The Gathering of Friends: Part 2 – The Lay of the Land

When I got to the Gathering I got my name badge and a goodie bag full of freebies! The goodie bag had some card games (including a special Tichu deck with new pictures of people who have attended the Gathering in the past), some expansions to other games (like the expansion to fellow GAC member, Roberta Taylor’s Octopus’ Garden) and even the full box version of Two by Two from Valley Games (and designed by fellow GAC member, Rob Bartel!).

The name badge system was awesome as they were colour coded to help you identify people a lot easier. With this information it was easy to identify the publishers as you walked around.

  • Red Badge: First year attendee (so I had a red badge!). Generally speaking, red badge attendees are always welcomed by others and made to feel at home pretty quickly. People were constantly shaking my hand and welcoming me to the Gathering. It was very nice!
  • Grey Badge: Anyone who has been to the Gathering for the last 9 years
  • Black Badge: Anyone who has been to the Gathering for 10 years or more
  • Blue Badge: Publishers

    After I got my badge, I surveyed the layout.

Basically there was a large convention room with tons of tables set up for open gaming. Off to one side were the prize tables! Everyone was encouraged to bring something for the prize table. If you contributed to the prize table, then you could participate in the prize draw at the end of the Gathering. Near the Prize tables was a table full of brochures for local restaurants and more freebies. I found an expansion to Valdora and another for Mondo there! Around the edges of the room were tables where people stored the games they brought.

Oh look, Pierre Poissant-Marquis (right), half of the design team of the game Quebec is playing Belfort!

Generally speaking, anyone could grab any game and start playing at any time, as long as they returned it when they were done with it. Outside of the convention room were a few open areas with more tables ready for open gaming. These tables were used for the poker tournament that happened on one night. Finally, down the hall there were a couple of rooms with a few more tables. During the day we found these to be a bit quieter and therefore made it a favourite spot for us to pitch to publishers. In the late evening one of these rooms were used for a large Werewolf tournament! There were always water stations all over the place to ensure you stayed hydrated throughout the event, so that was nice! On a whole, the hotel and its staff, while a bit gungy (the hotel, not the staff), were prepared and made us feel welcome.

I found Rob and saw that he had a spot along the tables around the edges of the room, so I added my prototypes to his pile. Once we were set up then we were free to either start our own game, or join another group that’s about to start playing a game. It was always easy to find people to play a game of anything! Some of the times it would be a prototype and other times it would be a ‘regular’ game. There were a lot of designers there who, like Rob and I, were looking to get some feedback on their designs, as well as pitch to publishers. Friedemann Friese had a table dedicated to his games for the entire event. I wanted to check them out but never seemed to line up when the table was free. While the hotel offered a mini café in the latter half of the week, most of the meals were either at TGIF, which was in the same hotel, or a restaurant in the casino across the street. Sometimes people with cars would drive others to another local establishment nearby (Duff’s Buffalo wings!) or a few times we walked to a nearby Indian restaurant.

Even though I stayed up late on some days (3am) and woke up early on other days (8am), there were always people playing games somewhere in the convention area! Sleep is for chumps!

There were quite a few tournaments throughout the week ranging from 7 Wonders and Tichu to Loopin’ Louie and poker. The winners of each tournament got first choice of the prize table on Saturday night! Before the prize ceremony there was a flea market. Those that could travel with their assortment of games offered them up for sale to the rest of us. Since most people had to fly, it was a tough decision on what they could buy and what they could pack! I managed to pick up a copy of El Cabellero – a Wolfgang Kramer game that is out of print and one that I’ve been looking to get for a long time now!

[Sen:  Really?  That’s the single game of my collection that I’ve ever sold, IIRC.  Well, you know what they say about one man’s treasure…]

The prize ceremony was really the only time we were all together as one group. The hotel removed all the gaming tables and set up chairs theatre-style to fit all 400 of us in the room. Alan took the microphone and reviewed some things about the next year (I’m already pre-registered!), and then showed off the high-end prizes that people brought for the prize table. Some of the highlights included:

  • a crokinole board made by fellow GAC member, Mike Kolross, (plus graphic design by another GAC member, Mark Klassen) in the shape of a record with the label being Alan Moon’s Ticket to Ride,
  • handmade table covering with a Tichu mat on one side and a Can’t Stop and Liar’s Dice on the other – complete with all the dice and cups
  • a copy of the impossible-to-find game, Hotel
  • Big Boss from Wolfgang Kramer – another hard to find game
  • The Cookies of Catan – a fully playable and edible game of Settlers of Catan!
  • Line for Life for an upcoming game called D-Day Dice (designed by another fellow GAC member, Emmanuel Aquin). The Line for Life meant that the person would receive every expansion they ever make for this game for free!

