Getting gamers to play your prototype

Jessica Berlin Playtesting 2 Comments

Recently, we’ve struggled a little bit at our last couple of events to get people to play our prototype game and I’m sure other game designers have this problem also. If you take your game to a board game convention that isn’t specifically for playtesting prototypes, then it seems like gamers aren’t usually all that interested. They want to play published games. Or, they already have a group of people they’re playing with and a plan for their day, which doesn’t usually include playtesting prototypes.adobestock_74232919

We need as many people as possible to play our game and give us feedback, so we can make sure that it plays well and we can work out all the bugs. And we can’t always go to all the big conventions or playtesting events all over the country – they’re just too far away from us to make it consistently. So, sometimes we end up at small, local gaming conventions, or even our friendly local game store, and we’re just trying to get people who are already there to come play our game.

It would be nice if this were an easier sell, but sometimes it’s hard, and you feel like a sales person…

“Hey, step right up, come play this game! It’s not published, doesn’t have great art or graphic design, and still needs work, but it’s lots of fun, and we want to hear what you think!” Okay, so maybe our sales pitch needs a little work.

But, wouldn’t it be nice if you could set your game up in the open gaming area of a local convention or take it to game night at your local game store, and people were actually interested in playing your game? They came up and asked you if they could play? People are crowding around your table, wanting to play the next game. We’ve come up with a few ideas to help make your game more attractive to gamers, so that maybe it’s not quite like pulling teeth to get someone to play your prototype.

Make sure it’s fun

First, before you go out in the wild and ask people you don’t know to play your game, you should have already playtested it yourself or with close family or friends and worked out most of the initial bugs of the game. It should be a playable game that people besides you can understand and have fun at. Play it home for a while first. Tweak it, make sure it works and is fun before you start asking other people to play.

Add some color and icons
We've learned how to use Inkscape to design the latest version of our player boards and the market board. Adding color and images really brings it to life and makes it look more appealing. But, it didn't start this way! This is after many months of working on the game play and mechanics first.

We’ve learned how to use Inkscape to design the latest version of our player boards and the market board. Adding color and images really brings it to life and makes it look more appealing. But, it didn’t start this way! This is after many months of working on the game play and mechanics first.

Once your game is playable and fun and you are ready to take it out in the wild, you might want to spend a little bit of time making your prototype look more appealing to play. You have to remember that gamers are used to playing published games. Published games are colorful, have nice art, nice components. Your game is a prototype and isn’t going to have all that, but you might want to try to more than just handwritten cards, or even just black and white printed cards.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should pay for art or graphic design. In fact, I definitely do not think you should do that or let working on art or graphic design sidetrack you from actually designing the game and making sure it’s fun (see above). But, once you think your game is playable because you’ve tested it yourself and with one or two other people many times, I think it’s a good idea to spend a little bit of time adding some color, icons, or placeholder art in your game.

We’ve started using GIMP and Inkscape, free versions of Photoshop and InDesign, to design the cards and boards of our game. We also use for free icons and Google Images for placeholder art. We also use Adobe Stock images (formerly Dollar Photo Club), and when we signed up it was $1 per image, although I think their deal may be a little different now. It’s nice to have an easy resource for nice images (that’s where the background images on our game boards are from that you see in the pictures).

But, you really don’t have to pay for anything and just spending a little bit of time working on the way your game looks could make it easier to get people to play your game the next time you take it to a convention or another event.

Name your game

We have a game that’s been in the works since May. Originally, it was called The Council of Adventurers, but then we decided to change the theme. We went through several different themes, but ultimately ended up with a farming theme where you’re planting crops on your tableau board and “rotating” crops by putting new field cards on top of old ones. It’s this cool puzzle grid that forces you to make decisions about what you want to cover up (thereby removing that crop from your next harvest) so you can grow other crops that hopefully will help you out more down the line. The theme went great with this main mechanic that the game is built around and Dave has developed other mechanics based on the theme, making the theme and mechanics tie into each other very nicely.

But, we didn’t have a name. For a while we were calling it “Unnamed Farm Game” or “British Agricultural Revolution” (because that’s the time frame that the game is based around – when crop rotation among four different crops first started). When potential playtesters saw either of those “names” it really didn’t draw them in. Dave even had one gamer look at our sign that said “British Agricultural Revolution” and he said out loud, “that looks boring,” and then he kept on walking.

So, we’ve realized that having a catchy name for your game, even if it’s not necessarily the final name, is important to drawing potential playtesters to your table to play. It took us quite a while to come up with a name for our game, and we were too busy working on the design and getting the prototype ready for the next event that we weren’t really working on the name for a while. But, it does now have at least a working name. The game is now called “Cobblestone Market.”

