I’ve probably demoed Gaslands to two hundred people at this point. After demoing the game that many times, you get a very strong sense of what order to present and explain its concepts to potential players to show them the best of the game as quickly as possible.
The objective of the demo is to hook the audience in with something exciting, then get them up and running on their own as quickly as possible. As situations emerge on the tabletop, you get the chance to introduce addition concepts or rules. The hope is that they are having some measure of fun by that point and are invested enough to want to listen to the next rule. Ideally, by the end of the demo they are actively asking about the most deep or complex parts of your rules and delighted to find they exist.
This is very linked to the “progressive complexity” approach I explored in a previous article, but at the demo table you get a chance for very immediate and visible qualitative feedback on whether your ordering of concepts is working. Get it right, they buy the book and the dice, get it wrong, they don’t.
Don’t Push It
As an example, during a player’s first activation, I will explain the different faces on the skid dice. I will rarely mention the “Push It” rule at this point. I will let the players experience the peril and triumph of the skid dice first, then the first time a player rolls a really unfortunate set of skid dice results I introduce the “Push It” rule. They already understand why resolving skid dice well matters, experience a moment of panic and peril when they realise the dice have turned against them, and then a moment of delight when I give them a way to escape this peril.
This contextualises the rule in a way that makes this rule seem intuitive and exciting, rather than fiddly and unnecessary complexity, which it might have felt like, if I had explained it before the players even new how the cars moved on the table. It’s also much more likely that the player will remember the rule in future, and indeed come away from the demo with a sense of excitement about the game.
You Didn’t Tell Me That!?
For many years now, I have been the “rules explainer” in whatever board game group I end up in. I like collecting games, and so am often the person bringing the game to the table. I’ve learnt from years of explaining board games that a 20min pre-game rules explanation is like fun-poison to me, and I actively disregard games that I can’t figure out how to just “get going” with at the table. (I will never be the guy bringing Eclipse to your house.
Quite often, people get annoyed that I didn’t explain such-and-such tiny rule before we started (I would have done my turn totally differently!”), but I mostly think they wouldn’t have enjoy a 20min up front rules dump, and I bet they wouldn’t have remembered the rule anyway, until they’d seen it in context and why it mattered. I guess this experience has carried over into demoing at conventions, and the question is why I never really used it as a structuring device for the rulebook!
Collisions is another good example. I never describe these rules before the game starts, even if someone asks. I will only talk through those rules the first time a collision happens. Sometimes players need to know those rules on the first or second activation of the game (seriously, what is it with you people!?) but often everyone is getting used to the movement system and can go a gear phase or two without one.
Explaining Gaslands, Mark II
With the progressive sophistication structuring pattern, the lessons learned from demoing the game become valuable editing hints. I know now that I can hold back rules like Push It and collisions until the rulebook has explained how to drive in a straight line, change gear and machine-gun someone.
The act of demoing the game has taught me which parts of the game you need to know immediately to get moving, and which parts are secondary to the initial buzz of excitement needed to get you hooked. It’s going to be interesting to see how well this translates on to the page. At the worst, it’ll at least be different…