Top 10 Highlights and Lessons Learned from Gen Con 2016

9 August 2016 | 39 Comments

Last week, 60,819 people converged onto Indianapolis to attend Gen Con, a massive gaming convention. I was one of them.

This was my fourth Gen Con, and unlike the other three times, Stonemaier Games didn’t implement any sweeping changes to the methods we used the previous years. We still had a sunshine-filled conference room with plenty of scheduled events. We still hosted open game nights each evening. We still ate well and slept well (most nights). You can read all about those aspects on last year’s blog post.

However, this year was still different in a number of ways. I tried some new things and learned a lot, and I wanted to share those highlights and lessons with you.

  1. People Are People: For most days of the year, I spend 12-15 hours at the computer. I interact with a lot of people online, but I don’t get to look those people in the eyes. I don’t get to shake their hand or hug them. I don’t get to see who they are beyond their comments on BGG, Facebook, Twitter, or Kickstarter. People are so much more than what they post online. They’re so much more than messages and e-mails. Gen Con is a beautiful reminder of that for me, especially after such a stressful shipping month. Heck, I even got to meet with the people behind the company that completely botched Scythe fulfillment in Europe, and even though I’m severely disappointed in them, it was good for me to be disappointed with them in person instead of just over e-mail. They’re humans too.
The fine folks at Two Board Meeples.
The fine folks at Two Board Meeples.

2. You’re at Home with Us: My number one goal at Gen Con is to make people feel at home in the Stonemaier area. It’s a sunshine-filled conference room in the Marriott. It’s not too loud, we’re not selling anything, and the foot traffic is minimal. It’s a haven for introverts, even the open game nights. And what we find is that many people didn’t just stop by for one demo, never to return. A considerable number of people made our area a home base of sorts. They hung out there when they had nothing else to do. They’d stop by just to say hi. They were there for every game night. There are many similar pockets like this at Gen Con–ours is just one of them. But I’m really glad we were able to provide that experience, especially for my fellow introverts.

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3. Ambassador Stats and Strategies: This year we had a core team of 8 people (other than me) and 12 other volunteers who helped out from time to time. They were awesome. The biggest feedback I got from them last year is they wanted more universal methods for teaching our games. So a few weeks before Gen Con, I sent out specific instructions on my recommended teaching method for each game. The basic structure is to give a quick thematic overview, explain what a turn looks like and how to win, then start the game. For the first 5 minutes, the teacher takes turns for the players, then they give players more and more freedom, explaining rules as they arise. I think some ambassadors tried different methods, but my sense was that they appreciated having formal guidelines in place.

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4. Fans Are the Best: People have asked me to sign games in the past, and it feels great. I’m flattered and honored to do that. This year stood out in these regards particularly because a number of people traveled with their games (Scythe in particular, but other games too) so I could sign them. If you’ve held the Collector’s Edition of Scythe, you know it’s not a small or light game, yet I signed dozens of copies. I can’t express enough how much it means to me that people traveled with those games and lugged them up to our room. Really. Thank you.

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5. I Met One of My Coworkers for the First Time: Three people work at Stonemaier: I (Jamey) am full time. Alan (co-founder) is part time. And for the last year, Morten (developer/solo designer) has also been part time. Morten lives in Denmark, and I’m in St. Louis, so I’ve never met him despite having interacted with him for nearly the entire 4 years of Stonemaier Games’ existence. So it was truly a special moment and day for Morten to show up on Thursday near the end of a cross-country US visit. He sat in on some pitches, he watched the Euphoria expansion being played, and he and his family dined with the Stonemaier team. This was a major highlight of the convention for me. Morten designed part of a non-Stonemaier game that’s currently on Kickstarter, Hostage Negotiator.

from left to right: Craig (investor), Jamey, Morten, Alan (photo editing by Richard Miles)
from left to right: Craig (investor), Jamey, Morten, Alan (photo editing by Richard Miles)

