Peter C. Hayward on his Roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with the bluest beard in board games, Peter C. Hayward! Peter is the president of Jellybeans Games, and the designer of awesome games such as Bugs on Rugs, Ninjitsu!, and Village Pillage. Peter and I talked about issues he ran into while working on his latest party game.

PCH: Hey JV! So I’ve been developing a party game called French Toast, and I kept running into this weirdly specific issue: the game only works when people go FAST, and as soon as I started blind testing it, people would go veeeery slowly and have a bad time.

JV: And can you tell us about the game? How does it play?

PCH: OK, so I am the Toastmaster. I draw a noun card and you have to guess what it is. You say a word, for example Car, and I will say whether the word is closer to French Toast or to a Car. Then you say another word, and I’ll compare the two, and on we go until someone finds it. You get closer and closer and closer.

The game works best when you quickly guess a noun, just rapid fire, guess-word guess-word guess-word, but people would just go “do I want to guess train? Oh, we’ve already guessed car, maybe it’s too close, maybe we should try and guess cabinet to open up so and so” and then the game just dies. People for some reason just start valuing their guess, acting as if they were limited (which they aren’t!), and then it gets boring. If I’m around the table, I can manage that, but learning from the rules people couldn’t get to that point.

Which also means that I wouldn’t have spotted that problem without playtesting. I blind playtest waaaaaaaaaaaay earlier than most people would, and way more often, so I got my rules out and tried to get as many people to learn it from the rules, because that’s how you learn the game when it gets to you!

JV: Does the game include a scoring system or is it just Win/Lose?

PCH: There wasn’t one originally, it was just whoever would get it would go for the next round. Eventually, I added a hint system to avoid situations when the Toastmaster would just get stuck over and over on just one word, and then there was this scoring system which was just however many hints you did not use are how many points you’d get.

JV: So there’s no limit to how many guesses you can take? There are no incentives to use fewer, they truly don’t have any real value, but for some reason players assumed there was? If it takes you those 30 seconds to think of one word, you could have just blurted out 10 words during that times and gotten a lot more information.

PCH: Exactly. You have to treat your guesses as disposable. It progresses the game so much faster.

JV: And so why do you think players assumed that those guesses should be used sparingly?

PCH: Part of it is that the game would go around the table with players taking guesses, so after your turn, in a 5 player game, three people will go between every one of your guesses, which makes you not want to waste that shot.

That being said, if everyone goes fast, your turn will come back in 15 seconds, and so you don’t care about “wasting” it. However, it’s a vicious circle where if one player slows down, everyone starts cherishing their chances more, and takes more time, and so gaps between turns increase, and so on.

JV: That makes a lot of sense. Once you realized that problem, if we were to go step-by-step, what did you try?

PCH: So the first impulse of any game designer is of course to blame the players. “These players are dumb, other people will get it!” But the thing is, especially with a party game, it needs to be accessible. If anyone plays it wrong now, it means someone WILL play it wrong. And I say “wrong”, but the game is at fault here, not the players.

So my first attempt at a fix was to brute force it: I literally wrote in the rule “Go fast”, “Guess quickly”, “Don’t think about it too much”, “Don’t value your guesses”, but no matter how many times you write it, it doesn’t mean people will do it, as nice as that would be.

The next thing I tried was grouping people. If you play with 9 players, that’s 8 guessers, and so you have to wait for 7 people to go before you would, and that’s way too long. So I just made pairs, thinking it would just half the time between guesses. The problem is, suddenly, instead of being a problem some of the time, it became a problem ALL of the time. People now HAD to discuss their guesses with their partner: “should we say this?”, “what do you want to say?”, which dragged it out even longer. I tried the opposite, splitting them into 2 teams instead of teams of 2. It was the same problem, but you would now discuss by committee, and a team of 4 takes a lot longer than 2 teams of 2 as it turns out!

I went back to individuals, and I put a timer in, and you could take as many guesses as you wanted in that 30 seconds. That meant that you never were waiting more than 30 seconds times the number of other players, and you were incentivized to go as quickly as you can: perfect! However, people would never use the second half of their timers, because as you get closer, you’re helping your opponents, and then it won’t get back to you. They’d literally just wait for their time to run out, and you don’t ever want people who deliberately DO NOT play your game.

At that point, I went back to teams, but with that 30 second-timer for the team as a whole. People would then get cranky at their teammate if they took any amount of time, or, if they shared that time anyway they wanted, one person would often end up hogging the spotlight and take all of the guesses themselves, both of which were pretty terrible.

