Rules of Play

A continuation, amalgamation, and expansion on the Corvid Games blog, my geeklist of plays, and whatever the hell else.
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How To: Building a Card Game Community

Jack Bennett
United States
North Carolina
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Play. Always.
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When I picked up L5R years ago, no one else played. I shanghaied a couple friends into it, but some of the fun of a L/CCG is having a variety of players, playing in leagues, and (for some) playing in competitive events.

It took time, but we eventually built up a community of players that was one of the biggest in the state, and had enough people to run semi-regular events.

When I moved, I found a new gamestore to haunt and started over. It never got as big, but we still had 10-12 person events now and then, and there was always an opponent around.

L5R eventually died down, but Netrunner took its place. Again, we built up one of the biggest ANR groups in the state, and ran a regionals event for three years that clocked in among the top 10 biggest events in the world.

With the upcoming release of the new L5R, I thought I might put some lessons learned down, for anyone else who might be looking to start up something a little bigger than dueling it out on the kitchen table.

1) The Game.

You've already got the game in mind I hope, but it's worth taking a look at a couple things:

First, is there already an established community for this game nearby? If there is, then at best you're going to split the community a bit, and at worst you'll just sit there alone. Poaching players from another group will never go over well.

Depending on the locale and distance, you may find that you can build up a separate community and they can work together for big events. Be ready to talk to other stores/groups and make sure you don't schedule events on the same days.

Second, does your game actually need a big community? I love Arkham Horror: The Card Game, but usually you're playing with 2-3 other people, the campaign works best with the same players throughout, and there's not really any sort of event you can do, partly because the game isn't competitive. So though you may want more people to play your game, there might be better approaches, like a boardgame night.

2) The Venue.

Game stores are the way to go, here, especially if you're planning on doing tournaments or leagues. You need a place where people can regularly meet that isn't just someone's apartment.

Build a relationship early with the store. Talk with the owners, see what sort of support they are willing to offer. Figure out who you need to talk to to schedule events. Can they offer prize support? Will they order FFG Game Night Kits? Can they reserve tables? What nights are best for league nights? Can they stay open late when a tournament goes 14 hours?

Remember that you're doing them a favor here, by bringing in players who will buy things. You don't get to make demands, but I would expect some support.

Most people won't have a choice of venue, but if you do, look for friendly knowledgeable staff, a clean bright environment, and lots of elbow room. If you need to, consider looking elsewhere; maybe you can run leagues out of the store but need to get some small convention space in a hotel for a major event.

3) Build a Team.

At the top, you'll notice I always said "we" built a group. That was purposeful. Nothing was done alone.

It's unlikely one person can do everything. Be at every league night and run every tournament. Understand every rule in the FAQ/Errata. Be comfortable talking publicly. Be comfortable ejecting someone from an event or handling rule disputes/arguments during a tournament. Keep leagues on schedule, post pairings/results, give out prize support, calculate strength of schedule. And on and on.

So figure out what parts you like to do, and find people who like to do the other parts.

Also, if there are any benefits you get from running events at your store, pass some of that along to the team. Buy 'em lunch while they're helping you run a tournament. If you're getting something out of it, why shouldn't they?

4) Initial Prep.

What sort of community are you building? Highly competitive? Laid back and aimed at new players? Are you doing a league? Just a free-play night? Do you want to run tournaments? How often? Do you have prizes? How will things be rewarded? Does it cost anything? How will you do standings? How do you break ties? Will the people with more free time always win? What the hell are you doing?

There's a million questions to answer. If you've done this before, you might have all this sorted. If not, you'll want as much figured out beforehand as you can. You don't want to get to the end of your first league and then figure a tiebreaker that the players didn't know about up front.

If you need help, ask someone at the store. Chances are they run Magic events, and there will be someone (an employee or not) who is experienced running events who can give you some advice on how to set stuff up.

If the company's any good, they may also have tournament rules for their game. Take a look through these and use them as a guide (obviously you'll HAVE to use them if you're running tournaments).

It's probably best to start out as informal as possible. Make it too complicated and new players may be put off trying to understand your league rules.

For Netrunner we had a league system that was basically a protracted tournament. For tournaments we followed all of FFG's rules. For the new L5R we're expected smaller groups and not doing monthly tournaments, so we've come up with a league system that's much less competitive (I'll post it here at some point).

The other thing to do to prepare is figure out your first events. If it's a new game, maybe a release event. If it's an unknown game, do some Learn-to-Play events. Get the store to put it up on their social media and calendars. Put up flyers where people interested in the game will see it.

Shanghai some friends. It's awkward to come to an event and see that you and the teacher are the only ones there. Especially if you were really hoping for a community to play with.

5) Day One.

Be prepared to not play much. Your goal during a release or learn-to-play event is to draw people in to the game and get people invested in the group.

Create and bring multiple beginner decks. Players will show up with no cards who want to learn the game. Be ready to provide cards. Pit new players against either 1) experienced players good at teaching and willing to do so, or 2) another new player while you watch along and teach them both. Nothing can be so infuriating for a new player than to play against someone who knows what they're doing but doesn't explain anything.

LEARN NAMES. This is a practiced skill, and get practicing. Ask people their name if they don't give it. While teaching a game, use it over and over. If you forget someone's name, say "Hi! Could you tell me your name one more time?" Then use it instantly: "Great, thanks Odysseus, want to try another game? Hector here is also new and looking for an opponent." I promise you, it's not embarrassing to forget someone's name, and they won't mind you asking.

Why is this important? You are an ambassador right now. To the store, to the game, to the group you want to start. You are hoping to build a community of players. Community is built by people who are invested in it, and you earn that by being invested in them.

Figure out how you're going to communicate with everyone, and collect or give out that information. Are you setting up a news letter? Be ready to ask everyone you meet for their email. Are you using a forum or group? Have the link already printed out on cards and hand it out.

Also, release and LtP events work well if you can give out something. If you can get your hands on prize support before the event, give everyone some cards if they learned how to play. Talk with the store and see if they'll do a discount on the core set for anyone who learns. One thing we like to do is say that if you buy a core set at an event, you get the first league free; it's usually a $5 deal, but it also gives them a reason to come back and play in the league.

6) Maintaining.

The more prep work you've done, the easier this part gets. If your system works, it should just keep working.

Be good about being on time with standings and pairings for leagues. If new pairings were supposed to go up Friday and you put them up Sunday instead, then there's a weekend everyone just lost. Consistency keeps players.

Make sure your system is low-pressure for players. The lower the barrier to entry, the more players you'll get. Having to start an account on a special site in order to log league plays including how many minutes each turn took will lead to people "forgetting" to sign up next month. It's a game, not work, so make it easy to play.

Be active. Continue to run learn-to-play events for new players, and take time out of playing to break those beginner decks back out. Write-up resources for new players, and figure out who in your group are good people to teach the game.

Change it up. Do a draft. Or a charity event. Find a crazy prize to give out for something. Get another store involved and compete for a trophy. Come up with funny deckbuilding rules and run a tournament using them.

7) Stopping.

Know when to quit. If you start hating the game, it's time to stop. And if you can't keep up with the group such that you're consistent, you either need to bring in more help or hand it off entirely.

You're probably doing this for free and for the love of the game. So there's no shame in bowing out. I stepped back from Netrunner because I was not enjoying the game as much, I was consistently late on standings, and I was spending too many Saturdays away from the kids. But the work I put into the community still pays off, many are interested in joining me when we get L5R started.
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