Minnesota Protospiel 2022 Wrap-up
❄️ WE SURVIVED THE COLD ❄️
First and foremost, Jacob and I survived the not-so-brutal cold of Minnesota. Both of us had never been to the northern Midwest before, so the change in scenery was both exciting and shiver-inducing. Last Protospiel I made separate blog posts for each game tested, but since we were showing 4, I will bundle them into one lovely lengthy blog. First the generalities, then the game-specific fun. Enjoy!
☁️ DAY 0: CALM BEFORE THE STORM ☁️
We arrived on Thursday night at the Best Western Plus to get our bearings in order before the big day. It was very... quiet. This changed once Friday came around, but it was a great opportunity to get settled, unwind from traveling, and sneak in a bedside game of Kingdoms of Immacus. Once that was done, we got into one of our vacation traditions: HGTV home reno shows. God I want a house *deflated laughing*.
🎉 DAY 1: OPENING DAY 🎉
We checked in right on time to discover what I would later find out to be the locals already deep in some playtesting sessions, leaving us with no playtesters of our own *sad face*. I was expecting a smaller turn out because of the recent omicron COVID spike, but I was not expecting to have such a drought of playtesters, which would become the theme of the event.
I set up, found some designers wandering in search of playtesters, and jumped right into making a connection with a designer named Alisha, who had a very charming mint tin submarine game in the vein of Deep Sea Adventure but with an underwater monster chasing after you, while your crew above water helps gets you to safety before your opponent.
The art was cute, fit the theme, and the game had a great catch up mechanic that kept the game close. There was also some minor bluffing involved, which was fun. Also, Jacob beat me. These types of games are so hard for me to critique. Since they are so small, if nothing is broken, it usually feels to me it does what it needs to do. The bigger question I need to ask myself, is would I pick it up again? If the answer is no, then I need to dig deep as to what would make me say yes.
The game was small, so the crew you used as the competitive worker placement element was minimal. This is a product of the mint tin restriction. The best advice I was able to offer was to make the most of the cards, use every bit, and have the crew do something other than be a strict numbers dominance control sort of thing. I think using more of the card and making it dual-faced, would allow for some more variety and procedural generation so to speak. I was happy to speak to her at the end of the event to find every card for her game was rewritten and tweaked, so she got some great advice from other designers!
I got a couple of playtests of Weavlings in the Wilds in with a buyer and Alisha (more on that later) before heading off to lunch.
Fantasy Deck Building
Once we got back from lunch, I wanted to jump into someone else's game before setting up Weavlings in the Wilds again. That's where I met Peter from Fight in a Box. He had a cool fantasy weapon deck builder where you forge weapons, upgrade them, and fight bosses. The forging mechanic had a puzzle element where you had to purchase from the buying grid in restrictive patterns. It was a fresh element to a genre I've played a lot.
I loved the boss fighting aspect of the game, and I actually won this one! Since that boss element was so new, I wanted more of that. After the game, Peter revealed they had more RPG elements with more in-depth mechanics, which I was looking for. Jacob wasn't and was fine with the game as-is. When it comes to game critique, Jacob and I have a good cop bad cop relationship. I usually want more from games where Jacob is happy to meet a game where it is.
Unfortunately for game designers, there tends to be a back and forth between us as we debate player psychology, nuance, and player desires. What do people want? Is this enough? Who is this for? What does it mean to be human? In all this there is helpful critique for designers, but there is some digression as well. So, sorry about that if we debated sword upgrades for ten minutes too long! I liked the game, and I felt it was one of the stronger ones I played at the convention.
To close out the night, we played a great card drafting/tableau building game in a vein similar to Splendor, Century, and my personal favorite Trolltem Poles. I really have a soft spot for these types of games, and that's why I decided to make one. The game concept is a great commentary on Mary Sue tropes in fiction. The players start at max credibility, and as they add goofy tropes to their stories, they lose credibility and ultimately the game.
Aside from the negative clairvoyance in Zadarra, I haven't played a game that has built a mechanic around starting at 100% more or less and whittling yourself down by your actions. I think it's a great concept, and I was happy I was able to experience it. It gave me a lot to think about. Social commentary meets meta math exercise as the types and number of tropes affects your credibility.
