UnPub 5 Aftermath, or What I Learned From 60 Playtests in 20 Hours

Last weekend, I got to attend the UnPub 5 convention in Baltimore. I was one of the lucky designers who pledged to their Kickstarter in time to get a designer table, and I brought short enough games that over the course of the twenty hours the convention was open for playtesters, my games were played sixty times – a new game starting every twenty minutes on average. Having the opportunity to experience four months’ worth of playtesting in two days gave me new (to me) insight into the design process, and I’m sharing some of what stuck with me, starting with an overview of the games I brought and following it with a list of lessons.

IMG_1362
Odd Socks is a 2-4 player card game in which players are trying to deduce which sock was lost in the laundry at the start of the game and get its match in their basket by the end of the game. At the start of the game, one of the socks, represented by cards, is secretly removed from the deck. The remaining cards are dealt out to the players. On each player’s turn, they can play a card face-up into their basket and take an action that helps them deduce the removed sock’s match, or they can play a card face-down into their basket, taking no action but hiding the card’s identity from the other players. Once all players have one card left, the removed sock is revealed, and the player who has that sock’s match wins.

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Avignon is a 2-player abstract strategy game in which players take the role of rival Popes trying to “influence that Masses” of the Catholic Church. Players gain influence by moving cards representing characters (Peasants, Cardinals, Bishops, etc) three steps toward their side by petitioning them and using their unique character powers. The first player to claim three characters’ support wins.

Lesson 1: Your Pitch Starts Before the Convention
Many of the playtesters who came to my table mentioned what drew them to my table instead of the seventy other designer tables at the convention. Some were just wandering through and saw an opening (it was really busy there on Saturday), some saw people having fun and wandered over, and some saw the sign on the table and were intrigued. But many of my testers responded to something they saw in the program – they liked the theme of laundry, wanted to try a new deduction game, or wanted to try shorter games. A couple players had even heard about the game on Twitter prior to the con. The lesson here (which isn’t a hard one to figure) is that the groundwork you lay before showing your game of is critically important

Lesson 2: Not all Feedback is Verbal or Written
To be clear: I got a lot of good feedback at the convention, from the Avignon players who argued about the utility of the alternate win conditions for a half hour to a fellow designer who, after playing Odd Socks, told me why this prototype was ready to pitch to publishers when previous iterations he’d played were not. But as important as that feedback was, the best feedback I got came from observations I made while others were playing. The faces that players made as they tried to determine Odd Socks actions that told me I needed to clean up my wording. The frustration players expressed when they were holding unusable actions told me that actions needed to be playable every turn. Avignon players pointing at cards as they tried to think multiple moves ahead on the second play-through. These were critical pieces of feedback that I hadn’t been able to get in previous playtests because this was the first time I’d been able to watch entirely new players play (usually, I’m playing or it’s a blind test).

Lesson 3: What is Meant When a Playtester Says Your Game is Ready
I got feedback from a lot of players that both Avignon and Odd Socks were in *very* good shape, from players asking when I was going to Kickstart (I’m not; more on that below) to a designer I have a lot of respect for finishing a game and saying, “Okay, this is legit.” BUT. This feedback did not, in the end, mean that I should be putting the games on Kickstarter or even pitching to publishers yet, as a result of the nonverbal feedback discussed in Lesson 2. What it does mean, however, is that the core of the game is solid and that the games are fun. This is an awesome start, and means that I’m on the right track, but it doesn’t actually mean the game is ready.

Lesson 4: How You Teach the Game is Very Important
Prior to this convention, Avignon has had a significant problem with one character card. The Noble doesn’t have a Petition ability, but has two alternate win conditions. Previously, when teaching the game, I explained the alternate win conditions in a very mechanical sense (“If you claim both the Peasant and the Noble, you lose, and if you claim the Noble and your opponent claims the Knight, you win”). This led to a lot of reading and forgetting about the Noble – to the point that I was starting to wonder whether I could keep the Noble in the game at all. For the first game of UnPub, I decided to switch it up and add some story to the explanation: “The Noble hates the Peasant, and won’t work with him. So if you claim both the Noble and the Peasant, you lose. The Knight works for the Noble, so if you claim the Noble and your opponent claims the Knight, the Noble orders the Knight to stab your opponent in the back and you win.” Suddenly, everyone cared about the Noble. To the point that one player went out of his way to remove both Noble from play – in three consecutive games. As a result, I’m going to be elaborating on the relationship between characters (which already exists in the rulebook) in order to draw players in.

