Alien Frontiers: A New World for Game Publishing

One of the biggest challenges for boardgame creators is getting that great idea from their minds to inside the stores so it can be put on the table. Traditionally, options have been limited: shop the game concept around to various large publishers in the hope that they will provide funding or self-publish a very small print run in the hopes of raising enough to support another edition. Recently, however, fledgling designers and publishers have found another alternative online – crowdfunding. In this process, creators release their idea into the wilds of the internet, requesting backers for the project who donate anywhere from $5 to $1,000 and beyond in exchange for credit or rewards or the simple satisfaction that they made something really cool happen.

This spring, Clever Mojo Games found crowdfunding success when they opened up public funding for their upcoming boardgame Alien Frontiers on kickstarter.com. In just under three months, Alien Frontiers had raised over $14,000, providing some much-welcomed financial support for the game’s initial print run. Curious about the process, I asked Clever Mojo Games’ owner W. David MacKenzie and Alien Frontiers designer Tory Niemann a few questions to learn more about how they made something really cool happen.

Tell me a bit about Clever Mojo Games – David, what made you decide to become a games publisher?

DAVID: In December 2007 I asked my brother, Fred, if he would help me design a game that was running around in my mind. He said he had also been thinking of game ideas and asked if my idea was just for fun or if I wanted to get it published at some point. That’s where it all started. Initially we wanted to sell our games to other publishers but after Oubliette received an unfavorable review from a toy and game agent for what we thought was a questionable reason (he said it needed an electronic component to be acceptable to any major manufacturer) we decided to do it on our own.

My idea turned into Ogre Castle which we published in July 2009 and his idea became Oubliette which we’re still refining and hope to publish in 2011.

Where does the name “Clever Mojo Games” come from?

DAVID: The company name—well, we did a lot of brainstorming on that. Fred and I bounced names off each other for months and when we found something we liked we checked the domain registries to make sure the .com websites were available because we felt that having a unique Internet presence was a must. We passed over a lot of names just because the domains were already taken.  Fred came up with Clever Mojo Games and it seemed to say exactly what we wanted our games to be—smart and magical. We snapped up the domain on July 28th, 2008.

What are some of your favorite boardgames of all time? Which games have been most influential in your designs?

W. David MacKenzie and Tory Niemann

DAVID: My strongest game memories as a kid in the 70′s were playing Risk and creating my own variant that I called Nuclear Risk (long before Parker Bros. made their own move in that direction). In my game, a double sixes roll by either player resulted in the other losing 5 armies. If the attacker rolled triple sixes the top country card was flipped over. That card was “nuked” into a radioactive wasteland.  All the armies on that territory were lost and a penny was placed on it to indicate that no player could own the territory or pass through it. A little simplistic, perhaps, but we enjoyed playing it.

I was introduced to D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) in high school and that carried me through my college years, but then I went into 25 years where the only gaming I did was party games at family gatherings. It wasn’t until my brother introduced me to Settlers of Catan in 2007 that I rediscovered the joy of strategy board gaming. My current favorites are Snow Tails and Tobago… and Alien Frontiers.

TORY: Wow, favorite games of all time, a much harder question than it appears.  While Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan were the games that jumpstarted my interest in modern board games, they are no longer my favorites.  Race for the Galaxy and Dominion are currently my go-to games.  Though they are both “just” card games, they are robust and replayable to a degree that’s hard to match while remaining fast and mostly accessible.  Recently, Endeavor has been added to my favorites.

As for inspiration, my desire to create games goes back to a fictional board game: Interstellar Pig. This was a game of intergalactic struggle that formed the backbone of William Sleater’s novel of the same name. The main character is introduced to Interstellar Pig by his strange neighbors and finds out too late that the neighbors are aliens and the game is “practice” for a real galactic showdown.  The novel describes the board game with some fascinating details but lacked any description of actual gameplay.  I read this book as a kid and thought Interstellar Pig sounded much better than Monopoly or Clue (both of which I avoid to this day).  I tried to cobble together my own copy of the game with posterboard and pieces of other games, but was surprised to find how difficult it was to make up rules that resulted in a fun game.  Eventually I gave up on the project, but I still look back on that as my first game design and my inspiration to keep trying new creative things.

How did you two end up working together to produce Alien Frontiers?

DAVID: Fred and his wife moved from Washington to Arizona in early 2009 to be closer to their son and that’s where Fred met Tory. Tory is my brother’s son’s wife’s sister’s husband. I don’t think there’s a real term for that tenuous relation so I just call him my nephew-in-law. Tory and Fred found their gaming connection pretty fast and when Fred told me that Tory was designing games of his own it just seemed natural that we bring him into the fold.

