5 Tips for Table Game Inventors ft. Dan Sahl

Dan Sahl from UNLV IGI will be joining us to discuss 5 important tips for new table game inventors.

Heather: I am joined today by a special guest. Dan, would you like to introduce yourself to the audience? Tell people a little more about yourself and some of your history?

Dan: Sure thing Heather. Thanks for inviting me to talk on your show. So I’m Dan Saul, I am the director of a really cool program that we have at UNLV called the Center for Gaming Innovation. It’s definitely only in Vegas kind of thing. The center is basically dedicated to teaching, researching and innovating in the casino gaming space. I guess you could call me one of the few official academic experts at least on casino gaming design, how casino games work, mathematically, games rules in terms of the business structure of the games. Most of my focus is really on innovation and how casino games are going to change over the next 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, and teaching students all over UNLV, I even get a lot of international students, how to think about building casino games. And helping them innovative or creating casino games products in a wide range of spaces.

Heather: When is the next time that class is going to happen and can the people who are watching this video can they join? Is that something just for UNLV students or can anyone register for your class?

Dan: So the class is a once a year thing. We hold it every – it starts in late August and it ends in early December. It’s a once a week class for three hours. It’s held in the Stan Fulton casino lab on main campus. It’s an evening class so 5:30 - 8:30 on Wednesdays. We do now have a streaming component. So it is possible, while we do prefer students to come into the class and participate in the class, we now do offer an opportunity to students that are not in Clark County or close to Las Vegas to participate via a livestream connection.

Heather: That is so exciting. So anyone in America or the world can do this? Anyone watching can do this?

Dan: Absolutely. Yes, it is fairly simple. We have a process to get students about 70 - 80% of our students are UNLV students from all sorts of departments. But we do have a fair number of students who are non-degree students. We call them non-degree students. It a very simple process to register as a non-degree student. You are not taking the class for credit, so it doesn’t contribute towards the awarding of a degree. But a lot of the students that take our class, they are not taking the class to advance a degree. They are taking the class because they have an idea, they have a passion and they are looking for a way to take an idea and hopefully turn it into something tangible that they can further develop. That is really what the program is focusing on doing. Helping students learn how to innovate in the space, and hopefully come up with a really cool idea that they might be able to develop or sell themselves.

Heather: So is this something where they have to contact you to get into the class? Or is there a link that they can click to register themselves in the class?

Dan: I would say would always be smart to reach out to me first.

Heather: Okay. Anyone that is watching and you would like to get into Dan’s class email me at [email protected] I will make the introduction and we will get you into his class.

Dan: Absolutely. It’s a very unique class. It’s one of the few University classes that you can take where you might wind up with a patent, an issued patent. Or you might wind up with a deal to sell or license your technology to a company and actually see your game out there being played or developed. It’s very unique. The only program in the world that does that. The only class in the world that you can learn this stuff.

Heather: The class is amazing! You have mentors too right? So menors actually look at the table game that you invent and then they give you feedback. So it’s like you go through the whole process with them from A to Z and then you are giving your students a ton of information on inventions and table games. There is so much there. You could probably have a 101 class, a 102, class 103 class.

Dan: I mean you are right there is a lot to cover. One of the nice things about being located in Las Vegas is we can draw on a lot of talent and experience to help the students develop their IP. We have some great guest lectures from really really impressive people in our industry who will be very successful at making innovations. So we do bring in mentors to try and provide feedback. The goal for every student to develop an innovative concept that could have potential as a gaming concept. Not every student necessarily get to that point where we are like, “I think you have something that we can sell.” I would say a fair number of students that do reach a point where we reach a point where we are like, this is something good, let’s explore it further, let’s file a patent. There is a patent potential there. Let’s see if we can develop a mathematical model or a program, a playable demo of the game. So having that expertise that’s based here in Las Vegas. We are the world leader in casino game development and design to help a game further forward, cool student ideas. It helps us be so different in terms of experiences you are going to get from the class.

Heather: That is really cool. So if you guys are interested in this, if you have a casino table game invention in your head and you want to actually do this properly, Dan’s class is amazon! Check it out, join, he will walk you through the process. And if your game is good enough you can get a patent or say that again?

