Pulsipher Game Design

This blog contains comments by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher about tabletop games he is designing or has designed in the past, as well as comments on game design (tabletop and video) in general. It repeats his blog at http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/
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Proto Atl, the tabletop games market, and my games on Kickstarter

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
Gainesville
FL
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Proto atl -

a relatively new and specialized game convention
(and also about tabletop game publishing in general)

(and also about two Kickstarters for my games)



What is it?

Proto Atl is something like a Protospiel, but isn’t. Hence the odd name (Atl being Atlanta, or more specifically Suwanee Ga).


At a typical protospiel, designers playtest each others’ games. That happens a lot at Proto Atl, but also there are publisher representatives, seminars, this year a tour of the facilities of a fulfillment company (PSI), giveaways, and perhaps other non-playtesting activities I’ve forgotten. And there were a few people who registered as playtesters rather than designers.


This year was my first attendance, deciding at nearly the last minute, and I have to say there wasn’t much to help me understand what I was getting into before the fact. It didn’t help that if I searched for proto atl I got a previous year’s website that the hosts don’t control owing to previous deals, so they can’t get rid of it! You have to type in the URL (see below).


Andrew Smith is the host, with Steve Avery as sidekick and Eugene Bryant as a friend dragged in to help. Andrew’s friend Christy (or Chrissy?) took care of photography and other tasks. This is the third rendition of the convention, which has grown every year. The first was strictly protospiel for 50 people, now it has the other features I mentioned.


About a hundred people were there on Friday, the room was quite loud at peak. Attendance was capped at 150, likely more next year according to Andrew as he continues to expand.


Aside from two publishers I already knew, I didn’t see much of the 20-25 committed to be there. Unlike some conventions with publisher reps, there was no formal arrangement, and it turned out the expectation was that designers would arrange appointments with specific publishers. So if I go next year, I’ll be able to make better use of this part of the convention.


Playtesting

This was about board and card games, not RPGs, not full miniatures, not CCGs such as Magic: the Gathering.


I don’t go to conventions to playtest, by and large, other than with people I already know well. I’m very much not good at arm-twisting people into playing my games, perhaps because I am very large (6'4" despite shrinking 3 inches) and used to be quite intimidating (age tends to kill that) but don’t want to intimidate, partly because I dislike the typical parallel competitions that are the mainstay of the market (and so I won’t play them, I’m not in the target market). In the end I had a good session with three others where my Do It Now (Naval Arms Race) was one of the games played, while on Sunday I decided to get out a finished game, Warp, and got in three 3-4 player “tests.” (Of course, no game is ever truly finished.)


Neil Gaiman's advice about fiction readers applies to game testers: "when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." (Gaiman is a well-known author of novels and comics whose books have been turned into movies, American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust, etc.)


The game designer has to fix things, not the testers. He/she has experience of many plays/playtests of the game, not just one or a few. And the designer is thinking in terms of what’s best for the target market (I hope), not what he or she would like best.


So in some ways, game designer are much less than ideal playtesters!


As an example, people were playing my prototype Warp, It’s a spaceship race to move your ships to the other side of the cluster (board). Opposing ships block progress, but can be "teleported" (sent back to their start) in three ways. Black holes help slingshot ships farther than their own (variable) movement allows, such that with the ideal arrangement you can go all the way across in one move.


These were actually the 65th, 66th, and 67th plays in my records. The game is finished, in my mind. But some of the testers had recommendations.


For example, one player felt that something more needed to be added to Warp - adding to a game is always something to beware of - such as cards with special powers. I quoted my motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)


And in this case I could also say, "that's for an expansion". In another case, the player doesn't like blocking, so he suggested taking it out, and increasing the possibilities for capture. Same answer. In this case, clearly, the suggestion was a personal preference. What I want as designer is what will be best for the most players in the target market, not a personal preference. On the other hand, for 5 and 6 players I don't allow blocking (you can move through opposing pieces) simply because the board gets too congested if I allow blocking. So I can include this as an optional rule. (Optional rules are often rules considered and rejected by the designer, but which were nearly as good as what the designer selected.)


In either case, my job as designer was to decide whether the fault they noticed was something that needs fixing; their suggestions for change were very secondary, it was the fault (if any) that mattered.