6. It’s Nice to Make a Profit: For the last 3 years, we’ve earned $0 in direct revenue at Gen Con, as we’re not allowed to sell stuff from our conference room. This year, though, because we shipped Scythe earlier than expected and due to Cephalofair Games not having Gloomhaven available yet, we were able to sell to sell Scythe through the Cephalofair Games booth. Isaac and his tireless team sold all 1000 copies available to them. My only regret is that I didn’t mix in some of our other games, as we were actively teaching Scythe, Between Two Cities, Euphoria, and Viticulture. I never made it down to the exhibit hall, but some friends took photos of the Cephalofair booth:

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7. Demos and Expansions: We had 5 big tables set up in our conference room, 1 table for each of our games and a middle table with Scythe set up on it for people to look at it and get a quick overview. Each game had six 1-hour learning sessions every day. The sessions were $2 ticketed events, as we wanted to encourage people who pre-paid for the events to actually show up (that was somewhat successful, but there were still plenty of no-show slots that were mostly filled by random onlookers). This strategy worked better than last year, when people could sit down and play the entire game during 2-hour timeslots–we were able to teach twice as many people this year. The one struggle was with Euphoria, which was listed in the event guide as “Euphoria with the expansion prototype”. Some people (experienced Euphoria players) signed up specifically to play the expansion, but most people only wanted to learn Euphoria. which was frustrating for the experienced Euphorians. We found that with Tuscany last year too. So from now on, I think we’ll only have demos for the base game, and we’ll schedule just a few specific events for upcoming expansions that require prior knowledge.

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8. Cookies! On a whim a few weeks ago, I asked a friend and ambassador if we could pay her to make themed cookies for each of the games, just to add a little flavor (pun intended) to each of the teaching sessions. I found this to be a fun, personal touch, and attendees seemed to enjoy the Scytherdoodles, Between Two Chippies, Rustic Vineyard Cookies, and Euphoria sugar cookies (shown below):

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9. Game Night: Every night from 8:00-11:00, we hosted a big open (but ticketed) game night from 8:00-11:00. Last year it got a bit crowded, so this year we bought the four big tables just outside of the room specifically for the game nights. This let us accommodate about 50 people at a time. I spent most of that time talking with people who weren’t able to make appointments with me during the day (more on that below), but the attendees seemed to have fun playing games. The one key thing I learned–relating to my philosophy that I want my team to be well rested–is that it’s important to start to shut down by closing the doors at about 10:45 (same with any time of the day when we’re getting close to shutting down for a meal). Otherwise you get sucked into one more game and one more conversation, and the next thing you know it’s 12:30 and your brain won’t turn off so you can sleep. Some people love that aspect of Gen Con, but I’m quite ineffective without 7-8 hours of sleep.

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10. The Passion of the Designers: I spent the vast majority of my time hearing game pitches with Alan. I had 12 appointments a day split between two tables (for the 30 minutes while I was at one table, the next designer could set up at the other table). Some of the appointments were press- or advice-related, but most were pitches. My overall impression is that I’m in awe of the creativity and passion of today’s game designers. No matter the quality or marketability of the game, I love seeing people who love what they’re working on, and I saw a lot of that love at Gen Con.

The best pitches were those where the designer gave a brief explanation of the game (3-5 minutes at most) and then we started playing, with the designer guiding us until we got the hang of it. This let us get a feel for the game. When we had about 5 minutes left, I’d ask/say the following:

