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On consoles, I play a lot more demos than I do full games. This is due mostly to the likes of Xbox magazine and the many free demos available on the likes of Xbox Live — but what makes a good video game demo is a mile away from what makes a good tabletop game demo.

Whenever I can, I pretend not to know anything (I don’t) and sit down to play in hobby-game demos at conventions. I want to see the show. I like to be sold to. When I ask the guy at Best Buy, “Sell me this TV,” I don’t want him to ring it up; I want the sales pitch. I want to see the show.

What the two kinds of demos have in common is me.

The reason I play so many demos is that I am, usually, broke. For a demo to succeed for the publisher — that is, for it land a sale — it must overcome my frugality. Video games, at $60 a pop, have it harder.

My frugality is weak and easy to overcome for hobby games like board games and RPGs with price points below $45. These things can sit out, like coffee-table books, to show off to guests that I find and play quality (or happily weird) games. Thus I don’t have to be especially likely to play a game for you to make a sale. Rather, I have to want to play it. Or, I have to want to be the kind of person who would play it: Someone with time, someone savvy, someone with eclectic tastes. (I have been any one of those someones, but seldom have I been two or more of them at once.)

So that’s what it takes for a demo to make a sale. Here are the memorable demos I played in (and one I ran) at Gen Con SoCal 2006, reviewed:

Pirates of the Burning Sea (MMORPG)

Pirates of the Burning SeaPirates of the Burning Sea is the upcoming MMORPG from Flying Lab. I’ve been following its development online for a couple of years, so when I had a chance to sit down with this game, I swung down on it like a pirate on a rope. How in the hell do you mix ship-to-ship combat into the traditionally solo-necessary MMORPG style?
How was it? Terrific. I sat down with a Flying Lab dude over my shoulder and got taken through the typical get-a-quest-now-go-and-do-it rigmarole. That quest led me onto a ship and out to sea, though, to do battle with agents of the crown or enemy pirates or something.

The interface was still a bit bumpy (this was a year before the beta, mind you), but the look and feel of the game were great. Coming off of WoW, the fireflies and glowing lanterns here were dazzling. Ship-to-ship combat played out with much more tactical depth than any other MMO combat I’ve played to date, though it’s still pretty simple and the controls are still pretty familiar there.

The demo, though, was full of individual attention, quality explanations of what I was seeing (and what I might see if I bought the game), and a lot of time to just play around with it.

Did it succeed? Yes. I have every intention of getting aboard some kind of free trial period or whatever crops up, just to double-check that the finished game stands as tall as the demo promised. The demo got me excited to see more and had me feeling like I was already a great pirate captain and “Watch out, Burning Seas, ’cause here I come!”

Have I played it since? Since I’m not participating in the beta, no. And, alas, the website doesn’t sell the game nearly so well as that demo did.

Star Wars: Starship Battles (Miniatures Game)

Star Wars: Starship Battles is the spaceship equivalent to the character-based miniatures game that’s been out for a couple of years, based largely on the D&D Miniatures game. This demo consisted of a distracted woman, either tired of or disinterested in a silly plastic-spaceship game, going through the motions. She got all of the rules across, and gave me and my opponent the freedom to choose our plays and make mistakes, but the game didn’t come across as much more than shoot-and-be-shot.

Play the online demo of the character-based Star Wars miniatures game at this link. It teaches the rules, but isn’t exactly fun.How was it? 99% of what was good about this demo was the authentic graphic design on the starship stat cards — they have a great Star Wars-style computer look. Otherwise, this boring demo promised a boring game. What should’ve come across as an exciting space battle was instead just a walkthrough of the most basic scenario imaginable. A demo should show off the sexiest aspects of play first and teach the rules along the way.

Did it succeed? No. I got some of these miniatures later on as a Christmas gift, but I’ve never used them outside of the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG, and then just barely. This prompted me to buy one booster in the hopes of getting some fun miniature for the RPG, but that’s it.

Have I played it since? No.

Anachronism (Card Game)

Anachronism pits historical figures against each other in impossible battles.Sort of a CCG, but more like an easily expandable card game, Tri-King’s Anachronism is a happy oddity. I dig it not just because I’m a sucker for ridiculous historical mash-ups, but because much of the art in this game is lovely. (Michael Komark is a frequent contributor, for example.)

Achilles vs. Vlad Tepes? Cu Chulainn vs. Seti I? You play out these straight-up battles (with no explanation for how they come to happen) on a simple grid. This is low-impact gameplay — roll-a-six-sider kind of stuff — peppered with fun little special abilities based on ancient gods, mythical powers and legendary weapons. Fun for history and fantasy fans alike, I think.