TORY: As David mentions, we met through his brother Fred, the other member of our design team.  When I was first dating my now-wife, Melissa, she introduced me to her sister and her sister’s husband, John.  John and I became friends quickly (he’s a gamer, I’m a gamer), and I mentioned that an interest of mine was game design.  He mentioned that his dad and uncle (Fred and David) were also interested in game design.  When we all ended up out here in the Phoenix area, Fred and I of course discussed game design and he mentioned that David was starting a game company, Clever Mojo.  David and I started emailing and the rest, as they say, is history.

How long was the development process for Alien Frontiers, from concept to final proof?

DAVID: I’ll let Tory answer this question for the most part, he mailed me the prototype file in June 2009 so Clever Mojo Games has been helping to tweak it for more than a year.

TORY: My first ideas for Alien Frontiers started percolating in January of 2009.  Two games were on my mind at the time: To Court the King and Kingsburg (huh, I never noticed before that they both have “King” in the title).  I had been given To Court the King for my birthday a few weeks earlier and I’d been reading about Kingsburg on BGG (Boardgamegeek.com).  I’d formed an idea of how Kingsburg was probably played and thought it sounded neat.  However, when I looked more closely into the game, it wasn’t what I’d thought.  Since my idea of what it was still sounded pretty cool, I decided to try making that game.  These ideas cross-pollinated with what I liked and didn’t like about To Court the King.  Soon a prototype was created and I was making my wife play.  By the time I shared the ideas with David and Fred, I already felt that I had a game on my hands that was easily better than most other ideas I’d come up with.  We’ve been tweaking it ever since, and I’d say the refinements only stopped in June of this year.

The artwork and design of the game is very well done – as a designer and a fan of pulp art, I’m loving the retro sci-fi theme. Who was your artist for the game? Can you tell me a bit about the process of selecting and contracting an artist?

DAVID: Mark Maxwell is responsible for the excellent retro artwork in Alien Frontiers and Karim Chakroun is the graphic designer who refined the look of the game components. Each of them came to the project in an interesting way.

I started the search for an artist by placing a Creative Gigs ad on Craigslist.org. I explained what style we were looking for, how many pieces of art we needed, and I was very clear that we were a tiny little company and had a very small budget. We received dozens of replies and sent those artists more detailed info and a request for one or two sample pieces in the retro future scifi theme. Mark Maxwell was one of a half-dozen who followed through. We looked at his style and his history of work for NASA and other space interests and thought we could never afford him. As it turns out, retro sci-fi is a particular favorite of his and he has done some game work previously. The payment terms we agreed on were embarrassingly small but Mark never batted an eyelash and turned in consistently high-quality work. I’m happy to say that we eventually found some additional funds and unilaterally increased his compensation, but it is still much less than his usual fee, I’m sure.

Karim Chakroun came to the project very late. In fact, we were all but finalized with our design when he emailed and said he’d like to help out with the graphic design end of the game. Well, we all liked the graphic design work that I had built for Alien Frontiers, but I’m no expert and I was happy to let a pro take a look and see his ideas.  Well, all I can say is that Karim transformed Alien Frontiers from a nice homemade game into a slick and professional product. I look at my original designs and the designs we sent to the printer and I am so happy Karim sent that original email. It’s like night and day.

MSRP for the game is set at $49.95 – not many people know the behind-the-scenes of how publishers decide on a selling price. Can you talk a bit about that?

DAVID: We used the standard formula that floats around the game design forums.

Cost x 1.6 = Distributor Revenue

Cost x 2 = Wholesale Revenue

Cost x 4 = Retail Revenue

The big problem, of course, is getting the cost down far enough so that we could offer the game at a reasonable retail price. Our original plan was to raid my savings account to fund the printing of 1,000 copies. If we had gone that route the game costs (art, design, printing, shipping) would have yielded a retail price of $72 per game. Alien Frontiers is good, but I doubt that it would fly off the shelf at that price. When Kickstarter.com came to my attention I thought we might be able to offset the costs a bit.  Well, it worked out much better than we anticipated and the net funds we raised allowed us to get the retail price down to $49.95.  We’re actually offering Alien Frontiers at only $39.95 for pre-orders placed through the middle of September.

Alien Frontiers has generated some really good buzz. Other than boardgamegeek.com, have you two used other sites or media to spread word about the game?

DAVID: I’ve worked hard to build Clever Mojo’s “street cred” on BGG and I think that helped give a boost to Alien Frontiers, but the solid game mechanics and the amazing art have really been the biggest grabber. Apart from BGG, Alien Frontiers was mentioned in an article on boardgamenews.com and after we put Alien Frontiers on kickstarter.com we placed banner ads for the project at the three main board game sites, BGG, BGN, and Purple Pawn. One of our Kickstarter Backers sent an email to Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower Podcast and he gave the game and the Kickstarter project a nice little plug. When the game is all printed and starts its month-long trip from China, the printer, Panda Games Manufacturing, will FedEx me five copies of the game. I’ll keep one, Tory will get one, and the other three will go out to Tom Vasel, Cody Jones (Game On with Cody & John podcast), and Matt Drake of Drake’s Flames who also reviewed Ogre Castle. I’m hoping they’ll all give it good reviews and build even more interest in advance of the launch in October.

