BACK IN 2012, I FOUND ONE OF THE HOLY GRAILS OF BOARD GAMING—THE PERFECT BOARD GAMING CLUB.
I was in London on business when I did a search for board game events and discovered London On Board, a London board gaming club.
There were events practically every night of the week hosted at various pubs all easily accessible by the London Underground, the subway system. Yes, you could show up, order a beer and fish and chips, and start playing the latest designer board games with friendly Londoners. These events were held upstairs or downstairs in the pub, seemingly a world away from the hustle and bustle of London. I can’t even think of any board gaming scene in the US that comes close. Even at conventions it’s rare to be able to drink beer and play games out in the open.
So, when my work required me to return to London this year, I knew I wanted to check out London On Board again, except this time I would up the ante and bring my prototypes for some cross-continent playtesting. I planned to bring Ruthless Pirates and Secret Game X which is being published soon by Secret Company Y. I wish I could say more, but Company Owner Z would kill me otherwise. I approached Company Owner Z about my plan and he loved the idea. I got my prototypes ready for the trip.
A ROCKY START
Ok, here is the part of the story where things got choppy. I joined the London On Board Meetup group, RSVPed for some events and then sent out messages that I would be coming to playtest prototype game from Secret Company Y. I thought maybe that would spark some interest.
Instead, I got a message from a London On Board organizer that the night I had RSVPed for wasn’t really “an appropriate night” to be doing playtesting since it was a newbie game night, and that I should try Playtest UK instead. Of course, Playtest UK was happening the following week after I would be back home. I tried asking if prototypes were still OK to bring and the organizer said “occasionally, but not really encouraged.” Gulp.
As I pondered my next move, I received a notice from Meetup that I had been removed from the London On Board Meetup group. Oh no. Maybe I didn’t retract my request for playtesters fast enough?
I panicked for a moment, then sent an email to the London on Board organizers asking why I had been removed. As it turned it out, it was a just an innocent mistake and I was not intentionally removed. So I rejoined and RSVPed again. Despite these initial setbacks, I decided to bring my prototypes anyway, but avoid the newbie game night.
THE FIRST PLAYTEST
My first playtest was Monday Night Gaming at the Red Herring pub. I arrived right at 6:30 pm since I remembered that tables fill up quickly.
I managed to grab the very last table, a small table in the corner and proceeded to start setting up my Secret Game X.
I introduced myself to Teri, the event organizer, and she seemed OK with me being there and helped me find a nice couple to come playtest my game. The table was way too small to fit my game, but we made it work and the couple seemed to have fun. At the end, they said they would recommend the game to others and they thought it seemed like a good game for newcomers.
After that, I got really lucky. A big table of gamers next to me was just finishing up King of Tokyo at the same time my first playtest was done. I quickly pulled out Ruthless Pirates and asked both tables if they would like to play a prototype (Ruthless Pirates can play up to 8 players.) Surprisingly, they all said yes, and after a brief rules explanation, we were soon wheeling and dealing in nasty pirate ways. It was another fun playtest with lots of interesting suggestions for how to make the game even better. I ended the night with a quick game of Machi Koro, a nice dice game to wind down a packed night of gaming.
THE SECOND PLAYTEST
My second playtest was Thursday Night Gaming at the Bishop’s Finger. Again, I arrived early to snag a table, except this time all tables were already taken!
I introduced myself to Lloyd, the event organizer, and saw Teri again. Lloyd warned me that this group was not always very receptive to prototypes.
After ordering a delicious platter of sausage and mash, I jumped into a game of Tokaido. I figured I’d play a game and then invite players to playtest one of my games. Except when Tokaido finished, our table was consumed by an Agricola tournament and we moved to a really small table. Folks really didn’t want to play any prototypes, so we played Tsuro of the Seas instead. I kept checking the time, thinking, there’s still time, there’s still time.
After Tsuro of the Seas, I still couldn’t get anyone to playtest one of my games. Lloyd invited me to play Endeavor. He said it would take about 90 minutes. There were maybe 2 hours left. At this point, playtesting seemed unlikely.
Endeavor finished at 9:15 pm and I made one last push to playtest Secret Game X. Lloyd said the bar would close by 10:30 pm and I said my game would finish just in time. With a shrug, Lloyd, Teri, and one other guy decided to take a chance on my game.
LET ME SAY IT WAS INTIMIDATING TO HAVE TWO LONDON ON BOARD ORGANIZERS PLAYTEST MY GAME.
Lloyd said he had rated over 1400 games! Teri went to Essen every year. I sure hoped my game would impress enough.
Nearby tables were being wiped down and the rest of the room was pretty much empty by the time the game ended. There were many helpful comments, mostly good, and as a table, they “quite liked the game” and would recommend the game to others. I felt a thrill that my games seemed to be making the cut with these very discerning gamers.
I left London with renewed pride in my games, feeling like maybe I had some good things to offer the larger gaming world.
My playtesters: Tom, Lloyd, and Teri
TIPS AND LESSONS LEARNED
What do I suggest if you want to playtest your game with a foreign group of players?
- Be Prepared:
Make sure your prototypes are in the best possible shape. New players may be scared away by prototypes that have lots of marked-up elements, such as player aides with crossed-out paragraphs and new text written in with a red pen. So, print out fresh copies of everything if needed. Also, it can help to pre-package starting elements to make setup easier. You can place starting materials for each player in their own plastic bag. You can choose random elements in advance and store them in another plastic bag.
- Follow the Club Rules:
If the organizer says no prototypes are welcome a particular night, such as for a newbie night, then you need to respect that rule. If a board gaming club has written rules, it’s a good idea to read them ahead of time to make sure you are not violating any rules.
- Introduce Yourself to the Organizer:
I think it really helps to introduce yourself to the organizer of the board game event. They will likely give you tips for finding players and may even introduce you to players who are more likely to say yes to your playtest. Plus, if you can convince the organizer to playtest your game, others may want to join whatever the organizer is doing.
- Be Honest, But Not Pushy:
I think it’s OK to tell other players you are at the board game night to playtest your games. Let people know up front what your agenda is. However, once you have done so, I think it’s also important to be flexible with your plans. If folks want to play some other game first, be willing to join them. Sometimes, players will warm up to you as they get to know you and may be more willing to take a chance on your game after they have gamed with you for a while.