How was it? Okay. The demo was straightforward because the game is straightforward. The employee who ran my demo was fighting a nasty cold and seemed pretty tired, but she did a great job of getting the rules out there quickly and then letting us play. We replayed a turn to see how else the game could unfold, for example, which is a nice trick.

Did it succeed? Sort of. I bought a bunch of cards, because I want to have time to play this game, because the game is pretty (I like pretty), and because I fear that every convention will be this game’s last. I get the feeling this game isn’t doing gangbusters, but my ability to read the CCG market is notoriously feeble.

Have I played it since? Alas, not once.

Dreamblade (Miniatures Game)

The menu screen for Wizards’ online demo for Dreamblade.Wizards of the Coast’s Dreamblade is (was?) a collectible miniatures game centered on combat, but apparently designed to feel more like a board game and less like a miniatures game. Surreal miniatures, like dudes with cannonballs in their guts and disembodied killer shark fins, on big square bases duke it out in some psychic battleground for control of important spaces in the center of the battleground.

What is at stake for the psychic combatants was unclear. Why they are battling was unclear. Who they are was unclear.

How was it? Not good. The demoer attempted to use the teach-as-you-go method, which I suppose is almost essential in this game of exception-based rules, but he fell into the awful trap of explaining a rule and its exceptions all at once. (I know this trap well, having spent a Gen Con gnawing my foot off to get free of it back in the day.)

The demoer, like the game’s online demo, made it clear that there were tactically correct choices to be made, and helped me and my opponent (another convention attendee and potential customer) identify them. Unfortunately, the binary nature of most choice points in this game means that gameplay centers on identifying the smarter of two choices, over and over again. Play is boiled down to the point that there is little else to do. This may be fun for some people, but me and my opponent clearly didn’t think identifying the “right” move in every situation was a lot of fun. Can there be engaging tactics when the only risk is that the dice will not obey your objectively correct move? The risk-reward dynamic here is weak.

That could just be a case of us not being the right audience for the game, but I think we were pretty clear about our dwindling interest in the game. That’s when it’s the demo-guide’s job to make the game seem sexy and appealing in another way — to convince us that we want to play this game.

Did it succeed? No. I’d already bought one starter for the game, out of curiosity, before playing the demo. Won’t be doing that again.

My opponent and I talked away from the booth after the game and quickly came up with a list of things we thought the game (and the demo) did poorly. We agreed that we wouldn’t be buying into Dreamblade.

Have I played it since? No.

World of Darkness (RPG)

All the demos above were from the last Gen Con SoCal, back in November of 2006. At that same show, when I still worked for White Wolf, I ran a World of Darkness demo, using the Storytelling System. Though I’ve experimented with short-form RPG demos that can be played in ten or fifteen minutes at a booth on the convention floor, I more often run one-shot stories over three or four hours.

Interested in reading the scenario notes setting up this Wendigo story? Drop a note in the comments and I’ll share them in a future entry.In this case, I ran a story I cooked up on the planes from Iceland to Atlanta to LA that weekend: A bus carrying travelers through snowy northern backwoods accidentally hits a Wendigo out on the lonely asphalt road. That Wendigo is killed. The bus, its front end smashed, runs off the road, down a wooded and snowy hill, and ends up at the edge of a freezing, black lake. The players’ characters are the only survivors.

So now they’re stranded in a survival horror scenario in which they must survive the elements as well as the other Wendigo out there in the woods with them.

How was it? Eh. Here’s where I’m an arrogant snob: I don’t think I ran this story very well, inasmuch as I failed to get the two (just two!) players on the same page as far as atmosphere and tone. Still, my experience is that the majority of roleplayers in the world are playing with, uh, not-stellar GMs (or not actually playing at all), so they reacted to me off-form with a generous level of praise. They seemed to have a grand ol’ time.

They approached the story with the kind of decision-making that implies the whole scenario is something to be overcome with a single action. (“We walk to the nearest town,” they said.) Beyond that, they resisted horror elements in all their forms and strove to portray the blasé dudes with shotguns.

I played along, because it’s their proverbial dime. I delivered the most rollicking two-guys-in-the-woods-battling-Yetis experience (I wouldn’t quite say story) that I could.

Did it succeed? Yes. Both participants got free books, but they also each went and bought up books from the booth. Did they take them home and play with them? I don’t know, but I’ll bet they went home and read them and wanted to play with them, and that’s a sale.

Plus, with RPGs, the wisher’s purchase is still a reward: A good game book can be read and enjoyed and worth the money even if it’s never played with. In comparison, I haven’t played with my Anachronism cards, so the money I spent on them has not been repaid in fun, yet.

Have they played it since? No idea.