Monday 20 October 2014

Ending Demo Game Anonymity

Way back in 2009 I wrote a post for this Blog about demo tables at shows and in particular the lack of information for visitors and sometimes the lack of interaction between exhibitors and show attendees. Since then I have had the pleasure of contributing to three demo games in conjunction with Posties Rejects at the Broadside show (in 2012 and 2013 and again in 2014). Looking back at that article I'm glad to say that the quality of information and interaction at shows seems to have improved immensely over the last four years (I'm not claiming any credit, its just an observation!) but I thought my earlier article was worth revisiting and updating.

Over the years I have attended a lot of conventions and shows and as any regular reader of BLMA will know I always go with my camera in hand. As a result I have developed a clear opinion of what I like and don't like about demo games at shows. My main gripe has usually revolved around those (thankfully few) tables where information and interaction are virtually non-existent and the spectator is left feeling awkward and unwanted. This situation has become noticeably less common over the years, but it's certainly not gone away altogether.

It would be nice to see some of the Demo tables with more information available to visitors. Some of the tables provided information sheets about their games but the majority didn't. This isn't in itself a problem, if you're the sort of person who feels comfortable sparking up a conversation with the guys on the table. But not all visitors are old Grognards eager for a chat, a large proportion are 'drop-in's' or newbies and its easy to see how they could feel intimidated by this clique of wargamers. Think back to your first ever show and how strange and new it all was. You probably didn't know anyone - apart from maybe one or two mates who came with you - and the place was full of strange sights and smells (oh yes, gamer funk....don't get me started on that subject!).

An example of an excellent display table (Southend Wargames at the recent SELWG Show) - Lots of Information, maps and books associated with the game. Plenty to engage the visitor and provide the opening of a conversation.

I guess I feel the problem a little more acutely because I like to come away from a show with lots of pictures. Trying to figure out who was on what table, what their game was etc. can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. Its a sad fact that I still attend shows and nearly always come across a demo game that lacks any kind of identifying label or sign. When signs are present I always try to take a picture that includes the label as an aide-memoir when identifying and captioning my photographs. This is especially true for larger shows like Salute where there may be several Napoleonic or ACW games being run and trying to remember which was which after the event can be a bit tricky. Of course I always try to spark up a conversation with those running the game but its still hard to remember every conversation and every game correctly. Getting a picture of the label cuts through all the confusion and ensures that those that run a good demo game get the credit they deserve. 

Another great display (A Very British Civil War at Salute 2013) with artwork and period artefact's to bring the game to life. This sort of detail really helps tell the story of the game.
For me the whole purpose of running a demo table is to demonstrate the hobby (the clue is in the name!) and that means more than just plonking the models on the table and walking away. In my experience a significant portion of visitors attend shows to see aspects of our wonderful hobby that are normally outside their normal experience. Some of these visitors are new to the hobby, others - such as the hoards of younglings attracted in by the likes of Games Workshop for instance - may only be involved in a niche and are maybe casting around, looking for other games and periods to play. Failure to engage them is a lost opportunity to broaden their horizons and retain them within the hobby. It seems to me that one of the main purposes of a wargame show is to act as a sort of 'outreach' programme to draw in new players. That does sound a bit high-faluting and grand, but new blood coming into the hobby is a genuine concern and a recurring theme of many magazine articles written by the great and good of our hobby.

An ideal and very practical display that any group running a demo could put together (in this case Rainham Wargames Club at Cavalier 2014). This modest collection of items clearly identifies the game, explains who is running it, showcases research material and there is even a small handout with more information for those that are interested. 

So having pontificated about a lack of communication with visitors I guess I ought to say what I would like to see associated with a Demo Game, either on a handout or nearby signs and labels. Here's my own personal list of 'stuff I'd like to know' about each demo I view:

  • Name of the Club or Organisation running the demo table
  • The name or title of the game being played
  • Period or specific dates if applicable
  • The rules system being used
  • The scale of the miniatures being used
  • A table number or reference that links to the show guide (if there is one)
  • Contact details for the club and details of where they meet etc
  • The demonstrators names
  • A little background or historical context
  • Who makes the miniatures on display
  • Additional information on terrain features
  • If the table is scratch built, who did it and how?

This is by no means an exhaustive list but does represent the sort of questions I find myself asking over and over again (and forgetting the answers over and over again!). It would be great if each demo table could provide some sort of handout with basic details on it but simple displays that could be photographed would be just as useful. As I have said several times things are getting better and the unlabelled tables with uncommunicative players huddled around them are becoming fewer and fewer. I look forward to the day when this unfortunate phenomenon has come to an end... then we can set our sights on eliminating 'gamer funk' once and for all. 


