Author: Arthur Franz

Resident Star Trek and football geek.

How libraries can build community through gaming

At Uplink Underground Games, we love libraries almost as much as we love board games. We encourage our local branches to champion themselves as Centers of Excellence in board gaming. To that end, we humbly offer a few modest proposals in how to energize your local community around the gaming table.

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Game Hack Nights – Encourage participation from the community by offering Game Hack Nights at your local branch. The constraints are simple – make available a set of classic board games, from Monopoly to Chess or Checkers to The Game of Life. Break participants into small teams, perhaps groups of 3 or 4, and challenge them to “redesign” the game in a fundamentally different way in a given time frame.

Create a new mechanism to apply to an existing game, convert a strategy game into a dexterity game…anything you want! Participants could:

  • Introduce new mechanisms into the game rules. A list of board game mechanisms is available at BoardGameGeek.com.
  • Combine two games into one. Imagine, for instance, “Jenga + Chess,” a dexterity game where the Chess pieces must use bridges to allow fellow pieces to move. Another game might be Siege Warfare, where the Jenga pieces are used to build a castle on part of the Chess board and players must win skirmishes on the Chess board to earn the right to pull “bricks” from the castle. Jenga pieces could be used as obstacles on the Chess board, constraining movement and lending itself to a World War I trench warfare theme. The possibilities are endless.

Give people room to be creative and have fun. It’s amazing what innovation can arise from structured play.

Dedicated Game Shelves/Spaces – Allow patrons to reserve a quiet study room to play board games in 1-hour blocks. These can be free of charge or carry a small fee, perhaps an hourly charge after the 1st hour. Turning your local branch into a regular meeting place will draw more participants in to see other services, readings with local authors, book drives or other campaigns, which will improve your community outreach.

The games themselves should be kept behind the counter. We recommend unpacking the game components into storage bins or labeled bags to ensure the game pieces stay intact and separated from other games. However, housing the empty boxes on a shelf in public view is a good way to allow patrons to explore available titles on their own. Once they have selected the game, they can check out the game for use in your branch with their driver’s license or state ID.

Game Design Workshops – Offer a regular meeting, perhaps monthly, of burgeoning game designers in your area to meet and critique each other’s games. Designers are a very supportive bunch who would greatly appreciate your branch for coordinating outreach to other designers in your area. Provide an open bulletin board at the branch for communications or dedicate a page on your website to board games and increase community engagement. If there are local game companies, notable designers, or academics who specialize in game design through a local high school or college, invite them to an informal Q&A at these events.

UnPub Events – UnPub is an established, nationally recognized entity that hosts game testing sessions for unpublished games. Players of all ages can come try the next big thing before it becomes the next big thing, and even offer suggestions on what parts of the game are most fun or least enjoyable.

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UnPub events are perfect vehicles for “blind play testing,” where a game is experienced by players for the first time with no explanation. Blind play testing is invaluable to designers in pinpointing where a rule is unclear, what mechanism is confusing players, what actions the players want to do and when that may be at odds with the designer’s intentions, etc.

Community Game Donations – Incomplete games can be a great source of game pieces and assorted bits usable in game hack nights. Encourage the community to donate complete or incomplete games to your branch. Incomplete games can be literally dumped into plastic bins for use by the game designer community. Individual pieces could even be sold to game designers for $0.10 each and generate revenue for your branch.

To encourage more game donations, consider allowing game donations in trade for used books.

Crowdfunding Launch Parties – Game publishers, especially newer game publishers through Kickstarter, may be interested in increasing exposure of a new game project. Consider promoting the use of your branch to promote new Kickstarter projects. Typically, a new project may want to have a “sponsored by” promo tag on any of the other activities mentioned earlier. This exposure could be a flyer inside the branch, an ad on your library website that links to their Kickstarter page. The payment for promoting the Kickstarter campaign would be a free copy of the game for each branch that participates.

Be sure to also solicit game publishers for surplus copies of older games or review copies of newer games.

Thanks! Hope to see you around the table soon!

Lessons Learned – Breakaway Football and Kickstarter

Designing and developing Breakaway Football has been a labor of love, and I am very excited about how the game has turned out. In late March, we plan to make the game available to our faithful fans for print on demand through The Game Crafter (www.thegamecrafter.com). But as for the Kickstarter campaign, gentle reader, let us share with you those truths we have internalized along the way.

