Most of you might already be familiar with the First Exposure Playtest Hall, but for those that aren’t, here’s a very brief summarization of what it is: The good folks over at Double Exposure are responsible for the event, which is a large, organized playtest event during Gen Con. They recruit players, even offering specific demographic targeting, and allow you to have 4 (or 8) two hour gaming sessions. It does cost money (for designers/publishers only, not players) but included in the price of admission are two tickets to Gen Con, so if you are already planning on going to Gen Con, then the FEPH is a no brainer.
If you are developing a board/card game, you need playtesters, end of story. The First Exposure Playtest Hall is a great way to clock in some much needed playtests, and do it in a very short time span. I was able to get in over 20 plays of Armor & Ash by 30 different individuals (some players enjoyed it so much they played multiple times). It would have taken months to get in 20 plays of the game by only playtesting locally with my circle of friends/family. And that is really what the FEPH is all about: maximizing the number of your playtests while also increasing the diversity of your pool of players. These two things are needed in order to obtain the most quality feedback possible. Playing with the same few people over and over might catch a lot of things, but new players will break your game in ways you and your friends never thought possible. Or you’ll receive the same comment several times about one rule being confusing even though to you and your personal friends it makes complete sense.
Because the FEPH gives you both new players and multiple gaming sessions, it is very likely you’ll walk away from the FEPH looking at your game in a whole new light. But, you need to be prepared. Gen Con, and by extension the FEPH, is busy. This year there were over 70 different designers/publishers competing for attention during the FEPH event. My table was always full, the organizers of the FEPH are very good at filling tables, but some tables filled a lot more quickly than others. Also, since the FEPH is free for players, often people will be walking around the room trying to scope out something that grabs their attention. For this reason, you need to try your best to stand out. Each gaming session is only two hours, and trust me, that time goes by fast. The sooner you fill your table, the sooner you can start your playtest session.
Here are my tips to help you get the most out of your FEPH experience.
- Be prepared. The FEPH does a lot of things for you, but they do not supply any gaming materials. You are responsible for bringing enough dice, pawns, counters/tokens, sand timers, player shields, reference aids, etc that you’ll need for each and all of your game sessions. Be sure to bring extras of everything. Dice roll off the table, counters just disappear, and fragile things get broken. Don’t let a mishap take away (or halt entirely) from your playtest session, simply whip out your backup and keep going. Jumbo-sized player aids are also helpful to convey information to your entire group of players at the same time.
- Work on your pitch. Even if you plan on Kickstarting your game and don’t think you need to worry about your pitch because you won’t be talking to publishers, your pitch is important. For starters, the organizers of the FEPH need an overview of your game. This is what is displayed on the screen outside the gaming area as well as inside in order to entice people to sign up for your game. Your job is to get people to want to play your game. When players start sitting at your table, pitching them the game is always a great way to get them jazzed up and in the right frame of mind for the game session. You want excited players. And really, even for Kickstarter you need a good pitch so why not practice on the poor souls that are trapped at your table.
Grab their attention. You will get all of the players you request, that is the beauty of the FEPH, but it might take a little while (15+ minutes if you aren’t lucky) and the players you get might not have actually been seeking out a game to playtest. You are competing with the other participants of the FEPH and you don’t want the leftovers. Free standing floor banners or even tabletop displays are encouraged. These will help the people that wander in choose your game over someone else’s. A nice looking banner also gets people talking, and they make great photos to share on social media. You’ll also want to make sure you have a nice looking prototype; you don’t want to show up with black & white hand cut, home printed, paper cards or non-matching pawns you cannibalized from four different games. If you have to do this, if it is the difference between going and not going, by all means go and use whatever you have to in order to make a functional prototype. But if you can, pay to have a more polished prototype made. This will help get players to your table, keep their interest while playing, and encourage them to talk (positively) about your game after their session.
