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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

UnPub3 Part I: Power Playtesting

I have begun to catch up on my sleep, and now I will begin to catch up on my blogging with a series of postsUnPub 3 event in Magnolia, Delaware, where 45 designers plus other gamers convened to playtest unpublished games in an open forum over two days.
on last weekend's

UnPub is the brainchild of John Moller, originally inspired by the Rio Grande game design contest held at Congress of Gamers a few years ago.  John sensed the importance of providing opportunities for game designers to bring prototypes together to test each others' ideas and gain feedback on their works-in-progress.  The result was UnPub, which first appeared in January 2011 and which has manifested itself in a number of small forums around the region over the last two years and in its full glory for the third time last weekend at Saint Thomas More Academy.

John Moller, CarTrunk
Entertainment, grand
master of UnPub
I first heard of UnPub at Congress of Gamers in October 2011, when I wandered into the game design room and met John, who was demonstrating his creation "Flummox" (subsequently picked up by Clever Mojo Games).  I had an engaging conversation with John and decided right away that even if I couldn't be ready for the January 2012 UnPub event, I would certainly seek a subsequent opportunity to bring a reasonably mature game design to the crucible of playtesting.

Last fall, I brought the latest prototype of "East India Company" to the Congress of Gamers UnPub Protozone event, a one-room two-day laboratory of game designs.  I got a lot of positive feedback and encouragement to bring EIC to the "big show" in Delaware, UnPub 3.

Darrell Louder, designer,
So last weekend was the big event.  As soon as I walked in, I saw Darrell Louder and his Compounded table.  The night before, I had seen that the Dice Hate Me Games kickstarter campaign for Compounded had already reached something like $12,800 of its $15,000 funding goal in just the first 22 hours of a 30-day campaign.  I went to shake Darrell's hand, and he told me that indeed it was fully funded as of first thing Saturday morning.  Compounded was Darrell's first design, a beneficiary of the UnPub playtesting process, and something of a poster child for the whole UnPub experience.

Stephen Craig is a family friend who grew up with my wife Kathy since they were both in grade school.  He'd come up with a couple of game designs that he had played successfully with family and friends but was eager to get some feedback on from some real game design aficionados.  One of those is "Staples," a card game of hand management with a take-that element.  The theme is not office supplies but groceries, and the goal is to accumulate the greatest total value of groceries in your pantry by the time the deck runs out.

I like "Staples" for its approachability and subtle strategy.  When Stephen first described it to me, I was skeptical, thinking that card luck would be too strong a factor in winning.  I figured that the more money cards you draw, the more groceries you can buy.  But as I played through the game, I realized that having a hand full of money doesn't help if you have no groceries; you have to discard money just for the opportunity to buy food.  It isn't about having money; it's about managing a balance between having money and having groceries to buy.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to spend ten dollars for eight dollars worth of groceries, so efficiency of purchasing becomes a factor, too.

Stephen Craig, designer,
The only significant comment I had for Stephen was that I didn't think the deck had to be so big for a two-player game.  He told me that there were 215 cards in the deck (if I remember right).  Although the hand size is ten cards and it is not uncommon to use and replace half your hand in a turn, the game still seemed long and could be shortened without sacrificing the fun element or shortchanging the hand management strategizing that makes it interesting.  So I think he decided that for larger groups, he will keep all cards in the deck, but he reported that in a subsequent two-player playtest, removing half the deck improved the play time while retaining the full gameplay experience.

One piece of feedback another designer gave Stephen was to consider spicing up the theme with a strong motivation for accumulating the groceries - something like stocking up a fallout basement or hurricane shelter before the big catastrophe hits.  You want to be the one with the most food so that the others need to come to you for help when the "big wind breaks."  It was more of a theme comment than a gameplay improvement, but I've learned that part of the fun of gaming is engaging people in the premise behind the play.

I found out the next day that Stephen had so many ideas for improving "Staples" and his other design, "Off to College," that he woke up and couldn't get to sleep, so he got out of bed and just started writing notes furiously for his next set of prototypes.  I think the game design bug has bitten Stephen pretty hard.

I have many more games to write about, including playtests of my own "East India Company," so they will come in a series of posts over the next several days.

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