Chern Ann Ng, Co-Founder of CoolMiniOrNot Talks Shop

In today’s podcast, I get to talk with Chern Ann, co-founder of CoolMiniOrNot.  We discuss all things Kickstarter, and what it takes to manufacture a game with plastic miniatures.  We also discuss the humble origins of the CoolMiniOrNot website, how long CMON takes to plan one of their mega Kickstarters, why Chern Ann is active on Facebook board game publishing groups, why zombies was an easy sell, and more.

Richard:                                Hi, this is Richard Miles with Board Game Authority, and today I am talking with…

Chern Ann:                           Chern Ann from CoolMiniOrNot

Richard:                                Thank you for taking the time out to speak with me today.  Most people are familiar with CoolMiniOrNot, at least in the board game industry. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the company?

Chern Ann:                           I am one of the founders of the company. We started it out in 2001 as a community site, for people to upload the pictures of painted miniatures, to rate it, kind of like “Hot or Not” but for miniatures.  Super geeky thing. We did it for quite a while, until 2009 when we decided to see whether we could take this further, and that’s how we started getting into making miniature games, and finally board games.

Richard:                                And so, whose decision was it to get into board game publishing? That’s kind of a big stretch from a “rate your painted miniature” website to full on board game publisher.  How did that process happen?

Chern Ann:                           We were publishing or making miniatures for the hobbyist market for quite a while, I think since 2006, special edition figures, stuff that would be compatible with Warhammer, publishing games like Dark Age, skirmish miniature games, a lot like Warhammer 40k or Wyrd miniatures… Malifaux. During that time I had less time for  miniatures, miniature painting and the miniature hobby, and I was thinking that I’d love to combine miniatures with some way of making it easy to set up and play, and easy to store, and the board game format seemed to be a good idea.  So coincidentally, I mean this is a shout-out to those Soda Pop boys. They had pitched us a game called Super Dungeon Explore in 2010.  And they said okay, “This is our game, it’s full of these cute figurines, we’d like to make as a metal miniature line and sell little smaller expansions, maybe you could get one figure for like seven dollars or eight dollars, and could you guys publish us?”  So I took a look at the game and thought “Well this is ideal, why don’t we try a different format? Let’s make it a miniature board game instead.”  So that you could get all 50 figures at once with a reasonable price, or relatively reasonable compared to what miniature gamers are used to. And that is how we started publishing board games.

Richard:                                Wow, I’m always interested in how things come together. After that initial run with Super Dungeon Explore,  CoolMiniOrNot really took to Kickstarter and your company has done really well on that platform. How many Kickstarters has CoolMiniOrNot been involved with?

Chern Ann:                           We’ve run twenty (20) Kickstarter campaigns so far. Not all of them were for games, some were for base inserts and things like that, hobby products, but most of them were games.

Richard:                                Twenty Kickstarters is quite a track record and every single one of those has successfully funded. Correct?

Chern Ann:                           Well, successfully funded? Yes. And most of them have been successfully delivered. We are still delivering… I think we’re delivering Zombicide Black Plague right now.  We still have B-Sieged and The Others left to deliver and of course Arcadia Quest: Inferno that just completed a couple of days ago.

Richard:                                And so, how active or involved are you with the Kickstarter projects?

Chern Ann:                           In the beginning it was all me, for the first couple of campaigns. Then, we started training more people to handle how to deal with Kickstarter campaigns, how to structure it, how to plan it.  So we have a way of handling our Kickstarter planning, that is the CMON way of doing things.  So now, because of the volume of campaigns, we got a couple of different teams that look at the project, manage the project, because it’s a Kickstarter campaign usually of our scope, let’s say like  Zombicide: Black Plague or Arcadia Quest: Inferno, these things take a year, a year and a half of planning, to make sure we got everything in place, all the sculpts in place, that production is lined up, that we know what the schedules are going to be, that we know what the pricing is going to be, we know what we can offer and what we can’t.  The first couple of campaigns we made mistakes. We got caught up in the excitement. The typical mistakes of a Kickstarter newbie creator would be, “People are asking for Stretch Goals, what can we do, what can we give?” And this kind of thing kind of stretches the budget, and of course, it delays everything. So now we are more disciplined and we tend to focus much more on the planning and making sure that we can absolutely deliver on time.

Richard:                                Right. And when you say it takes a year of planning. Does that mean that before the Kickstarter campaign is live, that the CoolMiniOrNot Team has discussed the campaign and it has at least been an idea in some form an entire year prior to the campaign going live?

