Playing with Purpose: The Value of Game Design Meetups

Last night, I attended the latest board game design and prototype meetup held by the Game Makers Guild, a local consortium of tabletop designers and developers. It’s a great opportunity to share new ideas, and to get feedback on your current designs. With that said, there are a few things to keep in mind when participating in this kind of an event as opposed to bringing your latest design to your friends’ board game night.

The meeting process

For about 3 hours every other week, designers in the Boston area gather at a predetermined meeting space in Boston or Cambridge to play and critique new game designs. About 20-30 people typically turn out, with a handful of designers bringing the latest iterations of their in-progress board games. The designers each share their name, their game, a quick description, play time and player count, along with any particular feedback they’re looking for.

List of games

Recording all the games designers have brought.

Some designers are bringing back a game that was tested at previous meetings. Typically, if your game was played last meeting, you give priority to other designers. That way, everyone gets feedback and there’s a healthy rotation of games for players to try.

The night is typically broken into two halves, based on the play lengths of games. If there is a game that will take all three hours, it will span both sections of the evening, but most attendees end up playing at least two games in a night. After playing, the playtesters will give any thoughts they have, which is usually very constructive criticism, with plenty of ideas on things to add, cut or adjust. From there, what you do with the critiques is up to you.

The benefits of a prototype meetup

The Game Makers Guild in Boston is the first of its kind I’ve ever attended. The burgeoning video game scene in Boston makes a natural environment for tabletop game designers to come together as well. Obviously, there are events like Unpub and Protospiel that exist as well, but those feel more like “events” rather than recurring meetings. As a result, Game Makers Guild feels unique in that you have a relatively consistent group to bring your design to month after month, to get more informed opinions on your game.

It’s also nice to be able to present your game to other designers. It means there is a little more acceptance for games that are still rough around their edges, or don’t have the graphical polish in place quite yet. In addition, you’ll get opinions from other people who think like you do about games. A player is less likely to be upset that they had an unlucky draw, and will be more likely to advise you that the balance of good-to-bad cards in a deck may be off. This sort of mindset helps promote more constructive criticism that you can actually use.

Playtesting a game

A group of designers playtest a new game.

While the group is like-minded, they are also a neutral party to share your game with. Everyone is friendly, but the relationship is about professional respect. You’re going to get honest feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. Where your friends or family may not point out something for fear of hurting your feelings, the prototype meetup members will point out what’s not working in order to help you perfect your design.

A couple things to be aware of

While there are definite advantages to sharing your game with a group of designers, there are also insights you may be missing out on. Designers are more likely to be able to see the potential of a game, so they’ll be less likely to point out a lack of finish, or won’t be bothered by the fact that your components aren’t the highest quality. Don’t mistake their acceptance for approval. The same components could totally throw a non-designer’s experience, ruining a playtest for you.

Secondly, be aware that you are showing your game to people who also design games. That means they are going to have ideas, even when you don’t necessarily need them. You might have a mechanic that works fine as it is, but we are all tinkerers, and will have ideas that might make that mechanic better. Emphasis on might. Take all advice you get with the well-meaning spirit in which it was offered, but be aware that you don’t need to make every change that’s recommended. While it’s great to get an educated, outside perspective, no one knows your game like you do. What’s being suggested might be something you had to throw out three iterations ago for good reason. Stick to your guns when you need to.

From prototypes to publishing

The Game Makers Guild started as a place for designers to playtest each other’s games, but the group has much bigger plans for the future. Once a game has been playtested and perfected (well, as close to perfect as any board game can be), the next step for most designers is to publish.

Game setup

Some games have more component than others. (Source: meetup.com)

With that in mind, the Boston organization plans to set up additional resources for aspiring designers in 2014, including advice on finding publishers or self-publishing, best practices for crowdfunding, a curation process for recognizing the top games produced by the group, and building a portfolio of game designs to approach reviewers and publishers with. While the core of the group remains dedicated to providing playtesting opportunities, those looking to take their creative endeavors to the public will find invaluable assistance available to them through the group.

Playtesters wanted!

One other great thing about these meetups is the number of playtesters who come. Like I said before, there are 20-30 people at each of these meetings, with a handful (maybe 10) designers. That means 10-20 people are there “just to play” (this usually gets followed by a round of applause from the group). If you don’t have a game, you’re still welcome to come, usually more welcome because more players means more things get playtested. If you’re a gamer who hasn’t quite taken the leap into design, but have been thinking about it, I highly recommend stopping by a designers’ meetup. They’ll be happy to see you!

Summing up

If you’re an aspiring game designer, I cannot emphasize the value of a game designers’ meetup enough. I don’t know if other groups that meet as regularly as the Game Makers Guild exist. If not, I’d recommend finding other designers near you and starting a group – just for the opportunity to playtest each other’s games to start, though eventually developing a . You’ll get insights from other people who are trying to push the envelope on game design just like you, and they can help you find whole new directions to push in.

For more information on the Boston Game Makers Guild, visit meetup.com/Game-Makers-Guild or search “Game Makers Guild” on Facebook

(Featured image courtesy of meetup.com)


3 thoughts on “Playing with Purpose: The Value of Game Design Meetups

  1. I’ve attended the meetings a few times and I have to agree, the circle is amazing and very helpful. I’ve missed the last couple meetings but I hope to come again soon!

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