Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

What makes a good podcast?

Ever since the year began, I’ve been listening to podcasts a lot. I’m finding them a great way to stay connected to the board game community and its various goings-on.

I’ve sampled a few podcasts – not as many as I’d like, but they do take some time to listen to – and I’ve come up with some thoughts on what makes one podcast better than another.

Ultimately, this is a blog about board gaming, so I will proceed assuming that we’re talking about board gaming podcasts. But this advice will work for any kind of podcast, especially podcasts focused on a particular hobby.

And if you’re any kind of podcaster, I have an offer for you partway through this post. More shameless self-promotion, really. You’ll know it when you see it.

1. Get to the point.

My first indicator of whether or not I will like a podcast is whether the podcast immediately gets to the point. Most podcasts spend their first minute or so thanking sponsors, talking about their Patreon, and doing other sorts of housekeeping. That’s no problem; it’s what you need to do to keep the lights on.

But I’m here to listen about board games. I don’t want to hear the hosts taking valuable minutes talking about TV shows they like, beer they drank, movies they saw, and so on. I don’t even want to hear about video games, unless the video games somehow tie into the board games they are talking about.

So: if you have a podcast, start strong. Spend the first minute or so paying your bills as you need to, and then get right into the show. Don’t include the bits about what you did this weekend. Don’t include the bits about your family, unless it’s something we need to know in order for the rest of the show. If you have a guest, start right off with your guest. If you have a featured review, start right off with that.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start your podcast recording talking about this stuff. Indeed, talking about unrelated stuff helps a lot of podcasters warm up. So start your recording talking about it… and then edit it all out later. I’ll talk more about editing in a moment, but this is an immediate benefit of editing; you won’t alienate a new listener in the first five minutes of your show by talking about everything but games.

2. Sound presentable

This doesn’t mean sound “good”, because it takes lots of time, effort, and money to put together a recording setup that sounds good. Most podcast listeners are quite forgiving. But there’s still plenty you can do to sound presentable.

First: reduce background noise and minimize extraneous noises. If there’s an air conditioner in the background, turn it off. You might sweat, but sweating is silent. If your chair squeaks, oil it. We can hear it. Don’t fiddle with your microphone or anything on your desk while you’re recording. We can hear it. If you have to drink anything fizzy while you record, keep your glass far away from the microphone. We can hear that too.

Second: record on separate tracks. If you’re recording remotely, this is easiest; have everyone record into the recording program of their choice (like Audacity, which is free), and then share all the files in a Dropbox or Google Drive folder for one person to edit together. A nice trick that I learned from Jason Hancock of The Docking Bay 94 Podcast is to say “1, 2, 3, GO” and have everyone clap their hands on the word “GO”. It will give the editor an easy way to sync all the tracks.

The great thing about this is you can mute tracks for people who aren’t speaking. This is great for loud breathers or people who fiddle with stuff when they’re not talking. It’s also good if you know how to apply noise reduction (and if you don’t know how to apply noise reduction, for crying out loud, don’t, at least, not on anything you care about), as you can easily capture noise prints of all the various background tracks.

(A side note about noise reduction to people who are new to recording: any sound engineer will tell you that the easiest way to remove noise from a recording is to never record it in the first place. Focus more on your recording setup, and less on looking for a magic plugin that will let you keep the air conditioner on while you record!)

If you are recording remotely on separate tracks, be sure to record your session in Skype or a similar program as a backup, just in case someone forgot to arm a track or hit record.

Third: Mix. All your voices should be at a consistent volume level. Your listeners should never have to ride their volume knobs so they can make one host quieter and another host louder. Volumes should never change between voices, nor should an individual voice get significantly louder and quieter during a show. Assume your listeners are trying to listen to the show in a loud, crowded subway car, or in an automobile with a lousy stereo system.

Dynamic compression helps here, a lot, especially when combined with noise reduction. But again: if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it.

Fourth: if something’s going to sound bad, it’s better if it is consistently bad. One editor I worked with loved to say, “People notice change, not consistency.”

For example, you’ll note that I haven’t suggested getting a good microphone. Good microphones are nice, but they’re also expensive. Instead, use the best microphone you can afford. Even a $50 USB microphone might do the trick; it won’t sound incredible, but it’ll sound better than a headset microphone or the built-in microphone in your computer. The mediocre sound of the microphone isn’t amazing, but it’s consistent, and your listeners will get used to it. That’s better than an expensive microphone picking up your squeaky chair, your thumpy desk, and your fizzy drink.

Fifth: never record into a lossy format like MP3. To you visual people, that’s like editing a JPEG. Every time you save the file, you’re surrendering quality. You can use a lossless format like FLAC or ALAC, but those are tough to edit in; the extra computation takes a lot of CPU overhead.

Instead, record in an uncompressed PCM format. WAV is the easiest and most supported, but AIFF works too and is widely supported. That will let you edit and save to your heart’s content, and you won’t have to lose a single bit. Only when you’re done with the whole thing do you save to MP3.

One thing to watch out for here is that WAVs take up a lot of space. Buy an external drive, and back up your stuff. I use Amazon’s Glacier service to back up my WAVs. Restoring what I backed up takes a while, but the service is much cheaper than S3. Glacier is tricky because it’s meant for developers, but you might be able to find an archival solution like Jungle Disk that works for you.

3. Be mindful of who the audience should be focusing on

I was a guest on an episode of Ludology (which is one of my favorite podcasts – more on that below). I thought things were going really well during the recording, but then I heard the final result. I kept saying “mm-hm” as other people were talking. It’s not so bad in a conversation, but it’s awful to listen to in a podcast! Geoff and Ryan would talk for a minute or two, and they’d be saying their typically-clever stuff, and here I am walking all over it with my mm-hms! It was really distracting, and as a listener, I would’ve wanted to strangle the guest.

