Running a Board Gaming Event: Game Check Out

August 1, 2019

If you’re running a free play board game library, you’ll need to have some sort of check-out system. It doesn’t have to be complicated–and it’s better if it’s not–but there’s a surprising amount of refinement you have to do to get it right.

My process uses two index card boxes labeled “checked out” and “checked in.” (If you haven’t read the “toolkit” post in this series, it will be helpful to cross-reference.) When someone checks out a game:

  • Ask for one badge from the group.
  • Write the name of the game on an index card, and clip the badge to it.
  • Drop the index card in the “checked out” box.
  • When the game is returned, look up the matching index card and return the badge.
  • Drop the index card in the “checked in” box.

Collateral. I settled on using badges, although I’ve also seen conventions use driver’s licenses at least once.

Honestly, I don’t know that you need collateral. Hamacon’s gaming area was always relatively small (compared to say, DragonCon or Momocon), with clear entrances and exits (either doors or stanchions). It would’ve been hard to walk out with a game without being noticed. But I’d recommend starting with collateral until you’re comfortable that you don’t need it.

There’s a few things to consider when you’re planning for collateral:

  • Find out what your badge situation is. At one Minicon, we gave out paper wristbands rather than badges for non-volunteer/staff attendees. You’ve probably seen these at events with entry requirements–they have adhesive on one end so they’re impossible to remove without cutting them. Since I had assumed badges, I had to come up with a policy for collateral on-the-fly.
  • Be very specific as to what you accept, if you don’t accept something standard like a badge. At the Minicon where we didn’t have badges, attendees offered us all kinds of things as collateral. I eventually rejected electronics (phones, tablets, etc.) because I didn’t want the liability of something that expensive and private. I also had to specify “no shoes”… which you wouldn’t think you’d have to say.
  • Someone will lose a badge (at least temporarily). It’s just going to happen. It may not be your fault. They might misplace it when they remove it from their lanyard. They might take or return a game without going through check-out. There might be miscommunication at the table as players rotate in and out. It’s terrifying when it happens, so be ready to handle it with a cool head.

Checkout statistics. One benefit to using this check-out system is that you can get stats at the end of each day by simply counting up the index cards in your “checked in” box. I plug these into a Google Sheet where I track check-outs and scheduled game signups at each event.

Will those stats be useful? Probably not. I’d love to say I derived a simple formula for picking out a game library.

You will have a handful of obvious winners. Jenga, Cards Against Humanity, Uno, Joking Hazard, and Oregon Trail consistently topped my list with over 5 checkouts a day. But the other games were a long tail–for three-day events, I’d often have 50-60 unique games checked out, and they weren’t always the same.

My typical policy was that, if a game was checked out, it was high priority on the list of games to pack for future cons.

Other rules? Before my first Hamacon as analog gaming director, I was tempted to start writing a list of rules for the free play area. You know, things like “no food or drink” or “show good sportsmanship.”

Why? Because it felt like I should have a list of rules. That’s how you keep people in line, right?

The reality is most rules will probably be unenforceable without a lot of busywork. Rules about cleaning up or showing good sportsmanship are helpful as reminders, for example, but by the time someone breaks it they’re likely already leaving your area.

In reality, you will know what you need to enforce when you see it, and con-wide rules should cover the important stuff. You should definitely be on the lookout for awkward or tense situations you may need to defuse. If a situation does occur that falls into a gray area, make a note so that you can formulate a rule for next event.

Wear, tear, and loss. If you put your own games up for check-out, you’re taking on risk.

I had to contact FunForge customer support for a replacement panorama card from Tokaido. I’m missing the “End” card from Oregon Trail, which isn’t essential, but is nevertheless gone. And my copy of Cards Against Humanity is looking extremely weathered (I might say good riddance, although that’s a topic for another post).

You’ll want to think about how much of that risk you want to mitigate, and how much you’re willing to accept. My personal philosophy is that I buy games to be played, so I’m not deeply concerned by a little wear and tear. Still, I do take a few precautions.

For example, move every table (including lifting tablecloths and table skirts) after the event to ensure you haven’t lost pieces.

Another possible approach is to check each box as soon as it’s returned. That way, you know as soon as something goes missing. Personally, I never did this, because it’s pretty time consuming. During busy periods, you might have several people lined up to check games in or out.

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