- Have clear goals in mind. Decide ahead of time what you want to get out of the playtest sessions. Is there a specific rule that you know needs some work? Are you trying to decide which is the best version between multiple versions of the same card? Have you thought about going this way instead of that way with the mechanics? What about the art, or the theme? There is nothing preventing you from using the same version of the game in each playtest session. Remember, you aren’t just demoing your game. Finding what works and what doesn’t should be a top priority, but it is a lot easier to do that if you go into each session with a goal (or multiple goals). How quickly do players do X? How did they respond to this variable player power? Formulating such questions helps facilitate your design choices.
Bring custom feedback forms. The organizers of FEPH will provide generic feedback forms. These are exactly that, generic. Do not rely on these. Instead, create your own feedback form that is specific to your game. You’ll want to capture information specific to your game as well as generic, general feedback. Specific questions might include things like how they liked the theme or what they thought about a specific card/rule/mechanic. One of the questions I asked was, “Did you ever forget to use spells?” This is important to me and very specific to my game. Based on local playtests some players complained that they forgot to use their spells, which might have cost them the game. Is this a real problem or do my friends need to stop drinking so much? You’ll also want to capture information like what faction they played, was their attention held, did they think anything was broken, etc. I also like to ask what they enjoyed the most and what they enjoyed the least about the game. Be sure to print out and bring more copies of your feedback from than you’ll actually need.
- Maximize your sessions. If you only have a two player game, don’t simply run a session for two players. Instead, run 3 or 4 two player sessions simultaneously. This is certainly achievable if you have a partner/friend helping out. If your game supports 2 – 5 players, think about running one (or more) 5 player session during your first slot and then two (or more) 3 player sessions, at the same time, during your next slot. You’ll want to know how your game plays and feels with different player counts, but just because you might decrease the number of players per game doesn’t mean you have to limit the overall number of seats available. You are paying to be in the First Exposure Playtest Hall so be sure to get the most out of it. But don’t overdo it. I was lucky enough to have my wife assist with the playtests, but she had to leave early once. Taking over those extra two players for that short amount of time was a lot of work. You want to be completely available and alert during your playtests so that the players have the best experience possible. It is difficult to do this if you are running back and forth to each side of the table all the time or missing questions because your already busy answering one from someone else.
- Tell your players to be honest. If all they tell you is, “This is a great game” then they really didn’t help all that much. Sure, they helped boost your confidence, but ultimately you are looking for anything negative that sticks out about the game. You want to be made aware of any potential pitfalls. You are trying to make the best game you possibly can and direct, honest feedback is required to achieve this. The only way you can make your game any better is by someone pointing out its weaknesses. Before the game begins, tell the players that the game isn’t finished and you need their input to make it better. You want them to be blunt and not hold back. Tell them they won’t hurt your feelings; they need to feel like they can be honest with you. When they give feedback, thank them. Don’t respond with something like “Yeah, yeah, yeah” or “Someone else already said that”. They are opening up to you so be respectful and appreciative.
- Protect yourself. The FEPH is loud. Very loud. You’ll talk with a raised voice most of the time so that your players can actually hear what you are saying. You’ll talk a lot more than you expected because your players will have lots of questions. If you aren’t careful, especially if you have back to back sessions, you’ll go horse and/or get a sore throat. Drink lots of fluid to help combat this and/or suck on a throat lozenge or hard candy. A fellow designer gave me a Halls cough drop which helped immensely. You also want to be on the top of your game, so get plenty of sleep. Being well rested will not only help you be more attentive, answer questions better, and explain your game better, it will also help you fend off the Con Crud. If you are lucky, you won’t get Con Crud at all. If you aren’t quite so lucky, you’ll start feeling sick a day or two after the convention. And if your luck has completely run out, you’ll start feeling run down and icky before the con is over. Trying to GM a game while you feel all tired and achy isn’t fun or very productive. Make sure you eat and drink enough, and maybe consider taking some Airborne every day while there.
Overall, I was very pleased with my experience with the First Exposure Playtest Hall. It seemed a little chaotic at times, the organizers even say as much, but your game will get playtested. And if you follow the advice above, you’ll have a more rewarding experience.
If you’ve been to the First Exposure Playtest Hall, either as a designer/publisher or a player, and have some tips that I forgot, please share them. What do you wish you would have known beforehand or what would have made your experience better?