How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Many of you know that I’m in love with Tabletop Simulator as a testing tool. It’s a simple app on the Steam store, it costs $19.99, and it’s been an extraordinary resource for me during the development of War Co. and especially Highways & Byways.

 

 

I’d like to explain to you exactly how to create a demo of your board game on Tabletop Simulator, but first let’s discuss what I perceive as its four main benefits:

 

  1. It saves you a ton of money and time on prototyping. Even using simple paper and ink from your printer can add up pretty quickly when you’re making different versions of your game. This can easily add up into the hundreds of dollars, as it did with War Co. for me before I discovered LackeyCCG and eventually Tabletop Sim.
  2. It takes less time to create a prototype as well. Instead of physically creating a new game or swapping out parts every time you make a substantial change, you can simply update the image files on your Tabletop Sim demo. It’s pretty straightforward.
  3. You’re able to play-test online and not just in person. This means you can find play-testers all over the world, which allows you to see how well your game communicates with people from different cultures or who don’t speak your language as well. Not to mention, it’s easier for many people to find others online than in person.
  4. Lastly, because you can play online, you get the tremendous opportunity to livestream your game with people who have a good size audience on Twitch or YouTube. This is one of the most underrated marketing opportunities around for board game dev. I could easily make two or three articles on livestreaming board games.

 

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

 

Step One: Create Images of Your Board, Cards, and Components

For the purposes of this guide, let’s assume your game involves a board, some cards, and some two-dimensional pieces. If it involves 3D models or other complex pieces, see the knowledge base that the development studio put together.

First, you’ll want to create JPG images of your board and each unique component. If you have duplicates of components, just create a single JPG – you can copy and paste the piece multiple times once you’ve loaded into Tabletop Simulator. This is pretty straightforward – all you need are some files that show what they actually look like. The Tabletop Simulator software will automatically size the board and pieces around your images.

Cards are more complicated. You’ll need to use this template or one similar to it. You’ll need to place the front of each card on one of these numbered slots, starting with 1 and working your way up from there. If you have 50 cards, you’ll fill up the first 50 slots and no others. If you have more than 69 cards, you’ll need to make multiple decks. Once you have all cards placed, save the whole grid as a JPG.

If your cards are a different dimension than the template linked above, you’ll need to create a template that is 10 times the width of a card and 7 times its height. Then you’ll place several gridlines so you get a similar template with different dimensions.

As for the card back, you’ll just need to save that as a JPG. If you have multiple card backs per deck, you’ll need to make another grid based on the template. Card back 1 needs to correspond to card front 1, card back 2 needs to correspond to card front 2, and so on.

 

 

Step Two: Upload Your Images to the Internet

Once you have your board, cards, and other pieces ready as JPG files, you need to upload them to the internet. When you’re creating a Tabletop Simulator demo, you’ll need to reference the URL of each image. I suggest you upload files to your own web server, if you have a website. If you don’t have your own web servers, Imgur will do the job.

 

Step Three: Create a Workshop Item on Tabletop Simulator

  • Start Tabletop Simulator.
  • Click Single Player.
  • Click Custom.
  • Delete everything from the table. (You can use the default stuff, but I want to show you how to do this the long way.)
  • In the top middle of the screen, click Objects.
  • Click Table on the menu.
  • You should now see a screen similar to the one below where it shows a list of tabletops. Pick one you like.

 

 

Now that you have a table, let’s get a board on it.

  • Click Objects in the top middle of the screen.
  • On the menu that shows up on the right, click Components.
  • Click Boards.
  • You should see a screen similar to the one below. Copy and paste the URL of your board’s image.
  • Click Import.

 

 

 

Next, let’s add some cards.

  • Click Objects.
  • Click Components.
  • Click Cards.
  • Click Custom.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Face – enter the URL of your card fronts template
    • Unique Backs – check only if each card has a different back
    • Back – enter the URL of your single card back OR the unique card backs  template
    • Width – 10
    • Height – 7
    • Number – number of cards in the deck
    • Sideways – check only if your cards are meant to be used sideways
    • Back is Hidden – check
  • Click Import.