Learn from my mistake. When someone is talking, that person has the floor. Don’t say a word – not a peep – as they are talking. Only when they’re clearly done should you chime in. Occasionally stepping on their last few words is okay if you don’t make a habit of it (which I admit I do – another thing I have to work on).

If your podcast is two people talking, each person should have the floor, and not have to deal with interruptions from the other host. If you must, do the cheesy corporate thing and put a totem between you. Only the person with the totem can speak; they can hand the totem to the other person when they’re done talking. That’s a good way to silently indicate when your host can take over. If you’re working remotely, use a Skype chat window when you’re not talking to indicate that you have something you’d like to add; the person currently talking can incorporate you in the discussion. it takes some practice, but it’s worth it.

If you have two hosts and a guest, be very careful about whose turn it is to ask a question. I’ve heard podcasts where Host #1 is in the middle of a question when Host #2 butts in with his own unrelated question. That sounds extremely distracting. Instead, alternate questions. Host #1 gets to ask the first question, Host #2 has the second question, back to Host #1 for the third, and so on. Skype and totems work well here too.

4. Listen to your podcast critically

This part is really difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary to having a good-sounding podcast. Listen to your show after you’ve posted it. Lots of people like a “cold light of day” test, where they listen to what they did the morning after they recorded and edited it. Approaching a podcast with fresh ears will let you hear it as someone new to the show will.

If you hear something annoying you’re doing (like, oh, saying “mm-hm” all the time), don’t let it get to you. Instead, remember what you did, and try to find a way around it in your next episode. Everyone makes mistakes, but the more successful people learn from them.

5. Edit. Edit. Edit.

I can’t say this enough: editing your podcast will make it sound a million times better.

First: edit out dead air. I hear this most often when a guest finishes an answer, there’s a couple of seconds of silence, and the host mutters something like “okay” or “nice” because that line of conversation has been extinguished. It winds up sounding unprofessional, like you’re fishing for things to say.

Cut that stuff out! Go straight from the end of the guest’s answer to the start of your next question. You might think that it would break the natural rhythm of the show, but it actually improves the show’s rhythm. The listener doesn’t need a break just because the speakers do. If you get rid of that downtime, you’ll be amazed at how much better your show will flow.

Second: edit out mistakes. Excessive stuttering, umms, errs, ahhhs. I am a big-time umm-er, and I think I’m beyond help there. But anytime I record myself, say for a Kickstarter video, the moment I cut away, it’s Norman Bates time. Those umms get mercilessly removed! Your listeners won’t miss them. And I don’t know about you, but I relish any opportunity to make myself sound smarter than I really am!

This also applies if a host or guest loses their train of thought for a few seconds. I’ve heard delays of as long as ten seconds while the speaker tries to recover what they were saying. Why subject your listener to that? Edit it out, and spare your audience your temporary brain-fog.

Third: edit out conversational digressions. Remember that bit where I suggested that board game podcasts should start right away with board games? Here’s where you cut out those five minutes at the top where you and your friends talked about what you drank over the weekend.

This applies to the middle of the episode too. If you feel the conversation is going off-track, editing is where you can fix it. Editing is storytelling; you are controlling the direction and the pace of the narrative. This isn’t dishonest, because you’re not inverting the meaning of what anyone is saying. You’re focusing it.

Fourth: Keep each episode a realistic length. 30 minutes is ideal. 60 minutes is acceptable. 90 minutes is pushing it. Anything longer is starting to ask a lot of your listeners.

Because chances are, if an episode is over 2 hours, it’s likely it’s full of digressions, sidetracks, stutters, mistakes, trains of thought deraling, unfunny jokes and forced camaraderie, and all the other stuff that should have been edited out. Of course, there are exceptions. But if your podcast episodes regularly clock in at over 2 hours, you may want to have a cold-light-of-day listen to be sure you’re presenting something listenable.

If you think your 90+ minutes is listenable, I’d suggest breaking up your episodes. One 90-minute interview can become two 45-minute segments on a couple of 1-hour shows, and leaves time for extra chatting around the interview. I wish more podcasts did this; I think a podcast that is longer than the average commute is asking too much of its listeners, and its content has to be amazing for people to justify clearing out their schedules to listen to it.

What if you don’t know how to edit? Or you don’t have time for it? Then hire an editor! They’re cheaper than you think.

[And this is where my shameless self-promotion comes in.

Hello! You know me as a game designer, but I’m actually a sound editor by trade. And I can edit your podcast, for reasonable rates and very fast turnaround times. I’ll also master it, so it sounds clear and is easy to listen to at any volume. Go ahead and contact me if you want to learn more!]

So what are my favorite board gaming podcasts? I’ll give you five:

Ludology. This podcast began with Geoff Englestein’s “GameTek” segments on The Dice Tower, and Geoff eventually spun off into a separate show. Ryan Sturm was co-host for the first 100 episodes, but when he had to leave to focus on grad school, ace designer Mike Fitzgerald took his place.

Ludology adopts the conceit that games are worthy of discussion and study. Each episode is a deep-dive into a characteristic of games, a particular game, or some element of game design. Geoff has played games his whole life, and is now a successful designer himself, along with his college-aged kids (who are pretty amazing gamers and designers themselves).

I like the show because it’s a great example of wasting no time with chit-chat; Geoff and his co-host dive immediately into the matters at hand. The episodes tend to be long, a little over 90 minutes, but they never flag or digress. Geoff and Ryan/Mike are always busy unpacking some element of gaming that I never had considered previously.

Geoff still broadcasts the shorter GameTek segments, and they are incredible. I’m going through all the old ones now, and it’s amazing to hear subjects as diverse as quantum entanglement, game theory, and multitouch interface technology, all filtered through the lens of game design.