There is this fine line between difficult and information overload. This is something I am always a little nervous about Kingdoms of Immacus. The way I tweaked the information dump was to time gate mechanics to ease players into the difficulty. At about the third going into the fourth round in Mary Sue, I hit the information overload.
I'm sure there is a point where players hit that and trying to find the balance is key. Every round has a math component for your score, so after some discussion with the designer, there may be a future iteration where the math is calculated at the end instead of four times throughout the game. I think that would allow players to focus more on the fun and less on the math. As a side note, there are some games we cannot pull out for certain players because of the mathiness of scoring. Reef and Azul are two especially pronounced offenders. I know if I want to pull those games out, I'm going to have to do the scoring for a new player, which is fine, but it is a real barrier to entry, and I'm not 100% convinced the scoring needs to be that obtuse for balancing purposes.
After Mary Sue, we called it a night (after some much belabored discussion about game design of course).
⚙️DAY 2: LET THE GRIND BEGIN⚙️
Day 1's playtests made it clear to Jacob and I that Weavlings in the Wilds is ready for release with some very minor (aesthetic) tweaks. That meant the focus for Day 2 would be Trolltem Poles and Fate Weaver Zadarra and Her Unfortunate Misfortune. The playtester drought was worse than the day before, so we jumped into a game of Trolltem Poles before playing some other designer's games.
The first game on the agenda was a dudes on a map game from the designer of Mary Sue where a neutral zombie faction can be used by an eliminated player to stay in the game. The game also had a great negotiation mechanic where players would coordinate to destroy the board to increase the tension. The combat was clean and simple, and it really let the negotiation mechanic shine. I had fun with this one even though I was eliminated along with the zombies by an unfortunate board destruction.
With this game, everything was there, and it was an enjoyable experience. The only note was the mechanic to keep an eliminated player in broke with the particular destruction of the board. This is an easy tweak with either eliminating the zombie faction and removing the non-elimination mechanic or tweaking the zombie faction to remain after a player is eliminated to allow them to continue play. Now that I've had some time away from the game, I feel an interesting way to approach this would be to track the units removed, and when a player is eliminated, all removed units become zombie units under the control of the eliminated player. That makes for a fun thematic tweak to the game.
As the Worm Turns
The next game we played was a quick little bar word game where you build the best words on a dual-faced card under a restrictive time limit. The game worked, was fun, and did everything it needed to do for a word game. Much like Submarine, this game was hard for me to critique.
The only thing that stuck out to me was the fact that it didn't matter if you finished first or last, you winning the round was determined only by having the word with the best points. This defeated the point of the timer. For me, the best tweak to this would be to add some minor scoring bonus for completing a word first, second, etc. even if you didn't have the best word. The best word is also a result of your randomized hand, so there was no bonus or scoring perk for utilizing our hand most effectively.
Granted, any scoring tweak to make the game more "balanced" would push the game away from the concept of being a bar game with minimal fiddly nonsense for drunk folk. So this is a problem of maximizing gaminess at the expense of target demographic. Nevertheless, intending for a game to be played a certain way usually doesn't work out unless it is emphasized by mechanics. For the bar word game for example, booze would need to be a mechanical element to encourage players to play the way you want them to play.
Lunch time and another trip to the Mall of America. Jacob and I have the walk in the cold down at this point.
Monsters Messed up My Room
After lunch, I wanted to play another designer's game before jumping into the playtests for Fate Weaver Zadarra and Her Unfortunate Misfortune. That game was Monsters Messed up My Room by designer Chad Metzger. This was a fun little tableau builder with the goal of cleaning up your room while avoiding other players sabotaging your progress. I enjoyed this one especially since I won, which was partially because I was so mean.
Let me preface all of this with I do not like take-that games. This is primarily because of two core issues. The games will drag on forever because there is no mechanic to push the game forward, and the take-that aspects are king-making on steroids. Chad had a great mechanic where a common pool of cards determined the end game, which made the game end the same time every time. This was brilliant. I've never seen a take-that game do this.