Then I also had another problem I wanted to solve: you know how in Codenames, you play a game, and then go again with the same teams, changing the Spymaster? Well I never did that! I always played every game as separate, switching up the teams, and I planned on French Toast being like that, with the Toastmaster a neutral referee in the affair. However, most players would play round after round with the same group, and so the Toastmaster felt an obligation to “their” team. The shared Toastmaster caused this unforeseen social problem, because players were thinking of it as a team game.

The next move was just making it a pure coop. Anyone can guess, as long as you don’t guess twice in a row. People responded very positively, I was really surprised. Some people are like me, they just want to spit out answers, but some people like to sit back and think about it, but when they jump in it’s something that really saves the day.

That really worked, and actually the coop version will be in the box as one of the modes, but I found myself missing the competitive nature of it. I also found that as everyone was working on the same time, people would get stuck more often, and what you get stuck the game just stops being fun. There was something about taking those 30 seconds off to let the other team go that would give you some distance and un-stick you.

Recently I was at a con, I sat down and said “I want a team vs team mode, you folks are designers, make this work for me”. And it was very simple, they just had two Toastmasters, one for each team, shared word, and I was CERTAIN it wouldn’t work-if I think Radio is closer to Car than Train, doesn’t mean that you do, and so we’d just be fighting for direction. For some reason, that didn’t ever happen. I kept the same rule from the coop where you can guess in any order, as long as no one guesses twice in a row. So far, that’s the version of the game that will go in the box.

JV: What about the Toastmaster? Did you have to push them to go faster at all? I feel like I’d take forever on those, plus with the stress of everyone staring at you.

PCH: So interestingly, them hesitating is interesting. When they’re stuck, when they’re thinking, it becomes fascinating for those who are watching, because that hesitation is telling you something. Maybe those are two very good guesses, or two equally poor ones, but it’s information. It’s only a problem when the guesses are slow, because that is not progress.

Also, people tend to give answers faster than they take the guesses, making those hesitations even more interesting.

JV: If another game designer reading this was struggling with players who aren’t playing the game in the most fun way, what would you suggest?

PCH: So that’s something that can happen in a party game or in a heavier strategy game, but it’s really about figuring out what the fun part is (in my game, play it fast), and then “Game design is incentive design”. In the old system, players were incentivized to value their guess, because they personally only got one of every 4 or 5 or 10. To incentivize going fast, I added that timer, and removed the rigid turn structure, and suddenly you don’t have a reason to go against the fun.

In a party game especially, it’s less about throwing points at them, it’s really about the social dynamics that come up, like pressure and attention and politeness. Incentive becomes a more nuanced concept then.

I had a similar problem in Scuttle!, my first released game, where players would forego special ability cards and just focus on big point cards and win. When I worked on Ninjutsu!, which is the second game in the series, you win by having big cards in front of you at the start of your next turn—meaning that now, it’s not just about playing those cards, but timing it accordingly.

JV: Well Peter, this was amazing. I’m in awe of every that goes in this process of designing a party game. It seems to me like you’ve perfected mind control, and have decided to use your powers for good!

French Toast will make its way to Kickstarter soon, but Peter does have another party game on it right now: Night of the Mummy!

Jay Cormier on his Roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Jay Cormier, half of the design team behind Belfort, Junk Art, and In the Hall of the Mountain King, and now founder of Off the Page Games! Remember when Sen-Foong Lim talked about designing MIND MGMT? This time, we’re switching it up a bit as Jay will describe issues he ran into as a first-time publisher while working on that very same game!

First, can you give us a bit of background on the game at the stage where you ran into the issue?

The game is a one vs. many game, in which one player will secretly move around on their own hidden map, while the rest are moving around on the big board, asking questions to deduce the one’s whereabouts. The problem came up as soon as I became a publisher of this game. When we were the designers we actually said, “Oh that’s the publisher’s job to figure that out!” Little did I know that I would be that publisher!

JV: What was the problem, and when did you first encounter it? 

In the game, when the rogue agents ask a question to the one recruiter, the recruiter answers if they’ve been to any location with the requested feature (each feature appears 5 times on the board). If the recruiter HAS been on a location with that feature, then they place a Step token on one of those locations. But if the recruiter has not been on a location with that feature, they say no….aaaaand….that’s it. Or so we thought. While playtesting the game we realized that players wanted some way to keep track of this information. In a deduction game, not getting a success can sometimes give you more information than getting a hit! 

Example: If an agent asked the recruiter if they have ever been to a location with a Subliminal Billboard and the recruiter says they have NOT, then that’s a lot of information! This means that the agents know 5 spaces on the board that the recruiter has NOT visited up until this turn number (there is a time track off to the side to know exactly which turn it is).

