Dev Diary: 09/22/17

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

Cross-posted from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Highways & Byways is nearly complete. It still needs some art and I’ll want to do lots of double-blind play-testing. Yet I don’t see it dramatically deviating from the framework it currently follows. The subtlest of tweaks are all that’s needed at this point.

Since I have 4-5 months before launching a Kickstarter campaign and the game is mostly complete, my main focus is elegantly drawing attention. This is somewhat of a mysterious process for a lot of game developers, as I pointed out in my article this week: A Crash Course in Board Game Marketing & Promotion. There is no shortage of fantastic ways to market and promote your game without spending a dime. Yet I’d be remiss if I taught you to dismiss entirely the many tools available to you that cost money.

 

 

Paying for marketing and promotion can dramatically speed up the process, opening up entirely new doors for you. A lot of new game developers outright dismiss the possibility of paying for marketing since a lot of other parts of game development cost money. That’s a mistake. Even if money is a constraint, time and energy are bigger, more permanent constraints. Anything you can automate or outsource to save time at least deserves your consideration.

With that in mind, I’d like to share 4 clever ways to market your game for $30.00.

 

4 Clever Ways to Market Your Board Game Online for $30.00

 

1. Order a Targeted Social Media Report from BirdSong Analytics

BirdSong Analytics sells Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube reports for $29.99. These reports give you all sorts of useful data, the most important of which is probably followers and followings. In addition, these reports can be run on anybody – you or any popular social media user. That means you can export the followers of a popular board game account to get a list of people who might be interested in what you do. That lets you know who to make friends with.

Information will come to you in the form of a CSV. That means you can open up the raw list in Excel, turn the data into a table, and start filtering by phrases. For example, from a list of 50,000 of someone’s Instagram followers, you can get a list of all people who use the words “board games”, “tabletop games”, and so on in their bio. Then you can make an effort to make friends with them.

 

2. Run a Facebook ad campaign for 15 days at $2/Day

Facebook ads are some of the most effective advertising methods around today. You can use them to get Facebook likes, promote posts, generate email sign-ups, and even get clicks on your website. You can do them for as little as $1 per day, too.

Facebook ads are not something that you get into halfway. You need to commit to running an ad for at least a week to watch its performance. You’ll need to make subtle tweaks to your ad and your audience to make sure you get the best result possible.

This kind of advertising is super effective because of two things. First, you can target people based on the pages they like, sometimes requiring them to like multiple pages that you specify before they can see your ad. That lets you zero in on the absolute perfect person to see your ads. Then once you launch the ad, you’ll get nearly immediate feedback on how well the ad is performing.

 

3. Run a Google AdWords campaign for 15 days at $2/Day

Likewise, you can run a Google AdWords campaign in a way that’s very similar to Facebook ads. You can pick super specific search terms and make sure your website shows up at the top or near the top of the search results in the sponsored section. You can tailor your ads to perfectly respond to the search terms you choose.

As with Facebook, much of the magic here is that you can target really specifically. You want to pick obscure search terms, making sure that people will still click them, though. For example “make board game” is a better search term than “board game” for my site. When people search for the magic words, you give them an ad that’s tailor made for their interests.

 

4. Send Emails to up to 2,500 Subscribers through MailChimp for $30/Month

Email is one of the most effective forms of marketing online. Yes, even in 2017. In fact, a healthy plurality of my traffic comes from email clicks. As it turns out, Mailchimp provides a fantastic service for free, as long as your mailing list is under 2,000 subscribers. It’s what I use for my email campaigns since it helps me make pretty newsletters without a lot of hassle or technical knowledge.

If you exceed the 2,000 subscriber limit for free accounts, then you have to start paying and costs gradually rise from there. For $30/month, you can send emails to a mailing list of up to 2,500 people several times per month. If you’re selling something and even a small fraction of your mailing list buys, you pay for Mailchimp’s fees many times over.

 

I encourage you to do your own research and experiment from time to time. Marketing and promotion online is quite dynamic and there are new ways to spread the word of your game every year. Use my ideas to give you a sense of where to start.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or stories from your own experiments, please share below in the comments 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • Highways & Byways is going to be ready for double blind play-testing as soon as I get some vehicle art. Everything’s ready on my end, I just want a little more art first.
  • Highways & Byways is ready for physical prototyping pending that last bit of vehicle art.

Dev Diary: 09/15/2017

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Highways & Byways is nearly complete. It still needs some art and I’ll want to do lots of double-blind play-testing. Yet I don’t see it dramatically deviating from the framework it currently follows. The subtlest of tweaks are all that’s needed at this point.

Since I have 4-5 months before launching a Kickstarter campaign and the game is mostly complete, my main focus is elegantly drawing attention. This is somewhat of a mysterious process for a lot of game developers, as I pointed out in my article this week: A Crash Course in Board Game Marketing & Promotion. There is no shortage of fantastic ways to market and promote your game without spending a dime. Yet I’d be remiss if I taught you to dismiss entirely the many tools available to you that cost money.

 

 

Paying for marketing and promotion can dramatically speed up the process, opening up entirely new doors for you. A lot of new game developers outright dismiss the possibility of paying for marketing since a lot of other parts of game development cost money. That’s a mistake. Even if money is a constraint, time and energy are bigger, more permanent constraints. Anything you can automate or outsource to save time at least deserves your consideration.

With that in mind, I’d like to share 4 clever ways to market your game for $30.00.

 

4 Clever Ways to Market Your Board Game Online for $30.00

 

1. Order a Targeted Social Media Report from BirdSong Analytics

BirdSong Analytics sells Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube reports for $29.99. These reports give you all sorts of useful data, the most important of which is probably followers and followings. In addition, these reports can be run on anybody – you or any popular social media user. That means you can export the followers of a popular board game account to get a list of people who might be interested in what you do. That lets you know who to make friends with.