When we launched our Kickstarter in October 2016, we fully underestimated the necessity to bring our target audience to the table in the first 48 hours. While we did have a stable of devoted backers, and we did enjoy that initial spike in funding in the first two days, we were unaware of the need to bring enough people to the table to fully fund the project, instead hoping that like-minded people would discover the project and help us reach our goal. Our funding goal was perhaps too high and our stable of committed backers was not deep enough. In short, we had failed to reach our target audience sufficiently BEFORE the campaign started. So we did not fund.

Some definite good came from this experiment. We got some encouraging feedback from potential backers, one of whom was a publisher who spent the time to give us direct, constructive feedback. This is how friendly the board game community is, that an insider would take the time to help out some up and coming dreamers with a good idea. It is an amazingly supportive environment.

Offensive play cardHere is some of the feedback we received, in case it can help you in reaching your goal to launch a Kickstarter campaign:

  • Graphic Design Matters

The game was fully functional and some elements (like the board design & card art) were praised by backers. But during the campaign we received very good suggestions on field numbering, increasing the size and visibility of the important information on each card, and other aesthetic adjustments. We did go back to the drawing board after the campaign closed, and the resulting changes have made a more beautiful and functional game. If we had built our target audience ahead of time, we could have solicited that feedback BEFORE the campaign and been more successful in attracting new buyers.

  • Make Your Rules Public

Any new game wants to promote how it plays and how it works. We may have relied too much on the video to explain/describe the mode of play. At a minimum, we should have made the rules available to download on our website so people could peruse the system at their own pace. In part, the failing was we had the rules developed but not graphically designed. The rules were almost all text, so we opted to hold them back. While this alone would not have tipped the scales in our favor, we should have had the rules ready to go – it is ultimately a sales tool.

  • Design For Ease of Play

This echoes the need to have the components make the game play seamless and fluid. Hence the need for larger font on all the play cards and color-coding of important information. However, it goes deeper than just the aesthetics. Our goal was to faithfully recreate a realistic football experience in at least half the time of, say, Strat-O-Matic Football (which is a great game, no question). Football itself if very fiddly, with tons of edge cases and little rules that football fans know off-the-cuff, but become cumbersome when a gamer comes to the table. Feedback stated we should design for gamers, not football fans, and we obliged. There is a core game set with a greatly simplified experience for casual football fans and we have an “Advanced Rule Set” that includes all the edge cases (Onsides Kicks, Hail Mary passes, advanced time keeping, etc.).

  • Video Production Value Matters

Our video was cute but shot on a cell phone. We did record audio on a good quality microphone and overdub most of it, but the overall quality was always amateurish. We are not suggesting you have to have a Disney Pixar-quality experience. Indeed, some awful projects have had some killer promotional videos. Instead, know that the bar has been raised since 2011, and it appears the audience expects a certain quality to take your project seriously.

  • Paint Your Target (Audience)

Know who you are targeting as the core audience for the game. Be able to reach them directly well in advance of the campaign. Go to where they are and establish relationships. Build your network over time. It is unreasonable to expect that your target audience will want to be marketed to, even if your product is exceptional.

  • Hype Your Target Audience Well In Advance

For us, we were not sure how to reach the slim overlap of our Venn diagram where sports enthusiasts align with board gamers. They are out there, no question, but we were not successful in reaching them in a meaningful way prior to the Kickstarter launch date. In retrospect, we should have not moved forward with the campaign, regrouped, and spent the time networking with our target audience.

Many blogs and podcasts have talked about these Do’s and Don’ts. But we have now both experienced them and, through the experience, internalized them. If you are ready to launch your Kickstarter, take a moment to use our feedback as a checklist. Good luck with your campaign!

Breakaway Football – Testing and Development

In the “Design” post for Breakaway Football, we talked about where the inspiration for the game came from, the different constraints that helped us find something unique, and finally how the four of us contributed specific items to the core game, creating a fun football experience.

End of story, right? Now we go to market and sit on a mountain of gold? Sadly, no.

We experienced multiple moments where the game felt finished… until it didn’t. And it was often me, as the lead designer, proposing a “What if…” scenario, and feeling very sheepish about it in the process. I have a habit of questioning everything, even decisions we have “locked” in the past, in order to re-validate our assumptions. Usually we arrive at the same answer, but when we don’t, the mere act of asking the question permits collaborators to challenge assumptions, offer new suggestions, and make the game that much better. Stripping out needless complexity is perhaps the most important thing a developer can do.

