The instruction booklet is important, but unfortunately even the best board game teacher and the best written instructions aren’t enough to bring a brand new board game to the table. Before you can even get to the rules of a game, you need to make sure your players are interested enough in the game to come to the table and sit through the instructions. This is especially true for games that have a large learning curve and a lot of front loaded explanations.
The first obstacle a board game meets is getting it into a new players’ hands. Whether this is at a Friendly Local Game Store, an online storefront, a Kickstarter project page, or a convention, the core problem is the same: you need to hook a new player as quickly as possible and entice them to sit through the learning curve. This is where “The 30 Second Pitch” comes into play.
Ever wonder why Billy Mays was so successful and memorable? Ever wonder why those infomercials he yells through are full of ridiculous incompetence and overacting? Billy Mays is a professional pitch man, and his job is getting his viewers to buy a product in 30 seconds. He can get millions of people to spend $20 in only 30 seconds time, no questions asked. While his unique methods won’t necessarily work in the world of board games, there is still a lot you can learn from the idea of The 30 Second Pitch. If you can’t convince someone to try out your game in the first 30 seconds, you’ve already lost them.
The 30 Second Pitch needs to tell a brand new player everything they need to know about your game in the shortest amount of time possible while ignoring everything that isn’t completely necessary to understand unless they are actually playing. The pitch needs to be the first thing that a potential player hears, sees, or reads when learning about your game. It should be on the back of the box, in the product description on web stores, the beginning of the instruction booklet, and the first thing a potential backer sees on a Kickstarter project page. This pitch should include the goal, how that goal is accomplished, the mechanics involved, and what makes the game special and stand out from the crowd. Most importantly it should not include too much on the story and flavor of the game, no matter how cool, unique, and interesting that flavor is.
Let’s break down each aspect of The 30 Second Pitch and go into detail about why it is important and how to make the most of the few seconds it should cover.
1) What is the goal of the game?
First and foremost the players need to know the core object of the game. Try to keep this to one sentence, and only include the bare necessities of the game’s flavor in order to set the theme and mood. For example, the goal of Cosmic Encounter is to be the first player to create 5 colonies on opposing payers’ planets.
2) How that goal is accomplished?
Cover only the quickest and most straightforward method of winning the game. Only add the game’s flavor and theme if it is actually necessary to understand the “how”, and avoid mentioning actual mechanics. Using Cosmic Encounter again, the goal is accomplished by having encounters with other players.
3) What mechanics are involved?
Only cover the core mechanics of the game, not how those mechanics are used or how mechanics might interact with one another. In Cosmic Encounter, the mechanics are simply that players choose cards from their hand and play them face down, as well as negotiation and bluffing. Making and breaking alliances are also an important aspect to the game that should be covered.
4) What makes your game unique?
The last part needs to really sell your game. It’s the punch that turns an eyebrow raise into an open wallet and a fist full of cash. In Cosmic Encounter, the selling point is that every player gets one of dozens of unique races, each with a completely game changing ability that needs to be abused to it’s fullest in order to win the game.
Besides including the core concepts that will make a player want to sit down and learn a game, the 30 second pitch needs to avoid several pitfalls that can easily lose a players’ interest.
1) Be careful not to overload the player with flavor text, background story, and theme
No matter how important you might think the theme and story of your game is, that isn’t what ultimately makes a game worth playing. Far too often a Kickstarter project’s promotional video will spend the first 2-3 minutes of a 10 minute long pitch detailing in depth story and plot about a game before they even mention a single game play mechanic. The game itself should be what is front and center, while the flavor can fill in the gaps and be used to help explain why the mechanics of the game are designed the way they are. You do not want to alienate a new player that might dislike the theme, but would otherwise love the actual game play and mechanics.
2) Never assume that your players have played previous or similar games
If your game is a deck builder, do not start by saying it is like another possibly similar game. As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve soiled the players’ experience with possibly detrimental expectations. If they are familiar with the game you’ve mentioned, at worst they will wonder why they should bother with your game rather than just playing the other instead and at best you’ve forced them to compare your game with another instead of taking it on it’s own merits. If a player doesn’t like the game you tried to compare it with, you’ll lose them before they can even give your own game a fair chance.
3) Avoid “gamer vocabulary”
While many hardcore and dedicated board game fans will know immediately what you are referring to, newer players may feel alienated and immediately lose interest. Instead of saying your game is a “deck builder” explain that you start with a deck of basic cards, and take turns purchasing new cards to specialize your deck. Instead of saying your game is a worker placement, explain that players take turns taking actions, and that actions can only be used once by a single player per round.
Here’s what I would consider a good 30 second pitch, taken from the BoardGameGeek description of Terra Mystica:
In the land of Terra Mystica dwell 14 different peoples in seven landscapes, and each group is bound to its own home environment, so to develop and grow, they must terraform neighboring landscapes into their home environments in competition with the other groups.
Terra Mystica is a game with very little luck that rewards strategic planning. Each player governs one of the 14 groups. With subtlety and craft, the player must attempt to rule as great an area as possible and to develop that group’s skills. There are also four religious cults in which you can progress. To do all that, each group has special skills and abilities.
Taking turns, the players execute their actions on the resources they have at their disposal. Different buildings allow players to develop different resources. Dwellings allow for more workers. Trading houses allow players to make money. Strongholds unlock a group’s special ability, and temples allow you to develop religion and your terraforming and seafaring skills. Buildings can be upgraded: Dwellings can be developed into trading houses; trading houses can be developed into strongholds or temples; one temple can be upgraded to become a sanctuary. Each group must also develop its terraforming skill and its skill with boats to use the rivers. The groups in question, along with their home landscape, are:
Desert (Fakirs, Nomads)
Plains (Halflings, Cultists)
Swamp (Alchemists, Darklings)
Lake (Mermaids, Swarmlings)
Forest (Witches, Auren)
Mountain (Dwarves, Engineers)
Wasteland (Giants, Chaos Magicians)
Proximity to other groups is a double-edged sword in Terra Mystica. Being close to other groups gives you extra power, but it also means that expanding is more difficult…
You’ll notice that very little time is spent on theme and story. It explains that the goal of the game is to control the biggest area as well as progress in the four religions. The goal is accomplished by taking actions to terraform, build, and upgrade using resources they collect. Different buildings and upgrades provide different resources and benefits.
From this a prospective player knows all that they need to know about the basics of the game to help decide whether they should look more into the game. The core mechanics are resource management and area control. It’s heavy in strategy and low in luck. It has unique player abilities.