Saturday, November 10, 2012

Metatopia: The Game Design Festival Mega Recap!

A week ago, I traveled into storm-battered North Jersey to attend Metatopia, the Game Design Festival. Traveling up there could be a story of its own, but in short... it felt like a war zone. 80 miles of no power, no traffic lights, 1/2 mile lines for gas, downed trees and downed power lines. Even my original hotel had no power.

But behind the walls of the Morristown Hyatt, you wouldn't even realize the destruction outside. The attendance was decent, and the mood was very upbeat. It may sound strange, but this isn't your normal convention.

Metatopia is almost like a reverse convention. Instead of having a ton of people wandering around looking at displays and booths, the designers have a table (or sometimes a room) and attendees sign up to play their games. If a game allows for 4 players, there is a sign up sheet with 4 slots. And then at the set time, that game starts. No real wandering or browsing, just focused, mostly-planned game events.

The second part of Metatopia is the massive assortment of panels. Designers, publishers, artists, industry insiders and more were presenting panels on everything you could think of.

-Should You Self-Publish?
-Women in Gaming - Shaping the Future
-Stealing Ideas From Other Games
-Using Adobe Software
-How Not To Be A Jerk

I was there on behalf of The Game Crafter, a print-on-demand board and card game manufacturer, and an extremely useful tool for most of the attendees of Metatopia. I played a bunch of games, ran a few panels, and attended a few others. Click through the jump for my full recap.

Dice Defense - by Kirk Bauer
The first game that I played was Dice Defense, a dice-building tower defense game.
Dice Defense is a semi-cooperative, dice-building, alien-butt-kicking, tower defense game. You and the other leaders of this moon colony need to build and improve your pool of dice to build and activate a network of towers to defend against a sudden alien invasion. While you will work together to build the most efficient defensive systems, only one of you will come out ahead as the strongest defender and win the respect of the colonists.
This was right up might alley. I could have said that before I even played it, and that's exactly why I signed up for it. It played similar to Quarriors (in its dice-building) but implemented a board for the tower defense side of the game. You would roll dice and use the results to either 1) buy more dice, 2) build towers, 3) activate towers, or 4) upgrade, etc.

And then there were the enemies. They come out each round, and there's no stopping them. Well, you can.... but it's tough. The players will cooperatively create the path for the enemies to travel through, and they can make it as winding and mazey as they would like. Flying enemies ignored all of your best plans, and go straight from one side of the board to the other, very quickly.

Along with 3 others (one being a twitter pal @ingredientx), we made it through about 3/4 of the game before our 2 hour time slot was up. Then, in perfect Metatopia fashion, we chatted about the strengths (very enjoyable, worked really well, and captured the essence of a tower defense game) and weaknesses (balancing the cooperative and competitive sides, massive production cost) of the game. We tossed around ideas for alternate setups and a quicker start, and I think we gave Kirk some of the input that he was looking for. I was able to chat with Kirk a few times throughout the convention and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next from him.

Intrigue - by Jay Treat
I couldn't pass up a Jay Treat session, and ended up jumping in on a Friday night playtest of his new card game, Intrigue.
It's the height of the Renaissance and change is flowing like never before. You are the leaders of various factions secretly vying for control of the city-state amongst the chaos. Deploy your agents - and manipulate your opponent's agents - to advance your agendas in a series of clandestine plots.
I couldn't take photos (see cryptic photos below) and I don't know how much I can say, but Jay has crafted a nice little gem. Players are constantly pushing each other for control throughout the game. The internal struggle of choosing which cards to play, which to keep and which to destroy was amazing. You could feel it in each move that you made.

Another huge bonus is that this game used very few components, yet feels very complete. A deck of cards and a few scorekeeping bits. I wish I could say more about it, because this was the best new game that I played all weekend. I have no doubt that you'll hear more about this game in the future.

The Resistance: Avalon
Michael Keller (designer of City Hall - on Kickstarter now) hosted a late night session of Avalon, the re-themed version of the new-classic arguing game, The Resistance. After blasting out a twitter invite, we ended up at a table with Jay Treat (@jtreat3), Kevin Kulp (@thekevinkulp), Chris and Suzanne Zinsli (@cardboardedison) and more.
The Resistance: Avalon pits the forces of Good and Evil in a battle to control the future of civilization. Arthur represents the future of Britain, a promise of prosperity and honor, yet hidden among his brave warriors are Mordred's unscrupulous minions. These forces of evil are few in number but have knowledge of each other and remain hidden from all but one of Arthur's servants. Merlin alone knows the agents of evil, but he must speak of this only in riddles. If his true identity is discovered, all will be lost.
That description is super thematic, and in the end it's a bluffing/deduction game featuring two teams, the good guys (The Loyal Servants of Arthur) and the bad guys (The Minions of Mordred). The bad guys know who each other are, and the good guys don't know who is good or bad. There is a rounds of voting for a team to represent the group, and then a round/quest that can be thrown if any of the bad guys were voted onto the team.

