Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Dave Schuman. My sons (age 15 and 9) and I invented a fun board game called Kill Merlin!.
Kill Merlin! is a 2-4 player wizard-themed strategy game with unique mechanics and high player interaction. It is straightforward and easy to learn, but there are many layers of strategy. It's great for family, gateway and hardcore gamers.
We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign so that we can publish Kill Merlin!. The project was funded in the first day and has been well-received by gamers, reviewers, and retailers.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I've been a gamer all my life. I especially enjoy games that involve player interaction, such as board games and couch co-op video games. With my two sons (currently age 15 and 9), I have enjoyed sharing this love of gaming to them.
At the end of the day, I’m a dad (and, perhaps, a human) who likes to lead by positive example. I want to show Zev and Zane that the act of creation is fun and achievable.
One afternoon in October 2017, I turned to Zev (my son, 14 years old at the time), and, somewhat out of the blue, I said, “Let’s make up a board game together.” He was excited about the idea. So I opened up a Google doc and started taking notes on our conversation.
Here are a few things we came up with right away:
- We decided to make a board game, as opposed to a card game.
- We decided it would be versus, as opposed to co-op. (If you’ve ever played Kill Merlin!, then you know we really embraced the versus nature of the game.)
- We listed out some themes and goals. By the end of a short time discussing it (maybe 40 minutes), we had settled on the theme of wizards, and…
- We had already named it “Kill Merlin”.
- We decided that the wizards were trying to kill the villain of the game, Merlin, and that Merlin would also be a character in the game. He would have some way to affect the game.
- We also decided that the wizards needed to develop powers over the course of the game in order to become strong enough to kill the game’s tyrant, Merlin. And we wanted each character to have a different set of abilities that they’d need to learn in order to defeat him. And thus, the first game mechanic was born!
While I had never really invented a board game and brought it to publication before, I had dabbled in the past.
As a software engineer, I'm constantly creating and I've made a few fun apps that were video games. This project, though, has really blossomed into something more special than the others.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
How we got from prototype to final
The first step was to define all of the components. Our game required a board, several sets of cards, mana tokens (money), and wizard tokens (player pieces). Our first prototype was made of foam board, paper, card sleeves, and a glue stick. We used money and player pieces from other games we had around the house.
Next, I did a little graphic design. I'm not a graphic designer, so this really pushed the limits of my abilities. But now, we had a game that could be play-tested by friends and strangers.
Our next evolution of prototyping was to use a print-on-demand service in order to get a more professional-looking, presentable version of the game. We chose to work with The Game Crafter. This took my graphic design skills one step further into the rabbit hole. I was also able to repurpose the design assets for a computer program called "Tabletop Simulator", which enabled me to play-test with other designers and players remotely.
And then finally, we recruited (aka, "roped in") Scott to be our art director. With Scott's talent in play, we made a much nicer prototype that we were able to send around to reviewers.
And for the final product, the game will look more like this artistic rendering:
We currently have several manufacturing quotes and are in the process of choosing factory and fulfillment vendors for the production run of Kill Merlin!, following our Kickstarter campaign.
Funding the project
Some money was spent early on prototyping supplies, especially once we started using The Game Crafter's print on demand service. Each iteration of the game costs 50-60 dollars through that service, based on the components of our game.
We decided to attend Gen Con, a gaming convention in Indianapolis, in August. Between the hotel, food, and airfare, that's another bit of expense. Then, during the Kickstarter campaign, we decided to spend money on advertising. All in, we've spent around $6,000 to get up to the point we're at in the Kickstarter campaign.
Our goal for the Kickstarter campaign was $12,000, which we reached the first day. As of the time of this writing, we have raised just over $19,000. We're hoping the last week goes well, we'd really like to raise more money so that we can afford higher quality components.
Describe the process of launching the business.
All we've launched so far has been the Kickstarter campaign. The campaign itself was many months in the making, and the real trick was figuring out how to achieve our funding goal on the first day.
I created an Instagram account which, over several months, I have grown organically to over 2,400 followers.