So we started coming up with some ideas. Maybe one of the agents gets a notebook and that player can write notes down on a restricted size of paper. This didn’t really work because it wasn’t intuitive and players would forget — either to write it down, or to refer back to it later. Then we thought, what if the players also had a secret map? A duplicate of the board that was also dry erasable, so they could make notes on it. This was maybe a bit better, but still, only one player could really look at it at a time, and so it would be forgotten.

So then around this point is when I became the publisher of the game, and now I had to figure out how to do this! For awhile I was thinking I would have numbered tokens that would be placed on the board, possibly fitting into grooves or holes in the board. This proved to be costly as well as fiddly since there would need to be so many tokens. Also, it wasn’t versatile enough since it couldn’t say exactly what a player would want to say.

And that was probably the ‘a ha’ moment. If we want players to ‘say’ whatever they want on these tokens, then maybe these tokens need to be dry erase. We tried giving players dry erase tokens to use, and wow — what a difference! The game really came alive. Now all players could ALWAYS see the information that they have collected. No longer was the game about remembering information about where the recruiter had been or had not been to. Now players could see the hits and the ‘misses’ on the board, and this really helped the agents narrow in on the recruiter’s path! 

To clarify, when the recruiter now says that they have NOT been on a Subliminal Billboard, the agents then write out “1-8 X” (where 8 would be whatever the current turn number is) onto 5 different dry erase tokens (which we humourously call, Mental Note Tokens), and place on on each location that has a Subliminal Billboard. For the rest of the game, the agents can now easily see that the recruiter hasn’t been on those 5 spaces up to turn 8! 

JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?

There was another similar issue about components. It was with our Step tokens. Originally we had 16 different Step tokens – each with a number from 1 to 16. When the Recruiter placed a Step token onto a location, they had find the Step token with the correct number (the number that matched the turn that they visited that location) on the bottom and then place it in that location that they have visited. I tried a bunch of different ideas, and used some Facebook groups to brainstorm how to solve this (maybe it was a plastic token that had a hinge that folded out to reveal the number inside it). Once we came up with the Mental Note tokens we realized we could use these for our revealed Step tokens as well. 

So now we just needed generic Step tokens that didn’t have a number below it at all. Then when that Step token was revealed during play, the recruiter would announce which turn they were on that location, and the agents would use a Mental Note token and write that number on it. Worked perfectly and was way less fiddly!

JV: For a designer who does not intend on self-publishing, how do you think a publisher would react to a game requiring dry erase tokens or boards? We’ve seen a few of them recently –Silver & Gold, QE, Just One… As a publisher, would you see it as a plus or as a pain?

There is a pain side to dry erase (finding markers that don’t dry out too quickly, responding to numerous customer issues about dried out markers!), but I think the idea is — whatever is the best way to make the game work in the most functional and unique way possible. The game needs to be functional first and foremost. If the dry erase isn’t necessary and is only a nice-to-have, then I’d question it too. But if the dry erase is 100% needed to make the game work in the most efficient way, then it makes sense. It’s more cost effective and more environmentally friendly to use dry erase instead of tear-away pads that you’d use and then discard.

JV:We often talk about components in terms of table presence, but here those tokens are really mostly about making the players’ lives easier, taking a process that was annoying and forgettable and making it simple and straightforward. What would be your favorite component that just makes players’ lives easier in another game?

Great question. Can I say Game Trayz? Any time they’re involved in a project I get excited because they have such an amazing eye for functionality and improving the playing experience. The setup time is always reduced as you don’t have to open numerous baggies and dump out resources or tokens, and the functionality is often improved, while table space is preserved. For In the Hall of the Mountain King, Game Trayz make setting up the game super easy! All the tunnels are in this tray, all the resources are in this other tray! The Great Halls are stored in the bottom tray – but then they actually stand up in the tray so you can see which ones have been taken and which ones haven’t. Clever!

JV: Before stepping into the shoes of the publisher, how much would you try to tackle those kinds of component-based issues, whether before a pitch or working with a publisher on solving it?

If we could come up with some sort of component that was eye catching and helped get publishers excited, we’d do it. For Junk Art, we had to make all the unique pieces, so it had to be impressive and work immediately. For Akrotiri, we made little boats that held the resources as you moved them around. Our goal is to make the components and the prototype functional to ensure the game can be played as easy as possible. If the Akrotiri boats couldn’t carry the resources, then that would have negatively impacted the experience as you would either have to place them next to your boat or come up with some other solution.

JV: Well thank you very much Jay for this. It’s a very different perspective when we tackle those issues from the perspective of a designer of your pedigree who self-publishes. You brought up many good points for me to reflect on. Thank you and best of luck with the MIND MGMT Kickstarter!

