The 54 Card Guild: #12

54CardLogo

If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The timing of this post is impeccable, by which I mean lousy. But, ideas strike when they strike. For this guide, I want to talk about how you can best prepare and take advantage of wonderful events such as Protospiel or Unpub. I’ve been to local Protospiels and one in Milwaukee, as well as a few tiny Unpubs (though never the main one on the east coast). These events are invaluable for the amount of sustained testing, but also for giving you an opportunity to learn from the community and immerse yourself within it.

This guide will cover two primary topics:

  1. How to maximize your testing as a designer at a test event.
  2. How to maximize your testing as a player at a test event.

Topic the First

When you have a room full of people who are ready and eager to play your prototype, you want to maximize that opportunity.

Firstly, practice your pitch and rules explanation. You want to practice it so that you can do it quickly and in the right order. I’ve been teaching Farmageddon the same way since 2012. I teach Hocus the same way every single demo, complete with choreographed card placement and little jokes.

Here is the basic script for Farmageddon:

“This is a farming game. Whoever has the most money at the end of the game wins. On your turn, you’re going to plant Crop cards <place a Sluggo Corn face up> by placing them in front of you like this. Crops have two values <point at them>: required fertilize before they can be harvested, and money earned when harvested. Money is points!

To Fertilize, take any crop card from your hand <show two crop cards and point at backs> and place them face down on the crop <place them down>. You must always fertilize at least once every turn. This Sluggo Corn now has two fertilizer and can be harvested. There’s a twist! You cannot harvest it on the turn you plant it. It has to survive until your next turn.

In addition to this, you can play up to two Farmer cards on your turn. These give you bonuses that break the rules. Farmer cards let you protect a crop, steal a crop, destroy a crop, increase its value, give you cards, and other bonuses <slowly place farmer cards one at a time>. Finally, Frankencrops can also be planted and harvested <show one>, but they have bonuses as indicated. If you have any questions, this is a friendly game — just ask.

I’ll take the first turn so you can see how it’s played.”

Hopefully you can see in my language when I place cards down. You can see how I teach the basics, then layer in exceptions and key moments. You can see how I don’t overwhelm them with every detail.

To provide one more example, here is my Hocus teaching script:

“Hocus combines some of the classic elements of poker and mixes them with wizardry and spells.

In Hocus, we play until someone has 25 or more points <here I point at the point pile>, at which point whoever has the most points wins. The game is played in rounds. Each round, you will have a hand of cards <here I fan out a hand>.

There are four suits, <lay out one of each suit> each with a unique illustration and suit icon, a strength, which goes 1-13 and is just like 2-10/Jack through Ace, as well as a point value. <pick up cards>

On your turn, you’re going to take ONE action <place a reference card in front of each player>. I’ll show you these now.

Firstly, you can place any card from your hand face up in the community. <place one there> Unlike Texas Hold ‘Em where these cards are played randomly, we will build it dynamically. This will end with four cards <place 3 more>.

Secondly, you can place one or two cards from your hand into a personal pocket <place them down>. You will mix these with the community to make a 5 card Poker hand <reveal my cards and push them to show the combination. Place a reference card with the hand listing>.

Finally, we need to compete for points. Remember the point value? <show the point value> You can place one card face down in a community’s pot and only its point value matters. <place a second card> If I win this hand using my pocket and the community, I’ll get 5 points <tally the two now revealed pot cards>.

There is a twist. There are actually two Communities, you can have a pocket for each of them, and each has their own pot. The game is not about having the best hand, but figuring out what hand you need to win the Pot. The round ends when the communities are full, so you must carefully manage your time. A player who spends their entire round building a Full House won’t have time to put points in the pot.

Let’s play a quick round. I’ll go first.”

At that point, I always play to the community. I then say to the next player:

“Now, you can add to this community, or play to the next one. You can play to the pot, which is a good way to stall. Or, you can place cards in your pocket if you think you can use this.”

The keys to teaching your game:

  • Use visual cues to support what you are saying
  • Layer things in carefully. Teach the fundamentals, then highlight exceptions
  • Leave out values they don’t need to know. You can deal the right number of starting cards. You can enforce how many rounds.
  • Setup the environment as a learning game, not a competitive game
  • Break the ice!
  • Repeat key rules when you have opportunities

Secondly, you need to know what you intend to gain from testing. This will alter how you discuss the game, but it will also frame the feedback for your testers. To be blunt, most testers are not designers, and they don’t always know how best to help you, even if their intentions are solid. If you just say: “What do you think?” be prepared for them to tell you. If you provide an open ended forum, you will hear feedback from all over the world.

