This weekend, Stonemaier Games hosted its eighth annual Design Day (last year’s was virtual–more on this year’s in-person safety in a second). On Sunday, the Design Day itself featured designers, playtesters, and gamers from St. Louis and around the country for 12+ hours of playtesting and gaming at Pieces Board Game Bar and Cafe.

The purpose of Design Day is to bring together designers, playtesters, and content creators to give and receive feedback on game prototypes, expand their network within the gaming community, and learn from clever mechanisms in published games. If you’d like to know details about how the day is structured, you can read about previous Design Days herehereherehere, here, and here.

Why We Run This Event

On paper, the event doesn’t make all that much sense. We’re not promoting anything. There’s really no focus on Stonemaier Games at all. Attendees pay a fee to cover the 3 meals provided by Pieces, but we lose money on the event. And we’re really not a convention- or event-driven company.

But to put it simply, Design Day is just something I like doing. I like doing it for the designers. I like doing it for the playtesters and gamers. And I like doing it for me–it feels good for me to host something fun and useful for others, and I get to play games and chat in person with awesome people. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to scout potential Stonemaier Games publications (we discovered Pendulum at Design Day, and Alex playtested a version of Red Rising there in 2019).

How Does Design Day Work?

We opened ticket sales in the spring to past attendees, then any remaining tickets went to e-newsletter subscribers who signed up before they sold out (space is limited at Pieces to around 100 people). We charged $35-40 per ticket, which covers about 70% of the total food/beverage/space cost for the day (Stonemaier subsidized the rest).
We sent a monthly email each month each containing new information and an actionable step for attendees. Probably the most complicated step is creating the calendar of events, which requires us to consider game length, player count, table size, etc.
Pieces Board Game Bar and Cafe provided the space, food, and drinks (and access to their huge game collection). We have Pieces serve their delicious homemade cookies throughout the day, and attendees quickly discovered their delicious gaming-themed alcoholic beverages.
The schedule of the day is preset–people sign up for tables in advance. Past attendees know this system really well, so we never had to interrupt the day with a single announcement, yet every game ran on schedule. Attendees were also flexible for games that ended early or when the designers didn’t show up–they simply picked another game to play.
A mix of unpublished prototypes and published games were played, with the intent being that each can inform the experiences of the other.
I spent most of the day observing various games, trying to ensure that everyone had a game to play, and trying to have a few minutes of quality time with each attendee.

What Was Different About This Year?

COVID safety: It’s really, really important to us that we keep our friends, peers, and families safe. We debated having the event at all, but we decided we could proceed safely by (a) admitting only vaccinated attendees (we checked vaccination cards at the door), (b) adhering to St. Louis City’s mask mandate, (c) asking all attendees to wear masks indoors in public spaces for 9 days leading up to the event, and (d) offering full refunds at any time for attendees who couldn’t adhere to those guidelines or weren’t feeling well the week of the event. I have to say, I’m used to wearing a mask by now, but it isn’t ideal to wear one for 12 straight hours, and attendees were amazing sports about this requirement (it’s also hard to recognize familiar faces when they’re covered by masks). It also helped that it was a nice day in St. Louis and Pieces has outdoor seating, so a lot of people ate outside at dinner.
Joe: My coworker, Director of Communications Joe, planned and ran Design Day this year (last year was his first year, though it ended with an anticlimactic–but still fun–virtual event). He did a wonderful job handling all of the logistics. I was still in “host mode” during the day, but it was nice that I could really put all of my focus on the attendees instead of needing to coordinate anything with Pieces (though Pieces is well experienced in running events–they’re excellent).
The benefits of fewer attendees: In the past, we’ve aimed for around 100 attendees, especially as interest in the event has grown. If someone cancels, we contact the next person on the wait list. This year we didn’t do that, though, as COVID rates climbed dramatically over the summer due to the Delta variant and the significant number of unvaccinated US citizens–we figured that smaller could be better. As a result, we ended up with around 75 people at Pieces yesterday. One of the unexpected benefits of this change is that I was able to spend quality time with nearly every attendee (I missed a few by accident, and I’m sorry!) I was fortunate to be included in some really interesting conversations this year on a variety of topics ranging from light to heavy–it was a huge reminder to me of how much I can learn from others when we’re just two people chatting face-to-face.
Approach to food: We decided to serve a family-style lunch to each table (dips and quesadillas) and offer a taco bar at dinner. This worked fairly well, though I don’t think I would go entirely family-style next year. Rather, having dips served to each table and then having people get up and serve themselves from a quesadilla bar would allow more mingling, more people gravitating outside, and more flexibility for everyone to eat the exact amount of food they want.
Inviting Content Creators: There are many content creators with whom I’d like to share Design Day, so this year I decided to extend personal invitations to a few of them. It was really awesome to hang out with Dwayne and Alicia from Black Board Gaming, Roberto from Shear Boardom, Dusty from the Mill (and his son), Ruel Gaviola, and Carlos and Rob from the Beans & Dice podcast, among others.

10 Highest-Rated Games of Design Day 2021

After playtesters tried out the 36 prototypes at Design Day, they wrote down a 1-10 rating on a little card. Design Day isn’t a competition; rather, the ratings are meant to help designers figure out how much work their games need (and perhaps they can offer those designers a boost of confidence or something quantifiable to show to a publisher or their Kickstarter backers).

Here are the 10 highest-rated games of this year’s event:

War of the Woods by Joshua Phillips (8.57)
Sansui by Roland Henderson (8.33)
Elements of Avalon by Tyson Gajewski (8.29)
Apiary by Connie Vogelmann (8.25)
Fromage by Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley (7.86)
Civ Dice by Ira Fay (7.42)
Capital Campaign by James Peters (7.40)
Pha-Roll by Ben Ennes (7.33)
Teamsters of Tortured Space by Scott Scribner (7.17)
Overflow by Jacob Gentrup (7.14)

Next Year

The one thing I’m left wondering about is if we should showcase something special at Design Day, some secret sneak peek at what’s coming next for Stonemaier Games. As I mentioned above, Design Day is about the attendees, not Stonemaier, but people travel from near and far to attend, and I wonder if something like that would enhance their experience. I’ll think about it for next year.

Have you found value in running or attending events related to your industry? If you want to attend Design Day next year, we’ll likely announce any available slots in our April e-newsletter.