Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways. Just 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.
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.
I’ve talked about the benefits and challenges of working alone in the board game industry. That’s how I do things. Yet I’m a bit of an odd beast in the board game development world since most people prefer to work in teams.
To give you a sense of what it’s like to work on a team, I’ve reached out to the three members of Undine Studios – Ben Haskett, Sarah Reed, and Will Reed. They made Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture – one of the prettiest and most promising board game Kickstarters I’ve seen this year.
I initially reached out to Sarah, who I know through Twitter. After a little Twitter-fu, I got all members of the team in my Discord to have a group chat about team dynamics in the board game industry.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation over DMs in Discord. This interview is a long one, but I’ve left it mostly verbatim because I find it insightful. I’ve split it into five sections for your convenience:
How Ben, Sarah, and Will Got Started
How Working in a Team Feels
The Downsides of Teamwork
Communication in a Team
Advice for New Game Devs
How Ben, Sarah, and Will Got Started
Brandon: Sarah, Ben, thank you both for agreeing to help me out on this post!
Ben: Yeah, thanks for having us!
Sarah: Looking forward to it! I’ll also be writing responses for Will. So you’ll be getting three perspectives.
Brandon: Excellent! Good to have you on as well, Will!
Brandon: If you please, go ahead and tell me a little about yourself and your company. How long have you been making games? What games have you worked on?
Sarah: We started off our board game life as role-players and Magic the Gathering players in college. I had been playing RPGs since high school and introduced them to Will when we met. We played mainly those and a few board games until spring of 2012 when we decided it was time to take a break from RPGs. We checked out a new local game store where we discovered Dominion.
Sarah: It was summer of 2012 that Will had the idea to make a board game for my birthday, but didn’t know how to go about it. We started designing games together. Early in 2013, our local game store owner mentioned that there were other designers in the area. We had our first game design meetings, which I continued to organize and have been running since.
Sarah: It was also in 2013 that we met Ben and were playtesters for his game Tower, which he launched on Kickstarter early in 2014. Will was also lead story writer for Tower. We worked on a few designs during this time, but ended up shelving them. It wasn’t until Project Dreamscape that we had a solid game and Ben liked it so much he became our business partner and ran a Kickstarter for it in early 2015. After that, we designed Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture, for which Ben continued to be our business partner and ran a Kickstarter for it in June of 2017. Along with handling all the business, Ben has playtested and helped develop our designs. Will is the lead designer. I’m a designer, and I do development and social media outreach. Our next game is Haven’s Vault, which will hopefully be on Kickstarter early in 2018.
Ben: I think I was about 26 the first time I played a board game that wasn’t Monopoly, Sorry, or some other super ubiquitous game. It was Catan at a friend’s house, followed up by Carcassonne, and the two games really surprised me and got me interested in the hobby. I was, and still am today, mystified that you can take a box crammed full of little cardboard bits, sit down, look at a sheet of rules, spread out the pieces, interact with them, and not only have it make sense, but have it be fun, too. I was hooked.
Ben: It wasn’t long before I designed a small dungeon crawler of my own and pitched it to a small (now defunct) publisher. As Sarah and Will said, next up for me was Tower, which I self-published. Afterwards, I sort of naturally transitioned into the publishing side for three reasons. The first was that I really couldn’t get another design together that I liked. The second was that I really enjoyed the Kickstarter/publishing process. The third was that Sarah and Will were designing games that were compelling and fun to play. These days, as my young daughters get older and I have less time, I’m transitioning more and more of the fun to Sarah and Will–they’re going to help with a lot of the fulfillment for Oaxaca, and may even play the primary role in the next Kickstarter campaign.
Brandon: MTG, Dominion, Catan, Carcassonne…these are all really good intros into modern board games and I can totally see how they ignited your passion and curiosity.
Brandon: I’m particularly glad to see Oaxaca take off because you all ran a really good campaign.
Brandon: So is Undine Studios just the three of you?
Ben: Correct–in fact, Undine has been around for over ten years to represent whatever I’m doing. It used to be the name I used for Flash web design, if you can believe that. When I got into publishing, it was a natural transition for the name. Last year, I even self-published a book with the Undine name on it. With the setup that Sarah described, Undine is indeed just the three of us.
