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November 14th, 2009

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03:07 pm - Sandpit: huge hit!
Sandpit at the Wunderbar Festival the night before last was excellent. Hurrah! Many, many thanks to everyone involved.

I primarily come from a tradition of board game conventions, with influences from puzzles, role-playing (both tabletop and live action), laser games, postal games, game shows and more over the years. However, last night I was drawing upon my board game convention background and looked at Sandpit through a board game convention lens. It succeeded admirably: it was as good as a happy evening at an unusually imaginative board game convention, organised by people who had happened not to have been exposed to the world of board games conventions and their games. This was just what I wanted, because it was something I hadn't had the chance to enjoy for far too long. However, that description alone sells the event rather short; there were so many interesting and kinetic games on offer that I could have played (had I been in the mood to stretch my comfort zone) but didn't, that other people would have done, which means that there are lots of people who would have loved the event as much as I did, from a different perspective, without ever having any interest in attending a board games event.

The venue was a floor on the independent Tyneside Cinema very near the centre of Newcastle-on-Tyne, with the majority of games taking place in a spacious bar, but with some games that required quiet breaking out into their own rooms. Some games, which I didn't play on this occasion, even took place in the streets around the cinema, amid persistent rain of varying intensity. The session was advertised as taking place from 6:30 to 10:30; there were nine scheduled games, mostly with three time slots of three parallel games permitting people to choose one per slot, but a room full of ad hoc "pick up and play" games where people could use the props and equipment in the bar area for impromptu games with whoever was available between scheduled games. Two other games, Trap Street and The Man Who Was Thursday, went on in the background, taking up sporadic minutes as time permitted.

I arrived a quarter-hour early and picked up stickers to book my places in three games; this sticker system ensured that you didn't get twenty players all claiming that they were going to take part in one particular game that only had space for seven players. We also were handed out very neat little rulebooks (by Kevan) with the rules for the suggested "Pick Up And Play" games: The Hat Game (a bit Celebrities, a bit Taboo), 1000 Blank White Cards (though sadly there was no such deck and blanks available!), Kevan's deconstructed Mao, conversational parlour games Alphabet Minute and Monologues, Werewolf (with a seer and a healer), Paper Telephone (close to Eat Poop You Cat or SKUMP - I wrote down in my long list of ideas "play this via LJ" about five years ago, and have not yet got around to it, but it would still stand up in court), Foldover (communal story-telling with a nod to Consequences), Dadaist Pursuit (see below), literary pastiche contest The Book Game (similar to a family of 'zine games of the form Preposterous Poetry, etc.) and last but certainly not least the charming but highly abstract HipBone Game which I'd encountered years ago and vaguely stuck on my "to play eventually" list.

There were about half a dozen staff floating around; some had general organisational roles, but several were principally intending to facilitate (i.e., moderate, or just plain "run") particular games. When their game wasn't in progress, they helped to get pick-up games going in the bar area among people who were looking lost, which I frequently did. Sitting down at a likely-looking table, a very quick round of Paper Telephone started, with two out of four players independently choosing to start their sheets from "A rolling stone gathers no moss". It was fun, but I was playing with two people who knew each other, and when the facilitator disappeared after the first round, they decided they were more interested in talking with colleagues than in playing with me, so the game was a short one. A slightly disappointing conclusion.

It felt to me like there was an awful lot of talkin' going on and a disappointingly low level of playin', and it was fairly clear that most people had come in groups who knew each other already, maybe just as few as couples, rather than being individual floaters. This is always a tricky problem to solve, especially at an environment which may be as unfamiliar as this proved to many of its inhabitants. To be fair, this is at least as much of a problem at board game events as it was here - normally, it's not a problem for me at board game events because I happen to know people there already - and I don't think there is any established best practice that Sandpit was missing. Bringing the facilitators to the people to start the games is probably the right approach, but there might be even more people doing it - or perhaps my priorities are so pro-games that they really are different from most attendees, I'm not sure.

Before too much longer, I saw a facilitator teaching people Dadaist Pursuit; there was an empty chair at the table and I was welcome to join in. Everyone takes a stack of Generic Trivia Game question cards (here, as it happened, Irish Trivial Pursuit) and, when it's their turn to lead the round, reads out a question of their choice from the card atop their stack. Players then in turn read out an answer of their choice from the card atop their stack, knowing that it is vanishingly unlikely that any of the answers will be correct. The questioner then awards the question card to whoever supplied their favourite answer, as a point. It's very much in the Apples To Apples family, which represents excellent bloodstock. Arguably it's not as cohesive a game as A2A, though there are always hits and misses; it probably looks less imposing to the first-timer just because Trivial Pursuit cards may be familiar in a way that A2A cards are not. This was fun and we played for fifteen minutes until three players went off for Scoop!; the remaining five of us played for another half-hour until our games were due to start at 7:30.

