Out and About with Double L Games

(A selection of) Board Game Cafes in the East Midlands – By Lily

Lily is the lead designer on Build. She is currently 13.

As a business which designs games, we go into as many games shops and board game cafes as possible. We play games there to learn from other designers, we build relationships with the staff and clients and we love the community. As a result we’ve been in most of the ones close to us:  Here is a guide to some of the board games cafes we have been in.

Game Knight

The first games cafe is Game Knight in Derby.

6 The Spot, Osmaston Road, DE1 2JA.

Game Knight was recommended to us by a gaming friend. We rolled up one afternoon and it was very full. The clientele were a mix of young men gamers and a few families. As they were pretty full, we were offered the VR suite. That’s right, they’ve also got a VR video gaming room. The selection of games was good. We played Big Potato’s Weird Things Human Search For. The overall feel of the cafe is community-focused with competition events and evenings dedicated to certain games. Like many in the community they were very enthusiastic to help us out with play testing and publicising.

The Wall!

Ludorati

The second is Ludorati in Nottingham.

72 Maid Marian Way, Nottingham NG1 6BJ.

Ludorati is a big, open, modern-looking games cafe with the largest amount of games you have ever seen. They call it ‘The Wall’.  They also have an escape room behind a sealed glass room and they often host competitions and events. We did an escape room activity for my 13th birthday.  It was more like an ‘escape room in a box’ game than a fully physical escape room. It was very hard and we failed miserably.

They have nice food and drink. It also has a small shop attached where you can buy some of the more popular games on the market. They run a membership scheme too, which gives you a discount on games from the shop.

The serving staff did not seem very well-versed in games but there were a few gaming advisers circulating who really helped us to choose a game, set up and play.

The Treehouse

Beautiful, peaceful and welcoming: The Treehouse

The third is The Treehouse in Sheffield.

41 Boston Street, Sheffield, S2 4QF.

The Treehouse is a games cafe mostly aimed at the students at the university as it is located right in the middle of the student accommodation area.  It offers free/cheap gaming to students and not very expensive (but still really good) food. It also has a modern feel to it which is inviting and professional. Recently they have been doing up the shop so at the moment they don’t have a shop but soon there will be one attached to the cafe. Their selection of games is good, with a nice ‘taster menu’ to guide you through them. The Treehouse offer a neat selection of imaginative gaming alternatives lie their ‘Solken’ D&D campaign based on the evocative artwork of Katie Ponder or Bring Them Home – a retro Sci-Fi ‘megagame’. In their calender are events like ‘Rainbow Gaming’ for the LGBTQ community or ‘Burton on Board’ which works with a charity for disabled gamers aimed at involving a wider gaming community.

The staff were helpful and knowledgeable about the games. We really enjoyed their charming and quirky take on the business.

Acres of space in The Dice Cup. And there’s another room, even bigger!

The Dice Cup

Next is The Dice Cup in Nottingham

68-70, Mansfield Road, Nottingham.

Occupying a different niche to Ludorati, The Dice Cup is a fully vegan cafe with a dizzyingly large selection of games, with a full games shop on site as well. They also have nice gaming tables to play on. Initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and defiantly DIY, the cafe fills a huge space in what was once a furniture store.

Jack in a Box

Finally, our first friendly local games store:  Jack in a Box in Ripley

7C Church Street, Ripley.

A hidden gem: Jack in a box

Jack in a box is hidden down an alley behind a gift shop. Squeeze past the potted plants and ornamental gifts and the shop blossoms out into a treasure trove of tabletop games. It is kind-of a games cafe because there is a great selection of games open and available in the cafe area. There is also a shop attached with a wide selection of games. The staff are warm and inviting and are willing to talk about the selection of games and help you pick one.

 

#Meepletoo

Stormy Waters Ahead.

Here I am, launching my blog-ship into some stormy waters. I am writing about the experience of women in gaming. That’s right, a white, mid

dle class, middle aged, heterosexual man. Only I’m not going to write about women’s experience. I can’t, not with any veracity. But I am going to 

write about my feelings and opinions, which I can give with some weight.

It is the first Con season after the Weinstein thing and the #MeToo thing. A shake up and wake up to the male psyche. Secret acts have been dragged out into the open. Previously normalised behaviour is being re-examined. Women seem to have a new courage to stand up and speak out about behaviours which make them afraid, humiliated, endangered. I for one, think this is a good thing. And those who speak up should be supported.

The crushing weight of outsiderdom.