The game was pretty resistant to king-making as well as much of the take-that elements were location specific, which protected players from getting double punished. In the beginning of the game we were given a toy that gave us a power. I was able to use that power with some synergy to completely cripple an opponent and have a runaway win (I was the only player with positive victory points).
Game-breaking card combinations give me nightmares. I have woken up in cold sweats dreading the killer combos in Kingdoms of Immacus that are lying in wait. You never know when this would happen, but that's why we playtest, to catch them before they go to print. I was happy I was able to catch one for Chad. He was able to pull the cards, realign, and make the next iteration more Jonathan proof.
The poor opponent I beat up on in Monsters Messed up My Room was Shanti, the designer of Witch's Quarrel. To make up for my mean behavior, I played his game. Witch's Quarrel is a 2-player skirmish legacy game with a coming-of-age witch narrative. Jacob and I played a little over an hour (for a legacy game, you want to break the games up over multiple nights), and I liked what I saw.
It's got story, a straight-forward combat mechanic, and a fun little spell-drafting element. The prototype is gorgeous and clearly took a ton of work. I was very charmed by it, and when I'm charmed, I want more. More story, more customization, and more spells. There is only so much you can fit in the box, so it's optimizing what's most important and what's fluff that doesn't add depth.
Shanti was nice enough to share the narrative with Jacob and I, so this week we'll be doing a deep dive to see if there is space to expand on the story. Since the story is so important to the game as a narrative product that will continue across multiple expansions, it's important that the narrative in the box is satisfying as a standalone story.
Pax Imperialis by our new friend Mike closed out our night. It's a mid-weight area control game with a slew of cool features like ambushes, buildings, and multiple strategies to victory. Pax is what I like to call a "blank slate game." This is because it is still in early prototype paper phase, which allows the imagination to run wild with what could be.
We played it through, and the final victory point numbers were pretty tight. The game felt balanced, and each faction had its own unique things it could do. After finishing, it really felt this game could be something special with the right direction. Focusing on the asymmetrical play styles of the different factions, making the units feel more weighty and unique, and an expandable hex board based off of player count could really make this thing shine.
If I was ready to publish other designer's games, this is definitely in the vein of something I would snatch up from a Protospiel. It's thematic, can fit into our IP, and has the thinky upgradable aspect that is consistent with my design philosophy.
After an hour or so feedback session, we called it a night. I'm pretty excited to see what happens to Pax Imperialis in the next iterations, and offered Mike to drop me a line if he needs some basic graphic design done for his hexes.
😩DAY 3: RUNNING ON FUMES AND ENERGY DRINKS😩
Even though the event ended at 11:00 pm, there was a children's party in the hotel that kept me up until 2:30 in the morning. I woke up on Day 3 completely drained. I set up Kingdoms of Immacus, got a playtest in before helping some other designers get a playtest in for their games.
Taking of Taidian
Taking of Taidian is a combat deck-building game for 2-6 players by designer Joseph Graham. The game was fun, swingy in an enjoyable way, and had a retro '90s art style I don't see much of anymore. I tried to break the thing, wasn't able to, but did manage to swing it in an unexpected way, but hey it was fun! After playing, I talk to Joe and learned about his goals with the project.
I gave a little advice about art direction and packaging the game in a way that leans into its strengths, but at the end of the day, this game's success is married to the nearly finalized art. I think if Joe is able to capture the Streets of Rage 4 vibe, the game will do very well.
Art direction is important and tricky. This was something I was deeply concerned about with Zadarra and Weavlings in the Wilds. Based off of the feedback from playtesters, my concerns were soothed, but the reaction to the art is something to help gauge both the interest in the game and who to target. There's plenty of '90s arcade fanboys that would love the style to this game.
Untitled Spacial Drafting Project
The last game I played to close out the convention was an untitled spacial drafting game with an open theme by designer Charles Miller. You draft cards, place them on a grid, and try to maximize your points based off of the placement. For a game with no theme, this game had a bunch of charm. I really enjoyed this one, and like with Pax Imperialis, if I was in a position to publish I would snatch this one up in a minute.