Information will come to you in the form of a CSV. That means you can open up the raw list in Excel, turn the data into a table, and start filtering by phrases. For example, from a list of 50,000 of someone’s Instagram followers, you can get a list of all people who use the words “board games”, “tabletop games”, and so on in their bio. Then you can make an effort to make friends with them.

 

2. Run a Facebook ad campaign for 15 days at $2/Day

Facebook ads are some of the most effective advertising methods around today. You can use them to get Facebook likes, promote posts, generate email sign-ups, and even get clicks on your website. You can do them for as little as $1 per day, too.

Facebook ads are not something that you get into halfway. You need to commit to running an ad for at least a week to watch its performance. You’ll need to make subtle tweaks to your ad and your audience to make sure you get the best result possible.

This kind of advertising is super effective because of two things. First, you can target people based on the pages they like, sometimes requiring them to like multiple pages that you specify before they can see your ad. That lets you zero in on the absolute perfect person to see your ads. Then once you launch the ad, you’ll get nearly immediate feedback on how well the ad is performing.

 

3. Run a Google AdWords campaign for 15 days at $2/Day

Likewise, you can run a Google AdWords campaign in a way that’s very similar to Facebook ads. You can pick super specific search terms and make sure your website shows up at the top or near the top of the search results in the sponsored section. You can tailor your ads to perfectly respond to the search terms you choose.

As with Facebook, much of the magic here is that you can target really specifically. You want to pick obscure search terms, making sure that people will still click them, though. For example “make board game” is a better search term than “board game” for my site. When people search for the magic words, you give them an ad that’s tailor made for their interests.

 

4. Send Emails to up to 2,500 Subscribers through MailChimp for $30/Month

Email is one of the most effective forms of marketing online. Yes, even in 2017. In fact, a healthy plurality of my traffic comes from email clicks. As it turns out, Mailchimp provides a fantastic service for free, as long as your mailing list is under 2,000 subscribers. It’s what I use for my email campaigns since it helps me make pretty newsletters without a lot of hassle or technical knowledge.

If you exceed the 2,000 subscriber limit for free accounts, then you have to start paying and costs gradually rise from there. For $30/month, you can send emails to a mailing list of up to 2,500 people several times per month. If you’re selling something and even a small fraction of your mailing list buys, you pay for Mailchimp’s fees many times over.

 

I encourage you to do your own research and experiment from time to time. Marketing and promotion online is quite dynamic and there are new ways to spread the word of your game every year. Use my ideas to give you a sense of where to start.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or stories from your own experiments, please share below in the comments 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • Highways & Byways is going to be ready for double blind play-testing as soon as I get some vehicle art. Everything’s ready on my end, I just want a little more art first.
  • Highways & Byways is ready for physical prototyping pending that last bit of vehicle art.

Dev Diary: 09/08/17

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

Cross-posted from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

This week with Highways & Byways, I’ve been making little improvements to the game to make it more usable and easy-to-understand. I’m at a stage where I’m optimizing instead of iterating, which makes me thankful for the extensive background in board gaming that I’ve gained in the last couple of years. Yet it has just been a couple of years – I’m not a lifelong board gamer. I wasn’t there when Catan came out in 1995. I built up my knowledge of board gaming quickly and inexpensively, two things I don’t think a lot of people think to do.

Playing a lot of board games is necessary to creating great board games. Playing games exposes you to mechanics and design trends. It helps you know what gamers like and how they interact. You learn what you find awesome and what you find annoying, and you come to have convictions about changing what you can change. I don’t take issue with the belief that you can benefit from playing a lot of games to be a good designer, I take issue with the invisible scripts people think they have to follow in order to play lots of games.

 

Photo taken by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner and posted to Flickr under the CC BY-SA 2.0 License (Source)

 

Before we get to how you play lots of board games with little time and little money, I’d like to put three myths in the ground right now.

First, you don’t have to play hundreds of board games before you start designing. In fact, I think the point of diminishing return is somewhere in the dozens before your own personal experimentation and experience teaches you more than broad exposure to games will. A lot of people, left to their own devices will use the pernicious myth of “I need to play more games” to defend their game dev procrastination.

Second, you don’t have to spend tons of time or money through Amazon shopping sprees or conventions to play lots of games. There are better ways that are more suited to the lifestyles of those with a limited amount of discretionary income. I’ve seen people with shelves of 500 games. That’s awesome and I love that they’re so dedicated to the hobby! Just understand that you don’t have to spend $15,000 on games like that gamer to be a good game dev.

Third, the board gaming hobby doesn’t have to be for the upper middle class like a lot of people make it out to be. In fact, this bothers me a lot. I see gamers making fun of gamers for not having the newest $100 game and it makes me raw. Gaming shouldn’t exclude people because board gaming is intrinsically social and cannot benefit from in-groups and out-groups. If you’re an aspiring game dev, avoid snobbery. 

This all brings me to the crux of this Dev Diary entry…

 

How to Play a Lot of Board Games with Little Time and Little Money

 

Broadly speaking, I can think of three ways that you can play a lot of board games without much time or money commitment. To become a good game developer, your goal should be to play a wide variety of games. That means you’ll want to play games that are new and old, for large groups and small groups, and ones that have all sorts of different mechanics. Each of these three ways should enable you to do that.

Method #1: Go to Meetup.com and create an account. Search for board game related events in your community. Odds are good that if you live in or near a moderately populated urban center, you’ll find multiple board gaming groups. I personally live in Chattanooga, TN, which barely cracks the top 100 populated metropolitan areas in the United States and there is no shortage of meetup groups near me.

Method #2: Go to a local board gaming store. If you don’t have one, you might be able to find a video game store or comic shop that also carries board games. Odds are very strong that if you find a place near you that sells hobby board games, they’ll have meet-ups every week or every two weeks where you can play the board games in the store. All you have to do is look them up on Google and give them a call.