We, the gaming community, have not been immune to these winds of change. We are perhaps sheltered from it a little bit because we’re not, on the whole, alpha-male types. Nonetheless, reports are rising of harassment and even assault at gaming events. This is shameful for all of us and can’t be ignored. No man is an island and all that. That which diminishes one, diminishes all.

I think it is even more shameful for us because we pride ourselves on our inclusivity don’t we? I think of my own observations at gaming meets. People with physical disabilities, learning difficulties, overweight, awkward, a whole rainbow of genders. The geeks welcome all comers. Many of us have experienced the sting (or even the crushing blow) of outsiderdom and don’t want to inflict that on others. The women in our community deserve the same.

This isn’t easy to do of course, we’re good people, we don’t want to have to critiscise or block out other people, right? A gaming friend of mine guided me towards this article which explores more eloquently than I the social fallacies we fall prey to.

The attitude of modern youth

 

A small aside. Double L Games’ first game, Build, is designed by my 13 year old daughter, Lily. She has accompanied me to almost all of the gaming meets I’ve been to this year. Some of you may remember her from the UKGE. She has her own firm opinions (see the insert bar). When we talked about these issues, she thought that it seemed almost unbelievable that the acts which are reported are still going on in today’s enlightened world. We discussed the context of this. That the world she lives in is very modern, very recently created. You only have to watch an episode of Friends to appreciate how quickly attitudes to difference have changed, or consider the world’s responses to Trump’s anachronistic sexism to triangulate where our current level of normal i

s expected to lie.

If you lead, they will follow.

We are still building this world, still fighting for the world we want the next generation to live in. We can influence it. My day job is as a teacher. We have a saying that the teacher sets the weather in their classroom. An authoritative leader can define the rules of discourse around them without anyone else even being aware of it. We are social creatures. The unspoken rules of our groups are constantly being monitored by the group’s members, constantly shifting behaviours to fit in. We have a role to play in setting the weather in our game groups: in defining the rules.

Unhelpful Commentary.

When I offered support to the female voices on a social media forum, the greatest quantity of replies were supportive but there were a few who denied the problem, “I’ve never seen this happen so it doesn’t exist”; some who were dismissive, “I’m a good person, so I must be already doing the right thing, I don’t have to listen to this”; yet some – a minority – attacked the victims. This last group used arguments like “toughen up, grow a pair, quit your whining, maybe you’re part of the problem”. Not enormously helpful commentary. I hope that those people aren’t the ones nearby if Lily feels threatened and ever needs backup or support from an adult.

Also, “Be tougher?” It is a scientific fact that on average men are bigger and stronger than women – yes and the beards, skull t-shirts and tattoos are as intimidating as they’re meant to be. Women at gaming events are outnumbered and outgunned. All of us, even the deniers and dismissers need to come out on the side of women here. We cannot afford to allow complacent blind eye turning. Each time the rest of the table says the nothing, the message we give is, “I’m OK with this. I accept this behaviour.” We are a community: we are complicit.

Accept the challenge!

Our challenge is three fold.

On a social media post I wrote that there are 3 things that people like me can do.

Firstly – don’t be a dick. Choose not to make sexist commentary, not to make jokes or comments which might make others uncomfortable; choose not to prejudge; and certainly choose not to harass.

Secondly – challenge others who are being dicks. Every time we allow someone else to get away with it we are complicit (see above). 

Thirdly – put the next generation into gaming. Make them wonderful. Make them confident, inclusive, clever, witty. Make them expect and aspire to a better world.  

What will be our reward? A stronger community. I recall a post from the incomparable Jamey Stegmaier in which a survey of his customers revealed that only 8.5% were non-male. We games designers, organisers of meets, proprietors of games cafes and FLGS have access to a growing sector. If Jamey’s survey results are repeated across all our businesses (and I suspect they are) we have a lot to gain through inclusivity.  Both Lily and I have identified (among stiff opposition) that our favourite local game store (FLGS acronym fans!) is Chimera Games in Beeston, just outside Nottingham. It is open and welcoming, light and spacious. They have a great selection of games and comics, offer informed advice and super organised events. Crucially for the points I’m making here, though, female staff are high profile and front of house. This made a big, albeit subconscious, impact on Lily, identifying it as the sole games shop or club that she knows (and there are plenty) that she’d feel confident to visit by herself. Think about that. How many potential members of our community turned away and didn’t join in?

But more than growing our community, much more. We will be in the right. We will be the white hats. The Good alignments. We will be in the right when all the Lynx smelling locker room banter will be in the wrong. We will be in the right when the boorish loudmouth will be in the wrong. We will be in the right when our friends, sisters and partners need support, and then we, the geeks, shall inherit the earth.