In this situation, you’ll have someone telling you your game needs zombies, or they hate that there is any luck at all, or that they wish it had a worker placement element. Not joking! You must frame the discussion from the outset.

Possible testing goals include:

  • Balance. Your game is far along and you want to fine tune balance. This means you are stating: the mechanisms are 99% good.
  • Layout and presentation. You’re less worried about game feedback and more worried about its graphic design and visuals.
  • Accessibility: You’re not testing deep, elder gameplay, but you want to gauge how simple it is for new players to test so you can smoothen the onramp.
  • The Concept: You’re stating, hey, it’s early, but what do you think about the core idea. Be crystal clear in stating what you hope it becomes! Look to your Vision to answer this!
  • Decision Space: You know what you want the game to be, but you aren’t sure about the current player actions. Does there need to be a card draw action? Does the scoring work? Here, you want to state your vision, you want to be clear on what you tried, and be prepared to moderate a discussion about where things went and why.

At last year’s Protospiel, I was exclusively testing Hocus’ spell balance. We were happy with the mechanisms and simply wanted to gauge balance.

The year before, I was testing the concept of Sol Rising. Did it feel cool? Did people like the story objectives?

This year, I’ll be testing the strategy and concepts of Gaia and Martian Empire. Are people excited by them? Do they feel rich? I’ve been hammering on the Gaia Decision Space for months now, so I feel it’s ready for the next step. In both cases I’m less concerned with accessibility and more with elder gameplay. I’ll try to get players to play two or three games in a row.

In prior years, I was simply testing the accessibility of York. Did players understand my player aids? Did they know how to score and take actions? Were they fighting battles in a sophisticated manner?

Know what you want to get out of your test and push people toward’s that.

Thirdly, you want to push the discussion towards identifying the problems, not picking the solution. Now, sometimes you may want to have an open brainstorm. I posit that only you really knows what you want to do for the game, and the brainstorm will render far too many ideas you cannot use or do not want. It’s wasting everyone’s time.

However, during and after the test, you want to ask questions about mechanisms and balance concepts that have you concerned. You want to clearly identify what your problems are and WHY they are problems. Then, once you have this data, you can solve it.

If you ask for solutions, or try to solve it, it’ll become an improv session complete with “Yes, and…” Guide your audience towards the problems.

Fourthly, you want to remember to leverage some simple tools. Show up prepared. It’s really simple.

  • Bring a notebook to list the number of players, play time, scores, and key notes for each test.
  • Prepare a sheet that identifies the Pitch of your game, key information, where it’s at in development, and what you want to gain. See below for an example.
  • Print a few copies of your rules for people to look at while playing or thinking about the game.
  • Bring some tape, scissors, pencils, and markers to update your prototype.
  • Bring anything needed to improve against your goal. If you want to test visuals, have a tablet with a Pinterest board showing art.

Pitch Sheet Example

<image of the game> + <image of the game being played>

Martian Empire is a game of drafting and deception set in a feudal science fiction society.

Key Information: 2-4 players, 30 minutes, low to medium complexity

Key Mechanisms: Drafting, hidden information, bluffing, Variable player powers

Development Stage: Early Beta – Mechanisms are solid. Trying to identify if the hook is strong enough, strategy is strong enough, and worrying about balance.

Testing Goals: Does the game excite you? Do you enjoy the strategic decisions?

Fifthly, bring a great attitude. Be passionate and enthusiastic. Be the cheerleader for your game! When people have bad ideas, write them down and discuss things, do not shoot them down. Thank people for their insights and work to take criticism in stride. If someone makes a suggestion you’ve already tried, feel free to walk them through the process and why that didn’t work, but follow up with: how would you do it differently, or why do you think that would make the game better?

People want to help an eager, kind, and receptive designer. Bring a great attitude and it’ll pay dividends!

Sixthly, when testing with others, especially at an event, put work into a good looking prototype. Do not bring hand-written cards to a prototype event. At the very least your cards should be typed. But, with Game-Icons.net, The Noun Project, and more, you have all the tools at your disposal to make something that is clean and professional. Seriously, put the time in to make this better.

You remember when some old dude told you to dress for the job you want, not the job you have? That’s a little silly for me as a Silicon Valley tech nerd, but it applies to your prototype. You want people to to know you take this, and their time, seriously. Your presentation IS YOUR INTRODUCTION. And, the smile mentioned in the section just above.

Topic the Second

You may think these events are all about you testing your own games, but it is equally important that you play the games of others. You should spend at least a third of your time at someone else’s table, and really, you should strive to split your time evenly between personal tests and helping others. Really!

