Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

A study of digital Onirim’s scoring system

Photo Jul 14, 2 45 01 PM

I’m a recent convert to Onirim, a fantastic solo card game by Shadi Torbey, recently converted to a mobile app by the fine folks at Asmodee Digital (currently iOS only). I wanted to discuss something they included in a recent update, because I find it fascinating.

Disclaimer: what follows is not a review. It shouldn’t tell you whether or not to buy the game. Rather, I wanted to critically study the digital implementation’s new scoring system, which as far as I can tell, is absent from the tabletop version of the game.

(Would you like a review? Here’s a short one: Onirim’s good. Buy it.)

Also, this digital app is really, really good. I’m going to be fairly critical of its scoring system, but all other aspects of the app are extremely strong. Again, the point of this post is not to review the game or the app, but if you’re a fan of games, it’s definitely worth your time and money.

Overview of the game

In the tabletop version of the game, you have a deck of cards, from which you draw a hand of 5 cards. You are trying to extract 8 Door Cards from the deck before it runs out. If you get all 8 door cards, you win. If the deck runs out, you lose.

There are 4 suits, so there are 2 Door Cards of each suit. There are a bunch of other cards in the deck, each in one of the 4 suits. When you play three consecutive cards of the same suit, you get to dive into the deck and extract a matching Door.

Each card also has a symbol on it, mainly Stars and Moons. You may never play a card with the same symbol as the card before it, regardless of color. That constraint is vital, because it makes the game very interesting.

There are also Nightmare Cards, which you don’t want to draw, because they force you to do bad things like discard and redraw your hand, or discard the top 5 cards of the deck (both of which get you closer to the loss condition). And there are Key Cards, which do valuable things like get you to discard one of the next 5 cards on the deck and rearrange the remaining 4 in any order (a nice way to get rid of Nightmares).

My own primitive scoring system

Photo Jul 14, 2 51 34 PMThere’s a bit more to the game than that, but it’s enough to get us started. I’ve been playing the game ceaselessly for the past month, and it’s my current go-to game if I need to take a break from things. Each game presents its own set of challenges, and I enjoy the puzzle of having to work out how to avoid the Nightmares to get to my Doors. If I won, I won, and if I lost, I lost. When I first got the game, I liked the casual, easygoing feel of the game, and that I didn’t need to race against the clock to make my decisions. (In writing, we would call that last sentence foreshadowing.)

The app didn’t have a scoring system, other than recording how many cards remained in your deck at the end of a game. I toyed around with a casual scoring system: 100 points for every played Door, 1 point for every card remaining in the deck if I won. So 800 would be the minimum winning score. (For you persnickety folks, when I started playing with the Glyphs expansion, which adds 4 new doors, I subtracted 400 points from every score.)

This was a nice, simple, manageable scoring system that I could tally in my head. The game kept a record of the most cards I ever finished with in my deck, so for a long time, I knew my best score was 827. And I could rank failed games next to each other.

Back to my mantra

Let’s take a step back and take a look at my personal game design mantra: Incentivize Interesting Behavior. This is what I think all game designers do, or at least, should be doing. And it’s naturally what a scoring system will do.

My personal scoring system reinforced behaviors that the game already encouraged: try to find all the Doors. It gave a small bonus for finishing with cards in the deck, which isn’t canonically part of the card game. That technically is incentivizing a behavior that the base game doesn’t really incentivize. But since that behavior tends to emerge naturally during gameplay, it feels like a regular fit.

The new scoring system

Photo Jul 14, 2 49 26 PMSo this gets us to the new scoring system in Onirim. Let’s go through it, and then discuss the behaviors it incentivizes:

For every series of 3 like-colored cards (that extracts a door):
Stars: 10 points
Moons: 20 points
Keys: 50 points

If you play consecutive series of 3 like-colored cards, with no extra colors in between (like RRRBBB would be 2 consecutive series, whereas RRRGBBB would not because the G gets in the way):
Second series: 100 points
Third series: 200 points
Fourth series: 300 points, and so on.

If the consecutive series above are of the same color (like GGGGGG for 2 consecutive series), you get additional bonuses:
Second series: 100 points
Third series: 200 points
Fourth series: 300 points, and so on.