Method #3: Let’s say for example that you live in a remote place like the desert of Nevada. There are no meet-up groups or game shops for a hundred miles in any direction. As long as you still have a broadband connection, you can download Tabletop Simulator, a $19.99 Steam game, that will enable you to play board games online. You can then find other players by searching around in the Server Browser. Better yet, you can find Facebook groups that coordinate Tabletop Sim games. Not only will this tool allow you to play lots of games cheaply and from the comfort of your home, but it will also give you the ability to play other designers’ prototypes if they make them available on Tabletop Sim.

 

Like I was saying earlier this week in 5 Games to Make You a Better Board Game Dev for $64.63, it doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to get started in board gaming. Sometimes it helps just to have a sense of direction, and I’m happy to provide that 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m experimenting with new components on Tabletop Simulator. This lets me approximate size, color, and shape to see if they pass basic play-tests before I test with actual components.
  • I added a small token for the first player – a simple accessibility gesture.
  • I applied James’ art for the card backs and templates to Tabletop Simulator – this will let the play-testers and i catch readability issues before I spend money printing a physical prototype.
  • I rebalanced the Event Cards. I had one card that was overpowered and a couple others that were awkwardly worded and had unusual implications as a result.
  • I improved the Reference Cards to be simpler.
  • I rewrote the rules from scratch to be simpler – no major changes to actual gameplay. This is purely a usability fix.

Dev Diary: 09/01/17

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

Cross-posted from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Play-testing is so critical in board game development that I’ve dedicated several articles to the subject. Yet I’ve never seen article that deals with one of the biggest issues with play-testing: being able to tell the difference between signal and noise. You can’t believe everything your play-testers tell you, even though a lot of game developers will give you a coy response if you say that directly.

 

Don’t believe a dev who says “I’ve never wanted to flip the table because of some useless play-testing feedback.”

 

First, let’s have a refresher on good play-testing practices. The most important rule is write down all the feedback you receive during play-testing. Do this even if you’ve heard the feedback before, even if you think it’s stupid, and even if you know the feedback is wrong. Play-testing is ultimately about testing the subjective experiences of people playing your game. Every opinion – however misinformed you may believe to be – is a data point. As in rigorous scientific experiments, data points are to be gathered accurately and then interpreted later. By treating play-testing with a scientific mindset, you won’t risk losing valuable feedback because you got your feelings hurt.

It’s also a good idea to have a clear objective when you start a play-test. Some objectives I’ve used for testing Highways & Byways are “make sure Byway Cards communicate the location of roads clearly” and “gather data on the balance of Event Cards.” If you’ve made a recent tweak, having objectives going in helps you gather relevant data. Choose something to pay extra close attention to, such as balance, communication, or accessibility. All this said, there are no hard and fast rules going into play-testing. That is why recording data is important – so you can dispassionately review what people say at a later time.

When it’s time to review play-testing results, here are some guidelines I follow…

 

3 Times Play-Testing Feedback is Probably Not Useful

 

The player clearly does not understand the game. At some point, no matter how simple your game, you’ll have someone who doesn’t read the rules. Or perhaps you’ll have someone who can’t pick up the game from playing. Or perhaps even you’ll have someone who understands the game perfectly in a vacuum, but cannot form a coherent strategy to save their life. If you’ve got 20 play-testers and 1 of those 20 suffers from one or more of these issues when no one else does, the feedback is likely addressing an issue with the player and not the game.

This can be caused not by necessarily having a “dumb player,” but simply by having a distracted player. If someone is tired, stressed, or otherwise emotional, it might be hard for them to pick up your game and recognize that they are having a hard time picking up your game. Sometimes people just don’t “take” to games for some reason unrelated to their intelligence or well-being. It’s like that with me and Agricola (but you keep that between us two – I’ll lose my game dev card if you let that secret out).

When people don’t understand the game, they can give you all sorts of negative or neutral feedback that seems nonsensical or left-field. You may be able to tweak the game to make it communicate more clearly, and you should always ask yourself if that is the case. Yet if you believe the player is truly at a loss for understanding, try running their feedback by some other play-testers. If the other play-testers say “this player does not understand the game,” then it’s probably okay to disregard their feedback.

 

The player is providing feedback related to the tool you’re testing with, but the game itself. Whether you’re using a physical prototype with pennies for tokens or Tabletop Simulator, play-test versions of games often don’t look pretty or feel quite like the final product would. If you know that you’ll be changing the game to have better components, don’t worry about comments on your bad components. If you will be passing hands of cards around the table in real life – don’t be upset when people say “it’s hard to pass hands in Tabletop Simulator.”

Important caveat: always play-test anything that goes into the final version of your game.

 

The player is wildly pitching ideas. In general, if your game is on the right track, I find that you’ll get far more comments than questions. If you get a play-tester who has all sorts of ideas that don’t match up with the direction you’re taking the game in, that might be a sign of three things. One, they could be legitimately good ideas which you should consider. Two, they might not understand the game – see the previous point. Three, they might be pushing their creative instincts and desires on to your project. If that last one is the case, that’s got more to do with them than you. As always, I suggest you run wild ideas by other play-testers if you’re not sure.

 

3 Times Play-Testing Feedback is Definitely Useful

 

The feedback is regarding an issue that is both tangible and objective. If a player says “you’ve got a typo” or “this card could resolve in an undesirable way, watch me do it,” you must pay attention. When you get specific feedback about issues that are clear-cut, that’s as useful as it gets. Thank them and fix the issue next time you make a version. You don’t need multiple people to confirm these sorts of issues.

 

Multiple people have independently said the same thing. When it comes to matters like balance or fun, it’s really hard to know what is best. There is no clear answer like the ones for typos or loopholes. When multiple people say “I feel like this game isn’t balanced so well,” it doesn’t matter if your game is balanced perfectly in an Excel spreadsheet according to infallible mathematics. When a good portion of your play-testers feel like something’s wrong with your game, then something is probably wrong with your game. In fact, “majority rule” is one of the best ways to gauge the quality of your game when it comes to matters of taste.

