Step 25: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Playing your game with a publisher

One goal of going to a convention is to get your games played by as many publishers as possible (keeping mind that they should be the appropriate publishers for the kind of games you have made).  So let’s look at what happens when it’s time to actually play your game with a publisher!

If the convention is slow, or if it’s after hours, then the publisher might want to play a full game – or at least a few rounds to get the idea.  This is where you have to be REALLY good at explaining rules.  Some people are naturally good at this, while others are terrible.  You’re going to have to find a way to be great at this if you want to be taken seriously.  I’m sure you’ve played a new game where halfway through, the person who explained the rules suddenly added a new rule that was integral to the strategy.  It feels like a waste of time.

Ask your friends if they think you’re good at explaining rules, and how you could improve.  One key thing to keep in mind when you’re explaining rules (of any game) are questions that pop up.  Why are they asking questions at that moment?  Probably because they don’t see how it all fits together yet and are stuck in their minds on how it works.  The more questions you get asked during your rules explanation, the more you have to improve this skill.  If you’re not great at explaining rules, then you should practice.  For every game you play – not just your own prototypes – volunteer to explain the rules.

Explaining rules for a game could be its own post – or three – but here is a quick overview of what people need to know before playing a game – usually in this order:

1)     What is the theme/story about what you’re doing in the game.

2)     The objective.  Is it to get the most points or build the tallest building or have more horses than anyone else?

3)     Define the pieces that will be used in the game.  Some won’t make sense to the players, but they’ll need to know the terminology of what things are called.  Make sure to say “and I’ll explain how you get those in a bit” whenever applicable.

4)     Turn order.  What does a player do in a turn.

5)     How to score/win.  Why have we been collecting these tokens? Oh I see – each complete set is worth 5 points.  Got it.

Example for Belfort: (1) We’re each playing architects and are trying to construct buildings in the town of Belfort before the first snow hits. (2) At each of the three scoring rounds we’re going to score – and whoever has built the most buildings in each district will get points, as well, whoever has hired the most workers will also get points. (3) Every player has a player aid, 3 elves, 3 dwarves, 1 wood, 1 stone, 1 metal and 5 gold, as well as your houses to indicate which building you built on the board. (4) The turn order is listed here on your player aid, so let’s review each step <go through a turn>. (5) During the scoring rounds, here’s how we’re going to score: each district will be scored separately and whoever built the most buildings will get 5 points.  Whoever built the second most gets 3 points, and third most gets 1 point.  If there’s a tie then they get points of the next lowest rank – so players tied with the most buildings in a district get 3 points each instead of 5.  Then we look at each worker type and whoever has the most and second most get points.  Make sense?

Example of Belfort set up for 5 Players using Prototype. This was what I had when I showed Tasty Minstrel this game - and they saw, played, and agreed to publish it!

Now here comes the tricky part – when playing with the publisher, should you let them win? I say no.  Don’t ‘let’ them win – but definitely help them understand the key strategies as they play.  Always ensure that every decision is their own to make, but make sure they understand the implications of some of their choices.  You don’t want to play the game for them – but since they’ve never played before, they probably won’t understand how some of the strategies work.

If a publisher makes a move that doesn’t seem like a good move early on, then I either remind them about the rules / scoring conditions or I accept blame for not explaining the rules well enough: “Remember that if you spend all your money now, you won’t have any during the worker placement phase in the next round.”  Something like that allows them to still make their own decision, but lets them know of a situation that could suck if they didn’t know.  In Belfort – that’s exactly one of the rules – and for players that forget this, when they find out on the next turn that they have no money to visit the guilds – they can get upset.  A small reminder the turn before lets them decide if they want to be in that position or not – and then the feeling doesn’t suck any more as it was their decision and strategy!

The worst thing to do with a publisher (heck – with anyone!) is to be quiet and do some sort of surprise attack that they simply weren’t aware that could happen – no matter how much you said at the beginning that it could happen.  No one likes to be ‘spanked!’  Well some people do – but that’s not the topic of this post!  If you are going to ‘spank’ a publisher – make sure they can see it coming and could have done something about it.  You want them nodding to themselves and thinking about what they could have done to prevent it.

