On Saturday, the 4th of June, 2022, we attended the Evergreen Tabletop Expo in Redmond, Seattle. It was our first visit to Seattle, and as we crested the hill and saw the city laid out below us, I was delighted to feel excitement fizzing inside my chest.
I have travelled so much, and felt so jaded from it, that I thought maybe I couldn’t feel that thrill of seeing a place I had only heard about. It surprised me that I felt that way about Seattle, but Nirvana was such a big part of my formative years that I guess the city they came from was more strongly connected to my emotions than I expected.
We got up at 5am, and left before 6, picking up doughnuts to snack on, and coffee for George. We shared a glazed doughnut so I could take my morning meds, then I got behind the wheel and started north on 205.
I haven’t driven much since we got here this time around, for a lot of reasons, so this was a big move – but I also promised George that he wasn’t going to be doing all the driving this time, and I wanted to keep my promise. The aim was that I would drive until I was tired, or until we got into the greater Seattle area, in case my lack of driving experience in the USA made the city environment too overwhelming. I was right about that – at times, there were 7 lanes of heavy traffic to negotiate! I’m still getting used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, so that would have been a bit much.
We swapped drivers at Centralia, and George got us safely to Patty’s Eggnest in Northgate to meet up with my Facebook friend, Cindy.
Cindy is an experienced gamer, and she was kind enough to play-test two of the games we brought with us, One Person’s Trash and The Valley, which I will cover further on in this entry. We had never met in person, so we thought we should get breakfast together first and get used to each other before we dived into the convention. Cindy’s recommendation of Patty’s Eggnest was great – I really enjoyed my “mini” (lol) meal, and George was pleased with his omelette.
Once we got to Redmond, it was another of those really American experiences that remind me that I am not “from here”: the hotel where the convention was being held was in the middle of a really artificial-feeling “town centre” that felt like it had all been designed and built at the same time, to the same design, like a Disney town. It was attractive in a very curated, oversized, commercially American way.
The convention itself took up a large room, the adjacent hallway, and another room where the speakers and panels took place. We set up in the open play area, and didn’t really leave it at all, except to go out and try to find lunch around 5pm.
Testing Ladybird Logic: Mushroom Maze
We spent the last week trying to crank out our test solution for the different playing levels for LLMM. I accidentally ordered the wrong size of hex tiles in my prototype, so we were trying to work around that.
We tried just making the flowers higher than the hexes, but that still made them knock over whatever was on the tile, so then, using a “flying stem” or “flight stand” that George has for his miniatures, we came up with a solution that worked really well! We could only test it with one of them, though, so we decided to build a temporary solution.
Fellow designer Bevan Clatworthy gave me the great idea of calling them “mushrooms”, which completes the “Mushroom Maze” concept and really fills out the theme.
We got Dollar Store checkers and glued on cheap golf tees to try to replicate the effect of the flying stems. They are chunkier and heavier, but they allowed us to finally set up the whole hex layer – which immediately highlighted two major problems.
- the larger hexes don’t actually fit next to each other
- they block the view of, and access to, the flowers below, where most of the action happens
So it’s back to the drawing board on that one – we are getting close, but this wasn’t something to work through at a convention, so they went right back into the box. Sigh.
One Person’s Trash
We played several rounds of OPT with Cindy, with George taking the lead on the teach as he had made some changes during his development of the game.
Unfortunately, because we were under so much pressure to get things done before the convention, we didn’t communicate enough before George began his development testing, so he worked from incomplete/incorrect premises, and I didn’t realise that he had changed some core functionality that I didn’t want to lose.
I have a pretty casual approach to most of the “outer” elements of the rules I write, but some core functions are part of the essential experience of the game and mustn’t be changed.
For OPT, it’s really important that players pick up each other’s discard piles – that’s the “other person’s treasure” aspect that I absolutely don’t want to lose. The exact rules that cause people to pick up the discard piles can change, but that part absolutely must happen.
We will follow a more structured testing format in future!
We decided to test refilling your whole hand each turn, in other words, a hand minimum of 7, rather than only picking up one card, and I thought that made more sense.
We played several hands, trying a few variations on the rules, and kept coming up against something I don’t really want to change – but having 10 suits makes it harder, not easier, to make runs.
Cindy made the inspired suggestion to try having two suits on the same card, so that’s what I will be working on next. I think that will resolve some of the balancing issues, and add an extra layer of originality to the gameplay that I haven’t seen in similar games.
Play-testing the Valley with Cindy was really satisfying, because this didn’t feel like testing so much as playing. We stopped, chatted, didn’t rush through anything, and played it like it was a real game, not a prototype. The only problems were classic prototype issues like the meeples falling over.
The game took just under 2 hours with all the stopping and talking, so I estimate it played at 1h20 of actual gameplay. That’s perfect for the hardest level of the game – we had all the Spice cards and Night cards in play, and none of the shortcuts.
Cindy won, but by an acceptable margin: she got 146, I got 134, and George got 132. We each followed differently playing styles: I like to hoard resources then make a LOT of recipes at once; George likes to quietly accumulate; and Cindy was very focused on the Goals.
A game of this length can’t be easily shown at conventions, so we started talking about how to set it up about 20 minutes into gameplay for people to experience some of the coolness of the game without having to play the whole thing. Then I started wondering if that meant we should actually skip those first 20 minutes. As Sen-Foong Lim puts it, starting in media res for conventions can actually lead to important refinements to the game itself, and I think this will be that last major change that tightens up the gameplay. We think we will have people draw two bookmarked recipes from the Thyme River in player order, in the same way as they would normally, but as part of the set up – sort of like card drafting, but without passing the cards around. We will also test if the last card in the River “burns” during this process as well, or not.