The show has had some struggles with the technical side, but has sounded great ever since episode 105. Why did it suddenly start sounding good? Simple: Geoff hired an editor.

Board Games Insider. This is a relatively new podcast, hosted by game publishers Ignacy Trzewiczek (Portal Games) and Stephen Buonocore (Stronghold Games), hence their tagline “where too many consonants meets too many vowels.”

Humor aside, this is a must-listen for anyone getting into game publishing. Ignacy and Stephen are sharp, witty, and dispense troves of information about life as a publisher. You probably recall my previous post, where I took Ignacy’s convention advice to heart when I demoed Battle Merchants at Origins. I try to stay religiously current with this podcast.

This podcast also spares no time in getting to the meat of the subject. Ignacy and Stephen also wisely keep their episodes to about 35 minutes each. This keeps the pace fast and the show engaging. There are never lulls or dull moments.

On Board Games: Crowdfunding Edition. I enjoy hearing Donald Dennis and Erik Dewey talk on the flagship On Board Games podcast, but the Crowdfunding episodes, hosted by Isaac Shalev and Stephanie Straw, are nothing short of amazing.

Isaac is probably my favorite podcast host; by turns witty, charmingly self-deprecating, insanely knowledgeable, and with the essential reporter’s mix of insight and honesty. If something looks weird or off to him in the world of games, he will bring it up, and give a good reason why he thinks so.

Stephanie is a podcasting veteran, having come from the Dice Hate Me podcast world. She has experience in the world of online marketing, which is an essential perspective for a show that focuses on Kickstarter and crowdfunding. She is no less intelligent and well-spoken than Isaac. The two are a great complement to each other.

Together, Isaac and Stephanie take apart current trends in the game industry, especially those around crowdfunding (as the show’s name implies). They usually have a guest on who has a campaign currently running. There are usually questions about the future of Kickstarter and its viability as a medium. These are fascinating and essential questions to me, as I’m a small, new publisher who depends on Kickstarter for my games to work.

The Dice Tower. It’s impossible to talk board gaming podcasts without talking about the biggest board gaming podcast of all. The Dice Tower is Tom Vasel’s baby, and he and Eric Summerer break down all the latest goings-on in the board game world at large.

This is about as informative and influential a podcast as there is right now. I don’t always agree with Tom or Eric’s perspectives, but I love their passion, and it’s fantastic to see them still at it after all this time. It’s not easy to maintain that sort of passion with such a large fanbase, but I’m glad they’re able to keep it up.

CARDBOARD! The timing of this post is a little sad, as host Rich Sommer has just put the show on hiatus, having discovered how much freaking work a podcast is. I certainly hope Rich will return soon. Anyone who has heard this show can confirm that he’s about as enthusiastic and wonderful an ambassador to board games as anyone who’s never flown the Enterprise.

And that’s what CARDBOARD! is about; it is a podcast aimed towards people new to the hobby. Rich is always engaging as a host, even when dealing with a subject that can turn esoteric faster than you can say “Poisson D’Avril“. He has one segment called “Cardboard and Cocktails”, where he matches up an obscure cocktail drink with a popular gateway game.

Even though the show is targeted to people new to the hobby, I still get a lot out of listening to it. This is partly because Rich is just so much damn fun to listen to. He’s incredibly funny, always articulate, and quite knowledgeable. At the same time, he’s very good about making sure that anyone listening to his show knows exactly what he’s talking about. He’ll periodically stop his train of thought to catch the listener up on exactly how to play the game he just brought up. He can do this ridiculously quickly, without ever breaking conversational stride.

Rich, as you may have heard, is also a working actor, and he uses his connections to get interesting guests. These are often actors from other shows, but in one episode, he had an interview with the offensive lineman of the Green Bay Packers who was responsible for bringing Catan into the team’s locker room. The interview is remarkable, and is a good illustration of competitive balance for an extreme alpha gamer.

Finally, the show is a joy to listen to because it easily has the best production values of any podcast I’ve heard. Of course, Rich has resources that other podcasters don’t have access to. But it’s good to hear a ceiling established for a board gaming podcast. The show is paced lightning-quick, with good editing, and is mastered beautifully.

I’m writing about CARDBOARD! in the present tense, not the past tense, out of sheer optimism. Come back to us, Rich!

The internet has made podcasting a tremendously rewarding resource, both for creators and listeners. This means podcasters have a lot of competition. Hopefully these tips I’ve given you will help you rise above the pack and help your podcast sound crisper, clearer, and more focused!

Lessons from Origins 2015

Origins 2015 was a landmark convention for me. It wasn’t my first con as a vendor, but it was my first time actually having products for sale! I debuted the expansion to Battle Merchants, New Kingdoms, at Origins, and sold it along with the base game. Minion Games was kind enough to supply me with a few of their other games to fill out my stock.

The con went well, overall. I wish sales were a little better, but a lot of that was having an Entrepreneur booth. If you’re new to convention lingo, an “entrepreneur booth” is a half-price booth for new exhibitors that is usually at one of the worst spots of the convention hall. At some conventions, this isn’t such a big deal, but at Origins… well, more on that later.

Jamey Stegmaier always writes things that he did well and things he learned from after each Kickstarter. Conventions are going to be important to Formal Ferret Games, so let me write out a bunch of things I did right, and a bunch of things I could’ve improved on.

Things I did right:

We demoed our games quickly and interactively. I’ve been listening to the Board Games Insider podcast lately, and in one episode, Ignacy Trzewiczek explained the way he demos games. In the past, when I demoed Battle Merchants, I plan on a full game, and I explain all the rules before starting. But for a convention booth, I took Ignacy’s advice.

Instead of playing a full game, I only played a quarter of the game. If you don’t know Battle Merchants, it takes place over four seasons of a year. We only played the Spring season, which is about 20 minutes.