Lesson 5: Prepare for Follow-Ups
As I mentioned earlier, a significant number of players asked about how they could buy Odd Socks and/or Avignon. Thankfully, I was ready with something to give those players, but I found it interesting that the materials that others were encouraging me to bring to hand out weren’t the materials that I actually needed. The big focus I’ve heard from multiple sources was the importance of bringing sell sheets to conventions to give to interested parties. This is probably the last convention I’m bringing sell sheets to. I found business cards to be way more useful. My business cards, which I handed out to any player who asked, had my e-mail address and Twitter handle as well as links to the UnPub page for both games, through which players could reach both feedback forms and updated Print-and-Play files for each game. I felt like this worked very well for players who wanted more information, and I think that I’m going to go with a business card as well when talking to publishers who are interested in the game, with the game’s name, picture, and my contact information on one side of the card, with sell sheet information on the reverse side. It’s easier to carry around and design, and I just haven’t had as much success with publishers, even at speed dating events, taking sell sheets over business cards.

Next steps
After UnPub 5, I’ve decided that both Avignon and Odd Socks are games that I need to accelerate development on.

Odd Socks needed some graphic design changes – in particular, the socks needed patterns and the text on the cards needed to be bigger – and a change to some cards so that there won’t be a risk that actions will be unusable. Below, you can see a sample of what was changed with the old card on the left and the new card on the right – the solid color and contrasting number have been replaced with a pattern, the text was made larger, and the action text was changed both to be easier to understand. I’m testing these changes this weekend.

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Avignon is in even better shape. Lots of feedback suggested that I needed a board of some kind, so I’m going to play around with low-cost options for that. I’m also going to test a suggestion that my last group of the convention had, which was that it require four pulls to claim a card instead of three. This would make it harder for someone to claim a newly revealed card in a single turn, although I had originally been thinking that such a possibility is part of the strategy of the game.

Once I’ve tested these changes, I’m going to start courting publishers. I’ve already got a publisher or two in mind to pitch to for each game, but if anyone knows of a publisher who might be a good fit, I’m all ears. In the meantime, enjoy Print-and-Play links to both games:

Avignon: tinyurl.com/AvignonGame
Odd Socks: tinyurl.com/OddSocksGame

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TableTop Day (Weekend) 2014

(Reblogged from my BoardGameGeek blog)

Last year, I helped a new local game store organize TableTop Day events for the store. To be honest, it was something of a bust – games didn’t go off as planned, the store ended up being a less than friendly place to play, and the store handled some game orders I made badly, to put it mildly. After that experience, I decided not to participate on the organizing side of things (the five-week-old baby may have guided this decision as well), instead going to a different local store as a player. That didn’t pan out either, so I ended up spending the weekend playing games with friends at home and working on some prototypes to get them ready for convention season in July.

Friday evening, we had friends over for our normal bi-weekly game session (it was Saturday in New Zealand, so that counts). We managed to get three games to the table:

  • We started off the night with Takenoko, a favorite since I won a copy at GenCon last year. This was probably the most lopsided game we’d played in a while, with one player scoring 44 points and the rest of us in the mid-20s. Even with this one-time flaw, this remains one of my favorite games, and one that hits the table almost every game day.
  • After the first game, my wife took a break to feed the baby. This gave me a chance to get my new prototype, Anansesem, to the table. The game went well in terms of overall mechanical balance, time of play (15 minutes for the first game, 5 minutes for the second), and overall impression. I’m hoping that I can get the cards balanced and art found in time to get it in for the 2014 BoardGameGeek 2-play PnP contest.
  • The final game of the night came at the request of our friends’ 9-year-old daughter, and was Flash Point: Fire Rescue. We are trying to slowly build up to all the Kickstarter expansions I’ve ordered, which is tough when the game comes to the table only every couple months. Today was our first play with the full game (roles, hot spots, the works). I’m not sure we did it correctly – we managed to get all seven required victims out without any loss of victims, and I don’t recall the game being that easy in the past. I guess that means we’ll just have to get it to the table soon to make sure 
Flash Point Fire Rescue

Flash Point Fire Rescue – no expansions

Saturday, we didn’t play games, but I spent most of the day getting design work done:

  • -I had gotten some professional editing work reserved as a perk from a Kickstarter campaign, and I decided it was finally time to cash in. I spent the first part of the day preparing Anansesem, Odd Socks, and Bread and Circuses to send out. Huge relief to get that big check mark off my list.
  • -My contribution to the new fantasy-themed Storyteller Cards project was due to go up next week, so I finished it up. The game, Scapegoat, can be seen athttps://www.kickstarter.com/projects/239309591/storyteller-c… (and the campaign is still open for pledges for 11 more days).
Odd Socks, with awesome new copyright-free art and graphic design!

Odd Socks, with awesome new copyright-free art and graphic design!