We also found a few of the issues I had identified were definitely still a problem: the icons on the recipe cards are still too small, the pairs on the goal cards are still too hard to identify, and the Thyme board is still too dark to read. It’s also hard to read from across the table, so I will try to make the Nightfall content shorter and the font larger.
As far as Goals go, we are going to test completing a goal whenever you can meet it, but using actions to choose a Goal card – possibly allowing people to invest as many action tokens as they want to give them more cards to choose from, but only allowing one new Goal per Goal action. We will also test whether you can select an additional Goal while you still have an incomplete one. My feeling is yes, because I don’t want people to be stuck all game with one Goal they can’t complete.
Overall, though, the game itself plays the way it’s supposed to and feels very satisfying when you get to the points where you can take a big action, like making a bookmarked Recipe, or completing a Goal. I feel really positive about this game being almost ready to go!
That was a terrible idea – I will take the advice of my experienced friends and make myself a strict timetable for future events, and make sure that I don’t miss meals or scheduled events. The difficulty was that we needed to drive all the way back to Portland on the same day, so we weren’t going to have time to play games in the evening after the other events were over.
I am a diabetic who suffers from migraines, and eating regularly is really important for me. Not eating lunch until 5pm was a disastrous decision. I was already feeling too ill from not eating and too much time in the stuffy room, as well as being tired from the early start and the demands of teaching my games and meeting lots of people. Only having a single crepe when I did eat wasn’t the best plan, but it was the most I could manage. As a result, I had to fight off a migraine for the rest of the day. If I catch it in time, I can self-medicate with a Mexican Coke – it has the right amount of caffeine and sugar to fend off or at least delay the worst effects of a migraine. In this case, I was able to keep socialising, but wasn’t able to play a game or drive, and three days later, I am still feeling the effects of it all.
It was definitely nice to get out and about, though, and have a look at one of the local game stores, Uncle’s Games, and see some of our wishlist games!
I almost completely forgot to give out business cards! Super glad that I remembered by the end of the day and gave them to the people who were sharing our table, as well as to the ETX staff member who admired our shirts.
A long drive home, PNW style
We eventually left a couple of hours later than we planned, which would probably have been ok, except for the relentless, pouring rain almost all the way home. We stopped at 10pm for a regrettable Burger King experience, then eventually got home to some very relieved pets around 1am.
That alone was a lot to ask of either of us, and added to all the other stresses of a long day, probably isn’t something we should attempt too often. It’s fine to drive several hours each way for a fun day trip, but not if there’s a lot of cognitive load or social interaction expected as well!
Still, it was a great adventure, and while we learnt a lot of things we will try not to repeat, we also had some really great experiences: we taught our games to new people, we met Cindy in person, and we started getting back into the real world of personal interactions again at last!
Make a schedule, and stick to it!
If I have a set schedule at conventions, including meals, and give myself space to recover, get fresh air, and attend the events that interest me, I will do better. It stresses me out if I make a schedule and it doesn’t get kept, so I have been trying to go with the flow more, but it clearly isn’t good for me, so in future, my self-care will involve making time to feed myself, rest, and participate in the convention.
Only show one game
I was so excited to have so many prototypes ready to go, but I have to acknowledge that I am out of the habit of crowds, meeting people, and too inexperienced with teaching any games, let alone my own, to expect myself to immediately ramp up to teaching them ALL.
In future, I will only bring the game I want people to test the most, and focus on that. Once I have published games to sell, I know that will change, but for now, that’s my plan.
Accept my limitations
I’m not as young as I was, and I am not as resilient as I used to be, and that’s ok – I have to give myself permission to pace myself! That probably means that I need more time to get to and from events – which will hopefully also reduce my recovery time afterwards! I think arriving the night before and leaving the morning after will dramatically increase my ability to participate fully in the convention.
Longer stays with pets are something we will need to plan around – we were very lucky to have our neighbours come over and give our dog toilet breaks during the day, but that’s not a fair thing to expect if we stay away overnight, and the cats had to be locked up in separate rooms, too, so they wouldn’t fight or try to escape out the front door. We would really need a housesitter or to find a good pet hotel if we plan to attend longer conventions.
Formal debrief process
Awkwardly, when we were explaining One Person’s Trash to Cindy, we both discovered that we each had a different idea of the rules! That was not the best impression to give, so it was another learning experience that I was glad not to have in front of a complete stranger.
George and I often forget to formalise aspects of our lives because we live together and we usually communicate pretty well – so it’s awkward when we realise that we have misunderstood each other, especially when it happens in a public setting. No one wants to listen to people arguing, even gently! So we are going to add a formal debrief step into our process after every development session, and document it so we don’t get confused.
It was really interesting for me, as the designer, to try and understand all the changes George had made while he was developing the game, but that’s something we should go over in private, rather than managing conflicting interpretations of the rules in front of an audience.
Hiring a game teacher
Everyone feels weird about self-promotion. It’s always easier to promote the work of another person that it is to promote your own. On top of that, experienced game teachers give a much better impression and experience than people who are fumbling their way through and tripping over their own rules.
I think I would feel much more comfortable talking to people about my game designs if I had someone whose job was to teach the games themselves. So once we are ready to do the bigger events, I think our budget will include paying someone whose sole job will be to teach the games, while we focus on all the other things you do at a convention, like talking to publishers, selling merch, and generally socialising.
Thanks for reading!