This past weekend Roberto Durant (@RobertDurant173), Professor Nicholson (@) and I attended Toronto’s very first prototyping convention: ProtoTO. Held at BoardAgain games on Dundas St in Toronto, ProtoTO was a three-day prototyping convention meant for designers of all experiences and backgrounds to get invaluable playtesting feedback on their projects. It was an all around great experience, albeit quite a sweaty one. I had such a great experience I wanted to share it with those who couldn’t attend!
The event kicked off Friday night with a panel from some of the industry’s best and brightest designers and publishers. This was probably my favourite part of the weekend; the atmosphere in the room was excited and eager. Notable designers Eric Lang (@eric_lang), Christopher Chung (@FlashForwardCo), Daryl Andrews (@darylmandrews) and Paul Tseng (@paulftseng). They were joined by Tanya Thompson from Marbles the Brain Store and Kevin Nesbitt of Mercury Games. This winning combination of designers and publishers talked to an eager crowd of creators about best design practices, how to get the most from your playtesting and how to get your game published (or self-published). There were several pearls of wisdom that I gleaned from the panel that I want to share with my fellow designers.
Playtesting with Purpose
There were lots of tidbits regarding prototyping. Eric Lang made it clear that, as with designing, it’s about drilling down to the good stuff. He said the majority of playtesting feedback will be players wishing your game was more like games that they like to play. They, unfortunately, aren’t helping you make the game you want to make but making your game similar to games they like to play. That’s not entirely a bad thing, however. If you watch players while they play, looking for “aha” moments or points where they became frustrated, that information is very important for making your game better.
“90% of playtesting feedback can be boiled down to ‘you’re making this game, I wish you were making that game.'” – Eric Lang, Designer
Daryl Andrews advised that designers should “follow the fun!” Look for the parts of your games players gravitate towards, a mechanism or strategy, and ask them why they liked that and how they can make it better. You can also then look at mechanisms players avoided or strategies they never found and ask yourself why that happened. It was also unanimously stressed that getting the changes implemented and tested as fast as possible is key. Daryl was putting his latest prototype into card sleeves during the panel!
There were lots of great tips from the panel on how to get published. The general consensus from the panel was that the first step is knowing the publishers you want to target for your game. Publishers have a certain style of game they like to publish because they know the audience for that game and how to market to them. For example, Mercury Games publishes primarily Euro-style/war games so if a designer took a casual party game to them,that obviously would not be a good fit. Knowing the publisher and their catalogue is key to predicting whether they will like your game and want to publish it.
“The first priority is a game that will sell. The second is one that’s good.” – Kevin Nesbitt, Mercury Games
As for how to pitch once you’ve found a publisher, it was made quite clear that cold calling/emailing a publisher is a bad idea. At the very least, if you’re going to cold email a publisher be sure to custom tailor the email to that publisher. Kevin said he receives dozens of such emails a day and if an email appears to be a copy and paste sent to dozens of publishers he won’t even open it. If there’s a level of effort evident in the email and the sender appears to have done their research then he’s more inclined to read it.
Tanya advised that it’s incredibly important to have a succinct, one-page pitch sheet. She also added that a video is incredibly encouraging. I talked to her afterwards and she said at a given convention she receives hundreds of pitches a day and being able to watch a short clip will go a long way to refreshing her memory of your game and help her determine if your game will be a good fit for her publisher. Also, emphasis on “short” video. No one in publishing has time to watch a video of a full game being played. Craft a short overview of your game highlighting the key mechanisms, video of it being played and an explanation of why people love it. That’s your key to a good pitch video.
With the panel over the weekend moved into full playtest mode. I played a little over a dozen games and wanted to share the highlights!
Ewetopia designed by Kylie (@KylieLatham81) and Dave
In Ewetopia players work in teams of two and aim to round up the escaped sheep running free in the valley and return them safely to the barn while avoiding the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Playing as dogs, players push sheep in rows off a board and aim to collect different sets and sequences of sheep. For example, sheep are numbered one to eight so having a set of sheep from one to five earns a certain number of points as does a set of five number one sheep. The tricky part is as the game progress and more and more dogs are on the board it becomes increasingly difficult to get the sheep you need while stopping other players from getting the sheep they need. This is where working with your partner is important, communicating and planning several steps is key.
The tricky part is as the game progress and more and more dogs are on the board it becomes increasingly difficult to get the sheep you need while stopping other players from getting the sheep they need. This is where working with your partner is important, communicating and planning several steps is key. Players also have fences they can use to section off sheep they’re after or protect themselves from wolves. It was very entertaining and was quite impressive visually seeing as it was all homemade art.
Curse You! designed by Daniel Rocchi (@danielrocchi67)
Probably my favourite game of the weekend mechanically was Curse You! Players are magical folks, competing against each other to collect the right ingredients to craft potions. Potions are represented by recipe cards placed between players. Once all the recipes on each side of a single player are gone, the game is over and the player with the most points from potions wins! The catch is that some ingredients are cursed and if you craft a potion using some cursed ingredients you get curse tokens that count against you at the end of the game. That is unless you can craft a potion using all cursed ingredients in which case you’re to pass your curse tokens onto other players! It’s simply a great game and I can’t wait to play it again.
Campaign Trail designed by Matthew Lenner (@darklord263)
Definitely my favourite game thematically, Campaign Trail is a political simulation card game where players take the role of competing candidates running for president. Through a combination of implementing policies and slandering other players with scandals, players aim to collect as many voters as possible. At the end, the player with the most votes wins! With a Cards Against Humanity style of unabashed humour, cards genuinely caused me to laugh out loud. A slander card was played against me simply titled “GAY” that caused me to lose a lot of right wing supporters. Whereas Cards Against Humanity can become tedious after several games and the shock value of the cards has worn off, there’s a real meaty game in Campaign Trail that will keep players busy for days.
ProtoTO was a great experience, especially for an aspiring designer. I got to meet publishers, get their business cards and learn more about how they find games to publish. I got to meet other designers, both established and up and coming, and learn about their process. And I got to play a lot of games! It was an invaluable learning experience and I’ll definitely be back next year.