The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

ProtoSpiele

The New Penny Angels

September, 2001

The first annual Protospiele was held on July 26-29, 2001 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Protospiele is a convention intended for amateur board and card game designers. Our goal, as a group, was to provide each other with valuable feedback regarding our various designs. The fact of the matter is that it can be very difficult for game designers to get competent playtesters. Family and friends are usually available, but the quality of the feedback is compromised due to several things, mostly from the desire to avoid hurt feelings. Face it, neither your best friends nor your mother are likely to tell you that your game, frankly, stinks. And even if you're surrounded by an army of dedicated gamers, it may be difficult to find those who will play your prototype even once. Much less those who will play it multiple times to help you work out the kinks and bugs. Of course, if your name is Knizia, Kramer, or Moon these may not be issues you've had to face recently.

So Protospiele was born. The germ of the idea actually came after I attended Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends. I've only been to three of them, but even so I've noticed that the number of prototypes brought has risen substantially each year. The fact that several of the big name game companies are represented there year after year plays no small part in this. The Gathering of Friends started out as just that—a small group of friends who gathered each year to play their favorite games. As the Gathering has grown, it has evolved as a social event and as an opportunity for aspiring game designers. The mating call of the amateur designer, "Wanna play my prototype?" has grown louder each year. When I was studying for my English degree, every professor and student I knew had a novel or screenplay they were working on. It's become the same with hardcore gamers (the type who will spend nine straight days gaming)—virtually everyone, it would seem, has a prototype.

This got me to thinking, what if there was a convention for which the sole purpose was to showcase and playtest nothing but prototypes? It would be a place for designers to come share their ideas with other designers. This would not be the place to come play the latest Knizia, Kramer, or Moon. However, this might be the place to come discover the next Knizia, Kramer, or Moon.

The idea bounced around in my head for months until it gradually grew wings … and flew away. I didn't really give it much thought again until the following February when I was running Rio Grande demos for Jay Tummelson at Prezcon in Charlottesville, Virginia. There I met two aspiring game designers, Gregory Daigle and Dominic Crapuchettes. They had each brought their prototypes; Tumbleweed and Port Yugee's Rebellion, respectively. Of course I was delighted to try them. I enjoy a finished game just as much as the next guy, but I also love peeking under the hood at someone's prototype, and the thought-process involved in trying to make a game work. Naturally, I pulled out my own prototype as well. We played each of our games. Then we sat around and discussed them. And it was amazing. None of us could believe the incredible feedback we were getting from just one playtest. Unlike playing with family or friends, where the comments range all the way from, "it's okay" to "it's pretty good", here we were getting well-developed and reasoned responses to our designs. It was at this moment that I started thinking about a convention for designers. Without thinking too long about it, I mentioned it to Gregory and Dominic... and they loved the idea. Wow, this actually seemed do-able!

When I got back home I wrote to my friend, Mike Petty, about my activities in Charlottesville. Mike is, as you might have guessed, an aspiring game designer. I "met" him via his game website on which he had published some of his game ideas online. We later designed a game together, via e-mail, entitled TreeO. I had actually discussed the convention idea with him months earlier but the dialogue really hadn't gone anywhere. Now I brought it up again with renewed enthusiasm. His enthusiasm was rekindled as well and in the following weeks the four of us kept in contact via e-mail and put together the meager enterprise that would eventually be known as Protospiele.

The first considerations were, naturally, when? And where? Since two of us (Mike and I) are teachers, summer seemed the obvious answer. The only problem here was that the big gaming conventions (WBC, GenCon, Origins) are also held in the summer. There would be no way we could compete against those behemoths. So, we didn't try. We picked a date on which we four would be available, and left it at that. The next consideration would be the location of the event. Charlottesville seemed reasonable since Dominic lived there, Gregory had a brother who lived there, and I was only three hours away. Unfortunately, this left a 12-hour drive for Mike, who was coming in from Michigan. To his credit, he never said one word about it.

