Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Playing with Other People’s Toys

On Saturday I walked into my friendly local game store to celebrate International Table Top Day 2014. My gaming friend waved, we checked out the store’s pile of demo copies on the center table, found one we liked, and gave it a test run. A fellow we’d never met came over while we glanced over the rulebook, set up pieces, and shuffled cards. “Want to play?” “Sure!” I’d read some positive reviews about Cryptozoic Entertainment’s Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension but wasn’t sure it was something I’d really like...until we sat down and played. No review or feature, or even a download of the PDF rulebook, could give me the firsthand impression that actual play could. I didn’t have to buy it first before I tried it, because I was playing with the FLGS copy...playing with someone else’s toy.

Potential customers have many resources at their disposal when researching new games to purchase – rulebook or quick-start PDFs uploaded online, reviews, publisher websites, game community forum discussions, even actual play videos like Wil Wheaton’s excellent Tabletop show (all resources I’ve discussed before) – but nothing beats sitting down to play the game with a group of friends. The key, however, is finding someone else who owns the game, can clearly teach it, and has a ready source of additional players to fill the ranks.

“Playing with other people’s toys,” so to speak, has been a tried and true strategy for learning new games for ages. I imagine many patient parents (my own included) undergo the ritual of teaching their kids how to play chess...and the inevitable lesson in sportsmanship that follows. Many initiated into the esoteric practices of roleplaying games since their emergence 40 years ago learned by watching and joining other players who managed to own or pool their collections of the necessary rules tomes. How many times have kids – and adults – wandered past an exuberant group of players huddled around a board and wondered what’s going on...and have been invited to join in the fun?

A good teacher not only explains the rules clearly and concisely, shepherding players through turns and strategies as they play, but they share their enthusiasm for the game. On some level it’s a selfish urge: teach others how to play a favorite game to bring new players – and a new game experience – to the table. At the very least, even if they don’t return, everyone’s enjoyed at least one game experience together.

Learning games while playing with other people’s toys is a great way to “test drive” a game before buying it. Finding the right venue helps:

Friends: “Hey, I just got this new game...want to try it?” Many gamers enjoy the fellowship of friends who acquire new games, even ones outside their usual repertoire or genre of preferred games. Established groups provide a comfortable environment with familiar players, so there are few uncomfortable introductions while complete strangers break the ice (though doing so over a game often helps). While I don’t do it often enough due to schedule juggling and hefting the majority of housecleaning duties, I do enjoy hosting friends for afternoons of gaming (usually accompanied by a meal); sometimes we just have some basic games out for a general crowd, but other times we have a smaller group of more hardcore game aficionados to try more complicated fare.

FLGS: Among the many elements that make a really excellent friendly local game store (FLGS), two key factors encourage patrons to test drive games...in-store play area and demo copies. Open play space remains essential in creating a vibrant gamer community (and a consumer base) through store events and tournaments. It also offers a comfortable spot to gather with friends, look through the store demo copy, and give it a test drive. One of the two stores I frequent has a policy of lending games like a library for a small deposit...good toward purchase of the game if customers want to buy it. My really local FLGS participated in International Table Top Day 2014 and designates Saturdays in its busy weekly schedule for open board game play (when it isn’t hosting tournaments or other special events).

Game Conventions: Not everyone can make it to even the closest regional convention featuring some solid game programming, but those who do have an opportunity to play old favorites or try new offerings, usually with an experienced referee. Exclusively gaming conventions (as opposed to those catering to the greater spectrum of fan media) provide access to roleplaying games, board and card games, even some miniature wargames. Some provide board game “libraries” offering vast selections of currently popular board games participants can “check out,” examine, and play in a friendly environment with plenty of potential players. Besides offering places to play new games other people own, many conventions also host dealers rooms where one can purchase games they’ve played and liked. I often lose count of the number of tables at friendly, local miniatures wargaming conventions where I stop to take a look at the fantastic terrain and detailed soldiers, only to have the referee or a participant ask if I’d like to join the game. I bought the World War I version of Ares Games’ Wings of War/Wings of Glory game after joining a beginner-friendly game at a con (though I’d already dabbled in the World War II version). At larger conventions many publishers offer game demos right at their dealers hall table or in some other space at the con. Although I didn’t get a chance to play at GenCon 2004 thanks to the massive crowds and long lines, I did watch Jeff Tidball demonstrate his Cthulhu 500 racing card game to some eager players; watching the game concept, theme, and execution first-hand inspired me to eventually add it to my collection (though it hasn’t seen much actual play). One of my latest experiences nicely demonstrates the concept of playing with someone else’s toys. I had a chance to try the Sergeants Miniatures Game from Lost Battalion Games (which I discussed in greater detail earlier), but, given the high price tag for just the basic game, let alone all the add-on soldiers and supplemental materials, it’s not something I’m going to go out and purchase at the drop of the hat (or even after some degree of consideration). Yet I had a fantastic time playing two games with referee Jason Williams, including a beginner-friendly demo session and a more involved game incorporating more advanced rules. (I played a German squad both times, and, thanks to the participation of a more experienced player on my side, came out ahead of the Allied forces both times.)

As a father I see kids at “play dates” sharing their toys. We can do the same as gaming adults; play with other gamers’ toys, try new games, broaden our gaming repertoire and horizons, cultivate a community of gamers, and expand the variety of our game experiences.

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