The Elements of a Successful
Carnival Game (I)
Copyright © Eliot
The Global Gaming Expo (G2E)
takes place each fall at the Las Vegas
. This exposition is
the gauntlet through which most new table games pass on their way
towards an uncertain future. Many
of these games are produced by individual inventors with little
experience in the industry.
On the other side, casinos and
Table Game Directors are inundated with new games. The line of developers with
“great new ideas” stretches out the door, around the corner and
down the block. Each
developer has a long list of reasons his game is the best new idea
since Three Card Poker; the big “if” is getting to the front of
(the “Wizard of Odds”) puts it this way: “The perception of
those new to the business is that casino management will fall all
over themselves trying to get your game
into their casino. What is closer to reality is that game inventors
fall all over themselves trying to get their games into a casino.”
When the developer finally gets
his moment, he often misses the most important point. The developer presents his
game in terms of how much money it will make for the casino –
it’s an absolute number. The
casino’s view is relative: the
new game has to make more than the worst performing game already on
All is not lost for the
developer. Established casinos
are looking for new games all the time. Players want both
variety and contemporary themes. There are emerging markets
where casinos are looking for that special game that gives them a
competitive advantage. There is an unprecedented need for new
table games in the market.
These new table games are often
called "carnival games." These games are not for the
serious player -- the backbone of traditional table games consists
of blackjack, roulette, baccarat and craps. The new breed of
games include names like Three Card Poker, Caribbean Stud, Spanish
21, Super Fun 21, Ultimate Texas Hold'Em, and many many more.
The new game developer hopes to compete in this market against
formidable companies such as Shuffle Master.
There are some basic principles
that guide carnival game development.
These principles are also a guide to casino management in
choosing new carnival games. As
game designs and ideas flood the market, a mutual understanding of
the basic parameters for successful new games becomes critical.
Here are ten principles for game
design, development and selection:
The idea of a new table game should be explainable to
a person of average intelligence in less than a minute. It is much easier for the
patron to walk past a new game than to have the game explained. There is a basic lack of trust when
a player sees a new game, establishing that trust is the most
difficult part of bringing a new game to market. Simplicity is
one of the keys. The prospective player will pass if
the game idea, rules, and strategy are not intuitive. The bulk
of the demographic for these games are those players who are looking
for something more than slots but are not up to the task of
mastering blackjack strategy or the daunting craps layout.
Remember to KEEP IT SIMPLE.
There should be at most one side bet. Many inventors create a
basic game idea then over-populate their layout with several side
bets. Their idea is
that if the main game isn’t attractive, then maybe the player will
find some other reason to play.
Those games offering multiple wagering options have not seen
much success. Remember, you can always add a feature to an
established game, but a game with too much on the layout may never
see the day when something can be taken away.
The layout should be simple and ergonomic. The developer should always
be thinking about what they can remove from their layout and still
express the idea of the game. The
layout should use positive and power words (win, bonus,
fortune, lucky, etc.). When
naming elements of the game, numbers and negative terminology should
be avoided. As an
example of the power of words we turn to Blackjack: “everyone knows” you
should not take “insurance.” After all,
"insurance" is only needed in anticipation of a bad
outcome. If you take it, then you are expecting the worst --
what gambler wants that? On the other hand, “everyone
knows” you should take “Even Money” -- it's money in the bank,
guaranteed income. The ironic secret is that these two are the
same when the player holds a blackjack: even money =
The game should have a house edge consistent with the
edge for other games in its category.
For the main game of a new carnival game, the edge should be
between 2% and 6%. For
the side bet (if any) the edge should be variable and easily
adjusted by the house to meet their needs. The one sure way
for a game to fail is to have new players sit down and lose quickly.
A game that has rare large payouts is less likely to succeed than a
game that has more frequent but smaller payouts. Successful
games often integrate both the big rare payout with the small
frequent payout by building a side bet that offers the former with a
main game that offers the latter. Your game should not be
"strategically neutral" -- that is, the player should have
some ability to make a decision at some point in the game.
These decisions go by names like raise, stand, fold, double, split,
hit, surrender, press, and so on. Only side-bets can be
designed to be strategically neutral; the main game must have at
least one instance of strategic decision making, however trivial,
for the player. For example, on the Ante/Play wager in Three
Card Poker the player should play Q-6-4 or higher and fold all
lesser hands. That's a decision point; it may be a trivial
decision, but it is the key to the success of Three Card Poker.