 

Twelve lessons learned from being a newbie at the UK Games Expo 2018.

I’m writing this blog post and listening to BBC R5’s ‘Let’s talk about Tech’. The presenter is chatting with exhibitors and visitors at the UKGE 2018.

You can tell from everyone’s voices just how hyped up and excited they all are. That’s exactly how we felt when were there too! But that’s not how I felt at the start of the show.

This was our first Games Expo, in fact it was our first visit to a big event at all. I’m sure that, like a lot of you would have been, I was nervous and unsure. I did not know what to expect. The information which flowed from the organisers was non-stop, sometimes technical and often strict. As a result I was pretty scared rolling up on Thursday during the set up phase. Luckily, it pretty much all turned out OK! But, to spare any future newbies from the jitters I experienced, I’m sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned from the experience.

The Stand

Our Big Empty White Stand

We took advantage of the opportunity at UKGE to have an affordable small stand. My wife is an old hand at trade fairs in other sectors and she was amazed and delighted that UKGE offered entry level stands for small exhibitors. The organiser’s info seemed to imply that a shell scheme was de rigeur. A shell is the flimsy walls, often white which surround the stands. We booked a 3-sided shell which opened at the front. When I arrived on Thursday, I was pretty horrified to see that our little stand was standing lonely and obvious as the only one with a shell. As the hall filled up with other stands, though, our stand became less ‘sore-thumby’ and settled in to its neighbours and I became more comfortable. We found that the shell gave us more control of our environment – we had walls to decorate; a lovely clean white space; and a bit of shelter from the noise and air-con wind. I knew I had booked a 2x2m stand and was quite aware of how small that was so before the show I mocked up the space with masking tape on the living room floor and set up all our gear. At this point it became clear what we could and couldn’t fit in, which helped us plan what to take. Our main priority was to encourage people to play Build, so our prime piece of furniture was a table and four chairs. We set these up ‘end on’ to the entrance so that there was access to the table and it didn’t block the public out in a ‘headmaster’s office’ style. Playtesting was a huge success. It was important to have a playable version to engage people.

Lesson 1: Stands are affordable

Lesson 2: You don’t necessarily need a shell

Lesson 3: Mock up your stand in advance

Lesson 4: Have a ‘welcoming’ stand

 

An army of volunteers

Sadly, the horses weren’t welcome in the NEC but the army of volunteers were!

My small experience of other trade fairs was that they were tedious and exhausting. So, to combat both of these I invited a gang of friends from our gaming club to help out. We timetabled a rota so that everyone had plenty of free time to experience the expo and also had a pal on the stand with them for company. As an exhibitor we got 2 tickets for free and 2 more exhibitor passes for £10 each. I bought an extra young person’s pass for Lily and a 2-day pass for another volunteer who was coming on Saturday. My youngest child got in for free. And hey presto! A 7 – person team! I offered the volunteers, tickets, food and lodging and they leapt at the chance. Before the Expo we created a pack of information based on what UKGE organisers had shared with all the information they needed for the weekend. This included:

  • Instructions on collecting tickets
  • Parking information (we were only allowed one free parking pass but did blag another one from the exhibitor services).
  • Team mobile phone numbers
  • Priorities for the weekend
  • Accommodation details
  • Maps and location of our stall
  • Rota and timings over the weekend (playtest zone slots, seminars etc)

Lesson 5: A small army of volunteers worked well.

Preparation Beforehand

We mocked up the stand at home beforehand

Long before the Expo, my head was a-buzz with worries, questions and ideas. As they occurred, I wrote them down on a single document. These were things like, ‘When is our playtest zone slot?’ How do we provide food at the accommodation?’ and ‘Where do I unload from?’

Closer to the date, this information began to arrive from the organisers and I was able to plan a response to issues that were in my purview.

I also sketched down a list of things I wanted get from the event from ‘Playtest Build 10 times’ to ‘Talk to retailers about placing products in shops’ to ‘Play a load of games and have fun’. Later, I put these in a priority order.

Both these processes allowed me to download the chatter in my head into an organised format and feel like I had control over it. This reduced my stress and also actually gave me control over it!

Lesson 6: Make plans well in advance

Lesson 7: Find a system to keep control of all the information

Take every opportunity offered

As well as being a chance for gamers to walk round, spend money, meet gaming celebs and try out lots of cool new games, UKGE also had the ‘Publisher/Designer track’ organised by Playtest UK who had seminars, panels, networking events as well as staffing the playtest zone. This was a magnificent source of advice and support for small (and not-so-small) companies like ourselves. I attended everything I could and soaked up all the information. Some of these required booking on before the event – the deadlines for some were a month beforehand – so watch out for that.

