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Mike Belsole
United States
Mount Vernon
New York
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7 Lessons Learned At Unpub Midwest From A Game Designer

I'm a big fan of Unpub. For anyone who isn’t familiar, Unpub is an organization that organizes playtesting events all around the United States. Sometimes they are full fledged conventions, like Unpub 8 in Baltimore, Maryland. Other times they are mini conventions or protozones housed within other conventions. The first Unpub I ever went to was inside PAX South in January of 2017. I signed up for Friday and Saturday slots during the afternoon because I was working as an Enforcer during the mornings. I played lots of games, got wonderful feedback, and met fellow designers for the first time. It was such an worthwhile experience that I signed up for Unpub at PAX East the following March.

The Unpub Prime conventions in Maryland are supposed to be amazing, but I knew I was going to miss the next two. So when another Unpub Prime convention called Unpub Midwest was announced and I realized I was available I jumped at the opportunity. It was a truly wonderful weekend filled with over 30 hours of playing unique games and meeting awesome designers.

Here is what I learned from Unpub Midwest.

Go To More Game Design Events

I had immersed myself in designing and playtesting between January and June of 2017. I'd get an idea, create the prototype in Tabletop Simulator (TTS), and playtest it immediately. I’d modify the prototype afterwards and test the new ideas with anyone who would respond to my posts in the global chat of TTS. I would rush home from work excited to chip away at my designs. It was a really exciting half year.

And then in July I got married and lived in Italy for two months working on farms. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret any of that, but in an instant I went from designing (mostly online) everyday to not having my computer or regular internet access. I brought physical prototypes with me in the hopes that we would meet other traveling farmers who would play them. That never happened. My partner could only play one of the prototypes (the other one needed at least three players), but she didn't like the type of game it was so we only played it once. We ended up creating a game together out of a deck of cards that we both liked and playtested the heck out of it.

When we got back home, I couldn't get back into the swing of designing and playtesting. I had built up all of this design momentum for six months, and the trip had stolen it. Obviously I don't regret any of it, but I just couldn't pick up where I left off. Even though my partner and I designed a game while we were away, it wasn't the same. I had designed and developed other games before we left and now I forgot what stage they were in. Physical prototypes didn't match the more advanced digital ones, and everything just felt too intimidating to fit together again. It felt like I had pushed a boulder halfway up a hill and now it was back at the bottom. I was stuck.

One thing saved me. Unpub Midwest. I had signed up before the wedding, and was really excited to go. I had only been to mini events housed in other conventions. This would be my first dedicated playtesting event. A whole weekend of playtesting sounded like heaven. With the flight to Grand Rapids rapidly approaching, I had no choice but to force myself to update my prototypes and figure out what my playtesting goals were. I spent all of the two days before my flight making sure I was prepared. Unpub Midwest forced me to get back in the swing of things. And once I started couldn't stop. Instead of sleeping the night before flying, I was up cutting and sleeving cards and making sure my (newly created) design binder had everything I needed.

If I ever get stuck again, I know I have to commit to something. Whether it's a whole convention or just a scheduled playtest. The power of deadlines is real.

Bring Multiple Games And Have Them All Set Up And Ready To Go

This was a risky move and may not be for everyone. The most games I've seen on a table at one time at a playtesting event is one. For this event, I decided to bring four of my prototypes. I chose these four for different reasons. Catch of the Day was 90% done. There were just a few lingering rules and exceptions that needed to be cut. Jekyll/Hyde was exciting to me, but it had an end game draw condition that I was struggling to fix. Welcome To My Secret Lair had been in development the longest, but it also needed the most work. I was really excited to try out a new auction mechanic that I thought would fix a lot of the problems I was having. Wizard Duel was the newest design and one I was eager to get testing with other people. This was the one my partner and I designed in Italy. A few kind people on the internet gave us blind playtest feedback, but we hadn't played it with anyone else but ourselves. I was curious to see how different people would react to it.

When I got to my table in the conference room of the Grand Rapids DoubleTree, I set up all four games at once. I put up a sign with a description of all the games and an inviting header that asked which game prospective players might be interested in.

My reasoning for this is that it’s hard to attract players at these events. I didn't want to set up one game and have someone who might have been interested in a different game skip the table altogether. All of the games I brought were very different from one another in terms of player count, mechanics, time, and theme. It also made sure that it didn’t matter if a whole group or only one player dropped by. I thought there was at least one game for everyone. And as it turned out, everyone who stopped long enough to read the list or examine the table was interested in at least one of them. I got constant playtesters the whole day. This had a one unintended benefit and one obvious flaw.

