This is in addition to a full time job (and 2 hours of commute daily), and, you know, trying to be a semi-decent husband. It’s a lot of time, which is why I don’t really play video games, I don’t watch a ton of TV, and I try to use my time driving and walking and exercising to think about design, learn from podcasts, and be productive.

Victories for 2016

There are a few things of which I’m proud of in 2016.

We sold through our initial printing of Hocus, which was about 3600 copies. Our distribution partner notes that most of the games he covers (80-90%) die after about 3 months, so Hocus surpassing that is very satisfying. Hocus is a niche game that suffers from the stigma of many classic and trick taking card games, in that it isn’t flashy. Being a nobody publisher with very little retailer reputation doesn’t help. That 3600 copies represents our KS, pre-order, and early customers playing it, liking it, and telling friends. That means a lot.

I’m incredibly pleased with the final result for Farmageddon Farm Fresh Edition. When I started working on it, I knew some things I wanted to fix, or improve, but I didn’t know how deep into the effort I would get. What initially began as a “touch up” turned into a full redevelopment with a hyper dedicated an outstanding testing team. I love the new Farmageddon -- I think it’s the perfect little take-that. It has a stronger emphasis on hand management and good tactical play, reduces the take that cliches and cheap moments, and is pound for pound a killer 20 minute experience. I love it and think it can do very well if it catches on.

One of my goals in creating Hyperbole Games was to have outstanding customer service. I think I’ve fulfilled this, and it’s something I intend to continue. I tried to respond to any questions on BGG or Twitter within the hour, often within minutes. I have a no questions asked policy in fixing replacements and trying to soothe customer concerns. I chase people down on BGG to get them promos, which I ship worldwide for free. I do this as well for Cry Havoc and devote significant amounts of time to the forums.  I think this matters a great deal, and I think it’ll pay dividends long term. I’ve already seen people return to buy new products, or thank me for the support. It’s basically the golden rule and an area where I think I’ve done a good job, and intend to continue.

Druids went incredibly well. I have wanted to do a foolish, small, artsy game like Druids for years. I began crafting an abstract almost on a whim and quickly fell in love with this little game. I was fortunate to have Antonio and Dave to play with me most mornings over coffee. Plus, being buds with Chris Urinko for years surely pays off. I might have sold 8 of these. After all, the game had very little promotion and cost $50! But, I exceeded the need to sell 200 and ultimately sold about 240. That’s awesome! I plan to do a new foolish, artsy, wooden game in 2017. Uh, get ready, Chris.

Finally, we’ve been consistently on or ahead of time in fulfilling and meeting deadlines. There are a lot of folks who frequently see year long delays in meeting their commitments. So far, that isn’t the case with Hyperbole. Fingers crossed.

Mistakes and Missteps

Mistake 1. The biggest misstep of 2016 is probably reprinting Hocus. You can chalk this up to inexperience, hopes, and anxiety churning together into a very costly mistake. Games take about 4-6 months from the moment you hit “go” to arrive from China. When we hit “go” on the Hocus reprint, its monthly sales rate was very strong. Furthermore, we wanted to capitalize on shipping it with Farmageddon in order to reduce the costs. I also had this fear of it not being available if people had desire to purchase the game. Essentially, if the game has good word of mouth momentum now, and people cannot buy it, they’ll move on and go elsewhere. Finally there are many up front fixed costs in creating a game, namely illustrations and graphic design. Being able to amortize those costs with multiple printings is appealing.

Unfortunately, sales dipped significantly in the period between me saying “make more” and Hocus arriving in my garage. I don’t have a strong retailer presence and Hocus is just going to get lost in the sheer volume of excellent products from dozens of bigger, better publishers. Furthermore, like an idiot, I printed only 1500 units, which is the minimum, and literally the worst possible margin. The money I spent here could have gone towards new games and projects, but now it’s tied up, potentially for years, or forever, as the games sell ever so slowly. This also has tax/inventory consequences. Basically, a terrible use of my very, very limited funds.

Now, if the game kept selling? I wouldn’t be saying this quite as much. But, it’s always a mistake to print so few units at that horrid margin. I would have been better to focus on a new product that can build on the reputation Hocus helped build, or wait until I felt comfortable selling 2500-5000 units. Years ago, after selling 5000 units of Dungeon Run, Plaid Hat opted to not reprint it, putting that capital instead towards Mice and Mystics, which became their second breakout success. I should have followed suit.

