If you’ve ever tried to design a game, you know how critical playtesting is to the process. Without a group of people around willing to try your prototype and help you refine your vision into a workable game, very few titles would be realized. Toronto is a paradise for board game fans and designers alike. The city is teeming with amazing talent and great places to play games. Aside from the famous Snakes & Lattes, there are a number of different board game cafes around town. Both Snakes and 401 Games hold regular designer nights, giving some of the emerging and established designers an opportunity to fine tune their work. Until recently, there wasn’t a convention in Toronto, dedicated to prototypes and getting them played. That is, until Proto TO ran its inaugural event this month.
Proto TO was the brainchild of Pam Walls, a designer herself who knows the importance of getting feedback on your games. “I went to my first prototype convention, Prototype Con, in Orlando this past February. It was such an amazing experience. I got so much feedback in a very short period of time, it felt like 6 months of playtesting condensed down to a couple days.”
When Walls got back she was looking for similar events, but at that point Toronto didn’t have a full convention dedicated to playtesting. Knowing how strong the design community was in town, Walls saw an opportunity to bring people together. She teamed up with some other organizers, Kevin Carmichael, Allysha Tulk, and Erica Hayes-Bouyouris to put the con together. “An event like this is important because it gives designers the opportunity to have multiple playtests of their games over the course of a weekend. Organizing playtests can be a time consuming and cumbersome task, so having an event with a steady supply of playtesters at the designers’ disposal is very valuable.”
Friday night Proto TO kicked off with a designer/publisher panel, moderated by Erica Hayes-Bouyouris. Local designers Eric Lang, Chris Chung, Daryl Andrews and Paul Tseng participated, and for publisher perspective, Tanya Thompson (from Marbles the Brain Store) and Kevin Nesbitt (from Mercury Games) also took part. There was a lot of great insight about the breadth of designing, from self-publishing to when to shelve a design, how to approach and pitch to publishers, advice on what to expect in contracts, and what to get out of playtesting your designs. For the budding designers and developers attending, I imagine this was a great panel of folks to hear speak to hear how they approach design, factor it in around their day jobs, what inspires them and overall to hear the advice “do what you love”.
After the panel, a lot of attendees mingled, chatted with the panelists and some broke off to play Board Again’s game collection for the open gaming part of the evening (and some eager folks tabled their prototypes!). Special guest Dr. Scott Nicholson was offering “office hours” where we was helping designers with problems and challenges they’re facing with their designs and prototypes – this was a really terrific and special touch for an event like this one, an encouraging. Team members from the Hasbro Gaming Lab were also in attendance to playtest and network – it’s great to see involvement from a gaming behemoth like Hasbro at an independent game design event.
Saturday and Sunday of the convention were slated for playtesting – this was really well organized by the team behind Proto TO. Tables were scheduled, information about games was posted to their website in advance, and they made sure to look around the venue to get enough people to playtest during each time slot at each table. Games on offer ranged from higher end strategy and war games, to mid-weight all the way to quick fillers, party games & family fun. This breadth of local design is certainly encouraging to see! Testing time slots were 90 minutes each, with a buffer for changeover – this allowed a good amount of time for playing games and allowing designers to ask for feedback at the end of each session.
Daryl Andrews, a Canadian designer and host of the Meeple Syrup Show, has gone through the multi-stage process of publishing games a number of times. “Events like Proto TO are important for a few reasons. They become incubators of inspiration and innovation. I am constantly inspired and motivated when I get time with other inventors,” Andrews said.
“For myself, play testing is a crucial step throughout the design process.You never know when you will discover an idea that might make the game even better.”
Being an experienced professional designer allows Andrews to assume a mentor role for those people with ideas on a game, but unfamiliar with turning them into completed projects.
“Fail faster. Learn to know what things you need to let go of,” advises Andrews. “Also, get it out of your head. Many new designers keep designs in their minds – instead make a simple/fast prototype and get others to interact with your concept. Quickly you will see what works and what needs improvement.”
Board Again as a venue was great – accessible, plenty of space for testing and hanging out, wifi available and a computer terminal for accessing event information. There were a few cubicle spots available for designers to sit aside and work on prototypes, and also a supply table stocked with all sorts of things (cards, tiles, cubes, glue, tape, and the like) in case you had inspiration strike and needed bits and pieces! For all attendees, there were some snacks for sale, as well as board games, and designers/publishers/sponsors had provided a great variety of prizes for the raffle table.
Walls is hoping to extend the reach of Proto TO past this one event. “We would definitely like for Proto TO to be an annual event. “The energy at the convention was truly addictive and I can’t wait to be part of it again. We are also gauging the level of demand for smaller Proto TO meetups and workshops throughout the year. It would be great to create more regular playtesting opportunities.”
Overall, the event was great to attend as a playtester/press, and I hope that the designers in attendance got a lot out of it, as well. Looking forward to seeing what the Proto TO team come up with next!