Protospiel 2019, Nottingham
It finally arrived! I put in a huge amount of work getting myself prepared for Protospiel and had been looking forward to this event ever since it was announced. As a first time designer, there was a sense of 'imposter syndrome' and nervousness leading up to the day. However, everybody I spoke to was brilliant and couldn't have been more welcoming (phew!).
On arrival, I was met by Chris Kingsnorth (event organiser) and Matt Russell who I have to say were both brilliant all day. I found a table and soon after James Hewitt (Needy Cat Games) arrived and we were able to have a quick chat. Not too long after, James Wallis (Spaaace) delivered a brief (but excellent) presentation on game design. After which, it was time for the games to begin!
Robot Fight Club:
I began my day by playing James Hewitt's Robot Fight Club and had an absolute blast (pun very much intended). This was a 1 vs 1 robot combat game, where each player controls two (very different) robots in a randomly generated arena. Card decks are used to determine which robot you're able to activate for that turn, which actions you can take and the order you can take them. Once a robot is defeated, the round ends and it's onto the upgrade phase. Players have options to upgrade weapons, movement and other special abilities by using the scrap collected from the previous fight. Each robot felt unique (the super-fast 'Sprinter' served me well) and you could tell that a lot of work had been put into making each of them interesting (and fun) to play. I really enjoyed Robot Fight Club and could easily have played another game right away. I wish Needy Cat Games the best of luck when this one launches on Kickstarter next year - you'll certainly have my money!
Unknown Word/Card Game:
Before lunch we sat down for a quick game designed by James Wallis, I didn't catch the name (apologies James) but it was a word game played with a deck of cards, where each card was a letter. You had to spell out a word, but you only scored points for the letters you didn't reveal. For example; I could play the word 'PLAYTEST' as 'PL_ _T_ _T' ( _ representing a facedown card) and I'd score 4 points, so long as another player could guess my word. Correct guesses from other players would score them 2 points, so there was always an incentive for people to guess each other's words. I've likely not done James' game much justice here, but I assure you it was an accessible, quick and fun little game and I'm very happy that we had the chance to play it.
Untitled Rotating Maze Game:
After lunch, it was time for my Untitled Rotating Maze Game! Probably the least inventive name on the day, but I'd like to think one of the most descriptive (a straw I'm clutching to). Setup was pretty quick and the board itself attracted people to the table. I won't lie, hearing "oh look, it rotates!" in the background was a joy to hear. I was fortunate enough to have a full table for my game. James Hewitt, James Wallis, Matt Russell, Gianluca Montaque and James Faulkner (Stone Sword Games) were my playtesters for the afternoon - what a group!
This was the first time that my rulebook would be tested (without my guidance) and I was pleasantly surprised at how it all went. There were one or two grammatical errors and the suggestion to add an image of the final board setup (which was already WIP), but aside from that, we managed to get onto the table in around 20 mins - perfect!
Play went as expected for a few rounds before the first major talking point, which centred around a Flame Elemental (a 4-star monster) destroying James Faulkner's Dwarf way too early in the game. This wasn't particularly fun for James (although quite funny for everyone else) and I agree it's something that shouldn't happen so early on. It isn't the first time this sort of thing has been raised and it's clear that I need to do some work balancing when certain Monsters can appear.
Matt had a fantastic suggestion of splitting the deck into two 'zones' - one for the outer two rings and another (more difficult deck) for the inner two rings. This would give players rushing to the centre a high risk/reward element early on in the game and provide an incentive to 'skirt' around the edges to level up before delving deeper. It also reiterates that recent favourite phrase of mine... the sense of Impending Doom!
The next issue (not really an issue, more of a great observation) was surrounding the rotation of the maze. Players loved this gimmick and wanted more control over it. James Wallis had a great suggestion to give players more power by allowing them to spend 'a resource' to rotate the maze, with a view to mess things up for other players or improve things for themselves - I loved it! My group also had a great suggestion to alter the distance that the maze could rotate. Currently 'one turn is 90°'. However, by reducing this value to 'one turn is 45°', it would double the number of ways that each maze ring could rotate - a fantastic suggestion.
