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The Post-Campaign Shakeup: How Much is Too Much? Focus: Apex Theropod

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http://www.apexdeckbuilder.com/

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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!

-Ben

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Author: bduerksen30

coggaming.net I have an m.a. in history focusing on naval and maritime history in the Atlantic from the seventeenth-early nineteenth centuries. I've worked as a website consultant, and am currently employed as an analyst. I also run the COG Gaming blog for board game reviews, news, and kickstarter highlights. COG Gaming also offers playesting and editing services for new designers, and we're in the process of developing a few titles of our own. Contact me if you're interested in having your game reviewed, previewed, or in one of our other services!

4 thoughts on “The Post-Campaign Shakeup: How Much is Too Much? Focus: Apex Theropod

  1. Thanks for posting about this. I didn’t back this project, but I followed it closely, and now it’s even more fascinating to me.

    On one hand, we have a creator doing something that he believes is the best thing for the game (I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s doing the best thing for the BACKERS, but the game is part of that). On the other hand, the creator is making rather significant changes to the way the game works after people have already paid for the game.

    Here’s my take: I think a creator is has the right–even the obligation–to create the best thing for his/her backers, whether it’s before, during, or after the campaign. If they make significant changes, they should give backers the chance to back out of their pledge, but I think that would be pretty rare.

    With that in mind, is Herschel really doing the best thing for backers? The art is a toss-up–it’s subjective. Changing the engine of the game is good as long as he properly playtests it and finds that it improves the game.

    The only part I’m stuck on is the big reduction in cards. Does it make the game better? Sure. But from what I understand from his update, he’s planning on making those cards available in a different form (i.e., an expansion) in November. That seems a little weird to me–people already paid for those cards (via the stretch goals), and now he’s going to ask them to pay again. That’s the only part that seems off to me, but I wasn’t a backer, so maybe there’s something I’m missing.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Jamey! It sounds like we’re in agreement that the biggest hangup in this is the loss of promised content in terms of variation, and of content that was added through stretch goals. Herschel has since promised every backer a playmat, but while that’s nice it’s not really what people signed on for. He has also announced that there will be no expansions past this self-contained core game, so that content is really just evaporating rather than getting put on hold for later.

      More generally, I agree designers should make any changes they deem necessary to improve the game and the end experience for players. After all, it’s not good for players to receive a disappointing product, and it’s not good for the designer to then be associated with it. For Kickstarter though, I’d offer that with the caveaut that it’s made clear at the start of the campaign where the game sits from a development standpoint, and if the designer says the game is basically ready to go that they’ve done their due-diligence with testing, etc. to ensure that’s true. I think part of the issue we’re seeing with Apex is that even with herschel’s great communication with backers, he was under the impression people were funding him as a designer and for his general idea that was still being fleshed out/tested, whereas many backers were under the impression they were funding a specific version of the game that only needed a little playtesting for balance and to have its art finished(per the campaign’s Risks/Challenges section). As always, lessons to be learned here!

      • Thanks for clarifying the part about expansions. I must have misunderstood that. So is the expansion he talks about completely different than the cards that were added through stretch goals?

        I totally agree that the game’s status in terms of development should be said up front from day 1 of the campaign, or at least visibly posted during the campaign if the creator anticipates big changes based on backer/playtester feedback.

        Thanks for writing about this!

      • You actually understood correctly, Jamey. Originally the content that was cut out of the base game, including most of the stretch goal content, was going to get offered down the road as expansion content. As of this morning, at least if he sticks with his most recent comments, Herschel has opted to not pursue expansions at all so that content is simply gone.

        Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

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