A Year in Game Design: Everything Else
Last week I posted about the eight games that I prototyped this past year. But it turns out (as some of you already know) there’s a lot more that goes into game design than just design. As a UX designer, I expected there to be some amount of user testing but I never imagined just how many playtests I’d be taking on in the next 12 months. Nor did I imagine how many new people I’d meet, and how large my circle of friends in this community would grow to be. There are so many creative, hard-working, and delightful people designing and playing games out there. I’m grateful to call many of them my new friends and collaborators.
After binging on a number of good podcasts and blogs, I understood that my first order of business needed to be to find playtesters. I needed to get outside eyes on my games, see how they played with more than two people, and give Eric a break from playing the same two games every weekend 😂 So I hit up Google and, what do you know?! There’s a Boston-based playtesting group called the Game Makers’ Guild that meets every other Monday for online playtesting. I signed up for the next meeting.
Game Makers’ Guild has been incredibly welcoming and is the first set of new friends in this world of game design. I was able to playtest my game on my first day there and get some great feedback. I learned the phrase “I think I’ve seen enough to give feedback,” which is now my favorite gentle way to exit a playtest. It was also the first time I got to observe other people running a playtest as playtested other designers’ games, including an early version of Tony Tran’s Quilted! Since then, I’ve been active on the Discord, gotten to in-person playtesting at Omar’s World of Comics and Queen’s Gambit, and am now a part of the leadership team. I’m helping plan an in-person immersive playtesting event for June 10th in Haverhill!
My friend Jeff from GMG introduced me to Protospiel Online, which I attended for the first time in August of 2022. I was somewhat frazzled when I finally logged in on Saturday, due to cancelled flights the day before. But as soon as I popped into the LFG room, planning to play someone else’s game so that I could see how it worked, someone else popped into the room and said they’d been waiting to play Good Kitties. I was playtesting within minutes. I can’t list all friends I’ve made there (it’s too many!) but this is where I met Heather Newton and David Masnato, PO organizers extraordinaire. I’ve been back to PO in January and May and am now one of the writers for the newsletter.
Shortly after PO in August, Heather invited me to a weekly Tuesday night accountability group of game designers. This turned out to be the Building the Game group, a Discord built around the folks who make and listen to the BTG podcast. These folks are ANOTHER super cool set of humans and this group has quickly become the community in which I’m most active. It’s not a group that I playtest with (although I know I could!) but a group of designers that have interesting discussions, offer advice and feedback, and support each other through some of the daily grind. I’ve been active since the fall and recently was asked to become a regular co-host on the podcast!
The Cons, Festivals, Showcases, and Contests
But my journey hasn’t only been through online communities and digital playtesting this year, I threw myself into seeing as much of the game design world as possible. So let’s talk about the conferences, festivals, and showcases.
I’d never been to GenCon, but I’ve heard it’s “the best four days in gaming” 😜 So I decided to go. I had no plan and very little understanding of how the con operates - PAX East is the only gaming con I’d attended (I’ve been attending for the last 10 years). But I got my flights, an Airbnb, and signed up for some event tickets (that part was very confusing for me). It was a blast. It was a whirlwind. I made some new friends in the board game library, who I'm going to meet up with again this year. I played hours and hours of playtests in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. I playtested my games at the Game Crafter’s playtesting night. And I played so so so many games, working my way through the list I’d compiled of “games I haven’t played that people say I just have to play if I’m going to design games.” Given that one of the big pieces of advice to game designers is “play lots of games,” I saw this as a key opportunity to do so without just buying them all 🙂
While I was at GenCon, I met the Game Crafter folks and went to their social on Saturday night. Late at night, JT convinced me that the first weekend in December I should be at Protospiel Madison instead of PAX Unplugged. I slept on it and decided he was right. I got my tickets and headed to chilly Madison, WI while all my local friends were taking a train to Philly. It was 1000000% the right choice for me last year. There were great sessions the first day and then just non-stop, intensive playtesting for the next three days. I’m sure Unplugged was awesome, and I intend to go there this year, but Protospiel was where I needed to be for where I was in my game design journey. You’re probably getting tired of me talking about awesome and supportive people, but that’s all I’m finding in these communities! The focus at Protospiel is outward, with the goal of giving feedback to others rather than receiving it for your games. I loved it. Also, great hot chocolate bar ☕
In a different spin on a design convention, I also went to Unpub in March. It has a similar energy of focusing on giving feedback, non-stop playtesting, and just general awesomeness. I finally got to meet a bunch of my Discord friends in person! And I got to meet lots of other people too, including the folks at Unpub and Cardboard Edison. Oh yeah, and some fairly impressive game designers, both well-known and less known 😉 If you’ve been following along, you know that this is where things really picked up steam for me and Knitting Circle. I’ve also joined another game design/playtesting group, found myself on Twitter, and did some serious pitching to publishers after this con. And I followed it immediately with a trip to PAX East (a yearly tradition) where I only did minimal playtesting so that I could just have fun 🙂
I also participated in two showcases this year, one virtual and one in person. In the fall I was a part of BostonFIG, showcasing my co-op campaign game Good Kitties. I brought the same game to the Quirk Events Indie Showcase this winter, running a demo version of the game for 6 hours at a food hall in downtown Boston. Both were exhausting in different ways 🙂 But both grew my mailing list and gave me some good insight into how the game runs in demo mode and how to improve those first impressions.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the contests. This past year, I entered Good Kitties into ION and Cardboard Edison as well as BostonFIG, which has the Figgies as part of the festival. The main thing that meant was that I’ve made 3 videos for Good Kitties over the course of the year and 2 full rulebooks. Good Kitties didn’t win anything, but that’s not necessarily the point. I got useful feedback, I got those artifacts made, and I met a few publishers who are interested in the game. That counts as a win for me any day.
I’m sure there’s more that I didn’t capture, but this is where I’m going to stop. Whew, what a year! I decided to dive in headfirst and I think I’ve accomplished that goal. Part of the goal was to quickly identify which things I want to keep doing going forward. So part of the challenge for next year will be figuring out how to focus my time and energy. I’m not totally done with the exploring part either, I still have goals to accomplish this year including engaging with Break My Game, going to Origins, and getting to PAX Unplugged. I'm excited about this coming year and I have confidence that it will bring new experiences and challenges as well as more wonderful friends.