  • How’s playtesting going? This lets us get some insight into the designer’s process. The best answers involved at least one example of problems the designers had identified in playtesting and how they solved them or were trying to solve them.
  • What are some other games you’ve played in this genre? This lets the designer demonstrate their awareness of the market and the breadth of their experience as a gamer. One of the best ways to improve as a designer is to play other games, not just your own.
  • Why do you think this is a good fit for Stonemaier? By answering this question, the designer can show us if they’re even aware of our submission guidelines or our other games. It also means something if they’re targeting us specifically rather than casting a wide net. That said, we do assure designers that we want them to find the right fit–if they’re pitching the game to a bunch of other designers, that’s great, and we’re happy for them if they get an offer.
  • Here’s some feedback. We want designers who are open to collaboration and who don’t think their game is perfect (no game is). To test their receptiveness to feedback, we give them some constructive criticism and observed their response. In hindsight, the more we liked a game, the more feedback we gave (unless we were rushed).
  • How do you smell? Okay, I wouldn’t actually ask this, but the way a person presents themselves leaves an impression on us. Based on their hygiene, is this a person who will draw people in at events and conventions, or will they repel people? I also think that hygiene is correlated to self-awareness, an important characteristic to have as a designer.
  • Here’s the timeline. Designers often have to wait months to hear back from a publisher (I’m guilty of that too). For Gen Con, we tell all designers that we’ll get back to them within 10 days. We’ll either say the game isn’t a good fit or that we’d like to see more (we don’t take any prototypes back to St. Louis).

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So that’s my Gen Con experience. If you were able to attend it too, what’s one highlight and one lesson learned?

39 Comments on “Top 10 Highlights and Lessons Learned from Gen Con 2016

  1. This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. You continue to amaze me! Were you a teacher in your past life?!

    1. Thank you for this post. I was not able to make it to Gen Con 2017 this year but reading this post makes me wish I had. Thank you for the advice and encouragement you always give. Looking forward to seeing you at a convention someday to thank you in person!

  2. I really agree with #1, I got to meet so many people at GenCon that I had only talked to online and it was fantastic. The cookies were a great touch, also! I learned how to play Between Two Cities and it was a great experience so thanks for making that happen!

  3. One thing I learned this week doing demos: Be able to tell them how much the game you are demoing costs, and where to find it! I had to bring up the Stonemaier shop three times to answer that question!

    -Steven the utilikilted Stonemaier ambassador

  4. Gah, one of these times I’ll meet you in person! I just assumed you weren’t there since you didn’t have a booth!

  5. Just one highlight? That’s a tough one! Meeting you and Alan of course but I also really enjoy getting to play so many games with so many great like minded people. It is one of the few times a year when I don’t feel like the minority. When people are standing are around talking about games, not sports or cars or work.

    One thing that I learned? Ever year I learn how much more GenCon has to offer. It is such a great gathering of people and events. I went a lot more into the game design and publishing arena this year than I had in previous years and it was a fantastic experience for me as well as some of my closest game designer friends. It is amazing how many people are more than willing to help each other out when technically they are in competition with each other, both designers and publisher alike. Jamey and all the folks with Stonemaier Games is a shinning example of this willingness to help. It is these kind of people that help to make the board game industry great and I truly believe that it is one of the reasons this industry is growing so much and that there are so many great games out there.

    1. It was great meeting with you too, Brian! Thanks for bringing such a polished prototype. I really like the other sentiments you shared about the gaming community–I completely agree!

  6. The pinnacle of my GenCon experience had to be sitting down and talking to you, Jamey. The only problem is that it is all a blur in my memory. Did I speak English? Did I have my shirt on inside-out? Hopefully, I didn’t do anything too awfully embarrassing. Just kidding. You did a great job of putting me at ease. My husband and I were so grateful for the opportunity to chat and get yet more insight into the wonderful world of game publishing.

    i loved the new games I played last weekend. Believe it or not, I’d never played some of the major deck-building games beyond Magic the Gathering. We met John Fiorello, who was co-creator on some of the Ascension expansions, randomly looking for table at lunchtime. We shared looks at each other’s artwork and talked about our projects. We are now emailing each other and talking about how we might be able to help each other or collaborate. GenCon is great for bringing people together like this! We also bought Ascension: Dreamscape and I’m now hooked on the deck-building mechanic.

    My other favorite highlight was the First Exposure Playtesting room. This event, hosted by Double Exposure, allowed me to play games by other game designers. I wish they didn’t charge the designers so much to participate (more than $200 I think) but I guess the DE has to make some money somehow. It’s just that designers have to spread their money in so many places…

    1. Thanks so much for your first comment, Lisa! You said you were hesitant to try it, but I’m glad you did–this means a lot to me. I greatly enjoyed my chat with you and Jeff.