The only issue to publishing this one under my brand is the theme I envision this as does not fit our IP, so it would be an outlier. I'm sure if I gave it enough thought, I could come up with a theme that would be coherent with what I'm already working on. Anywho, great game and looking forward to what comes of it.
When I was at San Jose Protospiel I had the same reaction to the game Cows to the Moon. It was super charming and maybe Gamewright thought the same thing because this cow-themed game called Long Cow is eerily similar to it, but Cows to the Moon predates it. Maybe there is something dubious afoot, or people really like cow-themed builders, but I let the internet investigators be the judge.
With the game finished, that was a wrap for the 2022 Minnesota Protospiel. Now let's get into what I learned from all my playtests with each game.
WEAVLINGS IN THE WILDS
Weavlings in the Wilds started our excursion into the wonderful world of Protospiel. There were two key questions I needed answered at Protospiel with Weavlings:
1) Is the game fun?
2) Is the art charming or off-putting?
I got positive answers to both, which was a huge relief. For everyone that played, they all said the game was fun (with one minor complaint about Full Moon, which I'll get into soon) and the art was charming. With the major hurdles passed, I feel much more confident in releasing Weavlings. Now for some nitty gritty.
Explaining what the game is
One thing I did a bad job of at San Jose Protospiel was explaining what kind of game Trolltem Poles was. I fixed that this time around, but then I fell into the same trap with one player who played Weavlings, and I felt it led to some miscommunication as to what to expect from a puzzle game like Weavlings.
Weavlings in the Wilds is a puzzle game you are not expected to win every time. Sometimes the game state is gross, and sometimes it is pretty sweet. It's taking the good with the bad and optimizing your actions based off of the game state. That's the replayability.
The game mills through event cards that push the game to conclusion. With the milling nature of the game, you need to plan what gets blocked and what is let through during the travel phase. I didn't make this clear and the player thought that the milling event cards were broken because they shouldn't mill like they did as they were decimated by rotated wounds that were allowed through.
The milling is intended and can be very forgiving if you know what you've seen and what still remains to come up. For example, if you haven't seen a mill card, but the game state has a ton of Beasties, you can bet that it is going to be harder to get the necessary Beastie during a milling event. You should then focus on positioning the Trapper, Wilds Spirits, and unflipped cards in such a way to minimize the number of Beasties that come through. If they become wounds, they can never become an offering for the event in a future mill.
If you get a milling card right away, you can play into that and see what you can expect from the deck by seeing what gets milled. You're allowed to, take advantage of that! If both Full Moons get milled, you should have zero concerns with Coxakols for a while. So, the post game became an explanation of what kind of game Weavlings is, and that's a mistake.
Adding for difficulty
One suggestion I received was to add things to make the game more difficult instead of taking away (Weavlings removes the Wilds Spirits at max difficulty). I did this with Zadarra, and it's something to think about. Part of what makes Weavlings work is it hits this card count sweet spot. I can play with that with perhaps an expansion pack. As is, removing the training wheels makes sense and maybe it's something as simple as for every Wilds Spirit removed, you add something crappy.
What in the hell gets banished and what gets discarded?
This came up with every player. Even though this is in the rulebook, I need to make a rule key for players to have next to themselves to be reminded. Someone suggested putting that information on the cards, but with the rule of what goes where changing based off the difficulty, it just makes for a messy card. It becomes clear as you play, but I've also played this game way too much.
Final thoughts on Weavlings in the Wilds
After Protospiel, it's clear to me that Weavlings is ready for Kickstarter. I do want to work on two small expansions before the Kickstarter release, so I'll need to work on art for that as well as a minor change to the card frames to reflect some mixing and matching of goodies for the expansion. I'm also going to start work on the Kickstarter page itself. I'll go into more of that with the Weavlings in the Wilds dev blog, but this year will be the year!
FATE WEAVER ZADARRA AND HER UNFORTUNATE MISFORTUNE
I was pretty bummed when the playtesting services went under and I couldn't get Zadarra playtested. This was the primary reason for me taking a break from designing, so I was eager to get some games in to see what people thought. Everyone who played it liked the art and gameplay, so I'm happy to say that I think Zadarra is ready for Kickstarter as well.
