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Playtester, Designer, Developer - titles and credits

Andy Van Zandt
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A question I've seen a few times in the past couple of months has been whether designers should be credited as a developer on a project, and I have some pretty specific thoughts on the subject.

To begin with, we have to look at these things as jobs. As such, everyone should get compensated fairly for their work. Additionally, essentially all jobs have a title that goes with it. The problem with titles is that they are bad at being granular, and even worse when that granularity is trying to describe creative work split between multiple people - mostly because creative work is so hard to concretely define and restrict to unique roles. A playtester, designer, developer, artist, graphic designer, and so forth all contribute creatively in some way to your average game. And lots of these contributions overlap heavily. So heavily that the spectrum is essentially infinite. Titles are not the right tool for the job of assessing what is an infinitely large variety of duties. Instead, we use money to handle that granularity.

Assertion 1: Your listed credit is for your primary role, and your pay is the granular measurement of the work done.

Why is this?
Because trying to figure out the right credit names for every possible configuration of work and contribution is impossible. How do you quantify a "significant" contribution to a design? What do you use to measure how innovative or integral a particular mechanic or solution to a problem is? How do you adjust this based on length/complexity/depth/fun of a game?

Answer:
You can't. And more than that, you can't get every company and individual to agree on those metrics. Instead you use an agreement based on money to generate a granular scale for fair assessment of contribution (which everyone acknowledges is often a muddy-mish-mash of skills and responsibilities).

Recognition has value too, and that's why people want credit - bragging rights, fame, or an item on their resume. But because titles lack the granularity of money, it's not very useful to try and force titles to adapt to these absolutely un-measurable things.

Could we have slightly more granular role titles? Yes, but those granular divisions need to be common enough that there is a need for them to enter the vernacular. When a particular job for which you might be hired is common enough, getting credit for doing it elsewhere is worthwhile. "Developer" is already a relatively new title in the boardgame sphere. There's currently nobody filling "demi-developer" positions in the industry, so even if you might use that to describe what you did somewhere, that title has relatively little value. Different parts of the industry can't even come to a consensus between "designer", "inventor", and "author", so the industry needs to grow a bit more to reach the point where a further sub-division is a reasonable frequent occurrence.

Your title is insufficient for the job of describing everything you do, do not expect it to represent a full accounting of your duties by itself. This is true in all jobs, not just tabletop games.

Assertion 2: When there is an overlap of duties, you don't use every possible title that touches those duties to describe what you do. You have a primary role, for which you have a single title.

For example, as a developer, I frequently do many of the things you would ascribe to a designer, but I don't think I should get a designer credit - there is someone else who is assigned to that role. I often provide extensive graphic design instructions, but I'm not the graphic designer on these projects. That design work and graphic design instruction are both part of my developer role, but my role/title is just "developer".

Why is this?
Because I think it's important to have definitions that firmly distinguish the roles. Most designers don't want a developer listed as a co-designer on the box cover, and to take it to a further extreme, they don't want a playtester whose suggestion is in the game to have their name as a designer on the cover too (remember that part of recognition is "ego" and "fame", and for most designers this is a big factor in why they're designing to begin with). If you don't readily welcome bleed over in those directions, you shouldn't want the credit to bleed over in the other direction, either. And as previously discussed, figuring out if a contribution is "significant" enough for an additional title is a very messy undertaking that you could never get any real amount of people to agree upon. So for these shared duties, we don't try to make that distinction.

So how do we define these roles?
I view development as transformative. The developer has a perspective or knowledge that enacts editorial change upon the what the designer did and does (often this perspective is "what a particular publisher is looking for in a finished product"). Sometimes the designer does further design work with the direction or suggestion of a developer, but that is still designing, and the direction/suggestion is the development, because it's what stemmed from the outside perspective, and will be run through that "exterior perspective filter check" again before being finalized.

And part of understanding this is understanding an editorial perspective. If the second perspective is not the root of the transformation, that's just design. Just as when a playtester suggests something to the designer, it doesn't automatically go in, right? The designer is essentially an editorial filter on that change being enacted, and if they do choose to enact it, should the playtester now be listed as a co-designer? Of course not, because first - that way lies madness logistically - and second, it ignores the editorial role the designer played in that step of the process.

Similarly, look at book writing: there is an author, and there is an editor. Undoubtedly the author made many changes to their original work. Some probably at the direction of an editor (and probably some changes were made unilaterally by the editor). But the credits don't say "authored and edited by...".

Often I think it helps to say "developed FOR..." to see the impact of the exterior perspective.
Such as "developed for this particular publisher by so-and-so", or "developed for the classroom by so-and-so".

I think people tend to conflate the two because similar skillsets are needed, but if you're not going to try to delineate the differences, to me that makes having distinct titles essentially useless, and is instead the equivalent of advocating for a lot of co-designer credits on a lot of box covers. It's better to acknowledge that many people are involved in design, and in development, and in graphic design, and so forth. But unless you began the project assigned to the role of designer, developer, or graphic designer, you shouldn't be trying to jam all these titles onto your lapel. Doing so dilutes everyone's contributions - including your own. Sort of like keyword spamming the tags on your YouTube video so you show up in more searches - you can do it, but it's unprofessional, they'll reprimand you if they catch you doing it, and when someone sees your very faintly related video show up in their search, they're not going to appreciate it much.

So here's a concrete assessment of the roles, from my viewpoint:

Developer - Requests, evaluates, and approves changes related to their particular expertise/filter/goal (whether the edits are enacted by the designer or by the developer is not relevant - they still have to pass through the developer's filter to reach the final product) during the development process. While they run playtests and enact changes, they are not the originator of the design (and thus do not receive designer credit), and in traditional arrangements, are the last editorial step before a final product.

Designer - Originator of the design. Requests, evaluates, and approves changes from playtesters and themselves during their original playtesting process. While they are the last editorial step in some arrangements (particularly self-publishing), since there is no additional editorial filter from a developer/development, this work is all design work - the only filter applied was that of the originator.

Playtester - Involved in playtests. May request/suggest changes, but does not make the choice whether to include them or not during original playtesting or development.