My Instagram account contains lots of pictures of Kill Merlin! throughout the design process and Kickstarter, but it also contains a lot of pictures of me playing games with my kids. I have been very interactive with the other members of the Instagram board gaming community, many of whom are other game designers themselves, and the group is extremely supportive and friendly.
It's important to get the word out about your project, but it's also important to make friends and genuinely contribute to the community, which I think I've done better on Instagram than on other social media platforms. In fact, when I went to Gen Con (a gaming convention), I met several of my Instagram friends in person, which was fantastic!
Gen Con was a fantastic event for generating buzz! Gen Con, which takes place in Indianapolis, is the largest gaming convention in the country. I decided to be a part of the First Exposure Playtest Hall, which is a way for smaller designers to get some exposure for their game. The game was extremely well received, nearly all of the people who played our game at Gen Con became Kickstarter backers.
It was also very important that we had extremely good-looking artwork. Here is a picture of one of our playtest groups from Gen Con. Every one of them backed the game.
Utilizing a mailing list
I also had a personal mailing list of nearly 2,000 people. This included everyone I went to elementary school with, middle school, high school, everyone I knew from college, and anyone else I've worked with or crossed paths with over the last 20 years.
It is almost literally everyone I have ever known. I figured a lot of people would unsubscribe, but only about 7% of the list consisted of unsubscribers and bounced emails. While I believe it's important not to spam people, I also felt like this is the one thing I really need my network for, and I was willing to call in the favor this one time.
Personally emailing people
I personally emailed around 500 people to ask whether they would be willing to be a champion… to pledge the first day and share with their network. It took some guts and a lot of work to send out all those emails.
I made a point to see what each person has been up to as I was composing the email, and I tried my best to say something genuinely personal before the rest of the templated email kicked in.
The email basically went like this:
- Introduced that I had invented a board game with my sons
- Announced the launch date
- Asked the person to be a "Champion"
- Explained that a "Champion" is someone who pledges on the first day and helps spread the word through social media
- Then the real ask: "Please let me know if you’d be up for being one of my Champions. When we’re ready to launch, I’ll send you a link to the Kickstarter campaign as soon as it goes live."
That last part, asking for a response in advance of the Kickstarter, was the clincher. Out of the 500 emails I sent, around 100 answered the call, and most of those people really pledged on the first day. I'm happy to say we did reach our funding goal the first day.
I'd say my networking effort was a huge success. It was a tough transition, though, from my network to the greater market. The biggest lesson I learned is that I should have sent my game out to more reviewers in the months leading up to the Kickstarter. If I had ordered 10 prototypes and sent them around to reviewers for 6-9 months prior to campaign launch, I think I easily could have doubled or tripled (or more) the funding.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I have been trying my best to provide compelling content for my backers and supporters.
I have been writing a series of blog articles, called The Kill Merlin! Chronicles, about my journey through the process of designing and publishing a board game. I'm doing this for a few reasons… I want to share my experience with other designers so that maybe they can have an easier go of it, I want to continue to create content related to my game, and, of course, it's cathartic to unload all these thoughts from my brain.
I think the Kill Merlin! Chronicles also shows the human side of the effort and perhaps helps to remind people (and myself) that I'm a family man doing this project for a good reason. So far, the articles have been well received, I hope they have a positive impact on other designers as well as on the popularity of the game.
We have also been providing regular updates and posts about progress in the campaign. Kickstarter provides a way to dispatch these updates from within the platform, and it's pretty much an expectation of backers that creators will send lots of updates, both during and after the campaign.
As I mentioned earlier, I should have sent out more prototypes to more reviewers earlier on. So, in terms of press, I was a little late to the game. There's a huge tabletop gaming community with a lot of information about how to find content creators and reviewers. In fact, there are Facebook groups specifically geared toward board game reviewers. Once I started posting in the groups, I quickly figured out some people who I could have do both paid previews and free reviews. The ones with the most reach, however, require much more lead time, which I did not have.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are extremely pleased to say that we will, in fact, be publishing Kill Merlin!. It will be carried in at least 18 retail stores and will be distributed to hundreds of backers.