So when I explained the rules, I didn’t hit my players with all the rules at once. Instead, I talked just enough to cover the overall objective of the game (have the most money) and how Craft works. Then I had all players perform the Upgrade Craft action. Next I explained the Forge Weapons action, and we all took it. Then I explained the Sell Weapons action, and we all took that. Then I went into end-of-season battles.

At that point, I explained Kingdom Cards, and told the players that they could now take any action that was available to them. By then, they knew almost every rule in the game, but had each already taken three turns, so they were much more involved than in a standard rules explanation.

Finally, I made sure to stack the Kingdom and Craft Card decks so that cards came out in roughly the same order every time. That made each teaching game consistent, eliminated tough-to-teach edge cases, and let me easily show some sample cards that wouldn’t have necessarily been available from a random draw.

Because of all this, I was able to show Battle Merchants in 20 minutes instead of 90, and involve my players within a couple of minutes of sitting down.

I don’t think this is a great way to teach the game outside the demo booth. Players playing a full game would probably want to make all their decisions from the start. But since we weren’t finishing these games, players had no problem with me railroading their first few turns so they could quickly learn the game.

Thanks for the tip, Ignacy!

I had a convention veteran in the booth with me. My friend Michael Lohr volunteered to help run the booth, and I was only too happy to take him up on his offer. Michael has helped Minion out at their booths in the past few years, and he knew how to handle strange requests and teach people games quickly. He also gave me some pointers about running a booth that I took to heart. He and I both have a low-pressure style, where neither of us really tries to force people into checking out or buying our games.

I brought a cash box. It’s a no-brainer these days to use a card reader like Square, but I wasn’t sure if I should accept cash. Cash boxes bring a certain amount of overhead to a convention; I had to stop at a bank to make change before the event, I had to make sure the box was secure when it wasn’t in use, I had to empty it of large bills every evening, and I had to deposit the money at a bank after the convention.

But I decided to bring it in the end, and turned out to be the correct call. With the expansion being only $9.95, I had a lot of people paying cash. And enough people paid cash for full game purchases that I know I will do this in the future.

I brought shopping bags. Michael wasn’t sure about this decision at first, but I’d say about half of our customers either asked for a bag or said “yes” when I asked if they wanted a bag. They were just simple plastic “Thank You” shopping bags I picked up at Staples, but they did the trick. For a first-year booth, generic plastic bags are fine.

Double Exposure Envoy. I’m a member of Double Exposure’s Envoy program, which helps game publishers market their games to retailers and fans. One of their services is booth staffing.

I had a booth volunteer abruptly cancel on me at 5 am the morning I was supposed to drive to Columbus, which came as a bit of a shock. I emailed Envoy in… well “in a panic” is a strong term. Let’s just say I was concerned.

Envoy had volunteers for me in a matter of hours. Literally hours. It was an amazing demonstration of their reach. I urge any publisher to look at them as a viable option; they’ve already come through for me in a big way.

Things I learned:

Entrepreneur booths have awful locations. At Gen Con, I saw a lot of traffic at the Entrepreneur booths, so I figured it wouldn’t be such a big deal at Origins. I also had a poor location at PAX East when I demoed with 9 Kingdoms, but we had enough traffic to keep us busy once people made it back to where we were.

At Origins, my location was horrendous; I was at the very back of the hall. I was hoping that being next to a food court would help sales, but the food court was overpriced and poorly-frequented. It’s a bizarre feeling hearing a ton of people, and yet seeing the aisle in front of you completely empty. That is to say, it wasn’t that people were skipping the Formal Ferret booth. On Thursday, no one was even in my aisle!

Back to Board Games Insider. Stephen Buonocore said that his Thursday sales were amazing, and that he couldn’t take money fast enough. This makes perfect sense; Stronghold had an excellent booth at the very front of the hall. It was the first booth most people saw when entering. So their Thursday was absolute madness. My Thursday was the opposite. Thankfully, sales picked up quite a bit on Friday, and stayed relatively strong for the rest of the con. I even sold out of the Battle Merchants expansion on Sunday morning!

There’s an obvious remedy for my Thursday blues: the amount of money you spend on booth location matters. Those front booths aren’t cheap, but Stronghold consistently has excellent games and has built up an outstanding reputation, so they can afford a fantastic location and stock it with fantastic stuff.

One nice moment was when I shared an elevator with Michael Coe. I mentioned my lukewarm sales in my exhibitor booth, and he replied, “That was me a couple of years ago.” It was really encouraging to hear those words.

One other effect of my booth location: my Sunday was actually pretty good. I made about as much on Sunday as I did on Friday or Saturday. This is counter to most exhibitors’ experiences, but it has to do with Sunday being the day that many hardcore gamers explore the weeds of the vendor hall. It’s also the day that people who wanted to try out games first decided to pull the trigger.

Promote games that people can immediately buy. I brought two 4′ x 30″ tables to Origins. My original plan was to have Battle Merchants on one table and Bad Medicine on the other. My boothmate Michael quickly fixed that. I only had Bad Medicine for pre-order, so he urged me to display Battle Merchants on both tables, and have Bad Medicine handy in case anyone asked about it.

Unsurprisingly, Michael was right. It’s so important to make it clear what games are available for purchase, and what games are only pre-orders. The experience at my booth got better when we focused on Battle Merchants.

Show card games on smaller tables or custom tablecloths. This was also related to the point above. One big factor here is that Battle Merchants looks great on a large table. It has a big board, a bunch of player boards, and all sorts of cards and tokens.

Bad Medicine is also a great game, but it doesn’t look very compelling on a 4′ x 30″ table. Few card games do; when you look at a card game set up on a table, you see mostly tablecloth. As a result, the game doesn’t look eye-catching.

This is why most card games get shown on tiny tables. It focuses the customer’s eye on the game itself. A custom tablecloth with boxes drawn on it that emphasize card positions might work also, although I wouldn’t want to give the impression that you need the tablecloth to play the game.