I'd have liked to know beforehand how many designer attendees have actually self-published a game or had a game published by someone else. I suspect, not many.


The Market

Consistently, the games I saw being played were much more often card games than board games. This is consistent with what I see at college game clubs (not counting Magic: the Gathering). Many of the games using a board, used it as a status tracker rather than a field for geospatial relationships. (Like the board in Deluxe Munchkins versions that merely tracks level, which is easily done in other ways in the non-deluxe versions.) I didn’t see a single wargame (I wasn’t showing any either). Though I did hear someone say “wargames suck,” he was thinking of “wargame ghetto” hex-and-counter wargames, not representation wargames (which are quite different).


Groupthink in game design these days isn’t necessarily Euro, but groupthink IS “no war” and not much “death” in a game. (How would such people react to a co-op where you defend a galaxy from killing machines? LOTS of death - but surely a “Just War”.) Party games have become the “standard game” in the lower end of the market (for $30 and less), $60 and up games are the upper end. But there’s relentless pressure for simple, short, pretty much no-brainer games in the lower end. I was impressed with how many party games (at least, apparently, sometimes specifically said) I saw in PSI’s warehouse. Games of maneuver and geospatial relationships are rare. (Though paradoxically, many of the top Eurogames involve geospatial relationships.)


Remember, if you want people to try your game that could be called a wargame, use a different name (“historical representation”). People are much more likely to try (and perhaps enjoy) the game in those circumstances.


I suspect most of the designers were looking toward self-publishing. I haven’t tried to count (which would be a massive task) but I think the self-published games nowadays far outnumber the traditionally-published games, given there were something like 2,000 successful tabletop Kickstarters in 2018. And it’s really hard for an unpublished designer to get attention from traditional publishers. (Many of the traditional publishers started as self-publishers - Fantasy Flight Games for example.) Moreover, some aspiring designers self-publish to maintain “full artistic control” (still subject to manufacturing limitations).


In any case, one publisher tells me the life of virtually any game is “45 days”. Shops have so many new games to choose from, even if their initial allocation of a title sells well, they’re more likely to get the “new hotness” than reorder the now-“old” game.


Zev Schlasinger (the Z in Z-Man, though he sold the company years ago), when I asked what kinds of games he's looking for (for WizKids), said because the market is so saturated, good is no longer good enough, he has to feel that he MUST publish the game. Though that doesn’t tell us what kinds of games he’s interested in; I guess it’s kind of a fishing expedition!


Other Notes
By look I'd say lots of millennials were in attendance, much more than a majority; some Xgen, few Baby Boomers. I was likely oldest at 68, I know a publisher who is 61 who said he was glad I was there so he wouldn't be the oldest, but others were likely in their 60s from appearance. It’s a much different demographic than, say, PrezCon or WBC, where older folks are numerous if not dominant. Proto Atl was more like GenCon (which many old-time wargamers stay away from, and most purely wargame publishers don’t attend).


The convention was at the enormous warehouse and premises of PSI, a game “fulfillment” company. For example, they will take care of all the tasks of sending the rewards of a successful Kickstarter to customers, but they work with large companies (including Target) as well as small. A fascinating tour was arranged.


There were four or five seminars, modestly attended (maybe average 15?). The quality was consistently better than what I’ve seen at GenCon over the years.



Proto Atl - early May. https://www.facebook.com/ProtoATL/ $40-55 for designers (depending on when you sign up, places limited to 150 this year) There is a website, but some info only appeared on the Facebook.


****


Since I’ve been talking about design and marketing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this:


The Kickstarter for Stalingrad Besieged ends July 8. The game uses the Hastings 1066 system (modified) but has a mounted board and a choice of three sets of units: cards, blocks, or large chipboard (all included). https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1456271622/stalingrad-b...


The Kickstarter for the Classic/Duel Britannia package starts 11 July. Classic Brit plays same as FFG Brit except for use of plastic figures, and replacing Nation Cards with better methods. I deliberately have changed no rules in Classic (FFG).


Duel is two players, new board, 65-75 minutes. I skip most of the Roman era, and end the game with Cnut and Edmund Ironside (2 players, not enough for 1066).


Duel is newly developed, not a reissue.


So we have grand strategic games on the one hand, and a grand tactical game on the other.


Duel development went fine until final balancing, which has been an enormous headache.
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