I also saw a big sale on games on Amazon, and we picked up a couple that we’d heard good things about, but couldn’t justify buying at full price. We haven’t played Tokaido yet, but we got Rampage to the table today. It was immensely fun and filled a hole in my collection, although it’s clear that entertainment value was a higher priority than game balance (unless we really misunderstood a couple powers.

RAAAAR!!!

RAAAAR!!!

Overall, while we may not have participated in the “visit a local game store or big game group” spirit of TableTop Day, we definitely filled the day and weekend with games and game development. If only I could make every Saturday TableTop Day, I’d probably be a lot more relaxed (and productive at game design) on a long-term basis…

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Designing Again: Drunken Meeples

So it has been a while since I updated either of my blogs. Taking a new position doing administrative work and getting ready for a baby can take a lot of the energy out, but I’m setting myself a goal of updating once a week.

Today, I’m sharing Drunken Meeples, a somewhat goofy combination of Wits and Wagers and Beer Pong that I designed last night. Grant Rodiek made a joke about “worker removal” games, and I made a retort about “worker displacement” games (both riffs on the worker placement mechanism in board games). Then, my nerd instincts kicked in, and I started thinking about displacement in fluid mechanics. Drunken Meeples, the first true worker displacement game, is the result.

You might also need more beer. Or more board games.

Beer and board games. Do you really need anything else?

How to Drunken Meeples:

You Will Need:

  • One shotglass, or container of similar volume
  • A bunch (10-20) Meeples, cubes, pawns, and/or other game bits. It works best if these bits are made of different materials (plastic, wood, metal, etc).
  • An opaque container to put the Meeples in
  • Index cards and pens
  • Poker chips, pennies, or another scoring mechanism
  • Access to at least one source of liquid. It’s better if you have more than one, and even better if they have different densities. Using jello shots is not recommended, though.
  • 3-8 players

Game Rules:

1. Someone picks a liquid and announces what the liquid is to all players. Then, someone fills the shotglass an imprecise amount (but at least half full) with the liquid.
2. Each player writes down on an index card his/her name and how many Meeples/bits he or she thinks will fit in the shotglass before it overflows.
3. Each player reveals his or her answer. Arrange these answers in numerical order (or, if you want to be mean to someone who’s easily confused, don’t).
4. Each player takes a poker chip and places it on the answer that he or she thinks is most likely to be accurate.
5. Put all the Meeples/bits in the opaque container. Randomly draw bits out of the bag and place them in the shotglass, counting as you go. Place the Meeples gently; the goal is to overflow the shotglass, not splash the liquid.
6. Once the liquid overflows, the player who had the answer closest to the number of Meeples it took to overfill the shotglass gets one point. Each player who placed a poker chip on that answer gets two points.
7. (Optional step if playing with alcohol) After removing the Meeples from the shotglass, the player who had the guess closest to the actual answer drinks the shot.
8. Continue steps 1-7 until one player has twenty points or until people don’t want to play anymore.

Resolving Rules Disputes: These rules are sort of vague. I wrote them when I was drinking. If a significant rules dispute emerges, remember that you are playing a game about dipping Meeples in beer and/or spirits and stop taking yourself so seriously.

That, friends, is a worker “displacement” game. Also evidence that I am prepared to start telling dad jokes to my daughter the second she emerges from the womb, and that I’m not afraid to include multiple obscure references in the same bad dad joke.

I promise that next week, I will write about a game design that I am pursuing beyond the next social event.

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I Will Stop Fighting Patriarchy In Fandom When…

Yesterday, I put a link to this post from Doctor Nerdlove on my Facebook page. I got a comment from a friend indicating that he was “over” the criticism that nerd culture gets for its sexism because nerds treat women better than the rest of American culture (not to mention what happens in some other cultures). Examples weren’t specifically given, but I’m sure they exist. That’s not the point, and quite frankly, I’m “over” seeing people use comparisons to justify their actions because they aren’t as bad as what’s happening elsewhere. Someone doing worse than you doesn’t mean that you don’t need to do better. Calling what I’ve observed happening to women in fandom “sexism” minimizes what happens to women in fandom. Period. Trying to argue sins of scale Does. Not. Work. With. Me.

With that being the case, I’ve decided to share my list of “When I Will Stop Fighting The Patriarchy In Fandom”. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list; just what I can think of off the top of my head. If you’ve got something to add to the list, feel free.