 

Feedback is associated with actions that confirm the feedback. Imagine a player spends a minute or two organizing their hand, slowing down the game, and they say “you know, these cards are awfully fiddly.” It might be a problem if they took a minute or two without saying something. It might be a problem if they complained it was fiddly but only took a few seconds. Yet if both are happening at the same time, then something is up. Likewise, if a player says, “I don’t know what to do here,” and proceeds to make an absolutely bonkers strategic error, then your game may need clarification in some areas.

 

Despite my scientific rigor in recording feedback, there is a reason I refer to play-testing as The Art of the Play-Test in a prior article. The guidelines above are made to help you determine when play-testing feedback is useful and when it is not. Yet I can offer no certainty, no absolutes, and no rubrics. The decisions you make here are where game development becomes an art form – a matter of taste, judgement, and care.

 

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Chugging right along in play-testing. I need to make some minor updates to balance and polish the game a bit, but everybody who’s tested it so far has liked it. That’s rare and I’m thankful.
  • James has delivered some card art templates. It’s nothing flashy and it’s nothing that shares particularly well. Despite this, please understand that this is the basis of our workflow from here on out, making it good progress.

Everything You Need to Know About Highways & Byways So Far

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways. However, this week is purely an update – educational posts will resume as normal next week.

 


 

It has been about five months since I first started working on Highways & Byways. Just this last week, a lot of things finally clicked.

First things first: I am ready to play-test publicly online. If you are interested in play-testing Highways & Bywaysclick here to join the Facebook group so you can get notified of the play-testing events. In fact, we’ve already had a few play-test sessions and had a great time! I’m getting some really valuable feedback!

 

 

In order to play with us, you will need a Steam game called Tabletop Simulator. It does exactly what you’d expect it to. It costs $19.99, or $9.99 if you get lucky and you find it on a Steam sale.

 

How Highways & Byways Works

 

I’ve made lots of vague allusions to what Highways & Byways is, but now let’s get down to specifics.

Highways & Byways is a 2-4 player game that takes around an hour. It’s fairly lightweight and it’s the kind of game you can play with people at a casual game night or with people who never play games at all. It’s a game that includes and does not intimidate.

The whole point of the game is to take an epic road trip. It’s essentially a race game. The objective is to drive all your assigned byways and circle back home before anyone else. Your route is determined by your byways and each game you get different byways, which are determined by drafting at the beginning of the game. Over the course of the game, events and construction cause you to reroute, think on the fly, and strategize.

This is a game that you can play casually and with no real knowledge and still feel like you’re having a good time. It’s also a game that you can really learn the nuances of and become proficient in strategy and counter-play. More on that later, though, since I want to show you what it looks like.

 

Highways & Byways Visuals

 

James Masino is steadily working on most of the art, but the board itself is done. I’ve shared it below so that you can appreciate the quality of his work.

 

 

You’ll notice that the state boundary lines are extremely accurate, as James really bumped the lamp to get the right mix of realism and beauty. He’s the only guy I know who pays attention to things like the border irregularity in western Kentucky for a Photoshop layer that winds up being hidden anyway.

We’ve worked hard to take 72 real scenic roads and make them communicate well on a board. When printed, the board will be about 25 by 20 inches (or 64 by 51 cm), so each of those circular spaces is large enough to comfortably fit a piece while still keeping the approximate outline of the real roads. To keep the game nice and accessible, we stripped all text from the board and we instead refer you to locations using Byway Cards like what you see below.

 

 

We’ve also considered some other accessibility aspects. For one, you don’t have to be an American or know any of the state names to play this game. None of that knowledge is necessary. When it comes time to order a quote from a manufacturer, I’ll be sure to ask for pieces that are big and easy to use. Oh, and we considered color blindness, too…

 

 

Highways & Byways Basic Rules

 

You can find the full rule book online here. The rules still need a little tweaking here and there to truly optimize the game, but what you see there now is basically what it’s going to be like in the box.

Here are eight choice sentences that sum up the rules succinctly:

  • The first player to drive the entire length of all Byways depicted on their Byway Cards AND return to their Start Space is the winner.
  • Each player selects a Vehicle. Each Vehicle has a special ability. Special abilities grant cars immunity to certain Events or allow for faster movement on the board.
  • Each player will end up with 14 Blue Byway Cards and 2 Red Byway Cards.
  • Each player takes a Travel Marker and places it on the Byway depicted on the Byway Card just received. This is so all players can quickly and visually see where they and their opponents will be going in the game.
  • Once all players have 14 Blue Byway Cards and 2 Red Byway Cards, they each must do one and only one of the following:
    1. Discard 1 Red Byway Card and remove its Travel Marker from the board.
    2. Discard 2 Blue Byway Cards and remove their Travel Markers from the board.
  • At the beginning of every driving round…draw a random Construction Card. Players may not travel on any highway spaces which contain the letter depicted on the construction card.
  • Each player may move up to six (6) spaces per turn.
  • When all 5 Construction Card slots in the bottom right of the board have been filled…each player must pass their Event Card hand to the clockwise player.

 

What’s Left to Do?

 

Quite a bit, actually. I need to do tons and tons of play-testing with people from around the world. There is still quite a bit of art that needs to be created. Of course, I’ll want to raise funds on Kickstarter for the manufacturing process. Then I need to figure out how to sell the game afterward. If I had to give you an estimate on when I think the Kickstarter campaign would be, I’d say “first quarter of 2018.” Don’t pin me to that yet, though!

 

 


 

It’s my very good pleasure to share all these updates at once with you. If you’d like to get involved, I’d once again like to direct your attention to the Highways & Byways Facebook group. Sign up there, because that’s how we’ll coordinate games going forward.

That’s all I’ve got today. Time to get this show on the road!