I was called somewhere in the middle of the pack, but I managed to get the exact game I was hoping to pick up – Castles of Burgundy.  It was a game I had wanted to pick up in Essen last year, but they sold out too quick!

Up next I’ll get into the specifics of what it’s like to pitch to publishers at the Gathering!

-Jay Cormier

Step 31: Get to Know Other Designers

<caveat – this probably should be somewhere near Step 12, and will be ret-conned in later!>

As a game designer, I have found it extremely helpful to surround myself not only with great playtesters, but also other game designers. Initially many people think that you might not want to talk to other game designers about your unpublished games because they could steal your ideas. I have never thought this was an issue, mostly because everyone and their brother has a dozen ideas for their own board games. The ideas aren’t what’s lacking. What’s lacking is the ability, and often the experience and knowledge of how to get a game to market. This is where fellow game designers can be a big boon to you.

I belong to a group called the Game Artisans of Canada. This group was founded in 2008 by a few game designers with an interest in sharing stories and experiences in an effort to help each other get their games to the market. Many of the GAC members have games published already, including Rob Bartel with Two by Two, Sean Ross with Haggis and Matt Tolman with Undermining – to name but a few. There are different chapters across Canada which each meet up on a regular basis for play testing. In addition to this, they have an online forum which everyone across Canada can ask questions, share playtest sessions or debate game design philosophies. There’s a whole process to become a Game Artisan, which involves a trial period as a Journeyman and a lot of mentorship from your local chapter.

Attendees of Cardstock 2011! Look at all that brainpower!

In addition to our chapter meet ups and the online forum, GAC has an annual get together called Cardstock. This is heaven for game designers. 20 or so designers meet up and playtest each other’s’ prototypes over a long weekend! This year it was in Calgary and many of us flew in to take part in this experience. I was flabbergasted at all the creativity and brainpower that was at Cardstock. Every game that Sen and I brought to Cardstock left a much better game. Talk about invigorating!

The Game Artisans even have their own newsletter called Meeple Syrup that is dedicated to celebrating the organization’s successes. Issue 3 was just released and is available here.

Sen and I joined them in 2010 and have had numerous examples of how they have helped us become better designers and probably published more often.

1. Game Designers make the best playtesters. Game designers understand the need for balance and how a suggestion can lead to other issues. They understand that sometimes a playtest session needs to stop in order to tweak the rules before starting again. The feedback we get from playtesting with other game designers is always fantastic and leaves us excited to take another crack at it.

2. Game Designers have a ton of various experiences that each of us alone don’t have yet. Have a question about how a contract should be worded? Ask GAC. Not sure how to contact a publisher? Ask GAC. Trying to figure out how to solve a game design problem you’re having? Ask GAC. There’s a ton of knowledge amongst all the members of GAC.

3. Game Designers have contacts. We have already experienced a few examples where one GAC member has helped another get a game to a publisher and get published!

  • Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel Games asked me and Sean Ross about our opinions of the game Alba Longa, designed by GAC member Graeme Jahns. It was being published in the Netherlands by Quined and Michael was thinking about bringing it to America. I told him my honest opinion, as did Sean, and he decided to co-publish the game with Quined.
  • Quined then asked Graeme if there were other designers with games that he think they’d be interested in. Graeme thought of our game, Akrotiri and they were interested enough to send an email to us asking us for the rules. After reading the rules, they asked for a prototype. They’ve played the game twice and are still fascinated by it. Time will tell if that turns into a publishing contract!
  • Rob Bartel introduced us to Gamewright and they now have our game Jam Slam and are still deciding about whether they are going to publish it or not.
  • Dylan Kirk has contacts in China and when one of them asked if he knew of any games that might be a good fit for them, he told them about Train of Thought. On my trip to Essen coming up, I have a meeting set up with that publisher to see if they’d be interested in publishing the game in China!

4. Blind Playtesting! With different chapters across Canada this gives everyone that’s part of GAC the ability to get their game blind playtested. This means sending the game to another chapter with the rules, and letting them figure it out on their own. This is so valuable as this is the experience that a publisher would get when we would send a game to them – so the feedback from these sessions are extremely helpful.

