Sunday, September 15, 2013

Stacking the Deck and Other Tricks for Demoing Games

For the first of a two-week series of lessons from Gen Con, Max discusses ways to effectively demo games, including why he whole-heartedly recommends stacking the deck with no moral quandaries!

It's been exactly one month since I set off to Gen Con this year.  For those of you not in the know, Gen Con is one of North America's largest primarily nondigital games conventions, with over 49,000 attendees this year and growing.  I would like to be able to summarize big important game design lessons I learned at Gen Con, as I did with the Come Out and Play festival back in July, but unfortunately I didn't really play any new games at Gen Con; I spent the entire con demoing Tiltfactor's games at the Tiltfactor booth (except for one strange night where I played the Bratz Passion for Fashion board game).  Instead I'll share what I did get to experience: demoing games at booths at cons.

I have no regrets.

I've been demoing Buffalo and ZOMBIEPOX/POX for years now, so I'm going to use these two games as my core examples.  This is a chronological list of tips and tricks for running great demos starting with choosing the right people to try to rope in to games and ending with game over.

5. Target the Right Groups
Every game has a different optimal play size and a different target audience.  Start by trying to attract the right sized group.  ZOMBIEPOX, for example, can be played with one or two players, so I can really solicit any sized group for the game.  On the other hand Buffalo plays best with huge groups of players.  Now through experience I've found that it tends to be really hard to attract a group of more than 4, because you can only ever get the attention of the first 2-3 players.  If the group is much larger than that, the rest of the group will carry them on past the booth.  When attracting players for Buffalo I don't even bother trying for individuals because they won't have fun playing.

Demographics are an issue here.  There's no surefire way to know what kinds of people are going to like your game by sight, and it changes for each con as the demographics of the attendees will be different, but over time you will learn what kinds of attendees enjoy the game.  Some of these are obvious: groups with kids around 8 years old tend to enjoy ZOMBIEPOX, as it's primarily a game for families and kids.  Others will be less obvious and you'll have to just notice the patterns.

4. Let Them Know What They're Getting Into
Before a player has committed to demoing your game on an exhibit hall floor they'll really want to know one thing: "how long?"  If you think the game's play time is a selling point (i.e., it's really short for its genre), definitely volunteer it!  Both Buffalo and POX are really short games, and that's our number one way of getting people to demo them.  In fact, we pitch Buffalo as "the fastest game to learn at the con" to passers-by.  Of course, longer playtime is by no means a dealbreaker, but you have to tell the players.  You'll be doing nobody a favor by cajoling a group that isn't willing to spend the time into demoing your game - they'll be pissed, they'll immediately dislike the game, and you'll have wasted your time.  Instead, invite players who don't have enough time to come back later when they do!  They won't always come back but they'll return more than you'd think because that's one of the main things they're at the con for.

The same goes for genre, which you should identify as soon as possible after game length.  There are some players who simply don't like party games, or don't like coop games, or only like miniatures games.  Don't force it!  Let them bail or watch if they don't like the genre.

3. Observe, Don't Play
If at all possible just teach and officiate the game, don't play.  In cooperative games the temptation is really high to pilot the other players so that you all do well.  This will obviously not be fun for them.  In competitive games there's a temptation to win, but even if you don't win some players will suspect that you just threw the game (whether you did or not).  In addition, you don't want to give away the game's strategies!  As most games are not single player, this means you'll want to have recruited a large enough group without you.  If you MUST play, see number 1 below.

2. Scaffold the Game (By Stacking the Deck)
As we've mentioned previously, engineering card draws is one way to design first-play rules to help ease players into a game.  Unfortunately, it's clunky to ask players to stack a deck.  When demoing, however, the designer has ample opportunity and ability to stack the deck before the players even come in contact with it!  When stacking a game deck for a demo, you'll want to pay attention to two aspects: easy start, and staggering new mechanics.