Since Protospiele would be held in Dominic's backyard, he happily offered to scout locations for us to meet. He eventually settled on the Main Branch of Charlottesville's Public Library. This had the double benefit of not only being roomy and comfortable, but free! Perfect! Dominic also scouted hotels for us out-of-towners and found us close, reasonable accommodations. What a guy! I may have provided the idea behind Protospiele, but Dominic is the one who practically put it together single-handedly. For this I will always be grateful.

Next, we put together a mailing list and began our small campaign of informing the gaming public of our idea. We posted invitations to mailing lists and newsgroups. We got a lot of interest, a few nibbles, but ultimately no bites. This made a lot of sense, actually. I can imagine people being unable or unwilling to spend the time and money for an unproven event such as ours. And, to be honest, we weren't looking for Protospiele 2001 to be a huge success, anyway. We had nothing formal arranged. There was no schedule to speak of. I imagine it was much like the modest origins of the Gathering of Friends so many years ago. Just throw a group of people together who all love the same things—and see what happens.

This is what happened:

Protospiele 2001 attendees
l to r: Mike Petty, Terry Carr, Dominic Crapuchettes, ???, Stephen Glenn, Gregory Daigle

As it turns out, I was actually the last one to arrive. I walked into the library meeting room and greeted my esteemed associates: Dominic Crapuchettes, Gregory Daigle, Mike Petty, and Mike's friend, Terry Carr. Mike and Terry were old friends who had recently designed a game together. After getting acquainted we started the meeting with an extended discussion of the future of Protospiele—what we thought it should be, how it should be run, etc. The results of these talks will be revealed when the invitations for Protospiele 2002 are sent out. On with the games...

Magic Stones

Magic Stones

This was a set-collecting game designed by Mike and Terry. This game is apparently in its rather early stages, but there are some promising ideas here. Basically, each player is investing in stone combinations that allow them to perform certain spells on themselves or the other players. Mike and Terry admitted that the game still had a lot of work to be done on it, particularly the balancing of the spells. I've never personally designed a game that had multitudes of special, individual powers, so I can only imagine the logistical nightmare of making sure no one power is more powerful than another, either by itself or in conjunction with another spell. This seems to be Mike's specialty, however, and as a math teacher he's probably got the goods to pull it off. Terry's programming skills might also come in handy. Ya think?

Tumbleweed

Tumbleweed

Next we had Gregory Daigle's game of the wild, wild west—but you probably could have guessed that from the title, no? This prototype got lots of positive feedback at this year's Prezcon in Virginia. Greg has designed a game that is positively oozing in theme and flavor. A lot of this has to do with Greg's amazing production talent. Every prototype he brought drew gasps from the crowd—his games looked just as good as they played. The objective in Tumbleweed was to impress Penelope, the daughter of a wealthy local cattle rancher. Naturally, the way to Penelope's heart is to show off a prowess in shooting, roping and riding. And you need to buy her stuff. Finally, make sure she doesn't catch you gambling or drinking. We all really had a fine time with Tumbleweed. The game just begs you to play act in your best cowboy accent.

Port Yugee's Rebellion

Port Yugee's Rebellion

Dominic Crapuchettes has spent, and I quote, "hundreds and hundreds of hours" working on this design, and believe me, it shows. With all of the great prototypes we saw this weekend, this one was the most developed and I think everyone would agree that if we awarded a BEST IN SHOW AWARD, this game would get it. Port Yugee's Rebellion is a political resource management game, and a damn fine one with several paths to victory and precious little luck. During the course of the game the players must call elections in various cities on the board, making sure, of course, that they can drum up the support they need to pull off a victory. I'd be very surprised (and disappointed) if this one didn't find a publisher soon. Oh, and this one just looked great! I should put as much time into the aesthetics of my prototypes as Dominic and Greg do. Wow.

TreeO

This is the three-player cardgame that I designed via e-mail with Mike Petty. Dom, Greg and I got a chance to play this one after Mike and Terry bowed out to get some much-needed rest (they had driven 12 hours to get to Protospiele). This game actually has two different sets of winning conditions—one for the basic game and one for the "advanced" game. The advanced game requires that the winning player's score be between the scores of the other two players: neither highest or lowest. It was generally agreed that this would necessarily result in close games that were determined mostly by luck. The basic game had the standard highest score wins rule. Not that it matters, since I've been told that no one wants to publish a three-player game.