I Will Stop Fighting Patriarchy In Fandom When…

… people stop threatening to rape women for their role in content creation or their choices of what content to create.
… direct rape threats over Twitter not being a violation of TOS isn’t common knowledge.
… my concerns about my children playing Call of Duty on XBox Live is more about the glorification of violence than the communication culture of XBox Live.
… women stop staying home from conventions out of fear for their personal safety.
“Nothing to Prove” by the Doubleclicks doesn’t get nearly half a million views on YouTube in its first week because of how many people identify with it.
The Dice Tower podcast can’t comment that one of the biggest changes of moving board game days from a game store to another location is a significant increase in attendance by women.
… women can cosplay in Michigan in January without freezing to death.
… I can find a game store in my local area that treats my wife like a valued customer instead of my companion (if at all).
… I go one day without worrying that I will ever feel comfortable sharing my hobbies and their associated communities with my future children (especially any daughters).
… people stop referring to board games with a play time of less than one hour or lacking heavy mechanics as “wife games”.
… women working at convention booths, game stores, and comic stores are seen as (and employed as) content creators rather than eye candy.

In other words, not anytime bloody soon.

-John

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Building a Dice-Building Game: First Steps

With Bread and Circuses waiting on the USPS to get sent off to a publisher, I’ve been waiting for another game design idea. Such an idea was inspired by Episode 106 of the On Board Games podcast, in which one of the hosts laments that the term “dice building game” is used in reference to Quarriors. He argues that Quarriors is more of a “dice pool building game” than a “dice building game” since you aren’t actually constructing dice. The hosts discuss how they’d be interested in seeing a game in which you construct or rebuild the dice as the game goes on, which started my wheels turning.

Theme

For this game, the base game engine – players build or add to dice – lent itself easily to two themes. One of the themes, fantasy/RPG-style combat, seemed to already have something of a strong representation in the dice game market, most recently with two Kickstarter games – the currently-funding Dungeon Dice and the already-funded Dungeon Roll. As a result, I decided to go with my second idea for a theme, civilization-building. Civilization-building dice games are also not new – my favorite being Roll Through the Ages – but there don’t seem to be quite as many as there are in the fantasy genre, and I’ve been wanting to make a civilization-building game for a while.

Mechanics

My mechanical challenge is to get mechanics that are interesting enough, but also don’t violate basic tenets of the “X-building” genre (including deck-building and “dice pool building”).

From my observation, the most popular X-building games (Dominion, Ascension, and Quarriors in particular) use the same following basic mechanics:

Limited and equal starting resources. Each player starts off on the same footing, with the same elements in their resource pool (Copper and Estates, Apprentices and Militia, or Basic Quiddity and Apprentices, respectively).

More starting resources than you can use in one turn. Each of the three games start the player with two turns’s worth of resources (dice or cards), so that there’s a forced delay between when you acquire a resource – especially your first couple turns – and when you can use it.

Card gaining and removing mechanics. Each game has a way to add new cards to your deck and ways to remove (trash, banish, or cull) resources from your deck/pool.

Combo/engine building possibilities. Each of the games contains a set of cards such that skilled players can combine the available resources to get a large effect.

Multiple paths to victory. The available resources are diverse enough such that you don’t have to take a particular route to win the game.

Components

When I started thinking about components, I needed to make one fairly important decision – is this going to be a game where players upgrade dice by replacing one face with another or a game where players add to dice by adding additional elements? This was a decision that was partly decided by what seemed to be the easiest way to prototype – LEGO dice.

Using LEGO dice made my life easier in a few ways. First, if I decided to go with an “add” model, I don’t know how else I’d do it apart from tables and many, many cubes, which would be unwieldy, expensive, and counter-intuitive to the basic “dice building” concept. Second, if I ended up going with an “upgrade” system, I could model that with the four-peg faces of the LEGO dice.

This does lead to a problem later – particularly, I think that LEGO may own a patent on this. Still, I think I’m better off designing a good game and making modifications if there are patent issues than not designing a game at all because of fear of patent issues. If nothing else, I can try to take the path that Mobile Frame Zero took.

Engine

With the components set, I had to figure out an engine and overall “how the game works”.

The current plan (I’m waiting for parts to ship so I can start testing) is to start each player out with basic plots of land like farms, forests, and lakes, and use these plots to generate resources allowing them to build more advanced buildings, which would allow players to take different actions when those buildings are rolled. Each building would be a 1×1 tile on the die, and to diversify options within each game and keep costs down, each building would be tied to a color, and one building of each color would be in play each game. Points would be scored from the buildings purchased as well as some end-of-game bonuses, possibly related to set collection and/or the greatest number of buildings of a certain color. End game condition would be related to building depletion, to be determined with solo playtesting.

From Here

Once the parts arrive (some from eBay and some from LEGO), I’ll be designing some basic and advanced buildings and seeing how the basic engine works. Right now, it feels like the actions I choose for the buildings is going to be the critical factor in the game’s playability.

-John

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Design Update: Bread and Circuses Prototype H (New Print-And-Play Included)

It’s been a while since I blogged about Bread and Circuses, although I’ve been working on it quite a bit since then.