Brandon: Ah, so the organization has grown organically as you have!
How Working in a Team Feels
Brandon: Here’s a question for all of you.
Brandon: One of the odd things about my blog is that it’s written from the perspective of someone working alone. This is unusual for most game devs, I think. How would you characterize the experience of working as part of a team, compared to working alone?
Will: I know for me personally, projects are a big concept. A lot of skills are necessary to complete a project. I’m only interested in a portion of those. I know being interested in only one small portion and being good in that small portion is a strength, but it does mean the rest of the project will feel weaker if I’m not good at all aspects. Working with Sarah and Ben really eases my mind because they have strengths in areas I don’t.
Will: I trust and respect their opinions so much that it has allowed me to more easily take their feedback in and make any game I work on better for it. To give a good example, I suck at writing rules and they don’t really interest me. However, Sarah’s attention to details and Ben’s graphic design and formatting not only creates a really slick looking ruleset, but a highly functional one as well.
Sarah: Stuff actually gets done as a team. If it were up to me alone, it’d never get done. I am a terrible procrastinator and I have a high fear of failure, so much so that I sabotage myself. By working in a team, I feel a responsibility to Will and Ben to get my portion done and not drag things down. I like organizing and, as Will said, I pay attention to the details. So I can keep us moving forward in a way that I can’t do if it’s just me. So I prefer working on teams and really enjoy the collaborative process of everyone coming together with their strengths and overcoming individual weaknesses.
Ben: What I love about working as a team is that the result is everyone’s best ideas. Not only do we bring our best ideas to the table, but we also brainstorm and challenge each other to make things as nice as possible. When I start working on graphic design, I always swear to myself that my first attempt is the best I can do–but Sarah and Will always have suggestions, and the final design is usually after a dozen revisions. Similarly, even though Will is the primary designer, he’s always open revisions and the the final game design is always better for it. Every aspect of each game we get together on has input from all three of us, and the game is always better for it.
Brandon: Will, it makes a lot of sense to me that one of the big benefits of working in a team is that everybody can specialize in something they like or at least tolerate. You help balance out each others’ weaknesses.
Brandon: Sarah, it sounds like you see working in a team as a good way to stay motivated. Either through being accountable to or inspired by others, you find ways to stay productive.
Brandon: Ben, you make a keen point about everybody’s best ideas being able to surface when working in a team. More people, more ideas, more chances to get it right.
The Downsides of Teamwork
Brandon: What sort of challenges do you face working in a team? How do you overcome those?
Will: The biggest challenge for me is when I feel a little too strongly about a particular aspect of a game design because I’m dead set that that’s where the most interesting and fun part of the game is. It can be a bit hard when either Sarah or Ben tell me that it needs to be streamlined or taken out completely. Through working together, I’ve learned it’s really bad for me to throw my weight around and reject them outright, even in my area of expertise. But after mulling their suggestions over, I can see they’re right. Oaxaca was a very different game at the beginning and it changed drastically when Ben and Sarah pointed out certain aspects of it.
Will: I now tell myself that designing as a team means all of our opinions need to be reflected rather than just having a game that I’m personally happy with. It’s no surprise that the outcome often is much better than anything I could envision myself. Other than that, I’m pretty flexible on most other aspects of game design. I can’t really see so well, so art and graphic layout don’t bother me. I’m perfectly fine retheming anything I work on. I’ve learned to make their opinions as valuable as my own.
Sarah: I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen in our team is that everyone works at a different speed due to a variety of reasons. Will is the fastest at getting things done, partially because he hates procrastinating and he has more time. Ben and I switch off as to who’s the slowest depending on the phase we’re in. For me, I have a lot of health challenges and so I’m often too drained to work on game design when I get home.
Sarah: I’m the one who makes the early prototypes and I’m in charge of the playtesting. Ben has a full family life that leaves him little time except at night to get anything done. He takes care of the end product in terms of graphic design, working with manufacturers and shippers and running the Kickstarters. Will’s often told me how frustrated he’s been when I’m slow to get things done and, admittedly, I get frustrated when Ben is slow and doesn’t get things done. Heck, I get frustrated with myself for not getting things done!