The UnNamed Game

Designed by Committee. We wanted to start off with something light Friday morning, so I was more than happy to offer a light building game that I'd been working on. In fact, I had worked out an almost entirely new set of rules in the car on the drive up. Needless to say, the game was plagued by lots of starts and stops while we made up the rules as we played. I dunno, there might be something there.

King for a Day

King For a Day

This was Mike Petty's "big" cardgame. There is lots of bidding and trading and building going on here (including a pretty unique feature that I'd rather not reveal). In fact, you could probably call King for a Day a Settlers-like multi-player card game and not be far from the truth. We were so engrossed in this game that, when we got booted out of our meeting spot halfway through the game, we all insisted that we pack up everything "as is" and finish the game at a local restaurant. The highest praise I can offer for King for a Day: 9 out of 10 times when I play a game, no matter how much fun I had, I'd rather not play it again immediately. After playing King for a Day, however, I was ready to go again. Unusual for me.

Sector 7 (a.k.a. Alan Moon's Gathering of Data)

Greg Daigle pulled out another one of his gorgeous prototypes while we were having drinks at the restaurant. This is one he'd been working on but wasn't quite "there" with. It was a space game so we were all immediately enthralled. After hearing the rules we immediately subtitled it "Alan Moon's Gathering of Data". This made even more sense given the fact that the game is played on the moon. Each player is building towers on the surface of the moon in order to collect alien data. Of course, you're just as likely to pick up static as something useful. The game uses a collection mechanism that is reminiscent of Sid Sackson's Bazaar. However, unlike the Sackson classic, Sector 7 has a viable and engaging theme.

Jet Set

Jet Set

Gregory had to excuse himself after we enjoyed dinner, so the remaining four of us went to one of my favorite places, Barnes and Noble, to play one of my quickie cardgames, Jet Set. The game takes literally ten minutes to play, but I was stunned to hear Dominic say that he really liked it. Well, not stunned, maybe, but the fact of the matter is that Dom is a strategy master. He was a chess tournament winner when he was young and was the Magic: The Gathering Virginia Champion not too long ago. Jet Set is a pretty light little cardgame that I designed for ages 8 and up. One of my heroes, Wolfgang Kramer, has a special talent for designing "kid" games that can be enjoyed by adults. This was my goal with Jet Set. It can easily be played by children, but the fact that Dominic saw some strategic elements gives me hope that I'm on the right path.

La Mano Nera (The Black Hand)

The Black Hand

This is my attempt at a negotiation/back-stabbing game. I was a little (no, a lot) nervous about showing it to this crowd seeing as though I've only been working on it for about three months. The best thing about this session was that there was a lot of laughter during the game. That's one thing I was really shooting for. In my ongoing education as a game-designer, I've noticed that my games don't provoke many smiles. Do they work? Maybe. Is there opportunity for strategy? Perhaps. Do players have fun playing them? It doesn't appear so. Until now. I think we all had some laughs playing this game. I got some excellent suggestions from the peanut gallery and I know I have a much stronger game now.

All in all, I was very pleased with our sessions (even though I greatly wish we had more time—three days was not quite enough). The majority of feedback I got from the other attendees indicated that the sessions were very productive. I know for me it was a breath of fresh air to live and breathe game design for such an extended period. It's hard enough for me to find people that like to game as much as I do—it's even harder for me to find designers with like interests. Plus, as well as being productive, it was just plain fun. We had a great group of guys there. Everyone's perspective on game design was slightly different—nay sometimes they were completely opposite—but it was helpful getting feedback from so many angles. I can imagine in the next few months when new ideas for games start forming in my head, I'll wonder to myself: "What would Mike think of this?", "What would Dominic do in this situation?", "How would Greg handle this problem?", "Would Terry think there was too much luck?"... and so on.

After playing some of the prototypes offered this weekend I was simply in awe. I sat in the same room with some extremely talented individuals. I couldn't help but think that some of those people might someday be part of the future of game design.

- The New Penny Angels

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