Dan: A patent. Well we do. We file…some gaming technology can be patented. It depends. Not every innovative game concept can be patented but some can. So UNLV, we filed a number of patents over the last few years. We have actually had 18 patents that have been issued to students.

Heather: Wow!

Dan: Right. A patent has – we won’t go into the details but again, patents add value to your concept and it gives you some protection for the idea if you can get a good patent issued.

Heather: That’s really cool. And another thing is with your class, not only do you help people go through the process but you offer mathematician assistance, you offer, if they need any legal work. The UNLV legal department student advisors help you out. It’s just a whole community of people working together to make this game into something big.

Dan: Yep. Again if we really think something is there, then we will do what we can with our resources to try and get them out there. One of the benefits to table games, we are focusing on table games, is unlike other types of casino gaming products, it’s actually surprisingly easy for an individual to get the game actually on the floor of a casino. Say like in a Las Vegas casino. There are some costs associated with it and there are some steps. But it’s very different to have a vision for a table game that you think could be pretty cool, that you want to put on the floor vs a slot. You can’t just program a slot and put on the casino floor. The concept is prohibitively higher vs table games. There are actually reasonable steps we can take to get it out there being played in an actual casino.

Heather: Yeah. Definitely. Speaking of which. Should we start talking about our topic for the day? 5 Tips for inventing a new casino table game. I think we will start off with number one. First tip that I think is on everybody's mind, it’s all about timing. Is this good timing with what's going on with Covid right now?

Dan: I certainly have not worked with any students over the last year to help them bring new table games to the floor. Casinos were shut down for four months, they reopened in a very reconstructive state, and social distinging. You know here in Nevada 40% of betting spots on the table are closed. There are some exceptions because some tables have partitions which will allow for more. But no matter how you look at it, the amount of players that a single dealer can accommodate on a table is being reduced because of social distancing. That adds to the cost of the gambling. It reduces the revenue that can be generated. I think that casinos are being…you know it’s been a rough year if you are in the casino business no matter where you are at. Some casinos are fully shut down, others have opened with very strict social distancing. New cleaning and safety protocols for their dealers and the players.

You know introducing a new table game…casinos like trying new stuff. Some casinos are more interested in it than others. Introducing a new table game though, is fun but is also a bit of a disruption to the normal way that things happen in the operations of a casino. I think that wouldn’t be a good time to try to bring more disruption by having a new game. That being said I think that things are normalizing a bit at least in the North American market over the last six months. And there might be more tolerance or interest in trying to start a game because as vaccinations increase social distancing will get less onerous and there might be some interest to start.

Heather: Yeah. From what I have heard a lot of casinos are just treading water right now and like you were talking about with only the tables cut down to three people per table, where there used to be 6 or 7 people per table and now they are at like 25 - 50 % occupancy rate. All of the casinos were treading water and some of the casinos just closed the carnival pit. They just had the main pits open because they cut down on the workforce.

Hopefully in Las Vegas June 1st we go back to 100% occupancy rate. Do you think that the casino will go back to business right away like gung ho? Or do you think casinos are going to ease their way back including taking their normal risk when it comes to new casino table games?

Dan: It’s hard to say, but it’s difficult to say. I think once we get back to normal with table games, it really – part of what comes into play is the revenue question. If we are talking about Nevada specifically, or Las Vegas specifically, I think the expectation as vaccination increases and social distancing requirements reduce we are going to see a lot of domestic tourism in Nevada as people from across the country are eager to get out and do something again. If revenues are healthy then I expect that we will see more interest in trying new stuff.

Heather: Sounds good. Do you have anything you would like to add to tip number one before we go on?

Dan: No. Nothing specifically. With tip number one, we can talk later on about getting that field trial, getting a casino to give it a shot, right. How do you make that approach? With a little bit of prep and a little bit of luck. Maybe that would be better to talk about later in our discussion.

Heather: We will have that on as a separate tip for sure.