Scoop! sounds fascinating; it's one of the rare games that isn't yet documented at Ludocity, having been developed incrementally as part of the Playmakers project. All I know about it is the brief description of "A game of brightly coloured cameras and team loyalties - join a news team and hunt out stories, but make sure your rivals don't catch you slacking off..."; every game was very helpfully described with a series of keywords, and the presence of the running keyword was enough to signal that it wasn't one for me.

I will say, though, that it puts me in mind of a generic laser game, except that each team has one gun - the lens of their camera - rather than each player having their own gun. Laser games are notoriously resource-heavy, cameras are approaching the status of standard kit. Does Scoop! have anything to learn from the world of laser games? Perhaps I'd know if I had played it... Likewise, another game I turned down was Night of the Vampire, based solely on its keywords of walking, deduction and teamwork. It sounded to me a little like a mobile version of Werewolf - a game already on my dance card for later, so one which could be skipped. (Actually, a player describes it elsewhere, and my guess was miles off the mark. It's almost more Pac-Man than anything else, which is clearly no bad thing.)

Instead, I went for Standoff, a game in which a team have to repeatedly decide how to split a divisible prize between them. Players can point (unloaded, in this instance) water pistols at each other; upon firing said pistol, the target may be eliminated from that round's prize division. (A simple "reaction time" card-based driver resolves contests.) Nothing terribly original - I'm sure there's a proprietary game along very similar lines, but that's not to say either game is at all bad, or to fling around accusations of plagiarism other than the general saw of great minds thinking alike. (At worst, it fits into a family, traceable from the brilliant I'm The Boss! to postal silliness The Bonking Game.) Half a dozen rounds, round five scored double, round six scored triple, which may be a bit too end-heavy. Fun, very nicely facilitated - I suspect this really does need a GM to work - and certainly didn't overstay its welcome at under a half-hour. With seven players sitting 3-1-3 around a table, I suspect being the 1 is bad. That's my excuse for doing so badly, at least.

There wasn't much of a gap between this ending and the next slot; I turned down Semaphoria (sorry, Holly; this was my #2 choice for the entire night but it clashed with my #1 choice) and the walking, talking, improvisation and creativity game Park Bench. The rules to the latter are not online as far as I can see, and I think it may have been a local invention, credited to Louise de Froment and the Improv Group. I do recall reading at the start of September that Sandpit were calling for local creations and would fund one to be played here, but the timescale was pretty tight and I couldn't come up with anything within the window. Sadly my creative well has been running pretty dry for quite a long time, which is part of the reason for my long-term downswing.

Instead, I picked Ponzi!, a trading game in which players represent non-specific funds. Each player starts with ten chips of one colour and can trade them with each other at various points throughout the game, not least incentivised by the fact that upon six occasions the facilitator - in the guise of The Market - will offer a lop-sided trade in the players' favour, so that anyone who can offer a specific (but, in this case, randomly generated) combination of chips would be able to swap them for more, sourced from the outside world. (For instance, one red and one black could be swapped for three blue and a green.) The catch is that two of the traders, at the start of the game, are informed by Werewolf-like card distribution that they are fraudulent and chips of their starting colour are eventually worthless.

The skill is to try to identify the worthless colours, try to swap worthless chips for worthy ones and try to take advantage of the favourable market deals. If you are fraudulent, I suspect it's wise not to get rid of your chips too quickly else people may catch on as to why you aren't trying too hard to keep them. We played without audience analysts and stock tips, but it was fun that the Will of the Market really was a bingo machine. It was a lot of fun, but again felt rather familiar, though definitely not in a bad way; I lap up trading games for breakfast, and this was admirably pure and a valuable addition at the theatrical end of the family. Came joint 4th/5th out of six, though, when I heavily invested in the final trade for what turned out to be a worthless colour. So did almost[?] everyone else, so I wasn't the only sucker. Perhaps it's a pretty good clue when someone doesn't accept a lop-sided deal which pays out a particular colour - though remembering who started with which colour is a task.

