Last weekend (July 17-19) was a Protospiel.online event — an opportunity to connect with designers and playtest games for an entire weekend. How was it? Should you attend a Protospiel Online event? Let’s dive in.

What is a Protospiel?

A Protospiel (always capitalized) is an event where playtesters and designers can try out prototypes, give and get feedback, and otherwise make the game better. Spiel is the German word for ‘game’, so it’s all in the name. As a real-world event, they’re held like conventions are, though they’re usually only for fairly small groups. As a result, it’s a creative, small-ish community where lots of games get tried out, iterated, and playtested again. The term is used to promote events of the same type, and I believe there are some connections between the various local groups. If there’s an overarching national organization, though, I’m not aware of it.

In any case, this Protospiel Online was organized by the Protospiel Denver team, which has run real-world events there. They hosted a small ‘beta’ sort of virtual event a few months back, which helped to ensure all the moving parts worked in the virtual ‘hall’. This was the first Protospiel Online, and another is scheduled for October.

Registering

(Full disclosure: I paid my own way for an ‘early bird’ press ticket – all opinions are my own).

Which badge do you want? If you want to playtest your own games, the designer badge is the one you want. Just here to playtest other people’s games and not your own? The playtester badge is your best choice.

After buying your designer ticket on tabletop.events, you’re able to enter your games into the tabletop.events database to show it off. Once the con starts, however, this resource is essentially unused in favor of who’s around to play something right now in the Discord group.

Getting started

Like a number of other virtual conventions and playtesting events, Protospiel Online uses a Discord server for voice and text chat alongside Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia for playing.

When you’re ready to playtest or play something, just log on to the Discord server. Games / playtests are not scheduled in advance, and because the con runs 24/7 means you can log on at almost any time of the day / night… though being run by the Protospiel Denver group means Mountain Standard Time is the default time zone for the convention. Since the vast majority of designers looked to be in the US, expect to work with those time zones.

While there are a number of other channels to communicate things, most activity ended up happening on one of two channels:

  • A ‘Coffee Talk’ channel — a casual place to talk shop with other designers and otherwise hang out in a con-like atmosphere
  • A ‘Looking for a Game’ channel — a more serious place to get connected with a game about to start, or to get your own game started.

Each of these groups had at least one paid moderator on to help keep the conversations flowing and on track.

The general process to get a game started is straightforward enough – create a ‘card’ (essentially a screenshot of a Google Sheet, filled in with your game’s details), then upload your card to the #looking-for-a-game channel on the Discord server. This indicates you’re ready and able to show your game. Other people in the channel can see your game, then give it a ‘thumbs up’ to indicate their interest in playing it. You can also give a little elevator pitch to the people hanging out in the voice chat lobby. When you get enough players, move to another table to play.

Reciprocity is part of the Protospiel culture and mindset, so playtesting other designer’s games is expected. It’s a win-win, of course — playtesting other designer’s games is a great opportunity to see how other designers teach, design, and otherwise approach making games…

I ended up playtesting Civ18, a game I’m making for Button Shy’s worker placement contest, several times during the convention. It’s a short and easy-to-teach sort of game, which I think helped my chances at getting it to the table. In classic Protospiel tradition, I ended up iterating pretty quickly to put in some of the suggested changes.

I also playtested a number of other games from other designers:

  • Wabi-Sabi – a two-player abstract perfect information that reminded me of chess or Go…
  • Java Express – a mid-weight Euro with a Mancala mechanic about moving coffee around a train…
  • Novus Imperium – a game imagining an alternate universe of a space-faring Roman Empire…
  • Run-on – a hilarious game about making a long, run-on sentence…
  • Fiction Impossible – a co-operative game about putting characters back into classic books, even if they’re not the right ones…
  • Commanding Presence – a fairly heavy game (by my standards, at least) about recreating authentic ancient military battle techniques…
  • Hybrids – a cutesy king-of-the-hill game with a lot of layers to it…

I spent very little time with some of the other things going on, and personally they didn’t offer any value to me:

  • The sell sheets, posted by designers (you could theoretically leave feedback on a sell sheet, but I didn’t see or hear anyone talking about that)
  • A few interviews done with some of the designers presenting their games
  • A few design challenges presented as a way of getting your creative juices flowing
  • A #partners channel. Meh.

Good stuff

  • Plenty of friendly developers showing plenty of games. Lots of interesting, clever ideas.
  • Two solid voice channels, each with a specific purpose. Easy to bounce between them, or to jump off and jump back on to take a break.
  • The live-taught introductions to Discord and Tabletop Simulator courses are a fine way to get acquainted with these virtual tools of the trade. They’re offered in the days leading up to the convention, and are great at introducing you to the basics in a supportive atmosphere.
  • Solid, well-run convention — technical issues were brief and not the fault of the convention.

Bad stuff

  • Pricing: $50 for a three-day designer’s badge. It’s in line with other real-world Protospiel badges around the US, but this virtual event doesn’t have the same sorts of costs as the real-world event would. The next event scheduled in October is even more expensive at $70, though I’d imagine there will be an Early Bird level of pricing.
  • It offers essentially the same type of playtesting as happens in various Discord groups across the internet virtually every day of the week. The ‘wrapper’ is slightly different, but it’s still Discord for voice chat and Tabletop Simulator / Tabletopia.

Verdict

It’s just not worth it to me, not when you can do essentially the same thing almost any day of the week for free on a regular basis. These groups meet once or twice a week, in various time zones, and they work on the same principles: reciprocate and offer great feedback.

What are these groups you speak of?

Cardboard Edison lists about a dozen different groups that meet at least once a month:

  • Virtual Playtesting meets every Monday and Thursday.
  • Remote Playtesting meets every Tuesday and Saturday.
  • The Seattle and Philadelphia groups both meet on Wednesday.
  • The (not just) Blind Playtesters group meets every Friday and Sunday.

It doesn’t feel different enough from the more frequent meetings that use the same tools to connect many of the same designers to do the same types of playtesters.

Over to you

Did you go? What are your thoughts? Comments are open.