Other bonuses:
Unlock a Door with a Key: 100 points
Use a Key to discard a Nightmare: 200 points

Endgame points, if you win the game:
Time Bonus: for every second remaining under 20 minutes (1200 seconds), you get 1 point. So if you finish in 5 minutes (300 seconds), you will have 900 seconds remaining, which is 900 points.
Card Bonus: for every card you have left in the deck, you get a certain number of points. This point value is unpublished, but seems to be roughly 10-50 points per card. It’s unclear exactly which cards are worth extra points.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Now we get to the interesting part! There’s some stuff in this scoring system that works, some stuff that incentivizes behavior that seems odd, and some stuff that’s just plain weird.

Let’s start with the series bonuses. I’ve found the 100/200/300 point bonuses to be enormously significant. You need these for a high score. If you can play, say, RRRRRR, or even RRRRRRRRR, you can start racking up some big-time points.

This sort of behavior is not at all existent in the tabletop version of the game. It makes no difference whether you go directly from one series to another, or if you buttress multiple series with “bridge” cards in between.

Let me explain that last bit. There are Sun cards and Moon cards in the game, but Sun cards are much more plentiful than Moon cards. So an SMS combination is much easier to pull off than an MSM combination.

So let’s say I have a Green Sun, Green Moon, and Green Sun combo. I’ll abbreviate that GsGmGs. I have the cards after that to play BsBmBs. The problem is, I can’t put the Gs and Bs next to each other. So I may play, for example, GsGmGsRmBsBmBs.

The Red Moon in the middle is a “bridge” card; it lets me connect the two series together. Here’s the interesting thing: these bridge cards are excellent in the tabletop game, because they get me closer to winning the game. But they’re marginal in the digital game, in that they will cost me possibly thousands of points!

This is an excellent example of how a scoring system can incentivize or disincentivize behavior. I’m now generally disincentivized in the digital game from playing bridge cards. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s certainly more challenging to play this way, in that a good weapon in my arsenal is now neutralized. But it also removes an interesting tactic for me; I have one fewer path to victory. So I find this element of the scoring system a little blander.

The incentive pushes players along in another noticeable way. You get points for series, whether or not it gets you a door. So (assuming we’re playing the base game) if you’re at two doors of a color already, and you play a series of that color, you’ll still score points for it, possibly a lot of points, even though you’re no closer to victory.

This is an especially fascinating case. Here, the scoring system is incentivizing us to do something the tabletop game provides only a tiny reward for (a reshuffle, which in many circumstances, doesn’t really change much). So we now have a much larger incentive to do something that previously was just a bit of a time-waster. Very different than the original game.

The black box

Let’s move onto the remaining cards bonuses. This is a weird one. On one hand, it’s nice to have a bonus for remaining cards when winning. But the problem is, I don’t know any of the card values! Is it good to have Nightmares left in the deck? Or is it better to discard them using Keys? Or is it the same thing? We have no idea!

And because this is unknown, we wind up not actually changing player behavior. We still want to finish with as many cards as possible, but their values are now effectively random numbers.

This is a trap a lot of video games can fall into. In a digital game, the computer can handle scoring without the players’ involvement. This reduces fiddliness greatly, but at the cost of opacity. A scoring system that can’t give us specific feedback to tell us exactly why we scored the way we did is a scoring system that does not have any meaning to the player.

To be honest, this isn’t so much a fault with the scoring system, as much as it is with the documentation. As such, it has a simple solution: just tell us what each card is worth! That may be more overhead, but as players get the hang of this intricate scoring system, we can work to maximize our scores.

The next version will include a grabbable totem

This gets us to the last, and to me, ugliest change: the time bonus.

If we win, the computer looks at how long it took us to win, in seconds, and subtracts that from 1200 seconds (15 minutes). So the fact becomes inescapable: Onirim, which I’d previously enjoyed as a game where I could take my time and weigh my decisions in a relaxed manner, is now a real-time game where every second literally counts.

In other words, one of the things I liked Onirim is dashed against the rocks in the name of high scoring. I’m now punished for taking my time and smelling the roses.

Worse yet, the recorded time accounts for animation time. Like most digital implementations of card games, every time you draw, play, or discard a card, you see it move from the deck to your hand, and then from your hand to the play area or discard pile. In the most recent update, this animation speed was sped up, but it still takes some time.

