Last weekend, I got to attend the UnPub 5 convention in Baltimore. I was one of the lucky designers who pledged to their Kickstarter in time to get a designer table, and I brought short enough games that over the course of the twenty hours the convention was open for playtesters, my games were played sixty times – a new game starting every twenty minutes on average. Having the opportunity to experience four months’ worth of playtesting in two days gave me new (to me) insight into the design process, and I’m sharing some of what stuck with me, starting with an overview of the games I brought and following it with a list of lessons.
Odd Socks is a 2-4 player card game in which players are trying to deduce which sock was lost in the laundry at the start of the game and get its match in their basket by the end of the game. At the start of the game, one of the socks, represented by cards, is secretly removed from the deck. The remaining cards are dealt out to the players. On each player’s turn, they can play a card face-up into their basket and take an action that helps them deduce the removed sock’s match, or they can play a card face-down into their basket, taking no action but hiding the card’s identity from the other players. Once all players have one card left, the removed sock is revealed, and the player who has that sock’s match wins.
Avignon is a 2-player abstract strategy game in which players take the role of rival Popes trying to “influence that Masses” of the Catholic Church. Players gain influence by moving cards representing characters (Peasants, Cardinals, Bishops, etc) three steps toward their side by petitioning them and using their unique character powers. The first player to claim three characters’ support wins.
Lesson 1: Your Pitch Starts Before the Convention
Many of the playtesters who came to my table mentioned what drew them to my table instead of the seventy other designer tables at the convention. Some were just wandering through and saw an opening (it was really busy there on Saturday), some saw people having fun and wandered over, and some saw the sign on the table and were intrigued. But many of my testers responded to something they saw in the program – they liked the theme of laundry, wanted to try a new deduction game, or wanted to try shorter games. A couple players had even heard about the game on Twitter prior to the con. The lesson here (which isn’t a hard one to figure) is that the groundwork you lay before showing your game of is critically important
Lesson 2: Not all Feedback is Verbal or Written
To be clear: I got a lot of good feedback at the convention, from the Avignon players who argued about the utility of the alternate win conditions for a half hour to a fellow designer who, after playing Odd Socks, told me why this prototype was ready to pitch to publishers when previous iterations he’d played were not. But as important as that feedback was, the best feedback I got came from observations I made while others were playing. The faces that players made as they tried to determine Odd Socks actions that told me I needed to clean up my wording. The frustration players expressed when they were holding unusable actions told me that actions needed to be playable every turn. Avignon players pointing at cards as they tried to think multiple moves ahead on the second play-through. These were critical pieces of feedback that I hadn’t been able to get in previous playtests because this was the first time I’d been able to watch entirely new players play (usually, I’m playing or it’s a blind test).
Lesson 3: What is Meant When a Playtester Says Your Game is Ready
I got feedback from a lot of players that both Avignon and Odd Socks were in *very* good shape, from players asking when I was going to Kickstart (I’m not; more on that below) to a designer I have a lot of respect for finishing a game and saying, “Okay, this is legit.” BUT. This feedback did not, in the end, mean that I should be putting the games on Kickstarter or even pitching to publishers yet, as a result of the nonverbal feedback discussed in Lesson 2. What it does mean, however, is that the core of the game is solid and that the games are fun. This is an awesome start, and means that I’m on the right track, but it doesn’t actually mean the game is ready.
Lesson 4: How You Teach the Game is Very Important
Prior to this convention, Avignon has had a significant problem with one character card. The Noble doesn’t have a Petition ability, but has two alternate win conditions. Previously, when teaching the game, I explained the alternate win conditions in a very mechanical sense (“If you claim both the Peasant and the Noble, you lose, and if you claim the Noble and your opponent claims the Knight, you win”). This led to a lot of reading and forgetting about the Noble – to the point that I was starting to wonder whether I could keep the Noble in the game at all. For the first game of UnPub, I decided to switch it up and add some story to the explanation: “The Noble hates the Peasant, and won’t work with him. So if you claim both the Noble and the Peasant, you lose. The Knight works for the Noble, so if you claim the Noble and your opponent claims the Knight, the Noble orders the Knight to stab your opponent in the back and you win.” Suddenly, everyone cared about the Noble. To the point that one player went out of his way to remove both Noble from play – in three consecutive games. As a result, I’m going to be elaborating on the relationship between characters (which already exists in the rulebook) in order to draw players in.
Lesson 5: Prepare for Follow-Ups
As I mentioned earlier, a significant number of players asked about how they could buy Odd Socks and/or Avignon. Thankfully, I was ready with something to give those players, but I found it interesting that the materials that others were encouraging me to bring to hand out weren’t the materials that I actually needed. The big focus I’ve heard from multiple sources was the importance of bringing sell sheets to conventions to give to interested parties. This is probably the last convention I’m bringing sell sheets to. I found business cards to be way more useful. My business cards, which I handed out to any player who asked, had my e-mail address and Twitter handle as well as links to the UnPub page for both games, through which players could reach both feedback forms and updated Print-and-Play files for each game. I felt like this worked very well for players who wanted more information, and I think that I’m going to go with a business card as well when talking to publishers who are interested in the game, with the game’s name, picture, and my contact information on one side of the card, with sell sheet information on the reverse side. It’s easier to carry around and design, and I just haven’t had as much success with publishers, even at speed dating events, taking sell sheets over business cards.
After UnPub 5, I’ve decided that both Avignon and Odd Socks are games that I need to accelerate development on.
Odd Socks needed some graphic design changes – in particular, the socks needed patterns and the text on the cards needed to be bigger – and a change to some cards so that there won’t be a risk that actions will be unusable. Below, you can see a sample of what was changed with the old card on the left and the new card on the right – the solid color and contrasting number have been replaced with a pattern, the text was made larger, and the action text was changed both to be easier to understand. I’m testing these changes this weekend.
Avignon is in even better shape. Lots of feedback suggested that I needed a board of some kind, so I’m going to play around with low-cost options for that. I’m also going to test a suggestion that my last group of the convention had, which was that it require four pulls to claim a card instead of three. This would make it harder for someone to claim a newly revealed card in a single turn, although I had originally been thinking that such a possibility is part of the strategy of the game.
Once I’ve tested these changes, I’m going to start courting publishers. I’ve already got a publisher or two in mind to pitch to for each game, but if anyone knows of a publisher who might be a good fit, I’m all ears. In the meantime, enjoy Print-and-Play links to both games:
Odd Socks: tinyurl.com/OddSocksGame