I got a question about my inspirations, and I thought it would be a great topic to talk about. I was definitely inspired by a lot of random games and art I've seen, so plan on seeing a blog post about that later this year.
The rotation is key
I enjoy rotating cards, but I did not expect others to enjoy it as much as I do. I had a blast watching people lay their cards out, think a rotation through, take their cards back, and try again, just to maximize their rotations. I was a little nervous to see how people would react to the rotation chaining, but everyone enjoyed it, and I let out a huge sigh of relief.
I did get a note about Coberus not being worth as many clairvoyance points as he should be because he is so powerful. I had to go back and take a look at that power curve for the relics as it had been a while since I analyzed it. The power curve is definitely where it should be, and if anything, some of the more powerful relics should be worth less. The reason for this is the relics have a utility curve associated with them. The more utility throughout the game the less it'll be worth at the end of the game.
Maybe this is counterintuitive for some people, but it is definitely the intention. Perhaps this could be slightly more intuitive as I could adjust the cost of each relic to emphasize that more. Actually, now that I think of it, different cost comes with this idea of different reward. Utility alone may be clear design-wise, but maybe not so from a player's perspective. I wanted to reward players by encouraging them to play more situational relics like the Ethereal Scrying Eyes, as scrying is pretty useless at the end of the game, but maybe that reward can be emphasized on the front-end cost.
Situational relics can cost less gold and reward less clairvoyance than the doubling effect it has now. That might make it more difficult for players to really pick these things a part. The cost of the relics are universal for simplicity's sake for the player (they have more interesting things to worry about), but if it looks like variable relic cost is something players want, that's an easy tweak.
Clairvoyance/fate shards revisited
A minor side note, I'm going to rework the clairvoyance and fate shard rewards to tone them down ever-so-slightly. This will get rid of a score card side and make it so players receive a more reasonable amount of fate shards instead of having a surplus and converting them with the stone.
Final thoughts on Fate Weaver Zadarra and Her Unfortunate Misfortune
Though the game is "Kickstarter ready," there are some minor tweaks I'd like to do. Definitely want to tweak the Astracite-influenced art and the icons at the top of the Fate Cards. Like mentioned above, I'd also like to tweak the relic card costs/clairvoyance rewards to fit in line with what players would like to see. Other than that, it's back to the Kickstarter page grindstone.
Trolltem Poles got the biggest revamps prior to Protospiel. I iterated hero abilities, Jacob and I tested them, and I'd iterate again. I felt pretty good about Trolltem Poles going into the convention with the tweaks. I mainly wanted to see if everything felt balanced to players, and I did get a little positive feedback on that.
Iconography confusion revisted
Whatever the reason, Trolltem Poles has always gotten side-eyes when it comes to iconography. I made an icon guide this time, which worked well! People knew the iconography, but then there was confusion as to what value was a display of strength value vs. a trade value even though the icons are clear. To fix this, I'm going to change the icon background and color of the two icons to make them more visually distinct. Protospiel is so helpful when it comes to things like this because it helps me know what doesn't work for players even if there are best practices within the industry. Even if I follow what has been done before, players may hate it!
Reduced Trolltem Pole stacking
One rule tweak I made before Protospiel was to reduce the amount Trolltem Poles needed to end the game from 3 down to 2. This sped things up dramatically, which got the 6 player game down to an hour, and the 4 player game to 45 minutes. I might be able to tweak this slightly, but more on that in a dev post.
Asymmetrical abilities revisited
I spent a lot of time retooling the hero abilities. I think they worked well and the victory points with every playtest were very close. I removed the negative effects and only kept positive abilities that pushes the game towards conclusion. I'm happy with how everything turned out and if there are any future changes to abilities they will be minor.
One note I received was that a player felt their turns were being interrupted by player interaction and the game state changing based off of other players purchasing ancestors from the Ancestral Grounds. I was a little surprised by this since it is the standard for these types of card drafting games. I wanted players to interact with each other instead of playing a 6-player solitaire game. That can't change, but how do you fix this feeling that you don't have time to think about your move?
