Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

The larger good versus the smaller great

Here’s a design question that fascinates me.

Say you have a prototype that is playing fairly well. People are enjoying it, and they tell you they like it. They may even ask you when it’s coming out.

You’re thinking of making a change. It would alienate half your potential audience, but the other half would become rabid about the game. They would sing its praises until the end of the world.

What do you do? Do you make a good game that appeals to a wide audience? Or do you make an incredible game that appeals to a narrow audience?

(The question works in the other direction as well; maybe your game already has a narrow appeal, and you’re wondering whether you should widen the appeal at the expense of toning down what makes its fans happy.)

There’s a lot this question depends on. I know a lot of new designers who would immediately make the change without a further thought. They want to make the best game possible, and if their vision limits the audience of their games, so be it.

But many other designers out there care about game sales. It sounds cold and possibly selfish to a new designer, but it’s a reality; designers who sell many games are considered most successful. And of course, publishers will tend to put out games they believe will sell more copies.

And have you ever had people decline to try out your game, because they don’t think it’s for them? Imagine doubling that. It’s not fun. So if you’re looking for a simple, one-size-fits-all answer, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Again, the answer to this question depends on a lot of things.

So now that we’ve established that this is a question without a simple answer, let’s look at ways we can work towards an answer.

First, what is your game’s core engagement? Does the change preserve it? Does it refine or amplify it? Or is it a completely different approach to the game?

Second, what is your goal for the game? Will you be happy with a highly-regarded game with lower sales? Or would you prefer a game with broader appeal, that you can show to many possible demographics? Of course, neither of these answers is always correct; it all depends on your approach to game design.

Third, can you approximate the game’s quality and appeal before and after the change? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much appeal does your original design have, and how enthusiastic are players after finishing it? On the same scale, how much appeal do you think the new design has, and how enthusiastic do you think players will be after finishing it?

If the new game has one value under 4 and the other value isn’t at least an 8, I don’t think it’s worth making the change. If both values for the new game are around 6 and 6, that’s also not a good sign; the new design may be too mediocre to survive.

But if the new design has at least an 8 in one category? You might have something there.

Fourth, can you branch the games? If their core engagements or experiences are different enough, perhaps you can retheme the new design and see where it takes you. If you keep fiddling with it, it may turn out to feel completely different than the original game. You’ll have two games from one!

Of course, we would all like our games to have the best of both worlds: wide appeal and an enthusiastic audience. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and we must pick one.

Personally, I would make the change if it brought either a huge, cult-like devotion of fans, or if it would become widely, massively popular without compromising any of my creative vision. I would not want to dial my games down just to make it feel more generic without some sort of hook that would gather game fans’ attention. If the old design was an 8 or more in appeal, and the new design was an 8 or more in enthusiasm (or vice versa), I would look at branching and developing the two as separate designs.

But it’s a question with a different answer based on the circumstances. Just like a good game. That’s what makes it so fascinating.

Lessons from Gen Con 2015

Photo Jul 30, 9 22 41 AM

Phew, what a Gen Con! It was my first time selling at the largest tabletop gaming convention in America. I learned a ton, but I think I made enough contacts, showed my games to enough people, and made back enough of what I spent, that I can consider the convention a huge success.

Here’s what I think I did right:

I was there. And I was all over the vendor hall. Last year, I set up a table in the Event Hall, but I was only able to draw about 20 people in 5 or so events across the event’s five days. But when I had Battle Merchants set up in the BGG booth for a video, I had five people come up to me in the space of 15 minutes! I knew then that I had to find a way into the Vendor Hall.

Being there is important. Gen Con is a pillar for the gaming community. Gamers look to it to find the new games for the coming year. It’s how to stay relevant.

I had an amazing boothmate and an incredible location. I split a booth with Nazca Games, which is run by Emerson Matsuuchi, of Volt and Specter Ops fame. I’m learning so much from Emerson. He embodies professionalism and passion. I want to be him when I grow up.

Even better, our booth was co-located with the Plaid Hat booth. That means we had an incredible spot, close to the center of the hall. We never suffered for traffic! I don’t know if I’ll ever have a spot as good as this one again (although for Gen Con, there don’t seem to be any truly bad spots; people will find you.)

Best of all, Emerson insisted on helping me demo my games when I was short on manpower, even though I told him that he should focus on his own games. And on Sunday evening, I returned to the vendor hall to pack up my booth, only to discover that he and his team had done it for me!

Photo Aug 05, 12 49 19 AM

I, and my booth staff, were friendly and fun to demo with. I’ve seen lots of booths with surly demo-ers, and it’s not surprising to find out that they just don’t want to be there. Selling at a convention isn’t for everyone, but if you’re not feeling it, your customers will sense it.