When I last wrote about the game, I had just finished Prototype D. This ended up being the last purely Print-and-Play Prototype, as the next prototype was printed and sent out as part of Grant Rodiek‘s Prototype PenPal Program. The external playtesters who’ve looked at this game (especially Chevee Dodd and Phil Kilcrease) have been really helpful in getting needed revisions into the game and preparing the current prototype.

Components from the current in-home Bread and Circuses prototype.

Components from the current in-home Bread and Circuses prototype.

The biggest change over the last few iterations to the game was to the Motivation cards. The entire Motivation mechanic in Prototype D (and in a couple subsequent prototypes) wasn’t very well balanced. Many of the cards gave too great an effect for too little cost. There was no way to get rid of a poor Motivation card. Someone with easy Motivation cards was able to get a number of Motivation cards completed quickly, making it extremely difficult for the other players to catch up. I started to address this by adding a “purchase” option for Motivation cards, which both reduced the ability of a player to rapidly accumulate Gold by meeting Motivations and allowed players to “buy out” of a Motivation they didn’t like. The cards themselves also got tweaked, with some unbalanced cards getting tweaked and others getting removed entirely. The revised Motivation cards were really popular with playtesters – to the extent that they wanted more cards in the deck. The deck of Motivation cards was increased to 20, and the general mechanic was left alone.

A second major change to the game was in the Negotiation rules. In very early playtesting, some less-than-social play made some restrictions on negotiation and bribery necessary. In particular, rules were created that required players to give *an* answer when asked about their selection and required players to play on promised bribes. The social negotiation part of the game proved to be very popular in external playtesting, and I’ve made some changes that opened up even more player options – with the original restrictions available as optional “regulated bribery” rules.

The third major change came about from an e-mail from a local friend who was doing some strategic analysis of the game. He pointed out that there was basically no reason to be honest when declaring what resource was being played – it only caused you to give up the only information advantage you had. I’m trying to resolve this with the addition of a Disclosure mechanic. Players have the option during Negotiation to openly declare what resource they’re playing by placing their selection tile (still face-down) on the Bread icon or Circus icon in front of them, and if they do in fact play that resource, they get extra Gold. This not only provides an incentive for players to play honestly, it also provided a game component that provided a visual reference that allows players to easily see which players are offering which resource – and which players are being deceptive.

Psst. The blue tile is lying.

Disclosure cards in use. The top card is declaring Bread; the bottom card is declaring Circuses.

Other changes were either cosmetic, addressing smaller elements of the game, or adjustments based on other changes. Currency changed from the chips from Prototype E to paper currency chits to decrease component costs. The rules were clarified in many places. The Gold-based end game condition changed from 4 times the number of players to 5 times (makes the game slightly longer and adjusts due to the addition of the Disclosure mechanic).

A lot of currency chits. Hopefully card money will be less expensive to produce.

A lot of currency chits. Hopefully card money will be less expensive to produce.

With luck, I’ll be able to generate another print prototype after this one for a final round of external playtesting before sending the game off to a publisher. If you’re in Southeast Michigan, I’ll be bringing my copy to the International TableTop Day at Stay and Play Games and Hobbies in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan, on March 30, 2013 (exact time to be determined). If you don’t want to wait that long, or don’t live in Southeast Michigan, you can download the rules, cards, and a playtest questionnaire. I hope you enjoy the game!

-John

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The Most Epic Quest of GenCon: Finding Accessible Hotels

Before I go into what will inevitably become a frustrated rant, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: GenCon staff has been incredibly responsive to my concerns about these issues. They have listened to my insane ranting until I calmed down and explained things rationally, and repeatedly provided as much information as they could to help. I wish I could say the same for their business partners.

Part 0: In Which I Am Already Set Up For Frustration

My wife and I met in March of 2009. In the nearly four years since that time, she has enriched my life indescribably – well, mostly indescribably. One very describable way that she has enriched my life is that where before I met her, I believed strongly in improving accessibility in our society, now I am starting to fully understand how accessibility options don’t just need tweaking, they need a complete overhaul. And we’re lucky – Christine’s able to walk short distances (albeit with crutches), and is capable of accessing many non-accessible areas if she really needs to (like my third-floor walkup apartment from when we first started dating). If we can’t get something accessible, odds are we can overcome it with equipment – but equipment starts to get heavy, especially if it’s equipment that I’m loading in and out of a vehicle on a regular basis (wheelchair and super-old heavy scooter, I’m looking at you). To date, our experiences with accessibility include:
This whole concert ticket fiasco.
• Having a web booking system for America’s Best Value hotels tell us that we booked an ADA room when in fact it had booked us a standard room. Up a flight of stairs. With no elevator. In pouring rain. And the hotel didn’t have any ADA rooms in the first place.
• Being locked out of a music festival because the doors by handicapped parking weren’t supposed to be opened until the festival was half over.
• Being forced to drive to five parking lots at our local baseball stadium for handicapped parking and needing to block the entrance to the VIP lot to get anyone to help us.
• And, most recently, when trying to get accessible tickets for the Detroit Red Wings’ home opener, I was only allowed to buy tickets via phone, during which time, I was hung up on once, redirected to a different ticket agent four times, and eventually was dumped into a voicemail, after which I was unable to reach any human beings at all for four hours until someone finally returned my call.