The few twists that Avalon adds to this are in the hidden roles. In our games, one player was Merlin. Merlin is a good guy who knows who the bad guys are. He can reveal this information to his teammates, but if the bad guys can collectively guess who was Merlin, the bad guys win. No matter what. Playing as Merlin is very hard, but adds an awesome twist to the game.

With the right group, Avalon can get REALLY intense. With the wrong group, it might not work at all. I'm very happy to say that this group was perfect.

In one game, Michael Keller yelled at everybody to the point where it distracted enough for him and his Minions to win the game. And in the second game he totally forgot that he was a Minion. They still managed to win, and would have outed me as Merlin if they lost. I was terrified when I drew the Merlin card.

If you own The Resistance you may not need to buy Avalon, but it adds a few cool twists on it and ups the production value. Some cards were replaced by thick punchboard chits and that simple change is a little easier on newer players.

Unnamed Prototype - Jason Tagmire
We closed the night with a late night test of my unnamed card throwing prototype. It's very early in its development, but it felt good as that quick, light, end-of-night game.

On Saturday morning, I jumped right into the panels. I ran a panel called "Bits and Pieces: Building Your Board or Card Game" along with Curt Covert (Cutthroat Caverns) & Geoff Bottone (The Red Dragon Inn). We talked about the struggles of expensive components, unplanned costs, building to your resources, and where to get those resources. We had a great crowd, and I really enjoyed sharing the stage with Curt and Geoff. They both had great experience with their extensive back catalogs.

"Kickstarter Roundtable" - Fred Hicks and Brennan Taylor
In this intense workshop, we will explore the ins and outs of using Kickstarter as a crowdsourced fundraising platform. Cindy Au from Kickstarter will lead a discussion with veterans of successful Kickstarter campaigns. Topics will include best practices for making videos, for customer contacts through updates, etc.
Great Kickstarter insight from some seasoned veterans. This was mostly a big Q&A, but the audience asked great questions. Fred jokingly called Kickstarter "Kickender", referring to having your project 100% complete and ready to go when you finally hit that launch button. 

Kickstarter's Project Coordinator Cindy Au was scheduled to speak as well, but unfortunately could not get out of the city after the Hurricane. Hopefully next time.

An Hour With Jason Morningstar
Join Guest of Honor Jason Morningstar for a conversation on the topic of authority in tabletop and live action roleplaying games - how it is formulated in rules texts, models of distribution, and common challenges to both traditional and unorthodox approaches to handling authority on a practical level.
Hearing that Jason Morningstar (designer of Fiasco) was going to be there was a huge highlight for me. At the time, I still hadn't played Fiasco, but I read all about it, watched videos, bought the game. downloaded additional supplements, and felt like I've played it for years. I'm not a huge RPG player, but the concept of a GM-less, one session game is ideal for me. 

And Jason's panel focused mostly on exactly that, GM-less RPGs. What is the role of a GM? And what do they offer? And in which ways can RPGs remove that GM-role? Very informative, yet informal, and the most inspiring panel that I attended at Metatopia.

After this, I was part of my final panel. "Prototypes For Your Game" along with Tim Rodriguez (designer of Ghost Pirates) & Geoff Bottone. With about 10-12 boxes from The Game Crafter on hand, I was ready to show established and up and coming designers what they had to offer for their prototype solutions. This was a really fun panel, and each of us shared our terrible paper prototype practices (which didn't vary too much from person to person).

The Cave - Playtest by Stronghold Games
Stronghold Games had a whole arsenal of games to test, and I blindly signed up to see what they had planned. I'm a huge fan of their reprint of Survive, as well as their business model. Steven Buonocore single handedly curates and produces very high quality versions of older games and now new ones as well. So it was a safe bet that I'd be sitting down for a good time.

The game that I tested was The Cave. A game by K2 designer Adam Kałuża. I believe it has only been published in Poland, and Stronghold was checking it out.

The Cave is an "action point allowance" game. That sounds extremely stiff and boring, but simply means you have X amount of actions per turn, and choose which ones you would like to execute. 
In Action Point (AP) Allowance System games, each player is alloted a certain amount of points per round. These points can be spent on available actions, until the player does not have enough remaining to "purchase" any more actions. This method grants the player greater freedom over how to execute his or her options.
In The Cave, the actions you perform help you dig deeper into a cave, photographing wonders, gathering water samples, and camping. While doing all of this you are using up your supplies and filling up your backpack. There is a risk of straying far from your camp, or even digging deep, because you might run out of supplies, rendering your character fairly useless as you slowly eek your way back to the top.