None of these overlap, title-wise.
All of them playtest the game (generally speaking), and all of them potentially suggest changes. A playtester (and playtester credit) is defined by them having no editorial control and not being the originator of the design. A designer is defined by being the originator of the design, and having editorial control during original playtesting. A developer is not the originator of the design, and has editorial control (usually the final editorial control filter) during the development process.

Similarly, you might recognize a movie director's work because of his signature cinematographic tendencies... but he's still listed as the director, and someone else is listed as the cinematographer. They are credited for their primary roles in the project. Then they're paid based on the assessment of work done, even if there's a bunch of overlap of what kind of work was done.

What about situations that fall outside of the norm?
As mentioned before, if a designer is the final filter before publication, there was no development step and no developer, because there was no outside perspective editorially applied to the design.

How about if a playtester or developer is responsible for suggestions that, for example, comprise close to or over 50% of the content of a game? In theory a substantial percentage of the resultant "original" parts of the game came from someone else, right? This is a situation where you should evaluate on a case-by-case basis, but that I would in ALL CIRCUMSTANCES say is up to the first designer. You can't get people to agree on what constitutes a "meaningful" contribution, so you don't try - you leave it up to the person who is in charge of that role. If the designer feels the contributions warrant the second person being listed as a co-designer, then they can offer to share that title. If a developer is listed as a co-designer, they are no longer a developer. If a playtester is listed as a co-designer, they are no longer a playtester. In those circumstances, they are now considered one of the originators of a meaningful portion of the game.

If there are multiple designers for a game, this should be put down in writing somewhere as soon as it is true, just to avoid confusion in the future - and if credits and royalties are a factor, that should be discussed too. A good designer would be well-served to recognize when someone else has made substantial contributions to a design and be the one to bring up the subject. For example: "Hey, I appreciate your contributions to this design - it wouldn't be anywhere near as good a game without this mechanism that you suggested and helped me refine. If it's actually published, I'd like to put you as a co-designer, with second billing on the box cover, and give you 40% of the royalties. Does that sound good?" - and if it does sound good, put that in writing.

As a side note- I personally try to avoid taking on games where I think they may need that much development.

It is also possible that a game has multiple developers. A common example might be someone handing off their design to be developed by someone who they feel has a better understanding of a particular field, and wants development for pitching to that field (euro games? educational games? maybe a specific publisher that the person has worked with before?). Then the game gets pitched to an entity within that field and picked up for publication, and is further developed internally by that entity for publication. I would classify both non-originators as developers on the project.

Finally, here's an exception to the rule: if you having an additional title clears up what would otherwise be a misconception about a role that was entirely unaccounted for, then it's useful to have the additional title. If there was no developer, it's assumed that the designer was the last editorial step - no extra title needed. If there's no graphic designer listed, it's fair to assume the illustrator filled that role, since that is a reasonably common occurrence and their duties often overlap - no extra title needed. But how about if the designer literally started up InDesign and handled the final layout for the print files? Well, they've already got a title, but if you don't also list them as the graphic designer, that credit defaults incorrectly to the illustrator. It's better to list the designer as both the designer and graphic designer in that case. You'll notice this generally wouldn't be needed in any of the positions that tend to overlap each other, since it can be extrapolated based on shared duties.
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Fri Jun 7, 2019 1:01 am
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Writing Rules - facing up to breaking the rules

Andy Van Zandt
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There are a lot of little nuances to writing rules.
Is this too long for someone to be able to mentally retain?
Is this obvious enough or covered explicitly by the component that it doesn't need to be mentioned in the rules?
Is repeating this part in several sections good, or does it add to mental overhead?
Am I using or re-using terminology in a way that causes confusion?
Does this common phrasing potentially generate an ambiguity because of the rest of the sentence surrounding it?
And many others.

One thing that I have particular opinions about are "face-up" and "face-down"... and those opinions sometimes conflict with grammar. Please note that language is fluid and changes with the way it is used and with the needs of the people using it. What I'm about to talk about is addressing that there are commonly-used rules of grammar, and that in the context of rule writing, sometimes it is best to address those as not being well-suited for our purposes. Just as "game mechanic" is correct in the context of game design because that's the adopted jargon/slang (vs. "mechanism"), so must other words, punctuation, and usages adapt as needed to our little corner of the universe.

So, technically, we could say "faceup" and "facedown" pretty much every time, but it looks wrong or awkward to a lot of people. Moreover, if you're not used to seeing faceup, it can look like it belongs to a foreign language. Those vowels next to each other can be a weird stumbling block to understanding mentally where the break is in the word. When I say stumbling block, I mean it - you will see this when you blind playtest rules and someone reading them aloud hits "faceup" and stumbles while they pause to wrap their head around the word before proceeding. That's undesirable.

Face up and face down are correct when it's an adverb - meaning when they modify the way you DO something; face-up and face-down are correct when it's an adjective - meaning they modify the noun itself or the way something IS. Most commonly, this means if it directly precedes a noun, it should be hyphenated (that's a face-up tile), but if it's after a noun it's most commonly not hyphenated (turn that tile face up). This means that you might legitimately have both different ways in the same document, even when they're referring to the same general concept.

That's not horrible in and of itself, but a small argument could be made against that for consistency and clarity. In particular, almost no reader (certainly less than 1%) will know the above rules. So if I'm looking to improve consistency and clarity throughout, to remove those potential hiccups in understanding, would always using a hyphen or always using a space be better?

Using a hyphen is my preference. I think it results in the most clarity in essentially all situations.

There are some sentences where the individual words (face, up, down) might cause some confusion because of the context of the sentence, the words surrounding it. "Flip the top card of each deck face down under it", for example, can be problematic. Am I to take the top card of the deck, flip it, and then put it down under the deck? Meaning the bottom of the deck? While that's not the way many would read that sentence, that is the way SOME would. This can be fixed with phrasing, but requires you to recognize every instance where adjacent words might cause confusion. Hyphenating removes that problem entirely. It groups the two words together inseparably, so that you can't group them with their neighbors.

Also, face up (without the hyphen) means "to confront", and face down means "to endure". So while you're trying to figure out every circumstance the individual words can run afoul of understanding, you'll also need to keep in mind that they're also their own entire phrases with completely different meanings. So there's literal ambiguity already present with the phrase in a vacuum, plus you will need to watch out for surrounding word interactions with the combination of words, and not just the separate ones.