Once the board became populated with Traps (we love those) and Monsters, it became apparent that the way I'd designed movement was too restrictive and not as fun as it could be. Currently, players can't move past Monsters and must attack them - feedback was that this just wasn't very fun. By allowing players to move past Monsters (but suffering a damage penalty), it would allow players more freedom and control. I can't remember who suggested this (apologies) but I loved the idea and will be implementing this change. James Faulkner also suggested that allowing players to attack Monsters/Characters already in their space (instead of moving) made thematic sense and would likely be much more fun - agreed!
The next biggie came from James Hewitt and related to XP and XP Rewards. He had a great suggestion to reduce the amount of XP required to get an XP Reward (faster game) and to increase the values of the XP Rewards (more fun, faster game). I estimate that these two small changes could potentially shave off 30 mins of game time, as players would level up faster and be more powerful once they did. It would also make levelling up much more fun, as +1 to a stat is a bit boring... but potentially +3 to a stat? Now you've got me!
Finally came the Red Dragon. In the interest of time, I suggested we skip ahead to the Dragon Phase. This was a playtest after all and people were already giving me a lot of their time. The feedback for the Red Dragon and its card was really good. Players also seemed to enjoy the scenario of fleeing from a raging Red Dragon, scrambling towards the nearest exit. It added a sense of tension that I really wanted to come across, so box very much ticked!
The main problem was that I'd made the Red Dragon too slow and it wasn't catching up to the players. We made a change on the fly (doubled its movement) and oh wow did things heat up (pun also very much intended). Within three more rounds, the Red Dragon had killed two characters and reclaimed the Golden Idol - oh bother...
In the interest of coming to a conclusion, we gave the Golden Idol to the nearest player (James Wallis) and he made his way towards the exit. Was the door locked? Could it have been a Mimic? Neither, the door was open - he walked right through and won the game. Congratulations James!
I spent another 10-15 mins collating feedback with the group and updating my notes. There were some amazing suggestions during this session. Criticism was fair and constructive, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Having people with decades of game design experience giving me feedback was invaluable and I couldn't have been happier!
Some key things for me to consider going forward are:
Game time (I think my sweet spot is 60-90mins)
Item and token stat values (+1 to a stat felt underwhelming)
Deck split between the inner and outer maze rings (prevents meeting powerful monsters too early)
Dragon movement (it needs to be quicker but balanced)
XP sharing (lessens the impact of kill stealing and adds a semi-coop nature)
Refine Ability cards
Monster movement (having them able to chase players adds a further sense of tension)
Player movement and interaction with monsters/players/spaces
More fixed places to visit on the board (healer? peddler?)
Using XP as a resource (e.g. rotating the maze)
Reconsider the use of negative effect cards (too easy to forget)
I can't thank my playtesters enough for their time (seriously, almost 3 hours was a lot) and for their feedback. Understanding what people liked and what they thought was fun was great, but understanding what they didn't like or what detracted from the fun was more important. Thankfully I got exactly what I was looking for, I have a TON of notes to go through and I can't wait to see what the next iteration of Untitled Rotating Maze Game is going to look like. Who knows, it might even get a title... although I wouldn't hold your breath just yet!
My final game of the day was Fleet Command, designed by Connor Shearwood (Shearwood Games). It was a strategic 1 vs 1 territory control game, set in a small solar system. You control ships, create space stations, mine asteroids for resources, upgrade your fleet and battle your opponent. At first glance, I thought this wouldn't be my typical kind of board game (I usually go for dungeon crawlers, anyone surprised?) but oh lord was I happy to be wrong. The game was a delight to play and offered a variety of tactical decisions on each turn. I genuinely enjoyed Fleet Command and look forward to seeing its future progress.
A huge thank you goes out to the organisers, helpers, attendees, my playtesters and those whose games I was able to play. I had a brilliant day and I can't wait for the next one!
Below; a mid-game snapshot of Untitled Rotating Maze Game with a seemingly missing James Wallis, or did he have an invisibility cloak? I'll have to check my Item cards...