Consider standing tables. I see standing tables at a lot of conventions, and now I know why. There’s a lot of friction between the moment someone sees your booth and the time they try your game. Anything you can do to remove that friction is vital. A standing table makes your booth more approachable. As silly as it sounds, customers don’t have to commit to sitting; they can just walk up, you can say hi, and if they’re interested, just start showing them the game. No need for them to take off their bags and sit down.

I wouldn’t have a standing table for a longer game like Battle Merchants, but for Bad Medicine, it’s really good to have.

No penny or nickel discounts! Do you remember how I offered the Battle Merchants expansion for $9.95? In the long run, that was a mistake. I should have offered it for $10. I know about customer psychology and how customers tend to map a price like $9.99 as $10, but in a crazy busy convention with a two-person booth staff, you want to make things as simple as possible. Charging on the full dollar would have meant not having to worry about coins; some customers actually got a little annoyed when I gave them their nickel. I don’t believe that nickel discount was worth the angst and aggravation.

At Origins, ongoing Board Room demos are more effective than scheduled events. This piece of advice is Origins-specific, but the Board Room is a very popular Origins location, and demos there are a good strategy. The folks at Nauvoo Games had one person handling sales and quick game overviews at the booth and another person running full-game demos of Stockpile at the Board Room. This was an effective strategy; they said they got at least one to two sales out of each Board Room demo.

I know this piece of advice won’t work at Gen Con. There is no Board Room equivalent at Gen Con, and the passage from the Vendor Hall to the Event Hall at Gen Con is so packed and crowded that you’d get a lot of attrition. But I think this strategy would work wonders at BGG.CON, so I’ll be sure to try it there. It may work well at other conventions too.

Bring a metal water bottle. I really should start doing this. It helps keep my voice strong and keeps me from getting con crud.

Be creative. There were some amazing marketing techniques on display at Origins. The aforementioned Michael Coe walked the vendor hall in a full suit of armor fashioned after the Gamelyn Games logo. But one of the most intriguing was one of the booths behind me. About once an hour, I would hear the shout, “ALL HAIL KING TORG!” It’s tough to hear that for a couple of days without getting curious.

So during one of my lunch breaks, I peeked behind my booth. There was the Ninth Level booth, publishers of Kobolds Ate My Baby, with a huge sign in front saying “ALL HAIL KING TORG!” It’s a great way to draw attention to your booth.

Overall, I feel like I took another step towards becoming a legitimate publisher at Origins. I have a couple of smaller regional conventions in a few weeks (Too Many Games and Dexcon), before plunging into the madness of Gen Con.

And possibly some huge conventions just after Gen Con? That’s certainly possible, but nothing I can discuss yet…

Cards Against Humanity and Invisible Ropes

I wanted to speak up for a moment about Cards Against Humanity, and all the recent chatter about it. First, some context.

This week, Shut Up & Sit Down wrote a review of CAH, in which three different reviewers discussed why they disliked it. They took it to task for enabling people to make jokes about marginalized people. Good humor punches up at figures of status and authority, but CAH punches down and makes fun of people who are hurt. It’s a bully. They also point out that making fun of minorities is not fresh or new, but an old relic of cheap comedy, and that the game feels lazy – “Cards Against Humanity opens and closes the joke for you. It’s limp, passive, inert.”

This review got a huge amount of support on social media (1874 shares on Twitter, 20,030 on Facebook at the time of this writing), but also some pushback. Bruno Faidutti was the most notable dissenter. He wrote an article called A Case for Cards Against Humanity (all his articles are in French and English, so scroll down if you need to). He wrote that the game is vulgar, yes, but so vulgar that no one could possibly take offense to its humor.

It’s offensive, it’s crass, it’s vulgar but all this is deliberate and obviously to be taken with a good pinch of salt. I even think that such a game could not have been designed, and probably could not really be played, by people susceptible to take at face value any one of the sexist, racist or just plain stupid jokes on the cards. I’ve played a dozen games of Cards against Humanity, I’ve bought all expansions, I’ve had fun just browsing through the cards, and I never felt uneasy in the slightest way. It was obvious for me first that this was just a game (something that ought to be reminded more often about many games, especially war games), and it was obvious for me and for all the people I played with (among which blacks, gays, jews and women) that the game is not mocking blacks, gays, Jews or women – to name a few – but the stereotypes about them. I think it’s socially important that humor could target everything, including the worse aspects of our society. Refusing to do this is not defending the victims of sexism or racism, it is preventing us to see (and laugh at) our social problems.

I am a fan of the writings of both Shut Up and Sit Down and Bruno Faidutti. But I think Faidutti missed the mark here, and I think the reason why is related to something I’ve been talking about on the site already: invisible ropes.

Faiduitti falls into a trap a lot of well-meaning straight white men fall into when discussing this stuff. They hear that some people don’t like the game because it makes fun of minorities and horrible crimes. But when they play the game with minorities and victims of horrible crimes, they see the “victims” laughing along. Therefore the game must not be offensive, therefore the people who are stressing about the game being offensive must be wrong.

When I discussed invisible ropes a couple of months ago, I wrote about how this:

…a lot of people usually take this kind of thing to mean offensiveness. They think there’s a line between “offensive” and “inoffensive”. If you’re on the “inoffensive” side, everything’s fine and peachy, but if you’re on the “offensive” side, then you’ve just insulted every single woman (or whatever non-straight-white-male demographic you’d like), without exception.

Same thing here. I don’t think the problem here is offensiveness. I think it more a vague discomfort. It’s not an angry exclusion; it’s not a wall. It’s a rope. But enough ropes make a barrier. Sometimes all it takes is one.

