Nonepub 2020 – A Virtual Playtest Convention

  After the pretty good time we had at online Protospiel in July, we decided to give Nonepub a try in August. This is the online version of Unpub, which is a huge meet in the world of game design, in Philadelphia. Of course I’d heard of this one, but never been, because it’s in Philadelphia and I’m not. But, now the venue was the same as it was for Protospiel: my basement! Bill and I decided to attend and get some playtesting of Sinoda done. We had changed the end of game conditions for playing with 3+ players, and wanted to test that it worked the way we wanted it to. These days, it’s difficult to get a group of people together to sit that close, for safety’s sake. 

Nonepub Attendee Badge
I didn’t actually wear it in front of the computer, because I was never on screen. Was I supposed to?

  So we signed up and were e-mailed a schedule. Unfortunately, we didn’t sign up right away, so the only reserved testing blocks we could get were on Friday morning from 11-3. This fit our schedules, but wasn’t a very busy time, and there weren’t as many playtesters around for that time. But, I played a couple of games, and Bill and I each got to run a 3-player game of Sinoda that morning, and they went well.

  After that, there was another block of games by other designers for us to join and try their games to offer feedback, but there were also panels and speakers on the Nonepub Twitch channel. These were going to be recorded for later viewing for those who missed them, but I knew that I wouldn’t get to them later. It was better that I watched them on the schedule. So I watched a talk about designing an experience in the game for the players before heading back to get in some games.

  With so much time spent in the same chair in front of the same computer in the same room, I actually can’t remember which games I played on which days now (and my butt is sore). I know what order I played them in, but without even a window in the room, I’m not sure what time of day it was when I played them. So, I will tell you about what I played, but to avoid being wrong, I won’t try to guess one which day I played them.

Icon

  The first game I played was Icon, by Mike Trias of Koalatie Games. In this game, the players are DJs battling for fame and fortune (and fans). This had a really neat mechanism in which the board in the middle, shaped like a record, rotated. There were labels around the outside of the board for different types of music, such as Rock, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Pop, etc, and underneath each label were  placed 3 cards. The cards represented different types of fans, and it was these that we needed to collect in order to earn points to win the game. At the side of the board were more cards, which explained how the fans were scored. An additional coolness was that these were drawn from a deck, so the fans might not score the same way each game. Anyway, there were five types: Couples (pink cards) which gave more points the more pairs of them you had, Critics (orange cards), which just gave you more points for having more of them, Bandwagoners (yellow cards), which were great because you got points for having a few of them, but once you got past a certain threshold, you started losing points for having more of them. In our game, the optimal was three, since you’d get 11 points for having three, but if you had four of them at the end of the game, you’d only get 8 points, and so on. I don’t remember what the green cards were, but the blue ones, Average Fans, you could add to a set of one of each of the other types to get points that way.   

  One of the things that I thought was cool was the way you got the cards. Everyone simultaneously played a card from their hand that matched one of the music genres. Then you placed your token on that spot at the edge of the record. If you were the only player there, you got the card on top of the stack (the cards were slightly tiered so you could see what they all were). If not, players would bid influence for the card. Then, players could play Gear cards, which affected placement on the board. For example, a Scratch card lets the player rotate the record portion of the board a certain number of spaces left or right, thus changing which stack each player was in front of. Other cards allowed a player to move their own token, another player’s token, or a card to a new stack. A timer was set, and players would hit their buzzer to stop the timer when they wanted to play a card, so there was this great tension of waiting until the last second to see if anyone would play a card before you. 

  I’m more of a hard rock/metal guy, and not a club/DJ scene aficionado, so the theme didn’t jump out at me as something I had to try, but I did really get into the game and enjoyed playing it. The visuals were really cool too. The symbols used on the Gear cards were a microphone, headphones, a record, and a piano, which were also the letters in the title of the game, Icon. I thought that was cleverly conceived and executed.

  If you’re at a prototyping event in the next little while and see this being offered, I strongly suggest you give it a try! 

Wormholes

  Another game I played was Wormholes by Peter McPherson. In Wormholes, players have a spaceship and are traveling from planet to planet to pick up and drop off passengers. To help them out, they can drop a wormhole to create a shortcut. Of course, it doesn’t work unless the wormholes have two ends, so both must be deployed before the wormhole is functional.

  On their turn players have two energy to spend on movement, and each hex moved costs one energy. But, there are numerous free actions they can do. It costs nothing to pick up or drop off a passenger at a planet, or to deploy a wormhole, or travel through a wormhole. And, players can use opponents’ wormholes, as well. But, if they do, the owner of the wormhole gets a benefit. The first time someone’s wormhole is used by another player, the owning player gets an extra energy to use on their own turn. Since there is a maximum of three energy, if any of their wormholes are used again before their turn, they gain a Victory Point. One of the players in our game set up such a convenient network of wormholes, I used his a lot, and gave him a pile of VPs.

