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This is the blog of a first time game designer trying to figure out what the heck he's doing.


Gencon: A Unity of Strangers

This is mainly the story of a not terribly smart, and relatively expensive marketing decision I made for my little indie board game company, but at its center is a story about the ever evolving design of my latest game, and how a couple of rule changes meant I ended up giving away the store on my first trip out into the wider world.

This is a story about Gencon.

I’d always planned on going. I’d been to Indy back in 2018 where got to mess around in the First Exposure Hall. This is where designers show off their rough around the edges prototypes and get in a few playtests. I got to try some amazing games, and talking to other game designers gave me the push to start making my own game. I badly wanted to join their ranks. So when GenCon came back in 2021, I signed right up.

To be honest, though, I was a little distracted. I'd been playtesting for a while, but with COVID running around I couldn't really get people to my table. So, I was spending a lot of time working on the design and art instead of the gameplay. Maybe because that’s where my head was at, a lot of the build up to GenCon for me was about marketing instead of mechanics. I made fliers and business cards. I doubled down on the design for my prototypes and made sure they looked as good as possible. First Exposure’s website mentioned that people could bring a stand up sign, which sounded good, but I was convinced I had a better idea.

See, my game has two win conditions. You can either win as a group, or steal the win for yourself. Before the pandemic, I’d iterated the game a bunch of times and so far out of my forty odd tests, the group had won exactly twice. The first one was thanks to a devious plan, and the other was thanks to a dedicated group of friends who’d played my game a few times. Every other attempt ended with someone winning on their own.

So, when I came up with the grand idea of having t-shirts made, and handing them out to the winners of each of my playtests at First Exposure, I was certain I’d only be handing out four or five over the course of the con. I honestly figured I could make one batch and I’d be set for a whole bunch of events.

By my fourth playtest in Indianapolis, I was down to two XXL’s, and a Medium. In every single game at GenCon, the group won.

Again, this was after forty tests, and exactly two group wins. That's only five percent! But then I go to GenCon and…world peace, world peace, world peace. Instead of handing out one t-shirt here or there, I had a table full of winners waiting for well-deserved merch.

So, what the hell was going on? The game was still kind of working, but there wasn’t even a hint of deception. No one even tried. I’d spent the last couple years trying to work out how to get people to work together, and suddenly I had the opposite problem. I hadn’t even told them about the t-shirts before the game started, so it couldn’t have been that.

As I sat down in the food court outside of the First Exposure hall, staring into my now very much empty merch bags, I racked my brain trying to work out how this got turned around so hard.

I’m still not exactly sure, but looking back I have my theories.

In all my tests before that fateful GenCon, my playtesters did have one thing in common: they knew everyone else at the table. I tested at every different venue I could find, but each group I went to had been playing games with each other for ages. They had existing rivalries and quiet alliances.

My playtesters at GenCon did not.

At First Exposure, I’d insisted on playtesting at the max player count, mostly because I wanted to see if the game would bust at the seams, but also to expose as many people to the game as I could. (This also had a helping hand in why I was out of t-shirts so fast.) With eight seats at my table, there was always room for multiple friend groups. There were usually two or three couples and maybe a family all joining the table at the same time. All strangers.

And no one wanted to be the bad guy.

This was where the social contract I’d been waiting for finally kicked in. It’s one thing to try to screw over an old rival, but it’s another to try getting one over on some cool gamers you just met at the con. Especially when you had an easy villain to chase after instead: the game.

This was the first time I heard people actually personifying and plotting against the game. They cheered when they managed a good round, and boo’ed at the board when it gave them a difficult rumor card. Each group quickly defined their own personal goal: They wanted to beat the game.

As I handed out my last large t-shirt on the last day of the con, I asked one player, “Did you ever consider going rogue?”

“Not really,” He said. “I got excited as we learned and started being able to strategize our turns. We got good together, and that was really fun. I can’t see anyone sitting down to this and not wanting to immediately beat the game! I don’t think anyone would ever want to try to win on their own.”

I paused for a moment, then asked, “But now that you have beat the game…how would you play a second round of this?”

Then he paused, turned, and finally said. “I retract my last statement.”

And we both smiled.

After he left, I sighed, and plopped into a chair at my now empty table. As the din of a few dozen playtests spiraled around me, I opened up my notebook to a clean page, and begrudgingly wrote: 7.0.

I finally had a puzzle worth solving, and now I had to figure out how to tempt players to blow it all up.

P.S. If you have one of those t-shirts, hang onto it. They might become a collector’s item. I don’t think I’m ever trying that again! 🙂

Take a look at our new game, The Last Summit.

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