Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 1

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.–check the main page at to find one in your area.  With so many around the continent, I cannot imagine how any designer could fail to attend at least one of these events.

There is a Protospiel event coming up here in Houston is March 13 – 15.  Another one right around the corner from ours is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin April 10 – 12.  There are even more this summer.

How do you get the best results from these events?  What are the secrets to success? Let’s take a look.

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.

  1.  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 GDC (Game Designer’s Conference events.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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 will.

Before we sign off today, much gratitude goes to Gil Hova and Carl Klutzke for their help assembling this list.  They are Protospiel veterans and all-around solid people besides.

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

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.  You keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


6 thoughts on “Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 1

  1. How do I prepare?

    * I plan on taking food that I can store and eat in my hotel room, because I often can’t tear myself away from the convention long enough to go get food elsewhere.
    * I subject my local playtesters to Doomed Atlantis (aka “Carl’s Bad Caverns: A Protospiel Tradition”) over and over, make changes accordingly, and print out fresh components. Hopefully I have another prototype as well, because I don’t want to be that guy that only works on one game for his entire life.
    * I print a bunch of playtest questionnaires that I never use (because instead I jot down all my notes on a printed copy of my game’s rules).
    * I psych myself up to get past my stage fright so I will put at least one prototype on the table to get tested at least once each day.
    * I look for any advance information on what prototypes other folks are bringing and print a shortlist of the ones I want to look at.
    * I get really excited about all the friends and games that I will see, because the Protospiels I attend are my favorite events of the entire year.

  2. I would amend your comment about ugly prototypes to say that beauty doesn’t matter. Not that you shouldn’t bring a pretty prototype, just that it doesn’t matter. Also, you are absolutely correct that you have to be willing to change it. And if it’s pretty and that means you won’t change it, then you are better off.

    I build pretty prototypes and am willing to change them. I do this because I often find it’s way easier to get people to play the prototypes if they are pretty. That seems to be the opposite of the experience you’ve had, but that’s been mine.

    • I think Kevin is right for the most part. Beauty can matter and often does. First impressions mean a great deal, and a prototype that is *too* pretty may be an immediate warning sign for experienced publishers and play testers.

      “Uglier is better” is a bit of hyperbole, but for a Protospiel event, “functional” is preferable to “beautiful.” Attractive prototypes are easier to get play tested when you’re playing with non-designers, a boon for showing off your nearly finished game at UnPub, but at an intensive play test event like Protospiel, it’s better to avoid swaying your play testers one way or the other with non-game-play considerations. Neutral is the ideal here.

  3. Also, always bring spare game parts so you can make changes to the game on the fly. The Game Crafter brings a LOT of prototyping materials to Protospiels in the Midwest (THANK YOU), but I recommend bringing these as well:

    * Centimeter Cubes, like these:
    * An ultra fine point Sharpie
    * 3×5 index cards
    * Clear plastic card sleeves (all my prototype cards are in these)
    * Polyhedral dice, with some extra d6 (why would you leave home without these?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s