Protospiel 2013

A few weeks ago, I attended a Board Game Developer’s conference called Protospiel. As luck would have it, it was in my hometown of Ann Arbor, MI, so the trip got to double as a visit to see the folks and an old friend or two. I got some shocking news the day I returned, so this is a little tardy.

I took revision 5 of my nascent board game — Vercingetorix (new name in the works… I realize it’s a mouthful) with the hopes of getting some final tuning feedback and try and drum up some interest.

Day 1

The first morning of the conference (Friday), I arrived with my rolled-up board in a shipping tube and a plastic box full of components. I paid my reg fee, got my name tag, and looked around the room bewildered by what to do first. A guy named Oliver walked up and asked if I had a prototype I wanted to test. “Holy crap! Am I really ready to show this to strangers?” my brain panicked.

2013-07-12 12.25.21
Gearing up in western Gaul before the final showdown.

We found a table near the back corner of the room, and I began setting up. Noob mistake: Rolled up paper boards are hard to set up quickly. Most of the rest of the prototypes I’d see the rest of the weekend were glued to either old board game boards, or sections of chipboard cut for the purpose. We collected two more onlookers, and the Gallic War was on! The constructive feedback began pouring in almost as soon as all the players’ chieftain pawns hit the map. Advice on typesetting the instructions and simplifying visuals across the board (ahem); suggestions on record-keeping mechanics to cut down on some of the fiddliness around scoring.

The most exciting moment of the first day was when Seth Jaffee of Tasty Minstrel Games first paused, then stopped to watch, then sat down to observe. Industry contact! Unreal!

Things ended up winding down through some of the late-game slog I’ve been trying to adjust out of the rules, and we broke for discussion. With a published designer in the mix, feedback upgraded from “no holds barred” to “nothing is sacred”; my mind reeled from the vertigo from zooming out from seeking a local-maxima around mechanics to look for a global-maximum on the design curve.

After frantically jotting down as many notes as I could from the rapid-fire discussion, we broke for lunch. My dad had texted with a reco for a BBQ place that had just opened nearby, so I lead the charge away from the even-more-convenient Wendy’s, and drove our troupe over.

Getting back from lunch, we sat down to play Oliver’s game: Scarlet Sonata. Worker placement in an era of gallantry — angling to land your knight among the ranks of the “mythic”. Really good application of theme, and some really interesting options for combat, involving rolling a shitload of dice, and using them for damage assignment. Hands down, my favorite game of the weekend. And I don’t even like worker placement.

Day 2

The second day was a bit of a blur — playing a series of prototypes from a number of talented designers. I also spent a few minutes jotting down notes on designs I’ve been interested in fleshing out further (I think we’ve all experienced the inspiring environment of a conference.) I’ve forgotten most of the specifics, but one of the stand-out moments of the conference came as I was packed up and on my way out to meet my college friend Richard for drinks. A guy named Corey was showing a cool laser-cut wood tile stacking game. He asked if I wanted to sit down for a test.

“How long does it take?” since I was on my way out.

“Twenty, thirty minutes.”

“Sure, I’ll give it whirl.” I sit down. We need one more player, so Corey and I begin shooting the shit about the game, his history as a designer. He indicates that the second test player we’re waiting for has been ‘hitting the snooze button on him’ from across the room for a while. I suggest we grab another bystander.

“Well… no. The guy we’re waiting for is [Uwe, the owner of Academy Games — one of the publishers attending the conference].” He finally arrived. Introductions were made, and the trash-talking began. Our objective was to build hotels in a Greek seaside town. As the final tiles are placed, cinching Uwe’s victory, he turns to Corey and says:

“I want it.” He and Corey begin discussing details of print-run size, numbers, timeframe, etc. I’m flabbergasted. Rich is waiting for me, but I can’t tear myself away from watching this negotiation go down.

After seeing this transaction take place, I can’t wait to buy a copy, just to say “I was there when…”

Day 3

After a little more morning design-hacking, I jumped in to a few games. Talked to a bunch more designers, and observed some other interesting stuff going on. I also had the opportunity to play a dungeon-building worker placement game by the author of a blog post I’ve recently been referring to as gospel for my Vercingetorix Kickstarter planning. This event is definitely a bigger deal than I had initially assumed.

Late in the day, I got another opportunity to present Vercingetorix to another smart group of folks. This time, I got a number of hard questions about specifics of the history and historical documents I’m using as a basis for some of the mechanics, which I couldn’t answer. This ended up inspiring me to go back and spend more time both with the show which inspired me in the first place, as well as the primary document by Julius Caesar. Sign up for my Vercingetorix mailing list for more in-depth updates on that process.

Wrap up

Man, that was a cool experience. Next year, I’m hoping to show up with both a published game under my belt, and possibly a few prototypes to get run through their paces. The type of feedback from other designers is remarkable in comparison to feedback from players.

The difference, to me, is that folks who play games but don’t design them come at the rules with the eye of a keen interior decorator — “This end-table should be here. This wall should be orange. I wish this shelf were 3 inches lower.” The designers come with the contractor’s wrecking-ball eye. “Let’s take out this wall. What if there were a bay window in this corner?” Both are obviously critical for making an incredible living space, and I can’t wait to get volumes more player feedback, since that’s who this is all for. But damn, I’m glad I got to experience and learn from someone pouring over the blueprints with me before I got too far down the road picking out and hanging drapes.

I thought I needed final tuning, but realized I really needed a slightly more drastic renovation. If you have ambitions of designing or publishing a boardgame, write your rules, build your prototype, and get your ass to Protospiel.