Chern Ann:                           Yes, absolutely. I mean, some games we look at and say, “Look, this is something that we don’t need to Kickstart. I mean, no one’s going to find it valuable if we Kickstart it.” So it just goes straight to distribution like The Grizzled. There was no point. It was a completely self-contained game. Stretch goals, or anything beyond that, wouldn’t really add value to experience for anyone.  Of course miniature games tend to lend themselves to expansions easily. We know from the Games Workshop experience, it is quite easy to say “Oh, let’s try the game again, but this time I want a different commander or a different villain.” So it’s easier to substitute things like that without affecting the whole balance of the game.

Richard:                                Yeah, exactly. You mentioned The Grizzled. Let’s talk about that for a minute. This isn’t the first game that CoolMiniOrNot has published without miniatures, but I’d like to know why CoolMiniOrNot decided to publish that game, as well as others, that kind of deviate from the usual CoolMiniOrNot bread and butter miniatures game.

Chern Ann:                           We like games; that’s the thing. So, if the game is cool, it doesn’t need to have miniatures, we will publish it anyway. In fact, we have a couple of games coming up, like… er, well I can’t say what they are at the moment. I think I am not allowed to. But we have a couple of games coming out that don’t have many miniatures in them.  I mean XenoShyft also doesn’t have miniatures and was very well received. [XenoShyft] the card drafting game about aliens overrunning your mining camp.  Basically we are an omnivores, right. We will publishing anything. We make any game, any board game, that we feel is fun and that people will enjoy.

Ricard:                                   Okay, fair enough. Now, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show today is that I’m a member of quite a few Facebook groups that all focus on board game design. You are a member of these Facebook groups as well and I’ve noticed quite a few posts from you on the topic of game design, Kickstarter best practices, I see you answering other people’s questions, providing feedback on their Kickstarter preview pages. Now, my question to you is: Why do you do this? Why do you think it’s important to do it? To kind of give back to the community that you are part of?

Churn Ann:                           Well, like you said, it is something that you want to give back. You see a lot of great… you know,   I used to see a lot of great campaigns of great games, and many campaigns kind of floundered, or they are not successful in completely delivering the product because of inexperience. And the gaming community is extremely small.  I mean, it’s not small small like a couple of guys, but still, it’ not like a video game community. So there are not a lot of publishers out there. I like cool games, I think you can see from the CoolMiniOrNot account, it is a shared account that we use to back other people’s projects as well.  You can see quite a number of games projects that we’ve backed too. We like to see games get to the finish line. Even though they are theoretically our competitors, at the end of the day, I think the market is still growing and we need more enthusiasts, we need more seasoned and experienced publishers because it helps everybody.  Let me give you an example.  Let’s say you have a Kickstarter project for board game based on a super hot property, and then it comes out or doesn’t come out and it is super delayed. That affects all of us because the crowd funding reputation drops, right. People get burned and you say, “Oh my goodness, this is terrible, I’ll never back another campaign again.” And it is a loss to all of us, in terms of publishers. So where we can avoid that happening,  we like to, I mean, of course you can’t go to someone else and say “Don’t compete with me”, but you can say, “If you’re going to compete with me, please at least do it properly”, so it doesn’t destroy the comments that we all share.

Richard:                                I like that stance.  I have friends that either don’t know what a Kickstarter is; they never heard of it at all. I have another group of friends that simply don’t trust Kickstarter. They haven’t backed a single project, they are uncomfortable with the time-delay aspect, the whole waiting six months or even a year to get something they paid for.  Now I know some others that have backed one or two projects and they had a bad experience, and since then they’ve sworn never to back another project. And then there are people like me: I love Kickstarter. Being a part of the community, helping bring something to life, push it across the finish line. That feels good. Although I can’t deny getting all of the extras, or the exclusives, that come with some Kickstarter games is another reason that I back Kickstarter games very regularly.

Chern Ann:                           Yes, I mean you raised a good point which is exclusives. Some people don’t like the idea of exclusives because, I mean for all kinds of reasons, like it is elitist, or it’s unfair. But this is my personally philosophy which I put into the company. There is a lot of risk actually. Even with us, like when you give us money, seven, eight months, sometimes a year in advance, that is money you are not going to be seeing for quite a long time. And you could have been using it to do a lot of other stuff. You could have like taken your kids to the movies, or you could buy another game.  You know you’ve got to give some kind of value, something that has got to be in it for the customer. Right? So you say, “Thank you very much for trusting us with your hard earned money so early and here is what we can do for you in return.” Of course we can’t do that to the expense of core game experience, because obviously we want to be able to provide that to people who are unprepared to take the risk or do not know about the product.  So you’ll see that our games are designed first with the retail product in mind, and then our exclusives are all kinds of fun stuff that we throw in just to sweeten the deal. It’s like those pre-orders at Game Stop where you get like a special colored light saber or some additional companion character if you purchase by a certain time, you know, that kind of thing.

