Knoxville, TN

Running a Board Gaming Event: Intimidation Factor and Name Recognition

August 11, 2019

This is a bit of a tangent on something I touched on in the “Scheduled Games” and “RPGs” posts.

Have you ever played Takenoko? It’s actually a fairly beefy game. There are three types of goal cards, which are kept hidden and trigger off of very different mechanics. Players must choose between multiple types of actions that allow them to affect a shared board, which they build using tiles. There are various types of resources that can modify the board, and there are some fiddly rules about how they can be played.

And yet, I’ve had a fair number of people–kids, even–show up at learn-to-play sessions, and a decent number of checkouts. They aren’t particularly intimidated by its complexity, and actually seem to enjoy it. Why?

In part, because the box art looks like this:

When you’re planning a schedule or choosing which games to bring for checkout, never underestimate how much theme and name recognition play into choices. And if you’re a long-time board gamer, never forget that less-experienced players come to games with a different set of expectations.

Most people don’t want to feel dumb or mentally overwhelmed. I know I don’t. It’s a thoroughly uncomfortable, tiring, nerve-wracking experience. I’d certainly hesitate to take up a hobby that starts with me feeling like that in front of other people.

And yet, many tabletop games are massive affairs filled with complex rules with fiddly numbers that you have to keep track of mentally. To make it worse, most of them are competitive. And if they’re co-op, they may be played by grumpy rules-lawyering grognards who hate it when someone else makes them lose.

Or at least that’s what they can feel like if you’re inexperienced.

Now, I can reassure you the tabletop gaming world is far more diverse than that–there are games that are social rather than mathematical or spatial, games that are cooperative, and games that don’t have a win condition at all.

I can tell you that modern game design prizes pared-down simplicity and accessibility.

I can offer to walk you through the rules.

I can assure you that I’ll take care of the trickier bits and simplify your options.

But if you’re inexperienced with board games, you have no reason to trust that coming from me.

After all, I like these games. I’m familiar with the patterns. I’m used to losing my first game of anything new. And I’m experienced enough that no one’s going to question my bona fides at the table.

If I’m trying to introduce you to that world, I don’t need to tell you it’s accessible and safe. I need to help you feel safe dipping your toe in the water.

My job is to reduce the intimidation factor as much as possible for you, not invalidate the fact you feel intimidated.

Two ways to accomplish this are theme and name recognition.

For many board games (especially eurogames), theme is almost an afterthought. If you’re managing resources or building networks by some set of abstract rules, it hardly matters if you’re settling an island or raising a panda. And yet, if you haven’t picked up the pattern language of board games, theme is probably how you’re describing games.

Some examples of theme:

  • Again, Takenoko is a great example of a fairly generic theme (pandas and gardening) and a friendly artistic style that makes a relatively complex game seem less intimidating. All other things being equal, it’s probably worth prioritizing that in your library and on the schedule.
  • I suspect one reason my Trains and Yokohama learn-to-plays never got much interest is because they’re “business” themed. Unless you have some other reason to be interested (e.g., you’re excited by the designer’s name or the words “deck-building”) they likely come off as fairly bland.
  • The Bob Ross games (Art of Chill and Happy Little Accidents) are a good example of themes that tap into pop culture. It doesn’t hurt that Bob Ross is a nostalgic symbol of vulnerability, encouragement, and acceptance that runs counter to a demanding world.
  • Attack on Titan: The Last Stand wasn’t often checked out from the library, but it definitely got some interest as a learn-to-play demo. Not only is it based on a popular anime, it uses large cardboard models rather than a flat board, making it very noticeable.
  • To an extent, Cards Against Humanity plays on theme… it’s just that the theme is crude, dark humor. It might also be an example of how theme can be counterproductive. There are tons of interesting social or improv games out there, but it’s hard to generate interest in ones that don’t give you an excuse to say horrible things.

But when newer players have some knowledge of game mechanics, they don’t often want to deviate. This is why name recognition comes into play.

As I said, D&D outpaced every other RPG I’ve ever put on the schedule, and I think a lot of it is due to Critical Role and other web series. It’s introduced people to the concept of tabletop RPGs who may have never had a chance to play before. But they don’t necessarily know what the tabletop RPG landscape looks like–they just know they like what they’ve seen of D&D.

Even outside of cons, I’ve seen people who aren’t hardcore RPG players but otherwise seem comfortable with D&D express reticence at trying another system (usually when I’m trying to push Ryuutama, 7th Sea, Shadow of the Demon Lord, etc. as an alternative, as I often do).

Why? After all, RPGs can be extremely free-form, so they should be mostly interchangeable, right?

My guess is they have a handle on D&D, but they aren’t quite confident that they have a handle on it. They don’t want to go back to asking you “what do I roll now?” They generally understand the rules, the gameplay, and the storytelling genre. They know what their character can do. They don’t want you throwing them a curveball every session.

Again, this is an area where “just trust me, [game X] isn’t that different from [game Y]” doesn’t necessarily address the issue.

There’s a few ways you can engage with the name recognition factor:

  • Know what’s popular and go with the flow. A game that’s featured on Critical Role or Tabletop is probably more likely to get played than a hidden gem, even if the play experiences are similar. You’ll be providing better service to your attendees by giving them that opportunity.
  • “If you like X, you’ll like Y.” In the game library, I had signs for games similar to Cards Against Humanity (Larceny, Fake News, Channel A, Say Anything, Superfight) and Werewolf (Resistance: Avalon, Secret Hitler, Spyfall, Sheriff of Nottingham). Most people will still play Game X, but every so often someone will try Game Y (usually if X is already checked out).

    Channel A and Larceny never beat out Cards Against Humanity in checkouts, but I had people specifically ask for them because they’d tried them out the year before. That felt like a win to me.
  • Run the weird stuff anyway. D&D is going to get played more than whatever indie RPG you’re eager to demo, but you should still run both. Just… maybe schedule 1 session of the indie and 3 sessions of D&D, not the other way around. It won’t draw the same audience (sometimes it won’t draw any audience), but someone is going to discover it and love it.