5 Lessons I Learned at a Play-Testing Convention (Protospiel Atlanta)

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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.

 


 

Last Saturday and Sunday, I attended my first board gaming convention – Protospiel in Atlanta. I’ve been in board game development for a bit over two years now and many people are surprised to hear I’ve not attended a convention prior to then. I was always washed up in cascade of (admittedly pretty valid) excuses about time and cost. Then this $50 con shows up two hours from Chattanooga, practically in my backyard. I figured now was a good time to give it a shot.

 

Prototype of a beach volleyball game by Julio Nazario

 

Protospiel conventions are based around prototype board games. Some people attend as designers and some people attend as play-testers. We had a pretty good mix of both. Nestled in a small recreation center in a park in the quiet part of Atlanta was a nexus of gaming creativity. Prototypes ranged from paper-and-pencil to full-on Game Crafter $100+ sets.

I’m generally wary of crowds, becoming easily exhausted by the intense stimulation. I’m also very skeptical about the return on investment that game devs can expect from a typical con. Even an inexpensive one like this comes with lodging, dining, and gas costs, easily racking up $250 – 300. I think it was worth it, though.

By going to a Protospiel convention, you have the twin benefits of being able to see lots of other prototypes and to have your own tested. Seeing others’ prototypes is wonderful – as many of you know, I’ve got a soft spot for seeing others’ creative work. I walk away with the sense that the world’s better off for it even if the game goes nowhere. I think fostering creativity is that important. Of course, the flip side of this is that having your game examined by serial play-testers, game designers, and the occasional publisher makes for a far better test than 10 or 15 with your family, online through Tabletop Simulator, or even at your local game store.

It’s been a wild weekend, so I’ve distilled the best of the lessons down to simple points.

 

Lesson #1: Reciprocity is key

It’s the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When you go to a play-testing convention, it’s not about just getting your prototype tested. It’s about helping others, meeting people, and sharing ideas and feedback. That is the engine on which Protospiel conventions run. Their very nature tends to attract more designers than dedicated play-testers, which makes it really important that you help others.

 

Lesson #2: The chaotic environment is the draw

Protospiel conventions bring noise, distraction, and play-testers who are also experienced game designers. This is the most hellish scenario in which a board game can be played. That’s what makes it perfect.

I know this sounds like a paradox, but my logic is simple. Games need to communicate very clearly through metaphor and halfway-read rules. If you can please people who know how to make games in a loud, busy environment, you’ve done a great job. Everybody is splitting their attention, so if your game remains highly playable, that’s a great sign! These sorts of conventions are “trials by fire” because you have so many factors working against you. You come out with feedback that helps you make the game more polished and accessible.

 

Lesson #3: Match your prototype to the level of feedback you want

First impressions count for a lot – job interviews, first dates, and play-testing conventions as well. When people sit down at the table to play your prototype, they take note of how much time you put into the prototype itself. If they see pen and paper, they’ll think “he just started.” If they see something like the Highways & Byways board I printed professionally on Board Games Maker, they’ll think “she’s about to publish.”

This changes the level of feedback you get. When a game is rough and unpolished, people don’t tend to nitpick rules or phrasing. They look for mechanics and general play-ability. They don’t think it’s weird when you play along or explain the rules. On the flip side, with a polished prototype, people will spot everything – unclear rules, ambiguous text, crappy mechanics, and so on.

Think really long and hard about what kind of feedback you want. If it’s time for the fine-tooth comb feedback like what I’m looking for with Highways & Byways right now, it’s worth spending the money on a really pretty prototype.

 

Lesson #4: Interfere as little as possible

Whether you’re playing in your own play-test or not, you want to interfere as little as possible. If you’re playing, that means giving others the chance to come up with their own strategies. If you’re not and you’re doing a blind play-test, that means answering questions very selectively.

No matter what, you want to make sure you don’t give off a doe-eyed “hungry for approval” impression. That could lead to people sparing your feelings, which you don’t want. You need hard feedback sometimes! This is why I like asking people to fill out anonymous feedback forms – it gives people a chance to roast you and get away with it.

 

Lesson #5: You’ll be okay

Going into this convention, I was extremely nervous and trying not to show it. This was especially bad during the first blind play-test of Highways & Byways, where after about 20 minutes, I had to get up and get some fresh air just to settle down. I eventually went on to help play-test someone else’s game, which helped a lot.

Most folks don’t bite, and if they do, that’s usually got more to do with them than you. In environments like this, you’ll witness the rare art form of constructive criticism. You’ll be okay 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • Highways & Byways left neutral-to-positive overall impressions.
  • Despite not making the perfect impressions I would have liked, I have very actionable feedback.
    • The main problem is pacing – drafting and, to a lesser extent, movement are both dragging.
    • The Event Cards still need to be softened some – they’re a bit negative for testers’ tastes.
    • Construction might be simplified from 10 cards to 5, which would have fringe benefits for usability and manufacturing cost as well.
    • If you bump the board, may God have mercy on your soul. I may not be able to do anything about this, but I have to at least try.
    • Still need minor rule, art, event, and component tweaks.
  • The general impression is that the concepts are great, the game is overall good, but it still needs tweaking and refinement.