Richard:                                Yeah, I’m familiar with pre-ordering video games. You can get a mount or a companion pet that often isn’t available outside of that pre-order process.

Chern Ann:                           That is exactly the same philosophy, yes.

Richard:                                You briefly touched on your personal philosophy toward Kickstarter. I would like to expand on that. What does it take to have a successful Kickstarter campaign? Can you list some things that are important, that you think every Kickstarter needs, or at least needs to take into account?

Chern Ann:                           My first rule is that the campaign is not successful until you ship. So the actual Kickstarter part of it, when the campaign is running and you are trying to fund and things like that, you need to keep in mind the final goal which is to get the product to the customer, or to the backer, without bankrupting yourself. And it is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the campaign and to over promise or kind of like hand wave a bit and say “Oh, I think shipping will cost me like $15 and that should be fine. Let’s just put that down.” So planning is extremely important.  If you are a first time creator, my advice is to go for a smaller project, especially if you have never done mail order or logistics before, because a lot of things will surprise you. There is a lot of stuff that are gotchas. For example let’s say, “Shipping within the United States will cost me $8.00, so I’ll charge my customers $8.00” but then a lot of people forget that there is a credit card fee of X% and there is a Kickstarter fee as well, so when you charge $8.00 you are only getting about $6.80 and after that, Fedex/USPS is going to say, “Look, I’m not going to give you a discount because you charged less, that’s on you.” So a lot of these things can add up, especially if the project becomes extremely successful and if this is not managed properly. If you take a loss on one thousand units and you are out of pocket for like $2.00 each, that’s the kind of stuff that personal credit card can take care of, but if you have 20,000 units and you get a loss of  $5.00 or $6.00 each, that is something you can’t recover from.  Ironically, mistakes get magnified the more successful you are during the campaign.

Richard:                                I don’t think that most people take into account the whole scale of growth factor and what happens if you are off by only a few dollars which quickly becomes thousands of dollars when multiplied by thousands of backers. I think most people think that blowing up on Kickstarter is a good problem to have, but as you pointed out it can be a very expensive problem and one that you can’t really get out from under.

Chern Ann:                           Yes precisely. In some situations, without naming names, you know projects where it makes more sense to refund the backer than to ship the product to them.

Richard:                                Sad but true, yeah. Let’s talk about economies of scale and how expensive it is to make plastic miniatures.  Is there a threshold or a tipping point where you think it is not feasible to include minis in a game?

Chern Ann:                           If you’re going for metal or resin miniatures, stuff that is okay for very low production runs, I don’t think there is really a tipping point. You can make ten as cheaply as one hundred, for instance. It’s when you make plastic figurines that it becomes an issue. For plastic, the advantages of plastic of course, it’s a lighter material, some people prefer to use it for modelling, and it is cheaper per unit to inject than it is to cast the same miniature in metal because metal has material cost. Tin is quite expensive. So for plastic, the costs are not so obvious. I mean the obvious cost is the mould cost, the moulds might cost you like $7,000 to $8,000 for a mould that will only fit five or six figures. So that’s quite expensive when you consider if you are only going to sell 200 of these figures. It is not really feasible. And on top of that, when you’re injecting in plastic you have to sculpt for plastic. The material has very different properties from metal and resin, so a lot of first time Kickstarter creators that are, “I’m trying to get into miniatures” but they have no expense in miniatures, this always worries me because it is very easy to make mistakes. And we have made these mistakes in the past, which is why we know. It is very easy to make mistakes with plastic figurines because if you want it to look a certain way, PVC has different properties than metal, it will shrink more, so for example, if you want a muscular barbarian you need to sculpt him a little bit more muscular than what you want the final result to be simply because everything shrinks. And this is not something that, especially for those game creators or project owners that come from a video game background, that are used to doing something in CAD and then after that expecting to see the exact final result. That doesn’t happen with plastic; it is quite difficult.

Richard:                                That sounds like something that is isn’t easily discovered or thought about until it actually happens to you?