That wouldn’t be so bad either… except players now have the option to skip the animation by clicking on the screen. And I’m not kidding here, if you click on the screen through the whole game, you could gain 100 or more points by the end of the game; you’re literally saving a minute or two of animation.

So now, we have a clear incentive to take an action that’s arguably outside the bounds of the game to gain points, in the name of scoring to play the game in a style that I don’t enjoy playing in (and I’m sure I’m not alone). This is capital-W Weird.

And here’s the worst part: The game already rewards players for playing efficiently (if not quickly) by awarding them a card bonus. There’s already a reward for efficiency, which, to me, is millions of time more interesting, relevant, and Onirim-like than raw time. So what purpose is the real-time bonus serving here, other than to attract quick-thumbed gamers and alienate those of us who wanted to relax and enjoy the game?

297

Of course, I don’t have to honor the scoring system. I can just ignore it and return to the scoring system inside my head. But the human brain is a weird thing; when I see those numbers, I think, “What if I’d played according to the scoring system?” It feels like a point of friction; that I’m violating the rules somehow.

Which I kind of am. By ignoring the scoring system, I’m telling the architects of the digital game that I’m not playing by their rules, but by the tabletop game’s rules.

Again, this isn’t a review, so my point isn’t to declare the digital game “bad” or “good.” Instead, I think this scoring system is a great example of how scoring systems can change the feeling of a game, or even change the game itself.

To this point, digital Onirim is a different game than the physical version of the game. It incentivizes different behavior entirely.

But why?

Photo Jul 14, 2 51 58 PMSo we’re left with the question now of: why? Why does Onirim even have a digital scoring system?

It turns out that Asmodee Digital implemented a leaderboard for Onirim. This is a cool thing to do; even for a solo game, it’s nice, in theory, to see how your performance stacked up against the rest of the world.

The issue here is how Asmodee Digital has defined your performance. Some players may have “performed” better by skipping animations, playing consecutive series whether or not they opened doors, and having better cards left in their deck (although I couldn’t tell you what a “better” card is in that context). None of these are behaviors in the original game.

It’s not that Asmodee Digital’s scoring system is uniformly uninteresting. It’s just that they’re incentivizing behavior that’s not interesting to all players. The series thing is completely artificial, and I’m sure a lot of other players agree with me in that they don’t really care how many seconds it takes us to finish the game.

The game also records your personal high score, and compares each winning score to it. So the more you play, the higher your high score will go… and the less likely you’ll approach it in each new game. So the more you play, the less relevant the high score becomes.

This already existed to an extent before the scoring system was installed, in that the game tracked how many cards were left in your deck after you won, and told you that as your highest “score.” But since the whole game was about the binary win/loss result anyway, that was just a side note. There were no leaderboards to give emphasis to a particularly high score.

And I find my in-game decisions and behavior greatly affected by the new scoring system. I’m playing fewer bridge cards, going for more color combos, and of course, skipping animations anywhere I can. So when I end up with a final score that’s only 50% of my high score, I feel like I’ve lost, even though I’ve won. This really doesn’t feel as good or as interesting as before.

If it were up to me, I’d implement a lot of these things as achievements instead. Play 9 cards of the same color in series: achievement unlocked! Finish a game in 5 minutes or less: achievement unlocked! Finish the game with 5 Nightmares still in the deck: achievement unlocked!

I think this would have been a better model to pursue here, because it takes this behavior that’s orthogonal to the tabletop game and slightly incentivizes us to accomplish it, but not as a behavior core to the game. This way, the spirit of the digital game is much closer to the spirit of the tabletop game, with a couple of paths out to some weirder behavior if you wish to explore it.

Let’s go back to my primitive scoring system: 100 for each door extracted, 1 point for each card remaining in the deck. I still prefer this scoring system. It’s simple, easily calculated, and tells the story of your game in line (mostly) with the incentives the game provided, with a dash of human nature to help. If you move most of the incentives in the current scoring system to achievements, and install this scoring system instead, I think you have a digital implementation that feels much more Onirim-like.

This is one of the reasons game design is just as much of an art as it is a science. It’s not always obvious how to best design a game, or how to best port it over to a digital platform.