I’m very lucky that I genuinely love to show off my games. And while the way I talk is a little awkward – words have a way of crashing into each other as they fight to get out of my mouth – I hope my passion comes through. For every 10 groups I demoed Bad Medicine and Battle Merchants to, I’d say I sold 8 or 9 copies. I wish I’d been at the booth longer… more on that in a moment.

Most importantly, I made sure that my demo team were soft sellers. We’re there to show the game, not to force a sale. I think this technique works; I had a few people who didn’t buy my games at Origins return to buy them here instead.

And it’s good to be there just to meet fans. It’s strange for me to say, but I had several people who came by to tell me how much they liked Battle Merchants. That means the world to me.

I spread myself out. In addition to the booth I shared with Emerson, I spent some time demoing Bad Medicine at the Ad Magic booth, and the Indie Game Alliance demoed The Networks a couple of times on my behalf. I also bought some time at the First Exposure Playtest Hall, and was able to get feedback on the game’s graphic design from 16 enthusiastic testers.

I ran evening events. Unlike Origins, my evening events were extremely well-attended; I had about 50 people try my games across all three evenings, and many of them showed up at my booth the next day to make a purchase. This is definitely something I’ll do again next year.

I brought a bunch of business cards with appropriate web sites. It’s so important to give some material for people who are interested in my games. Perhaps I just did a demo in the event hall, and someone wants to remember the game. Perhaps I just showed a game at my booth, and a person wants to come back later to buy the game. Being able to hand out something physical, even a tiny business card, is huge.

And if they don’t come back to my booth, they can go to the appropriate web site on the card and get more information about the game over there!

I ate regularly, went to sleep at a reasonable hour, and didn’t push myself overly hard. My schedule was crazy, sure; show up at 9 am to start demos, leave at midnight. But I knew I could do it for three days, especially because I didn’t stay too late, didn’t force myself when I was feeling tired, and made sure I ate three meals a day plus snacks. I find it vital to make a pre-con supermarket run where I can pick up stuff for sandwiches and snacks, especially when my hotel comes with a mini-fridge.

Photo Jul 30, 7 45 55 PM

Here’s what I will do next year:

I will figure out a way into the vendor room again. This will be tricky; Gen Con may not be expanding their space, and yet more vendors want in. People like me who haven’t had a booth in our name yet can only hope to win a lottery for first-time booths, and that will only get us a small 10’x10′ booth at one of the edges of the convention. At this point, I have the resources and imagination where I should be able to work with someone else to get a decently-sized space in a better area. Stay tuned…

I will get more help. This was my biggest mistake. I had only two volunteers, and we had three places to spread out. We wound up not staffing the Ad Magic booth during all hours, and we only had one person at the Formal Ferret booth at any given time. Next year, there will be at least as many people at the Formal Ferret demo area as available demos, with extra folks to handle shift changes and other demo opportunities.

I will remain at the booth during vendor hours. Gen Con is my opportunity to see people I only get to see a few times a year. But I had no fixed address at this con; while I made sure my booth was always staffed, I was not there on Friday or Saturday; instead I ran demos at the FEPH and the Ad Magic booth.

This wasn’t good; I missed a bunch of people who wanted to say hi or interview me. Wasted opportunities, darn! I will be sure to be more available next year, and to have a volunteer handle any demos that happen outside my booth.

I will print my booth number on my promotional materials. This is a nice touch I need to make sure I handle next time. Gen Con is huge, and those booth numbers are easy to forget. I usually wrote down my booth number on the back of the card, but it will be easier next year to just have it on the card in the first place.

I will keep my evenings free. I ate dinner hurriedly this year, wolfing a salad down while setting up a 7 pm event. As a result, I missed a bunch of prototyping and networking opportunities. So next year, I will entrust evening demos to a volunteer, leaving me to go to dinner with people I don’t get to see often. Some amazing things result from those simple encounters.

I will take more photos. I only had four or so photos on my phone once the smoke cleared, and none of them featured me demoing anything. It may seem narcissistic, but these photos are really good for newsletters and Kickstarter updates. I’ll be sure to have better documentation next year.

Overall, it was a heck of a convention. I know it was good because it only felt 30 minutes long! Here’s to another “30 minutes” next year.

The Formal Ferret Gen Con 2015 schedule

I’ve been planning Gen Con 2015 ever since I returned from Gen Con 2014. In two weeks, we’ll see the results!

It’s going to be an amazing convention for me. I’ll be showing the final manufactured copy of Bad Medicine, previewing the most current demo of The Networks, and selling the Battle Merchants: New Kingdoms expansion.

I’m going to be busy the whole way through, but if you want to find my games, there are a few easy places to go at any point in the con.

First, if you won’t be at the convention at all, you can watch me on BoardGameGeek’s live Gen Con coverage. I’ll be showing The Networks at 3 pm EDT on Saturday, August 1.