Board gaming is a small, niche hobby. At every opportunity you should be a steward of the community. Help others and the returns will be paid in full, if not immediately, but down the line.

When you are testing, you can help creators by being a better tester. Ask some of the following questions:

  1. What kind of game is this? How do you want the experience to feel? You ask this so that you don’t tell someone making a take-that game for children how to make their game too complex or too strategic.
  2. Where is the game at in development? From above, this will change your feedback. Balance feedback is premature when the mechanisms don’t work.
  3. What kind of feedback are you looking for? These are all similar questions asked a different way.

When providing feedback, be sure to give feedback not based on your personal desires, but the desires of the designer. Focus primarily on problems, not YOUR solutions. Tell them where you struggled, where you were frustrated, and where you were confused.

Be sure to also provide good notes! Tell them what you liked. Tell them what was exciting. Tell them about the things you think should be more important. They may be focusing entirely on the wrong thing.

Be a good steward! Encourage them, champion them, and support them. Who knows, after you test for them, maybe they’ll test for you.

Be honest. But, don’t be cruel. There’s a difference. You can provide blunt, crisp, tough feedback in a way that is kind, well meaning, and fair. You can also caveat your comments, as needed, with: personally, my preference is for X to be the case. For example, if someone is playing Farmageddon, I’d love to know before they dump their comments on me that they hate any game with aggressive interaction. That’s a key thing to know!

In summary, be the tester you wish you could have. It’s really the Golden Rule.

What did I miss in this article? How would you improve this?

Your Assignment

  1. Write your teaching pitch
  2. Practice and perform your teaching pitch for a friend. Or, at the very least, record and watch yourself performing it.
  3. Identify your testing goal. What would you want to learn right now?
  4. Write a personal list of problems you want to solve. Get the conversation prepared.
  5. Prepare an info sheet for your demo table. Share it with someone for feedback.
  6. Prepare a nicer version of your prototype that is typed.

Protospieling Dawn Sector

Protospiel

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I attended my first Protospiel this past weekend in Milwaukee. I spent 3 days hanging out with good friends, playing my game, Dawn Sector, and playing many of their outstanding prototypes. Originally, I planned on writing a post about their games, but I don’t think I can do it properly. Sure, I can share photos, but ultimately I don’t think it’s right to discuss someone else’s in-progress prototype in so public a forum as the internet. I don’t want to pass any judgement or opinions that could in any way hinder their game’s progress.

If I played your game at Protospiel, I’d love to have you write a guest post on this blog or if you’d like we could conduct a quick interview.

Instead, I’m going to write about Dawn Sector. I conducted 5 tests of the game: 3 with the generic faction and 2 with the real factions. Overall I think it was well-received and people seemed to enjoy it. However, I’m going to make two modest to big changes to the game that I think will really get me on the home stretch.

Draw Draw Draw: The first major change is the addition of a fifth turn Action — Draw a Card. For a long time the actions have been as follows:

  • Move
  • Build Fort
  • Declare Battle
  • Use a Spec Ops (essentially a really powerful action for which you spend cards)

Players could also pass, though this was never a good option (if you’re playing well) and if you passed on the first or second action round, you’d lose all remaining Actions. I really wanted to avoid players passing to force an opponent to blink. The Mexican stand off isn’t fun in most cases.

However, in a few instances, especially towards the end of the game, things often became quite tense and the game can come down to a single Action. Players would often be conflicted and some would simply pass to avoid making too gross an error. I didn’t like this, but I didn’t have a solution and it wasn’t so much of a problem that I was really worried.

In the very first test of the con I was given the suggestion to allow a Draw Card action. “Wow,” I thought immediately. That is a damn good idea. I added the action for every subsequent test and it was indeed a damn good idea. Drawing a card opens up the game in a variety of ways:

  • If you have a particularly bad hand or a hand that ALMOST gives you what you need, you can spend an Action to draw. 
  • It provides a moment of tension. Players NEED a card. When a really clutch draw occurred (i.e. they need a cavalry and drew one), it felt good.
  • It gives players a way to “pass” without passing. As a result, I’m removing the option to pass.

This can’t really be exploited as you still need to discard down to 5 cards before the end of a round. Basically, you can’t spend a round stockpiling only to have a crazy subsequent round. Plus, it is often still not the best idea to pass. Good players will learn when to hold or discard cards at the end of a round. The Draw Card will ultimately fill a nice hole but won’t be a crutch or a game breaker.

It’s a really great idea and attribution for it goes to Mr. Brett Myers of Nanuk fame. (Stay tuned for some of Brett’s upcoming games. One was presented to me and I was able to play another. Both were beautiful, tight, and well designed games.)