  Extra points can be earned by completing missions, which were on card players could draw. These were goals such as delivering a certain number of passengers to a specific planet, or creating a wormhole from one specific planet to another. Of course, you couldn’t just take the passengers to the planet YOU wanted to take them to; the topmost tile on the stack of passengers on each planet was face up and the tile said where the passenger wanted to go. This made for a neat balancing of picking up and delivering the easiest passenger because the planet was close, or going a bit further out to get the passenger that would help me complete my goal (and get them before someone else did!)

  I know some people don’t like games that add points at the end, but allow players to see who is winning the whole time, but I don’t mind them, and in this case, made the game pretty exciting. It was very difficult to tell by looking at the board who had the most points, since we all focused on different things. I delivered a lot of passengers, but had few VPs earned during the game, whereas my opponents had quite a few VPs showing. And we also didn’t know each other’s missions and whether they’d been completed or not. In the end, I won by a single point! 

  I love spaceships and hex-based games, and I really liked being the interplanetary taxi here. You could say I was über the moon. I was ready for Lyft off. You talkin’ to me?

More Panels and Seminars

  Like I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of panels and guest talks going on over on the Twitch channel. On Friday, I watched the keynote talk by Eric Lang, which was great, because he is interesting and so successful and well-known in the industry, and also, I hadn’t seen him since high school. His talk was fun, and he had great ideas to share. At one point, as an example in a story he was telling, he made up an idea for a game about playing a person with a sugar addiction, and the point of the game is to stop their health from declining. Now I have a pretty good idea about creating “Dice-abetes”. 

  On Friday, I also watched the Experience Design for Tabletop talk, with Jessica Creane and Sarah Shipp, which was about creating an experience for your players, and being aware of what type of experience you want to create.

  I spent the first half of Saturday watching panels. They were:

Turn, Turn, Turn with Geoff Englestein wherein he described the different methods of turn-taking within games, and some of the benefits and downsides  of each, with examples of games that used them.

Fun is Subjective: How to Objectively Design Games with Anthony and Nicole Amato, Heather O’Neill, and Bruce Voge. This was about interpreting feedback from playtesters and knowing when your game is fun for other people.

New Kids on the Block: How 5 Designers Broke into the Board Game Industry with Emma Larkins, Joseph Chen, Victoria Caña, Alexandre Uboldi, and Shawn Stankewich. They each talked about how they got into the industry with their games (as the title describes quite accurately).

Taking Notes: Accepting and Recording Feedback to Games with Jon Gilmour and Doug Levandowski. There were some good ideas for notetaking and responding to feedback while playtesting that will get you the most from your playtest sessions.

And since we’re talking about panel sessions, here’s what I watched on Sunday:

Finding the Core to Your Game with Fertessa Alysse. Fertessa talked about all of the iterations behind her game The Book of Villainy, and her thought processes that went into each one, and figuring out despite all of the changes to the board and how the game worked, what was the core that she was trying to create and express.

The Life of the Party Game Designer with Amy Baio, Eric Slauson, Barry McLaughlin, and Christian Castro. The designers here talked about party games, and how they created their own, with important tips and ideas to keep in mind when creating party games. I enjoyed this talk very much, as many points were brought up that I found applicable to our own party game, Say What, Now?, and it made me even more excited about it.

  I enjoyed all the talks, but felt that I could also be playing games during that time, but knew that if I put off watching the recording until later, I would never get around to it. And that would have been bad, because I felt that I got something from each of the ones I watched. 

  Back to the games!

Outflank

  Outflank, by Thomas Hornemann of Diner State Games was pretty cool. Players had square tiles with a top-down view of a formation of spearmen radiating out from the centre. Each troop on the tile had two ranks and was pointing toward either a side or corner of the tile, but the tile had a number of troops varying from 3 to 5. So, not every side or corner had a troop pointing it. This is important, because the idea of the game is to lay down new tiles connected to your own, but they can only be placed in such a way that a troop on the new tile is pointing directly at a troop on a current tile. In this way, you advance your line of troops toward your opponent, who is doing the same. To capture an opponent’s tile, you need to put down tiles so that you have troops pointing toward two empty spaces on an opponent’s tile, thus outflanking them. The first person to capture 4 opponent’s tiles this way, or capture their starting tile, wins.  