Sarah: Will has already learned to let go. When he gets his part done, he just sits back and is patient with us. I can’t say I’ve overcome this challenge yet, but I’m working on it. I need to remind myself that we have no true deadlines. We’re doing this as a hobby, for fun. I shouldn’t be stressing about how quickly we do or don’t do something. It’ll happen when it happens.
Ben: A big challenge for me usually occurs early on in the design – I’m reminded when I talk to Sarah and Will sometimes that I have really thin skin, haha. I mentioned that we go through a lot a revisions, but I still expect each design revision I bring to them to not only be the final revision, but that it will literally blow their socks off. When it doesn’t work out that way, I have an embarrassing tendency to pout about it for a little while before getting my head back in the game. Thankfully, Sarah and Will are always constructive. 🙂
Ben: Then, as Sarah said, time is a big issue, especially lately. I got a new job late last year and it’s severely cut down on my free time. Further, and again echoing what Sarah said, my two daughters are getting older–it’s no longer a rush to get them home, fed baby food, and in bed. My oldest is starting school soon, meaning there will be homework, etc., and we’ll have to consider the time it takes to get her to and from school. Finding time not only to work on games, but work on games cheerily, can be a challenge.
Brandon: As for the challenges, it sounds like for all of you, it mostly centers around passions running high and scheduling. The former being something you deal with as you get to know each other in a working relationship. A lot of it comes down, as you pointed out, to knowing when to hold you ground and knowing when to let go.
Communication in a Team
Brandon: How do you coordinate your efforts?
Will: For the most part, we use Facebook Messenger to communicate. As for the game’s development, Sarah does most of the early playtesting coordination and then it switches to Ben for final production and running of the Kickstarter.
Sarah: In addition to Facebook Messenger, we call each sometimes so we actually can all meet at the same time. Some of our coordination is made easier since Will and I, well, live together. Two-thirds of the operation is in constant coordination. The good news is the way the process flows, this works pretty well. I personally use lists a lot to keep myself organized so I don’t forget anything. This often includes notes on who needs to be contacted about what. That’s about as complicated as our scheduling efforts get. Living together certainly helps!
Ben: I’ve pushed for Facebook Messenger a lot, because it’s just so dang convenient. There’s no programs to install on a computer to use it, and it came pre-installed on my phone. It’s like text-messaging, but for lengthy messages, you can sit down to a keyboard. On top of that, it’s super easy to send pictures, you can make calls, and even send videos.
Brandon: Sounds like you don’t plan too extensively, but rather work in the moment based on what needs to be done. Short phone calls and text-based messaging to keep in touch and check in with each other, then.
Advice for New Game Devs
Brandon: One last question. Is there anything you’d like to go back and time and tell yourselves before starting your projects?
Will: Yes. When designing the game itself, it’s more important to marry yourself to the experience than it is the mechanics of the game. Don’t be afraid to drop entire portions of the game if they don’t lead to the experience you want for players. So many times, I was dead set on having a mechanism in a game because I liked the idea of the mechanism, but it always made the experience suffer by making it too complex, too rigid, or just not fun at all.
Sarah: When making early prototypes, focus on function over form and don’t waste a lot of money printing it on high quality materials or through a professional service unless you need to see samples of products to know whether it’s what you want to design with. This also applies to not spending a lot of time on the art or graphic design. An early stage game needs to look the way it plays – unpolished. The time to do quality printing, like with The Game Crafter, is for late stage prototypes that need to look as good as the game finally is.
Ben: I mostly echo Sarah’s sentiment on focusing on function alone early on. Some prototypes I prepared (at The Game Crafter) were actually so nice that it worked against us. People sat down and felt like they were playing a finished game, and when “bugs in the programming” revealed themselves, play-testers had really adverse reactions. On the other side, when people sit down and play a game with cards that were printed out at someone’s home and painstakingly cut out, they know 100% that they’re playing a prototype.
Brandon: Will, I agree with that so much. Focusing on the experience over specific mechanics is really, really important.
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:
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)
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