Mistake 2. I didn’t use Kickstarter for Farmageddon. To be honest, I don’t love Kickstarter. As a consumer, I’ve sold or thrown away 95% of the games I’ve obtained through the service because they just aren’t very fun. As a publisher, I don’t use Stretch Goals for a mountain of reasons. And, at my current company size, ability to execute, and with size of the games, international distribution is difficult via Kickstarter. I lost a lot of money shipping internationally for Hocus. A lot.

Long term, I want to improve the amount of games I sell directly as the margins are just so much better. I don’t expect it to replace other avenues, but I want it to be bigger. Long term goal and all. Well, Farmageddon seemed like a good game with which to test this. I had a bit of reasoning behind this:

  • There is bad blood as a result of the 5th Street Games Farmageddon Kickstarter. I didn’t want to pay for past sins outside of my control.
  • I wasn’t doing Stretch Goals.
  • I didn’t want to pay Kickstarter 10%.
  • I didn’t want to put in the work for a Kickstarter. We worked on our Hocus KS for 8 months.
  • I hoped some of my 1100+ newsletter followers, most of whom came from the Hocus KS, would be interested regardless of platform.

Due to Farmageddon having an international publishing partner, I didn’t want to upset them by selling copies to folks directly, or upset international folks by not selling to them directly.

I thought the offer of buy the game at a discount, get it in just a few weeks would be more compelling than “maybe get it in 6-12 months.”

I invested in this new strategy with a new website with a superior purchase flow and better mobile support. I paid money for a full BGG ad takeover, which isn’t cheap. I worked to get a preview with I Slay the Dragon, the same site that wrote an in depth preview for Hocus.  I also created a series of videos to discuss and promote the game, borrowing the idea from the campaign Portal ran for Cry Havoc. Finally, we gave folks the same deal we gave them for Hocus: $15, free shipping, get it first, and promo cards.

Sadly, the direct pre-order campaign was a big failure. I sold 145 games if you combine the month long pre-order and week long GenCon sale prior to this. If you compare that to the 1700 copies we sold of Hocus via Kickstarter, the drop is stark. If you compare it to the 240 copies of Druids I sold, it’s also bad.

There are a few reasons for this.

  • The pre-order had no international shipping. My reason for this is that Farmageddon is distributed internationally, at least, it is available for international distributors and retailers to order. It seemed wrong to me to charge people $45 for a game they would be able to buy locally just a few weeks later at MSRP. Plus, based on past percentages, I would only expect this to have added 20-40 more orders.
  • I didn’t think to pay for additional copies air freighted ahead of the shipment for additional reviews. I cannot ask people to review the game with a DTC copy. I didn’t think to pay for 3-4 more copies. It would have been expensive, but maybe worth it.
  • I originally planned for the pre-order in September, but “unfortunately,” the games arrived in August. I wanted to bypass GenCon and land right in the middle of GenCon and Essen. Unfortunately, my pre-order campaign landed right in the middle of GenCon hype. Whoops. Hooray international logistic chains?
  • The BGG ads didn’t perform very well at all. Sadly, I’m 1 for 3 now with BGG ads. Could be my games, my ads, or maybe it’s the wrong platform.
  • The Newsletter push didn’t perform well at all. Like...at all. That was very disappointing.
  • Kickstarter as a platform has a TON of browsers now (versus nobody in 2012). Nobody is browsing my website.
  • Kickstarter is exciting! A pre-order campaign that has no stakes (the game is almost here), no stretch goals, and no hype is basically dead on arrival.
  • I don’t think price is a concern for alpha consumer. Many of them say things like “oh my wallet!” but I don’t think they care really. Farmageddon’s $15 price point was irrelevant for many.

Ultimately, my core audience showed up. These are the same folks who showed up day 1 to back Hocus. But, I didn’t get any browsers or any folks from other platforms. It’s also worth noting that perhaps Farmageddon is not the right game for my current audience (which is why I’m not sending it out to tons of reviewers) and my timing was wrong.

Had I done a Kickstarter, I am fairly positive I would have sold most of the print run, had more available money for future projects, and would have brought in more folks. Lesson learned for the future.

