Last weekend I spent 3 days at a Protospiel in Chelsea Michigan. A Protospiel is an event where tabletop game designers come to playtest their games and talk with other designers and playtesters about their work. I started attending Protospiels last summer and this was my 4th. Each Protospiel that I have attended has been fun and at each one I have felt more and more like part of the community. One of my reasons initially for attending these events was to explore the possibility of focusing my research on board game design. While it's true that my research now officially includes the study of board game design my attendance of Protospiel feels like it's as much about just being with these people and sharing in their love for the design of tabletop games as it is about any kind of research.
At this most recent event I was able to record 7 interviews with designers. I can think of few better ways to spend a weekend than, with Vicki at my side, to play board games that are under development and interview the designers of those games. That for me is close to heaven. More interviews would have been nice. But, each interview in the handful that I was able to record was unique and held interesting insights. Here is an excerpt that I think is very interesting...
"I was thinking about why we are here play-testing. It's not so much to work out the mechanics because you can do that very mathematically or through easily testable means. What we are actually play-testing here is ... what is the combination of mechanics that you are putting together? How are the players experiencing that and creating their game from that? You are giving them something to use to create an experience — I think that's what we're touching on here. What we don't know is how they are going to take those tools and how they're going to experience an experience. We think they're going to go a certain way. But, they may find that experience doesn't work for them. There are reasons right? You can't always predict the complexity of strategy's that emerge from a system until the players actually start fooling around with and playing it."
I would not say that this quote in itself was a surprise. For me it is simple confirmation that these designers, many of whom are hobbyists, have a deep understanding of design. This is the type of design understanding that can transcend the limits of one specific type of design. And while there may be many board game designers that don't share this depth of understanding, it is my belief from what I have observed that most of them do even if only in an intuitive way. I have interviewed several dozen board game designers over the course of the past 16 months and most of them have been experimenting with game design since they were in their early youth. It is not uncommon to hear the phrase "well, when I was a kid I started re-designing games that I thought could be better."
This tells me that most of these designers have carried with them a fascination with design processes and design thinking for most of their lives. They have developed a large library of experiences related to design and tabletop games. While in some cases their use of this library of knowledge and experience may be an intuitive process in others it is quite explicit. Many professional, trained designers in other disciplines lack this type and scale of focused toolset of processes and experiences.