The Sad Sorry Tale of Mr. Card Game

By Haoran Un on at

Mr. Card Game is a loving homage, a novel deck-building game, a Kickstarter debacle, and a cautionary tale about crowdfunding. It's also a story about me winning and losing a t-shirt (not the one I was wearing), and paying too much for the privilege.

Let me tell you the story.

It all begins with The Kingdom of Loathing.

The Kingdom of Loathing is a pun-laden, online, in-browser, grindy MUD-style game drawn in glorious stick-figure art. It was released by Zack "Jick" Johnson in 2003, and since then has amassed a sizable online presence. Stats aren't easily or readily available, but estimates are between 100,000 and 150,000 regular players in 2008, and it's rumoured there's still 10-20k active user accounts as of 2017.

When last I logged in, there were 391 players logged in. Not only were there official KoL Cons (last held in 2016), but there is and continues to be other cons such as the still-running KoLumbus. The 2018 version ran a few weeks ago, and one is scheduled for 2019.

Eschewing tropes only to satirically skewer them on the jagged edges of its razor-sharp wit, Kingdom of Loathing is deep, wide and wacky. Instead of Barbarians, Wizards and Clerics, the standard classes include a Seal Clubber, a Sauceror, and a Pastamancer. Instead of stats such as Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity, the game has Might, Mysticality and Moxie.

Hobgoblins become Knob Goblins, the Liches are Lecherous, and the bartender is called Bart Ender. Also, you have a section of your inventory entirely devoted to booze. It is silly, punny, and hilarious. You can still head over to The Kingdom of Loathing and play.

And then in 2012, Graydon Schlichter and Richard James at Evertide Games had a genius idea. To turn The Kingdom of Loathing into a board game.

At that stage, Evertide Games was a small publisher with a few games under its belt. Despite one unfunded Kickstarter campaign, they would go on to have another Kickstarter success in 2013 called Goblins: Alternate Realities which raised in $177k on Kickstarter. Goblins: (Alternate Reality would then become a Kickstarter disaster story, but that's a story for another day.)

Evertide Games had one thing going for it: the guys behind it were massive KoL fans. They got the appeal of KoL.

Meet the Imps: W Imp, P Imp, G Imp (and a Demoninja thrown in for good measure).

Actually they had another thing: a reasonably sound board game design. Riding on the back of the deck-building wave Dominion had introduced in 2008, they adapted the grindy nature of Kingdom of Loathing into Mr. Card Game, a game where you level up your deck, accumulating more Might, Moxie, Mysticality and Meat tokens, as well as items both cool and questionable by beating monsters in increasingly difficult locations.

In that regard, it plays somewhat like a curious love-child of Munchkin and Thunderstone, more strategic than the former, less serious than the latter.

Beat monsters at increasingly more-difficult locations, level up your deck, until you can take on the Naughty Sorceress, resplendent in stretch-goal foil.

Mr. Card Game: Pretty pretty foils on that naughty Naughty Sorceress (Photo: Haoran Un)

Mr Card Game raised $142,002 on Kickstarter, which was a very large sum for a tabletop game at the time. At the time, most only targeted $10-20k via crowdfunding. The campaign closed on the 17th October 2012, with the original plan to have games in the hands of backers by January 2013.

As you might suspect, this was not the case.

As with many of these stories, the downfall of Mr Card Game was it's success. Every day there'd be a new insane stretch goal. Because they hadn't originally planned for these stretch goals (or, because of hubris, greed, or unrealistic expectations) many of these would go on to blow out the time and cost exponentially.

You can see the issue looking at this list of components from the Kickstarter page.

Contents:

  • 72 Monster/Item Cards
  • 6 Naughty Sorceress Foil Cards ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 6 Instant Karma Foil Cards ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 1 Sorceress Tower Location Card ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 9 Location Map Cards
  • 11 Quest Boss Cards ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 60 Class Skill Cards
  • 144 Character Stat Cards
  • 12 Bonus Character Stat Cards ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 12 Newbie Gear Cards
  • 3 Bonus Newbie Gear Cards ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 1 Certificate of Participation Card
  • 1 Fingers of Fury Card
  • 100 Plastic Meat tokens ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******
  • 1 Rules Booklet
  • 15 Gamecard Separators ****** Stretch Goal Reward Upgrade *******

Each of those "Stretch Goal Reward Upgrades" was an unexpected addition to the game. An extra thing to design, find a supplier for, negotiate about materials, re-make proofs – just another dependency in a long supply and assembly pipeline that would each have their own cumulative ripple effects.

Once you have all your extra components, you find your box no longer fits and you need to go back to the drawing board for those (assuming you don't have to revisit your graphic designer for resized art. Extra boards, plastic tokens, foil cards – it's a beautiful, beautiful dream, but also a large ask when you haven't properly planned all of it out. Each of those unexpected delays cost you a great deal.

I have 44 Project Update emails from Evertide games documenting the journey from exuberance, confidence, cautious optimism, burgeoning pessimism, despair, fear, radio silence, and then mea culpas. They make for sad, sad reading. Another Kickstarter debacle.

Now we've covered Kickstarter debacles before. But this one hurt more, because I never got my free, award-winning t-shirt.

At some point, an exclusive t-shirt was promised as one of the stretch goals. They put a call out to the community to submit entries.

Normally, I would never, ever enter a design contest. I write. I code. I play bass guitar badly. My drawing is far worse than my bass-playing. My seven-year-old can draw better than I can.

But if you've seen the art-style on Kingdom of Loathing, you'll admit that someone who can draw a stick figure with some wit might be able to come up with a t-shirt design. There were more artistic designs, but I'd played Kingdom of Loathing. I knew the humour to channel.