On the other hand, the "Pair Plus" side bet in Three Card
Poker has no decision point.
The name of the game and the actual play of the game
should involve an idea that has popular interest in the culture. For example, “Pete’s
Poker” is much more likely to be successful than “
’s Chess.” Also, make sure no extra words are in the name:
"Alabama Poker" is preferred to "Alabama Style
Poker". Even if it is a stretch, replace the word
"Poker" with a specific game, as in "Alabama Hold
'Em" or "Alabama Stud." The name has to be
compelling to the player. It has to give the feeling that the
game has been around a long time, even if it is new. On the
other hand, use some common sense. For example, "WhoopAss
Poker" is an existing game (Google it), but I know casinos that
won't take it because of its name. Also, variations of
existing names are a good choice: "EZ Pai Gow" and
"Three Card Blackjack" are compelling names. The
name is just about as important as the rest of the game put together
-- you are creating a brand.
The game should be easy for the staff, management,
dealers and casino security to learn.
The rules and layout should be designed to minimize dealer
errors and training time.
Ultimately it is the dealer who will sell your game, so make sure
the game is designed for the dealers! They don't want to learn
new games and don't want to deal them. It's up to you to
change their mind about your game. The documentation of
the game should be as simple, clear and attractive as possible.
Get rid of every extra word, dash, number, color, logo, line, or
dot. Reread and reconsider until there is not an extra
anything anywhere on the layout, the rules, the signage, or any
other part of the game. Just as with side bets, you can always
add something later if it becomes clear that it is essential, but
you will not have the opportunity to take anything away if your game
fails. I am reminded of the way cement paths are best created
across grassy meadows -- wait for the grass to be trampled into the
natural human pathways and only then create the path.
The game should not involve new physical elements. The established elements of
cards and dice are enough.
Some established games use tiles (Pai Gow or Mahjong). New
devices require new security and training and are universally enough
to doom the idea. I disagree with the comment of Ed Rogich
from IGT (International Game Technology) who said: "There is
only so much you can do with 52 cards." One could
similarly argue that there is only so much you can do with the 100+
chemical elements of the periodic table. Human ingenuity and
creativity are boundless, but one boundary is fixed: do not create a
new gaming device.
In the last four years I have personally seen over 50
Hold ‘Em poker type games presented at G2E. This indicates the need in
the market for poker games, but also that there is a lot of
developing a carnival game needs to know the full range of games
offered in his area of development.
Do your research! I would like to argue that blackjack
and poker don't mix, but the game "21 + 3" is a clear
example of a successful marriage of the two. Nevertheless, be
very cautious that the area of your development is popular in
current culture, and that any mixture of ideas is carefully thought
Both the casino and the game designer must keep in
mind that there are individuals dedicated to finding legal ways to
exploit defects in the procedure or design of a game for profit. The game must be bullet
tested against advantage play.
This is much tougher than might first appear. The ingenuity of those who
want to defeat new games far exceeds the skill of most designers or
casino personnel to detect these flaws. Be especially careful
in games that are susceptible to a card counting strategy.
Card counting is legal and the individuals who beat your game this
way are neither cheaters nor crooks. They are mostly decent
and smart people and what they are doing is legal. Expect a
careful review of your game by advantage players. You've just
got to be smarter.
Don't try and make
your money back right away. You may have to offer your game
for free. You may have to baby sit your game a lot to generate
player interest. You may have to develop the player base all
by yourself, one player at a time. It's hard work and costs a
lot more than you can imagine. A typical game may cost $50,000
or more to bring to market, with no guarantee of success. Most
games are leased on a monthly per-table basis. The top players in the
carnival game market are raising their prices on their best games. Casinos pay as much as $2500
per month of a single table of some highly popular games. Developers should offer and
casinos should expect a great deal on a new game. The lucky developer may get
rich on the new game, but not quickly. It costs a small fortune to
make a big fortune.
As a game analyst and
consultant, I am often presented with ideas that go against one or
more of the principles given above.
Many game developers stubbornly hold on to their ideas. Success requires a great
idea, a solid understanding of what works, and the ability to be
flexible. If developers
consider these points in their creative process and management
considers these points in their game selection process, there may be
considerably less pain for both sides.
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