So let’s say you’re playing a game of CAH with someone who is missing a limb. The “amputee” card gets played. Maybe it was even the person missing a limb herself.

The attention now swings over to her. All the attention is focused on her reaction. Will she be okay with it? Will she laugh?

I’d say that 10 times out of 10, she will laugh, and everyone else will relax, and say that the game isn’t offensive. But let’s look deeper at the choice she had to make.

Here’s a woman programmer, @SaraJChipps on Twitter, talking about dealing with unpleasant jokes in the workplace. Twitter’s threading functionality is half-baked, so I’ll take the liberty of editing her tweets into a paragraph:

I’d like to talk for a second about sexual and racial jokes at the workplace and junior developers. Something happens quite often when you are a new developer on a team and the only woman/minority. Someone on the team tells a sexual or racial joke (something they deem innocuous) and the entire team looks to you for your reaction to see if you are “cool or not”.

Something that is lost on these people is that you actually have no choice. If you react to the offensive joke you are at high risk of losing your job and killing your career. You will be dubbed as “uptight” and “not a fun person to work with”, your work will be scrutinized and every mistake will be magnified by the fact that you “aren’t a team player”. So, you do what you have to, you laugh along. Maybe joke back, if you really want to endear yourself.

But the consequences of this are long lasting, the jokes get worse, you lose a little of your soul each time, and you are driven to either leave or draw an arbitrary line somewhere and complain. Once that happens, your job is over (see above).

I’m in management now, one thing I appreciate is the fact that you can set a culture of that not being okay early on. I say this because even if the person on your team laughs along or “seems cool”, the reality is they have no other choice.

I experienced this on every engineering team I was ever apart of. I laughed along each time, and though it helped my career it ultimately hurt me as a person. I’d like a world where this doesn’t have to be an issue.

(Emphasis mine.)

Gaming is certainly a lower-stakes arena than the workplace, but I’m convinced this no-win decision exists and is something a lot of women have to put up with. I’m know there are many women gamers who grit their teeth and endure uncomfortable situations just because it’s their only shot at gaming. Could be tasteless jokes or gendered insults; could be inadvertently condescending strategy advice; could be a lot of things.

And in gaming, people don’t just have to laugh and accept it, or stand up and risk making a scene. There’s a third possibility; the person involved may just leave gaming entirely. They just really didn’t feel comfortable. Gaming just isn’t for people like them.

Let’s get back to that game of CAH. The woman missing a limb is laughing along. Is she comfortable? Is she just trying to fit in and get along? How many times today has she had to make this choice, even if the people forcing her to make it have had the best of intentions?

Look, I don’t want to be The Fun Police, and it’s not up to me to tell you what games to enjoy and what not to enjoy. But do you ever wonder why are there so many more male gamers than female gamers? It’s because of stuff like this. One of the reasons women don’t stick to the gaming scene is because they see people laughing at a “Date Rape” card. They may not be outrightly offended; they may even laugh along. But the scene doesn’t feel comfortable. They’re excluded, even if everyone they’re playing with thinks they’re being inclusive.

As I said in my previous article, the technical term for this is “microagression”. It usually comes from people who mean well – mostly straight white guys who don’t have the perspective to see the problem.

This takes us back to Faidutti’s response. Again, I respect him greatly, but any time a straight white guy tells you that something isn’t racist or sexist when women and minorities say it is, it’s a red flag. I think Faidutti has the best of intentions, but people aren’t saying they dislike CAH because that’s how they get their rocks off. They say they dislike CAH because they dislike it.

How can we get more women to play games? By listening to them. When a woman says she’s uncomfortable with something, don’t tell her that she shouldn’t be. Listen. Try to see things from her point of view. Figure out what’s making her uncomfortable. It’s possible that it’s something that’s invisible to you.

And of course, this applies to minorities and the marginalized as well. When they say they’re not comfortable, let them speak, and consider their perspective. Your perspective is not the be-all end-all. No single perspective is.

* * *

I wanted to take this opportunity to make a few other points about CAH’s legacy that I find interesting.

First, I should tell you how I feel about the game. As a straight white guy, the edginess of the humor doesn’t make me uneasy. But it’s not a game I own or ask to play. I find the game lazy. It’s like people on the internet who think humor is just a matter of applying an existing meme to any situation. It doesn’t take many Condescending Wonkas to stop being funny and start being annoying.

This is where CAH fails for me. And that’s what SU&SD summarized so well:

Jokes aren’t Lego. Cards Against Humanity gives you two or sometimes three pieces to snap together, and it tells you you’re done. That’s it. And you know what? Often, many of these combinations aren’t very good. They aren’t very good whether you find their subjects funny or not, offensive or not. They aren’t very good because they’re sometimes nonsensical or just weird… There’s very little creativity in combining cards into a joke, because the work and the structuring is done for you. It’s almost like copying someone else’s homework. There’s no life in there.

I think good humor is creative. It shocks you, not with “edginess”, but by coming from a place you didn’t expect. CAH isn’t that funny to me because it’s just a bunch of stock, set, meme-like options. I want more control; I want to tell the joke, not pick it from a multiple-choice menu of sorta-funny options.

The interesting thing is that, for most folks, this is a feature, not a bug. My friend Dave Chalker summarized this well on Twitter (edited into paragraphs for easy reading again):

Part of the reason CAH is mega-popular (as Apples to Apples, its clear predecessor) is that it DOESN’T require any work for the humor. There have been plenty of other games I adore that run into the wall of asking people to be funny on the spot, which can be hard. My friend Kory [Heath] made “Why Did the Chicken…?” about writing punchlines from prompts, and it wasn’t nearly the success, because it required work.

So while I think WDTC is a much better experience (that auto-tailors to group), it’s never going to be the breakout hit of a CAH. (And to be clear, you’re not a worse/less interesting/etc. person if it’s easier to play a game that writes the jokes for you – it’s hard!) …While I think the content of CAH is absolutely fair game, making the jokes self-contained is part of its success in selling.

