Icons vs Text, Part 2

This series is all about our design group’s conclusions regarding the place of icons and text in game components. Last time, we looked at the merits and limitations of text. Today is all about icons.  Let’s see how they stand up.



By the mid-2000s, almost every European game publisher had switched away from game text. They detextified their components like a neo-emo throwing clearing his room of pony posters and embedded icons onto each component. A key to each icon’s meaning appeared in the rulebook, frequently near the end of the rules.


Icons tend to excel where game text fails.

Icons eliminate issues of rule space on the component.  Since a single icon represents game effects found in the rulebook, it can represent a virtually unlimited amount of text without taking up any significant room on the component.  Glancing at an icon is equivalent to clicking here.  This feature frees designers to label each component with as many abilities and effects as desired.


Icons bring language independence to your game components.  To publish an icon-reliant game in multiple countries, the publisher only has to create a different rulebook for each nation’s language.  This was already needed; using icons allows a publisher to bring a games to new markets without changing any components.  Furthermore, several players can enjoy your game at the same time even if none of them speak a common language.  The components are clear to everyone.

Sadly, Icons are not perfect either. They tend to fail where game text excels.

Icons are not truly language independent.  Each game’s icons are a new hieroglyphic language all players must learn.  When actions are reasonably straightforward and game icons have been well-designed, this is a language gamers become fluent with almost immediately. Foreign CardConsider for instance this card from Magic: the Gathering.  It served as an illustration of language-dependent components in the last column.  But notice that it utilizes icons as well.  It has been so long since I played Magic with any frequency that I cannot honestly recall the name of this card or its effects.  Because I am fluent in M:tG icons, I have no trouble whatsoever telling that it costs 2 colorless + 1 black manna to cast however.

Icons lack immediacy.  Players must first consult the rules to translate each icon as it comes up.  This can be particularly irritating for your players if these icons represent complex actions or are poorly designed. I can think of several games with icons so poorly designed that they shared no relation to the gameplay they were meant to represent.  I’ll bet you can too.

When teaching a new Eurogame to friends, I generally find it wise to walk them through all event card icons before we begin.  This easily adds five or more minutes to the learning time of the game and at the worst possible time–when the player is
already trying to process the game’s rules.   The alternative is to let players look icons up as they go. This can wreck the pace of your game, jar players out of flow, and cause disengagement.

Icons frequently sacrifice portability.  If a game component can only express itself through icons, rulebooks and reference sheets are needed to clarify what the component does.  This may not be a problem for a big-box game that already includes a large number of components but what about small games that are meant to be portable?  Icons have their limits.

How about you?  How do you feel about icons on game components?

If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Next time we get together, we will take a look at the role of color and keywords.  We then begin looking at examples of published games.  Let’s see what their graphic designers used and how well it worked. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you Tuesday!



Icons vs. Text, Part 1

Publishers occasionally ask my design group to be involved in late-game development.  This frequently includes evaluating the game’s graphic design.  Two of our team are color blind. This gives us something of an investment in game components being as clear as possible.  We have had several extensive conversations about the place of icons and text in game components.  As with many other aspects of game design, there is no one best choice.  Each has its merits, each has its limitations.


Today we focus on the merits and limitations of text. Friday will be all about icons.



Game Component Text

Arkham CardsSome game components rely heavily on text to supply relevant details.

This is particularly common in collectible games like Magic; the Gathering, Pokemon, and The X-Wing Miniatures Game.  It is also common in character-driven games like Arkham Horror or Schlock Mercenary: Capital Offensive.


The main advantage of putting text directly on a component is immediacy.  When all the relevant game effects of the card or character appear directly on it, there is significantly less need to consult the rulebook during play.  This keeps the game moving at a steady pace.  A steady pace enhances the flow of your game.  Enhancing the flow of your game increases player engagement.  Component text can be a good thing.


Another major advantage of component text is portability.  When I put a card from a trading card game into play, the card’s text proclaims its purpose.  There is little need to carry any rulebooks or reference sheets to clarify what the card does.  There may be fringe cases or card interactions that require a consulting the latest FAQ but otherwise the cards literally say everything there is to say.  Component text can be a very good thing.


Foreign CardText is not perfect, however.  It has its limitations as well.  Most prominently, game text makes your game components language dependent.  If you wish to publish a text-reliant game in multiple countries, you will have to manufacture a different edition for each nation’s language.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this was a perennial hurdle for German game enthusiasts.  Web-based translations of game text were a component all of us routinely added to the boxes.  Component text can problematic.