 

 

To add a custom component, follow these instructions.

  • Click Objects.
  • Click Components.
  • Click Custom.
  • Click Tile for flat pieces or Figurine for stand-up pieces.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Type – Box for square, Hex for hexagon, Circle for circle, Rounded for rounded square
    • Top Image – enter URL
    • Bottom Image – enter URL
    • Thickness – 0.20
    • Stackable – (your choice)
    • Stretch to Aspect Ratio – (checked)
  • Click Import.

 

 

 

At this point, you can hover over any individual piece and press the plus or minus key to increase or decrease its size. You can also highlight any pieces you wish to copy and use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to make copies.

 

Well, let’s not go overboard with copy-paste…

 

Step Four: Release the Workshop Item

Once you’re done, click Upload > Workshop Upload. Fill out all the information, and click Upload. It will upload it to Steam and then give you a Workshop ID. Any time you want to update your workshop item, pull up this same window and click the Update Workshop tab. Then type in the Workshop ID, fill out the information, and click Update.

 

 

Step Five: Get Noticed

If you plan on using Tabletop Simulator for anything other than rapid prototyping, it’s not enough to simply create a Tabletop Simulator demo. After you create the demo, you’ll need to go looking for people who will want to play your game. This can be tricky because not everybody has Tabletop Simulator and oftentimes people are not willing to spend the $19.99 to get it. Think about how you spread your message. Consider reaching out to people who like Tabletop Simulator and play-testing new games on Twitter or in Facebook groups.

 

There you have it! This is a quick and dirty guide on getting started in Tabletop Simulator. Once you understand the basics, you can learn more of the nuanced aspects of creating a demo. I’m just here to help you get started 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • I’ve done some more play-testing and the balance is pretty much spot-on now.
  • Highways & Byways is ready for physical prototyping.
  • I’ll be putting together a “blind play-test kit” pretty soon, complete with everything people need to play in addition to a way of getting feedback to me. I’m working out the logistics of this – not sure how I’m going to do it yet.

How to Play a Lot of Board Games with Little Time and Little Money

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

This week with Highways & Byways, I’ve been making little improvements to the game to make it more usable and easy-to-understand. I’m at a stage where I’m optimizing instead of iterating, which makes me thankful for the extensive background in board gaming that I’ve gained in the last couple of years. Yet it has just been a couple of years – I’m not a lifelong board gamer. I wasn’t there when Catan came out in 1995. I built up my knowledge of board gaming quickly and inexpensively, two things I don’t think a lot of people think to do.

Playing a lot of board games is necessary to creating great board games. Playing games exposes you to mechanics and design trends. It helps you know what gamers like and how they interact. You learn what you find awesome and what you find annoying, and you come to have convictions about changing what you can change. I don’t take issue with the belief that you can benefit from playing a lot of games to be a good designer, I take issue with the invisible scripts people think they have to follow in order to play lots of games.

 

Photo taken by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner and posted to Flickr under the CC BY-SA 2.0 License (Source)

 

Before we get to how you play lots of board games with little time and little money, I’d like to put three myths in the ground right now.

First, you don’t have to play hundreds of board games before you start designing. In fact, I think the point of diminishing return is somewhere in the dozens before your own personal experimentation and experience teaches you more than broad exposure to games will. A lot of people, left to their own devices will use the pernicious myth of “I need to play more games” to defend their game dev procrastination.

Second, you don’t have to spend tons of time or money through Amazon shopping sprees or conventions to play lots of games. There are better ways that are more suited to the lifestyles of those with a limited amount of discretionary income. I’ve seen people with shelves of 500 games. That’s awesome and I love that they’re so dedicated to the hobby! Just understand that you don’t have to spend $15,000 on games like that gamer to be a good game dev.

Third, the board gaming hobby doesn’t have to be for the upper middle class like a lot of people make it out to be. In fact, this bothers me a lot. I see gamers making fun of gamers for not having the newest $100 game and it makes me raw. Gaming shouldn’t exclude people because board gaming is intrinsically social and cannot benefit from in-groups and out-groups. If you’re an aspiring game dev, avoid snobbery. 