Oddity: one of the other players told me "You're like someone out of Peep Show!" when we were playing this game. (I was playing rather hard and trading with relatively high frequency, starting with an opening symmetry-busting gambit of one of their chips for one of my chips plus one of my Fruit Pastilles.) Hard to know how to take that, other than that it couldn't really be good news. I asked "Am I Mark? Am I Jeremy?" and took it as a relatively lucky escape when it turned out that I had reminded her of The Johnson. Nobody comes out of that show with much credit, except probably for poor darling Dobby, but in this case I'll take it as a pretty good sort of back-handed compliment under the circumstances.

The third slot saw HipSync, Moveyhouse and good old Werewolf, of which I chose the latter. Ten players: three werewolves, one seer, one healer, five villagers. I drew the seer and couldn't get anything going; the first person I saw was a (suspiciously-acting) villager, the second was the villager who got lynched that night. I was the only person who had played before and none of the villagers had much clue about how to start a defence; when I had reason to claim to reveal my role and named the three werewolves in defence of someone I knew to be a villager, the three werewolves and a villager voted to lynch her rather than to accept my recommendation and have a healer-protected seer call the shots, taking out the werewolves one by one. (At least until the werewolves caught the healer, after which point the plan would unravel...)

A clear win for the werewolves, alas. The facilitator was very good, a guy named Toby Osmond. By coincidence he was the facilitator for all three games I played, and one of the principal facilitators for the pick-up-and-play games. Honestly, I just hope he didn't think I was sticking to him like a limpet by the end of things. I made a passing comment that three werewolves in ten seemed like quite a few; he said that it was pretty standard among Sandpit facilitators, though he always found that the werewolves tended to win 90% of the games he played and yet one of the other Sandpit facilitators, playing by the same rules, had an 80% success rate for the villagers. Now there's a data point, but possibly one that represents a small sample size more than anything else.

We only played one round of Werewolf before people's coaches started to turn back into pumpkins, so I returned to the main room and managed to get into a late round of HipSync. The principle of this one is simple and delightful: players are given .mp3 players cued with a series of songs. For each place in the series, there are a total of three different songs over all the .mp3 players (so everyone has A, B or C, followed by D, E or F, followed by G, H or I and so on). Everyone listens to their song and dances accordingly; the aim is to recognise other people who were dancing to the same track as you and join them in a group. It's really just a game to get people dancing exaggeratedly to music that only they can hear, which is silly and inherently fun.

One of the most insidious criticisms you can give of a game is that "it doesn't work" and then leave it at that. The principle of HipSync is admirable, and the mechanics are sound. Without wishing to blame the perfectly lovely facilitator, this particular interpretation of the HipSync principle needs to be facilitated just right in order to work; seems like a simple task, but the task of getting ten people to start their .mp3 players from track one, not on shuffle, at exactly the same time is a non-trivial one. We aborted our first play a few songs in because people weren't matching up; we restarted and I wasn't matching up. (My guess is that second time I wasn't starting from track 1 like everyone else, though the facilitator assured me I was.) It was still a lot of fun, even if not really a competitive game as originally devised. (We were also not told about the "no lip-synching" rule and didn't have plastic lips to enforce it; not knowing it, I felt it natural to lip-synch.)

This was interesting because it was beset by hardware problems. All the scheduled games I played that night would stand up on their own merits as boxed proprietary game releases that player groups could run by themselves, though having a facilitator - particularly ones as good as we had - added considerably to the experience. Again, this comment is not generally applicable to Sandpit games, many of which are physical experiences that need facilitators and considerable preparation, and are aimed at people who aren't board game fans. This better reflects my selection of games rather than anything else.

HipSync is begging for a proprietary release, with cheap specific music players more accurately dedicated to its own functionality to ensure these glitches cannot occur and possibly even procedurally generated music. Honestly, as odd as it seems to say it, perhaps clunky old tape-based Walkpersons (two controls: rewind, play) might even be better in this regard than powerful .mp3 players with a much broader functionality. The other hardware quibble that I'd have with this interpretation of HipSync is that the ear buds were poor; they weren't very comfortable and they kept flying out of my ears. Getting people to use their own preferred headphones is probably a non-starter, but some more comfortable, more capable ear buds would probably assist over the course of a game's lifetime of plays.

