What does a tiny game design company do in order to get high quality feedback on a new game they are developing? Why, go to Metatopia of course!
So I'm working on my new game, A Cool and Lonely Courage, and wondering how best to test it out as I don't have a large pool of local friends who have much experience with the genre of Story RPGs in the UK.
However, I was chatting with a Boston based friend, Kevin Kulp, and he told me about Metatopia - run by Double Exposure. It is a convention which focuses on new work in the board game, Larp (live action role playing) and rpg fields. Designers bring along their ideas for alpha tests, their work in progress for beta tests and sometimes even just run focus groups to discuss thoughts about something. In addition to that there are a number of panels run by attendees. One of your runs is designated a 'high test' and everyone around the table will be a designer who can give you really high quality feedback about your game. As Kevin put it, every time he brought a game to Metatopia with a problem, the people there solved it for him. He couldn't speak highly enough of the event.
Now I don't mind admitting that I find big events intimidating. Even more so when I've got to fly across the Atlantic and attend in a foreign country. But I was keenly aware of the need to give my new game a broader exposure. I thought it had a pretty sound core to it, and my local testing went well, but would it stand up to games with people who didn't know me? I decided that I ought to bite the bullet and give it a go, and I'm very glad that I did. Friends who were going helped me with everything practical, for which I'm very grateful. And while at Metatopia I was introduced to many people who were all kind and welcoming, and made me feel less like a foreigner, less like an imposter than I normally would have done.
So I'd like to talk a bit about the games which I playtested for other people (which were amazing), and a bit about the playtesting experience for my own game (which was more helpful than my wildest dreams).
by Thorny Games
I loved the movie 'Arrival' and this game sets out to let you play that movie, kind of. In the two hour slot we couldn't play all through the game, and I'm really curious to find out how the end game works out. What we did play really piqued my interest though.
Their website describes the game like this:
It's five minutes in the future and we've just made first contact. In Xenolanguage, you are a linguist tasked with deciphering an alien language. As you gain fluency, you begin to see the world differently.
The four of us each played a scientist - the mathematician, the biologist, the psychologist and the linguist. We each also took an additional psychological 'role' as well. These cards had some questions which gave us an idea of the characters world view and some things which are troubling them.
They have a fascinating mechanism to allow for asking questions and getting a response from aliens - discs under a pane of glass with odd symbols on them, and other discs which we have that we eventually placed under the glass too as we taught the aliens some of our concepts. A glass lens on top of the pane of glass acted like a little planchette, and the random movement across the symbols allowed us to interpret the aliens answers to our questions.
At the start of the game I, the linguist, disliked the biologist. She was in her sixties and was looking after her son who was crippled by an opiate addiction. twenty years earlier she had been my supervisor and advised me to break off my relationship and not have children because they only bring pain. Now I was in my forties and felt my biological clock ticking and no possibility of children on the horizon - something I blamed her for. As the game progressed, we learned from the aliens new concepts of superposition of realities and circular time, and I realised that the decisions of twenty years ago that seemed to have closed off part of my life may not have been final ones after all.
The core mechanism was strong and the development of the game was intriguing. There were some minor bits of feedback that we were able to provide and I really look forward to seeing the next iteration and especially the finished article.
by Betsy Rosenblatt
I make no bones about the enjoyment I had as a kid of the childrens adventure stories. In the UK it was things like Enid Blytons Famous Five and Secret Seven mysteries which were my jam. Betsy brought along an early stage of her game 'The Solvers' which allows you to play children unravelling a mystery of exactly that genre, and it does it beautifully.
Each player was given an archetype. Among our team we had The Bookworm, The Explorer, The Silver Spoon, The One Who Is Not From Around Here, The Sporty One and one who wanted to be a reporter. I played The One Who Is Not From Around Here (who was French). As we introduced our characters we all mentioned a place where we like to hang out, and these were written on index cards and put on the table.