A big limitation of component text for the designer is surface area.  Sometimes, those words just won’t fit.  This issue hit us during the layout phase of Sentinel Tactics (Kickstarter campaign running now!).  We repeatedly found that we’d created abilities with too much text for the space available.  The text fit on our prototype cards because it used a different font and because prototype cards had no art.  Readying the game for publication meant hours rethinking details and shortening explanations.  Component text can indeed be problematic.


How about you?  How do you feel about text on game components?  If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Next time we get together, we will look at game component icons and how they compare with game text.  I would suggest that they tend to excel where game text fails but that the reverse is also unfortunately true.  Come back in four days and see if you agree!

Scoring Frequency

Two designers in my group–Len Stemberger and Jean Ray Johnson–are working on area control games right now.  As you would expect, this has led to quite a few conversations about scoring.  In one particularly extensive conversation, John Eyster asserted that players don’t really have control over when scoring occurs in most of these games. This led me to wonder about the timing of majority scoring. This is what I came to.

Fixed Time

The simplest approach is to set a fixed interval of game time between scorings.  Wolfgang Kramer’s El Grande does this, with scoring occurring every 3 rounds.

The totally predictable nature of this approach is its biggest advantage and its greatest disadvantage.

Because players know precisely when scoring will occur, they also know when to push and when to relax.  This supports a cycle of tension and release. El Grande is an elaborate game with many moving parts. Players need brief pauses in tension to regroup and formulate their next plan.  The fixed time approach served this design well.

Because players know precisely when scoring will occur, they may also decide to ignore those periods of release as unimportant.  Giving players a breather can be a good thing.  Giving them a vacation is right out. Like proper form in weightlifting, the goal is a controlled release of tension rather than a sudden drop.

Variable Time

The lushest casinos and the dirtiest gambling dens know all about the boredom that can come from fixed-interval scoring.  The classic example of this problem is the slot machine that pays on exactly every fifth pull.  The player bets a nickel on pulls 1, 2, 3, and 4 but drops a dollar token on pull 5. Predictability like this leads to losses and is bad for the casino. Predictability like this leads to boredom and is bad for the player.

Many game designers have addressed this problem the same way that the casinos do–they have variable scoring intervals.  This brings uncertainty to the system and uncertainty brings excitement.

The variable time solution does leave one problem for us designers to address however.  Gambling houses are perfectly happy if a given game table goes dozens of rounds without a payoff.  Our players are at the dining table. They will only wait so long between payoffs.  We need controlled variability.

Imagine a bag containing eight tokens–five are blank and three have an X stamped on them.  At the end of each round, a player draws a token and sets it aside. Scoring happens immediately when the third X token is drawn.  After scoring, all tokens are returned to the bag and the bag its mixed.  This method guarantees no fewer than three rounds between scoring and no more than eight but also gives players partial information.  If there is only one X token out, this round will not score.  If two X tokens are out, any round could be the one. As X tokens get drawn, tension rises.  Approaches like this one give controlled variability.

Fixed Events

I enjoy designs which empower players to set the pace. Games feels more alive when my actions directly influence the game state.  This idea was at the core of Rolling Freight.  Scoring occurs when the deck of route cards reaches the end of a section.  Since players can always see how much remains in the deck, they always know how close the next scoring event is.  Since players control the rate at which this deck flows, they also control the pace of the game.

Option 4. Variable Events

Several designs use events in a variable way to make the pace more variable.  Sid Sackson’s Venture is the oldest example of which I am aware.  Dirk Henn’s Alhambra is may favorite example.  The Alhambra deck contains scoring cards similar to those in Rolling Freight but these scoring cards have each been shuffled into sections of the deck.  Players again control the rate at which this deck flows and have a general notion of when scoring will arrive but can never be entirely certain.

Option 5. Player Controlled

What about putting scoring intervals totally in the hands of the players?  Few games have gone this route. There is a great deal of design space waiting to be explored here.

Reiner Knizia’s card game ZERO does this by scoring each hand of cards after players have “knocked” twice.  The first knock signals the approach of scoring. The second knock immediately ends the hand and triggers scoring.  Each hand of ZERO could last through four rounds of play or forty.  It is the players who decide.

