Recently the topic of demo tables came up in a closed retail group that is hosted by, I think, the largest dollar publisher in our industry. Wizards of the Coast may not be all about the Magic: The Gathering, but it's most of what retailers sell that carries their logo. WotC (used colloquially from now on in that format) has some decent board games on the market, like Betrayal at House on the Hill, and of course was kind enough to provide us with 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which was a huge improvement over 4th Edition (not exactly a tough bar to clear though).
So, a representative from WotC asked retailers how we choose the games on our demo tables, and I promptly thanked him for helping me with my next blog post. I believe demo tables are vitally important to the selling of board games, both as a tool to engage customers in a specific product, and as a tool to teach customers that we know and enjoy our products.
So, let's talk about how these games ended up on my demo tables.
Your Game Doesn't Suck
This may seem painfully obvious, but that's step one to getting onto a demo table. We don't demo games that we don't believe in, because if I'm trying to show the customer a game I don't enjoy that will come across pretty quickly. I don't have much of a poker face, what you see is what you get.
It may sound obvious, but if you want your game on a demo table make sure it doesn't suck. I am not, by any stretch, saying that Betrayal at Baldur's Gate sucks, because I've never played it. Chances are very good I never will, because the theme just doesn't appeal to me, but I'll happily sell it. :)
Most of what reaches my demo tables are AAA releases, stuff I'm sure about, and I bought enough of it to put it on a demo table and watch it move. Sometimes, the item on a demo table is a little niche, but it'll do well in my store simply because I love it, and excitement is contagious.
Now that your game doesn't suck to play, let's also make sure it doesn't suck to look at. It's important that the games on a demo table look good on a demo table. Looking good doesn't have to mean "complicated" or "13,218 pieces". You can look good and be simple in table appearance.
I am on an absolute Yogi kick these days. It's on a demo table. There's a second open copy on the counter. It's currently stocked in new releases, kid games, and small box games, and it's stocked on my darn counter! Yogi is deliciously simple to play, takes 30 seconds or less to demo, and the art is ridiculous, so people stop and look at the demo table where it resides. All of that awesomeness for a whopping twelve bucks!? Sure, Yogi will not pay for my retirement, but it's the most simple add-on sale I've ever seen.
So your game doesn't suck to play, and it doesn't suck to look at. What comes next?
Make sure it's teachable. I don't get to hang out and give customers a twenty minute demo, I get to explain the concepts of a game and show off some cool components, and that's about it.
"Draft cards, and as you draft cards follow the directions on them. Mostly you'll be placing these damn adorable bunnies all over the table to claim territory."
While I said that I showed them a coordinates card, and a damn adorable plastic bunny that's about an inch tall. I don't need to keep talking, the damn game is sold already. I didn't need to explain nineteen concepts to them so they understand.
Or try this one...
"In this perfectly accurate historical game, you and your fellow players are a coven of witches, working to insure the victory of George Washington over the evil British Empire!"
My customer is laughing, holding a card with something ridiculous on it, and buying a new game.
If I can't teach your game in ninety seconds chances are good I can't get a customer to stick around long enough to learn it. I do always set aside one demo table for something a little heavier, a game with a little more meat in the rulebook. Right now that game is The Godfather, from CMON. We can discover why it's on a table in the next section.
It's From a Publishing Partner
Not every company that publishes games is my publishing partner. I firmly believe that there are publishers out there who are an important partner in my business, and those people are on my demo tables. We should talk about what makes a publisher my partner, shouldn't we?
Value Protection: Yup, we're going to start right here. The publishing companies that I think of as my partners are working to protect the value of their brands. To be frank, WotC is the worst company at this anywhere in our industry. You can regularly buy brand new Magic product online with markups in the 10% range all over the internet. Wizards of the Coast has regularly shown that they care not at all for the value of their product nor the long-term health of the people who deal it.
Prompt & Clear Communication: When I have a problem with any of about thirty publishing companies I whip out my cell phone and call the person in charge. Or, I send them a Facebook message, because that's how things get done these days. If it's something the person in charge shouldn't have to deal with I reach out to the person who works for the person in charge. With WotC, I reach out to retail support, because a few years ago WotC took away my salesperson, someone I knew on a first-name basis, and replaced them with an army of order automatons, who aren't actually accountable to me as a retailer, because next week I'll have a different automaton. WotC has gotten too large for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing, and it's gotten too large for the brain to have a darn clue where its hands are even at, or if they're still attached.
Early Releases: My partners do Elite Releases where I get to sell before online, or they do prereleases for their organized play partners that gets me product before it's available online. Sometimes my partners even launch KickStarter campaigns that reward my store for backing the KickStarter by getting me product two or more months before it reaches distribution. These lead times show they value my partnership, and help to protect brand value in the early days when hype is at its highest.
Bottom Line Understanding: Too often the choir of WotC sings the same song over and over, a little ditty we call "Butts in Seats", it's the theme song of WotC, and it frequently calls for retailers to just give away product, or accept even more greatly reduced margins, in an effort to pursue butts in seats, as if snacks will keep my business open.
And that takes us to our final thing about getting your game on my demo table.
Reduced Price Demo Copies
My partners, no matter who they are, participate in some sort of demo program that reduces the cost of the demo on that demo table. Sometimes I buy six copies of a game and get a free demo, and six is the bare minimum number of copies I'm going to buy if I want to demo a game anyway.
If it's not worth me carrying six copies of at release it's probably not worth me teaching my staff to play it anyway.
Other times my demo comes to me at 75% off retail price, and sometimes my demo comes to me because I asked a publisher really nicely at a trade show.
Publishers love to see retailers excited about a product. They know that we're still the curators of cool for hundreds of thousands of customers, so we'll sell more of a product that is sitting on a demo table and that we're excited about, and they're happy to work to get us those demos.
For My Friends in Retail
So we've talked about how I choose demo games, I think at the end of this we should talk a little bit about how I get demos.
Let's start with an easy one.
Visit Alliance's website. You have an Alliance account because you like selling X-Wing and L5R. In the box that says 'Search by Keyword' type in the word DEMO.
Enjoy five pages of demo copies from various publishers. You can get stuff from dozens of publishers.
Or, talk to your ACD rep. ACD pulls many demos right from their normal inventory, and then gets credit from their publishing partner.
I can't give you informed information on other distributors, because these are the two I use regularly, but I'd love it other distributors would chime in and tell us about how they handle demo requests.
Finally, just talk to the company directly. CMON allows retailers who are members of CMON Play to purchase demos direct from them at 75% off retail, as well as a slew of other benefits that make being a CMON Play member just good business these days. IELLO offers retailers one copy per title, per year, at 75% off, (no expansions, just core games).
If you believe in a title talk to the publisher, they'll find you a demo copy somewhere.
Game demos work, if you choose the right games from the right partners.
Sadly, right now, WotC isn't one of those partners.