Basically, there are a lot of things that used to take me all of five minutes to do that now take me anywhere from (if I’m lucky) the same amount of time, but I need to be there an hour sooner to three days of frustrated phone calls and e-mails. And that’s just scheduling and reservations – it doesn’t even go into dealing with actually moving around in crowded or less-than-accessible spaces. The “moving around in crowded spaces” part is what led me to decide that for Christine’s first trip to GenCon, we’d try to get into the VIG program. It provides access to a lounge where she can rest and recharge her batteries (literally – she drives a scooter when significant walking would be needed), eliminates lines, and – perhaps most importantly – gets us into the dealer hall an hour early, which may or may not be necessary for her to move around in the dealer hall at all.

The VIG part of this story is pretty fast – like everyone else who couldn’t get on the site in the first two minutes of badge registration, I got to sit slack-jawed staring at my computer as I saw that the VIG program was sold out. Sadness, but that’s what happens with an extremely popular program. I was more than happy to get on the VIG waitlist and buy normal badges, but this also mean that I had to steel myself for what would surely be a Herculean effort – hotel room reservations.

Despite this being my seventh GenCon, the Hotel Registration Land Rush is something I’ve never had to worry about. Either I was working for Wizards of the Coast/Baldman Games as a DM or I decided to stay far offsite for frugality reasons. I had heard that it was intense, though, so I made it a point to read GenCon’s website before hotel registration opened to look into accessibility concerns. I was surprised to see that none were listed, so I got ready for noon on Tuesday, at which time hotel registration would open and I would book our accessible hotel room downtown.

Part 1: In Which My Patience Grows Thin

Work delayed me somewhat in getting to the site, so I don’t get in until about 12:10. The directly attached hotel rooms are gone. That’s fine – as long as I can get within half a mile, we’ll be ok. Omni Severin is still open, and reasonably priced, so I go to book that. As I’m looking for the list of requested amenities, though, I’m noticing that ADA accessibility isn’t an option. I backtrack to the housing page provided by VisitIndy and see something I hadn’t noticed when I first logged in (and on a page that wasn’t even available when I looked the day before): “Handicap accessible rooms, ADA approved, and suites cannot be booked on line. You need to either e-mail your request to <e-mail> or call the housing bureau at <phone number>”.

Well, shit. Here we go again.

Call the phone number. Busy signal. Call again. Busy signal. Fifteen minutes of busy signal later, I get a recording saying that they’re experiencing high call volume (no shit, it’s the first half hour of the GenCon Hotel Land Rush). Recording wants me to leave a message and they’ll get back to me when they can. My previous experience is that this is usually hours, if not a day or so, at which point the option to get a non-accessible room (difficult, but not impossible for Christine) downtown would be gone. Seeing no choice, however, I leave my information and go to the next listed option: e-mail. I send the e-mail and then, deciding that I have no other recourse at this time, go back to work.

Part 2: In Which I Fly Off The Handle

As it turns out, my appointments that afternoon were cancelled, so I get to go home early. I get home at about 2, and see an e-mail from VisitIndy. It’s very unusual to get a response this early, so I’m pretty excited – until I see the subject: Out of Office. The e-mail goes on to detail that “due to a high volume of e-mails today, there may be some delay in replying to your e-mail. Please expect a reply within 24 to 48 hours.”

VisitIndy wants me to be patient for up to TWO DAYS to see whether I can even get an accessible room? Hell. No.

That’s when I do this:

VisitIndy Tweet

In retrospect, putting GenCon on the spot with this tweet was kind of a dick move on my part. At this point, I hadn’t actually talked to GenCon (although their name was all over the place on the website that wouldn’t let me web register), and I actually know a guy at GenCon who I probably should have contacted first. Thankfully, that guy is a really good guy, and instantly gets ahold of me to see what is going on. After I let him know what’s up and that I don’t really think asking me to wait until all the other rooms are sold to find out if I can get the room I need is reasonable. Some checking with GenCon housing happens, and I’m told pretty quickly that the word from VisitIndy is that there are plenty of accessible rooms available and that they’re just lacking the personnel to process them quickly. Within minutes of being told this privately, the same information shows up on GenCon’s Facebook page. This is not the best news in the world, but at least I know we’ll be able to get a room. Even better, GenCon’s doing a great job trying to communicate known issues to all their fans/customers, not just the ones that complain loudly about things on Twitter.