You can always visit the Formal Ferret Booth (#2229, with Nazca Games). I’ll be demoing Battle Merchants (with the New Kingdoms expansion) and Bad Medicine. You’ll be able to buy Battle Merchants bundled with New Kingdoms for $45, the expansion alone for $10, or the base game alone for $40. You can also pre-order Bad Medicine for $28. I’ll even be selling official Formal Ferret t-shirts for $10 each!

Here are all the places you can find my games at Gen Con 2015!

Thursday (vendor hall opens at 9 am for VIPs, 10 am for everyone else)
All Day:
Indie Game Alliance open gaming area (Hall E) – Battle Merchants, Bad Medicine, and The Networks available for checkout.
9 am – 6 pm: 
Formal Ferret booth (#2229) – Demos of Battle Merchants (for sale) and Bad Medicine (for preorder).
9 am – 6 pm: Ad Magic booth (#461) – Demos of Bad Medicine and The Networks.
7 pm – 9 pm: Hall D, Yellow tables #7-8 – Full play of Battle Merchants
9 pm – 11 pm: Hall D, Green table #28 – Full play of The Networks 
11 pm – 12 am: Hall D, Green tables #28-30 – Full play of Bad Medicine

All Day: Indie Game Alliance open gaming area (Hall E) – Battle Merchants, Bad Medicine, and The Networks available for checkout.
10 am – 6 pm: Formal Ferret booth (#2229) – Demos of Battle Merchants and Bad Medicine.
10 am – 1 pm: 
Ad Magic booth (#461) – Demos of Bad Medicine and The Networks..
12 pm – 2 pm: Indie Game Alliance booth (#2827) – Demos of The Networks.
2 pm – 4 pm: First Exposure Playtest Hall (Hall E) – Full play of The Networks.
4 pm – 6 pm: First Exposure Playtest Hall (Hall E) – Full play of The Networks.
7 pm – 9 pm: Hall D, Yellow tables #6-7 – Full play of Battle Merchants .
9 pm – 11 pm: Hall D, Green table #28 – Full play of The Networks .
11 pm – 12 am: Hall D, Green tables #28-30 – Full play of Bad Medicine.

All Day:
Indie Game Alliance open gaming area (Hall E) – Battle Merchants, Bad Medicine, and The Networks available for checkout.
10 am – 6 pm: Formal Ferret booth (#2229) – Demos of Battle Merchants and Bad Medicine.
10 am – 12 pm: First Exposure Playtest Hall – Full play of The Networks.
12 pm – 2 pm: First Exposure Playtest Hall – Full play of The Networks.
4 pm – 6 pm: Ad Magic booth (#461) – Demos of Bad Medicine and The Networks.
4 pm – 6 pm: Indie Game Alliance booth (#2827) – Demos of The Networks.
7 pm – 9 pm: Hall D, Yellow tables #1-2 – Full play of Battle Merchants .
9 pm – 11 pm: Hall D, Green table #28 – Full play of The Networks .
11 pm – 12 am: Hall D, Green tables #28-30 – Full play of Bad Medicine.

All Day:
Indie Game Alliance open gaming area (Hall E) – Battle Merchants, Bad Medicine, and The Networks available for checkout.
10 am – 4 pm: Formal Ferret booth (#2229) – Demos of Battle Merchants and Bad Medicine.
2 pm – 4 pm: Ad Magic booth (#461) – Demos of Bad Medicine and The Networks.

Track Meet – The best and worst of scoring tracks

My newest game The Networks has a scoring track. It’s been a bit of a pain at times, but it’s let me do things I wouldn’t be have been easily able to do otherwise. It’s also made me think a lot about what makes a good and bad scoring track. Let’s check out some theory and practice behind this humble component.

A scoring track, at its simplest, is a track that allows players to keep some value of theirs (usually their score) visible and public to all the other players. Plenty of games use them. Here’s an example of a very good scoring track, Stone Age.

Image credit: BGG user “vekoma”

Here are a few reasons why this is an excellent scoring track:

  • It is a circuit. If you need to go from 95 points to 100, you just lap around the 0.
  • It goes from 0-99. Players who lap the scoring track simply need to add a 1 to the front of their scores.
  • There is an image of a primitive wheel behind every 10-point space. This callout makes adding up large scores easy.
  • Players use easily-stacked discs to keep track of their scores.

The only thing this particular game is missing is special markers that indicate which players have exceeded 100 points.

Now let’s look at what makes a not-so-good scoring track: the original track for Alhambra.

Image credit: BGG user “Gelatinous Goo”

What makes this scoring track less than ideal?