Heather: And on to tip number two with casino games, there's are a lot prepwork. You have a lot of process. Inventors have a lot of steps that they have to go through to get their game ready to put in the casino. But one step that I think is extremely important that more casino table game inventors miss than they should is the mathematics on that. People do need to get their math. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? And if you have anything else to add about that?

Dan: Well yeah table game math is step number two. Step number one is the question of what is this new thing – so I think about the standard – the core table games, roulette, blackjack, craps, baccarat, those are your core table games in the casino. I think you can throw three card poker, quite frankly into that group even though it is a specialty game because it’s been so popular for so long. Those have – All those games to some extent deliver different types of experiences if you're a player. Blackjack being the most complicated of them all, lots of things to think about and keep track of. Lots of opportunities for players to increase their risk. Whether it’s hitting on a 12 against the dealer, two or four, or doubling down, dubbing down on a 9 against the dealer’s 7. There’s lots of ways for players to use perfect strategy or to deviate from perfect strategy if they are feeling luckier if they want to increase the adrenaline.

And you have a game like baccarat where there is really no skill involved. But baccarat players themselves they really emphasize or are looking for patterns that probably don’t matter but to them are very meaningful in trying to determine which side of the baccarat table to place their bet.

A game like roulette which offers more volatility in the core game than other games. And there's again looking for patterns, but also takes a bit longer to play than some of the other games. Roulette being a much slower game.

You know all those games have different appeal to players. I am not even going to touch craps because it’s such a complicated crazy game. There are ways that appeals to players, different rules, different entertainment experiences I would say. So if you want to innovate in the table game space – and of course there are all the specialty games which we don’t really have time to break down, they offer their own entertainment experience. If you want to innovate in that space, the first question I would ask myself is, “Are you providing an entertainment experience from the players perspective that is going to enhance one of these classic games that will create a whole new balance of chance, and risk and reward? It really does start with what makes your game different. Also what is the thrill, excitement, and entertainment that your players are going to get when they play your game vs the other games that are already available to play.

Heather: And then comes the math. Well let’s move on to that so tip number three would be the math then.

Dan: It all comes down to the math. It really does come down to the math. Some math is obvious and some math is less obvious.

Heather: Get your math done! Don’t bypass that!

Dan: And get your math done. If you are not a mathematician – I am actually not a mathematician although sometimes I find ways to cobble together reasonable mathematical models for different games that I am thinking about or working on with students. The math really does mater because it has to –the game has to have reliable house advantage or it just wouldn’t work. You have to prove that house advantage to whatever regulatory board. If you want to launch a field trial in Las Vegas or Nevada you need to submit certified math to the Gaming Control Board as part of that trial. That math – I can tell you that the process of being math certified – It’s not – compared to other math it is not incredibly inexpensive but for an individual inventor several thousand dollars on math for math certification. That is not a small amount. You don’t want to charge in blindly with your math. Some math is obvious. If a student comes to me and says, “I want to play a game where if you bet on a red and if you draw a red card it pays 3 to 1.” I am going to tell you right now that’s not going to work. Right? The odds of drawing a red card is 2 to 1, right? So you are paying more than the odds are. Other times math – sometimes the math can be tricky that is obvious. Other times the math can be very complicated and the more decision making you give the player.

The more options that the player has to exercise strategy the more complicated the math will be. You are going to have to account for all of the different actions the player can take, and the decision making process. That’s not to say don’t create a game where players have a decision to make, players like having decisions to make, particularly in specialty games. But, just know the more decisions the player has to make the more complicated the math can be.

Heather: And the longer it takes. But also, with the math, what you were saying before where it’s like several thousand for the application for the Gaming Control Board, that’s different for every state. So that’s not like a one time thing and then you are good in America. That is a one time thing in Nevada, and then if you want to do Washington you have to pay a separate amount for them and then if you want to do a different state you have to pay a separate amount for them.

Dan: And let’s not forget the Tribal jurisdictions as well.

Heather: Yeah.