DS_Boards_Proto_Generic

Withdraw Withdraw Withdraw: Before I explain the second major change, I want to discuss an idea that was presented that I considered and ultimately rejected. Ryan Metzler of the Dice Tower played in the first test. He suggested I add a “Remove Troops from Board” action.

Initially this seemed compelling. For the many of you who haven’t played Dawn Sector, you should know a few things. Firstly, every player has a finite until pool of 15 Units. At the beginning of each round (6 total), you may spend cards to add these Units to the board. Units are only removed as a result of battle (i.e. casualties), at which point they can be re-added via reinforcement.

Ryan felt like he was in a bad predicament. His units were spread about and he wanted to be able to remove them to add back via the next reinforcement phase. This seemed fine enough, until I thought through it.

For one, the action would be highly inefficient and therefore only useful for this in the direst of circumstances. You’d have to pull units off in order to add them back next round? That’s not really useful. Secondly, this greatly rewarded bad play (sorry Ryan) and would give people a crutch for getting lost in the wilds. Furthermore, the game already provides ways by which you can sync units back up, including faction abilities (like Double Time in Ryan’s game) and the spaceports, which let you move to any territory bordering the edge of the map.

Finally, they’d break the game. Imagine a scenario: I carefully build up units and maneuver them to attack you. Perhaps this round, perhaps the next. You see this, realize you’ll lose the battle, and withdrawal your troops. Now, I just wasted an entire round of maneuvering and you got away with only one action! Why would people not do this every time?

I honestly felt like the game didn’t need this and furthermore it’s not worth adding many other rules or tweaking many other things to allow it. If you aren’t too reckless, your units shouldn’t get too far astray. And if that happens? You still have ways to recover.

The Single Decker: Now, for the final significant change as a result of Protospiel. Yes, I’m tweaking some tuning, but this is the second big one. Currently, every faction uses a unique deck. All decks are comprised of cards with the same 5 Symbols (Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, Specialist, Commander) with numbers ranging from 1-3. All of the decks have a very similar level of potential reinforcements. However, the distribution of the card types (i.e. cavalry versus infantry) differs. Originally this was for thematic and balance purposes. For example, the Brigade should have a lot of mech cavalry, whereas the Militia has the most specialists.

Alas, over time this has added a layer of fiddliness that isn’t necessary. For one, all decks have cards with the same five symbols, but not all factions use every symbol. Without a fail, one new player asks “why do I have this card?” It’s a good question for which I don’t have a good answer. Furthermore, more serious players have to relearn and re-examine the subtly (and sometimes significantly) different distributions when they change factions. Instead of just learning new abilities, they have to also learn the deck.

This is a bit of oversight on my part. Now, all factions will use an identical deck of cards. Faction abilities will still be triggered differently based on the approximate difficulty of the ability and, where possible, along thematic reasoning. But, players will now be able to move between the games with the same deck of cards.

I fully believe this can be done and the system can be tuned. However, I think there will be some subtle balance issues that will take time to suss out.

In conclusion: If you played Dawn Sector at Protospiel I really appreciate it. By observing you and discussing the game with you I learned much. I shall improve Dawn Sector and hopefully make her even more appealing for a publisher.

I’m almost finished tweaking the revised player board and I have a first pass take on the new deck distribution. Now, I must apply that distribution with new tuning for the faction abilities. Following that, I’ll reprint all the cards.

My next step after that is updating the rule book with these changes AND introducing my “director’s commentary.” If you want to know what I intended with a feature or why I implemented something as I did, this should be a fun read.

Finally, I’m building a prototype copy for Jay Treat. He’s offered to do some long-term balance testing for me. I look forward to having him as a testing partner.

Thoughts?

Feel the ‘Spiel

Protospiel is a yearly event held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a gathering for game designers to play each others’ prototypes, gather feedback, socialize, and meet with publishers. It is an event I very much wish to attend. When I put out feelers asking for a guest writer to cover Protospiel, Darrell Hardy matched me with Chris Oltyan. Chris agreed and here we are! 

In many ways, this is a post about the differences between video game development (a career) and board game development (a passion). As a 7 year veteran of the game industry, much of Chris’ commentary makes sense to me. One of the primary reasons I design board games in the first place is to give me a “release valve,” i.e. a way for me to be creative entirely on my terms. I included a few notes in the post, so forgive me for that.

Guest Column by: Chris Oltyan

Why did I want to go to Protospiel?

