What to Know When Going to a Protospiel or Unpub

April 10 2018, 7:23pm

Tips for tackling Protospiel
Tips for tackling Protospiel

Protospiels and Unpubs come in many shapes and sizes. They all exist with the goal of connecting tabletop game designers and players in the name of creating even better games. To date, I’ve been to three San Jose Protospiel’s, an Unpub, and a few other random playtesting events. Across these experiences, I’ve learned a few things which have helped make subsequent events better. Here are some of my insights:

Look at that big ruby ring.
Look at that big ruby ring.

Be a Peacock

For my very first SJ Protospiel, I had the pleasure of table-tagging with Scott Rogers. He had the foresight to bring a tablecloth. Amidst a sea of bare plastic tables, our little table, stood out to new players looking for a game to play. I’ve recently updated my table presence with a stand that showcases the current game being played, along with important details like the number of players, play time, and difficulty. Many players and organizers have told me that they come to see what I have to play simply because my table stands out more than many of the others.

Stand up, don't sit down
Stand up, don't sit down

Be Proactive

Even if you show off what you have to offer, players may not come to your table as much as you would like. Signage letting passerby’s know that you’re “looking for players” can help you seat wandering players. To fully capture the hearts and minds of those playtesters around you, however, you will have to do a bit of recruiting, selling, and smiling.

That player that just entered the room, let them settle into the environment. After a minute or two, why not ask them if they would like to play a game? They’ll typically ask what kind of game and about the time. Supply this information and if it’s not within their wheelhouse, graciously allow them to explore other games.

I’ve found that visuals really help sell the game and get players to want to give your game a try, so don’t be afraid to carry game implements around with you—especially if they’re really cool-looking.

47% out of development stage 3
47% out of development stage 3

Know How Far Along Your Game Really Is

It’s so easy to do a few plays here and there with family and friends. The real test comes when playing your game with total strangers. Playtesting events are the perfect place to get a real sampling of how your game will do in the open. That said, if you go to a Protospiel or Unpub assuming that your game is complete and awaiting a publisher with only a few playtests in the wild, you may quickly find yourself in a situation that is hard to swallow. Be real about where your game is both to yourself and your players. This is when the real magic can begin, which brings me to my next point.

Ask and Be Open to Feedback

Players may or may not be prompted to give feedback. Some players may quietly play through a game dreading every move, while others may be more vocal about ending a game early. Whether or not a player is all smiles at the end of a playtest, ask players if they have any feedback.

Perhaps there was a particular aspect of the game that someone got hung up on. Ask them a question related to this.

Maybe the game ended with a bunch of laughter. Ask what one thing they might change to make the game better.

Playtesters come to these events because they know that games probably aren’t going to be in completed state. Though they may not have the words to express different concepts, they will often have something to say—it often just takes a little openness and questioning to uncover it.

Regardless, being open to feedback is one of the best ways to receive it. Feedback can be hard for many to receive. (I once saw a game designer never return again during the 3 day event after receiving so much (unexpected) negative feedback about their game.) We often perceive it to be an attack on ourselves. As much as we can remove ourselves from the feedback being given and focus on improving the game, feedback can move from being less of an attack and more help. The more feedback is perceived as help, in the ultimate name of improving a game, the better an experience everyone can have.

A fun game, but not for the party-gamer
A fun game, but not for the party-gamer

Be Upfront About What Your Game Is

When playtesters come by your table, they will want to know details like how long a game is, what type of game it is, if it can be played with children, etc. Be upfront about your game and what the playtest experience will look like. Nothing ruins a player’s experience more than being 2 hours deep into a game that was advertised as only being 30 minutes. Needless to say, feedback won’t be as constructive in this case compared to a game where expectations are matched or surpassed.

Large Game? Segment the Playtest

Speaking of being upfront about play-time, if you have a really lengthy game, you still can find a place for your it at a Protospiel or Unpub. Some players actually will seek out longer 2, 3+ hour games. Many players will want to play long games, but not at a playtest event. Segment your game to run multiple tests. You can figure out what works and doesn’t work within a longer game, more quickly than if you had gone through a smaller number of sessions of the entire game.

Focus on Improvement

Remember why you’re at the playtesting event—to improve your game. Any game, even if it’s been played 1,000 times can be improved. Focusing on improvement can shift idle focus to actively understanding what players are doing (or not doing). Moreover, active processing of what happens during a game can better equip you to ask the relevant questions that need to be asked when it comes time for feedback.

A game about taking home Filipino food for leftovers
A game about taking home Filipino food for leftovers

Try Other Games

Playtesting events are as much about getting your game played as playing others. Play the games of other designers, especially if they seem of interest. In return, designers will want to get to know you, play your game, and give insightful feedback that (typically) only comes from those who design games. Some of the best relationships out of these events have come as a result of me stepping away from my table.

Don’t Reciprocate if Feedback was Negative

When you call someone’s baby ugly, they’re naturally going to be inclined to reciprocate by treating your own baby poorly. Regardless of how professional two people can be, it’s probably best not to reciprocate playing someone’s game if they first played your game and gave you critical feedback. The opposite situation applies where you play someone else’s game, are critical of it, and they ask to then play yours.

Keep in Touch

Players will come and go over the course of the event. Especially if they played your game and liked it, use the last few moments to request contact information. You never know what will become of your game, but players will appreciate knowing, especially if they ask you questions about where they can buy your game.

Have you been to a playtesting event? What other tips do you have?

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