In addition to the MIND MGMT Kickstarter, Jay runs a series of videos about self-publishing which are fascinating, and great insight about what it’s like to launch a business in this industry.

Avoiding the count-up auctions

Power Grid is one of my favorite games, and despite how much I love it, I still get annoyed at the auctions: “I bid 16”, “17”, then people just count up for minutes, increasing the time between each number is called, and often making faces. While I can appreciate those faces, often, those parts of auction games often just end up… boring. They’re slow, there’s very little tension, you can’t plan ahead too much, and as soon as you drop out, you don’t really care much about the rest of the auction.

Now some people love those auctions. I don’t know why, but some do, and that’s fine. If you like them, then go ahead, you have my blessing! However, if you don’t, then let’s take a look at a few ways you can address this problem, and games which have done it.

One caveat: I don’t like Modern Art much. I won’t mention it here. It probably does most of these, feel free to add it to all of these examples if you care. I don’t think I missed any twists that ONLY Modern Art does. I’m also not talking about blind bidding, because that is an entirely different mechanism.


Incentivizing players to make their best offer: Part of the problem is that auctions are about players getting more value than what they paid. What that means is that what you’re encouraging is to low-ball as much as the players can get away with: maybe they’ll win with a ridiculous bid, or, worst case scenario, they’ll bid higher later. That focus can be interesting—it’s a great moment when you can pull it off–, but it can also be very tedious.

The simplest way to mitigate that incentive is to make the auction go around only once, like in Goa, Ra, or The Estates. One player starts the bid, and every player gets a single chance to bid. Usually, the player who started the auction will have the last word, incentivizing them to start the bid on something they’re interested in because of how strong that final say can be. It kind of pushes you to go as high as you’re comfortable going, and to assess other players’ desire for it: can I get away with a lowball? In my experience, once around auctions are not quicker than the standard ones, because each decision takes a lot longer, but they are a lot more tense.

Picture by BGG user Pedro Vaquero

In between Infinite and One, there are other ways to limit how many bids your players can make. For example, in Infamy, each time you bid you pay 1$. If you get outbid, you get your bid back, but that 1$ is lost, representing the time and energy it took to actually get to the person you’re trying to bribe. It’s a less draconian way of doing the once-around: you still get a second chance, but you still would have been better off nailing it on the first try.

Picture from BGG user Daniel Thurot

Even more nuanced is the way High Society does it: you have a set of money cards which you cannot break down into smaller denominations. Once you play a card, increasing your bid requires you to add a card, without changing what’s already on the table. If you bid high early, you still have all the versatility of your smaller values, but you have a very limited amount of those.


Incentivizing dropping out: In the end, an auction a “Last one standing” situation, and so making sure people drop off quickly can make the auction go faster. For example, many games give something to players who do not win an auction: in Dream Factory and Rising Sun, the winning bid is split up between the auction losers. This is interesting for two reasons: one, because it’s a catchup mechanism as well as an auction fixer; but also because it adds a very important layer of strategy in how much money you give your opponents, which they can then use on the very next auction against you. They also make you care after you drop off, because it still determines how much money you’ll get.

Picture from BGG user Christian Monterroso

For Sale does a similar thing, although it presents it differently. Instead of rewarding the dropper, it makes players want to avoid being that Last one standing, because that player pays the entirety of their highest bid, while all other players only pay half. There’s more nuance there, but as far as the auction is concerned, that’s pretty much what it comes down to. Taking away the card aspect, it’s very similar to the previous twist mathematically (you spend less vs getting new money), but it also feels veeery different. While mathematically, giving money to your opponents is a much bigger swing than getting that 50% discount, it doesn’t feel as bad. Loss aversion is such that you don’t care about others taking your breadcrumbs, but you do care about paying double what others are.

One thing I did in one of my prototypes (which never went very far) was to make dropping order during the auction phase the turn order during the worker placement phase. Players would often be just as happy passing as they would be winning the auction. However, after the first player had passed, or the second in a very high player count game, that incentive would be close to worthless, which actually encouraged the other players to keep on bidding even further: sure, they could get 3rd place now, but if they weren’t going to get 1st, they should at least get the prize of the auction! Sunk cost fallacy is a tough one to avoid…


Limiting your decision space: Part of what makes auctions take so long is how granular they can get. In Power Grid, the game doesn’t progress much between a bid of 25 and one of 30, yet that probably took going around the table two or three times.

A simple way of increasing that is to lower the numbers. If you have 100$ in hand, bidding 14 or 15 doesn’t change anything. If you have 20, then that can make a bigger difference. Since most games deal in whole numbers, lowering all numbers in your game can have an impact by making each unit matter more.