Dev Diary: 08/11/17

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


Play-testing has been really high up on my radar for the last couple of weeks. Between 7 Subtle Player Behaviors You Should Notice When Play-Testing and The Art of the Play Test: Designing Tests and Keeping Records, you might think that’s all I’ve got on my mind. You’d mostly be right to think that, too. Highways & Byways is ready for blind play-testing, and I’ll be spending this weekend setting up a plan on how I’m going to coordinate testing from this point forward.

 

 

It took me a long time to get this game ready for blind play-testing. But before we talk any more about blind play-testing, let’s define it.

 

Blind play-testing is when you give your game to other people with no instructions on how to play. You can choose to observe them while playing or elicit their feedback after the game has ended.

 

I tend to break this definition down even further. Please note these are “Brandonisms” and not formal board game design terms I’ve seen anywhere else:

  • Single-blind play-testing is when I give my game to other people with no instructions on how to play, but I still play as a player. The benefit is that I can observe directly how players act in response to certain strategies. The drawback is that it’s not truly blind play-testing, since players can pick up on what you’re doing.
  • Double-blind play-testing is when I give my game to other people with no instructions on how to play and I do not participate in the game at all. I can observe during the game or ask questions after the game is played, but the critical piece here is that I must not interfere with the game as it is going on.

 

To give you an idea what goes into getting a game ready for either type of blind play-testing, here are some things I’ve already done. I’ve play-tested the game a lot by myself, acting as 2-4 players at a time. Self-testing was my primary form of testing in the first and second versions of the game, when I wasn’t even sure if some of the core concepts would work. Then I started testing with my brother whose indefatigable patience and ready availability makes him invaluable in play-testing. A few versions later, I was testing with my parents and cousins. Once the game was pretty clearly on the right track, I started testing it with friends online and offline.

Blind play-testing requires that your game function well in both gameplay and communication aspects. Knowing when your game is ready for blind play-testing is not an easy call to make. For that matter, it can be scary to pass it on to people who may or may not like it. Yet blind play-testing is critical for making a market-ready board game and there is some data that only blind play-testing can provide.

 

8 Signs Your Game is Ready for Blind Play-Testing

 

1. The game can stand alone. You don’t need developer input to play any more.

If your game has gotten to the point where people can pick it up and play it without asking you questions, that is a very good sign. If you find that play-testers do not ask you many questions during your non-blind play-tests, you’re definitely on the right track.

 

2. Your game cannot be broken.

Part of why game developer presence is so important in early play-testing is because of the possibility for games to completely break down. If your game becomes unplayable due to a glitch in the rules, a logical inconsistency in mechanics, or even a wickedly overpowered strategy, you cannot blind play-test it. Period, point blank. Your games do not necessarily have to be good before you start blind play-testing, but they must be finish-able every single time.

 

3. You have functional artwork.

Blind play-testing is a test of both gameplay and communication. If your game requires certain visual cues in order to be properly tested, you need to have enough artwork to be able to properly test.

As an example, Highways & Byways starts with a drafting round in which the Byways on the board are divvied up among players. In order to test the game’s ability to communicate, I needed a completed board map. The board art was then recycled for the Byway cards, which reference specific places on the board. While this only comprises about 10% of the art in the game, the board was mission-critical to further play-testing. As it turns out, the experimental design techniques that James and I have been using work beautifully, enough there was no way to know that without putting in the time to develop art.

 

 

4. The rule book is usable.

This ties into point #1 about not needing developer input, but is important enough to warrant a separate point on my list. Your play-testers, having never played the game and having no input from you, will be learning your game from the rule book. You might have kept only a skeleton of the rule book until now, but that will not cut it during blind play-testing. Here are some resources you can look to if you need to clean up your rules:

 

5. Players do not get stuck.

If players get lost on the board, in the rule book, or in the decision-making process during the game, that should concern you. Players are less likely to get stuck in “analysis paralysis” with the developer right there to help them. If players do get stuck with you right there, then the problem will probably be worse during blind play-testing and you need to address it prior to blind play-testing.

 

6. There are multiple viable strategies available to players.

Though your game does not necessarily have to be great before starting blind play-testing, it needs to have a few workable strategic angles. If you have multiple different viable strategies, then balancing them is often a matter of tweaking rules. If you only have one viable strategy, you could be looking at problems baked into the mechanics or even core engine of your game. You generally don’t want to be messing with your game on that basic of a level once you get blind play-testers involved because they’re often hard to find.

 

 

7. You know what your game is like, but have trouble describing it.

Blind play-testing is great for finding problems, but it’s arguably even better for marketing. In addition to the fact that many of your blind play-testers will eventually become customers, you can use the things they tell you about your game as part of your future sales pitch. When someone says “this part of your game is appealing,” the odds are good that it will appeal to lots of gamers.

 

8. You cannot go any further in development without outside feedback.

At some point, you’ll hit a wall in play-testing that you cannot scale without bringing in fresh points of view. That is where I am right now. Highways & Byways is a few subtle tweaks away from being a solid performer on Board Game Geek. Yet I believe it would be an act of hubris to think that my family, close friends, and I are capable of spotting all the problems ourselves. You need lots of different opinions to refine a creative work so that it meets its full potential. Blind play-testing is how board game developers refine their work.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Highways & Byways is ready for public play-testing.
  • I’m putting together a plan this weekend on how I’ll coordinate play-testing, including where play-testers will gather, when games will take place, and how they’ll be notified.
  • In addition to the above, I need to consider single-blind and double-blind play-testing when developing this plan.
  • James is continuing to develop art for the game. None of this art is necessary for play-testing, but it will be important later on for game quality and promotional reasons.