This all brings me to the crux of this Dev Diary entry…

 

How to Play a Lot of Board Games with Little Time and Little Money

 

Broadly speaking, I can think of three ways that you can play a lot of board games without much time or money commitment. To become a good game developer, your goal should be to play a wide variety of games. That means you’ll want to play games that are new and old, for large groups and small groups, and ones that have all sorts of different mechanics. Each of these three ways should enable you to do that.

Method #1: Go to Meetup.com and create an account. Search for board game related events in your community. Odds are good that if you live in or near a moderately populated urban center, you’ll find multiple board gaming groups. I personally live in Chattanooga, TN, which barely cracks the top 100 populated metropolitan areas in the United States and there is no shortage of meetup groups near me.

Method #2: Go to a local board gaming store. If you don’t have one, you might be able to find a video game store or comic shop that also carries board games. Odds are very strong that if you find a place near you that sells hobby board games, they’ll have meet-ups every week or every two weeks where you can play the board games in the store. All you have to do is look them up on Google and give them a call.

Method #3: Let’s say for example that you live in a remote place like the desert of Nevada. There are no meet-up groups or game shops for a hundred miles in any direction. As long as you still have a broadband connection, you can download Tabletop Simulator, a $19.99 Steam game, that will enable you to play board games online. You can then find other players by searching around in the Server Browser. Better yet, you can find Facebook groups that coordinate Tabletop Sim games. Not only will this tool allow you to play lots of games cheaply and from the comfort of your home, but it will also give you the ability to play other designers’ prototypes if they make them available on Tabletop Sim.

 

Like I was saying earlier this week in 5 Games to Make You a Better Board Game Dev for $64.63, it doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to get started in board gaming. Sometimes it helps just to have a sense of direction, and I’m happy to provide that 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m experimenting with new components on Tabletop Simulator. This lets me approximate size, color, and shape to see if they pass basic play-tests before I test with actual components.
  • I added a small token for the first player – a simple accessibility gesture.
  • I applied James’ art for the card backs and templates to Tabletop Simulator – this will let the play-testers and i catch readability issues before I spend money printing a physical prototype.
  • I rebalanced the Event Cards. I had one card that was overpowered and a couple others that were awkwardly worded and had unusual implications as a result.
  • I improved the Reference Cards to be simpler.
  • I rewrote the rules from scratch to be simpler – no major changes to actual gameplay. This is purely a usability fix.

How to Tell When Play-Testing Feedback is Useful or Not

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Play-testing is so critical in board game development that I’ve dedicated several articles to the subject. Yet I’ve never seen article that deals with one of the biggest issues with play-testing: being able to tell the difference between signal and noise. You can’t believe everything your play-testers tell you, even though a lot of game developers will give you a coy response if you say that directly.

 

Don’t believe a dev who says “I’ve never wanted to flip the table because of some useless play-testing feedback.”

 

First, let’s have a refresher on good play-testing practices. The most important rule is write down all the feedback you receive during play-testing. Do this even if you’ve heard the feedback before, even if you think it’s stupid, and even if you know the feedback is wrong. Play-testing is ultimately about testing the subjective experiences of people playing your game. Every opinion – however misinformed you may believe to be – is a data point. As in rigorous scientific experiments, data points are to be gathered accurately and then interpreted later. By treating play-testing with a scientific mindset, you won’t risk losing valuable feedback because you got your feelings hurt.

It’s also a good idea to have a clear objective when you start a play-test. Some objectives I’ve used for testing Highways & Byways are “make sure Byway Cards communicate the location of roads clearly” and “gather data on the balance of Event Cards.” If you’ve made a recent tweak, having objectives going in helps you gather relevant data. Choose something to pay extra close attention to, such as balance, communication, or accessibility. All this said, there are no hard and fast rules going into play-testing. That is why recording data is important – so you can dispassionately review what people say at a later time.