Half-Time Omission to Sum the cost of Failure!

Just wanted to take a quick moment to stop and summarize the cost of these decisions.

  • Paid for Hocus 2nd printing out of pocket at the worst margins. Thousands of dollars.
  • Built a new website, subjectively prematurely, for the purpose of improving direct sales, which isn’t happening. Thousands of dollars.
  • Paid for Farmageddon out of pocket and didn’t run a successful pre-order campaign. More thousands of dollars.

Basically, I’m out of capital. I’ve spent quite a bit of my own money on this business and I’m more or less at the point where I can’t keep doing that.

Mistake 3. I have to admit I still find communicating with publishers, partners, and really, anyone in this industry to be incredibly difficult. I am either the world’s worst communicator, I should be using carrier pigeons, or my traveling suitcase is full of diseased candy. I think this industry is very much based on personal relationships, handshakes, and face to face meetings. I’ve tried to take advantage of this where possible at conventions and events, and continue to work towards it. So, maybe it’s a matter of time and effort?

Mistake 4. I’m really struggling with external testers. Looking to Stonemaier Games and Plaid Hat Games, one of my biggest hopes following the Hocus campaign was to build a larger group of testers. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. I’ve experimented with quite a few strategies at this point, including:

  • Offering PNP files to print at home
  • Mailing folks PNP copies I build
  • Offering DTC copies for folks to buy
  • Mailing folks DTC copies I pay for
  • Offering free games from the Hyperbole catalog
  • Offering free games of your choice that I buy for you
  • Create a Slack group for discussion
  • Provide questions to answer
  • Playtest Credits

I try to be very responsive to my testers. You can see a series of very long emails between me and the couple that played Project Gaia for months. I tweaked tons of cards, mechanisms, and so forth. I once had a 2 hour phone call with a tester in a Costco parking lot. I’m constantly updating graphic design, adding reference cards, making diagrams (all arguably prematurely), and testing alternatives at the request of testers. I take it seriously and try very hard.

But, with the exception of 3-4 groups, most of my external testing has just been a failure. It was this way for Hocus, then Farmageddon, and then Solstice. I’m at the “fool me thrice” phase of this. At this point, I just don’t plan to pursue it further.

Before I have someone test, I confirm they’re interested, give them a run down of the game, send them the rules to investigate, and make clear my hopes for about 5 tests in a month or two. Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 people I pay to send games to do not test the game at all. Some read the rules. A few play a learning game, then never a second. Many people would never even respond to an email asking if they received the game.

It’s not all bad. One tester sent me a video of her group answering my test questions. One test couple played Gaia about 6 times through several iterations. Every test came with a lengthy, detailed email full of notes. One tester who played the stuffing out of Hocus played Solstice 12 times in one weekend. A father/daughter couple played a lot of Solstice for me, then Druids. In fact, I had two father/daughter pairings do that, so maybe that should be my focus? I’ll continue to cling to the folks that have tested in the past. Otherwise, I’ll focus on my local group. It starts to cost a lot of money, time, and effort for which I receive almost nothing in return. I just can’t do it anymore.

Those of you who tested? Thank you. So much.

2017 Plans

As of now, my 2017 plans are quite humble. Quite simply, due to the missteps of the year, I don’t really have the money to make a new game. I’m halting combat operations, and I may close my LLC at some point in 2017.

As of now, Farmageddon is selling very modestly. It’s not what we hoped (me, Josh, the distributor) and that means it’s unlikely to get a second printing (due to slow momentum) and unlikely to get expansions. I was planning to attend GAMA in a big way with my distribution partner to promote Hocus and Farmageddon, but that no longer seems like a good use of funds.

The European version of Farmageddon owes me royalties, but the amount is so small and the process has been difficult.

As of now, a Hocus expansion is not financially viable. Our audience is not big enough to justify a 3000 copy print run of an expansion.

Cry Havoc seems to be selling very well, but I have no concept of numbers, just anecdotal observation. I don’t know how many copies were printed, if there have been additional printings (I think yes?) and how much any of them have sold. If the game is indeed selling well, that means at some point in 2017 I’ll receive a royalty check. That could help quite a bit!