I am a 12 year veteran of the video game industry, but recently I decided I needed a change. I love video games, but the time was right for me to leave the industry (at least for now) to spend some time with my kids. This is not a quality of life article, but others in the industry can feel free to read the subtext in that statement. I served as producer and designer on approximately 25 shipped products. In my copious free time, I started a paper prototype for a mechanic for an MMO I wanted to make. After seeing my pretend budget for my pretend game, I decided to press forward and make it as a board game instead of waiting for someone to send me $35 million. By the way, if you are interested in handing me $35 million, please make the check payable to Chris Oltyan and comment below to coordinate the deposit into my account.

Over the past 4 years I’ve spent time here and there polishing my boardgame.  This is a zombie themed boardgame, but I started it way before it was cool to do it on Kickstarter. After leaving my job, which had a pretty restrictive employment agreement, I picked up the discarded pieces and began to actually assemble the game. I used Protospiel as a motivator to finish it.

Editor’s Note: Often times in creative industries, employees are forced to sign agreements that prohibit them from developing things outside of work, OR maintaining ownership of these things. For example, I must get permission for every game I hope to publish, including Poor Abby and Empire Reborn. Some companies are more restrictive than others. 

I was conducting about one playtest each week 1 month leading into Protospiel and have probably tested earlier versions 20-30 times. I tested primarily with video game developers (programmers, artists, and designers), as well as a few folks who have worked in the board game industry. I thought I had a pretty well balanced game and I was hoping to get feedback on whether or not my particular flavor of zombies was a worthwhile addition to the genre.

So what is Protospiel about?

Protospiel was an amazingly informative and helpful venue compared to the video game conferences I’ve attended. Conferences I’d been to previously would involve conversations between designers like:

“What are you working on? Can’t say? Well, neither can I. So, how’s the weather?”

Protospiel was a welcome and open setting where people showed work in a variety of stages and worried more about whether or not their mechanics were achieving their goals rather than who might steal their idea. In fairness to video game designers, this isn’t a choice they make as individuals, but often is a result of corporate policies, non-disclosure agreements, and a general paranoia that seems to permeate game studios. Sure, there may be some discussion around game theories, but show and tell is often not legally possible.

Protospiel had a great crew present of designers, publishers, and testers. Unlike feedback from video gamers (i.e. “Dude, you need to add [awesome feature in person’s head that costs 1 million dollars to implement that 3 people including person you’re talking to will actually care about] to this game!”) Protospiel was more like “Have you considered [elegant mechanic from game I either designed or played] to solve this problem here?” This is a bit of an gross generalization, but it just felt like everyone cared about games a ton and had useful, practical experience in making games that they were happy to share.

Editor’s Note: One of the problems of the video game industry is that costs have skyrocketed. This is one of the reasons so many developers have shifted to lower cost platforms, like the iPhone, web browsers, or Facebook. Many people outside of the development team don’t realize that a “simple” feature could cost months of development and millions of dollars.

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that a board game designer is often responsible for every aspect of his prototype. He knows all the problems with the design intimately, from the implementation of mechanics to UI and information display. Board game designers are generally not part of a team, they ARE the team, and that concentration of experience really helps to understand what does and doesn’t work in board games.

Was it Worth Going?

My ticket to protospiel was $45 and my hotel was $65 a night (compared to $1600 + $200 a night for GDC). I was able to playtest my game 2-3 times a day with different people and received good feedback on my game’s mechanics every time. All the designers and publishers I tested with were able to point me to examples of work they thought I could reference and helped me pinpoint issues with the game. I will be spending the next year getting ready to show the fruits of that labor, and that’s okay. People at Protospiel understand that boardgames are a labor of love for those who design it and are close enough to the ground where they get to indulge in the privilege of waiting for a game to be “right” before shipping it.

Editor’s Note: One of the primary sources of frustration for developers in the digital industry are having to ship a game before it’s ready in order to meet a deadline. Nothing is worse than spending 4 years on a game and shipping it in a bad state when it needed just 6 more months.

This was such a great opportunity I asked if I could run my own satellite ‘spiel. The organization is not even a company, just a bunch of passionate designers who felt that up and coming creators could really use the benefit of other experienced designers.  David Whitcher, the organizer of the event, said that it took several years before a consistent crew of people were bringing in games that were almost publish ready.  Let me just repeat that: Several Years.

To me, Protospiel helped me remember that making games can be about the game itself, and not the market budget, upcoming conference, or arbitrary ship date.  Protospiel demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if you have an idea for a game and are willing to put in the effort, you can make something amazing and fun. For that alone it’s well worth the price of admission.

Those are my thoughts on the conference.  I’ll also be pulling together my notes on the games that I played and talk about how the feedback process worked for a follow-up post.