  Players have 7 action points to use during their turn, and placing a tile costs one point per troop depicted on the tile. However, you can use a token, which is a picture of a troop rank, and add it to a tile as you are placing it to bolster its defensiveness by pointing it toward an open side of your tile. This does increase the cost of the tile by one, and you can’t bring the total troops on a tile above 5. Also, you could use the other side of that token, which is blank, to cover one of the troops on your tile, reducing its cost by one. 

  Part way through the game I visualized play stripped down to lines radiating from the centre of the card to the edge, and saw it as a “connect the line of your tiles, and point at the opponent’s blank spots”. Thomas had thought of this as well, since he asked about a different theme, and we thought about how many themes you could do with the same idea, even straight abstract. But, as I expressed, I liked this theme, because I like historical and fantasy combat games and it had a “strategic placement of troops” feel. But I could see releasing the exact same game with a bunch of different themes to appeal to different audiences. Worms digging tunnels? Lasers reflecting and refracting from prisms in the centre of the card? Railway hubs with train routes? I dunno… do people like train games?

  Anyway, I liked it the way it was, even though my powers of visualization kept failing me and I would come up with a great plan, only to find the tile didn’t fit in the way I thought it did.

Hedge Mage

  Hedge Mage is a neat two-player game that could be adapted to four players, by Connor Wake. The idea is that you have two meeples who are sneaking into the neighbour’s garden to plant flags on pedestals that are set around the board. Both players have gardens’ and meeples in the other’s garden. The gardens start wide open, but each turn someone draws a polyomino tile that is a piece of a hedge maze. Both players place an identical piece in their own garden to restrict the movement of their opponent’s meeples to prevent them from getting to the pedestals to plant their flags. Once the pieces have been placed, both players move both of their meeples. The movement is based on the alignment of star symbols on the hedge pieces. And I thought this part was pretty clever. You look at all of the spaces in the columns and rows that the tile you placed occupies. Then count up any stars in those spaces. The number of stars is the number of squares each of your own meeples can move. For example, if the tile you placed is 2 squares wide but 4 squares tall, you’d look in the 2 columns and 4 rows that your tile is in. This way, you need to balance your need to restrict your opponent’s movement with your own desire for more movement. 

  As additional resources, each player has three tokens that represent holes in the hedge that they can use, but they only have three for the entire game. 

  When placing tiles, you can’t place one such that a meeple can’t move, or a pedestal is totally cut off from one of the 4 gates on the sides of the garden board. That, obviously would be too easy, if you could just surround the objectives to make them inaccessible, or make it so the opponent can’t make any moves. 

  I thought this was a lot of fun, and imagined it as a wizard’s garden, with local hooligans being hired to plant flags or somesuch as a prank by a rival wizard. This is the main idea, which is why it is Hedge Mage and not Hedge Maze, and that the hedge springs up around the players as they run around. Connor also said he was thinking of adding additional symbols to the tiles, like a fireball, so that if they line up when placed, the placing player gets to burn a hole on the hedge or something. I really like the idea of wizards trying to defend their gardens using magic. Oh! Maybe instead of planting flags, they are stealing magical flowers which are used as potion ingredients? Are you reading this Connor? How about that idea?

  Another cool thing about this session was that Connor told me how to do screenshots of Tabletop Simulator, so I can finally put pictures in these write-ups! Now there will be stuff to look at instead of words and clicking the embedded links in the text to see where they go! 

Hedge Mage
Yeah! I actually added a picture to break up the text! This was a fun game to play.

O.D.D.

  The next two games I played were both by David Gordon. The first was O.D.D. – Obsessively Democratic Diplomats. Each player is a different alien race on a planet where everything is run by vote. Players vote on which resources to mine, the changes to the market prices of the resources, and laws that affect the market and mining. Players have a hand of three cards which tell them which resource orders to fill and how much money they will gain from doing it. A player can fulfill any one of the orders in their hand, but if they lay one down face up for everyone to see, and they fulfill that one, they get a bonus in money. The voting is done by place tokens, face down, so no one can see whether you’ve placed an upvote or a downvote on a specific item. This is a great system, and one I wish existed back when I did go to clubs a few times when I was younger, as I wanted to go to the DJ and request to cancel the request of the next person to request a specific overplayed song.

  Anyway, this makes for a neat bluff mechanic which I tried out, as I placed an order face-up that required Uranium as a resource, and then placed a negative vote on the Uranium resource that was available. The player beside me also needed Uranium, and assumed I wanted it as well and had placed a positive vote on it, so chose to place his vote tokens elsewhere. Instead, I voted for Water, and voted to lower the price of water on the market, since I had a card in my hand that gave me a lot of money for getting 5 Water resources. That was the one I intended to fill.