We had an initiating event (I think ours was "THAT isn't a mouse!") and as we each had scenes (with genre-appropriate names obtained by rolling on a table) we introduced people, more places and clues (all of which went on index cards on the table) and we did little role-play sessions for the scenes. As we progressed it seemed as though a story was naturally developing - the 'bad boy' in the leather jacket was fired from the soda fountain because of stuff going missing. The Silver Spoon liked him and followed him to his home on the wrong side of the tracks, and overheard him with his big brother, recently out of prison! They heard her, and kidnapped her, but the other solvers found clues and traced her to the derelict harbour masters house - where they were all captured! However, the bookworm wriggled free, we realised that the kidnapping was to persuade the Silver Spoons wealthy father to throw a case against a notorious blackmailer. I tricked someone into confessing, we escaped via the caves, found the blackmailers notes and were able to see the plot foiled. Hurrah!
The game had bags of atmosphere, and the rules and prompts made it very easy to play 'in genre'. Six players made it harder than normal to keep everyone involved together, but since players all made an effort to make sure that everyone was involved that all worked out. The very final stage where some clues are 'real' and some clues are 'red herrings' was the part where I think Betsy will be doing some more work to help it run more smoothly (in our game the current process took out some of the clues which had seemed to form a coherent story that we were working towards).
I look forward to seeing what the next stage of this game brings. I think it could prove to be an excellent introductory game for children as well as being fun for adults. Who wouldn't want to be playing characters drawn from their favourite story books?
I'll provide a link to additional information as it becomes available.
Thousand Year Old Vampire
by Tim Hutchings
This is an intriguing solo game and we were trying a multiplayer variant for this playtest. It was an active Kickstarter during metatopia and I'm pleased that I decided to back it!
The basic premise of the game is that immortal vampires live a long, long time. But human brains can only contain so many memories, so many experiences. Your life as a vampire contains moments of sanity and extended periods when the monster inside you takes over. You roll two dice +1d10 -1d6 to gradually move your way through the workbook. As you do this you confirm and gain new skills, gain and lose resources, and gain and lose mortal relationships. Every stage gives you a new experience attached to a memory. But there's the rub. Once all your memory slots are full up, you have to erase them as newer memories arrive and overwrite them! So do you give up your childhood memories of your father, the comeradeship of your friends or the moment you became a vampire? Hundreds of years later you have become adrift from your past. You might still have the amulet of osiris but haven't got the foggiest idea why.
The multiplayer variant which we tested essentially meant that we all started in the same time period (ancient Egypt) and had the potential to know each other. We all became vampires at around the same time, and when our story information called for involvement with a mortal or immortal we could use one of our own or one belonging to any of the other players. If a law was passed that inconvenienced us, one of the other players could name that law. In this way the five vampire stories we played interweaved with one another.
The game is an amazing solo game right there. The multiplayer version certainly seems like it has potential. I think our feedback was largely around being interested in how the multiple players could be encouraged to interact with each other more, and build more interesting stories together.
The kickstarter is past, but I think that is probably as good a place as any for finding out more information about this fun game.
Gather: Children of the Evertree
by Stephen Dewey of Cavalry Games
This is a lovely card-based game which allows a group of people to build a world as they speak for their kinships. The website describes the game like this:
The Gather has come again, and a Speaker has been chosen by each Kinship to travel the vastness of the Evertree so that they can attend the annual meeting. The Gather is a place to share the affairs of the previous year and to speak of the months to come. It is a time for announcement and declaration, to share knowledge, to learn of dangers and opportunities, or to scorn those who have brought war. However, this meeting is not an easy one - steeped as it is in ritual and requirement.
The game is based on the ritual of cards being drawn and read in turn. This playtest was including the teaching of the game as part of the first stage of the ritual gather. It's a lovely idea, and so different to having a pamphlet of rules to read about how to play. It establishes the setting, the rituals of the gather and allows you to experiment with a first question before progressing further into the game.
