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!


9 thoughts on “Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 1

  1. David Sheppard says:

    I think my issue with “ugly prototypes” comes from simply the community around me. Living in a smaller area, not many designers hanging about so I need a presentable game just to get people to sit down. I can make a game that looks presentable pretty easily but my struggle early in design is gettin people to play the games that lack any form of art or polish.

    My experiences aren’t typical of most designers but I do disagree with the “ugly prototype” mentality because, for many, it simply means that game is forever damned to an inner circle of playtesters who can forgive a butterface.

    • sirvalence says:

      David, it’s not mandatory that your proto be ugly, but it is mandatory that you be willing to change it. We sometimes see people with protos that they’ve paid to have professionally crafted: they look lovely, but that expense may be wasted if the playtesting reveals things about the game that need to change.

      I do sometimes see beautiful prototypes and think that the designer has fallen into this problem, but asking reveals that the designer is also an artist or graphic designer and making the proto beautiful was little or no effort. I envy these people.

  2. (Woohoo, I get my own tag!)

    I prepare for playtesting by making an elaborate playtest record sheet with a bunch of questions on it and room for lots of notes and then when the playtest is over I tend to not use any of it. I don’t know why. What I do that works is to make sure that I have a printed copy of the rules, and I mark it up like crazy during the play of the game, as well as marking on the cards and other parts. I also try to have someplace to write the names of the playtesters, so I can give them credit when the game is published. The other thing that I try to make sure I have is a clock or watch: I always want to know how long each session took to play.

    Here’s an article I saw yesterday on best practices for playtesting. It’s written for about playtesting RPGs, but I think most of the principles still apply. I like the idea of bringing business cards: I’ve not done that. And sometimes I get to ride the emotional roller coaster.

  3. Is there a list anywhere of all the Protospiel events? I did a google search and notice that there are a few, but none are anywhere near me. Are the events tied together by more than just name?

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