What do you think? How does the pace of scoring affect your experience?  Do you have a favorite approach?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing. 🙂

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 4

The first Protospiel Houston event was last weekend. This weekend–March 21 – 23 will see another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More, listed at the main Protospiel page are coming soon.

Several followers asked for a report from the event.  It is a strict rule of playtester etiquette to keep every prototype you play secret unless its designer specifically gives you permission. Many details have been left out for this reason. With that disclaimer in place, here are some of the high points.



Our attendance target was 30. We had 41 attendees.  We hosted three speakers.  We successfully hosted a design challenge.

We had a great number of playtesters who attended with no affiliation to any particular designer–they were simply interested in being part of the design process and in providing helpful feedback.  

APE Games and Living Worlds Games generously donated to the event.  Without their support, we would never have been able to have Protospiel at all.  These are great companies that deserve your support.  Check out their games.


Murphy’s Law

Not everything went according to plan. Three of our scheduled attendees were not able to be with us due to circumstances far outside of their control.  We wish them well and hope everything resolves itself as soon as possible.


Lessons For Each Of Us

All creative endeavors include plenty of mistakes.  Mistakes are a good thing.  They give us an opportunity to learn, to adjust, to adapt, to improve.  Many of the best teachers and managers I’ve met refer to mistakes as “opportunities for improvement.” It seems to me that this is exactly the right mindset.  The stories which follow each showed me an opportunity to improve.  I hope you will find them useful as well.

The first game played at Protospiel Houston was Cubic Conjurers by Richard Gibbs.  This was a highly interesting spin on a few relatively common game mechanisms.  Once fully polished, this will be a solid addition to any gamer’s collection.  Interestingly, Richard did not plan to bring Cubic Conjurers out.  Lesson: give every prototype its chance on the table.  You might be surprised by the feedback you receive.

I was scheduled to give a talk at 7:00 Friday evening.  Of course, it’s hard to stay on schedule when you lose your flash drive.  One frantic dig through my email found a copy I’d shared with a proofreader.  I downloaded it and went straight to the talk.  Lesson: always have a backup.

A prototype making the rounds over the weekend was strongly simulationist.  Unfortunately, the simulation was so accurate that pure luck could catapult a player forward or leave that player far behind with no way to catch up.  Most of the feedback at the table addressed this issue.  Lesson: Always leave room for skillful play to overcome bad luck.

Another prototype which spent a great deal of time on the table looked quite a bit like a published design.  Although the designers asserted that they’d spent years developing their game and the game it resembled has also been on the market in major outlets for years, they both insisted that they’d never seen the published version.  Much of the feedback at this table focused on ways in which this design could distinguish itself from its preexisting competitor.  Lesson: Market research is essential.

Sunday morning was my chance to run a playtest of a game in development for APE Games with Mr. APE himself, Kevin Brusky.  Although many game elements are performing well, quite a few were far off the mark.  I’d fallen victim to the classic designer problem of trying to be too clever.  Rather than the clever effects I was aiming for, I’d written effects so situational as to be essentially useless. Fortunately, the playtesters spotted the problem and brought laid it out for me.  Lesson: Be prepared to rethink your ideas, particularly the “clever” ones.



Closing Thoughts

Protospiel Houston was a success.  Attendees seemed to be steadily productive.  At our most packed, every table held a game but no players were standing around waiting for space to open up. Guest speakers were well received. And we’re definitely doing it again next year. 🙂

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 3

You prepped and polished your prototype.  You made the trip to a Protospiel event (or some other awesome playtesting event) You put it your design in front of a bunch of total strangers.  They gave you tons of feedback.  Now the convention is ending and your next steps lie before you.  Where should you start?

You had good preparation.  You had good execution.  Now you need good resolution. What will you do AFTER the convention is over?  Let’s get right into it!

18. A publisher expressed an interest in my game.  When should I contact her?

Your first step when a publisher expresses an interest should be to establish a timeline.  If you haven’t, there are a few general rules you can follow.

It is most likely that the publisher either took your prototype with her for in-house testing or asked you to send a prototype.  Send this within a week of the request and follow 3-4 business days with an email to confirm that they’re received it.  After that, my experience is that it takes publishers about a month to have a reply.  If you haven’t heard anything by then, send a short, polite message asking if they need any adjustments or have any questions.