Dan: You know the one good thing that I will say is, what ever jurisdiction you plan on doing it in, let’s say in New Jersey, Nevada those would be the two obvious ones. There are other jurisdictions. There are multiple expenses you need to consider. There is the math certification and there are only two companies that do math certification and probably you are going to want to pay a skilled mathematician in advance because they are going to cost less to actually do a very thorough mathematical analysis. They cost a bit less than the certifiers. They will work with you to make sure you get the math correctly, your game concept. There are some really good mathematicians out there that I have worked with. They are really great to work with and very helpful and talented and I think their prices are fair for the help they give you.

Heather: We will put a link to an email to a mathematician down below that both Dan and myself know and use that is really reputable and good. So we will put that info down there for those that are interested.

Dan: Yep. So I would say you get that done first, then you would when you are ready to do a field trial. You need to find a casino that would be willing to host a field trial for you. Remember any casino – it’s a disruption. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to do it but there might be something really important they have to do with the Gaming Control Board if we are talking about Nevada – all folks in Nevada. Because I have done some trials in Nevada. There will have to be some reporting to the Nevada Control Board. Nothing over the top.

But also it disrupts the dealers. You have to train the dealers at a whole new game. Some dealers are ok with that, some dealers are not too excited about it. It depends on the dealer. And you have to train a lot of dealers about the new game. The dealers – there is always a risk with the game. You know if the math is correct, miiss deals by the dealers, or the errors by the dealer. Which by the way, if a dealer makes an error on a new game I would place the fault really on the inventor for not doing sufficient training. So there is a lot of steps you have to take. You want to make sure your ducks are in a row. Starting with the math is important. But then again before the math I would say, you need to have very clear rules and you really have to practice and play at this game a lot to make sure that you don’t have to change any of the rules because they are too complicated or contradictory, what have you, in the first weeks.

Heather: is there anything else you want to say about the math before we move on to the next section?

Dan: No, I just think if the math seems like it should work, right? The last thing I would like to say about the math is if you have a vision for something for something that would be really fun and cool for people to play, remember the math can be tweaked. So for example if your game involves a paytable, it’s a card game and there’s a paytable and certain outcomes produce greater payouts than others. Then when you get down to the nitty gritty and you look at the math and you are like oh this house actually 5% favorable to the player. Well if you have a paytable you can reduce the payouts for some of the winning outcomes. Or eliminate one of the winning outcomes to help balance that math out. So there are ways to tweak the math when you are close.

Heather: Cool. We have talked about three tips so far so we have two more tips left. What is tip number four?

Dan: I think tip number four is a bit of a contradictory tip, right? I do encourage people to think boldly. There are improvements that can be made, cool side bets for blackjack, new side bets for roulette, craps or baccarat and those are exciting. Or maybe rule variations in those common games that are worth looking at. But also don’t be afraid to think a little boldly. What can I do with playing cards or dice or a spinning ball on a wheel that might be really exciting. It is hard coming up with something totally new in table games because there is a certain comfort zone. Even those who will gravitate towards new games in the speciality section of a casino floor. I think it is worth it to be somewhat innovative.

At the same time though don’t ignore what makes successful table games successful. There are things that matter. Simplicity is a really important thing to consider. This is not like – It’s incredible how complex mobile app games can get sometimes. Or video games or puzzle games. A lot of those games can get to a point where there are a lot of rules to remember to consider. You might think as a table game designer, well the gaming population is prepared for more rules. But a mobile game or a video game they have way more time to teach and introduce complexities to players. More time at a table game in a casino or even a table game at a live dealer casino setting or mobile casino setting you have very little time to get to make people comfortable with the game. Very little time because there is money on the line. People don’t like making mistakes and costing themselves a win. Or losing money when they could have won. That’s not an experience people like. So simplicity is very important to the player.

Simplicity particularly when we are talking casino games that are dealt in a physical casino, simplicity is also important for the dealer and the pit crew. You might have a game that has a 2.5% house advantage, which is not bad for a specialty game, especially if you have some extra side bets on there that have higher house advantages. But if the rules are so complicated that the dealer is making mistakes consistently, that house advantage is going to evaporate, the table game managers are going to look at the average hold over a period of three or four weeks and they are going to say, “This isn’t great!” Simplicity helps make the players more comfortable with the game more quickly. But simplicity also helps minimize error on the dealer's side which is really important to your bottom line.

