Pitching Boardgaming

„To pitch“ means to summarise a project in a few words in order to inspire people to participate. You might be familiar with this from crowdfunding sites, on which a project is pitched as clearly and appealingly as possible. This includes all pertinent information that people assume the target audience needs to make a decision.

Most of us have probably already pitched boardgaming a number of times trying to win over non-gamers. Or at least trying to convince them that there is more to board games than Uno and Monopoly. Here are some suggestions how to improve your success rate on getting people excited about playing boardgames.

1. Rule Concepts instead of Rules

People who want to make trying a new game more palateble to others often emphasise how few rules there are or how easy they are to learn. That reflex is understandable. Learning rules is seen as an unpleasant, necessary evil or as the main reason why someone generally avoids boardgames. Taking this as gospel is of course incredibly flattering to our ego. It does, after all, indirectly confirm that boardgaming is a very exclusive activity. Games aren’t for everyone, after all. There is an unspoken pre-selection process happening as to who can have access to this enigmatic and obscure media and who can’t. Only those who are willing to endure the “hardship” of reading and understanding rules can explore boardgames fully. Because boardgames aren’t for the hoi polloi, who roll their eyes and lose patience when confronted with more than three rules, as if you just asked them to file their tax return for 2009.

Yet one of the open secrets in gaming is still that most games aren’t all that difficult to understand. They’re more often explained in a very convoluted way, and their unwieldy rules design is reinterpreted as a delightful challenge. This understanding is then carried over into the pitch so people emphasise individual rules (“for a better understanding”) instead of outlining pretty basic rule concepts.

Sure, you could explain a game like Dominion by saying that you draw exactly 5 cards and are allowed to play exactly 1 action on your turn, make 1 purchase and then discard your entire hand of cards before moving on to the next turn. That is a perfectly accurate explanation of the game. It also includes information that is highly useful in a subsequent play of the game.

But instead of outlining the game’s flow to highlight decision points or hint at the shape play can take, we get lost in details that will hardly evoke interest or curiosity. In other words, we end up explaining the formal framework of the game through its rules, but fail to show why gameplay itself is interesting.

2. Interaction instead of Theme

The next trick often used to promote a game is to talk about its theme. Specifically, talking about the roles we inhabit in the game. This is not wrong as such, but it puts the cart before the horse. A game’s theme – regardless of how much it adds to our enjoyment – has other functions. The most obvious one is to make abstract rule contexts tangible and thus comprehensible. They are a means of making the real-life interaction between players legible.

“You give me a yellow cube and now you may place a piece on two squares of the board” becomes “You pay me 1 gold and I let you into the market halls.”

Card game first,
Jazz concert second

The latter is, of course, much more vivid and evocative. But it misses the point in getting across why we’re excited about playing boardgames. We want to convey this feeling of being immersed in the game experience, but we only talk about the result. We forget to talk about what immersion actually is, how it manifests itself at the table: through the act of playing the game.

Theme is not the reason for immersion, but a means to it. It can only fulfil its immersive function if there is play interaction to dress up and thereby enhance. Just like the story of a film can only be (re-)told by invoking at least some rudimentary details of the plot. Sure, with enough perseverance and effort, you might be able talk around the events of the story. But it would be so much easier to say what happens instead of just describing how it’s presented.

The same is true of games. Instead of explaining the theme in flowery language, it is more purposeful to name the concrete actions we take in play. What these actions look like in the thematic context of the game is the next step. A successful pitch should therefore integrate theme in the same way: as an illustration for player interaction or the rule concepts that make up the game. It should not be misunderstood as an “easy entry” into understanding the game. The leap from “we are rulers of a space-travelling species seeking domination of the galaxy” to “whoever gets to 10 victory points first, wins” is a lot bumpier and more convoluted than the opposite direction.

It is our imagination that enriches our experience of the game, and it is jump-started when rules, player interaction and theme are merged during play. It is precisely this jolt to our own creativity that makes playing boardgames so enjoyable. So why take that away from non-gamers?

3. Experience instead of Emotion

There’s a mantra that is regurgitated in every conversation about games: games are about emotions. What do I feel when I play? What emotional register does play touch on? What do games do with us? I can respect this approach, but struggle to give it much credence. Paraphrasing or naming our emotional response seems to me to do little to make a game more comprehensible. It also does little to arouse curiosity. After all, play does not offer us brand-new feelings or emotions.

I think you can get more from outlining the circumstances that can evoke these emotions. It’s a more direct and meaningful way to set expectations, if you explain the kind of situations that occur in a game. Above all, you help non-gamers decide whether they want to put themselves into such a situation.

Comparing this to movies might help explain my point. There is only so little that is conveyed by spelling out whether a film is scary, funny or tense. It’s enough to make a broad assessment, but you are unlikely to be interested or curious about a film explained this way. Regardless of how vividly or eloquently those emotions are described. At most your attention is drawn to the person telling you about the film than the film itself.

Describing the situation that caused the emotional response seems more effective here. Because even if I don’t know the film or the game itself, a well-described scene gives me more space to engage me and invites me to imagine what emotion I might feel. A description like this will make me more curious than an apt phrasing of a feeling could. Much more so than being told what I will feel when I play.

We pitch board gaming to make people interested in them, not to give them an overview. A detailed and complete explanation of the various aspects of gaming may leave no questions unanswered, but that is actually a problem. If no question remains unanswered, there is hardly any reason to sit down and play.

Cover picture: Vasco de Gama by What’s Your Game?
Article picture: Take the “A” Chord by Saashi & Saashi

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