How to Turn Negative Play-Test Feedback into a Brilliant 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.

 


 

This week, I posted How to Work Alone in the Board Game Industry. I wrote it several weeks prior to this article and now one particular paragraph seems oddly prescient.

 

Find people who will check your work and give you honest negative feedback. A crowd at large may help you vet ideas in the earliest, most high-level stages, but they won’t help you refine them. You need good play-testers and good friends of your business who are willing to look at the details and help you. That means you need to meet people online or at cons. One of the great sorrows of working alone as a game developer is that your ability to play-test and refine is limited by the lack of different opinions.

 

Highways & Byways is in the blind play-testing stage. This is the process that turns okay or good games into great ones. Right now, Highways & Byways is an okay game with a lot of potential. It received tons of positive feedback earlier in the development process, but now it’s time to do more meticulous work. I’ve been working on fixing some big gameplay flaws before I play-test at Protospiel this weekend. Thankfully, I won’t have to reprint any components. I’m just adding another mechanic and a tweaking a few rules.

Blind play-testing is your board game’s trial by fire. All kinds of nasty issues could come out of the woodwork. That’s why it’s so important.

 

 

Now I’m going to share with you specifically the feedback I got and I’ll tell you how I’m processing it…

 

Step 1 – Gather Data through Surveys

Testing through your own community or being present in play-tests is useful early on. After all while, though, your game will need unbiased play-testers to pick it up, play it, and give you feedback. For this reason, I like online surveys – play-testers don’t have to talk to you directly. They don’t even have to know you. That means they are far less likely to protect your feelings.

Creating a good survey is difficult, but you can use mine as a guideline. This is what I’m using to test Highways & Byways from now on. It helps me gather hard numbers and detailed comments.

 

Step 2 – Go through Surveys and Identify Non-Issues, Minor Issues, and Major Issues

As I wrote in How to Tell When Play-Testing Feedback is Useful or Not, not all play-testing feedback is created equal. This is why you have to go through each test result and triage the feedback as “non-issue”, “minor issue”, or “major issue.” I do this by printing off survey results and going through them with an ink pen and highlighter.

Some of the opinions won’t do you any good. For example, “the setup took a long time in Tabletop Simulator because of technical difficulties” does not tell me anything about the real tabletop game, which has tested consistently at 45-60 minutes. Likewise, I also got feedback which included “Milwaukee should be a stop” – which is funny and I appreciated, though it wasn’t relevant. It was a non-issue.

In early blind play-tests, you’ll probably get a laundry list of minor issues. All the minor issues from my recent Highways & Byways test results took less than 30 minutes to fix. Some examples of minor issues from the recent Byways tests include:

  • The title coloring doesn’t correspond to space colors (the word “Highways” was red on the title, but highway spaces are white).
  • Some of the spaces are close and the lines short.
  • The regional card backs for byways are confusing.

Major issues are ones that involve sweeping changes to the game such as new mechanics or sweeping rule changes. Nearly anything you don’t know how to fix immediately is a major issue. Some major issues came out of the Highways & Byways test, and they included:

  • Too much luck
  • Lack of meaningful choices

 

Step 3 – Make a Temporary Fix List

Once you’ve gone through the survey results, make a simple fix list for minor issues and major issues. Here was mine:

 

Minor Issues

  • Title coloring (temp. fix)
  • Route lines (GRR, R66)
  • Long Distance Towing: “move 10”
  • Nerf or reframe accidents
  • Ditch section backs
  • Make the Garret updates – rules (online)

 

Major Issues

  • Fix Event Cards that feel bad
  • Add more opportunities to make decisions

 

Step 4 – Reach out to Play-Testers, if Possible

Frustratingly, it can be hard to reach out to people who fill out surveys anonymously. I’ve found that many people include their emails, Discord tags, social media handles, or Steam names. If you’ve got a way of contacting the play-tester, do that. Ask them what went well and what didn’t.

 

Step 5 – Fix the Minor Issues Immediately

This is pretty straightforward. If you can fix something in less than an hour and it won’t affect gameplay, just do it.

 

Step 6 – Experiment Alone or in a Small Group Until You Find Fixes for Major Issues

If you have serious issues like balancing that require the introduction of large rule changes or new mechanics, you need to test before opening your game up to blind play-testers. As I’ve said before on this blog, blind play-testers can be tough to find and their time is valuable. You want to try to break your game before you get them involved. If you apply a major fix to your game and you can’t break it by self-testing or testing in a small group, you’re probably okay to proceed with blind play-testing.

