One of the great things about living in Toronto is how strong the board game community is. There are a ton of different designers within an hour of the city, and it’s even home to Eric M. Lang, one of the biggest names in board games today.
Having access to all this talent, you get an opportunity to see a lot of games in prototype form. The community of designers, many of them members of the Game Artisans of Canada (GAC), are very supportive of each other and constantly looking for ways to give and receive feedback.
The Langs hold regular playtest nights at their home, Snakes & Lattes board game café and 401 Games have monthly evenings where designers can come out and test their work in progress. In addition, a number of prototype conventions have been popping up over the past year. We covered Proto T.O. last summer, and just this past weekend, a very successful fledgling event took place, Play and Pub Toronto.
The goal for any prototype event is for designers to get as much feedback as possible for their games. They want to know what’s fun about the game, what’s broken, and what they just need to get rid of altogether. Prototype events offer immediate feedback from an honest pool of players.
“Any sort of external playtesting is always going to be important when developing games,” said Shannon McDowell, who was there to get feedback on her game Mischief Managed. “You need to widen your circle and get other people to play it, and events like this are especially important, because you get other designers to play it as well.”
Mischief Managed is McDowell’s first game that has gotten to the level where she feels it might make it in the market. She attributes a lot of it to the guidance she’s gotten through playtesting. McDowell explains “Listen to the advice you get, especially from more experienced designers and publishers. They know what has worked in the market and what hasn’t.”
Play and Pub was spread out over three days. It was structured with different time slots that designers would sign up for. That helps to ensure that everyone gets some time with a critical audience looking to give feedback.
Weekends like this are always filled with some really creative design ideas. The DWP staff got to try out a lot of different interesting ideas. Joel Colombo’s Please Drive Thru, focuses on running a couple of different fast food joints, and supplying your restaurant to meet the customer needs. It’s an action selection game that felt very complicated during the teach, but once the game got going all of the rules came together and made sense. Jeff Lai’s Maki Stack was a huge hit! It’s a party game that breaks everyone up into teams racing to stack wooden sushi rolls, while only using one finger or even blindfolded. One of the most visually stunning games on display was Snyxtrap, played on the Larklamp system. The Larklamp was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year. It is a four-sided lamp that you set in the middle of the table and the board for the game is created by the light and shadow cast by it. Different panels can be swapped in to create an entirely different board and entirely different game. Pam Wall’s Facts Machine is an interesting team approach to a trivia game, that forces players to work together to eliminate the wrong answer.
Play and Pub was the brainchild of Kevin Carmichael and Allysha Tulk. They are the co-founders of Dancing Giant Games, a blog centred around the playtesting process. The idea is to give feedback from their experiences to aid other designers in the process.
“Our blog focuses on helping primarily new game designers on their journey,” said Carmichael.
Play and Pub was the first playtesting event for the couple, but they’re no strangers to the design process. They’ve been working on a few different games, and one of them is currently with a publisher. They’ve realized that one of the most important factors in taking games to the next level is getting them in front of people who will be willing to be fully critical.
“One of the most important things is getting your game outside of that family and friends playtesting group, and getting to the external,” said Carmichael. “That’s really the big step. You start to get that ’negative feedback’ that really helps your game grow.”
Carmichael and Tulk spent a lot of their first years as designers traveling a lot to get to playtest evens, and they felt the community would benefit from another organized playtesting event.
“Your game just takes off on these weekends when you get a whole bunch of industry professionals together to look at it,” said Carmichael. “There’s so much talent around here, we just want to make sure that they get those opportunities.”
Although this was the first Play and Pub, Carmichael and Tulk plan to do more in the future. I will either be an annual event, or if there is enough demand, a few times a year.
One of the designers who was happy to have a venue to try out his games was Daniel Rocchi. He’s a GAC member with one published game under his belt, Bomb Squad Academy, and another coming out this year from Indie Board and Cards.
Rocchi grew up in a board gaming family and remembers fondly the closet full of games they had as kids. Board games were hard baked into his DNA from an early age. His designing career started about five years ago.
He had his first design critiqued by GAC members Jay Cormier and Sen Foong Lim, at Hammer Con. “Everything they offered was so helpful and constructive and positive,” said Rocchi, who really sees the community that GAC provides as a driving force for his work. “Any success I have, I attribute to the group.”
At Play and Pub Rocchi was showing off Poisoner’s Guild, a game about secret goals, potions, and murder.
“An event like this gives you a lot of organized feedback, from both designers and playtesters,” commented Rocchi.
A weekend like Play and Pub might drastically affect someone’s design. It will usually see changes for the better. However, it’s not always easy to hear critical feedback on a game that you’ve worked so hard on.
Rocchi advises new designers, “Be prepared to fail. Make those bad games. Like any creative endeavour, when you first start, it’s not going to be great. You got to get through that one and get on to the next one.”
Nothing stifles creativity like a fear of failure. Play and Pub was a great success in that it provided a supportive environment where failure didn’t feel like failing. It just felt like the next step towards success. We look forward to many more prototype events in Toronto. It’s amazing to see the wealth of talent we have in the area.