For instance, our first layout of the board included three separate zones to place coach cards – one for each formation. And while it worked, and was sort of cool, it was ultimately unnecessary, just adding clutter to the board. Because it was not essential to game play, we jettisoned three slots in favor of one spot on the board.

breakawayboard_original

Original design for the game board

Another board evolution: Football games have a tough time managing a very straightforward task – keeping score. Some games print numbers on the board and slide a clear disk on the track, but it doesn’t look right. Thematically it is not the way scoreboards work. Other games use the spinning disks/wheels to keep score, but they usually need to stand upright and tend to stick. We ultimately settled on cardboard markers for the scoreboard numbers, which works very nicely. There is an open spot on the board with double 0’s in the same style, so players know where to put them. And it feels like a scoreboard, which was the whole point.

Development is also about improving component use. Mike Caplan suggested the play names in the upper-left corner of the play cards so that users could quickly scan all plays available in their hands. Ben Jennings improved the breakaway mechanism on Defense, establishing the upper-left corner of the Game Day card to replace the play result (rather than adjust it up or down). Mark Burlet pushed to blunt the power of the Game Day deck, which overshadowed strategy in our earliest play tests, as well as put logos on the team helmets (saying, “No one wants to coach Team Blue.”). All of these changes made the Breakaway Football easier to play and more immersive in the football theme.

Of course, the later you get into the process, the more solidified things get. Sometimes it is hard to move off of a conceit or assumption that is 6-months-old and has test played successfully over 20 hours. But we ran into two such challenges rather late into our development cycle.

  1. For the longest time, we provided equal number of Offense and Defense cards. Both sides would discard a card, to maintain a balance, which created a constraint for the Defense that they would run out of certain types of cards as the game progressed. During later play tests, we heard players softly lament that they had “nothing to fit this down and distance” situation in their hands, and wished they had access to all their defenses. Mike Caplan and Ben Jennings both decried this as well at various times during development. Finally, we looked at how thematically this made more sense, that it would be incongruous for a Defense to “run out” of a certain call. So, while the mechanism worked perfectly fine, it did not align well with the theme. We ultimately changed the mechanism to allow the Defense to retain all its plays – now they do not discard at all. The change required us to redesign the card layout on Defense, shrink the number of plays offered, and fix the rules, but it was the right choice. Oddly enough, we saw overall scores drop in future play tests, suggesting we had better balanced the game as a result. It was no longer a shootout, it was more like real football.
  2. Breakaways were initially called “blow ups” and we had a number of proposed ideas on which Offenses “blew up” which Defenses. This chart has been changed a number of times, too many to count, which led to version control issues. In one play test, I personally lost a game where a Power Run blew up an implausible defense and cost me the game. Toward the end of development, right before the Kickstarter, we brought in an outside consultant to review the breakaway play alignments. This review allowed us again to ask the right questions, get objective feedback from a trusted source, and consolidate our misgivings into a final push to the summit. The result is thematically sound and well-balanced. Most importantly, it is fun.

All throughout the development phase, rapid prototyping and test play was our most valuable activity. Talking and thinking about the game is not enough. Get it on the table, push some bits around, and work it out.

Oddly, our first test play with the original Game Day deck was excruciating. The game’s playing time ballooned out of control and the amount of math was unpleasant. However, we saw the potential quickly and built a new deck immediately. A central play event was added with trigger logic, resulting in less math and faster play.

Early incarnations of the Game Day deck were actually too powerful. For instance, we had not made distinctions for penalties, so whenever a penalty card was pulled, it would apply. This guaranteed 15 penalties or so per game, an outrageous amount. One out of four plays should not be a penalty! Each iteration of the Game Day deck got better, especially when incorporating feedback from test play.

I once lost huge, 35-7, to my daughter (who is a gifted play caller, without question) and then witnessed another test play loss by multiple scores. Though plausible for real football, I saw it was not fun for both players. This led to our development of a blowout preventer we call the “rally token,” as it must be earned by the losing team. It allows a coach to nullify a Game Day card’s play event. This offers the coach choice and control, and can help extend a drive, dodge bad luck, or avoid a turnover. Since then we have seen consistently close games often coming down to that final drive, just like a tug of war.

Development is hard work but we are thrilled with the results. We hope you agree. Our next blog post will cover the publishing side of the house, including preparing files for the printer, prepping the Kickstarter, and more. Thanks for joining us on the journey!

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