And to be clear: Onirim is a fantastic game, and other than its scoring system, its digital implementation is stellar. Again, my focus here is not to review the game or the app, but I want to be clear that this is an outstanding game that belongs in most collections. I’m certainly not going to stop playing it anytime soon.

But I think this discussion is valuable, because it shows us how a scoring system can help or hinder a game. Scoring systems are some of the best ways a game can incentivize interesting behavior. Be sure you have the right scoring system for your game!

Non-gamers and master chocolatiers

IMG_5121

We board gamers love our hobby, and there’s a natural inclination to try to share our passions with others. To me, this is a great thing, and not just because of potential new customers!

Sometimes this enthusiasm turns into frustration. Gamers will take their favorite games to people outside the hobby, and discover that these people do not share their enthusiasm. It turns out that not everyone enjoys playing board games.

I see some people on Twitter writing how the term “gamer” is needlessly exclusionary, and that all humans engage with games on some level. There’s an element of truth to both statements; the term “gamer” should mean more than just a white male ages 14-28 who plays Call of Duty or Magic: The Gathering obsessively. And almost all humans engage with play on some level, be it gambling, watching or playing sports, or even just the occasional good-natured sarcastic comment.

That said, the idea of using one’s brain actively to engage in recreational activity is one that not everyone enjoys. Some people spend a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional energy during the day, and prefer to spend their leisure time turning their brains off. That could mean watching mindless TV shows, or reading fluffy novels, or playing casual digital games.

In this context, “mindless” or “fluffy” is not pejorative; the fact that these activities require no mental work is a positive thing. It helps these people wind down from a stressful day and relax.

I work at an escape room as a game master, and I remember asking one group if they enjoyed puzzles. They all answered, “no.” And sure enough, they floundered in the room and did not enjoy the experience one bit. It turns out that actively using one’s mind to play – adopting what Bernard Suits calls “the lusory attitude” – is not one that comes naturally to everyone. And while I have no hard data behind this, I wonder if there’s an uncomfortable element of privilege here too; that the idea of recreational play for adults is not something people of all classes or backgrounds have access to. (For more on this subject, I recommend Nick Bentley’s outstanding essay.)

So let’s go back to this hypothetical enthusiastic gamer, trying unsuccessfully to get their friends to join our hobby. How come people who are exposed to our games, which to us are so much “better” than mass-market games, do not necessarily cross over?

I was in Paris a couple of months ago, and I had the pleasure of going on a food tour that stopped at a master chocolatier. He played a little “game” with us, in which he brought out some of his special handmade treats, but didn’t allow us to choose them directly. Instead, he told us we would get two pieces of chocolate. For the first piece, we would specify “dark” or “milk,” and where we were from. For the second, he would choose for us.

Now, I have a sweet tooth, and I love chocolate. At the same time, I’m hardly a chocolate expert; I prefer milk to bittersweet, and I don’t really like nuts or fruit in my treats (I’m not allergic, just picky). I generally stick with Lindt, Ritter, or Milka bars; just a couple of notches above ordinary Hershey bars.

The chocolatier sensed my pickiness, and I wound up with two pieces of chocolate ganache that were absolutely heavenly. I could tell the guy was immensely skilled at what he did, and I would likely never have more exquisitely-crafted chocolate in my life.

So this means I’m hooked on high-end chocolate for the rest of my life, right? Well, no.

First, there’s familiarity. I know what I’m getting in that Lindt bar. I know I love it. But adventuring into high-end chocolate, I know I’m going to hit a lot of barriers of personal taste. Like I mentioned before, I don’t want fruit or nuts in my chocolate. I find that everything over 55% tastes like solidified motor oil to me.

I’m also a bit intimidated. How do I know that any particular high-end chocolate is good or right for me? I mean, I could research it, but that would take a certain amount of work. Would I get a proportional amount of satisfaction corresponding to the work, as opposed to just getting a mass-market bar I like?

And maybe there’s a pride thing too. Jumping into high-end chocolate means admitting a lack of knowledge, on a certain level. Consciously, I love learning new things. But perhaps there’s a primal, unconscious part of me that would prefer to remain on terra firma?

It would be a bit pricey, wouldn’t it? And some of that money would be lost on chocolate that I wouldn’t enjoy.

