Apex Theropod is a deck-building game from Herschel Hoffmeyer that recently finished a successful Kickstarter that raised over 1,200% of its initial funding goal of $4,000. Just as amazing, this was Herschel’s first card or board game, and his first Kickstarter campaign to boot. In some ways, maybe it’s not so surprising the project did so well; after all, it’s a card game that’s all about freakin’ dinosaurs!
The game went through numerous changes during the campaign, and Herschel did an excellent job adapting as the project proceeded, and communicating the changes to backers and being transparent about all the modifications he made. The campaign ended with the vast majority of backers extremely happy with where the game was in terms of art, card layout, and mechanics.
Before going into detail about the campaign’s current situation and why I’m writing this article, I’d like to pose a question for your consideration: after a campaign has ended, how much change is too much change? Everyone expects tweaks to continue happening to games after a campaign ends…that’s all part of development and production. However, what is the line project creators should draw in this regard? When do changes reach the point that backers are completely justified in feeling like they’ve been duped?
Late yesterday, Herschel Hoffmeyer posted his campaign update #46 regarding the Beta 2.0 version of Apex Theropod, and a number of changes he had decided to make. The first is in the game’s art. Whereas before all of the images were hand-drawn in 2d, Herschel decided that 3d drawing would speed up the process and better-enable him to hit the art deadlines he had set. There is a noticeable difference in the art style:
Reactions are, of course, all over the spectrum. Some backers love the new art, some hate it, and others understand the change and are OK with the new art, but prefer the old art style. Upon consideration I’m in the latter category- I think the old art simply captured something the new art in its current state doesn’t, though I still think the new art is very good. It’s possible once some filtering is done for the new art I’ll feel differently, but until then I remain slightly disappointed.
So, the question is, is this degree in a change of art something that is acceptable after a campaign has ended? It’s obvious the ideal is for this kind of change to happen during the campaign, or even not at all. However, even if the creator determines they’d prefer the change, is it right to do so after-the-fact, or do they have a responsibility to deliver the original art people expected? It’s a very hard question because, on the one hand, it’s the designer’s prerogative to change things as needed to create the game they set out to make. On the other, however, the project has changed in a big way from what people originally pledged for.
To continue, the art change is not the only modification announced yesterday. Herschel also announced that he had more-or-less scrapped the original mechanics and come up with a system he believes is much more suited to the game’s theme, and will be better for the long-term replayability and overall satisfaction derived from playing. I’m not going to rehash all of the differences here(if you’re interested follow the update #46 link I posted earlier and check them out for yourself), but believe me when I say the new mechanics bear little resemblance to the old.
Now, having taken a preliminary look at the new rules, and having not actually been able to play either game, I have to say that the new changes do look like they make more sense, are much tighter than the old rules, and fit better in terms of theme(though they’re back t square-one with testing). This certainly has the potential to improve the game drastically. However, in changing the mechanics so heavily there is now only 1 territory deck included in the game, and only 1 boss(plus 1 more boss as a Kickstarter exclusive). That’s down from an original 12 territories and their bosses/decks, 4 of which were stretch goals. There will still be 600 cards in the game, but the new mechanics would necessitate over 1500 cards(well outside of the realm of possibility to include for a game that is funded for 600 cards) if all the territories and their decks were still included.
To quote a line from Idiocracy, “That’s a mighty big minus, Frito.” So, let’s consider the question again: when does change cross the line? There are multiple things to consider here. The mechanics look like they’re an improvement, but at the same time they’re really dissimilar to what people paid money to back. The game not only has a different rule-set, but the deck makeup has completely changed and the variety of what’s included has been scaled back drastically. What’s more, most of the stretch goal content achieved during the campaign is rendered moot, and relegated to potential inclusions in expansions.
I’ll go ahead and weigh in on my own questions briefly. I’m not that bothered by the change in art style…it’s something I don’t think should have happened, but it’s not something I’d throw a fit about or threaten to withdraw my funding over. I likewise don’t necessarily mind the changes in mechanics…I think the game will be better for them. What bothers me, however, is the change in actual content the change in mechanics necessitated. Let me be clear: I completely understand why the cuts are necessary. However, my thoughts are that it’s inappropriate to make such a large change after the campaign has ended when it ends up completely disrupting the stretch goals you put in place to promote backing the project. In this case I think the most appropriate course of action would have been to deliver what was initially promised to backers and start planning a follow-up edition of the game with the new mechanics, or to find a way to minimize the loss of stretch goal cards. To Herschel’s credit, he is offering refunds to those who want them, and he’s taking everyone’s thoughts very seriously to find some middle-ground for content inclusion.
I hope it’s obvious that there’s no real clear right answer here. It’s a tough situation. It’s an unfortunate situation. It’s a situation with no win-win resolution. But most of all, it’s a situation that could have been avoided. Although I have many positive takeaways from this campaign, including Herschel’s great communication, adaptability, and great art/campaign images, the lesson I’d most like to highlight is the importance of playtesting. Playtest the crap out of your game yourself, and playtest it with friends and family. Then give the game to local game groups to playtest and put PnPs up on Board Game Geek or elsewhere and get outside feedback regarding the design. Find and make the big mechanics changes you need to before you post your project, and everyone will get a smoother process because of it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding this topic, and/or the Apex campaign itself!