If Druids is well received, I’d like to pitch it to a publisher to print. If you’re one of the people who bought Druids, please drop me a line with your thoughts on it once you play it some.

I’m currently pitching Solstice to another publisher. I really like this game and I’m really proud of the work that has gone into it. I think it is a unique and challenging drafting game. But, I don’t have the money to make it right now (tired of that by now?) and I think an established publisher can do more with it. If the publisher passes, I’ll probably create a POD version.

I’m currently pitching Sol Rising to another publisher. I really like this game and have been working on it since 2013. I think it has a lot going for it, but Hyperbole Games cannot publish it. It is just too big. To do it properly, it needs miniatures, a lot of illustrations, extensive graphic design, a thick story book, and more. If the publisher passes on it, it’ll probably be sidelined.

I’m working with Portal Games on the Cry Havoc Aftermath expansion. I hope to make lots of Cry Havoc content for years to come. Hopefully the game continues to be well received.

As a new publisher, you either need to make a hit, or be willing to lose money for a while. The former is not always within your control, and the latter is difficult to sustain long term. Another path is to basically sell most of your units in a Kickstarter campaign, distribute the last few, and be content with that. I would love to be more successful in the traditional sense, but crafting “one and done” games may be more suited to my strengths.

Musings and Observations

I’ve learned some things this year! Or, at least I think I have!

One thing that really stood out to me this year is that people only get so emotionally excited for card games. Tabletop games are tactile and physical and cards don’t fully capitalize on that, as much as I love cards. Moving forward, if and when I publish again, I intend to keep that in mind. For example, Solstice could be a card only game. But, if I were to publish it, I’d do things differently:

  • Score tokens instead of a card tracker
  • First player token instead of a first player card
  • Small reference boards instead of reference cards
  • Create an Inis-like map for the Regions with interlocking cardboard instead of just cards
  • Casualty tokens instead of a tracker card

Obviously, if someone else publishes Solstice, I can only offer an opinion as to how it’s made. But, I think that the cards only approach is a mistake. If Hocus is ever reprinted, which right now doesn’t look likely, we’d do so with score tokens and maybe a player reference board. Perhaps even a play mat for the center of play.

Another thing that really stood out to me was how retailers process things versus consumers. Almost all of my experience at this point is with gamers looking to buy a game from me at conventions. Retailers don’t think they same way. They’re focused on price, whether people will buy it, how much space it takes up, how it looks on a shelf, who I am, how I’ll be promoting the game so that people know to buy it. I need to completely update my demo, change how I present myself, and learn to use different moments for a different audience.

An observation I’ve always somewhat known, but was really driven home for me after the release of Cry Havoc, is that enthusiast forums are terrible for the soul. People can quickly get very angry, very mean, and very opinionated about something you’ve spent years upon. I know, intellectually that not everyone will like Cry Havoc. I also refuse to read ratings and comments. But, there are some super not fun threads I need to wade thru in order to answer questions and help folks. It’s disheartening and it begins to feel like you’re the only inhabitant of a very lonely island. Find ways to find the positive notes, or look past it, or just internalize the info and move on. It’s tough, and I’m not quite sure how to do it myself.

Cry Havoc being such a splash has created some opportunities for me. Some, purely social. Some beyond that approaching a thing of networking value. But, it’s just one game, and by this time next year, people probably won’t be as nutty. I’m only as good as my last game and there is so much work still to do. But, I’m hoping it slowly pays dividends. “Hey, look, I’m not a complete hack!”

I really enjoyed conventions as a publisher. I love working the booth, I love demoing my game to others, and I love making every sale. It was especially satisfying this year to consistently hear people say “I’ll take Hocus and Farmageddon,” only to be disappointed when I told them Farmageddon wasn’t back from the manufacturer yet. At one point at Geekway to the West, Josh and I were demoing for two groups of ten people total and every single person bought a copy of Hocus. It was amazing. I would love to reach firmer footing so I can continue this part of things.

In Summary

I made a few poor decisions with fairly substantial consequences. I’m on the ropes, and unless Farmageddon picks up dramatically during the November/December months, I may be sunk.  Hopefully, something picks up, or revenue from royalties helps cover the bills and allow for another go. Otherwise, I’ll probably begin only making future games in the way I made Druids (limited, wood) or through other publishers.