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ProtoTO - lessons learned

[And we're back... things got a bit away from us there.]

This past weekend ProtoTO held their fourth(?) annual prototype boardgaming convention.

I was restricted to only Sunday attendance for a number of reasons, and attendance on Sunday on my part became dicey prospect due to it being my wife's birthday (and forgetting such when I booked the table) and having the tail end of a head cold. I had dusted off Disastertown: FLOOD! for the first time in nearly 2 years just a few weeks earlier and was keen to put it in front of people and see what the feedback was. Well, "keen" is a kind word considering I had less than 5 hours sleep, was hopped up on cold meds, and my anxiety had been up on this subject for about two days. [Side note: any trip to local gaming bazaar meeplemart or stores of its ilk are always initially very exciting to visit ("Hey look at all this stuff!") but after a certain amount of time, very dispiriting ("Oy, would you look at all this stuff? There's just so much of it. As a designer how do you find a place in amongst all this, and then how do you stand out from it all?")] I did have my wife's support, so that really is what kicked my butt out of bed and to the downtown Holiday Inn where ProtoTO was being held.

BUT FIRST, A Little Backstory

Disastertown: FLOOD! was designed in response to Disastertown: Hurricane, looking at capitalizing on the familiar environment of Disastertown (same shops and characters) and similar theme (rebuilding the town after yet another disaster befalls this perpetually disaster-wracked society), but where Hurricane uses cards as its resources, FLOOD! uses dice.

Hurricane begins its set-up by throwing the cards up in the air creating a unique resource gathering game every time. FLOOD!'s hex-shaped board is set-up then flooded with dice. From there a conversion into resource cubes would take place and (following a half dozen other steps) the game would commence.

I spent a lot of time (before Hurricane took center focus of The Game Distillery crew) working on balancing out FLOOD! so that gameplay would flow (pun!) smoothly and any gaps were plugged (pun!). I put it in front of my usual gaming crew and a couple other select groups, where we always played a 3 or 4 player game. The movement of a 3-4 player game seemed to be rather breezy and light, but thinky and engaging. People seemed to like it. 2 player game testing sort of fell to the side. Testing altogether eventually fell to the side. I tried to put some work into bettering the prototype and that fell to the side. And then FLOOD! altogether fell to the side.

Resurrecting it a few weeks ago after some time apart, it was unfamiliar and my passion for it was not as high. The tight clean game I was so enthusiastic about now seemed almost...dull, certainly not up to par with the games I have been playing, nor the games I've been thinking about making since. If I put this in front of other players - strangers - what would they say?

WHAT THEY SAID

I had 3 head-to-head testplays, each lasting just under an hour. Honestly, that was more testplays than I thought I was going to get in. I was not feeling very confident about my game and especially not about its design. We take our motto "Handcrafted with our hands" very seriously (okay, it's a pretty tongue-in-cheek motto, so maybe not-so-seriously) and our games in their early stages certainly look the part. Foamboard frame, recycled hex-tiles from Catan, playing cards with handwritten stickers on them, customized dice that can be hard to read... yeah, they look the part. I wasn't sure if most other games at ProtoTO would be sophisticated computer-generated 3-D-printed custom-manufactured games that would have a lustre to them that mine would not... and therefore draw more people to them.

FLOOD 4p testplay

But ProtoTO is really inclusive and supportive of its designers and actively helps to find its designers people to play its games. I was thoroughly impressed (despite being relatively disengaged due to head cold+meds+stress). My first testplayer sought me out, which was a nice confidence booster. The second and third players were brought to me.

What did they say?

More than anything they did say, it's what they didn't say. There wasn't much complimentary coming from their mouths about the game. There were questions raised about why things were the way they were, which I could justify were mostly due to balance, but that didn't make those elements any more satisfying to play.

The lack of compliments only reinforced what I was feeling during gameplay, which was that they weren't enjoying playing the game. What's more, I wasn't enjoying playing the game. So I tried to work out with these good people what it was that wasn't working.

OH, so much.

While much of what was said boils down to a lot of specifics about the gameplay, there were a few things that hit home about game design in general.