If you do get through a full game – it should be obvious that you shouldn’t care about whether you won or lost.  End by commenting if this was a typical example of how the game plays.  Quickly add if there are other things that didn’t really show up in this play through – then ask for feedback from the publisher.

Remember that the purpose of playing the game isn’t to play the game – the purpose is to showcase the strengths of your game to a publisher in hopes that they’d want to publish it.  As you’re playing, give advice, or explain why you’re doing the things you’re doing.  In the end, they won’t care if they won or lost as much as they care about how many strategies there are to win and if it’s something that was fun to play, had meaningful decisions and was replayable.

Next up we eat a slice of humble pie as we go through the steps on how to take feedback from a publisher.

-Jay Cormier

As I’m not usually the main man when it comes to this step, I usually just sit back home in London and wait to hear from Jay. But as we’re finding more and more possible publishers in Ontario and the Eastern provinces, looks like I’m going to have to up my skill level in this area.

Like with anything in life, practice makes perfect. Jay’s comments about practicing teaching rules to people is very important. It’s definitely one of my weaker skills as I tend to be the “absent minded professor” when it comes to explaining the rules of games – even ones that I helped create! There’s even a saying in my gaming group – “Before we start, are there any ‘Sen Rules’?” These so-called ‘Sen Rules’ are the ones that I will “conveniently forget” to tell the other players, usually only cluing them in at the end of the game as I’m taking advantage of some rule that they didn’t even know existed.

Sen – “So yeah…I score 2…4…8…16 points.”
Gamer 1 – “Why? How’d that happen?”
Sen – “Oh…I forgot to tell you about how that part of the board works…see? It says that if you play there while the sun is out and it’s cloudy, you score double…sorry…”
Gamer 2 – “*SEN RULE!*”

So…yeah…Don’t be a Sen. Teach the rules completely. Avoid beatdowns whenever possible.

One thing about teaching rules – no one wants to hear your read the rules verbatim off a sheet of paper. Your presentation needs to be fluid, dynamic, and visual. It’s not like you’re reading the rules on the toilet or anything like that (not that I’ve ever done that before…) Use diagrams from the manual to help. The board and the components are right there in front of you, so use them to teach in a hands-on manner.

You can also play a hands-up “dummy” round if it helps to explain the game better. This is often the case with card games – it’s easier to just play a round and explain the rules as the situations come up rather than to front-load all of the teaching before the game is being played. Consider if your game is better to be “dived into” and taught in the moment (usually shorter, simpler games) or if it one that requires more thoughtfulness to the teaching style (usually the case where one round has lasting ramifications on future rounds).

Some general hints:

– Be clear and succint.
– Use plain and simple language.
– Demonstrate visually and use concrete examples from the game itself.
– Repeat things that bear repeating (particularly true of the game’s objective, scoring mechanisms, and end game requirements).

When teaching a game to a prospective publisher, you can explain the rationale behind certain strategies and discuss design issues but I would prefer to do that once a few rounds have been played (unless there is something critical to note at the time of a specific move). End the game when you feel that the players have had sufficient exposure to all the key elements of the game and could extrapolate the ending from where you’ve stopped. If they want to keep playing, however, take that as a positive sign and keep the game going!

At the end of the session, it’s time to wrap up and pop the question. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not “Will you marry me?” It’s not even “Hey! Wanna publish my game?” It’s “Do you have any feedback for me?” (or some form thereof – “So, what did you think?” is a more colloquial way of soliciting feedback).

Have your pen and pad ready, because this is the critical point of your new relationship with a publisher…

-Sen-Foong Lim



4 thoughts on “Step 25: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Playing your game with a publisher

  1. Pingback: Step 19: Conventions – Choosing the Right One « Inspiration to Publication

  2. Pingback: Step 27: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Leaving the game with a publisher « Inspiration to Publication

  3. Pingback: Adventures in Essen: Part 3: Pitching to a Publisher | Inspiration to Publication

  4. Pingback: Inspiration to Publication

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