Chern Ann:                           Yes, well, there are actually are a lot of resources online that will tell you “Okay, plastic manufacturing process, keep this in mind, keep this in mind”, but when you are too focused on the Kickstarter campaign itself rather than thinking about the manufacturing processes, etc, or the stuff that comes after, it can be lost in the shuffle. And of course you are asking me about a tipping point, so for plastic it really depends. If you want to take full advantage of the low cost of producing miniatures in plastic then you want to include more figurines inside the game box. But of course with more figurines it would mean that you have more moulds. And more cost alone, for example, for something like The Others was in the six figures already. If the campaign did anything less than $100,000.00 it would be a wash. You couldn’t pay for the moulds. When I see campaigns that are doing far less than that and promising plastic figurines, I am not sure what’s happening. Most likely there are some external funds that are coming from outside to try to get the company off the ground but it is not, in and of itself, the project is not really viable in my opinion. And this is not to discourage first time creators that want to publish miniature games. But it’s very, very helpful if you don’t have direct experience with this yourself that you work with someone who has. Like a very experienced caster or a very experienced factory, who will tell exactly what can and cannot be done, and you need to listen to them. It is very important when you hire an expert you listen to the expert and don’t say, “You are wrong, I think we can do this on the cheap.” That almost never works out.

Richard:                                Let’s talk about the very first Kickstarter campaign for CoolMiniOrNot. Was the plan at that early stage to be a legitimate board game publisher? Or was the thought more along the lines of, it’s kind of a one off deal and we’ll just see how it goes?

Chern Ann:                           Well, back to Super Dungeon Explore, once we released that game it took a while to get some traction because the miniature board game experience wasn’t very well known at that time. I think the only other company that was doing it in a major way was Games Workshop and that was very strongly tied to their IP, so you’ll recall their games like Space Hulk, which would be a self-contained board game with miniatures in it. No one else was really doing something like that, at least on the scale that we’re contemplating. But when the game came out we ordered, let’s see, I think we had the minimum run that was in the five figures, so it was a decent size run. Originally there was some resistance from distribution, they were like “Well, you know, I don’t think this will sell; the game is expensive” etc, etc. And eventually people kind of started coming around and said, “Oh, you know, actually this is the kind of experience that I want to play with my kids.” Gamers my age, I don’t have time to paint a 2,000 point Warhammer army anymore, right.  I love miniatures so I want something that is a self-contained experience. And that worked out quite well for us. So, we thought, “Okay this is interesting. As a market segment I think that miniature board games actually exist.  Let’s focus on that.”  At the time… so immediately after that, we decided, “Let’s see what else can we do that we don’t need to have a huge amount of marketing to do to communicate our game idea across.” So let’s do something like zombies, the zombie apocalypse, that kind of thing has been done, I wouldn’t say “done to death”, but it has been done a lot. So when you say zombies everybody has an idea of what a zombie is. A shambling guy who is dead, not very smart, he’s rotting. When I say zombie, I don’t need to explain, in all kinds of detail, what a zombie is.  Whereas, if I said, “This new monster is called Gigo, and he has these superpowers where he can penetrate you with his eyebeams from a hundred yards away.” That is the kind of thing that is a tough sell.  Zombies are easy sell because all the, Night of the Dead, all those movies, Army of Darkness, etc, or Evil Dead, have all permeated our cultural consciousness, so that made it easier for a small company to not  have to fight upstream. We kind of relied on marketing that was done by all the great movies that came before. So that is why we decided to do zombies. And, coincidentally, at that time, Guillotine Games, you know we mentioned this to the Guillotine Games boys, because we met them at Gen Con, and we said, “You know, we are looking to do a zombie game because it looks like Super Dungeon Explore is fairly successful.” And then they said, “Oh yeah, actually we were developing something like that and we were looking for a traditional publisher, like FFG or someone like that”  I said, “Oh, in that case why don’t you  work with us and let’s put this together and then we will publish it.” Because the comment at that time was, most of the existing publishers would say, “Wow, to make it, to realize your vision, the game is going to be super expensive. The game is going to have to retail for $90.00.” Completely unheard of in the board game industry at that time. We were prepared to take the chance because we were new, what we have to lose. So we started working with Guillotine Games. When it came time to commit to ordering the quantity, manufacturing and everything, paying for tools, etc. I told them, “Hey, you know, why don’t we consider Kickstarter?” Because I’d been following Kickstarter quite closely since it started in 2009. And the landscape was changing. You had these games that were funding for, I think at the time the most funded game was for $110,000.00 or $115,000.00, something like that, and I said, “You know, this is interesting;  at least we will get some marketing out of it, we’ll get some initial cash flow. Why don’t we try that?” And of course everybody was saying, “Oh, you know, it’s going to make us look weak.” “What if it doesn’t work?” I said, “Look, what do we have to lose? It’s just the market campaign.” I ran the first campaign, and a few of the subsequent ones, and that’s all she wrote really.

