Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The first Tabletop Network Conference report

This last weekend (June 7th-10th) I had the pleasure of attending the first ever Tabletop Network Conference. I had first learned of the event from co-founder (and rockin' game designer) Tim Fowers while attending Protospiel in San Jose.

Tim described the event as a "GDC for board game developers". A long-time attendee of that show, I had grown disillusioned by it. I had met and talked to GDCc founder Chris Crawford about the original GDC and how it was "twenty people talking about game design in Crawford's living room." Now that sounded like an event I wanted to attend.

Tim had already lined-up a pretty impressive roster of speakers including Rob Daviau (Pandemic Legacy) Tom Lehmann (Roll for the Galaxy), Geoff Englestein (Ludology podcast) and Raph Koster (The Theory of Fun) when I talked to him and it was even more appealing is that many of these speakers were already acquaintances. The opportunity to learn from and socialize with these respectable creators was a powerful lure. Passes to the convention were made available via Kickstarter in March. I don't think I've backed anything faster.

Many months later, the weekend of the event finally approached and I flew out to Utah. After a harrowing flight (we were buffeted by winds so strong that the plane almost turned sideways! There were people actually whimpering in fear - not something you want to hear during a flight) so I was grateful to land at Salt Lake Airport.

The drive up to the resort was breathtaking, we traveled up a road that wound ever higher into the pine-covered mountains. We reached the resort - a concrete bunker posed at the side of the cliff.

 Billed as "The most misunderstood ski resort" the Snowbird was an interesting mix of upscale hotel and sprawling resort. It was definitely large enough for the 125 attendees of the conference.

 The conference itself was organized like the Game Developers Conference - with several hours of talks and Marc LeBlanc's famous game design workshop. A brief listing of the talks I attended were:

Rob Daviau discussed "Firsts" and their importance to the designer, player and publisher. Best takeaways: Some of your early ideas might not apply at the end of the game. Make a first protoype of "parts" of the game - prototype how long it takes to set up the game for example or a single turn. Think about how you can communicate rules without a long rule book - on cards, use a demo level, include a comic book that explains things visually, etc. Ask yourself, Is it the game fun on its first turn?  Finally, a game designer makes a "promise" to the player. A game designer should "be a little more emotional", a mechanic isn't a promise and give the unboxing lots of thought as unboxing videos are a thing.

Ryan Laukat talked about focusing on story - I enjoyed the talk especially after learning Ryan and I start our game designs with same way - with the cover. Best takeaways: Players add to the story of a game without being prompted so encourage the players to tell the stories themselves. Let the players name their characters - they will even if you don't give them names. Concentrate on "classes" of characters rather than personalities.Weave mechanics into flavor text. Avoid story text with arbitary choices, no choices or an obvious outcome. Make the story about the people in it. Hide the outcome of the story. Give choices but never more than 3 at once. Better to be fair than to surprise the player. Moments are the strong points of the game as overall story is hard to communicate.

Mike Sellers discussed systems - a talk that parallels the one I give on my first day of board game design class. Best Takeaways: "Board games are the theater of gaming" (You can't hide behind flashy explosions in a board game), parts are connected by behaviors which create a system. Sellers recommended watching "How Wolves change rivers" on YouTube. Loops create wholes and a hierarchy of systems. Think about the interaction of loops between player and designer and player an elements of the game. Beware of cognitive fatigue - a game that is so complex that it taxes the player's brain. Emotions take long for the player to process than spontaneous events or reactions. Game designers are one three types: Storytellers, inventors or toymakers - which one are you?

Hearthstone designer Eric Dodds discussed making games for everyone - although the highlight of the talk is tied between Tim having to dancing during technical difficulties and when a Moose strolled by. Best takeaways: Concentrate on player's stories. Give the player strong agency. Utilize randomness (it's not all bad), use combinatorics to create interesting interactions. Give the player a chance to generate content on their own.

Critic Dan Thurot provided this hilarious chart of the "narrative arc of a board game" and Raph Koster did what he does best - a deep dive into the whys of gaming.

Thurot takeaways: Memories are created by one of three events in a game: Betrayal, the Comeback and the Attack. make the most of these. While many designers think it's either "mechanics" or "theme" (or a combination of the two), it's really "Mechanics", "Components", "Setting", "Theme" and "Feedback". Use hierarchical proportion in your miniature (and component) design - the bigger the character, the more dangerous/important/valuable it is. A flawed game elicits more of a response than a "perfect" one.

