Hidden Leaders is a small card game that is currently running very successfully on Kickstarter. In the game, two to six players, as children of the deceased emperor, try to exert influence on allied factions. The player who plays his characters most skillfully and leads an allied faction to victory has a good chance of going down in history as the emperor's heir to the throne. The game impresses with simple rules, a well thought-out scoring mechanism and an extraordinary design.
We had the opportunity to talk in detail about the project with two of the three sympathetic heads behind Hidden Leaders/BFF Games.
Would you like to introduce yourselves briefly?
Markus: I'll start with the third member of the group, my brother Andreas, who unfortunately can't be with us today. Andreas is our historian and data analyst who deals with the whole social media world and lives our Boardgame Gobelin (that's our mascot on social media). I myself am Markus, currently live in Berlin but also come from Austria and will soon move back to Vienna as well. I work as a Product Manager for Software Development - when I'm not working on boardgames. The three of us have been playing board games together for about 20 years and I'm the one who likes to dig into the mechanics and optimize the last detail of the mechanics. In parallel I also take care of the finances.
Raphael: I'm Raphael, father, just over 30 years old and currently working as an architect. In the BFF team I mainly do artwork, i.e. artist communication, the back office and maintain contacts with publishers and influencers.
How did BFF come into being?
Markus: Raphael and I went to nursery together and then also attended elementary school together. From this, a game friendship developed beyond that. We played The Dark Eye many days and nights, but then also increasingly more other types of games. At the age of 16 - 17 we built our own versions of pen&paper and strategy games for the first time and developed prototypes again and again. At some point we founded an association for our common LARP group to make the hobby of board and role playing games more accessible. We also want to reuse some of the money we make to finance the activities of the association. Last year we organized our first LARP event with the association and we want to set accents in the future.
How did you then come up with the idea to publish a boardgame?
Raphael: Markus and Andreas played with the idea to implement our LARP world, which we live out once a year at the Conquest of Mythodea near Hannover, as a boardgame. We created our own world there, because we couldn't cope with all the hustle and bustle of Mythodea. I.e. once a year we have time and we like to do that, but to everything that happens below the year in this community we didn't find the connection. That's why we created our own world and used the ambience there to push our game forward. That's where the basic concept of Hidden Leaders was created, still as a much more opulent game with many different mechanics. But the core element of the game was what we ultimately reduced it to: moving a marker on the scoreboard and using it to covertly bring your faction to victory. That's when we saw that this was an idea that we wanted to pursue and that other people might like.
We then contacted a few publishers with the idea. At that time, we had the basic concept, but we hadn't yet collaborated with Satoshi Matsuura, so it was a rough version of Hidden Leaders. When we didn't hear back from the publishers, we decided to publish it on Kickstarter.
Didn't you get any feedback, or just no positive feedback?
Markus: Not a positive one, exactly. We wrote to about ten publishers with the concept, the artwork was relatively simple. For most of them it wasn't interesting or too violent and from two publishers there was no feedback at all. That's just classic, if you as a newbee in such a field have nothing really to see and touch, publishers are cautious. After we had a nice artwork and a cool website, they realize the potential of something like that. Of course, nine months later, the whole thing was much more mature, but of course we invested in it in advance.
We liked the concept right away, actually publishers should recognize such a potential?!
Markus: Yes, but you still have to say that the packaging in terms of artwork makes a lot of difference. First of all, it always looks nice and then usually comes, but it's also a pretty good game. Especially card games do not stand out in the field of croudfounding as much as the many material battles with the latest craziest figures that are always very well funded. So we were lucky that Raphael convinced us about the artwork. Originally a rather dark fantasy setting was planned. Now the artwork is the first eye-catcher and many say then - also a super game. We are glad that you liked it.
I think unlike other card games Hidden Leaders does not get boring so quickly!
Markus: Yes, I have a lot of games here and after playing 10 times it usually gets boring and I don't want to see the game again for a few months. This also applies to our own developments, where I say after the third game, I need a break. I've played Hidden Leaders about 250-300 times in the last year and I have to say I'm still in the mood for it. Kind of weird, but a good sign.
With Hidden Leaders, however, it is an advantage if you know the cards, or?
Raphael: Yes, definitely. There is a certain demand on the players, of course. We created a tutorial version with only 52 cards, leaving out the difficult cards. Someone once described the game as a filler for gamers, which is not super far away from a family game now, but still has tactical depth.
Markus: That was our intention to say, we like to play demanding games, but we would like to have a game that is shorter and still has an interesting claim and allows depth. That was the idea: little complexity, a lot of depth in the possibilities. It was always exciting during playtesting, when you played it with hardcore gamers, that you got the feedback: oh, that's a nice simple game. Then you play it with people who only play classic family games and something like UNO and co. and they say: wow, that's a challenging game, so much to read and every card is different. It's so interesting to see how different the worlds are there that we often thought, who are we actually building the game for now, or where are we optimizing it? We then said that we'll try to place it nicely in the middle, so that it's accessible to family players who play regularly. Still, we didn't want to streamline it so hard that it's no longer interesting for frequent players. We also have some exciting expansions in mind that we have already pre-tested, which will make the game much more interesting for experts. One more point: it was also important to us that skill is important. That is, if you are really good at the game, you have a higher chance of winning, but it is not so that someone who is very good at the game is sure to win every game.
Raphael: It also depends on the group of players. If we play the game with new players, we naturally have an advantage. When we play among ourselves as many players, the game develops into a mind game, i.e. you think that your opponent is planning his next move and I play my cards accordingly. So planning ahead how the opponents might act.