Richard:                                Wow, yeah. I show that Zombicide did about $780,000. Not too shabby.

Chern Ann:                           We were extremely lucky. You need to be good and you need to be lucky. And we were. I think the game was good, it is not our game, it was Guillotine’s game at the time. That’s a good game, or rather it fit the team very well; it communicated itself very well to people. And coincidentally, Ogre was funding at the same time, by Steve Jackson Games, and that got a lot of attention. And we got attention by proxie right? Penny Arcade actually did a blog post about what’s happening on Kickstarter. These games were funding like $300,000-$400,000, that’s incredible. Who would have thought that three years ago, even a year ago, that this would be possible. And we were mentioned in the same breath as Ogre, and I can’t remember but there was another title at the time.  That gave us a huge boost which allowed us to finish the campaign extremely strong with 5,000 backers.

Ricard:                                   We talked about the Zombicide for a little bit and that is one game that is very polarizing in the board game community. Some people absolutely love it, they have all three sets and are waiting for the fourth. Others downright loathe it. What do you say to the detractors of Zombicide?

Chern Ann:                           Try all the games.  It doesn’t have to be, I mean a game doesn’t have to be all things to all people. I think that’s a mistake. That’s Design 101, right? You literally cannot be all things to all people. But you can make lots of different things, and then maybe one thing will be something that is your cup of tea. We have stuff that’s very gentle; we have stuff that’s very competitive. We have actually, as you said in the beginning, we have quite a large library of games.

Richard:                                Yeah, one of my favorite games CoolMiniOrNot games is Dogs of War and I think that is actually the least funded Kickstarter campaign by CoolMiniOrNot.

Chern Ann:                           Oh yeah, that’s because it’s something that we are not known for, which is producing euro titles. It’s just what happened to the first Arcadia Quest, it is because people do not know. It’s like, “Oh, they are using the same cutesy style figurines as Super Dungeon Explore so it must be the same type of game.” And we tell people “No, it’s not.” It is not something that you can, how shall we say, people need to touch it, try it, and feel it to understand, “Oh, this is what the difference is.” So which is why the second Kickstarter to follow on, Arcadia Quest: Inferno, did a lot better than the first one. So we expect that as we publish more euro titles, people understand, “Oh, you know, we’re kind of trusted in euro titles, you should enjoy yourself.” It’s like we understand euro sensibility, even though we make miniature games, we are gamers at our heart, at our core. We can enjoy Ameritrash, we can enjoy euro, and it doesn’t really mean we are exclusively one or the other.

Richard:                                Have you yourself played all the CoolMiniOrNot games?

Chern Ann:                           I’ve played them in some form, maybe not the final form but in the playtest form, or the preview form. But, yes. I think the only one I haven’t played in detail I think would be Inferno, because I haven’t had the chance to try out everything in the expansions yet.

Richard:                                And now we’re going to go inside the board designer’s game studio. Question No. 1: What is your preferred method of dealing with a zombie infestation?

Chern Ann:                           That’s a good question. If it was me personally, I would get up my entire family, and head for the hills, as far away from other people as possible.

Richard:                                Okay. Just hightail it?

Chern Ann:                           Yes. Because the problem with the zombies is other people are potential zombies, right? So we just need to not be near potential zombies.

Richard:                                Yeah. I’ve had basically the same conversation with my wife and that is we are going to go someplace remote, Wyoming, South Dakota, somewhere that has around twenty people in the whole state. That’s exaggeration, but you know, but these very sparsely populated, no high densities zones.

Chern Ann:                           Yeah, because if you going to run to a fortress with other survivors, it’s basically a packed lunch, really.

Richard:                                Question no. 2. At a movie theatre, which armrest is yours? The right or the left? Or do you go all in and command both armrests for yourself?

Chern Ann:                           Let me see… The left armrest would be mine. Well actually no, let me change my answer: Both armrests would be mine.

Richard:                                Okay, nice. Would you rather be able to speak and understand all human languages? Or would you rather be able to communicate with animals?

Chern Ann:                           I’d rather be able to communicate with animals because I think they would be quite interesting.  I mean I am biased because I work with a guy that speaks seven or eight languages, so that’s a superpower that people already have. Speaking with animals? That’s going to be kind of new.

Richard:                                Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.  We’ve certainly gained insight into CoolMiniOrNot, some of its Kickstarter processes, and I know and I certainly appreciate everything that CoolMiniOrNot pours into their games. So thank you for taking the time to speak with Board Game Authority.

Chern Ann:                           Thank you very much for having me.

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