The unintended benefit was that it showed me which game was the most attractive to people. I didn't have any art, just my prototype components and the sheet of short descriptions. Much to my surprise, based on only those two pieces of information, most people wanted to play Jekyll/Hyde. I suppose I was too much in my own head and thought people would want to play the shorter simpler one (Wizard Duel) or the most outwardly fun game (Catch of the Day). But no one had ever heard of or played any of them before, so they went off what was presented. When asking people why they chose Jekyll/Hyde I got answers like, “I like hidden movement games,” “I like games that are asymmetrical,” “The player screens/brain maps looked interesting,” and “It looked like a cool theme.” Those were valuable answers I never thought to ask about before. Knowing that people really dug the appearance of what Jekyll/Hyde could offer them made me think of it in a totally new light. When players were done playing and could match their expectations to the reality of the game I got comments like, “That was amazing,” “The theme and mechanics worked so well together,” “It’s a well-oiled machine,” and “I've never played a hidden movement game like this before.” I now know that Jekyll/Hyde is something special and deserves a bigger priority in my design headspace.

The flaw with presenting four games at once is that no one was interested my longest game, Welcome To My Secret Lair (45-60 minutes). In fact, only one pair of players on the last day played through a whole game (and it only took 30 minutes). That new auction mechanic turned out to shorten the game. That wasn't something I could have known beforehand and I didn't want to present the game falsely to the people who were donating their time to help me test my games. I could have gotten more paytests if that was the only game on the table, but I felt they would have been few and far between. I'd rather have more playtests for more games than few playtests for one game.

Designers/Gamers/Publishers Give Different Feedback

Gamers will give you feedback about how they felt throughout the game and what they wished was different. Designers will include deep critiques of your mechanics and theme. Publishers will tell you why and how to fix your game for the audience you are going for, and give you advice on components. All of these are essential, but unless you are very lucky you'll only ever hear from gamers if you don't go to playtesting/designer events.

Play Other Designers’ Prototypes And Listen To Feedback Given

Just as it is important to listen to feedback of your game, listen to feedback of others’ games. I found myself frequently impressed by ideas or solutions to issues that I never would have thought of. These can be possible solutions to similar problems in your own designs or possibly new ideas all together. Sometimes you really only have one way of thinking about problems. Listening to the solutions of other people opens up new ways for you to think about your own problems.

Don't Hurt Your Playtest By Defending It

This was made painfully clear in feedback sessions with some other designers’ games. My feedback style is to ask for impressions of the game, be silent, and then take lots of notes. People will talk a lot if you just let them. I will guide players to other areas I have questions about when they are done telling me what was important to their experience and then I ask three standard questions at the end of every session.

While at feedback sessions for someone else's game, I watched as player feedback was given and the designer fought back. It wasn't just gently explaining why something was the way it was, there was an air of superiority about it which was off putting. The other players then fell silent and few comments were given after that. It was bad for the designer, but also bad for the playtesters. We played these games knowing we are going to get a chance to give feedback at the end. If the designer shows that they will not receive our feedback well then I don’t feel safe to provide it. This reinforced my own feedback style and helped me to resist the urge to defend my choices to playtesters. As designers we should be listening to every word playtesters say. Not that they all deserve equal weight, but this was their experience and that is what we are looking to solve.

Play Established Games With Designers

This was a new one for me. I am still fairly new as a designer and not so confident that I can see the flaws in published games. But I played a published game with two other designers and they tore it apart. One card broke the game so they removed it. The game was too short so they added in cards that were meant for more players. I don't think I would have seen through the finished art and publisher logo. I probably would have written it off as not for me. It was eye opening to play games with other designers and experience how they could see improvements for any game.

Put Yourself Out There

I flew to Grand Rapids, Michigan a day early not knowing anyone and I wasn’t staying in the con hotel. So I reached out on social media to see if anyone wanted to meet up. Luckily I was invited to a dinner with other designers, but unfortunately I napped right through it. That embarrassing blunder aside, I actually fit in well with a few people and that led to lunches and late night game sessions throughout the weekend. I forced myself to be friendly and inviting when it might have been scary to do so. In a space with a lot of established designers and publishers it can be intimidating. It was helpful to also be surrounded by people like me who were just starting out.

There are lots of playtesting events throughout the USA. I highly recommend you attend at least one a year, more if you can manage, in addition to a weekly or monthly designers meetup. My next one is the Unpub protozone at PAX South 2018.

For more information on Unpub visit

For a list of design events and groups near you go to this site:
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"What do you mean, I can't pay in Meeples?"
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Don't Hurt Your Playtest By Defending It
This one is true for almost any medium where you're looking for constructive criticism. Yeah, some people are going to end up being jerks (hopefully not too many) but you'll end up getting more useful feedback by listening than championing your creation. It's hard though, very very hard - I mean no matter who you are, and no matter what you've made, you've literally from nothing brought about this thing and you're having to let people take pot shots at it, metaphorically speaking. Thumbs up for having the fortitude to make it through!
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