Sure, if everyone perfectly knows all the rules of grammar, then you should be... mostly safe. But if you're accepting the reality of that not being the case (and adding in the part where someone is trying to grok and internalize the whole convoluted structure of a boardgame already) then it is more reasonable to go with the arrangement of words, letters, and punctuation which the larger majority of people will breeze through without stopping, while maintaining full understanding of what the intent is. Even if it's "wrong" grammatically some percentage of the time, it looks right to almost all readers, and conveys the correct meaning essentially 100% of the time. You're doing what's best for your average reader and for your product if you face up to face-up.
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Tue Dec 18, 2018 12:19 am
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Feeder mechanics

Andy Van Zandt
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Something I think I've mentioned before is that one way many modern boardgames can be broken down is by looking at the core structure as having an "obtain resources" mechanic and a "score those resources" mechanic. This is a very loose concept - most games have more than one of either or both types, and occasionally some games don't really fit into that concept at all. However, the vast majority of them do, and so it's still a useful way to break things down when you're trying to grok a design, and I'd like to talk about a couple of ways in particular that you can use this breakdown method as a tool for innovation.

This is a very mechanical method, and it assumes you already know and effectively use the idea that every game is about points (see my previous blog post here: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/63487/getting-points ).

Let me put a couple of examples on the table before I proceed, so that we're on the same page.

El Grande is an area control game. There are a couple of core mechanics that let you place and move your cubes on the map (this is the resource you're gathering - it may help some people to envision that each of the cubes you put in a space gives you a little card that says "1 Seville-type resource", or whatever the name of the space is). Then you do majority (technically plurality) scoring - those gathered resources generate points.

Some games require less conceptual rearrangement to identify how they work within this structure. Azul pretty literally has a single mechanic for gathering stuff, and a single way that stuff generates points.

Some games are less easy to place in this mold - in The Resistance, you're gathering both trust and information via discussion, and then using those resources to get enough people to agree to give your team a point. Even though that is much less "clean" of a translation, it's still useful. Say you're trying to develop a social deduction game - breaking down where and how people can garner information and trust is a good way of evaluating how much of each are expected to enter the game at any point in the process. Is there too little of one of these resources early on? Does one player get a disproportionate amount, and is the player who gains it determined too arbitrarily to have consistent end results?

So hopefully you can already see some ways where this breakdown method can be useful. But I'd like to talk about a specific aspect: Feeder mechanics. This is what I call mechanics in my head that are of the first type (obtain resources), but that don't directly lead to the second type (resources make points). Instead, the "feeder mechanic" obtains the resources, and those resources are used by another "obtain resources" mechanic, before ending up in the points chute. This is not complex, and plenty of games do this. And certainly it can be done too much (you don't generally want a chain of 20 things before you get a single reward). But what it does do is facilitate generating "pull" on player decisions.

If you need a refresher on pull, here's another of my blog posts about that: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/57628/interesting-dec...



Having resources go through this extra step can make the end result less obvious. And you can increase the likelyhood of success by mixing things up a little. Let's say you have a feeder mechanic that pours into TWO different other mechanics, in different ways, before churning through the points mechanic. Suddenly the decision space is much more interesting. Well how about a couple of feeder mechanics, hooked up in varying proportions to 3 intermediate resource gathering mechanics, and then scoring in a couple of different ways. Suddenly the pull diagram of the fisherman from that previous blog post looks more like a spider-web of pull, in a good way (potentially).



A lot of people design using that concept without really thinking about it in those terms. It can still be quite useful to mentally break things apart in that way when you're designing or fixing a design.

But what I much more rarely see is people breaking down a game into points, and then using the two-step obtain-score method to innovate new scoring mechanisms.

We see so many games with similar scoring types used over and over again - majority, trick taking, set collection, and so forth. And this can be useful, because familiarity lowers the barrier to entry. But I also frequently hear people trying to suss out how to make their design more interesting, more innovative. So here's a way to do that: Take the above method of using a feeder mechanic, and move the buckets around. Turn that middle "obtaining" mechanic into your "scoring" mechanic, or your scoring mechanic into a feeder.

Once you realize that any mechanic can be a feeder for any other mechanic, and that your scoring mechanic can be just another intermediate obtain-resources mechanic, you open up a huge amount of design space.

For example, you take a trick in a card game. You've just scored those cards. But what if you didn't score them - instead, they're resources you gained that you're going to build up your futuristic civilization with?

"Hey, my combat mechanic feels bland. There's maneuvering, but then we just compare stat lines (or worse, roll dice)". Well how about you compare those stat lines, and the winner is awarded a placement on a tic-tac-toe board, and the loser is forced to retreat home. Each region of the board has it's own tic-tac-toe game going on, and players might get several consecutive placements by winning consecutive fights. You need to secure a certain amount of regions (by winning their respective tic-tac-toes) to win the game.

There's so many cool un-designed games out there waiting out there for you to just move those buckets around a little. They can make decisions more interesting, and the design more innovative.
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Thu Aug 16, 2018 9:55 pm
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Advice for comic shops that want to expand into board games

Andy Van Zandt
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I visit a lot of comic and game shops when I travel, because I like to see the various setups and approaches they have to what they do. While lots of stores include a broad cross section of products, most specialize in either Magic: The Gathering or comic books, and dabble in other things.

Magic is easy to get into if your store doesn't focus on it, product + playspace, and the organized play structure (tournaments) already have lots of things in place so it's clear the steps you need to take to get things moving.

Comic Books have lots of quirks, but the important thing to know is that you want to build up pull list for the monthly customers (and it will usually take a few years to reach critical mass on that), and you needs some shelves for graphic novels to cater to the non-monthly customers.

Board Games are a bit harder. As a hobby, there are less support structures and a bigger barrier to entry, as each new product you sell requires the customer to want to learn something new. Optimally, you want a knowledgeable, enthusiastic store employee to keep you stocked with the old standby titles and the new hotness, and to run a boardgame night every week. If you don't have that, it can feel like a real hurdle to get started on building a customer base, because you'd need to basically take on boardgames as a hobby yourself to fill that gap, right? Not so.