Dev Diary: 08/04/17

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

I have play-testing on the brain. In the wee hours of the morning last Friday night, James Masino delivered the first serious draft of Highways & Byways board art. It was a gorgeous rendition of the disorganized mess of roads and states that I’d been play-testing with before. By using color/contrast zones, stripping all text from the board, and generally making the game look pretty, I was finally able to coordinate play-tests through Tabletop Simulator.

 

 

Tabletop Simulator Demo of Highways & Byways (Version Highway 4).

 

The main challenge of Highways & Byways at this point is not the core engine, the mechanics, or the rules, but rather how well the game itself can communicate with players. James and I are both informal students of behavioral psychology, so we’re always looking for the best possible ways to get our points across.

During the course of these play-tests online, I was able to watch players learn the game for the first time. After a few minutes, patterns of behavior emerged and I noticed subtle behaviors that provide information on how the game is being perceived by the players. I’ve listed seven behaviors I’ve been watching for. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather just a short list of lessons I’ve learned this week.

 

7 Subtle Player Behaviors You Should Notice When Play-Testing

 

1. Players spend a long time searching for something on the board.

If players spend a disproportionately long amount of time searching for something on the board or on cards, that means your game doesn’t communicate clearly. Ask your play-testers where they are getting stuck and take notes. You might need to work with your artist to find a clearer way to communicate important rules.

 

2. Players forget to do something on a regular basis.

If players forget to do something on a regular basis, there are two ways you can deal with the problem. The first is that you can simplify your game to where players have fewer actions that they must do. The second is that you can list everything on a reference card, telling them what to do and when to do it.

 

Pandemic provides a good example of a reference card.

 

3. When confronted with certain gameplay situations, players ask questions or check the rule book.

Sometimes this is unavoidable, especially in more complicated games. However, if you find players doing this so much that it slows down the pace of the game, you need to simplify the mechanics, create a reference card, or clarify the structure of your rule book.

 

4. Players spend a long time using components.

Having physically accessible components is important, even for players who don’t have any physical issues. My hands work perfectly fine, but I am loath to deal with paper money in games, shuffle decks over and over again, or move 100 tiny little punch-out pieces on a board. It gets old fast.

As this is a surprisingly complicated thing to get right, here are some articles which you might find useful if your game has problems with annoying components.

 

5. Players make decisions to help themselves or hurt other players.

Unlike the four behaviors above, if you see players overwhelmingly choosing to harm competitors or keep to themselves, that does not necessarily indicate a problem. In fact, unless what you find players doing completely clashes with your intentions when creating the game, any outcome is good! If a game is very “take that” or mean-spirited, then when it’s time to sell it, you pitch it to an audience who enjoys that sort of thing (like I did with War Co.) If players find that their best strategy is to take care of themselves, then that is fine, too. That’s how it goes with Highways & Byways about 70-80% of the time, so you can imagine I’ll be capturing the attention of different players than I did with War Co.

 

6. Players engage in table talk (or not).

The presence or absence of table talk is a good indicator of game weight. If you see players engaging in table talk, that means your game is fairly light. If players tend to go silent for long stretches of time, your game is probably heavy. People don’t tend to socialize and make strategic decisions at the same time. Your game can be lightweight or heavyweight – both are fine! Understand that different players like games of different weights.

 

7. Players freeze.

If players freeze, that is because they are not sure what to do. Sometimes your rules aren’t very clear, but sometimes your players are experiencing analysis paralysis. If it’s the former, you need to clean up your rules. If it’s the latter, your game may have too many decisions. You can either pare them down or accept that your game is heavyweight. Either option can be fine, depending on what direction you plan on taking the game in. Highways & Byways does not have this issue, but War Co. does suffer from it, simply because of the sheer number of options available to players.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • James Masino delivered board art.
  • I created test version Highway 4 in Tabletop Simulator.
  • Through my Discord community, I did some play-testing of version Highway 4 in Tabletop Simulator.
  • After a few play-tests, I changed up the “Event Card” mechanic by doing some tweaks.
  • The above changes were significant enough for me to create test version Highway 5.
  • James polished up the board a little.
  • I created test version Highway 5 in Tabletop Simulator.
  • I plan on play-testing Highway 5 this weekend through the Discord community.
  • The entire time this has been going on, I’ve been focusing on growing the newsletter and Discord community with a mix of manual outreach and Facebook ads.

How to Fight “Tired Mode” as a Game Dev (Dev Diary: 07/28/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

This week in Start to Finish, I wrote Choose Your Own Adventure: Self-Publish or Not, an article dedicated to the benefits and pitfalls of self-publishing your game. This week, when trying to provide art directions to James, I remembered an additional pitfall that is an especially prescient and intense problem for self-publishers. I call it Tired Mode.

 

Photo by Aaron Jacobs. Posted to Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 License. (Source)

 

 

Tired Mode is my inelegant name for the mental state that occurs when both of the following conditions are met:

  1. You are unable to effectively perform mental work.
  2. You are unable to recognize your own inability to effectively perform mental work.

Lots of things can cause Tired Mode: physical exertion, distraction, poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of breaks, poor sleep, caffeine abuse, and so on.

The outcomes of falling into Tired Mode are myriad and range from annoying to devastating. You might sit at the computer for two hours Googling articles but not getting anything done. You might get into a loop of checking your social media over and over again. You might find yourself reading the same sentence over and over again. You might succumb to continuous and useless rework. You might find yourself typing confusing and contradictory art directions to James Masino via Discord on your iPhone while you’re on break at a day-long meeting outside of your normal work environment.

That last one happened to me on Wednesday. This episode perfectly symbolizes something in my mind which I knew for a long time already but had a hard time explaining. It is really, really hard to do a lot of mental work and keep your head on straight.

 

How to Fight Tired Mode

 

Part 1: Recognition

Part of what makes Tired Mode so devastating is condition 2: “you are unable to recognize your own inability to effectively perform mental work.” One of the best things you can do is log off the computer if you’re getting nowhere and go outside. If you’re talking to someone and you’re not making sense, be ready to say “I’m sorry, it’s been a long day and I’ll be able to give you a better answer tomorrow.”