19. “They said it was awesome! How do I get it published? Should I publish it myself?”

Me? no.  You? Maybe.

I personally self-published one game–The Great Migration–for the experience.  I’m glad I did it.  Going through the whole process taught me a great many things about that end of the industry.  But I wouldn’t personally do it again.

Kickstarter, and Indiegogo other similar crowdfunding platforms are opening new avenues for distribution and advertising however.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, I would urge you to contact some of the folks who have already gone that route.  Folks in this industry are sincerely supportive and will give you solid advice.

20. The playtesters wanted to completely overhaul my game.  If I take their advice, is this still my design?

This is a question I struggled with for quite some time myself.

The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is that playtesters will give you every manner of idea.  It is your job as the game designer to analyze each suggestion, to carefully pick which ones to incorporate and which ones to set aside.  It takes a great deal of work to do that kind of fine-tuning.  It is that work which entitles you to call this game your own and to put your name on the box.

21. I got contradictory feedback from two different groups.  Now what do I do?

Congratulations!  Having too many ideas is one of the best problems a designer can have.

In this case, I often try to temporarily pursue both approaches.  This may go so far as to assemble two distinct prototypes.  I then alternate tests of each approach.  Eventually, one of these designs will reveal itself as superior.  When that occurs, you can drop the weaker design and focus on the superior one.

22. But I have limited time and other responsibilities.  I can’t be working on two (or more) different versions at the same time.  Should I quit my day job?

In a perfect world, we have all the time and opportunity needed to pursue every avenue.  That nasty devil reality does tend to assert itself from time to time however.  Do not quit your day job.  Instead, pick the one(s) about which you feel most strongly and focus there.

23. Was this playtest a “bad” playtest?

Gil Hova contributed this question and spiffy dude that he is answered it as well.  Rather than trying to offer my thoughts, we can all all learn from the response he offers.

There are playtests where the game breaks down and everyone tears it apart, but I don’t think those are bad playtests, just difficult ones.

To me, there are three kinds of bad playtests…

First: The playtesters only say “Yeah, I liked it, it was okay,” and you can’t read any more feedback.

Second: The playtesters all LOVE the game. Then you play another, less polished game and they LOVE that one. Then you play a totally broken game and they LOVE that one too. And you realize that they’re cheerleaders, and they like pretty much anything they play.

Third: One playtester spoils the test somehow. Perhaps he is a high-maintenance special-needs kid who isn’t adjusted enough to social situations to play a game, or he is actually, literally insane and only offers lunatic ravings. These have both happened to me. They throw so much noise and static into the test that it makes the session tough to parse.

24. This game just isn’t working. I’m afraid it’s a dead end. Now what do I do?

Mistakes and dead ends are all a part of the design process.  Take a step back.  Let the game rest for a little while.

This question of what to do with a dead end design hits one of the reasons keeping a journal in some form is so very important.

Your design journal is a repository for all those other game theme and mechanism ideas you may wish to return to.  It is also a place to look for inspiration if a project stalls or if you wish to go back and look at options you set aside earlier.

Take a look at your options.  Have you tried each approach you considered?  Perhaps there is an idea you had, an idea which did not seem useful at the time but now fits your situation perfectly?

25. I set this game aside for months, then returned to it, polished it up and brought it to Protospiel.  It still isn’t working. Now what do I do?

It might be time to retire this design.  Perhaps this one simply doesn’t work.  That’s okay.  You will have plenty of failures along the way.  Keep working and keep trying new things.  Your successes will far outdistance your failures.  I promise it.

26. “How can I keep in contact with all the wonderful people I met?”

Apart from trading email addresses with everyone you met, become an active part of the design community.  Facebook has its Protospiel group.  Boardgamegeek has its game design forums.  Board Game Designer’s Forum is another great place to commiserate and to exchange ideas.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do after a playtest event?  Are you a freshman designer with a question that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with wordpress (http://wordpress.com/) and follow this blog.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Next kicks off with the details of Houston’s first Protospiel event and what I learned running it. See you Tuesday!

Playtest Feedback Form: Doing It The Looney Labs Way

While researching my current series on playtesting, I discovered an excellent example in the Looney Labs playtesting workshop page here.

Awesome and wonderful folks that they are, I secured their blessing to share it with all of you.  Question Answerer 1st Class Alison Looney tells me that it has been working well for them.

