Next week I will be attending the UK Games Expo and it will be the first show I have attended for a couple of years due to the pandemic. This means I have a lot to do including working out how best to demonstrate my games.
Conventions can be expensive and with some games taking 1 – 2 hours to play, plus additional time to teach, it’s important to find a way to allow people to experience the game in the shortest time possible. I typically aim for 30 minutes from the moment someone sits at the table to the moment they leave.
For the purposes of this article, I will talk through my process for The Isle of Cats which typically takes 60 – 90 minutes to play and 15 minutes to teach.
The first thing I do with every group is set expectations, I make sure they are aware they will only be playing some of the game and that it should take about 30 minutes.
This is important as nothing can be more frustrating than thinking you are playing a full game, only to be told it’s time to stop. It also helps to stop people overthinking their decisions (as there won’t be a winner) which can speed up the demo as well.
Introducing the game
The introduction to the game should be kept short, it should introduce the theme and what you are trying to do. You should not start summarising rules or give examples as that will come later in the process.
Here’s the introduction I use for The Isle of Cats:
“The Isle of Cats is a 1 – 4 player game where we play the role of the citizens of Squall’s End. We’ve just heard the evil Lord Vesh is on his way to the Isle of Cats and while we can’t stop him, we can get there first and rescue as many cats as possible before he arrives.
We’re going to play over 5 days, and on each day, we’ll get fish, explore the island, and rescue cats that we then need to place on our boats and keep happy in order to score points. At the end of the game the player with the most points will win, so let’s take a look at how we do that.”
Get to the gameplay as fast as possible
The next part is the trickiest and where you need to assess your game and find your own solution, as you need to get to the gameplay as quickly as possible.
When you are teaching a game, it can be OK to spend 15 minutes explaining all the rules before you start. Players want to know everything so they don’t make mistakes and can enjoy the first play, hopefully scoring well at the end. In a demo however, scores aren’t important and while you shouldn’t make players start blind, you can teach more of the game as you go.
Here’s a practical example:
In The Isle of Cats you will receive fish at the start of a round and then draft cards, meaning you get a handful of cards and have to choose the ones you want to keep. This is an immediate issue with the demo because players need to know what all the cards do in order to make decisions.
To avoid the upfront teach, I start the demo at the point in the first round where the card draft has finished. Each player is given a hand of pre-chosen cards and starts the demo at the point of playing cards rather than choosing them.
This has 3 benefits:
- I don’t have to teach players all the cards up front.
- I can set the cards in advance to make sure everything I want the players to see is in the cards they start with.
- We can start playing the game as soon as the introduction is complete.
For the first round, I then ask players who has a blue card? I ask them to play the cards while explaining the rules for them. I then follow this with green, brown, yellow, and purple cards in order until all cards have been played.
I know the cards they have so I know what will be played, but after explaining the rules of the cards I then let them choose what to do with them.
This means the first round is very structured and players will get to make decisions as they learn. With the first round over, players will now know what all the cards do and they play a second round where they get to do the full round, including choosing their own cards. I remove a lot of cards from the game before we start, so when they get to round 2 they will only be choosing from cards that they’ve already learned about in the first round.
I end the demo after the second round by giving players an overview of how the scoring would work.
Marking cards and setting up the game
The demonstration copies of my games have all sorts of marks on them and a lot of stuff is left in the box.
Remember, the goal is to provide people with the experience of playing the game, we don’t need to teach and show them everything. I remove 70% of the cards from the game and don’t even put them on the table, the same goes with tokens when demonstrating other games.
When I wrap up the demos I make players aware of this by saying something like:
“I hope this has given you an idea of what it is like to play the game. In the full game you’ll play through 3 more rounds and encounter many other types of cards giving you more ways of generating resources, scoring points, and bending rules.”
Another advantage of this is by reducing the number of components on the table it makes it much quicker to reset the game for the next demo.
The perfect demonstration
Different games need to be demonstrated differently and as the designer/publisher, it is up to you to work out how best to do it for your game.
The key things I would suggest are:
- Keep it short (no more than 30 minutes).
- Get to the gameplay quickly by teaching as you go.
- Demonstrate the experience, don’t try to teach the full game.
- Mark cards, remove components, and streamline the demo.
- Set expectations with the players.