Easy start is pretty simple: make the first cards the players see simple.  The first impression of the cards can make or break a demo, and the easier the better.  This is true in strategy games, but it's also true of even simple party games.  In Buffalo, for example, I've tried starting with many different adjective-noun pairs (the players have to name a person that matches these pairs).  It's amazing to see how easy the pair needs to be before first time players can quickly jump in.  I like to start with something super obvious like "Male" "Wizard" (expecting the answer "Harry Potter"), since I've even seen players get stumped by "African-American" "Head of State" (hint: America's).  Once players get this pair and maybe a few easy ones after it, I leave the deck shuffled and players start easily naming "Hispanic" "Lawyers" and "Pre-1900s" "Millionaires," but they needed those easy pairs to get the juices flowing and to not be overwhelmed.

Seriously just order the cards then put them back on top in between games.  Nobody will notice.
Staggering new mechanics is also pretty straightforward.  As the teacher, you want to introduce a new mechanic every few turns.  This means that you'll want to stack the deck as such.  In POX, for example, I like to let there be 3 turns of the "Spread" card before they draw an "Outbreak" card so I can avoid teaching that for several turns and let them get acquainted with the base mechanic.  If possible you'll even want to leave base mechanics out for a few turns by saying something like "There's one more rule that I need to introduce, but I'll get to that in a few turns."  For example, an upcoming Tiltfactor game that we demoed a prototype of a Gen Con has player powers that come into the game once players have collected enough cards.  I like to put off explaining these powers until round two or so because players can't really even unlock the powers until that round.

1. Make it Close and Make Them Win
Players like to win.  There's no doubt about that.  But in my experience it's not the winning that players necessarily want - it's the feeling of mastery.  They want to feel like they've discovered something they are good at, and in my budding theory of why people play games, finding something they are better at than other people (which I refer to as "Mastery") is a big motivator.  The goal of your demo should be to let at least one of the players and ideally all of the players walk away with that feeling.

As we've discussed, making a game end feel like this is perfect.
Cooperative games: This one is pretty easy!  In POX, for example, I stack the deck to make sure they don't get too many terrible draws in a row.  If a group is struggling I make subtle suggestions and commend good moves.  If a group is doing really well there's not much that can be done.  It's good that they'll win, but ideally there would be some challenge involved or they won't have any interest in replaying the game.

Competitive games: Competitive games are challenging.  The trick here is to make the game as close as possible.  One player has to win but you want them all to discover interesting strategies and feel good about their play decisions.  To engineer this I like to make sure opening card draws allow for good diverse choices (when applicable).  To keep the game close, I often offer subtle recommendations when it happens to be the turn of the player who's weakest, and let the player who's in first misplay without suggesting better strategies.  Always commend good moves, especially those made by the players who are behind.  If (heaven forbid) you're playing too, try not to win.  It's stupid because you are without a doubt much better than them at the game.  Don't make any stupid game throwing moves, but be sure to leave them good choices, show them good strategies (through your plays), and make the occasional sub-par choice.

Aside from tricks like the ones we've discussed on this blog, designing for ease of new player learning often almost always a trades off with designing for deep long term repeated play.  Stacking the deck for demos is the perfect situation; it allows a designer to get new players who would love a game but would never sit down and learn it on their own over that first-game hump in the learning curve.  This is why I have no qualms about stacking the deck - it's not cheating in order to give potential customers an artificial game experience; it's giving players who would love your game the first game experience they need to get into the full game experience.  The same goes for coaching the demoing players to win; it's about showing them that they have potential to excel at the game and how much fun it will be for them to win, not being dishonest about the game's merits.

A good demo can make players excited for the opportunity to take your game home and play it again and again.  In addition, good demos can be equally rewarding for a designer - it's always great to watch players have the most fun they can with your game, and you get to be way more hands on than in playtests!  Hopefully these tips will help you not overlook the importance of demoing and give you some tools in your arsenal for demoing well.