4 reasons why UnPub4 was great (and how to make yours great, too)

In a word, UnPub4 was a crucible. The game I brought Saturday morning was quite different than what came out Sunday night. It emerged sleeker, simpler, and more fun. Here are four reasons why UnPub4 was such a success, and some takeaways to make your next UnPub a success, too.

Small sample of on-the-fly edits to my components.

#1 MacGyver Factor
Because I was limited to whatever I had available to me at the event, I couldn't fall into the trap of just adding new mechanics or components to fix problems. Instead, I had to trim, edit, revise, and tweak. If point values were a problem, I used white-out or adhesive stickers to make edits. If components were a problem, I just removed them instead of wasting time between playtests.

Takeaway: Bring tape, white labels, white out, glue sticks, and markers in multiple colors. Make your prototype easily editable to respond to playtester feedback.

Teaching The River Ancient (Photo: Brad Smoley)

#2 Variety of Playtests
My first two tests had very enthusiastic and happy players. They gave very positive feedback, which was a great way to start the event. My third playtest had more game designers, publishers, and veteran euro players who gave much more grounded feedback with constructive advice.

We all spotted some unexpected emergent gameplay that led to some un-fun runaway leaders, but we didn't make edits mid-stream. We just followed the game as it was presented until it reached its conclusion, then discussed possible solutions. Further playtests refined those bigger changes after that early play session.

Takeaway: Be observant of player behavior, emergent patterns, mood shifts, and most especially any rules that got missed in your initial spoken rules description. It never hurts to repeat a rule or a point of procedure, even if you eventually feel like you sound like a parrot. UnPub is busy and distracting, so you must be persistent and patient.

Playtesting my party game Troll's Dilemma with 20+ players

#3 Generous Advisers
Even outside of the playtests, I was surrounded by some of the friendliest and most generous creative people in the hobby tabletop industry. Between playtests, while I was hurriedly scribbling numbers or applying stickers, folks came by to talk out some of my problems from the prior playtest.

From these discussions, my game went from phased play to turn-based play, with greatly adjusted point values that created multiple paths to victory. In return, I tried to make myself available to talk about other people's games and help them overcome their own hurdles.

(I'm pretty sure I ended up taking more than I gave, though.)

Takeaway: Even time not spent playtesting can be productive for your game. Talk out your problems with friendly audiences. Pay it forward by asking about their own games in exchange. You'd be surprised how universal some problems are, even between vastly different games.

Demoing Koi Pond

#4 Industry Presence
UnPub has quickly become a farm team for tabletop publishers. Dozens of games have graduated from UnPub's main event or satellite UnPub Mini events around the world, becoming published games on your store shelves.

This year alone, seven games were signed by the end of Sunday. Who knows how many more will be picked up in weeks and months to come? I do hope UnPub as a program keeps playtesting and development as its core mission, having an industry presence at the main event is a nice bit if inspiration for all the designers present. Just being able to talk out a pitch with a real publisher is educational for any new designer.

In my case, I didn't intend to get signed because I knew my game wasn't ready yet. I just wanted to get it played and revised. Having industry at the table was still very useful.

Takeaway: Know your goal for UnPub. Do you want to get signed or just get feedback for a game still in development? Designers around you might be getting signed by publishers, so prepare your emotional state for that. Do not fear rejection, use it as a stepping stone.

Demoing Suspense: The Card Game

Bonus Takeaways
  • Actively seek players, especially if you don't get much foot traffic. Be friendly, welcoming, and (though it pains me to have to say this) well-groomed.
  • Tell playtesters the player-count, time span, and age range. This year, players got raffle tickets for each feedback form they turned in. So, committing to a one-hour game had literal opportunity costs compared to playing three 20min games.
  • Adjust your pitch and description according to the audience. Don't reference other media or games if you can help it. Not all geekdoms overlap.
  • State the kind of feedback you're looking for before each playtest. Is a particular mechanic troubling you, for example?
  • Describe your game's Theme in a single sentence, then the Goal of play as it pertains to that theme, then very basic steps of gameplay taking special care to introduce unique game terms for any components.
  • Bring hand sanitizer and offer it to others. It's a good ice breaker.
  • Learn how to project your voice from your belly, not from your head. It will save you many days of recovery from a sore throat.
  • If you have first-turn order based on age, it's a nice surreptitious way of seeing the age range of your playtesters.

Overall it was a fantastic four-day visit. I got to playtest The River Ancient a total of 7 times, for players ranging in age from 10 to mid-50s. I also demoed Suspense: the Card Game, Nine Lives Card Game, Koi Pond, and promoted Belle of the Ball.


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