First, let's cover stock. Figure how much shelf space you have to devote to the product.

Are you literally giving it only a single 3-foot shelf? Then you probably want the gateway staples:
Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Dominion, Catan, Pandemic, Munchkin, Love Letter, Splendor, Codenames, The Resistance, and Dixit.

These are tried and true titles that appeal to a wide audience, are easy to learn for new players, and have sold tons of copies. Some people might argue to add or remove some things from that list, but I'm confident in what's included being good for most stores. If you sell more than a couple of copies of them, they all have expansions or alternate for you to branch out into.

Do you have a full bay to devote to boardgames, or have you grown a playgroup enough to include some more choices? That's when I would point you at the BGG top 100:
https://boardgamegeek.com/browse/boardgame

You'll note only a few of the titles I mentioned before are there. BGG skews towards a bit "heavier" or "meatier" style of games for its top 100, and some of those games can be daunting for newer players.

Do you have 1 or 2 bays, plus maybe a "new games" bay? Then your next stop is this geeklist, which you should subscribe to. Every month, they post up a new list of the most-purchased games (based on amounts added to collections on BGG):
https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/150343/top-100-most-purch...

You'll notice that a lot of the games I've mentioned already show up here - but also some other things that will pop up and either stick or disappear. This will help you follow trends much more easily AND more concretely than trying to scrape boardgame articles and such for the information.

To move beyond this point, you pretty much need to start keeping up on the scene or hire someone who can, but if you're at 2 bays of stable staples, plus a new hotness bay, you're already doing better than most stores.

Do you not know where to get games? Alliance, ACD, GTS, Peach State Hobby, and Golden Distribution service stores in the US. Lion Rampant is the biggest in Canada. Asmodee, Pegasus, and Blackfire all cover the EU pretty well. Need more? Here's a list from James Mathe:
http://www.jamesmathe.com/hitchhikers-guide-to-game-distribu...

The next thing to address is how to get people playing games at your store.
People learning games removes the biggest hurdle to purchasing things. Optimally, you want a steady game night with enough regulars attending that you don't need to worry about whether it will actually fire off each week. Asking an alpha gamer or two at your shop, and perhaps your spouse or friend, to be the "welcoming voice" at game nights serves two purposes - you want everyone to feel like they can show up and get a game in, and not get cold shouldered... but also, it ensures having a couple of butts in the seats for that first few months of trying to stabilize the attendance.

However, If that sounds like a struggle to you, your next stop should be these two sites:
https://www.dexposure.com/envoy/envoystores.html
https://www.indiegamealliance.com/index.php

Both offer ways to get people who will come to your store and demo games, and it costs you nothing (the publisher/demo company is, in general, compensating the demo-er with product). Just remember to stock what they're going to demo, so that you can capture those sales.

Boom. You've got games, you've got ways to figure out what to stock in less than 10 minutes per week, and you've got ways to get games being demo'd in your shop. Remember to restock what sells, and to cater to your customers (do you have a big roleplaying scene? Gloomhaven should be an automatic include. Lots of comic-bookers? Sentinels of the Multiverse and Love Letter: Batman are probably safe bets).
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Wed Jun 6, 2018 11:41 pm
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Picasso as a new game designer

Andy Van Zandt
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On forums and social media, I often see requests for new designer advice. A problem that often creeps up is "exactly how new?" and "what are they trying to accomplish?" - neither of which get addressed most of the time.

So I'm going to make some blanket statements here that assume:
VERY new designer. Zero to two prototypes attempted.
They want to make games that will eventually maybe be publishable/profitable.
They would like me to stroke their ego by comparing them to Picasso.

So-

meeple Make a lot of games. The game you're working on now is practice, it is probably not something that will be publishable. I would like to stress this a lot, because many MANY of the posts I see are first time designers who have one idea and they're sure it's destined for greatness. They haven't learned how to paint yet, but they're sure they're gonna be as good as Picasso with their very first canvas.

meeple Play a lot of games. You need to understand games, you need to understand the market, you don't want to re-invent the wheel, and you need to be able to talk with other designers about your design. All of these things require a solid grounding in what came before. Yes, there's a famous designer who said he doesn't usually play other people's games. He's also the extreme exception, and he's certainly played some games from other people. Also, the people who work with him supplement his overall game knowledge, because they for sure play a ton of games. Picasso was a great painter. One of the things that made him great was that he learned from other people and could appreciate art - he even got in trouble for physically stealing pieces from the Louvre. Picasso surely wasn't trying to tell people that he doesn't look at others' art.

meeple Assume you don't know things, and try to understand why things are good and bad. It's easy to say "roll and move is bad". What you want to be able to do is say "roll and move is usually bad because of X, Y, and Z, but if you do this and this you mitigate the primary issues". It's good to know the broad strokes, but it's GREAT to know the why behind them. That's how you turn things from a tautology into a tool... from a restriction into something you can use. Always move forward with the understanding that you can learn more.

Picasso painted this at 14:

Certainly a better painting than I could manage. It shows he understands rules about painting.

But he was much more famous for his works like this, which he painted when he was over 50:

Which shows he learned enough about the rules to know when and how he can break them. He is much more well known for his cubism and distorted faces than for his earlier pieces.

The "when and how" is important. I can break plenty of rules of good composition in a painting. I might even know which ones I'm breaking and have a "good reason" for it. However, odds are that I don't know enough yet to prevent anything I paint from just winding up as a hot mess.
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Mon Jan 22, 2018 11:38 pm
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Leftovers

Andy Van Zandt
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A technique I use in writing rules is a "Components and Setup" section. When blind playtesting, I was having problems where I would name or identify components in the component list, but that would get glossed over and when the reader got to the actual rules, they'd be very confused when they referenced a component by name. Combining the component list with setup solves this problem, shortens the rules, and sometimes lets you sneak some "attribute" rules (like when a component is not meant to have a limit) in before the actual rules, avoiding interruption of rule flow.

Anyway, this is not about that. This is about leftovers.

When you distribute components at the beginning of the game (whether to players or to some central location) and there are some remaining that won't get used, this is another thing that occasionally will be a stumbling point during blind playtests when not covered correctly.

Let's say you're handing out player mats at the beginning of the game. So using my above-mentioned technique, we've got:

4 player mats - give one to each player.