Some games pre-set the possible values you can bid: in Amun-Re or Stockpile, the potential bid values are predetermined, meaning you don’t have to choose between all the numbers that exist, only those 8. Also, in both games, those available amounts follow the triangular sequence (0-1-3-6-10-15-21), meaning that the higher you bid, the more it takes to outbid you, incentivizing you to put your best offer early.

Picture from BGG user Tom Delme

In a similar but less restrictive vein, Cursed Court requires any outbidding to at least double the previous bid. Given that you only have 20 coins to spread around 4 bids, there’s a lot of interesting psychology that comes in.

In Ra, you can only bid one of your tiles for the value on it. Unlike the previous examples, here each player faces different limits. Bidding a 6 when your opponent only has a 5 and a 12 forces them to outbid you by a LOT. This not only a great way to accelerate auctions, it also causes a lot of tension in those moments.


What is your take on count-up auctions? What is your favorite twist on auction mechanisms?

Daniel Newman on his Roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Daniel Newman, designer of Dead Man’s Cabal, Rolled West, and Ahead in the Clouds.

JV: So Daniel, what game are we talking about today?

One of the games I spent a good portion of 2019 on was called Nebula, and then later The Well. It started with an idea for an action selection mechanism that I came up with while driving to Granite Game Summit. It involved a tray for 8 action tokens with a slider to select which actions you can do that turn, but depending on what ring of the board you were in you were limited to 4, 3, or 2 actions. I thought it would be cool to have a game where your position on the board would determine your effectiveness, with the fewer actions gaining you higher value rewards.

The first thought I had thematically was mining an undeveloped Nebula. I came up with a couple of generic resources (gas and minerals) and structures needed to harvest those, and actions revolving around moving through the nebula, building structures, and using those structures. It was…fine. I had a couple of people in my playtest group who said they enjoyed it but it didn’t really feel like it was doing anything special. I put it away for a bit and then had an idea to rework it, using the same general idea but with a hand of cards that cycled similarly to Concordia, and rethemed as spelunking in a cave system called The Well (because it was 3 layers of concentric circles). I thought it was more interesting and definitely had a better table presence. I generally got a better response with this reworking in the group as well, so was feeling pretty good about it by convention season.

JV: What was the problem, and when did you first encounter it? 

I thought things were going along nicely, that it was pretty much ready to pitch. I showed it to a publisher at BGG.con and it was a disaster. It didn’t play anything like I thought it should. Things I thought were super clear were not. The publisher I was showing it to seemed angry and agitated for the entire game.

I realized that so much of how I wanted it to be played had been internalized by my regular playtest group – they had all played it a bunch and were just ignoring the obvious problems with it because they were familiar enough with the systems. It felt like it was smooth because of familiarity not because it actually was.

Because it’s so easy to bring things to this group twice a week, i don’t usually seek testing outside of the group.

JV: How did you handle the situation with the publisher?  

We wound up finishing the game, as it was, and then I apologized for the experience being so bad. This is someone I show games to regularly so I was a little surprised at his reaction, but it just had a number of things in it that he really doesn’t like in games. He assured me that it wasn’t me personally that he was upset with. He’s someone whose opinion I very much respect, so seeing that reaction really convinced me it was time to shelve this one.

JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?

Not really. I tend to have a pretty good sense of whether or not a game is working, despite what feedback I’m getting from testers. I think I just really wanted this one to work even though it was never really feeling like it was coming together. This was also an unusual one because I tend to use an existing game as a starting structure and base my design on that – obviously things change pretty dramatically pretty quickly, but that tends to get me going much quicker and makes it so I don’t have to reinvent the gaming wheel every time. When I did the ground-up reworking as The Well, I used a couple of games as models for the systems I wanted to use, but it still never came together properly. 

JV: Can you talk about the process of solving it? What worked? What didn’t?

Honestly, I never really solved it. I’ve shelved it indefinitely. Sometimes it’s the right thing to just put it aside. Maybe I’ll come back to it, I probably won’t. I have at least half a dozen games on my prototype shelf that I just decided wasn’t worth working on. There are a couple of nuggets of goodness in them, but I had another idea I wanted to work on and just didn’t want to devote more attention to this design that wasn’t working out.

JV: When did you decide to let it die? Did you try some stuff before then, or did that one pitch taint it so badly it turned you off the project entirely?

I’d been trying lots of different things over the life of it and nothing was really feeling right. The bad pitch was the nail in the coffin. I had scheduled a pitch meeting for it with another publisher later in the week and cancelled it because I just no longer had confidence in it as a game.

JV: And how do you avoid that problem with other projects? Have you changed your way since or was it just the exception?