  • It serpentines. Sometimes it goes left, other times it goes right. Therefore, players often accidentally move scoring tokens the wrong way.
  • It loops at 120 instead of 99. It’s very common in this game to exceed 120 points, so players have to decide if looping players move their markers to the 1 spot and add 120 or move to the 21 spot and add 100. The second is easier, but not always intuitive, and it assumes everyone explicitly understands the convention.

Serpentining is not always bad if it’s done judiciously and thoughtfully. Here is the scoring track for In the Year of the Dragon.

Image credit: BGG user “toulouse”

This one is interesting on two levels. First off, the outer scoring track has a couple of small bends at the top to accommodate a discard area. This is close to a serpentine, but it’s small enough that players aren’t thrown off. I’ve found that players can tolerate small bends like that. If you’re having trouble trying to find enough space to fit a 100-point track, consider some small bends like this.

The second interesting part is that there are two tracks. The inner track is meant for turn order. It loops at 60, but players rarely lap, and turn order gets increased by small-enough increments that making the move from under 60 to over isn’t such a big deal.

Okay, so how about another not-so-good scoring track? This one is from Prosperity.

Image credit: BGG user “lacxox”

This one is pretty painful. It serpentines very tightly, and is very unclear to all players exactly which direction the scoring cubes should go at any given point. The serpentining also makes it quite difficult to know at a glance how players are doing positionally versus other players if they’re in the same row. A cube further left in its column than a cube in another column could be ahead or behind, depending on which bend it’s on.

The score numbers are also difficult to make out, and the track only laps at 50 points. I’ve found from experience that players do not like tracks that lap at any value other than 100 if lapping happens a lot. Even 50, which seems like it would be a safe number, isn’t as good as 100.

So why have a scoring track at all? Because having a scoring track opens up positional heuristics. These are strategies and rules of thumb that players will use depending on if they are first or last. A player who knows she is in second place may play conservatively if confronting the player in last place, or aggressively if confronting the leader. A scoring track makes these positions explicit.

Compare this with a game like Puerto Rico, which has no scoring track. Players keep track of points with scoring chips they keep face-down in front of them and with points they gain from constructing buildings. As a result, players don’t know definitively who is winning. They may have an idea who is doing better than whom, but the final results are often surprising.

Scoring tracks can also allow in-game mechanisms based on player position. The auction game The Scepter of Zavandor (based on Outpost) is a good example. Every round, players are handicapped based on their total score. The players in the lead must pay more at auction, while the players in the back pay less.

This sort of mechanism would be very tricky to implement without a scoring track. Making players’ scores explicit allows the game to provide handicaps that would be tricky to do otherwise.

Making the scores explicit also enables positional heuristics. If the leader seems interested in a high-VP item, players may want to bid her up just to make sure she doesn’t get it for a low price. They may be less concerned if it winds up going to the player in the back.

Another game with a nice twist on its scoring track is Primordial Soup.

Image credit: BGG user “dougadamsau”

This scoring track doesn’t lap, but it doesn’t need to; one of the endgame conditions is if a player reaches the darker spaces at the end of the track. It also employs a handicap; players in the lead move last on the board, which is a significant disadvantage.

But most interestingly: there are no ties. Players ignore occupied spaces on the track when scoring. This is a wonderful rubberbanding mechanism that allows players in the back to dramatically leapfrog other players. It would be impossible without a scoring track.

What about a game that lets you play directly on the scoring track? In fact, there are many of those out there. Here’s one.

Image credit: BGG user “rsolow”

Formula D is a racing game with no victory points, but since the first player to cross the finish line wins, the scoring track is effectively the game! This is the case with a lot of racing games.

So if you are in the back, it’s very clear that you need to catch up. If you’re in the front, you know you can race more conservatively.

This brings up a weakness I see in a lot of racing games: they generally punish the players who are trying to go too fast. This is in theme, but is also why a lot of players find racing games frustrating. The players trying to go the fastest aren’t the ones in the lead; they’re the ones in the back trying to catch up. So if you’re designing a racing game, your supposed rubberbanding mechanism may actually be a snowball mechanism; you may actually be keeping the last-place players from doing better!

I recently re-acquired the incredible horse racing game TurfMaster. It has an incredible handicapping mechanism that specifically targets the leaders: the player in first may only move 8 spaces at most, the player in second 9 spaces, and the player in third 10 spaces. But players may move as far as 12 spaces if they have the cards or dice that let them, so the players in 4th place and further have a nice advantage.

This may seem artificial at first glance, but turns out to feel much like horse racing. No player can lead the entire race; instead, they must try to stay with the pack and time their charge at the very end. What helps is that each player has “joker” cards that allow them to break the handicap. But they only get a few, so hand management and race planning become crucial.

So if you’re working on a game with a scoring track, or with any sort of explicit positional mechanism, you may want to take advantage of what a scoring track can let you do. They’re more powerful than they first appear.

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!