Long-story short, here's my award-winning t-shirt design. You can still find it on 99Designs. This is likely the first and last time I'll ever been called "a winning designer," and I'll take that badge to my grave.

I didn't originally pledge for the t-shirt (do I really need to proclaim to the world that I'm some sort of geek?) but being the award-winning designer, I managed to wrangle a free t-shirt out of the the publishers. They'd send it with my copy of the game.

That was December 2012.

Then ... nothing.

Email received on 22nd May 2014:

Dear International Backer,

If you are receiving this email, it is because it has proven challenging to get your Kickstarter rewards to you because of the part of the world you are located in. We haven't given up on delivering your rewards to you, but we are still working out a way to fulfil to your area in a cost-effective way. We will contact you as soon as we have worked out a solution. In the meantime, we appreciate your patience.

Everyone at Evertide Games

It turns out, Evertide had run out of money and couldn't ship the game.

Having had previous contact with the publishers, I reached out and offered to take a pallet or two for people in Australia. These days, with Australia-friendly campaigns, American companies will organise to have games sent directly from manufacturing in China to one of several Australian fulfilment hubs, who will then send things to Australians by one of our local courier companies or AusPost. With a bit of planning, it's a cost-effective method that doesn't drag out the shipping date.

But in their naiveté, all their stock was now in the US, and so they were stuck trying to ship with USPS. The cost became exorbitant, so they ... gave up on Australia.

Email received, 19th July, 2014.

Now that Mr. Card Game is available for sale through Amazon in the US and Canada, the project has started to produce revenue. This revenue we hope will allow us to fulfill the remaining rewards soon and we plan to do so as soon as we can. But sales have been slow so far, so we are also doing everything we can to reduce expenses.

We are closing down our office, laying off our people and eliminating our operating expenses wherever we can in order to allow us to accumulate the cash we need to deliver all the rewards internationally. We are also resorting to selling off other IP we have to raise the money.

We hope with these drastic measures our cashflow will turn around and allow us to deliver your rewards soon. But, we cannot be certain right now of when that will be and as part of the office closing many of the packages which are ready to go out will be placed into long-term storage until we have the money. So, at the end of this month, the packages will not be accessible for a while.

I reached out. I still wanted my copy. I still wanted to remember the time that I won a t-shirt. They figured out a solution. I needed to pay for shipping.

My personalised letter. A testament to happier times. (Photo: Haoran Un)

Now it's pretty rubbish that, having already paid for shipping originally, I should have to pay for it again. But then again, Evertide failed to do their homework. They charged USD$15 originally for shipping to Australia. Now they wanted USD$50.54 to ship my game to me. They hadn't charged enough originally and I was now paying the price – literally.

(Thankfully, in 2014, the exchange rate was close to a lot better than in 2018.)

Of course, given the emails I'd gotten, it seemed odds-on that the company would go under any second. In which case, I'd never ever see my beautiful Kingdom of Loathing-based game. So I shelled out the money, and got my game. You know what they say about a fool and his money.

There were one or two subsequent project updates after our correspondence. They're the emails of a broken, defeated man who doesn't even have the resources to get their website fixed. I didn't stay mad.

Starting gear and tableau. Note the plastic meat. Also, your special ability is indeed a 'Short Attention Span'. 

No, I didn't get my t-shirt. But I did get my game. The box is hefty and ridiculous. It has ridiculous, stackable meat tokens. It has a shiny, shiny Naughty Sorceress, in six different varieties.

There's some good solid game design here, and a good solid deck-building, tableau-building game. Importantly, it has character. It has oodles and oodles of character built on the very firm – and very funny – foundation of Kingdom of Loathing. As my of my favourite characters in one of my favourite movies says, "personality goes a long way."

Although it's a different property, it very much has the humour and charm of Munchkin, and I love that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Defeat the parody of the painting; win a pitchfork.

At the same time, it's a solid, well-designed game. Deck-building really is a good mechanic to represent the slow progression of dungeon-crawling, increasing your stats and picking up gear. Sorting monsters into locations and levels makes for a messier table, but it fixes one of the big design issues in Munchkin, which is that the very first monster you flip over could just as easily be a level 20 dragon (you're dead!), a level 10 lawyer (you're still dead), or a level 1 dust mite.

The innovation that Mr. Card Game brought was the use of double-sided monster/item cards. Rather than wasting 50% of a card's surface with a uniform playing back, their encounter cards were two-sided, with a monster on one side and the loot for beating it on the reverse side.

Given that the game is very much about not taking things too seriously, it turns out that this is not as annoying as one might imagine, and eliminates a stack of unnecessary housekeeping.

The meat (although entirely silly) is actually well-designed. It stacks together cleverly, and sits in nice piles, and is a great way to accumulate "money" and buy items in a way that doesn't clog your deck – the perennial problem with deck-builders.

Did I mention meat? Yes, it's plastic meat.

Mr. Card Game is a good game. It will never be an all-time classic, but very few games reach that rarefied air.

The important thing is, I like playing it. I have fun. It's funny and silly and pun-tastic – I can play with my kid and we can giggle away as we get around to defeating the Naughty Sorceress.

At the end of the day, it's neither the best nor worst game ever made. But it's a game that made it, and that's more that can be said for a lot of other Kickstarter stories.

Is it a cautionary tale? Perhaps. I am older, wiser, poorer. I've learned lessons about backing Kickstarters.

But I've also got the game, so I can't complain too much.

Good luck getting your hands on Mr. Card Game though. The likelihood of a second printing is incredibly small, and those that already own it are no doubt Kingdom of Loathing fans who are – pardon the expression – loathe to part with it.

This story first appeared on Kotaku Australia.