On a recent rainy Saturday, the 13-year-old space admiral sitting across the table from Julia Drachman has decided to go nuclear — and Drachman is caught totally unaware.
“You’re going to nuke me?” she shouts in dismay at her opponent, Iris Kaufman, sounding like someone who never imagined her foe might use the nuclear option just a few moves into the prototype board game that Drachman herself created.
Drachman, the co-creator of the game, For All Mankind, explains that the nuclear option is supposed to be … well, the nuclear option. It’s meant to come last in a game where opponents race to colonize the solar system.
She and her partner and co-creator, Doug Beyers, are literally making up For All Mankind as they go. They’ve spent about a year on the game, and on this day, they are play-testing it at an event hosted by playtestNW at Mox Boarding House in Ballard.
The idea is for game designers — newbies and professionals alike — to shake down their ideas in a real-world environment, at weekly events around the region that are open to the public. Some show up with game boards made out of cardboard or cards on poster board with hand-drawn art. Others have more advanced versions that might soon be bought by a commercial publisher or offered on Kickstarter.
Drachman and Beyers are on the fifth version of their game board and have reached the stage where they have molded plastic pieces and art that resembles something you’d pull off a shelf. The game, the first they’ve designed, started in their kitchen. They hope to take it public on Kickstarter in February.
“I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to figure out how to calculate the cost of getting from planet to planet, and then Julia asked me what I was working on and I tried to explain it to her,” Beyers said. “I said, ‘Please don’t judge me: I’m making a board game.’ And she was like, ‘OK, weird. But also, what if you use a knot with strings to measure the distance?’ and we’ve just kind of taken it from there.”
So they’re at Mox hoping to squash the last few bugs. And their 13-year-old friend, Iris, has brought them to a difficult question: What happens when a player decides to go nuclear just a few moves into the game?
For Kaufman, it seems like a simple and logical solution.
“I want your fuel,” she says with a dismissive shrug.
Drachman watches as Kaufman drops a little cardboard bomb on her colony.
“I will try not to swear, but you’re testing my limits,” Drachman said.
Scenes like this play out all the time around Seattle, because while it seems like fun and games, playtesting is serious business.
Board games are a $3 billion global industry that’s expected to grow to $8 billion by 2021, with an increasing amount of work done here. The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area is the sixth-best city in the country for board gamers, according to bestplaces.com, and its residents are cashing in on the boom.
Hundreds of folks make a living in the board game industry here. Thousands more don’t, but are nonetheless actively involved in making and sometimes selling their games. There are formal and informal groups gathering in places like Mox or Blue Highway, at the myriad conventions aimed at gamers and geeks and in the Roosevelt-area offices of publishers like Funko, where the vetting of games has become something of a science.
Jen Schneeweis has the deceptively simple title of program manager, but her job of overseeing playtesting and consumer research out of the Funko office is complex. She conducts marketing research, monitors social media for trends and virality, conducts national surveys on things like packaging and design and many other things for the maker of pop culture collectibles. She even goes into family homes to watch the way players of all ages consume their games.
Schneeweis said the goal is to take a board game from idea to shelf in six months, and playtesting is arguably the most important phase of that process. Her philosophy is to test until things stop going wrong — and they’re pretty aggressive about it.
Each game goes through a number of steps. The first is a workshopping stage, where freelance gamers vigorously play a game early in its development. They come into the office a few days a week and play a number of times in rapid succession over a few hours. Who wins (and how) and many other details are recorded as the game is refined.
A lot of change can happen at this stage.
“We need to kill our darlings a lot of times,” Schneeweis said. “You know, if there’s a thing in the game that someone has worked really hard on and they love and they’re like, ‘This is such a cool mechanic.’ It’s only cool if the people playing it get it and it makes sense. So sometimes we’re like, we’ve got to get that out of there.”
It then moves to a playtesting phase, where amateurs who match the game’s targeted demographic take a turn. This is usually done in an observation laboratory, complete with video-monitoring equipment and a two-way mirror.
“Kids get a huge kick out of it,” Schneeweis said. “So they’ll come in, and if they’ve never been in before, they’ll get totally distracted by the mirror. And then they’ll forget about it, which is nice. I always tell them afterward that I can show them what’s behind the mirror and they’re like, ‘There’s something behind the mirror?’”
This sort of testing might happen three or four times a week until all the wrinkles are smoothed and the prototypes are completed. The last step is to play a final version.
“It looks almost like it’s going to look in the store,” Schneeweis said, “and we say, ‘Here, pretend like you just got this game for your birthday.’”
This process takes a lot longer for the half-dozen aspiring game developers gathered at Mox in mid-December. For most, the games they’re making — with grandiose names like Rise of the Gods, Artificial Malevolence and Tactical Tech among them — are their first attempts and labors of love. There are pitfalls and traps you learn to avoid with experience, and the people gathered here are leaning on each other as they move toward their own out-of-the-box moments.
Aspiring husband-and-wife developers Beau Johnson and Nicolette Butler are getting close with their creation, Gem Cataclysm, a stock market-style game heavy on math. They’ve spent about 18 months on the game and have had meetings with publishers. They are making final changes they hope will snag a deal at a convention this summer.
Gem Cataclysm little resembles the game they started with back at the beginning, which Johnson proudly rolled out for his pals one night.
“It took three hours to play,” Johnson said. “I almost lost friends because they were like, ‘This is too boring!’”
The main problem was the theme, based on a bitcoin premise that almost no one got because they didn’t have Johnson’s IT background. Players installed hardware on server racks and collected software to run.
“You’re getting tired already,” Johnson said of the premise.
So they changed it. A lot. They switched the server racks to tunnels in a mountain and put dwarves there to mine for gems instead of the hardware and software mechanisms. Now, they’ve got a game that involves precious gems, familiar fantasy elements and the simple objective to get rich.
“The moment we did that, everybody was like, ‘We’ll take a seat,’” Johnson said.
They’ve taken more than 200 pages of notes through the playtesting process and are ready for their creation to walk on its own two feet.
“There’s a certain point where you just have to say, I’m not going to refine it anymore,” Butler said. “Ideally we’ll have this sold in the next year, or we’re going on Kickstarter. We have other games we’ve come up with along the way, but if we start working on those then this one becomes the one that’s always being finished.”
Visit www.playtestnw.com to find out more about play-testing and opportunities to participate.