TORY: David’s been the real champion of buzz.  I try to get Alien Frontiers‘ name out there whenever I can on BGG, but David’s gone further on many other forums.

It seems that one of the most crucial factors in the development process has been the fundraising campaign on kickstarter.com, raising almost three times as much money as in your initial goal. How did you come about the idea of using Kickstarter to help pay for publishing costs?

DAVID: I first heard about Kickstarter.com on the Board Game Designers Forum when Jonathan Leistiko and Jeremy Bushnell launched a funding project for their game, Inevitable. Then I saw that Travis Worthington was using Kickstarter.com as a pre-order system for his game, Triumvirate. So, board games on Kickstarter.com are nothing new.

TORY: I remember when David first suggested using Kickstarter.  I’d never heard of it before and I was very skeptical about it, but he finally talked me into it.  What I realize now is that Kickstarter, apart from allowing interested parties to back us, also put Alien Frontiers into the spotlight of a much larger community.  Many of the people that backed us on Kickstarter aren’t hardcore gamers, just people interested in helping new creative projects get off the ground.

Could you tell me a bit about the process of using Kickstarter? When was the campaign started? Are either of you surprised at the positive and generous response?

DAVID: As I said, board games are not new on Kickstarter, but, that doesn’t mean that every board game on Kickstarter is a success. We thought there was a big chance of failure, and on Kickstarter, failure means you get no funding. It’s all or nothing.

When you start a project on Kickstarter, you get to set your goal and the time limit. We considered doing what Travis did with Triumvirate by setting a tiny limit and treating every pledge as a pre-order, but we figured the drive to support a project, to see it achieve its goal, was a big part of the draw. We also wanted to get the backers involved in the creation process, so we began the project when there was still a little wiggle-room on the design and components. When Karim jumped into the project that backer involvement really paid off because we were able to get the opinions of the backers and it helped inform the design. The backers became a part of the design process and that fed back into the excitement of the project and drew in more backers. This all sounds like we knew what we were doing, but really, it was just seat-of-the-pants flying.

You ask if we were surprised by our funding success. Heck yes. We worried that setting a $5,000 goal was aiming too high but we were equally afraid of aiming too low. We started the project on April 26th, we hit $5,000 on May 7th. We topped $10,000 on June 8th, and we finished up with $14,885 on June 26th. We were amazed at every milestone and tickled with all the gamers who supported us.

Of course, we didn’t take home $14,885. Kickstarter and Amazon Payments each took a cut and all the rewards we offered to attract Backers had a cost attached to them, but there’s no doubt that the Kickstarter project was a turning point for Alien Frontiers.

TORY: Very surprised.  I know that Alien Frontiers is a great game, but I was worried at first that people wouldn’t back it because they didn’t have the chance to play it.  But what happened was that people got drawn in by the retro-scifi theme; they loved it.  Mark Maxwell’s art is definitely responsible for this part!  But then David supported that by getting our backers actively involved, asking their opinions on design choices.  That was a very smart move that I think really paid off.

Now that Alien Frontiers is set to publish and you’ve worked out the kinks of the process, do you have any advice for fledgling game designers who would like to get their games published, or do it themselves?

DAVID: The only advice that never changes based on the circumstances is play test, play test, play test—then play test some more. Tory played Alien Frontiers with anyone he could find for six months before I got my hands on it and then I play tested it for another year.  The core of the game has not changed, but everything surrounding that core is completely different from the original design. It’s a better game and it’s thanks to the play testing that we found that better game. We value our play testers so much, in fact, that we’ve listed as many of them as we could on the first page of the rule book.

TORY: My advice to fledgling designers is never to become too attached to a work in progress.  Be willing to throw out things that don’t work.  There were moments when I got stubborn with feedback and didn’t want to change things that playtesters suggested.  Part of that was the desire to maintain control of the project, but it was also because I just didn’t want to admit that I was wrong about some things!  But I relented on most of these issues because I saw they would make the game better.  It doesn’t make you a worse designer if you make a change someone suggests, but it might make your game worse if you leave in flaws you were too proud to correct. Trust your game design but also trust your play testers.

Alien Frontiers is set for release in mid-October, 2010 for $49.95. Clever Mojo Games is accepting pre-orders until mid-September for $39.95. Be sure to check back here at Dice Hate Me for my review of Alien Frontiers after its release.

Alien Frontiers is selling out quickly! Here’s a link to my latest news article with reviews and an update on shipping!

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