They're player mats, right? Should be obvious. But "should be" is the way you end up with peanut butter on the bread wrapper rather than in between the slices. Let's fix this up. 

First off, if you are going to reference a component later and words in that component name serve double-duty in the game, this is one of the most important times to use text formatting to prevent mix ups. There are reasons not to format text, especially if too much of the overall text will end up with different formatting, but when you've got a word like "player" in the mix (that serves so many purposes in most games), you should not stand idly by and wait for an awkward turn of phrase or a forgotten punctuation mark to rear its ugly head post-publication. So capitalize or bold or something to make it clear that the phrase is special. Just do it. (And also remember to call them Player Mats and not Player Boards or somesuch, later on).

Another thing you could do would be to rename the component to something very unique, so that there can't be a mix-up. But there's a cost to this as well. Let's say your "Player Mat" is now your "Fortress of Solitude". This adds theme, and makes the name of the component unique, but is less clear - it's one more thing that people have to remember about the game specifically. This is ok in some cases, but in others the good will outweigh the bad. For example, if there are multiple components that need this unique naming method, you will quickly reach a threshold where it's asking a lot of your players - particularly if there's a lot of other hidden info that they have to hold in their head regarding mechanics. The bigger your game, the more likely this will be a problem. Also, if you've got a lot of cards or other things which refer to the component by name, that also can be a stumbling block during the game, where players have to constantly ask "what does this name mean again? what about this one?"

Anyway, let's assume you're using formating to make the distinction (because it's universally functional), and that rather than bold/italics/color/underline, you want to use capitalization.

4 Player Mats - give one to each player.

Now to avoid extra peanut butter in untoward locations, what do you do with the remaining player mats?

4 Player Mats - give one to each player, returning those that remain to the box.

Hm, I worry "those that remain" might be misinterpreted ("remain" in particular is a very ambiguous word. does it "remain" if it stays in play? Does it remain if it's extra? If I'm putting it in the box but it remains, does that mean I might use it later?), and the comma makes the second half of the statement feel like it's modifying the prior part of the statement in a way that exacerbates things.

4 Player Mats - give one to each player. Return any leftover to the box.

Good. Ish. But could be better. "Leftover" is a noun (like "I ate some leftovers") or an adjective (the dryer disgorged some leftover socks). Everything else is just left over.

4 Player Mats - give one to each player. Return any left over to the box.

Still not there yet. What do the players do with them? Hold them in their hand? Put them in their lap?

4 Player Mats - place one in front of each player. Return any left over to the box.

If it was not obvious how the mat should be oriented, or there was some other specificity needed for the placement, that would have gone there as well. For example, this would be an excellent place to tell people to choose which side of the player mat they're going to place face up, if applicable. Let's pretend this one is just blank on the the back.

That comma that was muddying waters by presenting a modifying statement earlier? Let's use it to save us effort later.

4 Player Mats - place one in front of each player. Return any left over to the box, they will not be used this game.

Now we know where to put the Player Mats that are going to be used, as well as those that aren't, and we've subtly defined what returning something to the box means for when we do it with future components (so we don't necessarily have to repeat the "they will not be used this game" part).

Maybe not perfect, but certainly better than where we started... and good evidence of how small nudges in phrasing, formatting, and punctuation have big effects.
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Identifying your hook

Andy Van Zandt
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When people pitch games to TMG, one of the things we're often looking for is a "hook", whether it's mechanical or thematic. A hook is something that grabs people's attention and makes them more inclined to engage with the product. Preferably, you'll be able to convey this hook from the packaging, because you'd like for it to have the opportunity to grab people who just pick up the box without having read any reviews or seen any advertising regarding it. Many games don't really have a hook, or the hook is so weak it won't grab anyone's attention. Even more pitches have this problem. So hopefully this post will serve to help people more concretely identify and tune their hook.

First, it's worth noting what's not a hook. A fantasy theme, by itself, is not a hook. A single core mechanic (like "worker placement") is generally not a hook. In a store with a couple hundred games, those things are common attributes. There might be 20 deckbuilding games and 100 sci-fi games. Your hook needs to stand out in that field, to be the deckbuilding game that grabs people because of an additional reason - the hook.

It's also worth mentioning that in our current market, you generally don't need both a mechanical and a thematic hook. You also don't need multiple hooks of the same type. It's a nice bonus, and it doesn't hurt, but as long as you know what audience you're targeting with your hook, there's notable diminishing returns past the first hook. Having at least one is crucial, though.


Mechanical Hooks


Generally your mechanical hook will be an innovative use of mechanics (and I'd like to be clear that innovative does not necessarily mean "unique"). Let's pause for a second, though, and evaluate "innovative". I was at a talk recently that put forth a good way to look at that word: something is innovative when it solves a problem, generally for the person who's buying it. For example, people want immediate gratification for purchases, the more immediate, the better. How do we get things to consumers faster without a significant increase in cost? Let's say you're a big company like Amazon, who already has lots of warehouses all over. You could send out a delivery person with every order as soon as it's placed, but that's inefficient - the gas and labor cost would be exorbitant to try to have a driver hand delivering stuff. So what are they trying out currently? Delivery drones. It's innovative, because it potentially solves a problem.

In games, often the problem looks more like "I would like a game that does XYZ, but I haven't found any yet that fulfill my need". For example, "I would like a co-op game that resists quarterbacking, but has neither a traitor nor a timer, because my group doesn't like those things". or "I would like a game that makes me feel like I'm exploring some place, but isn't about flipping cards or tiles over". If you solved that problem for a player, you've got a hook that'll grab that person by the heart and drag them in.

A more common problem is associated with the cult of the new. The cult of the new wants a new experience. To be frank, that's comparatively easy to provide. Combining a couple of mechanics together in a new way (so that you create a new decision space) will often satisfy this. However, there's a little hidden stumbling block there - the "new decision space" part. Let's say you've got a deckbuilder like Dominion, and you're mashing it up with an area control game. However, if the bulk of the interesting choices are on the deckbuilder end, you probably failed to innovate, because you didn't really affect the decision space enough.