Each player had to come up with the name of their kinships and around the table ours included the Rot Keepers, the Arrows, the Ritual, the Dreamdrinkers, the First Branch, the Deep Seekers the Butterflys of the Canopy and others. The rituals of the game mean that questions and answers are a limited resource - you offer and receive tokens to hear what someone has to say and to ask further questions. If you have no tokens, you must remain silent until the next question.
During our game we established among other things that the kinship which takes in the outcasts was several orders of magnitude larger than any of the others, that the wealthy Deep Seekers and First Branch wanted to pay for their labour while keeping them down; that the dreamdrinkers were actually drinking the souls of our dearly departed, the Butterflys of the Canopy produce prophetic pollen but people rarely listen and that there was a civil war years ago when the Arrows refused to take down the First Branch when they should have done so!
We squeezed so much into two hours, and it was huge fun. Nobody was without conversation tokens for long because everyone was quite generous with them and acted very inclusively. It would be interesting to see whether the game breaks if players are not so kind to one another (although normally I would expect that people would play collaboratively). Introducing the rules as part of the initial ritual was a great concept, although several of us found that our brains couldn't keep up with the memory dump of the process - only when we started the first example question did it start to make sense.
One of the things that I noticed was that it was very easy for me to accidentally give quite a 'closed' answer to questions I was asked, which discouraged asking of further questions. Being able to give 'open' answers that invite other questions is an important skill for the game.
Great fun, and I look forward to seeing the finished article and playing a whole game.
Fiasco in a box
by Jason Morningstar
I've heard of Fiasco and watched it being played on Tabletop (with Wil Wheaton) but I've never had the opportunity to play it. Well, there was an opportunity many years ago, but it seemed a bit frightening and 'out there' at the time!
"Fiasco in a box" is the current codename, so that's what I'll call it here. The playtest I was in was aimed at people who hadn't played it before (tick!) and Jason was just going to watch us puzzle out the rules and play the game - to see which bits made sense to us and where we struggled or got things wrong.
Rather than a rules booklet, index cards, sharpies and dice (so. many. dice.) this does everything with cards.
We used the 'mall' playset, and I found the visual placement of the cards on the table helped me keep in mind the relationships between each of the characters and the two key needs which pairs of the characters had. Going round the table I think the relationships were something like "divorced but still together", "secretly planning something big", "shopkeeper and shoplifter" and "parent and stepchild". We came up with terrible plans, implemented awfully and it was a complete Fiasco (in a good way).
Watching us, it was apparent that there were some places where we had done things wrong - and this was consistent with evidence from other similar playtests. So I imagine that there is a deal of rule explanation tuning to be completed before it finally sees the light of day. This is definitely on my list of games to buy though.
Playtesting of A Cool and Lonely Courage
I was able to run four playtests over the weekend, the second of which was a high-test but all of which were valuable to me. The two hour slots meant that it was impossible to play a full game. In each case we played four out of seven possible stages, and only the first stage was actually role-played out - the three remaining stages were done in narrative style so that we had time to get to our conclusion.
I have to say that even with those limitations, the game ran better than I had hoped it would. The impact of the stories that the players told was quite intense, and encompassed the lonely courage of the women working for the SOE. For the second through fourth games I didn't play but acted as a facilitator and even so by Saturday evening I was feeling emotionally a bit tender after the cumulative effect of the stories.
Some comments I received (I'll attribute them if I get permission from the people concerned)
"It was my most affecting game of the Con"
"It's a deeply emotional game. I had a hard choice to make at the end for my character
"I have been playing this unforgettable story in my head since Metatopia"
I received some really useful feedback directly after the sessions from players, as well as from my observations of people playing the game. In some cases it was about a change of wording to reinforce the 'lonely' nature of the flashbacks with which the story is told. In other cases it was some practical considerations to help each persons story build well.
Wanting to strike while the iron is hot, I've amended the rules in light of all the varied feedback which I received already, and I'm getting ready to send it out into the world for some more playtesting.
If you'd like to know more there will be a number of posts on this site tagged with Lonely Courage which will include some brief write-ups of some of the stories which were told at Metatopia this year shortly. They can be found here:
Thanks for reading!