Ed Carter only asked for $21,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to produce a deluxe version of “Glory to Rome,” one of several board games made by his company, Cambridge Games Factory. But there were far more board game enthusiasts willing to put money into his project than Carter expected. At the end of a 21-day funding period in the summer of 2011, more than 1,600 people had pledged $73,102. That should have made fulfilling the orders easy. Instead, that was when Carter’s nightmare started.
Carter’s company makes cheaply-produced strategy board games. For Carter, who works as an independent consultant, it’s a hobby. The Kickstarter campaign was meant to take it up a notch with a lavishly produced game. In addition, Carter offered the project’s backers (i.e., customers) free shipping on their games if they agreed to collect them from a nearby game store; that way he hoped to build relationships with the stores and avoid paying distributors to sell future games. His background as a retail consultant who had worked in China was meant to be an asset. But what that meant was that Carter was, in his own words, “too clever by half.”
Carter cut out middlemen and went directly to a Chinese producer. But soon after he made the link, his Chinese-speaking head of operations quit over disagreements about free shipping and his relationship with a Chinese girl fell apart, leaving him with nobody who could speak Chinese. Small mistakes compounded his woes: it hadn’t occurred to Carter to add “no step” to the shipping documentation, which would have told handlers not to put anything heavy on top of the fragile game boxes. Stacking one pallet on top of another crushed them. Free shipping eventually came back to haunt him: Large orders to countries like the US were fine, as were a couple of boxes to Brazil, but sending 100 games to Australia meant fat expenses but not enough to benefit from economies of scale.
Carter’s work suffered. The company he contracted at, Staples, was making cuts and Carter found himself without a job. His savings were being ploughed into the game, which he says eventually cost him between $100,000 and $120,000. Running out of cash and faced with expenses from every avenue, Carter stopped making the mortgage on a house he owned outside Boston, which was also his company address. He eventually lost the house. (Carter, who lives in Amsterdam, admits that had he lived in the Boston house, he might not have sacrificed it for the game.)
Meanwhile, Carter’s Kickstarter backers were getting anxious. Nearly a year after the campaign closed, they still hadn’t seen their games. An entire US state was “forgotten” when shipping did start. By March, Carter was facing tremendous pressure on his Kickstarter updates page. In response to a post about losing his house, one commenter wrote:
I’m sorry, but fuck off with your guilt trip at the beginning of your update. As someone who has sat quite [sic], my only crime is donating money to help get this project off the ground. I see no reason why you should be blaming us for your downfall. Most of this update was unnecessary and I’m done with this company.
All that for a board game. Still, Carter says he might consider doing it again. “I’m doing this because the corporate world is one of the best games ever invented.” says Carter, who has shipped most of the units and now has a new job. “In the middle of the hell, there were plenty of times when I wished I hadn’t kicked it off. But given where it’s landed, I learnt stuff. And the game itself is beautiful.”