This form was obviously designed to collect playtest data on several games at once.  You will have to make a some adjustments If you’re only working on one or two games.  Setting that particular detail aside, I think there are several things any of us us can learn from the Looney Labs approach. 


Notice that it asks few specific questions but instead has been designed to be open ended.  Notice that a huge amount of space has been dedicated to “comments,” including the back of the page.  Keeping their form open ended will encourage Looney’s testers to be sincere.  Some will share many impressions and comments while others may offer few.  This is a good thing.  In both cases, the feedback will be sincere.

I have seen several feedback forms that attempted to cover every conceivable question.  I created a several of these myself.  The problem with this approach is that it presupposes the creation of such an exhaustive list to be possible.  But no matter how hard we try, there will always be questions we missed.

At the other extreme, a blank piece of paper gives your testers limitless freedom but no guidance.  The tabula rasa approach to data gathering is more likely to lead to the creation of paper airplanes.

Looney Labs has found an excellent balance. They make sure to ask the critical questions–what did you play?  What did you like best?  Second best?–and left the rest to the tester’s creative mind to offer.

We would all be wise to follow a similar model.

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 2

Protospiel Houston is only three days away and Protospiel Milwaukee is just one little week behind.  Designers–aspiring or otherwise–five hundred miles in every direction are scrambling to prep that game that just almost ALMOST works and get it in front of the crowd with the skill to push it through.

Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution.  Last Friday’s column focused on questions of preparation.  Today, we focus on execution–what will you do during the event.

8.  How do I keep someone from stealing my idea?

You don’t.  Seriously.  Your idea is a starting point and nothing more.  It is in your execution of that idea that the value emerges.  It is in polishing that idea until is is smooth and flows cleanly that your idea which was once nothing more than a rock gets polished into a valuable (and publishable) gem.

Everyone in the room has several dozen ideas of their own to wrangle with.  They haven’t got the time to think about stealing yours.  Free yourself of that fear and put your game out into the world.  The feedback and support you get will prove you made the right decision.

9.  Should I have my playtesters fill out NDAs?

This is entirely up to you.  As a matter of etiquette, attendees should never discuss a prototype in any public forum without the expressed permission of the author.  NDAs make your wishes on the subject explicitly clear.

10.  What if a publisher asks me to sign a NDA or similar release form?

Sign it.  Publishers have a variety of reasons to employ NDAs.  They have their own worries and need their own protections.  You want to build a good relationship with every publisher you can.  Being agreeable about an early request like this one will get you good karma with them.

11. Does my game have to be finished? How close to being finished does it have to be?

A prototype can be at any state of being.  Testing is critical at every stage of the design process.

Many freshman designers talk about wanting a game to be “ready to test.”  This belief and all the reasons underlying it should be carefully researched and written into a large leather bound book. That book should then be thrown into a bonfire.  Aspiring designers should be made to encircle that fire and chant “playtest, playtest, playtest” until this demonic belief is exorcised from each of their minds.

No good design comes without playtesting.

Game designs are meant to be tested.Get your ideas on the table.  Do it every chance you get.  Make new chances and test it then too. Denying your design table time will delay its development and nothing more.

11.  Is there anything I should tell my playtesters before we start?

You should tell them where your game is at in its development cycle.  Is the game new or have you been working on it for some time?  Is there any particular part of the game you’d like them to focus on?  Be candid. If you feel something isn’t working, tell them.  Let them take a look at it.  New perspectives bring new solutions.

12.  What sort of questions should I ask my playtesters?

The answer to this may depend largely on where your game is the development cycle.

For an alpha prototype, my questions focus on the basics–is this fun?  Does the overall idea work?  Is this idea worth pursuing? What would you say was the core engagement of this game?

For a beta test, I’m hitting those questions of overall balance and asking players to pay close attention to their experience.  This is where I return to the question of core engagement and say things like “this game is supposed to be about ______. How well would you say the game reached that goal?”

During final testing, I urge players to look for every sneaky trick they can play, to find every loophole they can exploit, to try and rules lawyer the game out of whack..  Final testing is stress testing.  Just like with a new model of car, you want to slam it into a few walls to see how it survives.

13.  Should I playtest a prototype the same way I’d play a published game?

People play games for a number of different reasons.  The purpose of playtesting is to test the game.  Players may try more extreme strategies than they normally might or actively seek loopholes to exploit.  The pace and the experience will likely differ radically from a normal game play.