This is a great point. CAH isn’t funny to me because it’s too easy, but a lot of folks (non-gamers especially) enjoy it specifically because of that.

I also want to point out two big positives that CAH’s has provided in its legacy. First, its creators have consistently paid forward to the game community, with its Tabletop Deathmatch program and charity work. It’s a little like how Alfred Nobel set up humanitarian prizes in his name because he didn’t want to be remembered solely as the person who invented dynamite (albeit on a much smaller scale).

Second, if someone had pitched a party game with off-color humor to a publisher in 2010, they would have been laughed away from the table. Before CAH broke out, the conventional wisdom was that gaming was entirely pure with no room for adult humor, because successful games had to appeal to families. Games that didn’t were on the fringe; they were consistently poor sellers.

CAH proved that a myth. It exposed a market of high-school, college, and post-college players who enjoy edgy themes and risqué, off-color humor in their games. And as a designer and publisher of a game with a good amount of scatalogical humor, I have to be thankful for that.

Ultimately, I think it’s the responsibility of game designers to look at CAH’s faults and limitations, and try to improve on it. As anyone who’s been exposed to Justin Bieber or Twilight knows, just because something sells well doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I’ll leave the last word to my friends at GamesByPlayDate:

Bad Medicine Kickstarter postmortem

The dust has settled, and the Bad Medicine Kickstarter is done. The final result: 1,066 backers raised $30,130 of an $8,000 goal. That is well beyond what I ever expected when I started out.

I’ve seen other creators come up with these kinds of studies, and folks have asked me to write one up. Here’s a few observations I have.

It’s not enough to offer a good game. You must offer a good product.

I’ve spent the last 15 years intensely studying good game design. But publishing requires studying a game through a different lens: what makes a good product?

I caught a wave of backers from the medical and pharma industries. I feel that most of them didn’t back Bad Medicine because of its well-thought-out rules (although I worked hard on those). They backed it because it’s a funny game about a subject that’s near and dear to them, and there aren’t many of those out there. The price was right, and my campaign page explained the game thoroughly through graphics, text, and a clever video with good production values.

I think my study of successful (and unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaigns really paid off. I tried to make the campaign page easy on the eyes, and I spent a long time on the campaign video, as well as the two tutorial videos. All this made people confident in pledging their money.

It’s funny; I see new designers posting pictures of their prototype on its first test, asking what people think of the look of the game. Or they’ll ask about the look of their components before showing the rulebook for review. I think those new designers are looking at making a good product, but they don’t know yet how to make a good game. And yet for a Kickstarter, all you ever get to see is the product; you won’t be able to tell if it’s a good game until you actually play it!

I’m still getting used to wearing a publisher’s hat, but I hope I get better at looking at making a good game that is also a good product. It’s not impossible; Tasty Minstrel, Stonemaier, Dice Hate Me, and Minion do this on Kickstarter all the time. But it’s not a skill we can take for granted, and I want to get better at it.

Look past your national borders.

Going in, I wasn’t expecting Bad Medicine to get much traction from outside the US. I thought Big Pharma and its advertising was a uniquely American phenomenon. I considered not even shipping outside America.

I’m very glad I changed my mind and signed with Spiral Galaxy Games to fulfill Bad Medicine in the EU. Over 27% of my backers were from outside the US. I got a surprising number of backers from Australia, and I noticed a movement of Korean backers working together to get good deals on shipping.

Time will tell if I calculated shipping correctly, but I’m optimistic that I won’t regret my worldwide reach. I’m so happy that my game has gotten enthusiastic recognition from people around the world, from Scotland to Kuwait to Singapore. This is an amazing time to start a business; the world has gotten ridiculously small.

Kickstarter doesn’t have to be just a pre-order system.

This is one of the recurring complaints I hear about Kickstarter, that it’s a glorified pre-order system, and there’s no need for people to really back games when they’ll just appear on store shelves a year later (and likely forgotten the following year).

I’m really happy that I found a few opportunities to engage my backers. For example, I wanted to make most of Bad Medicine’s cards look like small prescription slips. I wasn’t sure what the best font was for the cards, so I posted a few samples of the different fonts, and asked my backers which one they preferred.

The conversation took an unexpected turn. My non-American backers pointed out that prescription slips look completely different outside America, and linked me to some examples. This was a bummer, but it was also an opportunity. I noticed that the example non-American prescription forms all had yellow backgrounds. So I ran another poll, asking two questions: do you prefer a blue or yellow background (with sample images for both), and do you consider yourself from the US, from outside the US, or a bit of both?

It turns out that both US and non-US backers preferred the yellow background. So instead of going with a blue background that didn’t mean anything to a quarter of my backers, I have a card front that reads like a prescription slip almost anywhere in the world. Plus, I gave my backers a chance to get involved in the game’s final look.

I also had backers making fantastic suggestions for the game, reminding me to make sure the box will fit all the cards if they’re sleeved, pledging extra money to customize some of the cards, and voting to make one of the stretch goal components capsule-shaped instead of pill-shaped. Pretty good for a so-called glorified pre-order system!

Have most of your art done, but not all of it.

I initially regretted not having my art completely done when the campaign launched, and a few would-be backers complained to me about the “prototype-y” look of the game. In retrospect, I should have had more art done before the campaign started.

But I learned how valuable it is to not have everything done at the start of the campaign. Backers want to be involved, and the opportunity to see the game evolve, especially with backer input, is one of the best things about Kickstarter. So in my next campaign, I will aim to have the art 80-90% done when the campaign launches. No less, but no more either.

Reach out to more reviewers earlier.