And finally: maybe I just don’t care as much about chocolate as the true fans do.

Obviously, I’m bringing all this up because I think this maps fairly closely to why people tend to stick with “classic” mass-market games, and not cross over to our games, even after being exposed to them. There’s an intimidation factor when entering this rabbit hole of ours, and not everyone relishes the prospect of entering it.

Of course, from our perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Why would anyone decline it? But from a person comfortable with what they’re familiar with, it’s not so much a slam dunk.

Let’s look at Cards Against Humanity as an example (and of course, CAH has all sorts of baggage to it that I’ve written about previously, but let’s assume here it’s being played with full consent and buy-in from its participants). I see new party games try to position themselves as “CAH-killers,” because they require more thought and effort. Like, a game that requires you to build a pitch, or tell a story.

But that misses a vital truth about Cards Against Humanity and its fans. CAH’s whole appeal is that it takes no thought to play. You can play randomly, and the game will still work; it might even be funnier than if you had chosen a specific card. And of course, if you choose something morally horrible, you can always blame it on the game.

Again, whether this is a good or bad thing is an excellent question and a valuable discussion, but outside the scope of this blog post. The important thing is that you don’t need to think when you play CAH, and while game fans think this is a disadvantage, the game’s fans find it an advantage. Once again, “mindless” is not always pejorative when studying entertainment.

That is why it’s so hard to lure “non-gamers” into our hobby. They don’t necessarily share our way of thinking. The idea of working for our fun, and working specifically by expending mental energy, is something that they don’t enjoy.

So the next time you bring a game to your place of work, or to your family for the holidays, remember that it’s not enough to just expose them to our games. In order for our games to stick, the people we show them to must be predisposed to adopting the lusory attitude for tabletop games. They must enjoy using their noggins for fun. That’s not something we can take for granted, and it’s why tabletop games are never going to be for everyone.

“Naked Baby Photos,” Game Designer Edition

280252847_62f568331b_b

I spent 10 days at the Gathering of Friends, an invitational convention in Niagara Falls. I wish everyone could have joined me!

It’s a show where a bunch of industry veterans and notables hang out and play games in a relaxed environment. So I got the idea to run an informal event that I wouldn’t be able to run anywhere else. I called it “Naked Baby Photos, Game Designer Edition.”

EdPages

 

The idea was for any participating designer to bring one of their oldest game designs. Not their oldest published design, but something from very early in their career, before they really knew what they were doing.

I thought it might be interesting, instructive, and maybe even inspirational to look at these old games to see how far we have come. At the same time, part of me was expecting each game to be a real stinker, and for the event to have an MST3K-like quality to it.

But that turned out to not be the case! Each game, for all its flaws, had some shining quality to it.

 

Christian.jpg

 

Christian Lemay brought a game he designed a few years ago inspired by the Dr. Mario video game. It turned out to be fun and engaging, with a few mechanisms that were tricky to remember and enforce. It honestly didn’t play any worse than a typical prototype brought to one of one of my local game design groups. It seemed like it just needed a bit of development to become a pitchable prototype, although it’s not something in most publishers’ wheelhouse.

Heist

Jonathan Gilmour brought a game where the players are a band of criminals running a heist, and then screwing each other over to keep it. This is probably the setting I’ve seen with the most lopsided attempt/success ratio; few designers succeed at it! And while this game’s numbers were a bit off and there was some excessive fiddliness, there were fun moments of surprise as we tried to make off with the loot. Again, some development would probably turn this into a pitchable prototype.

EdHexes

Ed Bryan brought a game he’d designed as a teenager. It was a massive, epic civilization-style game where players were colonizing a vast magical land. In practice, there were a lot of dice rolls, and we called it after a few rounds. But it was cool to see a game of this scope, especially with his pages and pages of handwritten notes!

wag

I brought an old one of mine: Wag the Wolf, one of my first designs, which did well at a Hippodice competition, but I hadn’t played in years. We actually made it halfway through the game, and only had to call it because of time. I was expecting a cringeworthy experience, and sure enough, the game’s theme and “ingenious” information-reveal mechanism didn’t really work too well.

But the players loved the musical-chairs auction at the center of the game, which is a little frustrating, because that auction was originally at the center of the games that became Battle Merchants and The Networks. I had to pull it out of both games because the auction turned out to not fit in either game.

