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Running game demos for non-gamers, part 1

Filip W.
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Euros are better with dice!

I've got the opportunity to provide entertainment at an open lecture day at university. This means that a whole bunch of high-schoolers come in, listen to lectures, watch demonstrations and generally have a good time. That last one is where my responsibilities are: I'm providing the good time, making sure that those with time to spare have something to do and at the same time gain some small amount of appreciation for the science around them.

So for the past years I've been running a gaming table where kids (gosh, I'm feeling old now) can drop in, play a game or two and move on. The target audience aren't gamers, so the threshold needs to be very low. If the game takes longer than 30 seconds to explain most people will wander off and look somewhere else. The games also need to be full of action in such a way that people will come by in order to see what's going on. Once enough people gravitate to the tables they create a critical mass where new players will constantly stand in line to play, which makes even more people come by, which creates more demand and so on.

I've been doing these demos for four years now. My initial game line up was Speed, Flix Mix and Lost Cities but I had to drop Lost Cities as it took too long and was too exclusive (too heavy, players had to wait a long time to play, too complex rules etc.). This year I used Set instead so now we've got three real-time action games, albeit with different feelings: Speed and Flix Mix are head-on, instant competition and very quick. Set is a thinking game with lots of down time - but since everybody is playing at once there's no feeling of downtime; the players are constantly engaged.

Set is also the game that pulls the largest crowds. There's a crowd standing around a table and people stop to see what they're looking at. Then they try to figure out what's going on, then they ask the other player's what's going on and get a run down of the rules. As people move on new people come up and the game keeps going. We could even leave the Set table alone and let the players handle all things that came up (lucky for us as the pressure on the other tables was big).

In the end we had some 30 people playing at once, with about 10-15 of them playing Set, the rest split between our four decks of Speed and two decks of Flix Mix.

After they've played Speed or Flix Mix we give them a 60 second run down on working memory, information overload and pattern matching and quite often there's an "aha-moment" when they realize how their brains are shutting out certain aspects of the information, which makes the science behind the games more real and interesting.

If you're going to run game demos for non-gamers, here are some things to think about:

1. Use quick games, anything with a playtime over 5 minutes is likely to fail. Speed plays in around 90 seconds, Flix Mix in some 4-5 minutes. Set is longer but it's a game where you can wander off (or drop in) at any time.

2. Use ridiculously easy games, no more than 30 seconds to explain the rules.

3. Use games that gather crowds.

4. Have printed information for the participants, something they can take with them if they're interested in getting the game. For us we also want them to remember the science inherent in the games.

Anyone else run demos for non-gamers? What did you use, and how did it go?
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