To comply with my confidentiality agreement I have omitted and appropriated confidential information. The information in this case study is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Hot Banana Games.
Steam Up is a family-friendly competitive Dim Sum collection board game with a delicious authentic cultural experience for 2-5 players. I co-designed this board game as a passionate project to introduce authentic Asian culture and uplift Asian representation in the board game space. The game was awarded as the Ion Award's winner in 2021.
To publish Steam Up, I co-founded Hot Banana Games, a board game publisher aiming to bring authentic Asian themed board games to all tables. We collectively raised over $1 million from our crowdfunding campaign and pre-orders with the support from 10K+ backers from over 50 countries. The game is set for a global retail release in 2023.
Board Game Designer, UX/UI Designer, Co-founder
Backers of the Kickstarter campaign
I started this passionate project as a board game designer. Then, I took on the role as the UX/UI designer later on. After we carefully considered to self-publish Steam Up and founded Hot Banana Games, my role as a co-founder shifted my work from designing to game and business development where I focused on branding, marketing, producing, and selling.
As a group of board game enthusiasts, my friends and I often experienced dissonance while playing modern board games. We quickly realized the cause was due to the lack of diversity and representation in board games.
An article by Elizabeth Hargrave, an award-winning board game designer, and a study analysis by Dr. Tanya Pobuda, an academic board game researcher, shed light on the topic of race and gender diversity in the board game industry. They brought constructive discussions amongst the community that were essential for the industry to evolve.
In recent years, many businesses have included significantly more Asian representation and proven success with tremendous profit. An obvious example is in the film industry with recent popular hit titles such as Crazy Rich Asians, Squid Game and Shang-Chi. We believe the board game industry can adapt to do the same. We wanted to do our part with our game, Steam Up.
According to various research, Asian Canadians and Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in North America with higher buying power than other demographic groups over the past 20 years. They are constantly looking for relatable products, such as Steam Up, to buy with confidence. Steam Up can help diversify the board game space, build stronger connection with the community, and convert new audiences into future board game enthusiasts.
As a team of 3, we liked to choose a theme that was closely related to our cultural background. We wanted to use Dim Sum as the theme due to our familiarity with the cuisine. Enjoying Dim Sum at a traditional Chinese restaurant have been a long-time family tradition for us all. We wanted to help spread this tradition and enable the world to learn about the cuisine through an authentic, fun, and immersive gaming experience.
Before we proceed with using Dim Sum as the theme, we needed to ensure the idea was feasible. One of the sources we researched on was BoardGameGeek, the largest online board game database. Doing a search of "Dim Sum" in the database showed very few existing titles related to the theme. These titles also shared the same genre—they were all card games.
Steam Up is a board game to transform a traditional culture into an authentic, fun, and immersive experience. For players who are familiar with Dim Sum, this game may trigger a nostalgic feeling that stimulates them to revisit their favorite Dim Sum restaurant. For players who are new to the cuisine, this game will teach them about the culture and spark their curiosity to try Dim Sum on their next food adventure.
To get started, we used the good old paper and pen along with game pieces from other board games to brainstorm gameplay ideas. We deliberately avoid creating a card-only game since other competitions with the same theme were all under the card game genre.
Our first concept was about gathering ingredients and cooking Dim Sum to serve customer's orders in a Dim Sum restaurant. We ditched the idea due to its similarity to Overcooked, a popular co-op cooking video game at the time.
After struggling some time for a new concept, we shifted our focus to Dim Sum experiences we had as customers and how Dim Sum was served. We then thought of stacking Dim Sum steamers on a turntable, which later became a signature of Steam Up.
After we had a minimalistic playable prototype, we started playtesting with the team, friends, family, and local board game design groups. With feedback and observations from each playtest, we rapidly iterated the prototype followed by more playtesting.
As our game design became more defined, we were at a turning point to decide if we should proceed further before investing more time and money to Steam Up. In the board game industry, there are usually 2 paths to get a game published:
A tabletop publisher would sign to license a game with full creative control. Their role is to make the game into a finish product based on market needs and sell for profit.
This path is beneficial to keep full control of a game, but also means having the full responsibility as a publisher who may succeed or fail to gather funding through crowdfunding platform such as Kickstarter. We are basically starting a new business.
A few publishers had shown interest in licensing the game but we ultimately refused after careful consideration. Two of our team members, Pauline and I, decided to proceed with self-publishing for the benefit of having full control of our game. We believed we can deliver the best authentic cultural gaming experience and thus Hot Banana Games, our tabletop publisher company, was established.