  1. I personally am not a huge proponent for putting out loads of research material. To me is smacks of arrogantly saying I have done all this work so I am an expert, So I know this is the way it has to be and you dare not disagree with me! Additionally trophies are nice, but surely not something you need to display in public unless you either want to show off or need validation. I would be immensely proud of any achievement like this And they should be as well but I would not feel the need to flaunt it. (Other views are also available, maybe it's just me).

    I do think a name of the game, the club and contact details are important though as it allows people to contact you or the club for a chat or game which may better enlighten you about the people involved.

  2. Its interesting to see the difference between a demo game in the UK and a demo game in the US. In the US we definitely try to put our best foot forward and have an eye catching table, but you are unlikely to see anything else supporting what's going on except for handy copies of the rules. We are actively trying to engage someone new into trying out the game, showing them the ropes so to speak. And when a game is in full swing you keep your eye out for anyone else that looks interested and either try to draw them into the game currently going on or let them know the next time the game will be played. A demo table is all about actively engaging newcomers in the gaming experience.

    1. Kris, there is a difference between what is called a demo game in the US and here in the UK. Our shows tend to be just one day affairs,two if competitions are taking place. Because visitors want to see what is going on and see traders we have two types of games. Demo games are full Wargames, but only played by those presenting the game to demonstrate the rules or what their club does, we then have participation games, these often use fast play rules and take an hour or less to playand visitors are encouraged to play.

      As Lee says an issue with demo games is that they often have no information about what is being shown and the gamers tend to gather round with their backs to visitors and play their game without engaging the public. Participation games tend to be (but not always) better at displays and engaging visitors.

    2. One of the things I absolutely abhor at shows, whether the game is a demo or a participation is so many of the people who are supposed to be interacting with the public just ignore them! There was a game at SELWG 2014 that I think was depicting the battle of Maiwand in 1878, nicely modelled terrain, nicely painted figures, but no literature or identification of the game or club whatsoever. I wandered around it for several minutes, looking at it from all angles, there were two guys sitting by the game chatting to each other, did they bother to speak to me, did they heck! Never even bothered to make eye contact. Yes, I could have spoken to them I suppose but I thought "why the hell should I bother, you're obviously not the least bit interested in promoting your game or your hobby". I walked off and I don't think they even noticed I'd been there. It's totally unacceptable at a public show. There are too many demo games where the participants just treat the show as an extension of their club evening. These shows and the demo games are where we should be promoting the hobby to the PAYING public. If demonstrators aren't prepared to do that then they shouldn't attend the show! Ernie FOSKER, England.

    3. I do think most clubs make the effort to engage with visitors and most have some sort of literature or display giving details of the game, club etc. But a few (thankfully only a few) still don't and it is a great pity. I noticed a lot of non-gamer types wandering through the SELWG show; people who were at Crystal Palace for the sport but had enough of an interest to wander around and take a look at the games and lone parents being dragged around by their wide eyed kids. All are potential recruits for a local club and customers for the traders. And even if they don't buy into the hobby at the very least shows like this are an opportunity to engage with the general public and show that we aren't a bunch of swivel eyed loons (more or less).

    4. Here in Germany most shows are about participation games. People go to great lengths painting miniatures and modeling terrain, and nobody gets or even wants to be paid for such an effort. Therefore I find it slightly disturbing when visitors (the "paying public") expect and demand to be entertained by those people. Anyone who's put up a participation game at a show will know how exhausting that is (maybe it's the same with demo games). I remember some occasions where I sat at our table because I had no other place to rest and, at the same time, with hundreds of people passing by, had to watch the gaming materials not 'wandering off'. Most likely in these instances I wasn't actively interacting with visitors, but I've never turned my back on somebody asking a question – I made an effort putting this game on, you make an effort if you want to know more than what's written on our info tables (yes, we always have these with us). Fair deal.

      Btw, we're not organised in clubs in these parts, so we simply can't provide contact details other than general links to forums, blogs, etc. Maybe that's an 'issue' with other people, too. Just a thought.

  3. Good post Lee. The number of times I've wandered around a whole show without a single demo table speaking to me is staggering, really.

  4. Great post Lee. Lots to ponder on. Even if you are of the more gregarious type sometimes you don't want to disturb people with questions if something important seems to be happening.

  5. Great post Lee. Good summary of questions. Certainly ones I would ask. No such big events in my neck of the woods but I would certainly aim to go to a show as wargamer vet with..I would like to see XXX Game (see how it plays) but also be open to see other games. Perhaps it mostly an overview of a rule set and how it feels. Very hard to pin down 'feel' of a game but they all have one for me.

  6. Great post Mr H. Gotta say I totally agree as you well know!!

  7. As a keen demo-er in my parts I've got to say the MOST important thing is contact information. An attractive display to draw them in is a close second, but without a way to reach you later it is all for nothing. I've had a few demo days where I said farewells to interested parties and went our seperate ways, only for me to facepalm in the truck because we had no way to get together again.

    Some very lovely demos in your neck of the woods, thanks for the great pics.


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