6 Lessons from Demoing at Gen Con 50

Want to teach a board game with more finesse? It was my first time at Gen Con, and I grabbed an opportunity to volunteer for the nice people at Indie Boards & Cards.

If you’re not familiar, demoing is a short demonstration of a game to conference attendees. Typically done for new releases, this allows players to see if they like a game before they make a purchase. On the other hand, presentations are often an even more simplified version of a demo, where attendees only look at a game with a short rules explanation.

If you haven’t demoed for a publisher before, I highly encourage trying it, as it’s a great way to meet a lot of nice people, practice your teaching skills, and get some free stuff. Whether it’s teaching a game to friends or preparing your pitch to to a publisher, here’s six lessons from the weekend to make your demo run a little smoother.

1. Practice

Winging it is a bad idea. Prepare by walking through your entire rules explanation/pitch by yourself. See where you get stuck or have difficulty explaining the game’s concepts. It’s amazing the progress you can make after doing this even three to four times. It’s also amazing how bad you’ll be when you start.

I also recommend teaching your game to your friends and family. When you’re done, ask for feedback on your instruction. A confident presentation goes a long way to capturing someone’s interest, and many games are sold on whether or not your audience can quickly understand the core mechanics of your game.

2. Anticipate questions

When someone approaches a game they are unfamiliar with, they likely want to know a few things. You can answer the following questions in any logical order throughout your explanation, but you’ll likely want to cover:

What is the theme?
Playtime?
Player number?
What is the gameplay like?
Are there any similar games or mechanics players might know?
How do you win?
How do you lose?
What is unique?
Why is the game fun?

3. Steer the ship…but let people get off

When you start a demo, rules explanation, or game pitch, you are in control. Your audience wants you to be in control. Try to fill the time with your pitch by avoiding awkward pauses, looking at the rulebook, and searching for the right words. You don’t need to be perfect, but demonstrating confidence and an awareness of social situations puts people at ease — remember their time is valuable. Also, find opportunities to allow players to leave early. While you don’t need to ask every other minute, occasionally checking in can save you and your audience some time.

4. Make your pitch bite-sized

Ideally, you should be able to explain most of your game in three to four sentences. There’s two reasons for this. First, as mentioned before, attendees and publishers have very little time, so don’t waste it. Two, you are going to be repeating your explanation a lot, so create a script that will allow you to speak as economically as possible.

Here’s the pitch I was using for Kodama: The Tree Spirits at Gen Con:

“Kodama is a treebuilding game where players take 1 card from a row of four cards and add them to their tree. Each player will start the game with four Kodama, and choose 1 and the end of each round for alternate scoring. There are also three seasons with special rules drawn from this deck for each.”

Short and to the point. If the group was still interested, I would walk them through the scoring, and the rules for card placement.

5. Take care of your body

Talking for prolonged periods of time is hard. Standing is hard too. Make sure to keep a supply of water and cough drops on hand to save your throat, and eat regular meals to avoid passing out. After my first day of demoing, I almost fell over because of a super delicious taco (I’m not sure this is normal). Thankfully, the booth I was at supplied us with the essentials, and had lunch on hand each day. Also, many people recommend a fist bump instead of a handshake to avoid getting sick. Finally, go to bed at a reasonable time so you can start fresh the next morning.

6. Let your players be the stars

It’s likely, when demoing, that you are going to be much better than the group you are playing with. If we go back to the purpose of the demo, you’re trying to optimize the fun for your new players, while giving them a realistic look at the gameplay. I try to let my players be the stars by doing the boring stuff, letting people gang up on me, and not playing too mean. At Gen Con, this varied from the vibe of the group, but if someone had to discard cards or take damage in my demos of Aeon’s End, it was usually going to be me. If someone gets to kill the Nemesis, I tried to let my players do it. Why? Again, I wanted to let my players have the best time possible.

So those are the five lessons from demoing at Gen Con! Do you have any suggestions for how to demo better sessions? Let me know in the comments, and please subscribe if you would like updates on current projections and recent articles.

3 Comments

  1. I would add “Be Excited” or at least interested. I can’t tell you how many demos/pitches I’ve been through where it felt like the person talking would rather be anywhere else at that moment. I get that after doing the same thing for 3 straight days, you are going to lose a little steam. But if you are not interested, the people you are talking to wont be either.

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    1. Wow! Couldn’t agree more. Thankfully I have not run in to this too much, but I’ve definitely seen YouTube videos with less than enthused teachers. I think this is sort of on the publisher to make sure they have the right people, and make sure that people’s shifts are reasonable…that being said, I think a lot booths are grateful to get who they can.

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  2. Let your players make decisions!

    I’m always quick to provide tactical advice when I demo for people, especially since they likely don’t grasp the correct moves to make right away, but theres nothing worse than sitting for a demo where I as a player dont get to make some decisions. If I’m not in the driver’s seat, I might as well just watch a youtube video on the game later. It’s your job as a demoer to gradually shift from pilot to copilot as your players pick up on concepts.

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