How to Start a Board Game Designer Group

after hosting a successful board game design class and a handful of “board game design sessions,” i dare say i’ve picked up a fair amount of know-how on how these sorts of things go. although it’s not at the capacity i’d like to see just yet, momentum is building. if any readers out there are considering organizing their own board game design groups, take heed below. as always, your mileage may vary.

if you build it, they will come.
as long as you stay clear with your purpose, and largely consistent with your projected plans, things will go well. believe it or not, there are plenty of folks out there who enjoy board games as much as you do. it’s simply a matter of sending the word out there, and staying consistent with what you set up. “stay the course,” as they say, and your foundation of a game group will build.

don’t take it personally if some people don’t show up anymore.
some folks may be “weirded out” by what you’re trying to do, or perhaps they want a more intense design environment than what you provide. this is simply a matter of determining your core audience. some people will trickle away after the first session or two, as they come to the realization that the place is not for them.

don’t become upset by this totally natural, eventual phenomenon. peoples’ interests will lead them to a variety of places, so it’s expected that someone’s interests will lead them elsewhere. of course, the flipside of this is that people’s shifting interests can lead them directly to you as well, so out of the blue you may receive a new, dedicated participant.

utilize social media.
at this point, i’ve sent out a handful of e-mails to advertise my playtesting sessions/classes/game nights, but by and large i’ve depended on a couple social media institutions.

facebook: their automatic event-posting scheme works fairly well for this purpose. however, i don’t recommend you post an event and then forget about it. here are some guidelines for posting events:

* post the event at least two weeks in advance.
* pick and choose your participants, not just a blanket invite to all your friends.
* keep it a public event, so participants can invite their friends along with them and spread the word for you.
* send a reminder to those who were invited 3 to 5 days prior to the event, just to plant it firmly in their minds that it’s coming up soon and if they’ve not sorted their schedules, they ought to.

meetup: i have the good fortune of living in a city with an already pre-existing meetup group dedicated to euro-style games. to “infiltrate” this group was rather simple, and all it required was a message or two to coordinate efforts between myself and the group administrator, and before i knew it i had permission to schedule my own events. a couple of things in particular about meetup: the website is all about scheduling events, and is frequented by those who actually want to do something interesting with their time.

this is a huge advantage compared to facebook, which is more of a socializing website. if anything, facebook is great at encouraging people to stay in front of their computers instead of doing other stuff.

curiously enough, meetup is pretty much the opposite of facebook, or rather, it’s complimentary: it tells you about other things you can be doing right now instead of sitting in a chair, looking at a computer screen.secondly, people are self-selected in meetup groups. they are there not necessarily just because they consider you a friend or acquaintance, but because they share your interest. this is key to determining your intended audience. another upside to this is that since you’re not limited to your circle of friends, you’ll not be limited to just people you know, or people who know the people you know. take advantage of these opportunities to expand your reach.

meetup has automatic reminders sent to all meetup group members, so you don’t have to send the messages yourself. as long as you can post an event yourself, then you can just forget about the other administrative tasks that can bog you down and keep you from doing the things you actually enjoy doing (like making and playing board games…).

find a nice, open-but-relatively-private space.
we had a couple sessions at a local game store, but frankly speaking, they didn’t work out. although there were plenty of tables and chairs, the room was crowded and loud, and was restricted in the hours we could play. and imagine how some of the playtesters felt, as they were shuffling around index cards and wooden chits while a table away was covered with Magic: The Gathering or some other CCG flavour-of-the-month. not comfortable.

while i’m a big fan and long-time customer of the store, i could easily be more critical of the situation. but to make a long story short: in terms of the class, the disadvantages outweighed the benefits of that space.

our main location, where the classes have been held, is a free, community-run meeting space that can be used for several-hour blocks of time. it’s more or less centrally-located in our town, near public transportation, and relatively easy to find. it’s not someone’s private residence, so security issues are reduced.if you do not have a place as cool as the baltimore free school near where you live, keep in mind the following guidelines:

* affordable to use
* flexibility in scheduling
* ample room for playing games, including adequate tables and chairs
* few distractions
* easy access

with those guidelines, you’ll find yourself a great space.

bring refreshments.
who wants to play board games on an empty stomach? me personally, unless i’m completely absorbed in an activity i don’t do much else when i’m hungry than think about what i will eat next.

this is easy to overlook, as a planner. i simply outsourced the request and asked participants to bring a drink or snack food to share with the other participants, or offer up $2 or $3 as an alternative (donations go to the space we use).

organize and standardize your feedback method for designers.
nothing is more lame for a designer than to finish up a session with their latest prototype, and after asking the playtesters, they receive variations on the same theme: “yeah, i liked it. the game was cool.”

how does that help anyone?

as an alternative, one of my long-time testers passed along a feedback criteria sheet, detailing pretty much every single aspect of designing the game, while keeping things small, manageable, and not too overwhelming for the tester. we’ve used it for practically every session since day one of the classes, and it has served us well.

Download it here.

plan in advance, and make it a routine.
do your best to schedule in advance, at a consistent time, at a consistent place. it will be easier for your designers and testers to sort out their schedules in advance, and you’ll be assured of more consistent attendance. plus, it’s easier to let newcomers or the curious know that you have sessions “every third thursday of the month” or something like that.

post your schedule online somewhere, so that you can direct people to that website for more information and details.

if nothing seems to be working, re-evaluate.
perhaps it’s simply not the right time to move forward with your plans. maybe there’s another group doing similar things in your town. do research and find out what gaming groups are active in your area, or hook up with nearby game/comic/hobby supply stores. you can post notices about your own events, see info regarding events hosted by others, and if you’ve partnered with a game store, they can assist you with promotions.

at the very least, do something different to put the word out to those who are interested, but just don’t know about what it is you do. you will find them.

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