Lesson 8: Grab every chance you can. Carpe those Diems!

Our obligations for GDPR

Keep personal information safely locked away.

Just before the Expo, my email tray and the news reports on my radio were full of GDPR: General Data Protection Regulations. People appeared to be panicking left, right and centre about their obligations. As we were hoping to collect names and email addresses for our mailing list as well as encourage folk to follow us on social media, these regulation clearly applied to us. Luckily my wife is level headed and read up on these. The basics came down to consent, protection and transparency. Our duties involved: getting people to sign a form to say they were happy for us to include them on the mailing list; keeping their personal information (email and names) private; and telling them what we do with their data. This was all pretty straightforward so we printed off some individual forms (we didn’t want to create a long list as previous entries would be visible to the next person) and took along a lockable strongbox to keep them in on site and we made sure to remove them all off site at night. Later, back at base we kept all the personal info in a locked filing cabinet.

Lesson 9: Our responsibilities for GDPR weren’t too onerous.

Talking to the public, colleagues, networking

Early on in the expo it became clear that, in some people’s eyes, we weren’t a very sexy game. At the busy press preview, no-one wanted to stop and talk to me. I made a decision on the spot to break my habitual discomfort, come out from behind my table and engage people. It worked! And it carried on working all weekend! If I imagine how it must feel to be in a huge hall of people, overwhelmed by it all, paralysed by choice, then it must be a relief to have someone else break the ice by smiling and chatting to you. Lily was particularly good at this and got all sorts of people to stop, talk and even playtest Build. Speaking to the exhibitors, everyone I spoke to was a useful contact offering advice, the story of their game, further contacts and invitations.

Lesson 10: Be brave; talk to folk. It totally pays off.

Prototype making and game iterations

After Friday, we had already achieved my playtest target of 10 sessions over the weekend. It was clear that it would be a waste to merely present the same version of the game again on Saturday and Sunday. As a result, on the Friday night and Saturday morning we reviewed the feedback comments, changed the game, made some new prototype materials and started to playtest the new version. On Saturday night we did it again – only this time not such a radical change. As a result the game accelerated through a series of iterations which were thoroughly playtested very quickly. The game improved dramatically over the course of the weekend.

Lesson 11: Have all the printing, cutting, laminating gear with you.

Accommodation

NEC accommodation was just too damn pricey.

On the NEC site there are a number of hotels, many of which had UKGE fringe events on in the evenings. I quickly dismissed these as accommodation for our little volunteer army as they were way too expensive.

I looked elsewhere for alternative accommodation:

www.independenthostels.co.uk

www.yha.org.uk

www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/ukcampsites

www.airbnb.co.uk

We eventually settled on an Air BnB as this was the most cost effective for a group our size. I was aware as we left that some of the gamers were just about to begin some epic gaming sessions and that we were missing out, but at least we had a quiet, comfortable house to retire ot for a good rest.

Lesson 12: Look wider than the expo campus for accommodation.

A range of old data media

Comparing Video and Tabletop Games. An admiration of narrative.

“What keeps you coming back to a game?”

I’ve read a few articles recently chewing over the question of how the world of tabletop games could learn from video games, or vice versa, or which was better. Firstly, I totally refute the idea that one is better than the other. Let’s not even look at that. But the question of one industry learning from the other…now that’s intriguing.

The thoughts coalesced recently during a conversation. I have a good friend who is an experienced video games designer, both for big budget productions and his own indie games. I was telling him about a tabletop game I’m working on. He asked a simple question, “What makes it replayable?”

Normally, our thoughts turn this question into, “What makes this game different every time you play it?” These aren’t the same questions. As an aside, dear reader, I was very confident that my game had oodles of replayability! In fact the question should be, “What keeps you coming back to a game?”

I bounced the question back to the video game world. Take a game like Super Mario. Surely that’s the same each time you play it? And yet it was wildly popular – arguably it still is. I considered the video games that I have replayed many times and looked for analogous experiences in tabletop games. What was it that kept me coming back? How can I transfer that to a tabletop experience?

