Thursday, March 04, 2010

Games at Conferences

As I'm going to GDC next week, it occurs to me that one of the things I'm known for in my small circle of colleagues is that I'm the guy who brings the board games. Video game developers generally like to play board games, and I happen to have a sizeable collection, so this is a win-win.

Playing games at conferences is different from playing them at, say, a local game club. The social dynamics, physical setting, and time availability are constraints on the kinds of games that people are most likely to enjoy. Let us take GDC as an example. Here are some considerations:
  • I'm flying in, so I have limited space in my baggage (especially if I want to leave any room to take back some swag). This favors games that are small and portable -- card games, but even some board games that come in big boxes if I can remove the bits from the box, put them in plastic bags, and have them take up a lot less space.
  • Most venues are noisy, so it's better if games are either well-known (I don't have to explain the rules) or simple (I can explain the rules quickly without blowing out my voice). This also unfortunately reduces the value of games where players have to speak a lot (e.g. those games that focus on trading, diplomacy, or negotiation mechanics).
  • GDC is crowded, and every ten seconds one of the people at the table is going to turn around, see an old friend, and have to go off and say 'hi'. Games that are short (like, five minutes or less) are good here, as are those rare games that allow free entry and exit of players without screwing up everyone else. Ironically, games that have lots of player downtime can work well here: it lets players socialize with non-players when it's not their turn.
  • Table space is plentiful at the conference, but not so much at parties. Some board games that use a lot of space are fine at breakfast, but I also need to bring a few games that are a little more compact for the nightlife. (Also, most nighttime activities involve drinks... so waterproof games are a plus, as are games that can be played competently while drunk!)
  • Number of players is a consideration. Games that only support 2 or 4 players, or those that work best with a specific number, are not as good as those with wide ranges (2 to 8 players). You never know exactly how many people you'll have.
  • Avoid games with play times more than 30 or 45 minutes. Someone will inevitably have to go to a session, or get called away on business.
  • Games that have some kind of visual "wow" factor are nice, because they act as an attention-grabber for anyone walking past. This gives everyone at the table the opportunity to network, if only by answering the question "oh, what is that game?" over and over (hey, any excuse to get a business card). Note that board games with all the bits crammed into a plastic bag aren't so appealing at the table; this year I'll experiment with printing out a sheet with the game box artwork to stick in the bag, to make it look nicer.
  • Know the audience. Three games in particular seem to be loved by a disproportionate number of game developers I know: Family Business (which I never have to bring because someone else inevitably does), Pandemic (everyone seems to love it but no one owns it, making it an obvious choice for me to cart along), and Dominion (sadly disqualified because it doesn't travel well, though I may attempt to stuff the basic set into an old box I used to use for Magic cards).
  • Game developers (particularly designers) have discriminating tastes, so I try to bring games that showcase some kind of unique mechanic. If I can introduce other designers to new mechanics, this buys me street cred :-)
Given all of this, what games will I bring this year? I won't know for sure until I pack, but here are some likely candidates:
  • Incan Gold. Supports 3-8 players, has a small game box, the rules are ridiculously simple but still engaging. Plays in five rounds, with each round taking only a couple minutes, and players can theoretically leave in between rounds without screwing up the other players.
  • Pandemic. With the expansion, supports 2-5 players. Plays in about 45 minutes, pushing the upper limit for a game at breakfast, but this game sets the gold standard for pure-coop play in a board game... something that is notoriously hard to do.
  • Hey! That's My Fish!. Serves 2-4. Small box. The rules can be explained in less than a minute, and play lasts for about five minutes. Delightful experience in such a short time, and it has these ridiculously cute penguin pieces.
  • Notre Dame. For 3-5 players, takes about 45 minutes, and is about as complex and strategic as I dare to bring. That said, it has some absolutely brilliant mechanics, and is obscure enough that a lot of people still haven't played it yet. The box it comes in is large, but it's mostly empty space, so it collapses nicely.
  • Brawl. This real-time card game takes about a minute to explain and another minute to play. Theoretically supports multiplayer, but works best with 2. That said, the games are so fast that this makes a good filler if you happen to only have one other person and you're both waiting for some other people to show up. Comes as a set of small decks of cards, so it's very portable.
  • Rock!. Another real-time card game, also works with 2 (although I learned a nifty 3-player and 4-player variant from the publisher last summer). In an elegant way, demonstrates an important design principle: time pressure makes you stupid. It's just a single deck of cards, and even comes in a metal tin to protect the cards.
Other conferences have different criteria. GDX, for example, is a more relaxed atmosphere where you can actually congregate for a few hours at a time. So the games I bring there is different.


Unknown said...

I've actaully been getting a lot of milage out of Bananagrams, a game I received as a gift. Highly portable, easy to explain, and very short rounds.

Brian Shurtleff said...

You introduced me to Pit last year, which certainly fits a lot of those criteria, so I'll most likely bring it along. I will also likely be one of those inevitable people to bring Family Business, so you don't have to. :)

See you there, wherever the morning gaming will be happening this year thanks to the building change...

Chris Okasaki said...

A game that I think would work extremely well under the constraints you describe is Ricochet Robots. I've used it in similar situations with programmers.

Ian Schreiber said...

Tony: I've not played Bananagrams, but the photo on BGG looks like the best carry case ever.

Brian: Pit is another good one, though lately I've been playing Wheedle, which is basically like Pit except done by Reiner Knizia.

Chris: I love Ricochet Robot(s), but I've noticed it's a definite love-it-or-hate-it thing. Usually programmers love it and artists hate it. I'm thinking it could be used as a left/right brain test.

Chris Okasaki said...

Maybe you could bring Dixit for the artists.

Brian Shurtleff said...

Hmm! You've intrigued me.
Planning on bringing Wheedle?

Ian Schreiber said...

Brian: well, I guess now I have to :)

Vaughan said...

Good article. Fun pondering on the right game for the right time and place. :) It is true that Dominion takes a hit here for setup space and large amount of stuff. But I offer this favorite of mine and my gaming groups: BANG! It fits most of the qualifications - plays 4-8, can play 2 or 3 players if you need it to, it's short, and compact (1 draw deck), and it has that general appeal where passersby do say, "hey, what is that game?"
Looking forward to GDC!