It was a very interesting game, where each player would lay tiles as they dug their holes. We all started out on different paths and eventually merged in the end. Player interaction was light, mostly only in the race to get items, and in the placement of tiles.

Overall, we all enjoyed it, but felt like the Action Points allowed a ton of options (see player tableau below), but there was mostly an obvious choice. Some turns seemed to play themselves, especially in the first half. The tension builds in the end when all players must get out of the cave or they will lose the game.

La Venise Du Nord - Playtest by Z-man Games

This one was a pleasant surprise. I had a small gap in my schedule and sat in on a 3 person playtest of an unreleased game with Zev of Z-Man Games. 

Bruges, 1452 – you are a wealthy bourgeois controlling a prestigious neighborhood of the city. You establish craftsmen, who produce lace, luxury clothes and jewelery. Will you sell those items for a good price inside the town central market, or would you rather export them through the city harbors? You will also be able to hire builders and architects to build the most beautiful and prestigious bridges above the canals of the "Venice of the North".

Each turn in La Venise du Nord, players throw two dice; one will be used to move the bourgeois pawn, the other to activate the tile he ends his movement on. The modular board ensures replayability and allows for fast play, while requiring players to plan ahead and make good choices. Three different commodities can produce three different goods, each having prices that change depending on supply and demand. Buying and selling at the best times and understanding the other players' interests will be key. Of course, each tile allows a different power, making cautious planning mandatory!

La Venise Du Nord is an economic game like no other that I've ever played. (Note: I haven't played a ton). The concept was fairly simple, but the way that you achieved it was very different. Players roll 2 dice each turn, and can use them in different ways. You will use one die to move and can place the other die on a location to secure your placement at that location (only if unoccupied, or a lower die roll than an existing die at that location). If you cannot secure your placement, you can use the die just to receive rewards based on that location. That's a little confusing, but it makes a lot of sense. When a location pays out, anyone who is in control of that location will also get paid out with the rewards based on their die. 

There are various rewards, which include cards (which help you eventually make and then sell goods), goods, and spaces that allow you to sell your goods. Bridges and boats (which allow faster movement) make it more interesting, and the movement itself can get very tricky. A player cannot move off of a space and back onto it within the same turn. 

In the end, this game kept me thinking. It was unique and non-cenventional in its execution of a few really nice mechanics. I'd be very curious to try this again sometime soon.

Movie Plotz - by Alex Strang
I closed my Metatopia experience with a few sessions of Alex Strang's 15 card creative party game Movie Plotz.
Express your Inner Hollywood Producer and create hilarious blockbuster movie plotlines with this fun brainstorming game that puts players in the screenwriter's seat! Movie Plotz teaches practical (and fun!) brainstorming techniques that can be applied to any creative development exercise. The game mixes storytelling skills with out-of-the-box thinking to help players make up the most outlandish (and possibly believable) big screen plots ever!
Now I've played Movie Plotz before, but this was pretty epic. We had 10 people all packed around a big table, late Saturday night. We had all seen better days, as we've just been through about 30 hours of gaming (with a few hours of sleep somewhere in the middle. I had 3 hours total.) And of course, those delirious times bring out the best in creative gaming.

In Movie Plotz, each player will add to an existing storyline started by the first player. Their addition will be sparked by the card that they draw ("Add a soap opera twist", "Make the story more action-packed"). It usually turns into ridiculousness by the 3rd round. We were playing a 12 card round, so the plot thickened, thinned out, twisted around, and by the end it was pretty much insanity. I could recap the stories that we made up here, but it's more of one of those experiences where you just had to be there, with the right people, and in the right mindset.

I will let the photos speak for themselves.

And to close out my Metatopia experience, here are a few other photos that didn't fit into the other categories:

Alex Strang's Dungeon Freakout

A pretty hilarious session of Sad & Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-Up Comics" by Robert Bohl. With Tim Rodriguez and Alex Strang. 

Kevin Kulp playtests an epic session of Pig-Pen with Cardboard Edison.
A glance at the fancy Kickstarter prototype of City Hall by Michael Keller.
Next year... if you are a game designer and you're somewhere near the east coast, and there isn't an awful hurricane, you will need to go to Metatopia. Full attendance would have made this one of the best gaming events I've ever been to.

No long lines, big crowds, or expensive purchases. This was 100% about playing/playtesting games and learning about the industry from creative and fun people. It's almost like game designer summer camp, but over a weekend that isn't in the summer.

Special thanks to The Game Crafter for sending me out there, as well as all of my new and old friends at the event. I had a blast thanks to all of you.

1 comment:

  1. It really was a great experience, from meeting new friends, reconnecting with old ones, playing future games, and talking design. Thanks for capturing some great moments!