This was actually very recent, just a few months ago, and one of the last games I pitched. I’m still mulling over exactly what went wrong in the process, as I had never had this happen before. I think I’m just going to be more aware of how many different people play my games before I bring them to publishers to show.

JV: In general, what do you think are the Pros and Cons of having a small but regular pool of testers?

Obviously it’s great to be able to get your design on the table super frequently. You can make a lot of progress in a short period of time, especially in that early stage when you’re constantly iterating and making big changes. If it’s a group that meets twice a week, like mine does, you can also not feel terrible about skipping one or two now and again because you know there’s another in just a couple of days (unlike groups that only meet once a month, in which case you’re going much longer between tests).

On the down side, you wind up testing with the same people over and over again and you can develop a meta where people generally understand the game and only slightly adjust to the new tweaks every time and are playing generally the same way. You just don’t get as much variation in approaches to the play and can miss huge problems because people get too comfortable with the game.

JV: How did you develop that “small but regular” pool?

I happened upon it kind of by accident, actually. This was a group that already existed and was meeting about once a month before I joined and started meeting once a week around the time I started attending. There were some fairly well known designers as part of the group, who I didn’t know when I joined, but later found out they had put out some fairly popular games. The group really started to flourish when Gil Hova (one of the aforementioned designers) took the reigns and started spreading the word a bit more. A lot of it was just due to better organization and finding a better, more reliable place to meet – the open seating at a Whole Foods, as a matter of fact, one of the few large semi-public spaces in NYC.

JV: You talked about usually starting from an established game: how does that usually happen? I have this list on my phone of games I want to “fix”, to design a different game based on the same central mechanism. I usually love half of the game, and hate the other half with a passion. How do you handle that? 

It’s a bit different for each game but lately it’s either “I really like this game but I don’t like how ‘x’ works, so what if I take this mechanism and do something else with it” or “I have this theme that’d be fun to make a game around and I really like how ‘x’ does it, so I’ll just borrow that and change it up and use that as a starting point.” Usually it’s some sort of combination that happens simultaneously. How much I borrow or start with really varies depending on what I need and what else I have in mind. For example, the game I’m currently working on ostensibly borrows the upgrading of tiles from The Taverns of Tiefenthal but now that I’m a few iterations in it doesn’t really feel that similar. The rest of the game is pretty remarkably different.

JV: Well thank you for your time Daniel! You made a few very good points about varying testers, saving face after a bad pitch, and starting a design from an established game. Aside from being a bit of a bummer, I think you also brought up an interesting, under discussed aspect of game design: sometimes, you just have to admit defeat. 

In addition to game design, Daniel Newman is sometimes on Twitter. [/sarcasm]

Getting testers to your table at public events

Last weekend, I went to a local gaming event to playtest With A Smile & A Gun, and hopefully get a few mailing list subscribers. This article is meant to give a few tips and tricks to those of you who are looking to do something like this. I’m far from an expert on approaching potential testers, and maybe you disagree with some of these: let me know in the comments in that case.

Before I go into the tips, a quick presentation of the event: I went to the Bissextile Ludique (Bissextile is French for leap year, because it was February 29th, and Ludique means fun), organized by Longueuil Ludo, which organizes weekly game nights at a community center, and bigger events a few times a year. There were about 70 people, there were two merchant booths, a flea market, raffles and tournaments, and a Prototype zone for 3 designers—actually, it was just three adjacent tables in the main gaming area. That last part is important: it means that we had more traffic than if we were in a separate room, but it also means that we often had to explain why we were showing off this crappy game that looks like it was printed on our home HP (hint: it was!). In an event this small, a separate room would most likely have meant no traffic.

I’ll also assume your game is ready to be playtested with strangers. Don’t take your first drafts to strangers: you’ll burn their goodwill, it’s harder to get them to try it, and a buddy’s feedback would have been just as helpful. By the time you go to those events, your game’s core should work, and you want to have new perspectives on it. Your game should also look presentable: it doesn’t have to be full of art, but the graphic design should be clear and understandable. It should not look like homework, and you should have an intriguing pitch to hook them in.

Tip 1: Be approachable.

Please smile. Please don’t look like people are disturbing you. Please talk to those around you. Testing or demoing for someone is a lot easier if you know them, even a little bit.

In an event this small, there were times where I was without any testers, and everyone was sitting down in a game. Then, I’d get out my phone, or go for a quick browse of the flea market. But if there were people moving around, get up and invite people over. Even if they’re fascinated by your prototype, most people won’t disturb you if you look busy.

Tip 2: Build social capital.

Even if you’re approachable, that’s still not enough. At an event like this, people will have a choice between a game they actually know and love, learning a new game they’ve been yearning to get to the table, or this prototype you brought. Some people love helping out, love trying games in development and having some input on final products, but for most people, that’s not the case. Whether they’ve never tested a prototype before, or been burned too many times, or just don’t enjoy it, you’re often fighting an uphill battle.