And sure enough, a few days afterwards, I figured out a way to possibly frame the auction in a game that might work! I tried it on the Saturday of the Gathering, and the results are promising.

So that’s four games this auction has made it into. We’ll see if anything comes of it…

EdNotes

Overall, I was amazed at how strong the games were. None of them were outright turkeys; everyone genuinely enjoyed playing these early prototypes. It was a ton of fun seeing how far we’d come with our designs. Each game had a gem of an idea within, and with some polishing, would end up with something interesting.

(OK, perhaps Ed’s game would need a good amount of streamlining. But the scope was really fun to tangle with!)

I’m not sure if I’m going to do this event next year, but I had a good time with it. It’s good to connect with old designs, as embarrassing as it can feel at first. You never know what nuggets you’ll come up with!

Another way to measure convention attendance

Anyone who follows the board game convention scene knows that there’s two ways to measure the attendance at a convention. But they’re often used interchangeably by accident, which results in a lot of confusion and head-scratching.

One way is “unique attendance.” This is the number of different people a convention has sold tickets to. So if I buy a ticket to your convention, I count as one unique attendee. Simple enough.

But the more common way conventions report attendance is by “turnstile attendance.” This counts how many people attended the convention each day. So if I attend your convention on three different days, I count as three different attendees.

Conventions love to report their attendance as turnstile, because the number is significantly bigger. For example, if I wanted to misrepresent the difference between Origins and Gen Con, I could report that Origins drew 52,561 people in 2016, while Gen Con narrowly beat them with 60,819. But that statistic is a distortion; the figure for Origins is turnstiles, while the figure for origins is uniques. An apples-to-apples comparison would either report both unique figures (Origins drawing 15,479 to Gen Con’s 60,819) or both turnstile figures (Origins drawing 25,149 to Gen Con’s 201,852).

So let’s take a second and disclaim: none of this is to measure the relative worth of these conventions. I’m not arguing for a moment that Gen Con is almost 10 times better than Origins, since their turnstile attendance is almost 10x greater. Far from it! I’ve had amazing times at smaller conventions, and not-so-great times at larger conventions. Size will change the feel of a convention, but it should never, ever be a sole determining factor in judging one show’s worth versus another’s.

Also, I’ve helped run the board game track at a 300-person convention years ago, and even that is a backbreaking amount of work. All of these conventions require an amount of labor that would make anyone’s hair fall out. Smaller shows usually get by with smaller crews, so I tip my cap to people who run conventions of any size.

That said, it would be useful to have a single metric to measure attendance at these shows. So why not just use unique attendees and ignore turnstiles?

There’s a couple of issues there. It’s rare that a statistic is always useful or never useful. Statistics provide a window into our understanding of an event, but they will usually miss a bit of the picture.

For example, it’s tough to compare conventions using turnstile attendance because not all conventions run the same length. Two conventions may draw about the same crowd per day, but if one convention is 5 days long and the other 3 days, comparing turnstiles will be extremely misleading; the first show will seem significantly larger.

Uniques would seem to be better-suited to compare conventions with, but they can be problematic too. First off, lots of European shows (especially Essen SPIEL) do not release unique attendance figures. Second off, not all shows count uniques the same way. I’ve noticed some shows only count event-long badges as uniques, ignoring day badges.

Third off, if one show has different attendees each day versus another show where the same people return each day, the first show’s unique figures will be much higher, even if both shows draw in roughly the same number of people per day. That’s not to say that uniques are a useless statistic in that situation, but they will not help you judge the relative scale of each event.

So how about another way to calculate attendance? Let’s take a look at convention attendance using this simple formula: turnstile attendance ➗ days.

This gives us a unique window into the scale of a show. It lets us compare conventions that don’t provide unique attendance against shows that do, regardless of the number of days it runs. We don’t have to worry how the show calculates uniques, as turnstile will include all kinds of badges, not just full-event badges.

And as an exhibitor, it gives me a valuable data point: it tells me what the scale of the show is, and how big the crowd should be on an average day. Sure, it’s not going to tell me how large the attendance swings are; if the last day of a show is particularly slow, that will be represented as a dip in the overall statistic. But that’s the risk of summing everything up in a single number (and anyway, most shows do not release daily turnstile figures).