ODD board
Tracking and altering the market on resources, and mining them. After we vote on everything, of course.

  One of the things I liked about this was that if you voted for a resource card, you got a conciliation amount printed on the bottom of the card, even if that one didn’t win. When votes don’t go your way, you’re not left with nothing, you just need to reconfigure your plans a bit, or put them on hold until they do go your way. I didn’t feel like I was ever screwed over by not getting what I wanted, just set back slightly. And players who don’t use all of their votes in one round get more for next round, allowing them to just let things go for a turn and try for more control the following turn.

Boring

  David also brought along a game that was less far in development, called Boring. The premise is that a rich person has left behind an inheritance to be given to the person who can best perform the mundane and boring life task of waiting in line. On the board are many places to be in line, such as the grocery store, a traffic jam, the DMV, etc. Cards drawn during set up determine how long the line at each already is, and then players choose which line to join. The next round is a trick-taking card game in which the suits are Waiting, Paperwork, Tech Support, and Lining Up (I think. I might have misremembered one of them). There are 8 tricks to be taken, and players earn buying power for each trick they take. These are spent on tokens that give Victory Points and one time use special bonuses. For each trick players don’t win, they get to advance one place in line. Getting to the front of the line allows them to take the set up card, which now functions as a trump card in their hand, or as another player suggested calling it, a Queue Card. 

  This was still in early development and testing, but I like the idea of a game in which players have to wait in a series of lines trying to get to the front of each to accomplish the goal. David was also working with the idea of a randomizer that might call the wrong person to the front of the line, or move them up a spot, which I think is hilarious, as it captures the “they just got here and I’ve been here for an hour! Why are they going first?” frustration. Maybe there could be a card you play like “I want to speak to the manager” which has a chance of moving you up, but also a chance it might push you back. I don’t know why I think a game in which you replay frustrating and boring parts of regular day-today life, but for some reason, it appeals to me. If there’s one thing British people know how to do, it’s queue. Oh my… I’ve just thought: maybe get the IP of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie and set it in a Vogon administrative building!   

  Anyway, I thought it was a neat concept and am curious to see how it evolves.

Pest Quest

  The last game I played for the weekend was Pest Quest by Max Helmberger. Max is an entomology Ph.D. student, and is using his field of study (which is literally a field, I guess, since he’s studying soil ecology), which informs and lends research to his game. We played it to help him get some of the bugs out. Pest Quest is a cooperative game in which plates take on different roles managing a crop field at a farm. Each turn, the Scout turns over tiles on the field (a 6×8 grid) to reveal insect infestation, secondary pests, natural enemies (good insects that eat the harmful ones), pollinators, or a clear space. The players then choose which pesticides to spray and where in order to attempt to knock down the infestations (which can be major or minor). Unfortunately, pesticides don’t only affect the bugs you don’t want, and can also destroy pollinators (reducing your crop yield and therefore your profit) and the natural enemies (potentially allowing secondary pests to become uncontrolled and harmful). 

Pest Quest board
Our field and its infestations. But we also harmed our pollinators and decreased the natural enemies of the secondary pests, letting them run amok and cause damage to our crops.

  I liked the roles and cooperative nature of the game, and I learned what an Extension Agent is! Part of the purpose of the game is teaching and providing a better understanding of how insecticides affect populations, even the ones you want! The bonuses that can be purchased are also cool, like parasitoids and borrowed pollinators, and represent the types of things actually available to farmers to help with their crops. Extension Agents can get upgrades like scientific studies that improve the effectiveness of the pesticides or other bonuses.

  But setting the insects aside, I like cooperative games in general, especially enjoy games with learning and educational potential, and I enjoyed the theme and purpose behind this one. 

  It was after this that I got to watch four people play Sinoda to test the new end conditions. It went really well and the feedback was encouraging that we were on the right path. Thank you to Max, Tigh, Tuesday, and Kirsten for joining me and playing. It was fun watching you play. Even though I couldn’t see you. 

  So now I was fairly tired, my butt hurt from sitting, and my ears were sore from ill-fitting earbuds. That marked the end of Nonepub 2020. I will keep saying that I would rather have attended a live convention, but it will probably be a couple of years before I can afford to travel anywhere, so it was great that I was able to participate in playtesting with people I otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and wouldn’t even have met, likely.

  Thank you to all of the staff and volunteers who helped people with technical problems and directed people to tables for playtesting. Thank you to all of the panelists who took the time and braved more potential technical problems to share ideas, advice, and expertise. Thank you to everyone who took the time to play Sinoda with me or Bill and give feedback.

  It was great meeting everyone, and I hope to see you and your games again in the future. Please take care and stay healthy.

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