At about the same time, I get a tweet from VisitIndy asking me to drop them an e-mail with my concerns. I do so, explaining the frustration that we don’t know how long it will be until we get a response by phone, and that two days is really too long to get a response by e-mail.

I take a short break to eat something and try to distract myself with NCIS reruns.

Part 3: In Which VisitIndy Makes It Clear They Have No Idea What They’re Doing

At around 4 PM, I get an e-mail reply from VisitIndy’s digital marketing coordinator: “If there is a handicap accessible room available, the room would have been listed via our online system; however, we’ve already received a record number of reservations, and the downtown accessible rooms are sold out, which is why it is not listed in our system.” This is followed by asking me if I want to be put on a waiting list.

No. I do not want to be put on a waiting list. I want to not hear via e-mail that your website misled me into not booking a non-accessible room. I want to not hear that you told GenCon there were plenty of accessible rooms when that wasn’t the case.

My reply e-mail is a little less friendly than my initial contact. It points out that because of the misleading information on the website, Christine and I have been denied equal access to rooms, because during the delay between trying to book a room and learning that there are no accessible rooms – despite what VisitIndy told GenCon – all the rooms within fifteen miles of the convention center have been sold out. What I don’t mention – because at this point the specifics of my wife’s disability are not any of their damn business – is that now the entire trip may be in jeopardy because the required equipment to access the convention has now gone from us taking a shower transfer chair (which was probably all that was required to access the standard room at the Omni Severin) and a scooter that I transferred out of the car once all convention to needing to load and unload the 100-pound scooter every single day of the convention. In 90-degree heat if last year’s GenCon was any indication. I also indicate that while I have no interest in a waitlist, I would love to talk to a housing director about their accessibility challenges.

This e-mail from VisitIndy was also forwarded to Friend Who Works For GenCon (and while I would love to directly name said friend, I’m trying to avoid attaching any names apart from mine and Christine’s to anything). I get a nearly immediate reply indicating that this is definitely not consistent with what he’s heard, and that he’ll pass it along to the appropriate GenCon folks and figure out what they can determine.

Another couple hours pass. I get a call from VisitIndy (I’m pretty sure from the people I left the initial voicemail with) just before 6 PM. All they have left downtown is a couple rooms at the Crowne Plaza (note: This contradicts their claim to GenCon that there were plenty of rooms AND the e-mail to me that the rooms were sold out). I start asking about specific room accommodations. Is there a roll-in shower? Is there room to store a scooter in the room? If both rooms have a roll-in shower and scooter space, which room has other accommodations, because we only need those two and we’d like to leave the room with a hojillion grab bars open for someone who can’t walk with crutches? They. Don’t. Know.

I’d like to point out here that health privacy laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit businesses from asking about the nature of your disability except to ask what accommodations are needed. In fact, they aren’t even allowed to ask if you have a disability when trying to book an ADA room. Thus, the only benefit to requiring human interaction to book the room is so that someone knowledgeable with the room’s features can confirm that the room meets your accessibility needs. And the person handling this for VisitIndy can’t answer these questions (which, as accessibility questions go, is incredibly basic – someone dealing with accessible rooms should be able to answer questions like “Is there a grab bar at least two feet off the ground on the left side of the toilet?”).
So, being unable to answer questions about accessibility is yet another fail on VisitIndy’s part, but we at least have a room, downtown, that probably has what we need – at least, the reservation says “ADA Wheelchair Access” and “Request for roll-in shower”. I’ll be following up with the hotel as the convention gets closer to confirm exactly what accommodations the room would have (note: this is an incredibly useful idea if you happen to be booking an accessible hotel room for the first time, as doing the double-check sometimes alerts the hotel staff to “oh shit, we need to make sure this person actually gets the accessible room they requested).

The requested phone contact from a VisitIndy housing director happens on Wednesday. The housing director is friendly, listens to my concerns and suggestions, and asks if I would be available at a later date to speak with someone again as they try to improve their accessibility. Then – and I still can’t believe this was done – VisitIndy totally throws GenCon under the bus, claiming that not only should GenCon have had the information about accessible rooms on their website to begin with, but that disallowing booking of accessible rooms through the website was done at the request of GenCon. I express surprise at this, since I had been speaking with employees of GenCon and this all seemed to be a surprise to them. The housing director falters slightly before asking for names. I provide the name of Awesome GenCon Employee Friend and note that I was getting information third hand, so I might have misunderstood something (later contacts with GenCon Friend suggest that the information VisitIndy gave me is not the same as the information GenCon gave him).