LESSONS

1) Just because a game is playable doesn't mean it's fun. Just because you put the time and effort into making a game doesn't mean you've made something good. As I learned, stepping away, adding some distance, then coming back to a game you designed, you may see this too. Your initial enthusiasm may no longer blind you to the product you have made.

2) A balanced game doesn't mean it's automatically good. I sunk a lot of time into figuring out how to balance FLOOD! and once I had it figured out I thought I was done. But while I spent so much time patting myself on the back for working so hard on the balance I wasn't paying attention to what the gameplay actually was like. I enjoy game design so much that I was having fun testplaying games, looking for balance and gaps to fill. I didn't recognize that the fun wasn't necessarily the game itself.

3) One of the key points made was "You have a lot of materials just sitting there on the board, doing nothing." This was one of the last comments I received and it was the one that drove home the most that I had a broken game. I had 50 dice rolling onto the board, and in gameplay you had to convert those dice into coloured cubes (150 of those). That's a lot of materials, making for an expensive-to-manufacture game, when (in a 2player game, at least) most of those materials aren't utilized in any manner. It's much different in a 3-4 player game but did I want a game only suited for 3-4 players? Not so much.

4) Randomness is only good where there is otherwise control. I was proud that FLOOD! was built with a lot of variety embedded within it, I thought it created replayability. In reality that variety was just seen as randomness, and modern board gamers like to feel some control. When setup is random, and movement is largely random, and resources are randomized, and trading is random(ish), and messing with other players is somewhat random, and global events are random, it begs the question, what is in a player's control? And is it enough?

In this case, it wasn't. I thought the randomness created constraints that the players would have to overcome, part of the game's challenge, but instead they saw them as obstacles to achieving their objective and to having fun.

5) There's a purpose to play testing. This can't be stressed enough. There is a purpose to play testing. That purpose is to make a better game, even if it means tearing apart something you spent months (or longer) working on. And playtesting doesn't just mean playing it yourself, or your friends, or the same group of people. Put it in front of strangers who will give you an honest reaction.

6) Set ego aside. Your feelings are going to get hurt when people criticize your work, but you have to remember they're not attacking you, the game is not an extension of you. If anything they're trying to be helpful. As always with criticism you will need to decipher what is an honest flaw in the game and what is just a player preference...but aggregating feedback over time you may find patterns in critiques which may necessitate reapproaching a dissed mechanic or element of the game that you had just chalked up to player preference. You have to be open and willing to accept that.

7) Consider your flavour against your gameplay. Flavour isn't everything to all players, and not every aspect of your game has to be steeped in it, but no aspect should kill the flavour or stand apart glaringly from the flavour. With FLOOD! one of the trade processes didn't quite make sense to a player, it didn't outright contradict the flavour of the game but he did say it didn't quite fit thematically. If the game were a better experience, I'm sure that gripe about flavour wouldn't have even come up, but in a flawed game flavour counts for a lot.

Exhaustion/Conclusion

At the end of my third head-to-head game some kind fellows were notifying me that my table assignment was different between Session 1 and Session 2 for the day. Seeing as I was just finishing up, and I was going to be packing up anyway, and my meds had worn off, and my game clearly sucked, and I was a little dejected, and I was quite exhausted (physically and mentally and emotionally) and it was, afterall, my wife's birthday, I skipped out of the second session I had booked. But I couldn't let go on the way home. I started picking everything apart immediately and searching for the right way forward. Eventually inspiration hit.

FLOOD! is being torn apart and rebuilt as I write this, and I can tell already there's a better game in there, richer, more complex, more fun, more replayable. It's going to take a lot of work to get it balanced and plug the holes, and a lot of playtesting to affirm whether we have something good, something worthy of our Disastertown series.

There are enough crappy or middling games out there in the market. You have some on your shelves. Putting out a game that's playable, that's just "good enough" isn't good enough for us.

(Special thanks to Pam Walls and the ProtoTO volunteers and staff who made for a meaningful event. I hope to participate more in the community and future events.)

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