This takes time. You’ll have to practice recognizing Tired Mode so you won’t succumb to it in the future. At first, you’ll probably only catch yourself after the fact, but that’s still good – it gives you an idea of what triggered Tired Mode and what you can avoid in the future.

 

Part 2: Prevention

Speaking of avoidance, the best way to fight Tired Mode is to never fight it at all. Prioritize sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Schedule time for all of these things. If you don’t take care of the basics of productivity and well-being, then the details don’t really matter.

 

Part 3: Smarter Scheduling

Once you get a sense for the conditions that cause you to get into Tired Mode, start scheduling your life to avoid them. If you’re a morning person, do your important stuff in the morning. If you’re a night owl, don’t do important stuff in the morning. Time management is not merely about reducing the amount of steps in a process to make it take less time, but also about making sure you time your tasks well.

 

Not a Part: Powering Through It

Sometimes you will have to power through Tired Mode. You shouldn’t plan on it, though. That’s reactive and not proactive – it doesn’t address the root issue and it will leave you even more depleted the next day. That’s no way to live a life.

 

Why Tired Mode is Worse for Self-Publishers

 

When you self-publish, your judgement is final. Every game mechanic, every piece of art, and every marketing endeavor ultimately comes down to your decisions. Nobody can overturn what you do. In fact, nobody else will even have a reason to dissuade you from making a bad decision. That is why it is extra important to recognize and prevent Tired Mode when you’re self-publishing.

Setting up mental boundaries is really important. Game development is a marathon process. Small problems can have a disproportionate impact on us when we are repeatedly exposed to them over and over again. Tired Mode often comes out of tiny little energy-sapping things repeated over and over again.

 

Tired Mode in Players

 

Developers are not the only ones affected by Tired Mode. Your players also experience Tired Mode. This is why I’ve spent several articles talking about accessibility in gaming. Oftentimes, you’re not just helping people with cognitive disabilities, you’re helping perfectly healthy people have fun even while they’re in Tired Mode.

While you definitely want players to mentally engage with your games, you want to remove unnecessary decisions and make your components and board communicate super clearly. The very same techniques you use to manage your time and organize your life can benefit your games, and thus, your players.

 

Long story short: don’t underestimate the power of fatigue. Recognize when you’re not performing. Take care of yourself. Organize your time and your life as clearly as possible. Remember that if you self-publish, there is a lot riding on it. Then take all your lessons and apply them to making better games.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Again, I’ve been promoting the newsletter and the Discord while waiting on art.
  • The board art is nearly done.
  • Byway Card templates should be done by the time this article posts.
  • Once I have board art and Byway Card templates, I will spend an afternoon creating a pretty play-test version of Highways & Byways on Tabletop Simulator.
  • I plan on testing Highways & Byways through the Discord community.

Talking Without Words (Dev Diary: 07/21/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

This week, in Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game, I released Five Levels of Communication through Game Development. It’s about how to use subtleties to speak to your audience when you’re creating a game. You have very limited ways of communicating complicated concepts to your players with static cardboard and plastic, so what you imply and what you suggest through your game’s design is very important!

Turns out, this week’s development of Highways & Byways illustrates my point pretty well. I provided the following image to James Masino as a reference for creating the game’s board…

 

Highways and Byways: Version Highway 3
This is Highways & Byways: Highway 3 (Version 14). It’s what I’ve play-tested on up until now.

 

In a few short days, he turned around this early first draft of the Highways & Byways board…

 

text

 

Now James is by no means even close to done with his work. This is something he slapped together quickly as a demo because his real goal was just to outline the country and the road structure. We’re doing rapid prototyping. In fact, it’s somewhat unusual to commission artwork at this stage of a project, before it’s been blind play-tested, but I’m comfortable breaking this guideline for three very good reasons:

  1. It’s a map-based game and the main struggle with this game is how it communicates location-based information in an elegant way.
  2. The board art will be used for other parts of the game – so this is a high value-per-cost thing to go ahead and knock out.
  3. I can afford to bite the cost if we have to scrap it.

 

Now let’s talk about how James strengthened the game’s communication. He stripped the text labels completely. He stripped them from the roads and he stripped them from the states. At first I was convinced the presence of labels was a necessary evil, but we discussed a better way – which we’re experimenting with right now. Point is: removing text allows the game to talk without words, reducing the cognitive processing burden you’d feel looking at the board.

He smoothed out the curves of the byway roads, which made it look prettier and more approachable. This, too, is a good way of improving the way the board communicates.

Simplicity is really important when making games. You can’t cut all the details out of a game, but if you find yourself groaning at the complexity of something (like finding where a road is in the play-test versions of this game), you probably need to make it simpler.

For Highways & Byways, the game hinges upon being able to quickly find over a dozen roads that you need to travel. My original idea of the game would have had you look up their location by state name, using the bulk of the “Byway Card” for beautiful art. Then play-testing revealed an easier-to-use and less expensive alternative: use a picture of the road, as it is on the board, to show where a player where to find the road.

I still thought “yeah, but we need labels” just in case the pictures weren’t enough. Then it hit me. What if we were to divide the USA into different color zones like Rolling AmericaIf were to do that, the roads wouldn’t need labels at all! You could deduce the location of a road very quickly and reliably by the color of the states, the state border shapes, the shape/size/color of the road itself, and a mini-map that shows where the pictured portion on the card is relative to the United States as a whole.

 

This doesn’t show you the zone coloring experiment, but it’s a rough mock-up I’ve made that gets the idea across.

 

James and I still have a ton of experimenting to do, but this just gives you a rough idea of how much thought goes into designing simple interfaces in board games. Highways & Byways is going to be a lighter game than War Co., and while it is shaping up to have a pleasantly surprising amount of strategic meat to it, I want people to be able to pick this game up in 5 minutes. That’s my goal – 5 minutes to learn to play, 30 minutes to learn to strategize.