Regardless, my hotel room is booked, I’ve actually spoken with someone from VisitIndy, and I figure that all I need to do is debrief Awesome GenCon Employee Friend about the conversation so he can pass the information on to their housing folks. Then, around noon on Friday, I get a reply e-mail from VisitIndy. From the address whose “it may be 48 hours” auto-reply on Tuesday initially set me off. The e-mail confirms that I have a room at the Crowne Plaza (which is, in all honesty, probably the first good move on their part, because the last thing they need is to find out in a month that two different people with my name are trying to book accessible rooms), and to let them know if they can be of further assistance. The problem here is only apparent if you’re looking at a calendar – noon Tuesday to noon Friday? Not within 24 to 48 hours. If I’d used the e-mail system only and not called – probably even if I’d e-mailed when registration first opened – I’d have been totally screwed.

Part 4: In Which I Try To Be Helpful

In the end, while I got what I needed, this was an incredibly frustrating experience, and as I related to Awesome GenCon Employee Friend With Superb Listening Skills And Patience, I’m getting a little tired of something that would take five minutes to do if I was traveling alone take six hours because I’m traveling with my physically impaired wife. As a result, I’m leaving the following take-away for any associated with GenCon or VisitIndy (or who are just interested in accessibility at conventions and hotels):

  1. The reservation timing gap is completely unacceptable from a customer service perspective. If your rooms are going to sell out – and if you’re GenCon, they are – there needs to be a system in place so that people who need accessible rooms can find out if they’re able to get accessible rooms in a timely fashion. In this case, knowing that the accessible rooms are gone at 12:30 means you can book a non-accessible room that is still close and find a way to work things out, but if you don’t find out until 7:00 that they’re gone, you can’t get the close standard rooms anymore.
  2. I am not a lawyer, but what I’ve read about accessibility in the past as well as what I’ve looked up this past week suggests that there may be ADA issues with a system that offers options that are only available to those reserving standard rooms (that is, a website that allows you to purchase standard rooms, but not accessible rooms). Ticketmaster had a huge settlement about a web system that did exactly this (although, to be fair, Ticketmaster had a ton of other accessibility issues as well), so it’s worth making sure those ducks are in a row.
  3. I realize that there’s a concern that some people will be dicks and book accessible rooms when they don’t need them, and that’s what motivates the “talk to a human to book an accessible room” system. But this doesn’t actually stop people from being dicks – you can’t ask someone trying to buy an accessible room (or accessible anything) what their disability is or even if they have a disability. All you can do is ask what accommodations they need (and, again, VisitIndy didn’t even do a good job of that). Yes, the phone-in system makes it harder for people to be dicks, but it also makes it harder for people with actual disabilities to access your convention or hotel.
  4. Because you can’t stop people from being dicks, the main concern with the reservation systems is to stop people from booking accessible rooms by accident. This can be handled (although not necessarily easily – I don’t know what goes into these systems) by setting up a parallel reservation site for accessible rooms. Taking the current reservation site as an example, adding a link that says “click here to reserve an ADA room” followed by a popup saying “ADA rooms are reserved for people who have access needs. Are you sure you want to reserve an ADA room?” is an accessible and certainly legal way to handle this.
  5. I can’t say enough how awesome GenCon has been about this whole process. Every communication I’ve seen from GenCon has been rapid and clear. Even though Awesome GenCon Employee Friend doesn’t work with housing, housing gave him clear answers quickly, and he relayed them to me quickly as well. As the convention grows, issues like accessibility become harder to manage, and I’m glad to see that the convention staff seems ready and willing to reach out to attendees having difficulties, get them information, offer them solutions, and listen to suggestions for improvement.

Epilogue: In Which VisitIndy Starts To Dig Itself Out Of The Hole.

Everything before this point was written while I was at work today (the Monday following the opening of hotel registration). I got home to find a large envelope from VisitIndy in the mail. Included in this envelope was a thoughtfully written letter from VisitIndy’s vice president of marketing and communications, who I believe is someone I haven’t previously interacted with. He specifically apologized for the frustrations we had booking our room for the convention and that they are trying to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that ADA-friendly rooms can be booked through the online system. There was also included an appreciated but totally unnecessary gift certificate to a local dining establishment. To customer service executives: This is the way you do it. Not the gift card (although, again, appreciated), but the follow-up letter specifically addressing the customer’s concerns and planned corrective action. It was the first time I got any indication from VisitIndy that they had a genuine interest in determining and addressing the problem I was having rather than passing the buck on to someone else.

-John

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