Friday, 8 July 2016

Demo game? Participation game? Hybrid game?

In issue 399 of Miniature Wargames with Battlegames (which, BTW, has been added to the growing index of all wargaming articles ever published ;-)), there's an article by Nick Hughes discussing the type of games we see at conventions.

Roughly speaking, at the European convention scene, there are two types of games:
  • Demo games: a gaming group demonstrates a specific game setup, a period, a ruleset, ... The intention is not participation by convention visitors, but the game is rather a starting point for explaining visitors what the game, rules, etc. are all about.
  • Participation games: the game is set up with the purpose of visitors participating, and might vary in length between let's say 15 minutes of fast fun and a few hours.
When games are run well, no matter the type, there are distinct advantages, and are a good addition to any convention. But there are also disadvantages. Demo games take up space, and interaction with the public is not always a success due to various reasons. Participation games might take too long and hence fail to attract participants. The times when visitors would spend an entire day at a convention - and hence could devote several hours playing a single game - are long gone.

So, the article proposes a hybrid: the visual spectacle of a demo game, but with the intention of letting visitors taking control of the game for a few turns.

This reminded me very much of the type of games we have run with our gaming group Schild & Vriend during various conventions - mostly CRISIS in Antwerp - over the past 10 years. We have designed our games around the idea of micro-participation - i.e. allow visitors to take part in the game for only a few minutes. The game would run all day, and the flow of the game is the result of a sequence of turns taken by many players over the course of an entire day.

Arnhem 2005

The first game of this type we ran was our Arnhem game in 2005. The design was based on Free Kriegsspiel. A gamesmaster would run the game all day long, and when a visitor passed by, he would be offered a decision to make: "These platoons have been hiding in these woods. Do you think they should shoot at the enemy, or move forwards?" Once the player hade made a choice, a few dice were rolled (e.g. determining movement distance, or outcome of the fight, ...). The player could stick around for a few more moves, or could move on.

Attack on Fort Stanley 2008

In 2008, we tried a different approach. Set in Darkest Africa, a fort was under siege. The besiegers were controlled by the umpire, but the besieged were under control of whatever visitor was present at the table. The system was run using cards. A5-size cards - displayed prominently - outlined the actions a player could take, including requested dice rolls and chances for success. The only thing a player had to do was pick a card, move the figures, throw a dice. When the action was complete, a new card was drawn. Again, this allowed for a few minutes of quick fun.

Red vs Blue 2013

Our largest experiment in this style was Red vs Blue, in 2013. We had printed over 1500 custom playing cards, which we dealt out in the entire convention hall: at stands, at the entrance, at the bar, ... At the gaming table, there was a real-time clock, indicating what side (red or blue) was "on". When you came to the table with one of the cards, you could participate immediately, following the actions on the card. The cards came in many different variations: movement actions, artillery bombardments, reinforcements, etc. At then end of the day, we logged over 250 participants.

So, yes, it is possible to design games around the idea of micro-participation. It takes some thinking and some preparation. But, it also is very exhausting, especially of you want to run the game all day long. Red vs Blue ran for 6 hours, in real time, non-stop.

Will we repeat such mass-participation wargames again? Perhaps, although I do not have plans for the immediate future. I feel that with Red vs Blue we reached the limit of what this genre could do - unless a lot more people get involved in the running and participation. After all, we usually did this with 2 or 3 people on the organizing team ;-)


  1. Hello,

    It is interesting to contrast American conventions with those in Europe. The concept of a "demonstration" game is almost unknown here. The conventions run by HMGS (Historical Miniatures Gaming Society) feature scores of games, all available for anyone to play in, assuming of course the seats have not all been taken! A few games are restricted, in the sense that participants are limited to those over 14 years old, or are very familiar with the rules, but these are relatively rare.

    There are several factors that make this possible: all games, including set-up time, playing time, and take-down time are carefully scheduled, with assigned table(s), and tickets equal to the number of available seats are printed out, given to those desiring to participate. (It should be noted that convention-goers are able to pre-register for the convention, at which point they can also register to play in listed games.) There are no limits as to how many games people can play in, except that only 1 "reservation" (i.e. ticket) per day is allowed--to play in others, they have to "walk up" and hope the GM can work them in, which usually happens.

    Another factor, as you mentioned, is the amount of time people have available. HMGS conventions are either 3 or 4 days long, with many if not most convention-goers spending each night in a local hotel. This makes for a LOT of gaming time, although time out for meals, sleep, and shopping often intrude! For further information about the conventions, stop by

    I would very much like to attend a European convention some day. The cost of flying there is, unfortunately, a factor .

    Best regards,

    Chris Johnson

    1. Chris,

      Thanks for your reply. Although I lived in the US for a couple of years, I actually never visited an American convention.

      But anyway, European conventions usually are single day affairs, I guess the travelling distances allow for that type of setup. The convention hall are a mix of traders and games, but no prereg for anything is necessary. It's entirely up to the visitor to decide where he want to spend his time: at the shopping booths, or hanging around the gaming tables and joining a game, or just having a few beers in the bar.
      Joining a game is very much informal, no preregistration, just walk up and ask whether it's possible to join. This also makes European convention very much social gatherings. It almost seems as if the games are a weak excuse to meet up with fellow wargamers one hasn't seen for some time.

    2. Yes, that's the way it is for a lot of us here, too. In fact, I used to play only rarely, in part because of the over-all noise level (I am somewhat deaf), in part because of the rules lawyers one encounters here and there, in part because I usually manage our flea market ("bring and Buy" in Britain, not sure what you folks call it), but mostly because of the chance to socialize. Distances here are so great that visiting a convention for only 1 day is frequently just too far to go. I read somewhere that to a European, 100 miles is a long way. To an American, 100 years is a long time. A certain amount of truth to that, I guess. :)

      Best regards,


  2. UK shows seem to be more about shopping, seeing what's new and meeting up with friends rather than looking at/participating in games. Having run demo games at Colours, Warfare and helped out with ones at Salute, this does seem to be the case. Sadly many of the demo games seem to be an excuse to get the toys on the table and nicely displayed, with little, if any action, taking place. How can one then find out about the game, rules etc? I would like to think that the games I have helped run have actually been played through out the day and have had people spare to explain what is happening etc. A case in point was this years Salute where many people commented upon the fact that they could see the game actually being played!