So with that, let’s look at some TPD (turnstile per day) figures! I’ve taken 9 of the largest international conventions with at least some significant board game attendance, with the largest turnstile figures for each individual show. Some shows are board game or tabletop-only (Gen Con, SPIEL), while others are comic book or video game conventions with a fairly good board game board game/tabletop presence (Lucca, PAX, Emerald City). I’ll also opine, when I can, on whether I expect each show to grow significantly or not.

One more thing: convention attendance figures are notoriously unreliable. All of these figures must be taken with quite a few grains of salt, if not the entire shaker!

Convention Year Turnstile Attendence Length (days) TPD
Lucca Comics & Games 2016 271,208 5 54,242
Gen Con 2016 201,852 4 50,463
Festival des Jeux 2014 150,000 3 50,000
SPIEL 2016 174,000 4 43,500
Emerald City Comic Con 2015 80,000 3 26,667
PAX East 2017 80,000 3 26,667
PAX West 2015 70,000 4 17,500
Origins 2016 52,561 5 10,512
UKGE 2016 25,149 3 8,383

tpd.png

Lucca turns out to be the largest show by this metric, even larger than SPIEL in Essen. That’s a bit surprising, but not hugely so; everything I’ve read about Lucca tells me that it’s a madhouse. Keep in mind that it is not exclusively a game convention, so there will be a significant percentage of attendees attending only for comics and/or cosplay.

Gen Con comes in second, and that’s not a massive surprise. Gen Con is not purely board gaming; it has a significant RPG and CCG presence. But board games seem to have grown lately, and I’d imagine that most exhibitors and floor space is dedicated to board games at this point.

Regarding the future, I can’t imagine Gen Con growing significantly larger. Both floor space and hotel room stock are maxed out, and yet they’re locked into their current location for the next few years. (Of course, bigger is not necessarily better, and a show can easily get worse if it doesn’t manage growth well.)

You may not have heard of the Festival des Jeux. It’s the largest board game convention in France, held in Cannes (yes, the same city as the well-known film festival). In fact, some people will call it “Cannes” the same way SPIEL is referred to as “Essen.” What makes the FdJ notable here is that, according to TPD, it is the largest board game-only convention in the world.

How come so many geeks haven’t heard of it? Probably because it’s very heavily French-speaking. Most attendees and publishers at SPIEL speak English, but FdJ is meant to be a show for France, not so much an international show, at least as it stands right now. Still, if you’re a publisher with a French game, or if your game is language-independent, you have a French rulebook, and you parlez-vous français, it seems a must-attend.

Note that I was only able to find attendance figures for 2014, and that nice round number tells me it’s an estimate, so who knows what the real attendance was? I hear that this year’s show had a turnstile attendance of 200,000, but I couldn’t find any articles to substantiate that. If anyone can point me to a more reliable attendance number for FdJ, I’d hugely appreciate it.

Speaking of SPIEL… who’d have thought it’d place fourth? It’s one of the most highly-regarded shows in the world, after all. But keep in mind: SPIEL is still the second-largest board game-only show in the world (well, mostly board games, but board games make up such an overwhelming percentage of the show that we’ll go ahead and grant it). Also, the fact that it’s very friendly to English speakers means that it has much more of an international flavor, and is much more appealing to people from English-speaking countries. (But I wouldn’t suggest planning to make a ton of money selling a game at SPIEL that’s exclusively English-dependent. This might be experience talking here.)

It’s a shame SPIEL doesn’t present unique attendance figures. I think they’d be fascinating. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that Essen would have a surprisingly high unique attendance figure; there are many attendees that attend just for a single day. I would love to compare uniques to TPD, to figure out how much turnover there is from day to day.

As for growth, it’s not unreasonable to imagine SPIEL growing even larger. There’s still about 1-2 empty halls in the Messe, and Essen has a good amount of hotel stock. Assuming the hobby continues to grow, I would expect it to overtake Gen Con soon.

Then we return US soil, with both Emerald City Comic Con and PAX East. Be warned that both these attendance figures are fraught with peril. First off, neither show is exclusively for board games. I’ve never been to ECCC, and while I hear its board game scene is pretty healthy (rare for most comic conventions!), I don’t have any firsthand evidence to back it up.