Simplicity generally means the game goes faster. The fundamental business elements of casino gaming are that the time between hands is important, because it generates revenue. You are essentially developing a game for the casino and the player. The player is looking for an exciting and entertaining experience. The casino has a model that generates revenue. That revenue is somewhat dependent on how quickly it takes to go between hands. So simplicity considering those factors matters a lot I would say.

Heather: So no multiple rounds then would be a good tip.

Dan: You know at the end of the day, it all depends. I think somewhat the benefit of my program, if I do say so myself, because – we all sign a legal document to agree to keep each other's intellectual property confidential. Oftentimes the inventing process happens alone. And maybe you bother your friend or a family member or your dog every time you have a new idea. But with my class you have a community of people who can give you feedback. You may have a great idea but then things get a little complicated at a certain point. We might be able to help you find a way to simplify or streamline your idea to deliver a better experience to the player.

Heather: Again it’s not just students giving you feedback you are getting feedback from mentors from people who are in the industry. This is what they do and this is what they know. You have several, several mentors in there.

Dan: You are getting feedback from people who have been successful with table game inventions for sure. And they are going to be very frank about what they think works and doesn’t work about your game. Ultimately, its always your product, but you are going to get a perspective on your game that would be difficult to get otherwise.

Heather: So tip number four what we just talked about was simplicity. One of the ways for people out there wondering, is my game simple enough, is it not? One of the ways you can tell is if you can explain your game in 15 seconds then you know that it is simple enough. You know that it is clear enough that it's easy enough that there’s not too many rules or anything.

Dan: I would agree with that.

Heather: What would be tip number five?

Dan: I think tip number five would be to consider the shifting landscape of games that involve a cash – I don’t want to say just gambling, but games that involve a cash state, which can include gambling. But now is also including an emerging format that's called skilled competitive e-sports field gaming. A good example of that in North America right now is a company called Skillz. Where players compete against each other in games. The games don’t have elements of chance but players do compete against each other for a cash stake and the winner collects the pot. It might be two versus two or it might be a whole tournament of players.

Card style games have been the most popular. They have been among the more popular and profitable. Card style games and bingo have been among their most profitable games. I think it’s not a surprise given that cards are so popular and it’s easy to create – I think cards lend themselves to a lot of different types of variations that can create excitement and entertainment, but also a reasonable challenge in a competitive game. Also, brick and mortar casinos are not going anywhere. New table games in most places are not going anywhere. But we are seeing a lot of gaming shift to mobile, and we are seeing a shift to Live Dealer. I said a moment ago complexity matters because dealer can make errors. But in mobile that is not a concern. If you are planning a mobile game it’s all computer so dealer error is not a concern. Or even in Live Dealer it’s really a computer running the show and the dealer is just drawing the cards out of a shoe. So there is some more room for complexity in those spaces. Although the player at the end of the day is still looking for a fast and simple experience.

Heather: All of this is amazing information and you have a whole semester worth of information to give people.

Dan: We do! Yeah.

Heather: One more time, just in case, do you want to tell people more about your class? How they can get into it, and what they can expect? Maybe promote it a little bit more and then after that we will be done with our show.

Dan: Well I would say that if your – I am always happy to take some time to answer some emails from someone that is interested in learning more about the class and what we offer. Again now that we have it set up so that we can have people who are somewhere else in the United States or even globally participate live with the class really is going to help us expand who can take the class. I am really excited about that. Please feel free to reach out to me. You can find us very easily on the UNLV just by googling UNLV Center for Gaming and Innovation. Feel free to reach out to me directly. Mention that you saw me on the Vegas Aces livestream and I am happy to discuss whether or not this class will suit what you are trying to do with your own game development.

Heather: Awesome, we will put all that information down in the description below on how people can get ahold of you and sign up for the class. It’s just an amazing class. If you guys are doing table game inventions at all, I highly recommend you take Dan’s class. He is such a good professor and it’s really an amazing class.

Dan: Well I appreciate the shout out Heather. Thank you very much for the compliment.

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