The best way to turn it on its head is to make a connection with people, so that when you ask them for a playtest, they want to help you. If you have down time, play a game with them. Walk around and look at other people’s games: I spent a good 20 minutes observing a game of Marvel Champions last Saturday, which was both awesome, because that game rules, but also allowed me to connect with those players. I participated in a Just One tournament (well, actually, won a Just One tournament, thank you very much) with another 6 people. Later on, when all those folks came back from dinner, I could call them by their name and invite them over to play.

Of course, respecting people’s boundaries, adapting your approach to their particularities, reading the room, and other social guidelines very much apply here.

Tip 3: Be respectful of their time.

Once you get a tester to sit down and play your game, you’re not done: word of mouth is still a thing. If a tester gets up from your table and tells others your game was a waste of time, you might as well pack up for the rest of the day. On the other hand, if someone gets up and tells their buddies to come and try it out, they’re doing your job for you—and are probably much more efficient than you are.

This is not about delivering a good game experience, but it’s being respectful and grateful for their time. Set the game up before players sit down. Have your explanation prepared and rehearsed. Listen to their feedback. But also, if a tester wants to drop out before the game’s end, that’s fine: just sit in for them. If multiples do, don’t pressure them to stay. Actually, after the first round, you should ask everyone if they want to go through the rest of the game. That’s the difference between answering “it wasn’t for me” when asked, and actively telling everyone around them “I just wasted half an hour of my life”. You won’t get good feedback from frustrated people anyway.

Also related is “Know the crowd”: look up the event. When I saw on the Facebook group the kind of games people were playing on pictures, I went with my 20-30 minute dice game, not my 90-min engine building, area control Euro game.

Tip 4: Raffles are… meh?

So I thought about the “Give before you ask” mantra, and decided I’d raffle a game amongst those who tested my prototype and left me their email for the mailing list. I thought about raffling a pledge for the game, but decided maybe a prize that you’d get a year after you won it wouldn’t be that enticing. I therefore bought a copy of Jixia Academy, the newest edition of Hanamikoji, which is another 2-player majority game, thinking if they’d like one they’d like the other. Price wise, the FLGS copy of Jixia was about the same as the landed cost + shipping of my game. Tomato-tomato (wow does that not translate well to written text), I don’t feel strongly either way. If I were closer to the KS, I’d probably go for a pledge. Maybe they’ll be interested in adding more copies, since I’d already cover shipping?

I had the box on my table, next to my display of the game’s cover image and basic instruction. People were confused, so I added a sticker on it that said “Try my prototype for a chance to win this DIFFERENT, yet AWESOME game”. Which made people a bit less confused, but still… pretty confused. The pledge would probably have been a better option on that end.

And even if that were clear, of the 19 emails I got, 19 said they would have given me their emails even if it weren’t for the raffle. And no one was attracted to the table because of the raffle. At the end, I still drew the name and gave them the prize, and they couldn’t. care. less.

I’m still happy I did it, but I probably wouldn’t do a raffle again. I might organize a play-to-win tournament, where the winner gets a copy of the game, and maybe others get a coupon. However, I’d only do so with physical copies of the game after fulfillment, or by offering a pledge during the Kickstarter (or possibly, in the weeks right before it).

Where I’d do a raffle is for a Gleam campaign, “subscribe to my social media for a chance to win”, where that chance at a prize is the only thing you’re offering. In this case, I think at best it didn’t matter, and at worst is might have even taken away from the genuine “I want to go when this comes out” value of giving your email address.

So that’s that. Have you ever gone to such an event to playtest or demo your game? How did you get people to your table?  

Carla Kopp on her Roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Carla Kopp, owner of Weird Giraffe Games and publisher of Dreams of Tomorrow, Fire in the Library, Big Easy Busking, and the project she wants to talk to us about today, Tumble Town!

JV: First, can you give us a bit of background on the game at that stage?

I had just recently signed Tumble Town from the designer, Kevin Russ. He’d only been working on the game for a few weeks, but I could immediately see the potential of the game. Tumble Town was always a town building game set in the Old West, but initially, it didn’t have any engine building or spatial puzzle aspects. Just simply building a town out of dice in the West. 

JV: What was the problem, and when did you first encounter it? 

The end game of Tumble Town was an issue at the start of the design process. Kevin had made the game a specific number of turns and I had never liked that in games. I really enjoy when I don’t exactly know when the game will end and when my choices in the game can make it go on longer or end it early. 

JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?

