Adventures on the Tabletop

There are many aspects to our hobby that go unnoticed, even by those enmeshed in the culture of it. This week’s guest post is from Prof. Douglas Morse as he delves into the secret world of Conventions. Take it away Doug.

The Secret World – Douglas Morse

There is a secret world of board game events that most fans don’t know about. It’s not a seamy underbelly like the backroom poker game. These are events in brightly lit convention halls and hotels. At the same time, the major cons have their own secrets hidden from the casual gamer. As I’ve worked on my documentary about game designers, Adventures on the Tabletop, I’ve been discovering the hidden corners of the tabletop universe.

In filming the documentary, my first event was the New York Toy Fair. Gaming is not allowed at the toy fair. It is almost unheard of for a game to be played all the way through. What you will see are demos and pitches. The Toy Fair is an industry only event and is focuses primarily on companies and retailers. As its name implies, it focuses on the big toys from Mattel and Hasbro. Yet there is a section devoted to Tabletop Gaming. Companies like R&R Games, Ravensburger, Queen Games, and Mayfair show off their new products to the many retailers moving from booth to booth. Smaller publishers too can purchase booth space next to the big boys. The retailers are often a mom and pop operation who will order literally a handful of copies of a new title. Buyers for Amazon.Com also visit booths to round out their on-line selection.


A pre-production sample of Explorers and Pirates (note the unfinished pieces) from the NY Toy Fair.

The consumer is a fickle beast always looking for a great new gaming experience and the publishers and retailers try to predict what product will be a great fit for their store and customers. Everyone is relying on instinct and past history. The retailers move from booth to booth, demo to demo as designers and publishers pitch their new games to the retailers as the focus is on the new.

A secondary dance is also taking place. Designers slip away from a demo booth to pitch and demo their prototypes to other publishers. Surprisingly, there is little competition between publishers for games. Specific games are good for specific publishers and designers. No one is worried about passing up the next Spiele Des Jahres. Designers and publishers want to collaborate on the right game and with a great game that is not quite the right fit, the publisher may well recommend another home for the game and designer.

Another unique event is the invitation only Gathering of Friends. Hosted by Alan Moon of Ticket to Ride fame, it is a ten days of gaming (adults only please, no kids) where an ever increasing group of passionate gamers get together (now in Niagara Falls with nearly 400 attendees) to play games, and more games, and even more. The event takes on the personality of the host: kind, funny, intelligent, and passionate about games and gamers. There was a ten year gap between my attendances. What I missed this year were the tournaments: Settlers, Wildlife Adventure, Modern Art, Adel Verpflichtet. The gaming industry has undergone a large change as Euro-gaming has exploded and moves towards the main stream. The preponderance of new titles, and the gamers that love to try them, has overwhelmed classic titles.

Also new to me were the number of prototypes being played, and pitched. As the hobby has grown, so has the number of new designers and games being playtested at The Gathering. Representatives from well-respected game Alan Mooncompanies are at The Gathering and pitching games has become part of the event. The quality of the attendees’ games is very high and many prototypes go back with the publishers for further play testing and development.

(Picture) Alan R Moon with his first published game, Black Spy. Now are-released by Z-Man Games.

I also filmed at PAX East. And it was a madhouse. Primarily a video game event, the tabletop gaming continues to grow. As the video games area shuts down at 6pm, many of the video gamers, looking for something to do, drift over to the tabletop area and find a similar gaming experience. Tabletop gaming is filled with a familiar set of tropes: armies, dwarves, dragons, and civilization building. But instead of shouting at someone through a headset, the opponent, or ally, is at the table with you. As gamers get older, they seek a family gaming experience that involves interaction rather than staring at a screen. PAX has shown us the dynamic interplay between gamers of both worlds.


At the Tabletop Free Play area of PAX East. Browsing the Library.

Then we get to the venerable Origins. It is where I am now as I type this. Unfortunately there are no secrets at Origins, no great new energy. When I attended many years ago, there was a tremendous energy. Now it feels more like a local event. That said, some of the best designers and publishers are here including fantastic new designers. So if there is a secret for the casual gamer is that your idols, and new friends, are within reach. You don’t need to buy a shrink wrapped game and retreat to the gaming hall. With just a little confidence and the right timing, you could have a lengthy chat about gaming with one of your design idols or authors. Access is key. Not everyone is at Origins, but many of the best are still here and everyone is courteous, if not enthusiastic meeting the fans.


Steve Jackson played a Grandmaster version of Ogre taking on 12 players. It was an easy sign up. Here he is with the Kickstarted Designer’s Edition

My filmmaking journey will likely take me to Gen Con – a convention I’ve dreamed of attending since my teen years. I will also likely get to Essen, perhaps the largest game fair in the world. My journey through the secret world of gaming continues and there are secrets I’ll be sharing in the movie that haven’t been documented anywhere else. We will see what really happens in a pitch, how games make the journey from inception to prototype to playtest and development both from the designers and the publishers perspective.

I would love it if you would take a look at my page for information on how to get a copy of my documentary about Tabletop Game Design. The website for now points to my Kickstarter campaign where there is the opportunity to get specials bonuses for backing the project. After that, further information and videos will be posted on the website.

Doug Morse is a professor of Media Studies and Film at The New School for Public Policy. Trailers and clips from his films can be seen at Grandfather Films Adventures on the Tabletop is his seventh feature film.


Here Douglas Morse directs his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.