This is particularly obvious as a flaw in games where the tension swings around only one attribute. For example, "dots and boxes" as a game is just about not letting the other player start chaining complete boxes. You're trying to not be the person who provides that opportunity to the other player. Many games that center around that sort of tension ("just don't be the one who messes up") contain many other mechanics that sort of stop mattering. They create a bunch of false decision space, because the one and only real decision that matters is preventing the other player from getting the big benefit - everything else is just a means to that end. I call that specific sort of game flaw "completing the square", because that's all that matters. But there are plenty of other ways to override the otherwise innovative part of your decision space, so be wary. All parts of your innovation need to have their foot in the door to count.

On that note, it's often a good idea to make sure your hook is integrated with the theme. You might have a ton of mechanics in the game, and if your hook isn't noticeable, it's not doing a lot of good. Tying the mechanical hook to the theme draws attention to it. Moreover, it makes it easier to call out the coolness of it on the back of the box. "In this car racing game, each lap around the rondel is a lap around the track" works better on a box-back than "In this racing game, you deck-build to get money and turn the money into points". Tying mechanics to theme also helps with things like thematic mnemonics in rules, and immersion during play, but that's not really what we're covering here.

Thematic Hook

As mentioned before, "fantasy theme" itself wouldn't be a hook. If you're using a thematic hook, it needs to make the player want to engage with the product above and beyond the other games that are also "fantasy theme". Often, you're wanting to appeal to people on an emotional level - to solve the problem that they would like to FEEL something that they don't get to feel often. If your whole country was constantly on edge that the person next to them might betray them in a catastrophic way, and that they NEED to figure out if that's the case, then games with hidden traitors like werewolf or resistance might not have so much appeal. So instead of "fantasy theme", how about "you're a sentient castle whose ancient geas is to repel intruders, but to also look as pretty as possible while doing so". Not perfect by any means, but better, at least.

No theme will appeal to everyone, obviously, so it's important to know your audience. Going hand in hand with knowing your audience is recognizing that some themes have no meaningful audience, market-wise. Most people aren't "hooked" by the prospect of being a mortician or an accountant. That's why "new and different" does not necessarily mean "good". People often lament the lack of original themes, but there are plenty of themes that (despite originality) aren't really what you want on your box. That's not to say that you couldn't have a game about those things, but you would be leaning quite heavily on your mechanics to engage the consumer, if your theme is essentially repulsing them.

Other

There are other ways to hook a customer. Sometimes viral marketing, like what Raxxon did, can be a hook. Sometimes a cool component can be a hook, essentially by itself. Trötofant has a component that pretty much comprises both a thematic AND a mechanic hook. The promise of an exclusive could be a hook. When people see a new game at Essen or Tokyo Game Market, and know that only 100 copies were made and it might not be available again, they may buy a copy regardless of the other attributes of the game. There's a variety of things out there that can hook people.

Unfortunately, some chunk of these would fall under a "marketing hook", and would be hard to pitch. It can be difficult to tell a publisher "the best way for this to work is if you do XYZ to market it", because then you're probably not pitching a game, you're pitching a project, which requires a different mindset. If the publisher isn't on board with that mindset, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. For example "while this is a stand-alone game, I was thinking for it to really take off, it should be a collectible card game" is very rarely going to be the right way to phrase things to a publisher.

meeplemeeplemeeple

Anyway, I hope this helps you to look at your game and identify whether it has a functional hook or not, and maybe how to better articulate that to others.
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    Inserts

    Andy Van Zandt
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    Not all inserts are created equal. I'd like to break down some attributes of inserts, and how you should view them. All credit to the people who took the linked pictures, I did not take them.

    This is a white W9B insert.

    It is included in boxes to protect the contents during shipping, and to prevent excessive "box rattle" when the consumer picks it up. (People subconsciously view too much rattling around as "cheap". A little is fine, but a small part sliding from one side of the box to another is not). If it HAPPENS to be convenient for organizing components afterward, hooray! Most of the time, though, don't count on it. If it's this plain white board, the description in the manufacturing quote is probably something like "white insert sized for the box". It would be rare for someone to specify the dimensions of the wells, because this sort of insert serves an industrial purpose, not an organizational one. This is true whether there are multiple wells (depressions that things go into) or not. If this type of white insert even SLIGHTLY gets in your way when re-packing the box, consider throwing it away.

    Printed insert!

    This is your next step up. Somebody made a conscious choice regarding this insert. It is much more likely that the wells are sized for the components, UNLESS the printed image is just a repeating pattern. It's primary function is still as stated above, but it is much more likely that you'll want to keep this - not just for looks, but because it may be useful. The first printing of 7 Wonders actually had the wrong kind of cardboard for the insert, it was way too flimsy despite being pretty. And this doesn't have enough divisions to really speed up set-up, apart from keeping the cards from sliding every which way. Sometimes it's still ok to throw these out and find a better insert for organization purposes.

    Printed insert with chipboard dividers

    So we've got some intentional choices here, and we've got more sub-divisions which may be useful for storage/speeding up set-up. The chipboard part also makes it more resilient. Notice that it's a repeating pattern, so the wells probably aren't designed specifically for the components- it's just nice that there's more divisions. This is a small step up from the prior category, but still falls into the "don't worry too much about throwing it out" category.

    Really what will clue you in that an insert has been planned and is worth keeping is when the wells are irregular, or are specifically shaped for the components.

    The insert for Photosynthesis (which you'll have to pop over to GeekDad to see: https://geekdad.com/2017/08/photosynthesis-review/ ) is a good example. 4 wells for the 4 players, sure, nothing special. But the top of the insert is cut so the folding board will nest neatly in place. Not only do we have intentionality regarding the board spot, but we can assume the wells are sized to hold the constructed trees (even though you have to lay the tall ones down) - otherwise the box would only be slightly larger than the board.

    Generic vacu-formed insert

    This is in the wrong place on this list. This is actually the LEAST likely to be useful for storage, organization, or set-up. It performs its function for shipping/merchandising, and I do not fault companies for using these. But on the player end, I would throw these out even before I threw out a white cardboard insert.