      It sounds like you had a great Gen Con as a whole, and I’m glad you were able to make such great connections. I agree that $200 is a lot! Did that give you unlimited access to the playtesting room?

      1. Actually, we didn’t playtest our game in the First Exposure program as we are still developing the mechanics. It was free for players.

        By the way, my husband’s name is Greg but I love that you transposed it with another name since he was doing that with names when we were chatting with you… ROFL!

          1. Jamey and Lisa,

            ——
            I have a new game. It doesn’t require a box and can be shipped to nearly anywhere for almost no cost. Panda doesn’t even charge for manufacturing. It’s called,

            “Can Greg guess your name?”

            Two win conditions. No loss conditions.
            1 If you guess your own name you win.
            2 If Greg guesses your name you win double or nothing.
            —–

            Seriously, I had a wonderful experience at Gen Con and learned a tremendous amount from so many gifted and giving individuals and groups.

            Jamey I wanted to thank you for the extra time you shared with us. I know how busy things are and that was an unexpected gift! That was a highlight for me!

            I’m looking forward to future games, conventions and conversations!

            Greg

            (That’s right isn’t it?
            Yeah that’s it.)

  7. Great recap! This really emphasizes to me just how little of Gen Con I experienced.

    This was my first year going, so it was a lot to take in. 1 highlight would be getting my first game playtested by somewhat outside of my family. What a terrifying and thrilling and overwhelming experience, showing off an anything but perfect product.

    As far as a lesson goes, the easy one would be that there is a Gen Con lost and found and the convention center security apparently doesn’t know about it, so if you ask them, they’ll tell you that items aren’t in their lost and found.

    But for a more meaningful lesson, as much as it’s amazing to be around lots of other gamers, it really takes a lot of effort to start building relationships with people who already have friendships with lots of other people at Gen Con. Being on the outside and trying to slowly make connections is really hard, both online and in person. Just because it’s gamers doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy (though there were some absolutely fantastic people I got to know a very little bit!).

    1. Alex: I can relate to that. For my first year at Gen Con, I just stumbled around in awe of the scope of it for 2 days. As you said, it’s a lot to take in. Congrats on taking the leap and exposing your game to new playtesters.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this. This was the first year that I wasn’t able to attend Gen Con, but did make it down on Wednesday to see you. It was great to meet you and Alan and it was an unbelievable opportunity to be able to sit down with Alan and play my copy of Viticulture. Thank you both for signing it! Keep up the great work, Jamey!

  9. Great article!

    As for a highlight, I enjoyed the BGG Hot Games Room (which I believe was new this year) much more than I expected. I went hoping to try out one or two of the new games I had bought (acquisition disorder). But I found out that it was a great place to just find people who wanted to play games. I am an introvert that attends GenCon alone. I really like that I could go to this room and count on the fact that, without little stress, I could find someone who needed one more person to play a relatively new game. I originally only planned to stay for a couple hours and essentially spent all day there on Friday. While there, I played one two-player game of Scythe and taught another group to play after we finished.

    Next year, I’ll definitely look for your open gaming events. I really appreciate the help in finding people to play games. I’m just too much of an introvert to walk up to a group in a hotel lobby and ask if they need more players, or to post “anyone want to play a game?” on twitter.

    1. Erv: That’s great to hear about the hot games room! It sounds like it provided a similar space to you as the one we provided (though with open gaming during the day instead of at night). I’m glad they asked us to contribute Scythe to it. If you come to one of our game nights, you’ll be invited into games by lots of people, as several of us are introverts and know what that’s like.