We submitted Steam Up to various international competitions to gain feedback from industry professionals. We also wanted to test our game against other games. In the end, Steam Up was awarded as the 2021 winner of the Ion Award and the finalist of design competitions including the Cardboard Edison Award and the Otto Award.
To have a board game made, we needed an experienced board game manufacturer we could trust. We explored over 20 board games manufacturers globally, getting quotations and sample boxes, then finally settled with our current manufacturer.
A board game needed illustrations and graphic design with its UI to uplift its gaming experience. We sourced our illustrators through different channels, including ArtStation, Behance, Instagram, Twitter, and the Hong Kong Society of Illustrators. We particularly commissioned artists who had a prior understanding of Dim Sum with an art style that matched with Steam Up.
We upgraded our prototype to the closest possible to the final product with the help of many local talents using 3D printers, laser cutters, and print shops.
Due to significant changes made to the prototype, playtesting the game again was essential. Unfortunately, this was when the pandemic hit. We continued playtesting within the team as much as we could. We also quickly adapted to move playtesting online using Tabletop Simulator through Steam. This method actually allowed us to reach a wider audience in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, and age, helping us to further refine the game throughout the process.
Did you know that tabletop games have a huge presence on Kickstarter? In 2021, the category raised a breaking record of $272 million on the platform. Many exiting tabletop publishers, big and small, have been using the platform for years to gather funds to manufacture board games. For us as an indie publisher with no initial funds, using Kickstarter to run a successful funding campaign was essential to us. To do so, we needed a marketing strategy to promote the game early.
From a survey in 2019, board game players are mostly aged between 25 and 54, with 35-44 as the most dominant age group. This age group was coincidentally also the largest audience on Facebook.
With that in mind, we started to become part of the community, connecting to potential audiences in existing Facebook groups. We engaged audiences to learn about Steam Up, try it online, follow us on social media, and subscribe to our newsletter. We also applied similar marketing strategy on Twitter, Instagram, and Discords.
We started early in building a fan-based community, particularly on Facebook. We recognized our fans would likely to become early adopters in our Kickstarter funding campaign. They were also the best crowd who would genuinely spread good words to other communities where we might never reached on our own.
Learning that our game was loved by fans from all over the world was truly an amazing experience. Our fans would always have a special place in our hearts.
The pandemic forced many board game conventions to go online. For that reason, we could actually participate in more conventions that we couldn't have attended in-person. These conventions enabled us to showcase Steam Up to international audiences.
With almost a year of pre-campaign marketing effort, we collectivey gathered approximately 3,200 pre-launch page subscribers, 2500 email subscribers, 300 group members, and other followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Discords before the campaign launched in October 2021.
We learned from other crowdfunding campaigns that successfully funded early was the key to generate momentum for the remaining days of a campaign. The moment we launched, we immediately engaged our community through social media and email newsletter. Our community members funded the campaign with a $40,000 funding goal in 33 minutes after it began. By the end of the first day, we raised over $110,000!
Facebook Ads played a major role to bring new and old traffics to our Kickstarter campaign page. Based on stats from Facebook, Google Analytics and Kickstarter referral link tracking, we optimized our Facebook Ads to achieve best results.
We collaborated with content creators on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and other platforms to release video and written content gradually throughout the campaign. We specifically worked with creators with diverse backgrounds to introduce Steam Up in different languages.
While our Kickstarter campaign was generally successful, there were hiccups we needed to overcome along the way.
One of the features on Kickstarter was allowing backers to comment on a campaign. While most comments were supportive, we would received demands and complaints like many customer-driven businesses. Some complaints, such as high shipping rates, pushed us to look for better deals with our partners. Other times, we learned to say no in a positive way with valid reasons.
Setting a reasonable funding goal was also risky during COVID in the supply chain crisis when the cost of everything, especially freight, reached a new hike. Freight rates were at least 400% higher than they were pre-pandemic. Although we wouldn't be using freight in a year time, we had to guesstimate a worst-case scenario and prepared ourselves for costs that might hike further in the future.
After the crowdfunding campaign, our publishing journey officially began. We have been working closely with our manufacturer in production while regularly updating our supporters with transparency on Kickstarter.
Outside of Kickstarter, we also have been gathering pre-orders, also known as late pledges, on our website. Together with the campaign, we have collectively raised over $1 million with support from over 10,000 backers from over 50 countries.
Steam Up: A Feast of Dim Sum is estimated to be at our backers' door by Q1 2023. It will then be released in over 1000 retail stores in North America. Localization is also underway for the game to be translated and published in other languages.