Getting to that point will involve experimentation. Don’t rush this part of design. Even a single blind play-test is often enough to find and fix critical game flaws.

 

Step 7 – Update the Game and Seek More Blind Play-Tests

Once you’re done updating the game, make it available to more blind play-testers. It’s a good idea if you can get the same testers to try it again after the update. They can tell you if you’ve fixed the problem or not. Still, though, you’ll need fresh opinions because they’re not really going in blind any more.

My rule of thumb for blind play-testing is “100 games after the last major update.” That means if Highways & Byways doesn’t significantly change after 100 plays of my most recent update, I’ll consider it done. If it does change significantly, I reset my count to zero and keep going. This is my method. There are many others.

 

Have you had some tricky feedback on your games? How did you handle it? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • I’ve updated Highways & Byways to version Interstate 2 (overall 20). Major fixes include:
    • Event card balancing – no more accidents to completely take your turn away, that just sucks
    • Space trading – it’s a low-key action point system that lets you turn in extra spaces for Event Card related actions
    • More details on the Highways & Byways rules page
  • I’m going to Prototspiel in Atlanta this weekend. It’s a play-testing con, so I’m hoping one of two things will happen:
    • One – Highways & Byways is fixed and I’ll get 10-20 great games, proving it’s just refinements from here on out.
    • Two – Highways & Byways is still broken, but I’ll come up with something because play-testers will get me out of my own head.

The One Thing That Can Sink Sales for Board Games

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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, I posted A Crash Course on Selling Board Games, which is my way of helping demystify that which terrifies many first-time game developers. Selling can be scary. A lot of people are afraid or rejection and a lot of people are afraid of being sleazy. These are both very valid fears.

The one thing that can sink board game sales is pitching to the wrong gamers. Everything you create needs to be created for a specific kind of gamer. When you know who you should talk to, you won’t get rejected nearly as much. When you know who you should talk to, you won’t feel like a sleaze because they’ll be glad you said “hello.” This is so, so, so, so important. You have to have a clear target if you want to hit a bullseye!

 

 

You may wonder why I’m writing about this today. It’s really simple: I very nearly failed to do this with Highways & Byways. I’ve spent a lot of time building up this blog, the email newsletter, and the Discord community. These are all worthwhile and I’ve had a blast doing them. I see people helping each other in the chat. I’m able to provide specific advice to new game devs on very particular areas of development. This is all great…but it has nothing to do with Highways & Byways.

Know what my plan has been so far? Posting road pictures on Instagram and Twitter while occasionally asking people to help me play-test. That was fine for getting the ball rolling, but now that the physical prototype has arrived, that changes things. It’s only very recently that I’ve come to understand who the game is really for. It’s a casual family game – best for board game couples, families, and perhaps gateway gamers. It is around this realization that I must proceed. It’s time to reach out to people who fit that description.

 


 

I want to give you a clear sense of how to find your particular audience. You need to be really clear, so start by asking yourself some of these questions.

  1. What’s the basic idea of your game? Think about one sentence to explain it and no more.
  2. How long does it take to play?
  3. How many players?
  4. What’s the minimum age you can see enjoying the game?
  5. How do you play it? Think about two sentences to explain it and no more.
  6. What makes it special? Think of three to five simple things.
  7. What will it cost? All you need is a ballpark figure.
  8. What components will it have? Just a rough guess will do here too.
  9. What is the art style?

 

These questions push you toward defining and describing your game. Sometimes when you create games, you might not have this entire vision in your head. Sometimes you make something and need to say “who would really like this?” By defining it, you can start thinking of people who will respond best to the way that you answer these questions.

If a game is three hours long, it won’t appeal to a busy father of four. If a game is $100, it won’t appeal to a broke college student. If the game is pretty pink with unicorns, it won’t appeal to the archetypal masculine sort of player. You get the idea.

Sometimes answering these questions won’t quite be enough for you to get a clear understanding of who likes your game. If that’s the case, just start playing it with as many people as you can. Pay attention to what people say during play-testing. Your ears should perk up at phrases like “my 10 year old daughter would love this” or “this game would really appeal to Ticket to Ride and 18XX players.” Oftentimes, players have an intuitive wisdom that is better than anything you could write on a sell sheet.

 

Remember: people like games for different reasons. Everybody has different tastes. The art of selling is to appeal to people whose tastes line up with what you’ve got to sell. The earlier you think about this, the easier selling will be in the long run.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • The Highways & Byways physical prototype arrived this week!
  • I’ll be updating both this website and the Highways & Byways website soon with photos of the prototype.
  • Now that I have a prototype ready, I can start physically testing the components.
  • I’m getting ready to launch a full scale outreach campaign for Highways & Byways alone. This is a separate project than the game.
  • It’s been an uncommonly busy week.