Every game has to end in some way, but each game is different and has different actions and components that can lead to the end game happening. Tumble Town needed to go on long enough that players could build up an engine and feel successful in doing so, but I didn’t want the engines to get too out of hand where it meant that you had only one real path to victory. 

JV: Can you talk about the process of solving it? What worked? What didn’t?

The first idea was supposed to be a fix of two problems; adding in dice mines. For the dice mines, there would be dice that you didn’t have to roll that you could take if you took a building plan from that specific row. Having dice that you didn’t need to roll meant you could plan your turn a little more and the game would be a bit less random. When two dice mines run out, then the game would be over. 

The dice mines worked to solve those two problems, but they introduced a new problem; players were confused on what dice to roll and what dice not to roll and would often forget or do the actions backward. I try to make games as intuitive as possible, so this definitely was something I wanted to solve. 

JV: So did you go back completely on the non-rolled dice?

Yep! There’s no dice that you gain that you don’t roll. I found that it’s so much easier to get players to roll the dice, if all the dice have the same rules and are treated the same. Making things easy is definitely something I prioritize. 

JV: What else did you try?

The next solution was to use Plan End cards. These cards would be placed under a specific amount of building plan cards based on the player count and the game would end if two of the plan end cards were visible. This worked better in that players weren’t confused on how things worked, especially since the Plan End cards had the game end trigger written on them. However, the problem with the Plan End cards was that the game end was very variable. If players all took from the first row, then went to the second row, no one ever got to the third row of cards. I like when games can end early, but not when players haven’t experienced a third of the game. That’s a bit too early. 

The solution that actually got a good end game was having the dice supplies run out. There’s four different kinds of dice, with gold associated mainly with level three building plans, brown with level one, and gray and black both with level two. With two colors for the level two building plans, it meant that even if most of the players did focus on level one and level two buildings, the game would only end early if the players someone only went for black OR gray buildings. As most players tend to base what building they want on other factors, usually the gray and black dice are taken at about the same rate and the end game is triggered when the gold and brown dice run out. 

JV: So both of those last two options give players some control over game length, but an unusually short game is now something that skilled players do on purpose, rather than new ones doing by mistake?

Yep, that’s exactly right. I think it’s more interesting as I always like for things to happen when players deliberately choose to do something, instead of when they don’t realize that they’ve done something. If I want to try to rush the game, if I succeed, I’m more happy with the experience, even if I don’t end up winning, as the plan I had worked out. I also like when there’s several different strategies in games, as you now have a strategy based on a long game, average game, and a short game. Players will have to play a number of times to see what works best for each game length. 

JV: When working on end game conditions, what do you set as a goal? Do you aim for a specific length of time? Do you aim for a specific moment in-game? Do you base it on the game arc?

I usually try to make the game less than an hour and also for the game to end before players want it to end. If players are still really engaged when the game ends, they’re way more likely to play again than if the games ends a turn or two after a player is bored of it. 

For Tumble Town in particular, I wanted the game to end after a new player can build a level three building (the level with scoring conditions based on the other buildings in your town) and still get a chance to build another building or two which will gain extra points based on the level three building they built. 

JV: How do you feel about “play one final turn” in games? Do you default one way or the other when you design?

I’ve done both! In the past, I’ve usually done equal amounts of turns and finishing out the round. Recently, I’ve tried where all other players but the player who triggered the game end gets another turn and I really like that for games that are based on player count. It means that you have to be in the lead to trigger the game end, but you might not end up the leader after everyone takes their last turn and any hidden scoring is added. 

For Tumble Town, I went with finishing out the round, as having two colors of dice run out means that half the buildings most likely can’t be built and the other colors of dice might also be close to running out so even having an extra round might mean that no one can do anything, unless they have stored dice. 

JV: Personally, I usually push off designing an end game trigger: I’m not planning on finishing the first few tests anyway, so why bother? Are you the same way? If so, do your testers also complain about not finishing the game?

I usually have a non ideal end game trigger in the beginning; either a number of rounds, point value, or a deck running out. Sometimes the end game stays, sometimes it doesn’t. For the very first test, I might even not tell players what the end game trigger is until we play a few rounds and I can kind of see where the game is going. 

JV: Can you think of a published game with a particularly well-designed end game trigger? 

Rajas of the Ganges has a really great and unique end game trigger that I love. There’s two tracks in the game, money and points. When one player’s markers cross, it triggers the end game, so you can focus in one aspect, the other, or try to do both simultaneously.

JV: Well thank you for your time Carla! I think that knowing how to end a game is a difficult skill that is much about nuance, and I’m sure sharing your experience will help many others! 

Tumble Town is currently on Kickstarter! If that sounded interesting, go back it here!