Playtesting Tips Round Two — Lessons from Protospiel 2015

Not long ago, I wrote a post with some baseline strategies for running a successful playtesting session. I just got back from Protospiel 2015 in Chelsea Michigan (full conference write-up to come soon!) and had a few new observations for this helping to tune this process.

Lay out the tools: Let your testers know what kind of approach they should be using when dissecting the game. One designer this weekend, Andy[1], described himself as “better with a chainsaw than sandpaper”, and I adopted the phrase in the form of a question the rest of the weekend. In the same vein, another useful tool you might want testers to use is a hammer — do you want them to be seeking out strategies that will break the design? Or should they try to optimize for a victory they would in a finished commercial game, to make sure they have workable options?

Identify the ‘hook': After the session ends, a question I’m finding leads to incredibly insightful feedback is: “what were the moments from the game?” What are the testers going to remember? Was it the moment when one player looked like they were about to successfully complete a difficult quest, only to be stymied at the last minute by a player he had slighted earlier in the game? Perhaps a time when a player was able to collect the perfect combo of cards in her hand during a deckbuilder that would slay the dragon just in the nick of time before it recharged a dangerous fire breath ability? Was a specific mechanic uniquely fun?

These moments make the ‘hook’ which will bring people back session after session, and will leave players with positive memories. Make sure your mechanics are geared toward maximizing for these ‘hook’ moments, and minimizing the time and fiddliness between them.

Time it: A glaring omission from my first round of playtest tips, always make a note of the time (or start a stopwatch) when the game begins, and again (or stop) when the game is over, or grinds to a halt when there are rules issues. I’m discovering more and more that publishers are really looking to target that 60–90 minute range, and without some history of metrics around game duration, you won’t be able to know whether your efforts tuning rules are getting you closer or further to that sweet spot.

I’m pretty exhausted from traveling to and from Michigan this weekend, so that’s all for now. Any other playtesting tips you think designers ought to keep in mind? Post to comments!

[1] Andy, if you read this, hit me up with your last name in comments or email me at this domain @ gmail so I can give you full credit for the expression!

Game Balance: Solving the Brigadier Problem

5 Galaxy MapOnce upon a time, I built a web-based MMO called Galactic Impact. This was intended to be an async-multiplayer game in the spirit of such classic computer hits as “Master of Orion” and “Pax Imperia”. Build out your home planet, construct colony and war ships, dispatch them to neighboring planets, and respectively, colonize or obliterate them. Essentially 4X in a browser, with 3 hour turns, the ability to queue commands if you weren’t going to be around, and a modest tech ladder (the minimum-viable feature of a tech “tree” :))

Because this was multiplayer, and these games tend to have an exponential growth curve, there were some balance issues with first player advantage, and since it was meant to be an MMO with players signing up any time, this was a major issue. Solving this is what has, in the interim, stymied development on the project. However, during the game’s first small-scale playtest (25 active players), a really interesting situation arose which I think about often while developing and balancing board games. I’ve termed this the “Brigadier Problem”. Here’s what it was, and how I solved it.

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Facebook Stole My Money

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 9.42.59 AMI’m taking a quick hiatus from my philosophy of positivity to share my observations around a distinctly non-positive experience I had recently.

I ran a “Boosted Post” from my Facebook business page, as a little experiment. I had new content, I’m working to build my audience as I gear up for a Valour kickstarter campaign, Facebook display ads convert really well for Mobility on Demand, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

The boosted post featured original content from this blog. (Specifically, the Valour backstory.) Full disclaimer, I know this wasn’t an ideal ad: several equally-emphasized calls-to-action, many clicks through to a ‘conversion’; more on crafting a good ad in another post. But as we’ll soon see, my ad content never had a chance to fail on its own merit. Continue reading

Theme-first Board Game Design is Awesome

Concept sketching for some mechanics being born of theme.

Concept sketch showing the exact moment a game mechanic was born from a  theme.

I know some in the board game design community consider it sacrilege, but I’m definitely a theme-first designer. I make heavy use of my Catch Sheet day to day, while sitting in meetings, walking around, or wasting time reading articles online. Usually several times a week, I’ll be struck by an interesting economic interaction in real life, and want to build a game around it.

As I’ve gone over in the inception story (here, here, and here) for Valour, that design was entirely theme-first. I started making game notes based on the factual events from the history, and I was able to distill some really incredible game mechanics from them. While I’ve had to iterate multiple times in order to keep the rules and mechanics tight, it was an amazing starting point, and the reactions I get from seasoned gamers when they play Valour for the first time are universally positive, and many say that some of the mechanics are things they’ve never experienced before.

Now, don’t get me wrong — in now way am I arrogant enough to think that anything I’ve conceived of by starting from a real-life scenario and extrapolating a unique game mechanic is as revolutionary to boardgaming as, say, Dominion’s deck building, or Caylus’s worker placement/action drafting. And I also would never disagree with people who assert that games ARE the mechanics (I saw a comment online recently which implied that story without mechanics is just a novel). But theme-first game design is so much more than that. Continue reading

Playtesting Feedback Tips

IMG_4525A few weeks ago, Valour was tabled FOUR times in one weekend, with four entirely different groups. One group, after having the game significantly stalled early on by an edge case I hadn’t yet considered, soldiered on to completion late into the night.

Overall, feedback was extremely encouraging. Many of the mechanics are feeling more streamlined, and the repeat players all said this was the best session yet. A few systems in the game which are absolutely critical to gameplay are still experiencing some ambiguity and confusion, so those are the next things I need to address.