I can imagine the game works well for my daughters at 15 and 11!
Raphael: We conceptualized it in the beginning for an age of 14+ because of certain restrictions. After Daniel from Boardame Circus, which is one of our partners for the german speaking region, approached us and asked how serious we were about the 14+, we reconsidered. He saw the age of entry as 10 - 12 years. If someone learns the game together with the children at an age of 10 - 12 years, they have quite a chance to find the game interesting.
How did the artwork come about and how did you come up with Satoshi Matsuura?
Raphael: That was a funny story. Originally, a lot of ideas and initial impulses came from Markus. He wrote to the designer of Western Legends, simply because he also liked the game. This is the designer Roland Revenge and Markus asked him if he can help us because he also offers consulting for boardgames. During a short Skype call I told him a little bit about our game. Regarding our original artwork, he said in later conversations that you won't sell games with it. It was still in an epic, gritty Dungeons & Dragons design. He then showed us the work of some artists on Pinterest and among them was Satoshi Matsuura - a Japanese artist. When I saw his work, I immediately told Roland that he didn't need to show us anything else. We then contacted Satoshi and tried to win him over to our cause. That worked. There are characters in the game that he drew in the past and also some that were created for the game. We hope that this successful Kickstarter will give Satoshi a stage and an entry into the world of boardgames, because he definitely has the potential.
Have you guys done anything on Kickstarter before?
Markus: This is our first project on Kickstarter and we got some tips beforehand, for example I talked to the founder of Exploding Kittens on the phone, who told me a few things about what to consider and also the guys from Uprising in Berlin gave us great support.
Did you expect the campaign to be so successful?
Markus: Until one or two months before the campaign, we just hoped that we would get the funding and not make a loss with the game and that we would get back some of the costs and time. After all, it's our hobby. But when we got so many great responses from different publishers, our confidence grew. We wrote down our bets on where we would end up with the funding, but all three of us were way off the mark, so we didn't expect that.
So none of you wrote down 139.172 EUR*?
Raphael: No :-), I think I was the most optimistic with about 70.000 EUR.
Markus: Andreas and I were at 50.000 EUR. I would have thought we could hit 100.000 EUR if things went really crazy. But if you look at the predictions from various websites now, we could even crack 200.000 EUR. That would be phenomenal. But what is actually much more important to us, and I prefer to emphasize this, is if we manage to put a game in the hands of 10.000 people who then spend nice evenings with it. Of course, many other games manage much more funding, but 10.000 backers would be a good value for us.
Raphael: What flashed us so much is the community. So many people have written to us saying, hey, this is a really cool game. We have a drawing contest going on Instagram now where people are sending us artwork inspired by the game. We have a great Discord community that is very active in supporting us with playtesting and also contributing to the future expansions.
Are you thinking about starting a publishing company in the future?
Markus: So publishing would be too much now. What we definitely want to do is a second campaign next year for the expansions, which will give the game a different depth. We already have some very concrete ideas, but no timetable yet. After the campaign, we want to make sure that everything is ready for production as soon as possible. I don't think we're going to found a publishing house. We rather enjoy the creative process like design and story and less the pure business aspect behind it. We are all happy in our normal jobs.
You've got quite a load on your hands right now, don't you?
Markus: So for Raphael, that's 100% true. Andreas and I are lucky that we both work freelance. We could divide the projects, which is just a little less at the moment.
Did you do the Kickstarter campaign entirely by yourselves?
Markus: Yes, we do it all ourselves. We spent many hours of the Easter holidays with Photoshop. A designer helped us with some templates, but every update you read, all stories come directly from us.
Do you have an overview of where the backers are coming from?
Raphael: There is a website where you can search for Kickstarter projects and that is what we are referring to. 30% come from the USA, about 15% from Germany and 11 - 12% from France where our partners Matagot and Boardgame Circus are also very involved.
How did you find the partners?
Raphael: We have been contacted by two French publishers who have asked if we want to localize the game. The original plan was to just release it in English, but due to the demand we got in touch with Michael from MeepleOnBoard through a Facebook group. That's our licensing agent who helped us out and got us in touch with all the partners. He is still working in the background to make sure that we can offer one or two more languages. Of course we are very happy about this professional cooperation.
After the Kickstarter, the game will be available in the normal trade?
Markus: Exactly, we have partnerships in various countries and the game will be released there. But the important thing is that there will be a difference between the Kickstarter version and the retail version. That was very important to us, because people entrust us with their money months in advance and take away the risk of funding. That's why the Kickstarter version has a lot of additional material and cards and also the scoreboard has a special quality.
Where is the boardgame produced?
Markus: We originally asked for a lot of production offers, but then decided to do it in cooperation with Matagot, who is a very experienced partner in this area. They have access to production facilities worldwide and many years of experience in producing high-quality games. If we hadn't met all the partners, we might have made a different decision, but having a partner with the knowledge that they would build a high quality game for us was very important. There is only a small difference in price.
Are you currently playing yourself and other games besides Hidden Leaders?
Markus: Since we got the Discord Community I try to play Hidden Leaders two to four times a week. Just yesterday I got Bristol as a Kickstarter, so I'm also curious about it. Less than usual, but I like to play in between.
Raphael: Same here, but in Austria is still a hard lockdown at the moment. Last week I finally got Spirit Island, which you could also play alone. But to be honest I prefer to play with other people. Every now and then I play a Gloomhaven round. But I'm looking forward to when everything loosens up again, people are vaccinated and we can play in a round again. I would have enough games.
Satoshi Matsuura: hiziripro.artstation.com
* Status of the Kickstarter campaign on 04.05.2021