The Elusive Playtester

This is the story of how a small group of board game designers became a key part of their local gaming community. It all started in June 2016 at the UK Games Expo’s Playtest UK zone. Several of us had taken our prototypes there to be tested, and were keen to join a Birmingham branch of the organisation. We were all met with the same response: “There isn’t one at the moment, but there was this other guy asking…”

A few weeks later, the first meeting of the Birmingham Game Designers took place. We played several prototypes and discussed how they could be improved and developed. We established our ground rule: at the end of a playtest, everyone would identify one thing they liked and one thing they didn’t, while the designer simply listened. It was with high spirits that we arranged to meet the following month.

So it continued for around a year. We sampled and dissected a huge variety of prototypes in different stages of development. We discussed designing as a hobby, as an industry and as a source of new, transferrable skills (just how do you make neat cardboard tokens anyway?) More and more designers approached us, many booking a night off work or calling in a favour from their spouse to join us and give their project its first playtest.

You’d be forgiven for thinking things were going well. Things were not going well: we had very few regulars and had failed to attract any playtesters. Whereas a designer gets a kick out of discussing a new game in detail, a playtester wants to have fun. A playtester will tell you what your game needs to be appealing. A playtester is your audience and, perhaps one day, your market. We needed these people, and lots of them, for our games to become more than mere thought experiments and mathematical oddities. We were meeting in pubs, isolated from our community, and needed to get in on the action.

Our opportunity came in May 2017, with the opening of a new board game café in Birmingham, Meeple Mayhem. The owner had reached out to the gaming community to promote his business, and found us. What better way to spice up the big opening than with some guest designers showing off their creations? And so we came, and we played, and it was great. It was clear we could work together for mutual benefit, and Meeple Mayhem became our new base. Yet even then, our first joint venture fell flat. A table in the café was put aside every Saturday for playtesting, and it would be available to any designer who happened to walk in. Nobody took any notice.

Somehow the “Playtest Table” was not generating interest, even though some of the café’s regulars were getting very involved in our individual projects. Perhaps our current advertising was too vague. Perhaps we should stop promoting in-depth conversations about unique mechanics, and start offering previews of “up-coming releases” which playtesters could “be a part of, and be mentioned in the credits”. We put our mad experiments on the back burner, polished up our best projects and sent out a call to arms over social media.

This peaked with the first Birmingham Board Game Bash in February 2018. We invited designers from across the UK to join us at Meeple Mayhem, and customers were offered a day of free gaming if they played at least one of the available prototypes. Designers and café staff were rushed off their feet, and the playtests and feedback kept coming – it was better than any of us had expected. As the event drew to a close we measured our success: one designer from London had been delighted with a group who played her small card game for an hour – seven times in all – before moving on. The café, too, had seen one of its busiest days ever: at one point, around 50 people had been crammed in.

I think it’s fair to say that we had succeeded: we had found the Elusive Playtester. We owe our thanks to all the friends, gamers and café staff who made it possible. The future looks bright for game designers in Birmingham, and we hope you’ll be able to join us at our next event in May 2018.



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