    Game-specific vacu-formed insert

    Intentionally sized for the contents. Separate wells for the different decks speed up set-up. Indents so that you can fit your finger in and pull things out. This is a good insert. Not flawless, but very good. Some people will still throw it out because it doesn't fit the cards sleeved. Also, putting printed components flat in the wells means if it's stored vertically, they'll still slide around. Slots for cards/tiles are usually better, but it's a very minor complaint.
    On the whole, a good insert, and personally I wouldn't look to replace it, even if I played a lot.

    There are lots of other nuances you can have with vacu-formed inserts to improve them besides card-slots. Lids to prevent things from sliding around. Lift out trays for in-game bits access. Slanted floor surfaces to let you pop stuff out easier. Small World and Lords of Waterdeep have good examples of these.



    Foam insert:

    Ok, I cheated a bit on this one, as that's an aftermarket insert from Battlefoam. I have seen a couple of games with foam inserts as the standard though, I just couldn't remember which ones. These are pretty nice, protect the components, are flexible so you can get your finger in the side of a well, and certainly require intentional choices for the size of the wells. Sometimes you'll also see foam blocks as spacers inside other types of inserts. I've never seen a foam insert I'd throw out.

    But other people will. It's quite hard to please consumers. I'm actually of the opinion that just providing adequate baggies and a plain white insert services the widest cross-section of players and results in the fewest complaints. But your mileage may vary.

    Some people have very specific desires for their games, and more power to them. I've got a couple of games I've bought plastic internal sorting boxes for. I can certainly appreciate aftermarket foamcore, laser cut wood, vacu-formed, or pick-and-pluck foam inserts. Just remember that when you pick up that box, the included insert's primary reason for existing is shipping protection and shelf-appeal (lowering rattle). If those things weren't factors, we would see very few games with ANY insert, much less good ones. Don't hesitate to chuck an insert that you don't like. And certainly don't waste any breath saying "this insert doesn't XYZ" - it probably wasn't designed for that function to start with. I don't complain that a screwdriver doesn't make a good crowbar, they are meant to serve very different purposes.
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    Resilient systems: Equal Odds vs. Equal Opportunity

    Andy Van Zandt
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    There's a thing in games I like to call resilient systems. These are game mechanics that work together to suppress imbalance, with the end result being that you can inject things into the game which are quite disproportionate in strength, and the game can probably accommodate them without breaking (usually up to a limit, based on the system).

    The most common one I would point to is an auction. You can have hugely disparate things up for auction, but most auction mechanics will make it so that the expenditure for any given thing is reasonably proportionate to its value (or perceived value, at least). The less granular the resources used in the auction, or the more restrictive the bidding, the less resilient an auction is. For example, a free-form auction is more resilient than a blind auction or a once-around action. An auction where everyone has hundreds of resources to spend, and which they can spend any amount on, is more resilient than an auction where you can only spend certain amounts (Ra is a good example of this). Being less resilient is NOT BAD, but the less resilient your system, the more balanced the things you're acquiring must be.

    zombie As an aside, an open auction with a lot of available "money" to spend is such a resilient system that I often look at auctions as band-aids on otherwise bad games, because all the interesting decision AND all the interaction is wrapped up in the auction. If you played Candyland but auctioned the cards, it's suddenly a much more interesting and interactive game. Or rather, the game itself isn't interesting, but the auction is. So when you're including an auction, please remember to evaluate the rest of the game to see if it's interesting as well, or to add some sort of innovation to the auction so that you're not just band-aiding a bad design.




    Before I get too much further, I'd like to touch on a few brief concepts. First is the "every game is an auction" concept by Shannon Appelcline, which is a good read and an interesting way to look at things in general: http://www.skotos.net/articles/TTnT_161.phtml

    Basically, almost every game has something you're giving up in order to get something else. The control methods surrounding it are what's different. To put this in context, looking down the other end of the tube at the same concept, I'd recommend reading "Everything is a Timewalk": http://www.angelfire.com/games3/mtgpages/magic/theories/time...

    In conjunction with pretty much any article on tempo in games, you should hopefully come to the quick understanding that those intangible pieces of a turn you are presented with are often resources you take for granted.

    So the combination of those articles should teach us that drafts, worker placement, area control, and so forth can all be viewed through the lens of auctions. In fact, these are commonly good auction-tweaking-elements that help avoid the band-aiding described above, often because of the extra systems interacting with them.

    A third concept I'd like to add to that mix (with the context of the other two articles showing you that a resource is not always just a physical token) is that most games can be broken down into a mechanic for acquiring resources, followed by a mechanic for scoring resources. More complex games may have multiple of each, but that is usually your "core".




    meeple OK, so with all that in mind, how and when is a system resilient? meeple

    Look back up at the title of the post: Equal Odds vs. Equal Opportunity.

    Let's say you're playing a game with dice. Everyone simultaneously rolls dice, and on a 5 or a 6, you advance your pawn one space. First to advance 10 spaces, wins. Not very interesting, but that's not the important part. Everyone had equal ODDS of winning. But because the resource (pawn movement) provided is given entirely at random, players do not have equal OPPORTUNITY to use the only resource that matters (pawn movement). You could, in fact, go the entire game without being presented with the opportunity to move.

    Let's unpack those concepts a bit. If we could acquire additional dice rolls via another mechanic, we could view dice rolls as resources... or at least "potential resources". But since this horrible game does not do that, we can only view the positive result that we can use to advance our position as a resource. Or to put it another way: everyone has an equal opportunity to roll the dice, sure, but not everyone has the opportunity to move. (Or even another way - Phase 1: roll a dice. Phase 2: acquire a "shoe" resource if you rolled a five or six. Phase 3: If you have a shoe resource, you may spend exactly one shoe resource to move exactly one space. While we could make an argument that a dice roll is a resource, everyone gets exactly one of those, and can only use it in exactly the same way as everyone else, by rolling the dice - 100% perfect parity, so that's not the part of the turn that matters.)

    Let's look back at Candyland. Players are drawing off a shared deck. Some cards are straight up better than others (obviously sometimes one card is good for one player and weak for another, but broadly speaking, a double-blue or a skip-to-the-princess is going to be a better card than a single-red). If we're drawing blind, I have equal ODDS of drawing a good movement card. But not only do I not have equal OPPORTUNITY to move, when someone else draws a good card it's even worse than dice, because they've lowered the odds of others drawing it. Now, if we auction off those cards, we've increased the opportunity - pretty much EVERYONE has the opportunity to utilize every type of movement resource that is made available during the game. However, again, any restrictions on the auction (granularity and/or bid mechanism) tend to lower your opportunity.