My Personal History of Playing Video Games

At the start: Elite 

At the top of the list is my first immersive, obsessive game. I recall playing Elite on my Commodore 64 way into the night on my 80s bedroom, certainly long after I should have been in bed on a school night. It was probably the first open-world game. It allowed exploration, trade, combat, upgrades to your ship, secret missions and deeply frustrating docking procedures. Why did I love it? The freedom. The sense of discovery and the gradual accrual of wealth and resources. For the first time, a video game seemed boundless and yet you were in a fully realised universe of pirates, traders, mining and shady deals. In retrospect, though, it had to be based on a simple set of parameters – the computer systems just weren’t up to handling more! How is this analogous to a tabletop game experience? The open worlds of RPGs spring to mind, games you can form relationships with and sink into for long periods. Equally, the simplicity of the game mechanics can be a thing of beauty. Just a few simple parameters that express themselves as endless gameplay. I’m endlessly in awe of the simple beauty of Pandemic. A feeling that I’m told scientists get when they consider a well-made and economical equation. E=MC2 .

Lessons: Immersion. Simplicity of mechanics can = complex gameplay.

The Playstation Years

SONY DSC

Years later, as my housemates splurged on a first generation Playstation, I had a second phase of video gameplaying. This time we were regularly in awe of the visuals that the technology could produce. Also, we had entered a new arena of storytelling. During this phase, it was clear that video games could soon rival films as an immersive, storytelling artform. Metal Gear:Solid and Silent Hill wowed us with their atmospherics and set pieces. To this day the sound of crows squawking reminds me of the long elevator descent towards Vulcan Raven. Not to mention the endless fear as you avoided the undead in Silent Hill. But the pinnacle of gaming at that time was the obscene amount of my life I poured into Final Fantasy VIII. This was the first time I’d encountered a game which didn’t tie you to a linear path. There was a story – and it was well told – but you had the freedom to explore, take detours into side quests and win the game through a number of routes. All these three games had strong, cinematic plots with distinct characters, depth and humour.

Lessons: A strong narrative with clear characters.

The Later years: gaming with my kids 

Now there is a big gap in my video gaming. Essentially it restarts when my own children begin gaming. Games have matured, new genres have proliferated. I play Need for Speed: Rivals in which I revel in the crazy stunts and cool manoeuvres. Lamborghinis and Ferraris corkscrewing through the air or sliding sideways through street furniture. Minecraft absorbed us for hours, exploring, creating, cooperating and battling beasties. Subnautica’s absorbing exploration and crafting. All these games gave my son and I stories of our own to tell. We shared the cool things we’d done. We built a common experience of scrapes, stunts and wonders.

Lessons: We like to share our stories. Experience cool narratives.

Telling Stories

This final lesson is interesting. YouTube is full of films showing gameplay: Fortnite, minecraft, Star Wars Battlefront. People enjoy watching other people play. They enjoy each other’s game narratives. They laugh at the pratfalls and thrill at the action. Let’s transfer this to tabletop games. Sites like Geek and Sundry do a mighty fine job of televising tabletop gaming. Wil Wheaton works hard to overlay a narrative on tabletop gameplay in his rightly popular Tabletop series. Unfortunately, placing train carriages or removing coloured blocks isn’t a very compelling narrative format. RPGs are better fit as a game format for storytelling. Witness the success of critical Role.

If one of the most satisfying aspects of video games, is strong characters, compelling stories, cool events you can share  and retell, then where is the equivalent in tabletop gaming? ‘Role playing games!’ You cry with one voice, and I concede the point. But what about in board games? Maybe board games aren’t the place for a cinematic narrative. Maybe strong characters and plots are superfluous. Board games are a broad, broad church and these themes I’m emphasising won’t enhance every game. Would Sagrada be better this way? Characters in board games are at best a collection of stats and a special ability; a piece of artwork; seasoning at best. Plots are often dictated, linear.

The growth in legacy games indicates a change here, and one we should watch with keenness. Legacy games give us, at their best, a board game you can live with, one to which one an form a relationship, invest in. A game in which we see characters and stories develop in satisfying ways. At our Wednesday night gaming club, Betrayal at House on the Hill is our most replayed game. While the characterisation is non-existent, the plots are endlessly surprising and engaging. We often end with the players sharing their ‘best bits’ replaying key moments and enjoying the emotional journey.

Video games and tabletop games have loads of synergy. This isn’t news. It has been fun to critically evaluate my video gaming experience and to examine how this can transfer to tabletop games. What has been most eye-opening is to feel my thoughts coalesce around this idea of plot and character; of stories we can tell of our exploits. There is a growing movement towards depth, emotional complexity and an almost novel-like sense of narrative. I, for one, welcome it and aim to bring it directly to my game design.