 

 


 

Speaking of communication, this is tangential but important. You need people to challenge you. Sometimes we, as creative people, get too in our own heads and get stuck on bad ideas. That’s why we need professionals and play-testers to help us create our best work. I pushed James to add labels to the board and he pushed back saying, “we need to try something else first.” We may very well wind up using labels in the end, but if this experiment with color zones goes well, the Highways & Byways board is going to be way prettier to look at.

Seek out fresh opinions and always look for a way to communicate more clearly.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • I have the earliest iteration of the board artwork from James now.
  • It was going to be ready for play-testing, but we both want to improve the way information is shared on the board, so we’re trying another experiment first.
  • Experimenting with breaking country into 7 color zones – without going too much into the rules, this could mean almost completely removing text from the game board AND reducing the text on Event Cards.
  • While James and I have this back and forth going, I’m continuing to grow my game dev Discord and the newsletter. They’ve both been unexpectedly delightful projects. They are both vastly outpacing my estimates for audience, engagement, and that intangible feeling of people caring.
  • I’m getting ahead on Start to Finish blog posts to build a backlog for when I go HAM on play-testing.
  • I reiterate what I said last week. “I don’t have a lot of sexy updates this week. It’s nose-to-grindstone, ugly, early work for the next few weeks.”

Art for Art’s Sake…Sometime’s It’s Not Just Business (Dev Diary: 07/14/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

I talk a lot about the business side of board game creation. So much of success in this industry is based upon your abilities as a project manager, marketer, promoter, and accountant. When I talk about game design itself, I often talk about the relentless play-testing, balancing, and different levels of communication that you must master so that your game is understood and enjoyed.

But what about art? I don’t necessarily mean art as in pretty pictures, beautiful graphics, and appealing boxes. No, no, no. I’m talking about art for art’s sake. I’m talking about art in the sense of pouring yourself into a project, finding a way to creatively express yourself, and making something you truly care about. Where does art for art’s sake come into the business savvy game dev’s process?

 

Board games are often pretty because…why not?

 

“Secret one: if it ain’t fun, you’re done.” That’s a line ripped from a hip-hop track by KRS-One. It’s also an underrated rule of entrepreneurship. It is imperative that you like the project you’re working on, or you just won’t simply have the motivation to sort out the logistic tangles it takes to deliver. Oh, and there are always logistics tangles…

I like travel. I like it a lot. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little dangerous, and exposes you to a lot of different ways of life. The aesthetic experience of travel impressed itself upon my soul as the rubber of my car’s tires impressed themselves upon the freeways of the USA. That is where the theme came from. That is the basis from which the mechanics of the game are born. The mechanics and rules of the game are meant to capture the openness, spontaneity, and pleasant tension of travel.

I’m not so married to my ideas that I won’t murder mechanics. I’m not so attached to rules that I won’t rewrite the whole book if needed. Yet this is the wellspring from which my ideas are born. I suspect many game developers have had similar experiences.

Many of you know that War Co. was a childhood dream that I pushed long enough to publish. Fewer people know that the corporate dystopia theme basically came from career anxieties. In fact, even I didn’t really realize it at first. That’s because something in me came out through the writing of card stories. These stories were processed into art by James Masino. This art was used as a way to market and attract attention to the campaign. It paid off. The root of all this, the prime mover in this whole story, is self-expression.

It is okay to use your games as a form of self-expression.

You can still sell games while using them as a form of self-expression.

I feel like sometimes people see “sell-able” and “enjoyable to make” as mutually exclusive. I disagree with this so much.

I want to bring this all together now by telling you what James and I are thinking for the Highways & Byways art approach. There was a time in American history in the late 1960s and the early 1970s where travel was rapidly becoming affordable. Airlines were still nice. Motels were popping up. You look at postcards from this era and you see these beautiful and painterly representations of Americana.

 

Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument Postcard
Photo the Bureau of Land Management’s Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Source)

 

I’ve been in an out of many Motel 6’s and Super 8’s that haven’t been updated since the 1970s. I’ve flipped through old books in the motels with faded pictures of bygone eras when the cars looked funny and blue jeans fit weird. I internalized this and wasn’t able to totally express what I was going for until James said it himself. As I’d been collecting brochures from rest stops, he’d spent hours searching for the right look on Google Images. He sought that certain je ne sais quoi tirelessly.

We’d had a conversation two nights ago that got me really excited. We both found ourselves expressing what we were trying to make Highways & Byways look like in the rough, imprecise language that so characterizes the early stages of creative projects. To be clear, we were not talking about accessibility issues, clear display of information, or high-level themes. We were talking about heart and soul. As it turns out, the heart and soul of Highways & Byways is probably going to look like this. (No promises. Games are iterative, you know)…

We want to capture that retro vibe of the “golden age of road travel” from back when a cheap motel cost $8.88 for a night. We want to capture that “load up the station wagon” era from before the Gas Crisis. Highways & Byways will exist in a realm where Gerald Ford is president, but cars from the 1990s are really old. It’s a little anachronistic, as if the luxuries of yesteryear are within the grasp of adventurous college students of this era.

This is not a calculated approach intended to appeal to the largest audience. This is not pinned to how many people I can get to sign up for a newsletter. This is not tied to a Gantt chart. This is what James and I want to do, and we’re going to find people who are into it.

Want to come along for the ride?

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • We’re working on the board. It’s been outlined and now it’s time to color it in for a play-testable draft.
  • I’m continuing to make wise use of downtime by growing my game dev Discord and by focusing on making the newsletter great for members and readers. My business case thinking is that once I get them both on autopilot, I’ll benefit from the exposure those two things bring while being able to refocus mainly on Highways & Byways.
  • I don’t have a lot of sexy updates this week. It’s nose-to-grindstone, ugly, early work for the next few weeks.