14.  What if they don’t like my game?

This is possible.  Different players have different tastes.  Every designer in the room has had that experience however.  Most of them are also able to separate themselves from their feelings to provide constructive feedback regardless.

15.  What if I dislike their game?

This situation falls clearly The Golden Rule.  Much as you may hope people will be considerate of you, so must you be considerate of them.  Be respectful. Also be honest.  You do your fellow designer a disservice to be any other way.  Tell him exactly what you didn’t like.  Be as specific as possible about your emotional response to that game element as well as your intellectual response.  Offer suggestions and any changes that occur to you.  Trust that he will do the same for you.

16.  What if I love their game?

Providing constructive feedback to a game you adore can often be harder than providing it for a game you hate.  Do your best.  Remember that the designer depends on you to describe exactly what you liked about her game, again being as specific as possible about your emotional and intellectual response. At any playtesting session,

17. What do I do if the game is bad and its really long? Is it bad form to gnaw my arm off so I can get away?

As Jame Mathe pointed out recently in the Facebook Protospiel page, a game does not need to be played to completion for it to be tested.  Some games need to be played all the way through but others can end early.  If the game elements are front-loaded, a half play can show all the major parts.  Sometimes, only a few rounds are needed.

If the game is truly dreadful, the polite way to express it is “I’m ready to talk about this game.  I’m not sure that we need to play any further before I offer my thoughts.” Or something along those lines.  From there, you can move on to discuss the issues you had with the game.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do you like to do during a playtest event?  Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Our next set of questions cover he take-away–what to do after the playtesting ends. See you Friday!

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 1

There will be two Protospiel events this month.  March 14 – 16 will see its first appearance here in Houston.  March 21 – 23 will see its return to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Protospiel events are big game design parties.  Most of the attendees are authors, carrying work that varies in completion from “heading to the printer” to “thought of it this morning.”  Playtesters–people who attend to play and nothing else–will be milling about.  Publishers will be scouting for the jewels among the mass.  No matter what your role, everyone will be playing a variety of games, offering feedback, impressions, and suggestions.

Design events like Protospiel have become increasingly common both as stand-alone events and as part of a larger whole.  In the last year, Origins, Gen Con and BoardGameGeek.Con all featured “designer alley” or “designer/publisher speed dating” or both.  There are playtesting events scattered across the US and Canada.  Although I am not personally aware of any, I would be willing to bet that some are being held by our neighbors to the south as well.  With so many around the continent, I cannot imagine how any designer could fail to attend at least one of these events.

If you’re new to these events, you will probably have some questions.  How does a designer get the best results from these events?  What are the secrets to success?  The three columns in this series will answer the biggest questions heard over the years.

Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution.  Today, will focus on questions of preparation.  On Tuesday, we will focus on what to do during the playtest.  Next Friday’s column will resolve resolution.


1.  What is the most important thing to bring?

An open mind.  Each person you meet will have ideas for your game.  Some will take your game places you’ve never considered.  Some criticisms may make you uncomfortable.  Take them all in.  Remember that their only wish is to see you and your game succeed.  Prepare yourself to that each person for her time and feedback.

2.  What kind of game can I bring?

Protospiel events are primarily about tabletop game design.  Board games, card games and party games are the most common but Carl Klutzke did bring, test, and publish a roleplaying game.

Computer games are extremely rare, however.  For those, you may want to look into alternate events like those the Game Developers Conference hosts.


3.  How many times will my game get played?

The answer to this varies wildly with the event.  Some events are structured and plan specific schedules for each game.  Some are freeform.  In the case of the former, the number of plays is limited only by the time you have been allotted.  In the latter case, I find that my own games get played only once or twice a day.  Your mileage may vary however, as I often treat these events as a chance to get a peek at other people’s approach rather than a chance to hammer on my own designs.


4.  How long should I expect each playtest to take?

Give yourself plenty of time.  Playtests generally run from 50% to 100% longer than the normal play time for the game.  Post-play feedback can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  This means that your 15 minute card game will need about an hour to test and discuss while your 2 hour game will need about 3 hours.


5.  I’m not that experienced at designing games. Will my feedback worth less than someone more experienced?

Designers need as much feedback as they can possibly get.  Come to the event with that firmly in your mind.  Plan to be honest.  Plan to be brutally honest.  Your honest feedback is priceless, no matter how experienced you are.