Koster takeaways: Topology is an important way to analysis games. The human mind can only hold +/- 7 verbs in memory. Don't overload the player with too many things to do.

There was an engaging talk by retailer/publisher/designer Jennifer Graham-Macht about the four types of people designers should appeal to: Consumers, Retailers, Publishers and Content Creators (reviewers, etc.) - if you want your game to be successful, a game designer should interact with these. As for where to find publishers she reminded us that there have been thousands of games published on Kickstarter and designers should contact them as they are looking for games! Treat the publishers like people rather than a catch. Ask them about their brand and what they are looking for/looking to make.

There were even round-tables cover all manner of topics during lunch. There were so many that I wanted to sit in on!

As inspiring as the first day was, one of the best part was getting to play prototypes! It seemed like everyone had brought at least one (game designers always need feedback and playtesting) and there was no shortage of games to choose from - card games to miniature games and everything in-between!

Veteran game designer Tom Jolly (Wiz-Wars) was awarded a well-deserved influencer award at an evening ceremony.

But for me, the highlight of that first day was dinner. I always try to organize a "nice meal" at these events for myself and my friends - both old and new. Having a good steak with some of the brightest minds in game design is always a pleasure.
That aside, the next day also had it's share of great speakers. The always entertaining James Ernest defined "fun". Best takeaways: Experiment with a new dynamic system that reacts in unpredictable ways. The player should have "little victories all along the way." Ernest said making games should be like driving a car at Disneyland's Autopia: He called it CAR - Competence (positive feedback), Autonomy (A sense of control/decision making) and Relatedness (how it matter to the player whether it be the meta game or leaderboards and real-world rewards from self-esteem to money) "You can't get by on mechanics alone", "Surprise is best when it comes from other player's decisions", Let the player see the risk they are about to take and allow them to opt in or opt out. When asked if Candyland was a game, Ernest replied "Does it say Game on the box?" He finished up with some good advice "Don't punish players for bad decisions" and finally 'The holy grail of game design is to keep players coming back on the 100th play - where they can still find new things."

Tim Fowers gave a talk about the power of anticipation. The stages of which are: The Plan, Uncertainty, Time, Investment, Payout and Social factors. According to his research he found that "anticipation is better than getting something." He discussed how "uncertainty is a multiplier" which creates tension. A near-miss fires off all the feelings in your brain - which is why players want to go back and try to win again even when they fail. Good board games give you a clear path to success but you have to wait for it. Our brains fear loss and the player would rather "win because of skill and loss because of luck." He wrapped it up with summations relating to his stages: Give hope/reinforce hope, Breadcrumb the player, Show the odds, Have player growth over the game, meet expectations, make viable strategies payoff and temper social interaction with uncertainty and luck - bad luck defuses bad feelings between players.

Tom Lehmann talked about goal-driven design. Best takeaways: Set goals as you design. If the player has clear powers they might feel railroaded into a specific way to play the game. Constraints are limits, goals inform game play. "A large investment by the player should produce a large game affect." He talked about several graphic design tricks he used on his dice games (given their small surface size and limited informational space) - sadly I don't have photos of those.

Geoff Englestein gave us a peek into his upcoming book with a deep dive into the auction mechanism. "Think about how long your game is going to be", think about methods of obfuscation such as hidden goals, hidden elements and different values for different players. The majority of his talk was about all of the different types of auctions there are, but he's coming out with a book all about that later this year, so you'll have to wait for then to read all about them.

Other speakers (Isaac Shalev, Kathleen Mercury and Peter Vaughn) talked about subjects as far-reaching as patterns in games, teaching kids game design and how to cultivate playtesters and gaming groups.

Mercury takeaways: A game should be finished but not perfect, get feedback about what works, what needs to be improved, what are some new ideas about the game and most importantly, did they "get it"

Shalev takeaways: Design for the user - correctly solve for the right problem. He had a great illustration of the "double diamond" for problem solving. You can read more about it here.

An after-dinner mixer allowed for more gaming and conversation.

Another fun event was an impromptu "Shark Tank" style pitch-athon. The line for potential pitchers went out the door! Fortunately, I was one of the first and I think my game "Castle Climbers" was well received.
If I had one complaint about the show, it was that I fell victim to altitude sickness. Headache, lack of sleep and shortness of breath made for challenging mornings. As I told Tim, "if this conference were 8,000 ft lower, it would be perfect."

Will I attend again? Given the proper precautions - absolutely. And if Tim if have me, I'd love to present a talk. I hope to see some of you there next year! 

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