What is a Games Day? It's a game event, something less than a convention but more than just inviting a bunch of friends over to play games. It's a full day of open boardgaming for low or no cost, something that brings together gamers from different groups in an area together.
In a single town, there may be only enough gamers to fill one group. In big cities, however, there may be many such groups, with little "cross-pollination" or even knowledge of each other. Where I've lived, gamers see each other a couple times per year at local game conventions; the rest of the time they separate into those smaller groups. The idea behind a Games Day is to bring together a wide range of these gamers for a full day of open gaming. It's sort of a large, public game group for an entire region. Dave Kohr organizes Games Days for the San Francisco Bay Area, Dave Bernazzani does the same near Boston, I help run them near Los Angeles, and more are popping up all over the place.
Want to put on a Games Day in your town? I've done it eight times, with seven successes and one failure. In the process, I've learned a few things that may be of help to others. The three main parts of putting on a Games Day are planning, getting the word out, and actually running the event. Often there's a fourth part, too, the follow-up.
Planning a Games Day
The first step, which I learned the hard way, is to get help. It's amazing how much easier it is and more successful your Games Day will be with just a little assistance. I helped Dave Kohr get his Games Day going. When I moved to Southern California, I figured I could now do it on my own. Wrong. That was my one attempt that failed. I found a location, made flyers, put up a website, I did everything that worked for other Games Days, but without success. The difference was in the details. By myself, I'd picked a location that wasn't the best. My flyers and website were okay, but I lacked word-of-mouth advertising, and failed to reach a lot of people. (Or those that it did reach didn't know anyone else going, so stayed home.) It wasn't a total loss—I met one other gamer who has become my friend and regular gaming opponent ever since—but it sure could've been better. Two years later I tried again, this time with several helpers. Much better. Now I had people to bounce ideas off of, they helped me find a location, and someone more graphically gifted than I makes our flyers. I use email to keep in contact with my helpers, as well as the phone or meeting in person. I can't even call Scott Woodard a helper anymore—he runs SoCal Games Days as much as I do.
The second step is to find a location. This is really the make-or-break part of a Games Day. It needs to be big enough, accessible enough, open late enough, and cheap enough. If you have to charge ten bucks a head to cover your room rental costs, gamers may decide there's no advantage—just stay home and play the same games with friends. I can't tell you what to do here because I haven't seen the same thing work twice. You're going to need to think creatively, do some scouting, and make some phone calls. In Northern California, Games Day is held at a local library's Community Room for almost no cost (a few bucks' donation per person is asked). When I inquired about that in my town, I found the rental costs would require about $10 per person. And for that we'd only be gaming for six hours! I had similarly disappointing results when checking into the local shopping mall's Community Center, though I've heard reports that this is a good option in other towns. In the end we found a local pet supply superstore—yes, pet supplies—that happens to have a Community Center in some of their locations. It's free, open a bit later (till 9pm), and the local store manager was very helpful. We just ask that our attendees buy a little something from the store, or else donate to one of Petco's supported charities. Works for us!
Or rather, it used to. After several successful Games Days we found we'd outgrown our Petco room. Back to the drawing board, trying to find another spot. It wasn't easy, but eventually we found a bank that has a basement community room available for rental. Not only is it larger, more comfortable, and open later, we also have the rental fee waived since one of our attendees works for the bank! The way things are going, we may eventually outgrow this great spot, but for the moment it's just about perfect.
My point is that although you may not have a Petco or local bank community room available in your city, you should have something else. You just need to find it. Civic centers, church social halls, high school or college assembly rooms, larger game shops, Bridge or Chess clubs... any of these may work better in your situation. Or go all the way, negotiating a deal with a local hotel for their nicer facilities. Be sure too look beyond your own immediate area, too. Though I found a pretty good location for SoCal Games Day 1 right down the street, we've settled on better, more central locations in another towns for subsequent Games Days.
Getting the Word Out
You're more than half-done once you've got a good location, but there's definitely some work to do yet. First of all, you need to decide what date to hold your Games Day (in fact, you probably needed that to finalize the arrangements at your location). The oversimplified answer to when to hold it is whenever you'll get the most turnout. Start with your core group of gamer friends you can contact via a word-of-mouth network. Find out what date works for most of you.
My idea of a Games Day is inclusive, so we try hard to avoid scheduling on or near any other gaming events in the greater area. In Los Angeles there are three big conventions each year, as well as a few smaller events, so we shoot for dates in between them. Besides common courtesy to not pull gamers away from the other events, you'll generally get a better turnout that way.
With the location and date set, it's time to get the word out. Though we haven't tried local radio or television yet, we've utilized every other form of advertising we could think of: printed flyers, a website, other online postings, the local newspaper, and of course word-of-mouth. Most effective of all has been the word-of-mouth, which shouldn't be surprising. Our online methods have also been productive, while the flyers posted at game shops and conventions haven't really worked.
The website probably doesn't result in attendees by itself, but it serves an important purpose as the central information source for the event, both before and after. There are lots of easy ways to get yourself a website, so definitely do this. It doesn't need to be fancy—the people going to your site will be looking for its content, not glitz—though if one of your helpers is a skilled webmaster, put him or her to work! We've also set up an email list to keep everyone informed about the upcoming event. Sometimes we plan ahead to what games to bring, or put in requests. An online search should reveal a number of "free" (i.e. advertising-supported) mailing list hosts.
