Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

UnPub 4 Part I: Pitching and playtesting

I spent Martin Luther King weekend at UnPub 4, the fourth annual unpublished games convention for designers in Magnolia, Delaware.

Friday night - designers dinner
I had the privilege of an invitation to a designers and publishers dinner the night before UnPub, which I attended with my friend and fellow designer Keith Ferguson ("Santa's Workshop").  It was so great to see so many other designers and publishers again, many of whom I hadn't seen since UnPub 3 last year.  UnPub founder John Moller passed the reins to Darrell Louder (designer of Compounded), who hosted the designer-publisher dinner and directed the UnPub 4 convention admirably, with the able assistance of his wife Lesley Louder, Stephanie Straw, and other volunteers.

Re-acquaintances at the dinner included Chris Kirkman (Dice Hate Me Games), Patrick Nickell (Crash Games), Nathaniel Levan and Anna Rutledge (designers of "New Bedford"), T.C. Petty III (designer of VivaJava), Ben Rossett (designer of Mars Needs Mechanics), and many others.  I also had the pleasure of meeting in person Patrick Thundstrom, fellow gaming geek, whose acquaintance had only been via social media until then.

One of the events that Darrell set up at UnPub 4 was an opportunity for designers to meet briefly with Game Salute representatives for a ten-minute game pitch and Q&A about their designs.  Mine was scheduled for first thing Saturday morning, and I felt pretty confident, despite the fact that it occurred to neither Keith nor me until the night before that it might be good to have a sales sheet summarizing our respective games.  After we returned to the hotel from dinner, we frantically cracked open the laptops, hastily prepared sales sheets and printed them on the hotel's black-and-white business center printer - not perfect, but functional.

Brew Crafters: The Card Game
Later Friday evening, Keith and I ran across Ben Rosset in the hotel lobby, who asked us to try out his prototype "Brew Crafters: The Card Game."  Keith and I tried it in two-player format, and then later joined Ben and played it as a three-player game.  Ben has put together a nice light dual-use card game format as a spin-off from his successfully Kickstarted Brew Crafters, a meaty worker-placement game that I've really enjoyed playtesting.  "BC:TCG" works very well and recaptures the theme in a nice, compact way.  I enjoyed it, and I think Keith did, too.

Saturday - Game Salute interview

Saturday morning, we arrived on-site for UnPub 4.  I didn't start playtesting "EIC" right away because my ten-minute Game Salute interview was scheduled soon after the doors opened.  I was a little nervous going in but confident that I had good command of my material and a solid game to talk about.  The actual ten-minute session went rather well.  Game Salute partners Dan Yarrington and Dave MacKenzie are very professional and clearly had a good idea of what they were looking for in terms of the qualities in games that are marketable and manufacturable.  They reasonably identified the relatively narrow appeal of a heavy economic game that takes two hours or so to play - which isn't to say that "East India Company" isn't marketable, only that it won't be the next Pictionary.  They also asked how closely the theme was tied to the game, and in point of fact "EIC" was originally an interplanetary mining game, "Gold on Mars," so, as long as the economic engine is intact, I think "EIC" could be rethemed without too much difficulty - even if many of the current features of the game were inspired by the age of sail mercantile setting.  But the bottom line is that I was happy with how the conversation went, and it was a good way to start UnPub.

Skirmish 16 - Josh Tempkin
I got back to my table and immediately hooked up with one of my favorite designers, Josh Tempkin.  Lately I've been fascinated by microgames, on the scale of Coup and Love Letter, for their ability to generate interesting gameplay from just 16 cards or so.  Josh happened to have a prototype that is right up that alley, a two-player martial arts card game called "Skirmish 16."  In true Josh Tempkin fashion, the game has a strong mathematical foundation but plays in a semi-intuitive way.  Players each commit two cards - a setup card and an attack card - from a hand of seven to what will become the first round of combat.  Players then trade hands.  In a vaguely 7 Wonders card-drafting fashion, each player now selects two cards for the second round of combat from the five cards he just received from his opponent.  Players now exchange the remaining hands of three cards, select two for the final round of combat, and discard the last card.  Some cards are more powerful than others, but none is absolutely dominant, and the opportunity for second-guessing and bluffing is exquisite.  I'd love to see this game published.

Joshua, Michael, and Robert
playtesting "East India Company"
East India Company - Playtest #1
At UnPub 3 last year, several young players tried out "East India Company" in a five-player round, and this year several of the same people came back to try the game again.  This would be another five-player game, a good check of my game duration as well as adjustments that I've made to prevent a runaway condition.  The game played very well, with a length of two and a half hours, at the high end of my comfort zone.  Scores were bunched into two groups, with Theresa (57 points) winning narrowly over Joshua (54), with Rob (27), Robert (25), and Michael (24) maintaining dignity.  A good rules question came up about whether players ought to have the choice to pay tariffs from the ship or from their European accounts.  Also, in this particular game, five different colonies were buying tea, which meant that tariffs on tea were easily bypassed in competing markets.  The
Rob and Theresa playing "EIC"
 thing for me to keep an eye on in continued playtesting is the risk of corner cases in the tile draws.  So far, I actually like the fact that every market environment is different and requires some kind of strategic adjustment.  But if the tiles create a situation that just isn't fun to play, well, that would defeat the purpose.  So I have to watch out for that.

Next post, "Great Heartland Dice," another "EIC" playtest, and "10 Acres."


  1. Paul - I am definitely interested in EIC... guess I am one of those who like the "narrow appeal of a heavy economic game that takes two hours or so to play". Then again, I'd say that the top 5 on BGG are heavy 2+ hour affairs as well ;-)

  2. Thanks, Brian! Yes, during the interview, Dan Y. compared it to "an Avalon Hill bookcase game," which is pretty much what I grew up on (although I don't think it's quite up to the complexity of something like PanzerBlitz). "Meaty" is another word that people like to use for "EIC."