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently from other first-time designers struggling with how to react to feedback during a playtest. This can be really hard, but I’ve developed a few strategies to make the most of it, no matter what the situation. Putting them down here in hopes they’ll be useful. Continue reading

Recovering from Setbacks

It finally happened — I overcommitted.

I thrive on driving the throttle right to the edge, week in and week out. I despise the word ‘busy’, so I don’t use it, but on balance, I’m not sure what people generally do with downtime, so I fill it with things: pet projects, occasional contract work, blog posts. Like you do. (Right?)

Then, a member of the team I run at my day job departed. The added mental effort and extra hours of covering part of his workload while looking for a replacement pushed me past some kind of threshold. Obviously this is in no way his fault, but upsetting the delicate equilibrium was enough to topple the house of cards.

Everything suffered: Valour is falling behind schedule, Short Story RPG is way behind schedule, a contract I’d taken on for a friend isn’t getting bugs fixed, important business paperwork for Mobility on Demand is late, this blog is over a month without a post, CrossFit kept getting cut from the weekly schedule, … 😐

The onset was insidious, and the actual feeling of overwhelm was a seriously lagging indicator of the problem. The tasks piled up to the point of analysis paralysis choosing which task to work until everything ground to a halt. The most obvious symptom were flagging CrossFit scores. Gym-mates I used to compete with head to head were clocking in far ahead of me, and my benchmark workouts and lifts were all regressing. I PR’d three things during The Open, and I’m nowhere close to repeating those now.

And the most embarrassing part? I even wrote an article about the hazards of overcommitting a few months back.

Now that I’m pretty sure it’s not getting any worse, I’m doing what I can to actively combat it. I’ve started saying “No” to all sorts of new things. A friend who is working on a project I’m really excited for asked if I’d be interested in taking on the tech side, and (luckily for both of us) he asked just as I was realizing how deep underwater I was, so I declined. A code bootcamp graduate approached me at a Boulder Startup Week event and asked if we could set up some kind of mentorship arrangement. While that’s something I’m extremely keen on, I knew I’d only end up disappointing both of us.

Once I’d managed to stanch the bleed of available commitment energy, I still had to get back on top of things. Using a piece of advice from seanwes and some intentionality around my schedule; deciding what to do ahead of time, and putting it on the calendar, including leisure and downtime scheduled on purpose, instead of just doing it; I’m starting to make progress. The scheduling piece is exceptionally hard for me, since one of the best ways I’ve found to make my ADD flare and destroy my focus is to decide I have to work on something specific. (Sometimes… but not other times… ugh.)

It feels as if the minima has passed, and things are back on the upswing. The Crossfit scores, which are the measurable and repeatable data points where this downspiral has been the most obviously, aren’t reflecting it yet, but they’re starting to feel better. And the blog drought is over. Back to the regularly-scheduled programming!



Canterbury: FOR SALE

3229750It’s finally happening.

I’m putting my house in Michigan up for sale. Since I bought it in 2006 while working at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance, the Canterbury house played witness to countless memories, a few bad, but mostly in the good to great range. Dozens of cookouts, get togethers, and several killer Halloween parties went down there. That house was the backdrop to the best years I spent in Ann Arbor.

But it’s time. After moving to Boulder in August 2010, I put it up for rent, since the housing market wasn’t favorable, and I had outside hopes of one day turning a profit. It’s been occupied by a number of people in the intervening years, but the dream of ‘investment real estate’ never quite came to fruition. In the best of months (those when it was both occupied, and nothing broke or needed repair), it only cost me a $200-300 difference in the mortgage payment and rent. Times when things did break, the sky was the limit. It’s now April 2015… so you can do the math, because I would prefer not to.

More compelling than the monthly shortfall, however, was the bizarre budgetary reverberation this outflow/inflow caused. Each month, the outflow had to be set aside, and a few days later, a rent payment may or may not show up, dependent on my account balance with my property manager. It finally dawned on my what a snarl this was for my budget and savings goals, so when my current tenants decided not to renew, I contacted my real estate agent to get it on the market.

Here’s the listing.

It’s been quite a journey, homeownership, and I feel like I’ve gotten to learn about all the aspects first hand, but I’m pretty much ready to be away from it for the time being. Writing this has definitely made me wistful in thinking back — I’m going to miss it, and everything it represented to me over the years.

It was a good little house.

Short Story RPG Launched!


A world of adventure, right from your dining room table.

Posting a little late again this week… but it’s been a pretty crazy week!

I rebuild the lead-gen page for Valour, now that I’ve spent the time to put together a lot of the backstory and details, but more importantly…

I just flipped the switch last night on a brand-new website for one of the projects I’ve been cooking quietly over the last year!

Short Story RPG

It’s based on the premise that role playing games are actually a really cool medium for storytelling and human interaction, but complex rules, over-the-top themes, and difficulties with scheduling long-running campaigns all conspire to scare many people off. Continue reading

Valour: The Game

When we left off last week, I had the first physical prototype of my board game in-hand. Not knowing any better, I thought I might be near the end of the road. Now, after countless hours of play testing and revising, I know two things: a) I was WAY off the mark back then, and b) while I don’t yet know exactly where the road ends, I’m moving in the right direction. Read on to see the ins and outs of the current, and hopefully near-final, state of gameplay.
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