The online announcements need to be posted where they'll be seen. The much-maligned rec.games.board has been our most productive channel in this case. When new gamers foray onto the net, I guess they still drift over to the venerable newsgroup. We also post to the spielfrieks mailing list. I've sought out some of the online game convention calendars, submitting our information, but am not sure if it's done any good. Still, you can see our method: when in doubt, get the word out! Just don't let that blind you to Internet etiquette—post concise announcements that give the details and direct people to your website, and don't post notices more than a couple times to any forum. SoCal Games Days are generally announced a month prior to the actual date of the event, with an even more brief reminder posted the week before it.
The Big Day
When your Games Day comes, be sure to arrive early to set up. Long ago you should've scouted the location and determined whether there were enough chairs and tables, bringing more if you needed them. (We've asked our attendees to bring extras, and they've been happy to help.) Depending on the location and your preference, you may be providing or at least allowing drinks and snacks. Definitely bring large trash bags to assist with cleanup throughout the day—once you've found a good location, you'll want to be invited back.
So far we've done very little in the way of decorations at our Games Days, but I know how fun they can be. If you or one of your helpers is artistically inclined, you can transform an ordinary meeting room into a gaming haven!
A signup sheet and nametags may feel oddly formal for a bunch of gamers, but they're still a good idea. Many of your attendees may not know each other, and the nametags help them meet each other quicker. On the signup sheet we always ask for their name, city (to see where we're drawing from), how they found out about Games Day (to track our advertising), and email address (for future announcements—make sure they know this is optional, as some folks are very concerned about email privacy). Putting the signup sheet and nametags with pen near the door to Games Day won't be enough—someone will need to pleasantly cajole everyone into signing in. We stumbled onto an effective system: using the names for the door prize drawing. That gets 'em to sign in!
We have never used an actual icebreaker sort of social game to get everyone mixing together. It might be a fine idea, but our gamers are always eager to jump right into the boardgaming, and we don't stop them.
What about tournaments? They're fun, but tricky. On the one hand, they take a long time (longer than you expect). Some attendees don't care for the intensity of play, and the fact that the number of tables and people for open boardgaming is reduced while the tournament is on. Remember, Games Days don't have as much time or space as a full game convention. With some care, however, you can still make it work. Some other gamers really enjoy the more skillful level of play, and it also serves to mix unfamiliar gamers together. Just pick a short game (no more than an hour long) and have a scheduled start time so people can plan for (or around) the tournament. I'm of the opinion that any Games Day tournaments should award no more than a token prize, nothing of real value that would make people overly competitive.
You'll want to keep track of is what games are being played throughout the day. Besides something that ends up in your post-event report, it's fun if you can write this information down on a whiteboard or poster paper somewhere everyone can see throughout the day. On a similar note, our attendees have requested a whiteboard where they could list their name and any particular game they'd like to play that day, just to help such games get started. It's something we'll add for SoCal Games Day 8.
Whether you want to offer prizes or not is up to you. Without solicitation, Boulder Games emailed me with an offer to provide some gift certificates as door prizes—he'd seen my online announcement. We've had other donations, from Fat Messiah Games, Filip & Carom, and individual gamers. Early on I was concerned that the prizes would overshadow the gaming itself, but those proved to be misplaced fears. The prize giveaway is a lot of fun, and has become sort of a focal point for our evening.
Eventually, and probably all too soon, the clock will be ticking toward closing time for your Games Day. As the organizers, you are the ones responsible for getting everything wrapped up and cleaned up on time. If your location is flexible about closing, then it's no big deal. But if it's like our days at Petco, there is a definite closing time when the other workers not affiliated with Games Day want to go home. Don't make them wait for you to finish a game and clean tables. At SoCal Games Day 1, we misjudged the cleanup time, taking 10 extra minutes after Petco's closing time on a Saturday night. That was bad form, and we fixed it by SoCal Games Day 2.
In the last hour of the evening, don't join any game other than the lightest filler. You need to be around to be cleaning up while others are playing their final game. For that matter, be sure to call out to the room when there's just an hour left. No one should be thinking they can squeeze in an 18xx game before the final bell. Better to give warning and perhaps talk some folks out of starting a game they can't finish than to have to be an ogre about shutting down their game later.
With a successful Games Day behind you, what you do next depends on whether you want to do another one eventually. If not, you're done! However, I'm guessing that you'll want to repeat this sometime later, so to help your future event—and make the most of the current one—it's a great idea to write up something for your website about it. I call this my Games Day report, but it isn't as fancy as it sounds. Really it's just an email message I send to everyone that recounts our turnout, the games played, and some particular memories of it (funny moments, opinions about games, and so on). Taking some digital photos and posting them is another good idea. Some of your attendees will probably send in their own comments, and you can incorporate those into the website (with their permission). Go back to those same online places you posted announcements about your Games Day and tell them there's now a report to read. Lots of people enjoy those, and it helps spread the idea of Games Days to other cities.
Feel free to email me with any questions, and be sure to check out our website, http://www.SoCalGamesDay.com. And if you happen to be in the area during one of our Games Days, please come and enjoy some great boardgaming!
- Mark Johnson