Lessons from Origins 2015

by Gil Hova

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…