Vancouver Playtest Group — Learning from Board Game Prototypes

This comes to no one’s surprise, but the most crucial step in board game design is testing your game. In concept, it may sound fun and exciting, but how is it in practice? What I find while testing prototypes, is that they will almost always have some clunkiness in the gameplay. That is assuming they work at all! Often, something just does not feel quite right or make intuitive sense for the players. These issues can often be discovered during play tests.

In Vancouver, Mark Ellis runs a bi-weekly prototype board game meetup group, Vancouver Playtest, for board gamers and board game designers to get together and test new prototypes. I’ve been lucky to attend a number of them and have found them very helpful in learning about the problems with my own game as well as the games of other board game creators.

Mark is happy to share with us some of the lessons he has learned from running these board game meetups. After seeing so many different prototypes, he can speak to us about some challenges, common problems, and avoidable issues, that he has seen.

About Vancouver Playtest

Vancouver Playtest helps aspiring designers to develop, test and refine new tabletop games. We [Board Game Prototype Meetup], aim to provide a friendly space where gamers and designers of all experience levels can share constructive and supportive feedback, and enjoy meeting new faces along the way! We are lucky to have great support from Rain City Games, our friendly local gaming store in downtown Vancouver!

What mechanics/themes have you encountered most often?

We see a really wide range of themes at our sessions, including fairly unusual ones, like tidying your apartment, disc jockey battles or gamifying societal issues for educational purposes. But there are definitely some common patterns too. We’ve seen food and drink feature in the themes of several games, and animals come up a lot too, such as ducks, penguins and monkeys, not to mention fantasy creatures like kobolds. On the mechanics side, most of the designs we see use cards as components, because they are cheap and easy to prototype with, and offer a lot of flexibility. This might be one reason we have seen multiple designs that use set collection, card drafting or trick-taking mechanics, and we’ve also seen different designers make interesting use of action point systems and pattern-building.

What are some of the most common challenges that board games designers face?

I think designers all face a key challenge when it comes to how to receive and act on feedback. On one hand, it’s really important to welcome feedback and listen carefully for common patterns that can tell you something needs to be changed. This is not as easy as it sounds though, for two reasons. Firstly, play testers can often tell you when something is not working, but they might not identify exactly what the problem is. This means that designers need to become adept at looking deeper and interpreting feedback, alongside their own observations during play, to figure out what is really going on. Secondly, you need to find the right balance between acting on feedback and staying true to your vision for the game. Some feedback could take the game in directions you are not interested in, and so you need to be able to resist feedback when appropriate. That said, I’d say it’s more common for designers to be too resistant to feedback rather than too accepting!

What are some things that board game designers should avoid?

It’s good to avoid thinking about your design for too long before you get it down on paper. Many designers go by the ‘fail faster’ mantra these days, where you get a basic design together quickly so you can start testing and iterating early on. This is really useful because it is rare for the design you have in your head to work exactly as you expected, and it’s only once you begin seeing it in action that you spot its flaws and develop its strengths — this process also prompts new ideas very effectively and gives you important momentum!

One other thing to avoid is making your design too complex. I heard a rule of thumb that your design is twice as complicated as you believe, and of course every additional element makes explaining, testing and iterating the game take longer. This means that starting with a concise design is extremely valuable, as it is much easier to add new features when you really need them than it is to strip them away.

What kind of board game prototypes make you most excited to play?

I most enjoy medium-weight games that create strategic depth within an elegant system, so you can quickly teach the game to new players and get started while everyone is engaged. One of my favourites in this respect is Concordia (published 2013), where players take the role of Roman dynasties building trade networks across the Empire. The card system is really easy to grasp and makes for a lot of tough choices where you can try out different approaches. Giving the player this high level of agency is also really important for me — I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m on rails. When it comes to prototypes, I look for similar qualities in that I want the game to be approachable and relatively quick to learn — always important when you want to recruit testers! — but I’m open to all weights and styles of game and enjoy the variety. Most recently this has included several spatial pattern games that require me to think in unfamiliar ways, like rotating or swapping pieces, and although I feel quite bad at them, it is great to get exposed to new ideas!


A big thanks to Mark Ellis for sharing his experiences with Vancouver Playtesters. I personally learned a lot while playing with fellow board game enthusiasts. I would recommend board game designers to be a part of groups similar to this because not only do you become more efficient with refining your game, you also become closer with your board game community.

If this board game prototype meetup group interests you, please follow them with the links below.

Social Media Details:

Twitter: @VPlaytest

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