When it’s time to review play-testing results, here are some guidelines I follow…

 

3 Times Play-Testing Feedback is Probably Not Useful

 

The player clearly does not understand the game. At some point, no matter how simple your game, you’ll have someone who doesn’t read the rules. Or perhaps you’ll have someone who can’t pick up the game from playing. Or perhaps even you’ll have someone who understands the game perfectly in a vacuum, but cannot form a coherent strategy to save their life. If you’ve got 20 play-testers and 1 of those 20 suffers from one or more of these issues when no one else does, the feedback is likely addressing an issue with the player and not the game.

This can be caused not by necessarily having a “dumb player,” but simply by having a distracted player. If someone is tired, stressed, or otherwise emotional, it might be hard for them to pick up your game and recognize that they are having a hard time picking up your game. Sometimes people just don’t “take” to games for some reason unrelated to their intelligence or well-being. It’s like that with me and Agricola (but you keep that between us two – I’ll lose my game dev card if you let that secret out).

When people don’t understand the game, they can give you all sorts of negative or neutral feedback that seems nonsensical or left-field. You may be able to tweak the game to make it communicate more clearly, and you should always ask yourself if that is the case. Yet if you believe the player is truly at a loss for understanding, try running their feedback by some other play-testers. If the other play-testers say “this player does not understand the game,” then it’s probably okay to disregard their feedback.

 

The player is providing feedback related to the tool you’re testing with, but the game itself. Whether you’re using a physical prototype with pennies for tokens or Tabletop Simulator, play-test versions of games often don’t look pretty or feel quite like the final product would. If you know that you’ll be changing the game to have better components, don’t worry about comments on your bad components. If you will be passing hands of cards around the table in real life – don’t be upset when people say “it’s hard to pass hands in Tabletop Simulator.”

Important caveat: always play-test anything that goes into the final version of your game.

 

The player is wildly pitching ideas. In general, if your game is on the right track, I find that you’ll get far more comments than questions. If you get a play-tester who has all sorts of ideas that don’t match up with the direction you’re taking the game in, that might be a sign of three things. One, they could be legitimately good ideas which you should consider. Two, they might not understand the game – see the previous point. Three, they might be pushing their creative instincts and desires on to your project. If that last one is the case, that’s got more to do with them than you. As always, I suggest you run wild ideas by other play-testers if you’re not sure.

 

3 Times Play-Testing Feedback is Definitely Useful

 

The feedback is regarding an issue that is both tangible and objective. If a player says “you’ve got a typo” or “this card could resolve in an undesirable way, watch me do it,” you must pay attention. When you get specific feedback about issues that are clear-cut, that’s as useful as it gets. Thank them and fix the issue next time you make a version. You don’t need multiple people to confirm these sorts of issues.

 

Multiple people have independently said the same thing. When it comes to matters like balance or fun, it’s really hard to know what is best. There is no clear answer like the ones for typos or loopholes. When multiple people say “I feel like this game isn’t balanced so well,” it doesn’t matter if your game is balanced perfectly in an Excel spreadsheet according to infallible mathematics. When a good portion of your play-testers feel like something’s wrong with your game, then something is probably wrong with your game. In fact, “majority rule” is one of the best ways to gauge the quality of your game when it comes to matters of taste.

 

Feedback is associated with actions that confirm the feedback. Imagine a player spends a minute or two organizing their hand, slowing down the game, and they say “you know, these cards are awfully fiddly.” It might be a problem if they took a minute or two without saying something. It might be a problem if they complained it was fiddly but only took a few seconds. Yet if both are happening at the same time, then something is up. Likewise, if a player says, “I don’t know what to do here,” and proceeds to make an absolutely bonkers strategic error, then your game may need clarification in some areas.

 

Despite my scientific rigor in recording feedback, there is a reason I refer to play-testing as The Art of the Play-Test in a prior article. The guidelines above are made to help you determine when play-testing feedback is useful and when it is not. Yet I can offer no certainty, no absolutes, and no rubrics. The decisions you make here are where game development becomes an art form – a matter of taste, judgement, and care.

 

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Chugging right along in play-testing. I need to make some minor updates to balance and polish the game a bit, but everybody who’s tested it so far has liked it. That’s rare and I’m thankful.
  • James has delivered some card art templates. It’s nothing flashy and it’s nothing that shares particularly well. Despite this, please understand that this is the basis of our workflow from here on out, making it good progress.