I sent review copies to about four reviewers, and advertised on a couple of podcasts. That wasn’t bad, but one of my reviewers was late, so the campaign should have had more reviews on the site. I should have sent out three times the number of review copies, and I should have sent them out two months in advance instead of one. Speaking for myself, if I see a Kickstarter campaign from a publisher and/or designer I’ve never heard of, I default to skepticism until I see a trusted name in the review section.

Of course, there’s a larger conversation to be had here about the trustworthiness of Kickstarter previews, since a lot of them are paid. But I know that a lot of reviewers won’t preview a game they didn’t like. It’s not worth the money if it means a lack of credibility. So at the very least, a Kickstarter preview shows that the game has at least passed a basic bar of competence, and is worth a more involved look.

Don’t be afraid of the alpha backer.

Before I launched, I was really worried about hypothetical “squeaky wheel” backers who would want me to bend over backwards to accommodate a whole host of unrealistic demands, from cheaper shipping to lower pledge levels to unrealistic components in the box.

Thankfully, I didn’t get anyone like this! I did have a lot of enthusiastic backers who shot all sorts of great suggestions my way, but none of them were rude or bossy about it. My backers didn’t want to dictate my game to me; they just wanted a voice in the conversation. Talking to them in the comments was excellent; I got to see where they were coming from, and I was grateful they had such a stake in the game.

I’ve learned a lot from reading Jamey Stegmaier, and one thing he suggests (and I wish I could find a link to this article!) is to never just outrightly deny your backers a suggestion. Instead, if a backer wants to see something in your game that can’t be done, it’s best to explain the obstacles to that suggestion, and ask the backer what they would do in your situation. They understand almost all the time, and because you gave them the opportunity to look at it from your point of view, they feel like they have a stake in the decision.

I can see how some creators find working with vocal backers difficult. But if you’re willing to give them your ear, you’ll emerge with your most enthusiastic supporters.

Pounding the pavement beats the Early Bird.

I’m not a fan of Early Bird reward levels. Sure, they may build critical early momentum, but you pay for that by disincentivizing backers from raising their pledges late in the game, as well as the obvious loss of goodwill you’ll encounter from people who stumble onto your campaign late.

Instead, I did a bunch of campaigns. My tour took me from Boston to Baltimore in the weekends leading up to my campaign launch. UnPub was an especially critical convention, with a bunch of early backers signing up for my mailing list there. By marketing my game (and making sure people signed up for my mailing list) well before my campaign launched, I built a lot of momentum at the start of my campaign without having to lock backers into an early-bird reward.

Mind the combinations.

One of my regrets was that while I offered a multi-game level (3 copies of the game) and two limited customization levels (name a bit of a drug, and name a side effect), I did not have an uber-level that combined all of them until the last day of the campaign. It wasn’t a bad late update, but it’s possible I could have gotten another high-level backer if I offered it earlier.

It’s not over when the campaign ends.

Of course, I expected this, but it bears repeating: even though the visible part of the campaign is done, the invisible stuff is in progress. I’m working with the artist and the printer now to get my game in my customers’ hands by September. I’m confident I can do it, but it’s not work that will do itself. My biggest nightmare is Bad Medicine becoming one of “those” campaigns that promised but never delivered. I want to be able to launch another Kickstarter later this year, but I won’t do that until I have this one signed, sealed, and delivered.

It’s been an amazing ride so far. I can’t wait to send the game off to the printer!

The Formal Ferret game design manifesto

I don’t have a lot of time to write today because I’m tending to my Kickstarter campaign. But in one of the many interviews I’ve done in support of the game, I brought out a manifesto I’d been working on.

Why a manifesto? I wrote it after playing a game that ran counter to everything I love in games. It left me unhappy and agitated, but it also made me wonder what I value in games. So I wrote it down.

  • Games played for recreation should be fun.
    • I’m carving out space for transformative games here, which aren’t played for recreation, and don’t have to be fun to be effective.
  • Games should reward players for accomplishing interesting goals.
    • Sounds obvious, but can never be emphasized enough. Games are about incentivizing players to do cool things.
  • Games should not expect players to target or punish the leader.
    • This is a dynamic I personally detest. My favorite games are about planning and building. There are a few games about bashing other players that I like, but most of them have such an awkward balance between building and attacking that they lose my interest.
  • Players should always feel mostly in control of the game. Never full agency, but never none at all.
    • This goes back to opacity and transparency. I’ve been playing a lot of Camel Up lately, and I find the math behind the race beautifully done. You always have a good idea of who’s leading and who’s trailing, but rarely do you have the full picture, and the mechanisms serve that opacity with incredible precision.
  • Games should have lively, refreshing themes.
    • This is a tough balance to hit. On one hand, I don’t mind playing games with the same retreaded themes (and I feel that a lot of them have those familiar themes for a good reason), but I’d rather not design a game with them. I just don’t find them compelling enough, and I think the theme of bloodless colonization in particular is dangerously disingenuous. On the other hand, if you make a game with a crazy theme, you risk distracting players and losing your game’s focus. But I think it’s possible to walk the line and deliver a game with a fun theme and well-integrated mechanisms.
  • Elegance is useful, but is not a goal in and of itself. Complexity has its place.
    • This is a big one for me, personally. I admire elegance and I try to use it when I can. But a heavier game gives me more flexibility, and I enjoy playing games with interesting wrinkles in their rules. I’d rather have a fun but dense game than a game with a few rules that feels disposable. The first game may appeal to fewer people, but they’ll be much more passionate about it. I want to make something that stirs that passion.
  • All board games should look beautiful. Even stodgy economic games.
    • We’re in a new age now. Economic games don’t have to look like prototypes anymore. I’m so happy that Battle Merchants is an example of a great-looking economic game, and I think we could use more.

I don’t expect other designers to write their own manifestos, or to agree with every item here. But it’s a cool exercise to go through. What’s your own manifesto?