Numbers were really starting to thin out at this point, but I still had the time to get in a round of the Hat Game in which we attempted to discern Harry Potter from Professor Dumbledore and Cheryl Cole from Amy Winehouse, among others. A higher-brow participant suggested Mozart as a personality to describe, and the person who struggled to describe him, under the restrictions imposed on him by the game, eventually came up with an effective clue: "He was deaf." Three people got it at once from that, and the original submitter's face dropped. Seems that "deaf classical composer" resolves to Mozart these days, rather than to Beethoven; perhaps that's the way urban legends start - it may not have been a factually accurate clue, but it was immediately effective at conveying its intended meaning. For what it's worth, I don't claim that I would have got a 50:50 question about which of the two was deaf correct.

The last few players melted away at this point, though I took a few minutes to fill in a feedback form. I had two negative criticisms of the event, which I think are pretty objective. The biggest one was that the bar area had music that was loud enough to be detrimental to the ease of playing conversational games, and despite people asking for it to be turned down a few times, it was a problem to some extent all night. Now I'm not particularly great with distinguishing voices over loud music at the best of times, and I suspect I may be worse than most in this regard, but I am pretty strongly convinced that quieter music would have improved things for a few without spoiling people's fun. Again, this isn't a Sandpit-specific problem - there have been board game conventions with 200 people playing games in a large dining hall where it's been a problem for me to some extent.

The other negative criticism is that I think the event would have benefitted from participants wearing name badges. This is so standard among board game conventions that I can only suppose the concept has been discussed and rejected for some reason; I know name badges are a pretty contentious, audience-splitting matter, but I'd have thought they would be even more valuable in the conversational, social games we were playing than in many board games where players can effectively be referred to by colours, or by other adjectives pertaining to their position within the game. If traditional name badges are considered a bit square and conference-y, there has to be a way to do them more creatively: you could have them as "Hello, please call me" rather than "Hello, my name is" - and if people declare they want to be referred to as Sir, or Princess Pamplemousse, or Naughty Lola, that's part of the fun. (Yes? No?)

Those were the only serious negative criticisms; the rest of my feedback form was full of thanks and the gushing praise that the event absolutely merited. That said, it may have been unwise, or at least not very cool, to blatantly fanboy out and put words to the effect of "OMG YOU PEOPLE ARE SO COOL WHY MUST YOU LIVE IN LONDON I WANT TO BE FRIENDS WITH ALL OF YOU" on my form. (I exaggerate, but only barely.) As I saw in someone's forum signature, "If you admire someone, tell 'em; people seldom get the roses while they can smell 'em". Candour is good, but I may have crossed the line to "cry for help from a sad, lonely, frustrated gamer" - which, to be fair, is about spot on. Still, part of loving is making yourself vulnerable. I do hope that I stayed on the right side of the narrow divide between "enthusiastic fan who has been admiring what has been going on from afar and blogging about it for ages" and "creepy", but fear it may not have done.

So what's next? Well, Sandpit were funded to hold a national tour, with the rest of their funding focused upon what they do in London, so there's currently no reason and no funding for them to return to these parts, alas. The incentive for me to come down to London is even greater now, though - as recently discussed - trips from here to London are pretty significant journeys and the difference between going on your own to Newcastle for an evening and going on your own to London for a weekend is pretty considerable. Getting to know more people to make the trip more practicable will help. On the other hand, if I've managed to help convince the people that I already know in the London area that they might want to come with me to a future event, so much the better, You know I'm going to be blogging about future events as they come up, closer to the time...

If the Sandpit movement were to remain restricted to London, though, it would be a tremendous shame; tips of the hat to BARG of Birmingham and Iglab of Bristol who have made similar things work on a much smaller scale around the provinces already. (Yet I know there are people in those areas to whom the good word has not yet spread, or at least not yet sunk in. Conversely, I'm annoyed that I managed not to hear about the Great Street Games in Middlesbrough last month.) In fact, there's even been a guide written about one way to make such an event work. It's punk: not so much "here's three chords, now form a band" as "here's three rulesets, now start a game". I would hope that the Sandpit tour leaves many little sandpiles in its wake at the places it has stopped. Has it done so yet?

So this brings about the prospect of getting these sort of games going in this neck of the woods - ideally Teesside if we can make it work, but Durham would be OK and even Tyne and Wear would work at a push. (Or I could look south to York or Leeds.) What I'd like to happen is that a couple of dozen people say similar things and we can form a consensus of "yes, we must get together locally to play these games again". One would hope that the Sandpit organisation could help in getting such people in touch with each other; if not, there's always posts like this. I'm naturally a follower rather than a leader, and am not the richest in spoons to make things happen, but sometimes in life (as in HipSync) someone has to be first onto the dance floor.

You dancin'? I'm askin'!

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