PAX East, meanwhile, is a video game convention that happens to have a decently-sized board game convention neatly nested within. But PAX is notoriously tight-lipped about its attendance figures, and normally doesn’t even release turnstile statistics. I found these attendance figures on Wikipedia, without citations. Caveat emptor!

With all that said, I was surprised that PAX East’s number was so low. I was expecting it to be on the same scale as Gen Con, but its TPD is about half the size. Once again, that’s not to say that PAX East is an objectively worse show than Gen Con, but I expected its numbers to be a bit larger.

I wish we could have numbers for how many people attend the PAX East tabletop area, which is larger than a lot of entire regional conventions. Just from my experience, I’d peg its TPD at about 5,000, give or take 2,000 people. As Father Guido Sarducci once said, “That’s nothing to sneeze your nose at.”

Immediately after PAX East is PAX West (formerly PAX Prime). The fact that it’s a little smaller isn’t a huge surprise, although it’s tough to get a sense of PAX West’s size just by being there. The Washington State Convention Center is split into several floors, instead of being one or two giant rooms, so you can never get a sense of how large the overall show is.

After that comes the venerable Origins Game Fair. It’s not a massive show, but it’s large enough to boast a 5-figure TPD, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Its size relative to Gen Con is not a surprise either, as both shows are very good about releasing both turnstile and unique attendance.

Origins’ unique attendance dropped a bit in 2016 relative to 2015, but that was mostly because of a CCG tournament that’s no longer held at the show. The TPD shows significant growth, up from 7,843 in 2014 and 8,758 in 2015. I’d expect the show to grow for the next year or two, possibly hitting a floor space limit within the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

The last entry, and one of the most intriguing shows for me, is UK Games Expo. I’d suspected that its size put it on par with Origins, and these numbers seem to back that observation up. One thing to keep in mind is that UKGE is growing like crazy. I expect it to easily shatter the 10,000 TPD barrier this year, and it’s not unrealistic to expect the show to get to 15,000 or even 20,000 in the next few years, if the growth of the hobby keeps up. That’s because the convention is only taking up a couple of halls of an enormous convention center. In terms of floor size, they could get much larger without having to move locations. Their biggest gating factor is hotel stock; rooms sell out faster each year.

And that’s about it! I don’t pretend that this metric is a be-all end-all statistic that replaces both turnstiles and uniques. As a vendor, I do want to know how many total unique attendees there are, and therefore how many potential customers I have. But I think TPD gives the best idea of the scale of a convention, and roughly how many people you can expect at the show on an average day.

Incidentally, I’d love to see turnstile figures for BGG.CON, Dice Tower Con, UnPub, and Geekway to the West. As those shows grow (and all those shows are growing – even BGG.CON is moving to a larger location in a couple of years), I’d be interested to see how close they get to Origins and UKGE in terms of scale.

I’m joining Ludology!

 

Ludology_Banner_gil_hack

I’m so thrilled and excited to announce the latest news: I am joining the acclaimed game design podcast Ludology as a co-host! I will be stepping in for co-host Mike Fitzgerald, who provided marvelous insights from his long game design career over his two-year tenure as host. (Mike explains his reasons for leaving the show in the most recent episode as of this writing, Episode 147, but the short reason is: “It’s time.”)

I know I can’t replace Mike’s experience – not many people can! – but I’m excited to offer my perspective. I have no small amount of experience myself, having been designing games since 2000, and self-publishing my games since 2014. I also bring a deeply analytical approach to game design. Like Geoff Engelstein, Ludology’s founding co-host, I believe games are worthy of study. I’m also an experienced sound editor, so I’ll be taking over the post-production of the show.

I’ve known Geoff for a long time and I’ve done panels with him at conventions, so I’m excited to take this next chapter. We’ve had a couple of discussions about new episode ideas, and I’m very eager to bring my energy and perspective to the show.

For those of you who listen to my other podcast, Breaking Into Board Games, rest assured that nothing is going to change! My plan is to continue to co-host both shows. We’ve had some really great episodes lately, and the next few planned episodes are no exception. I’m also still editing the fun and informative show Board Games Insider, so that’s three podcasts I have my hands in.

My Ludology tenure will begin on Episode 150, which should air in late April. Come join me!