6.  How nice should my prototype look?

When it comes to prototyping, uglier is usually better.  If you’ve invested a great deal of time making your game attractive, you may find yourself unwilling to make needed changes.  But you MUST be willing to make changes on the spot.  When a player makes an excellent suggestion, you are going to want to get that idea into play as soon as possible.  If that means altering, defacing or even destroying existing components—do it!

A good general rule is that you should be willing to take a sharpie to any component you bring.


7.  Uglier is better?  Really?!?

Yup.  Experienced designers and publishers tend to view suspiciously any game which looks “too good.”  Several experienced designers have told me off the record that when a beautiful prototype comes onto a nearby table, they immediately head the other way.  Add to that the horde of horror stories among publishers who decided to give a beautiful prototype a try–and discover that the game was all flash and no substance–is astounding.

Keep your focus on core engagement and gameplay.  This will impress the people you meet much more than any flashy component ever can.

Before we sign off today, much gratitude goes to Gil Hova and Carl Klutzke for their help assembling this list.

If you’re an experienced Protospieler, what do you do to prepare for playtesting?  Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Our next set of questions get to the heart of good execution–what to do during a playtest. See you Tuesday!

Asymmetrical Suits in Card Games, Part 3

Our last column looked at several hypothetical cases to illuminate the proper use of asymmetric card decks.  In this column, we look at four examples which are not at all hypothetical. These are published games which feature asymmetry.  I found that each one found an interesting way to make asymmetry serve its core engagement.


Rocket Jockey

James Spurny’s Rocket Journey casts players as tramp freighter captains delivering goods from world to world within our solar system. At its heart, Rocket Jockey is a rail game in the “elaborate = better” tradition. Players make these deliveries inefficient to earn more points.

Early in the game’s development, Spurny decided that the back story of the game should center space development around Earth. For this reason, he concentrated the game cards around Earth. Earth cards are the most common.  Venus and Mars are second-most common. They drop off steadily from there.

James Spurny used asymmetry to support his game’s setting and to concentrate player focus.



Stephen Glenn’s Piñata–first released in 2003 as Balloon Cup–uses complementary asymmetry to balance player decisions. The rarest commodity has only 5 cards but only requires that you collect three of it to score a trophy.  The most common commodity has 13 cards but requires a comparatively massive 7 cubes to score a trophy.  Piñata pushes this asymmetry further with the inclusion of 10 wild cards.

Should you collect common goods, knowing that you’ll need many of them?  Or should you focus on the rare, hoping for a quick win? Stephen Glenn used asymmetry to put players in a quandary.


Lord of the Fries

From the 1996 through 2006, James Ernest helmed Cheapass Games. CAG released a number of excellent games. One of his best was Lord of the Fries. LotF is a hand management game. Players worked with hands of ingredient cards to supply customer demand at a Friedey’s, the fast food restaurant chain in hell. Like Glenn, Ernest uses rarity to imply value.  The common and lowly 14 buns score only 1 point each while the delicious but rare 4 Berry Pies clock in at 6 points each.  Of course, Earnest also made it pretty easy to score those buns and difficult to score the berry pies.  He’s sneaky like that.

James Ernest used asymmetry to keep players looking for the most valuable options.

As an aside, Cheapass Games began releasing new titles in 2011.  Like their classic counterparts, you will be happy you checked them out.


Magic: The Gathering

It’s been more than 20 years since Richard Garfield’s idea to meld trading cards with gameplay hit store shelves.  There are many reasons for its enduring popularity. Player-controlled asymmetry is one of the best.  By allowing each player to construct her own deck, Garfield empowered players to create their own asymmetry.  Players are limited to 4 of each card which is not a basic land but even within this restriction there is plenty of room for the active deck constructor’s play. Cards that formed the backbone of your deck appeared the full 4 times.  If you wanted a certain card for emergency assistance, you might choose to include only a single copy of it.

Richard Garfield used asymmetry to empower his players.


There are a great number of ways in which asymmetry can boost your designs.  Consider the achievements of Spurny, Glenn, Ernest, and Garfield.  Then add your name to that list.


What do you think of these examples?  Do you know another which should have made this list?  Share them with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes a big difference.

We will be together again in three days to take a look at game design conferences and how to get the most from them. See you Friday!