Published on September 14th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Prototypes & Playtesting
Thanks for sticking with us through some slow weeks here at Across the Board Games. While the site may have been slow, it’s because behind the scenes we’ve been incredibly busy all through August. Across the Board Games is one of several board game projects that Nicole and I work on together, and those other pursuits took over for a little (in the form of 3 conventions in 5 weeks).
Our main focus right now is WhiskeyGinger, our creative venture. WhiskeyGinger mainly works with designers and publishers who already have mechanics to a game and need other elements such as art, story and characters to flesh out the idea. This covers everything from naming cards and writing flavor text to making art assets and doing layout design.
WhiskeyGinger is also in the process of making its own games, such as Food Truck Frenzy, our most developed game so far. We wanted to take you behind the scenes a little bit, mostly to encourage people who have an idea for a board game to make the plunge themselves and mock up a prototype. (If you have any questions or suggestions for a new article in this vein, leave a comment below.)
When we started out we had a very specific idea of how the game should look, and we had strong design goals. Sooner than later we had our first prototype, and knew right away that in order to iterate our ideas we would have to play this game more than we’ve played any other game. Which leads to our main topic today:
Typically, it’s hard to find people to playtest your game. All of our friends, but Paul and Scott mostly, have been recruited to play at least some iteration of Food Truck Frenzy so far. But badgering your friends into playing one game a lot is kind of selfish and is grating on both parties after a while. So how do you playtest your ideas?
Let’s face it, most of the time you’re going to need to sit down by yourself or with your design partner to test things. This is the case especially in the early stages of the game design process when mechanics are more likely to change dramatically. Once you have stabilized your design, you will probably be able to more accurately predict the way changes to the rules will affect gameplay.
Once you’re at that point, engaging your local players is probably your first best step. Ask your friendly local game store (FLGS) if you can run a playtest event on one of their off days- having a nice flyer they can put out usually helps with this. The only issue with this is that you still need to be your own event promoter, and the amount of interest you get can vary greatly by where you’re located.
We arranged to have some dedicated table space every third Sunday of the month at our FLGS, and so now people in our area have a recurring monthly event that they can plan around if they want to see what local designers are doing. There is still the problem of essentially relying on walk-ins, but our store has pretty high amounts of foot traffic so this works for us.
Conventions are also key in learning what your target audience has to think about your ideas. This summer marks our first year at actually presenting our own game to players at conventions. With the help of PlaytestNW, we debuted in June at Evergreen Tabletop Expo in Tacoma, then at Dragonflight in Bellevue and finally at PAX Prime in Seattle proper. Just from demoing part time during these three conventions we’ve had our game played by well over 100 people.
The high volume of players during a con weekend is one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had as a game designer. By carrying a portable art kit with us, I was able to modify the game on the fly between sessions as a player broke the game in a new way that suggested a different mechanic for the game. Then I was able to immediately see the results of my tampering with the game, with new players who didn’t know the difference.
With the design of your game stable, you should make sure that you have a prototype that looks respectable. Don’t worry about art, but the card or board layout should make sense and be legible. You can go to art supply stores and get foamcore or paperboard or various thickness to use as backs for boards, mats and tokens. Just use spray adhesive to attach your designs to the thicker material, then cut them out.
When people are told they’re playing a prototype, they can be really forgiving with the lack of art. Many of us grew up playing chess or checkers and can suspend our disbelief quite a bit. The key factors in a prototype are really going to be Layout and Legibility. But obviously the more impressive the game is visually, the more the players are going to engage with the theme/metaphor of the game and the more easily you’ll attract passing eyes.
Don’t go and spend money on custom art until you’re getting ready to launch your Kickstarter (or you just have money to burn). Instead, there are lots of ways to make a quality looking product for little investment. Check out: CGTextures, Corbis, Game-Icons, The Noun Project, the Envato family and other sites like them (also double check their usage licenses). It won’t make you a pro, but it can ease some of the hardest parts of the job.
You can also go with the repurposing route, and look for items that you could buy to convert into game pieces. Take a look at Alice’s prototype for Dark Forest, above: her tokens are an incredibly effective use of part of an Ikea clock and some animal erasers from a stationary store. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to be effective at this stage.
This is intended to be the first in a series of articles about prototyping games and doing public playtests. If you have any questions about how to make prototypes or how to set up playtest events, please comment below.