    Let's keep breaking it all the way back down. Let's say...
    You're auctioning the cards.
    Bids are done in turn order.
    You may not bid on a card that someone else has bid on.
    You may only bid exactly $1.
    You may only place one bid per round.
    All the cards are face down.
    We've removed granularity and put so many restrictions on our auction that we're just drawing a card at random. It doesn't even take ALL those restrictions to remove opportunity - the cards being face down alone would do it, or only allowing $1 bids and not letting people place bids where other people already bid removes opportunity from the players later in turn order. (Perhaps interestingly, Kingdomino does all of the above except for the "all cards are face down" part, however the tiles are balanced using the numbering system AND you're also bidding for turn order next round at the same time AND the value of cards is more strongly differentiated for the players based on their current setup. Very different beast, even though it includes many of the same attributes. Context is important.)

    So that shows us that there's a wide spectrum, and helps us understand roughly where the ends of that spectrum are. What matters after that are the intentionality with which we use those tools. Restrictions can be a good thing - a great thing even ("restrictions breed creativity"). But keep in mind that the less granular and more restrictive your acquisition mechanic, the more balanced the things you acquire should be.

    This tool is a fanciful paintbrush though, not a precise caliper. You will adjust those knobs differently for different types of games and different target audiences. Furthermore, if you have too much parity between things that are acquired, players won't have anything to get a fingerhold on and gain any advantage with, and that's not very interesting ("perfect" balance is bad). This is also true if rubberbanding (AKA catchup mechanisms, AKA negative feedback loops) force players to be washed up right next to each other on the shores of the scoreboard. But when you've got a resilient system, you've got more freedom to include elements of wabi-sabi (perfect imperfection - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi ) that allow players to gain fingerholds of advantage (in a positive way). If you were to pop out those wabi-sabi elements from one game, and put them into a system that is not resilient enough, those exact same elements are instead just imbalanced (in a negative sense).

    I'm sure you've played many games with precisely that problem in the past. A game where someone didn't have the right technique for their paintbrush, or perhaps put the stroke in the wrong place, or chose the wrong color. It's an art, not a science, but knowing how directly those elements play off each other can be quite a big help, I think.
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    Convention booth advice

    Andy Van Zandt
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    Well, I say advice, and really it's more me mouthing off about how it sort of annoys me when I see booths doing horrible things. It's annoying. Here's some stuff you should maybe keep in mind in order to not annoy me, a person you may never meet or interact with. So, y'know, guaranteed to be useful.

    Let's start with the assumption that you want to attract people to your booth. The primary things you're going to attract them with are your display, your reputation, and your people.

    meeple Your display can be just a pile of your game(s). But odds are that you'll grab more people with a big banner with cool art (probably from the game). Getting such a banner and using it over multiple shows pays for itself pretty quickly. A stack of brown cardboard boxes because you're too lazy to set up your product is not a display, and is not attracting people. Some conventions have rules against having brown cardboard boxes showing. But you, personally, should also have it as your own rule.

    Have demos set up of your game(s), so that people can play. Not only does this show off the box contents, but teaching people to play lowers the barrier to entry. It changes from "$20 AND I have to spend an hour reading the rules and stuff" to just "$20", and that's a big difference. If I said "hey, let's go to the movies", that's very different from "please consume and understand this literature, and then let's go to the movies".

    If you've got a non-game product, it needs to be very apparent what your booth is purveying. If they have to ask, they're probably not stopping.

    meeple Your reputation can be your company, product, or special promotion. If you've got adequate reputation, well, you probably are already in good condition. But this is all stuff you work on prior to the show, not during it.

    meeple Your people are the big thing. You want your staff to draw people in, make them feel good about being there, and increase the chances of selling product OR making a connection with the customers.

    In order for your staff to draw people in, your booth needs to be set up in a way that allows people in. A big table blocking the length of the booth is not particularly inviting. Having big perma-walls on your sides makes it hard for customers to see your displays and hard for your staff to draw customers in. I recommend having a corner or endcap whenever possible, to cut down on big walls blocking sight lines.

    Your staff also needs to be inviting. Greet the customer, smile, and ask a question (and if you want to have aggressive salespeople, make sure they offer an additional product and ask for the sale, but I don't mind when people aren't aggressive, so I'm not putting that as a specific recommendation). It's also good if it's obvious who is staffing your booth (t-shirts, hats, or even just a pin-on badge. You can get a multi-pack of empty badges at the store for 5 bucks and print/cut a sheet of your company logo to fill them). Pretty easy on the whole.

    However, and this is my biggest pet peeve (right before booths voluntarily blocking their own sight lines with walls), lots of booths have staff that is sitting down, or not facing the customer, or on their phone. Do you really think people want to come up to your table-blocking-your-whole-booth and forcibly engage with the person sitting behind the table who is playing on their phone? Or in the corner of the booth? Or can't be bothered to disengage from chatting with other staff long enough to say hi? Like, seriously. Don't even have chairs in your booth. Don't look at your phone. Get your tweets out beforehand. Stop chatting and greet customers as they walk by and in. If you're not going to take some basic steps, why even bother having a booth? Yeah, your booth isn't busy, and you're bored, and want to play on your phone. But you're self-fulfilling your own prophecy by doing so.

    There's an exception: If you're an artisan, and you're making something, it's ok to be sitting and looking at the picture you're actively drawing or jewelry you're actively putting together. But you should still be engaging with customers. If you can't do this, you should get a buddy to join you who can.

    Similarly, if you're a person who can't stand for the whole length of the show... get a buddy who can. If you couldn't twist at the waist, you probably wouldn't go kayaking, even though you could sit in the boat and maybe get the paddle in the water on one side. Likewise, don't try to be the primary staff at your own booth if you can't stand for extended periods. Use the right tools for the job, and understand when you are not the right tool. (This also applies if you're a... not very personable individual).

    Summary:

    Draw the people in.
    Engage with them and lower the barrier to entry for your product.
    Probably ask for the sale.
    Don't do the things that get in the way of the above items.
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