5. Improved Quality. While this goes hand in hand with some of the other points in this list, it deserves its own callout because I’m referring also to the perceived quality of all games by members of GAC by publishers. Publishers are already starting to recognize the abilities of GAC. They know that if they receive a game from a member of GAC, that it has been playtested by other designers and most likely, even blind playtested. The goal would be to get to a point where a publisher comes to our group to ask for game submissions.

So while you may or may not be able to be a part of something like the Game Artisans of Canada, you should definitely surround yourself with other game designers. Try online places like Meetup.com or Craigslist, or even by asking your local game store if they can host a game designer night once a month – and see who shows up! You’ll become a better designer because of it.

~ Jay Cormier

Online, there’s the Boardgame Design Forum – http://www.bgdf.com – where like-minded people post about their designs. You could also use http://www.boardgamegeek.com and post in your local forum to try to find a design group or start up your own. An online group is a great place to bounce ideas off of people and a local group is excellent for playtesting.

Another thing that a group gives us access to is a huge collective boardgaming experience. Jay and I have played a ton of games, but there’s only so many hours in a day! With the difference in tastes and personal collections, we can draw on the gaming knowledge of many instead of just the two of us. So when we propose an idea, we’ll often get the reply of “Have you played yet? It sounds pretty similar.” While you might think this is discouraging, it isn’t – either we take a look at Game X and decide that it’s similar and we’ve saved ourselves the time of re-inventing the wheel and potential embarassment of pitching it to a publisher; or we find out that our game is different and, hopefully, better!

The group can also help bolster confidence in your designs – there have been a few times when people in the GAC were thinking of abandoning a project, but other members helped the game stay on the rails and move closer towards a final versions.

We also help promote each others’ games through things like newletters and Rob Bartel’s “Canadian Heritage Collection” catalog – a catalogue of games designed or published by Canadians that is sent to Canadian game retailers. Jay will be bringing one of Al Leduc’s prototypes to Essen to give to an interested publisher, Jolly Thinkers. We help with suggesting publishers, using our links and contacts when possible, to get our colleagues’ games in front of the decision makers. Jay will be pitching Matt Musselman’s “Bordeaux” to Queen and Alea at Essen later this month. Fingers crossed!

Help can be as simple as amking a suggestion. Why, even tonight, I suggested that a new designer take a theme that Jay and I had been toying around with and run with it, because his game fit better than any we’ve been able to think of so far! Hopefully, something becomes of it. We just want to make good games and help good games to be made.

In fact, both Jay and I are even working in collaboration with other GAC designers on separate games. Jay is working with Graeme Jahns, Ryley Tolman, and Gavan Brown on a party game tentatively called “Like It” while I’m involved in co-designing Yves Tourigny’s brainchild “Midnight Men” with him.

Like It logo

Like a boss.

“Like It” was sparked at a late-night session at Cardstock 2011 after the group had played “Clunatics” and Gavan seeded an idea. The next morning, Jay, Ryley and Graeme were eagerly discussing it and a quick prototype was mocked up in short order. There’s some really great mechanics in this game that have been great to watch develop over time on the GAC forums. That’s the beauty of the internet – connecting people in Vancouver, Calgary, and Lethbridge in order to create something new.

The Nightwatchman, from "Midnight Men"

The iconic Nightwatchman, bane of evildoers everywhere, brings justice to the streets of Cosmo City in Yves Tourignay's "Midnight Men"

My involvement with “Midnight Men” comes much later in the development of it; Yves had already done much of the work, including the all-important part of getting the game signed to Canadian game publisher Filosophia for a 2012 release. I became enamoured with the project as soon as Yves began discussing it, due to my love affair with comics from a young age, and was eager to try it out. I finally got to play it at Cardstock 2011 and it was apparent that the potential was there, but that there were kinks to work out. I was determined to help with that. After re-creating my own prototype version and tabling it with my local playtest group in London, I provided even more feedback to Yves. So much so that I think I was driving him to drink! I suggested that Yves discuss the possibility of me being part of the development team with Filosophia, but Yves did one better and offered me a role in the actual design of the game. I accepted immediately as I’ve always wanted to make a superhero game myself. Yves has created a richly detailed world and I am honoured to be part of bringing it to life. The progress that Yves and I have made on the game since we began the partnership has been a real testament to the power of teamwork.

This year has been a banner year for Jay and I as designers and it’s in no small part to our links to the Game Artisans of Canada.  2012 will be even better, if all goes as planned.  So, If you’re serious about game design, do yourself a favour and seek out like-minded people. It makes the job that much easier – as the old saying goes, “Many hands make light work.”

~ Sen-Foong Lim