POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #51: The Waiting Game

By Jeffrey D. Allers

During the summer of ’94, Berlin was still a frontier for me, and each day was an expedition into new territory. I stayed in a youth hostel, contacted architectural offices on street-side pay phones, and criss-crossed the city with portfolio in hand, delivering my resume in person to anyone who asked me to mail it to them. Sometimes, I even went door-to-door, unannounced. I had nothing to lose, and the architects of Berlin were so spread out that I used it as an opportunity to explore this fascinating metropolis. Then, in the evenings, I would tour the city’s nightlife with the multi-cultural backpackers with whom I shared my hostel’s dorm room.

One hot day, after dropping by several different firms and spouting my rehearsed German lines to no avail, I spotted a local Eckkneipe, or corner pub, and decided to have a refreshing drink with the locals. After taking my seat at the bar and ordering my beer, it was not long before I was in the middle of a colorful conversation with some of the other friendly patrons. As our banter continued for a time, they casually sipped from their mugs in between remarks, and I began to grow impatient, wondering aloud to the bartender if she had forgotten my order. The man sitting next to me at the bar put his hand on my shoulder and gently said to me with a smile, “This is German beer. It takes time to pour it right.”

The incident exposed a weakness of mine: I hate waiting. Patience is one virtue I have struggled to acquire, and although I have gained a good measure of it with age, I can still get antsy when I am forced to wait for something.

We all spend a good bit of time waiting. It is unavoidable, even in a country whose citizens value punctuality and where most trains still arrive on time. In fact, there are probably statistics somewhere about the number of years the average person spends his life standing in a queue, or waiting for something or someone.

It might even be interesting to record the average time a gamer spends waiting for his or her next turn. There is nothing more frustrating for an impatient person than to endure a brain-burning strategy game with one or more players who cannot make up their minds. “Analysis paralysis” has become the scarlet letter of gaming, and most mainstream publishers avoid game mechanics that might encourage downtime these days. With smaller publishers, however, one can almost count on a longer wait in between turns. The “waiting games” currently constitute a strong niche market, it seems.

But waiting is not restricted to the playing of the games. I often see gamers posting online lists of their “most anticipated” releases, then struggle through the waiting period before the games are actually available for purchase. And if they are first released in another market, more waiting is required before the game is either imported or picked up by a local publisher. Germany waited four years for Qwirkle—or Qwirkle waited four years for Germany, depending on how one looks at it. Either way, that’s a lot of waiting.

Many publishers recognize this waiting period as a good time to build up publicity for the game, which can benefit sales as long as the game comes to market just as the “buzz” reaches its apex. It can also backfire, however, if the game is somehow delayed because of editing or production issues. If the timing is not right, it might even be forgotten before it is ever released. The risk is compounded if the game is being produced in a foreign country, as it’s very difficult to predict whether the game will arrive and clear customs on time. When it finally does, there’s usually no time to spare with quality control, which has unfortunately become an issue much too often. Last year’s Spiel convention in Essen had a number of no-shows, a few last-minute arrivals, and several games with inferior components. The waiting game can make a nervous wreck out of a publisher.

But perhaps the most difficult players in the waiting game are the designers themselves. I once read that some popular games took at least a decade to finally find a publisher, and I admire the perseverance of their designers. I’ve had to learn a bit of that patience as well, and I’ve discovered that there are two waiting periods that are the most difficult for designers trying to get published.

The first occurs after a publisher requests a prototype. The initial euphoria of having them interested in the game is slowly eroded away by the long wait while the prototype is tested by staff and playtest groups—side by side with hundreds of other submissions. Many of these companies receive an average of one solicited prototype each day, and most produce only a couple of games every year. When all is said and done, making the publisher’s “Top 10” for the year may be honorable, but it won’t always result in a contract. And it may take a year or more before they’ve made the final decision, increasing the tension exponentially, especially if it’s a designer’s first attempt at pitching a game.

The second wait is after a contract is finally signed, and the next euphoric high evaporates, once its clear that the game will not be produced as quickly as was hinted. It’s not because the publisher is being dishonest, of course, but it does seem that initial intentions are often cast aside once the signatures on the paperwork have dried. This can be for a number of reasons. Perhaps the company wishes to change the theme or mechanics in a substantial way, which requires more playtesting. Or there may be production issues that delay the components from arriving on time. Sometimes, the publisher must reevaluate its product line and bump the game to a later spot in its queue. No matter what the reason may be, the wait is even more difficult for a designer to bear at this stage, as his or her expectations have been elevated by the contract in hand. Most contracts, of course, have a deadline clause, but even if the game misses its contract release date, there is little incentive to start pitching it to others, especially if the game is all but printer-ready. Instead, it means more waiting…

…waiting to see that clip-art prototype finally done up with professional illustrations and quality components…waiting to finally see the game on store shelves, and to read online feedback from gamers all around the world who are playing it…

I hate waiting. Then again, I think back to the time in that pub, and I realize,
these are German games, and they take time to do them right.

About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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2 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #51: The Waiting Game

  1. Hi Jeff!

    Nice post and I’ll be waiting with you!


  2. Brett Myers says:

    Oh, the waiting game.

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