The game formerly known as "Council of Adventurers," "British Agricultural Revolution," and "Unnamed Farm Game," is now "Cobblestone Market."

The game formerly known as “Council of Adventurers,” “British Agricultural Revolution,” and “Unnamed Farm Game,” is now “Cobblestone Market.”

Sign or banner

Speaking of signs, we have a table sign we’ve made (in Microsoft Word – nothing too fancy) that has some basic information about the game, so people looking for games to play can look at it and determine quickly if your game is something they’d be interested in playing. You don’t really want people playing your game who aren’t interested. They probably won’t give you good feedback and you don’t want to spend a bunch of time with disgruntled players, so tell people up front what to expect.


This is the latest version of our table sign for Cobblestone Market, before it had a name.

Our sign is just an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper that we put into a plastic tabletop sign holder. It’s not expensive, but it can help quickly get your message across to potential players.

Your sign should include things like:

  • The game’s catchy name
  • Number of players
  • Game play time (or maybe if it’s a long game, and you don’t necessarily need players to play the whole thing, just tell them how much time you’re hoping the playtest session will take)
  • Minimum age of players (if you don’t really want kids playtesting, put a higher age requirement)
  • Main mechanics of the game
  • Brief description of the game with the theme included
  • Picture of it mid-game

This doesn’t need to be really fancy, but if you can use some color and pictures it will be more eye-catching. Also make sure to use a nice readable font in a large enough size and bullet points are always better than long paragraphs of text.

If you’re further along in your game development process, you may consider getting something larger than a tabletop sign. We’ve seen other designers who are planning Kickstarters have large banners at their tables. These are obviously more of an investment and I wouldn’t do that if you’re still early on in your design process, but if you’re getting ready to promote your game for a Kickstarter and you’re planning on going to a lot of conventions and events, it may be something to consider.

Talk to people

This may seem obvious, but I think we should say it anyway. If you want people to play your game, you’re going to have talk to people. Set up your game, put up your table sign, but then if you don’t have anyone interested right away, go talk to people. If you see people mingling around looking for a game to play or not sure where to go, ask them if they’d like to play your game. Tell them it’s a prototype, tell them how long you think the game play will be, and tell them about your game. And then also give them an out. Let them know that if they’re not interested, it’s okay. Don’t trap people into playing something they’re not really interested in.

Dave had an experience at a recent convention he went to where another game designer asked him and a couple other people to play his game. They all agreed and he started explaining the game to them and they started playing. But then about an hour or so into the game, the designer casually mentioned that this was a four-hour game! They stuck it out, but weren’t really happy about spending so much time playing a game when they didn’t know up front how long it was going to be. It’s good to be up front and make sure to respect other people’s time when you’re asking them to play your game and give you feedback.

Exude confidence

Even if you’re not normally the most outgoing person, you need to be confident when you’re trying to get people to play your game. Stand up at your table, look people in the eye when they’re walking by, say hi, start a conversation, smile. Being confident and personable will go a long way. Both you and your game need to work together to catch people’s attention when you need playtesters.

I’m sure many game designers are introverts (both me and Dave are). And if you are an introvert, it’s okay! It doesn’t mean that you can’t do this – you can still go to gaming events, set up your game, and ask people to play. It just means that being around all those people and talking all day will be draining. After the event is over, you might need to sit in a quiet room by yourself to recuperate. But, you can do it! Tell yourself you can, and just do it.

And, if all else fails, bring a plate of cookies with a sign that says, “Free cookies if you play my game.” That should work too.

Have you ever had trouble getting people to sit down and play your prototype game at a convention or another gaming event? What have you done to try to get players? I’m sure there are more tips, so please let me know if I’m missing something crucial in this list that works to get people to play your game.

Comments 2

  1. One simple thing I did with my game was to add a background to the cards. Each player has 5 action cards they select from each round. Because the game as a space theme, I looked up a plate steel tutorial for Photoshop to make a plain brushed steel image. Then I put that as the background to the card. It’s still 90% that black and white text card with a black icon in the corner. But that extra 10% of a plain brushed steel background makes the cards feel way more produced than it is. Simple backgrounds that add just a touch of color (even adding color icons) can help make the game feel like craft has been put into it and make it more appealing to play.

    1. Post

      Absolutely agree Kellen. We’ve been doing that too. It doesn’t take a lot, but just having something that’s a little more than just black and white makes it feel more real. Thanks for your comment.

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