  10. Always enjoy your perspective on things – especially pulling back and giving us a sense of how things work.

    Highlight: This was the first year my daughter could attend all of Gen Con with me – she’s 12, and a huge game fan of all types of games. It was a particular highlight to see it all through HER eyes and especially to see how special some moments are that I took for granted. For example, watching her enjoy a random demo of a game in the exhibit hall only to realize the creator of the game was watching us and eventually introduced themselves – seeing her light up at that and really appreciate and enjoy meeting the creators reminded me how I’d been taking that for granted over the years. To her, it was like the lights going up after a movie and realizing the director is sitting next to you.

    Lesson Learned: While we squeezed an insane amount of games into this year’s Gen Con, from ticketed to with groups back at the hotel, I didn’t leave enough time for us to just wander and seek out the HQ’s of those companies we love that weren’t in the Exhibit Hall (like Stonemaier). I need to leave more time for visiting some home bases!

    I was able to tell about a dozen folks about Scythe just by transporting my copy to and from the hotel, chatting up folks that eyed or asked in the elevator – happy/proud to spread the good word!

    1. Dean: Thanks for sharing that story about your daughter. I’m not a parent, but I can see how that would be awesome to experience.

      I really appreciate you talking about Scythe with people during the convention! :)

  11. Well, that made me even *more* jealous that I couldn’t go. I’ve been to UK Games Expo a couple of times, and enjoyed it immensely, but I get the impression that Gencon and Essen put it into the shade.

    We’re planning to take a conference room for the Café at Expo next year – just to have a relatively peaceful place for our members to open game at a very busy event.

    I had a similar experience to Dean, when my 13 yo and I played Quartermaster General against the designer, Ian from Griggling Games. If you’ve not played, it’s a 3-player per team Axis vs Allies, 20 turn game. We (Allies) defeated Ian’s team in the 5th turn. My daughter, in her best grown-up voice tried to comfort Ian in defeat : “Your German player was *awful*”.

    Which was true, but regardless it’s quite something for a 13yo to play, never mind beat, a games designer. She loved that. And the cosplay, of course.

  12. GenCon 2016 was my second and my wife’s first of too be many GENCONs. My highlight was my wife and I playing a silly little game in the exhibit hall called “Happy Salmon” and seeing my wife burst into tears of laughter at how fun and funny the game is.

    Jamey, you mentioned having 12 appointments a day to look at games by designers…I’m curious as a game designer how many of the games you looked at were polished/in the beta testing phrase? How many, if any, did you find worthy of Stonemaier publishing? What is the next step in the process if you like a game and want it to publish it: contract, more play-testing by your people, etc? Thanks.

    1. I heard great things about Happy Salmon, and I’m glad your wife had fun with it.

      “how many of the games you looked at were polished/in the beta testing phrase?” –It appeared that about 25% of the games had undergone significant playtesting, though I didn’t see any games that wouldn’t require at least some development.

      “How many, if any, did you find worthy of Stonemaier publishing?” –I wouldn’t use the word “worthy”, but rather, did we find any games that we want to publish? There were a few that intrigued us, and we followed up with the designers about that (we actually followed up with all of the tabletop game designers who pitched to us at Gen Con).

      “What is the next step in the process if you like a game and want it to publish it: contract, more play-testing by your people, etc?” –It depends on the game. We requested a video of one game, and we requested a prototype of another. For a few others, we started a conversation with the designers to give them some suggestions to improve the game, and we asked to see how the game evolves in a few months.

  13. I like your approach to listening to pitches. The criticism one is important. I used to test reactions of people either when I was interviewing them for a job, or anything they were pitching to me, I would always end with this. Ok, you’ve answered most of my questions, now tell me a joke.
    I didn’t care if they knew good jokes, but I wanted to see how they reacted when thrown a curveball or had to answer outside their rehearsed or wrote learnings. You get a pretty good feel for their character when you do that. And if designers aren’t characters, well what are they?
    See you at Gen Con 50

  14. […] I realized as I started writing this blog post that it was turning out almost identical to last year’s article. Really, the only significant differences this year were (a) we had 2 new products to feature and (b) we had a conference room and a full team for daytime events (similar to 2015 and 2016). […]

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