I've played this game a lot, so I know my move early on. It takes me maybe 20 seconds. When this gets sabotaged, you have other options to recover. You can trade/do a display of strength for new cards, use your abilities, go for another ancestor, or plan for the next round. Other games don't give you this. I think that's plenty of wiggle room, so figuring out how to encourage players to try the other things is important. I was able to fix the issue with stacking and toppers just by increasing their values, I'll look into this more.
The toppers have clan-specific icons on their bottom, which are wilds. I explain this, but people get so hung up on the colors matching their poles. There is no yellow, purple, blue, or teal bases, but players are still expecting to match those topper bottoms, so I'm going to make them white, which is what the wilds are for the middle pole ancestors. I give up the ghost on this one lol.
You don't need dem actions
Being able to use both actions on buying Trolltem Poles created an interesting effect. It made it where players had to skip a turn of buying to get a hand of 6 cards again. The ancestors that allowed an extra action lost some value because of this. To address this, I'll make an ancestor blessing that gives +3 cards to help.
Goodbye to Divine Interventions
The Divine Interventions didn't pop up enough to be interesting, and the extra actions they provided were either too confusing to remember or weren't as effective as intended. I'll use this free space for the new +3 cards blessing.
Final thoughts on Trolltem Polls
Trolltem Poles has seen a lot of changes, and I think the game is nearly there. That being said, I might need to do one more Protospiel with Trolltem Poles with all the above-mentioned changes before a Kickstarter release is eminent. I'm pretty excited to move forward with my little thinky party game.
KINGDOMS OF IMMACUS
Last but not least, the big papa. Kingdoms is a beast, and I approached this Protospiel differently than the previous. I did a reduced game, cut down on some explanations, and highlighted the fun parts of the game. I only wanted players to give me some feedback about how the game made them feel, and I got some great feedback in this respect.
Many pathways to victory
Some of the best feedback I received for Kingdoms of Immacus was how much the player liked the multiple paths to victory. They do not like games Magic the Gathering, and they liked Kingdoms, which was great to hear! That was the intention of Kingdoms to begin with. Give players, who do not like the combat-only gameplay of Magic something completely different. It was great to hear I am on the right victory path so to speak.
Asymmetric gameplay is the most important
I think the biggest compliment a game designer can get is when a playtester asks to play the game again after finishing. A player said they wanted to play again with a different race to see how they play since the game styles are asymmetrical.
The excitement to try how each race plays differently has given me the confidence to really lean into the asymmetric aspects of the game. I'm going to go back into the cards and tweak them to focus heavily onto what makes each race different.
Simplify card abilities
One thing I noticed is some cards are too mechanic-heavy for Kingdoms. If Kingdoms was only combat card play, complicated cards make sense, but since there is so much stuff going on on the field, it makes so much more sense to go simple. Quick simple abilities that don't take multiple turns to occur is where I need to lean to moving forward.
Retooling buildings for less tokens
Jacob and I are always talking on the sidelines about ways to improve games as we watch playtesters play. One thing we noticed is how many tokens there are on the board. This was intended, but I think we can clean that up with a couple of buildings. The barracks produces a unit on the board, but it is cleaner if it just does a damage. The masonry produces walls, but it's cleaner to just prevent the damage from a source. Little things like that clean up the noise.
Another idea is treating the buildings like the principalities where the cards flip to level 2, 3, and 4 etc. I can pair levels 1+2 on one side and levels 3+4 on the other and that eliminates some tokens. I think all these little things add up. Kingdoms of Immacus is not beyond the pale with the token count, but I want to make it as clean as possible.
Final thoughts on Kingdoms of Immacus
Kingdoms of Immacus was always going to be a giant dragon to slay. I'm happy where the game is mechanically, so now it's a matter of capturing the essence of the game the best way possible with the cards themselves. We'll get there, as the art slowly moves forward.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON PROTOSPIEL
This took a lot longer to write than expected, but a lot has happened! Would I go again? Totally! Even without an ideal amount of playtesters, playtesting with designers and playing their games only helps me grow as a designer. I received so much valuable information over the course of the event and met so many great designers, I am looking forward to my next Protospiel.