The retail success was primarily the result of my attending an event at Games of Berkeley called Locally Grown Sunday, which features a few local bay area designers and their games.
We set up in front of the store and invited people to learn the game. We had a great reception at that event, and between our first and second visits, people had come to the store asking whether they could buy Kill Merlin! yet.
The owner of the store also asked some of his employees to learn the game, and they enjoyed it as well. So, he asked me if we would be having a retailer tier on our Kickstarter campaign. When I asked him what that was, he explained the premise, which is essentially to take some pledge amount (he suggested $50) as a "reservation", and then work out the retail order offline. He also directed me to a Facebook group specifically for game retailers who back Kickstarters.
When I was ready with my retail offering, I posted about it in the Facebook group to get feedback. The owner of Games of Berkeley chimed in saying that he had enjoyed hosting our playtesting and was excited to stock it, which basically created a pile-on of other retailers who trust his judgment. That phenomenon led to the first dozen or so retail backers, many of whom backed on the first day. I also sent over 200 emails to stores throughout the US, Canada, and the UK, and got a few more retail backers that way.
We have a website, killmerlin.com, which is a great place to visit for the latest news about the game. It will contain links to pre-order / buy Kill Merlin!, so I expect it will be a great place to continue communicating with people. Though, social media seems to now occupy most of the informational space that websites used to fill.
I have yet to iron out the details around final manufacturing and shipping costs, but I believe I have pretty close estimates. My next goal is to make enough money from the run to be able to afford a second run of the game, perhaps with a base version and a few add-ons. A second run of the game would mean growth for this sort of business.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure what the future holds for Kill Merlin!, what growth will look like, or how exactly I'm going to achieve it. Perhaps that's a story for next time.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I've learned a ton about the business of board game design, marketing, and manufacturing. I've learned that it's ok to try, it's ok to succeed, and it's ok to fail. The reality, I think, is that there is no absolute success or failure anyway. Getting back to the original purpose, this was a project I started with my kids, and by seeing it through to the end, I get to teach them a lesson.
At the end of the day, I’m a dad (and, perhaps, a human) who likes to lead by positive example. I want to show Zev and Zane that the act of creation is fun and achievable. So many people go through their lives without many out-of-the-box moments or ideas, and most of them do not follow through with action. So, aside from the fact that Kill Merlin! is super fun and worth sharing with the world, the Kickstarter campaign is also a way to share this act of creation with my children, to be a positive role model, and to prove that dreams can be realized through planning and action.
Whether we have or have not been completely successful with this Kickstarter, I’ll feel like I have done the right thing by putting in the effort and sharing the experience with my children. Working on this project with them creates a memory that we will all cherish, and even failure provides life lessons and opportunities to learn.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Here's some required reading for board game design includes:
- Jamey Stegmaier's blog articles about board game Kickstarters (and other articles he's written)
- James Mathe's blog articles about board game Kickstarters (and other articles he's written)
- Teale Fristoe's "The Cost of a Board Game: Money"
There are a lot of resources and a lot of people who are interested in tabletop gaming. There's a lot of material, it would be impossible to absorb it all.
Where do we want the business to go from here?
I would love it if we are able to sell out the first run of Kill Merlin! and order a second run of the game. It would be fantastic if we get picked up by a few distributors, which will make it easier to get into more retail stores.
Perhaps we'll release an expansion for Kill Merlin!. It takes a long time to become truly profitable in the board game business, so I want to make sure I don't lose sight of what I really love about this project, which is designing and playing games with my children.
Where can we go to learn more?
The Kickstarter campaign for Kill Merlin! is live until October 18, 2018. Here is the link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/schumanfamilygames/kill-merlin-a-new-board-game-for-2-4-awful-wizards?ref=8ubr2a
Once the campaign is complete, the link will continue to work, it will lead you to the pre-order page and ultimately to the storefront where you can buy Kill Merlin!. You can always visit https://www.killmerlin.com for more information.
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help you get started.
Interested in starting your own business? Join our community of founders!
Are you ready to boost your revenue?
Using Klaviyo will open up a massive, untapped sales channel and bring you closer to your customers!
Level up your email marketing with Klaviyo!