A game convention of a different sort took place this past weekend in Baltimore. Rather than featuring the hottest new releases, this annual event specifically focuses on the rudimentary and undeveloped game concepts that have yet to make their way to store shelves. Though attendance is free, it takes more than a passing interest to put in several hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon playing games with half-baked rules and rough pieces instead of nice plastic pawns and printed boards.
Still, around 1,700 people showed up to this year’s Unpub convention and volunteered their time to help inventors and small publishers improve their products. With a sense of adventure, they made their way around 100 or so tables being guinea pigs but also sharing their ideas and perhaps getting an early peek at what could be next year’s hot title.
At these tables, designers floated new ideas, tested untried innovations, and ran their works through the paces. Developing a game from initial concept to final product requires a lot of repeated play. Unpub allows independent and budding designers to take advantage of the crowd of ready playtesters to try different alternatives on the spot.
As explained to me by Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games, the convention is also a great occasion for publishers. In addition to testing his own games, Jason was there scouting for new projects and even took the opportunity to do some promotion for Ladder 29, a firefighting family card game that his company is currently crowdfunding.
On Friday, before the two days of open playtesting, Unpub hosted a series of professional seminars just for the designers. One was led by Zev Shlasinger, founder of Z-Man Games and currently Director of Board Games for WizKids. Another provided some behind-the-scenes industry insight for those new to the business side of games. A third, by Panda Game Manufacturing, a major sponsor of Unpub, was on the process of game production.
Brent Kinney of Panda told me that the company “feels a strong connection with the independent design community.” It was manufacturing for self-publishers and Kickstarter projects that launched Panda. And the show provides the company not only an opportunity to advise aspiring publishers on manufacturing costs and considerations, but also to learn what types of new components—some of them quite innovative ideas—Panda should consider adding to its capabilities.
Back on Sunday, when I visited Unpub, I had the privilege of playtesting three games. The first was a yet-to-be-named tabletop board game implementation of Japanese-style computer RPGs from designer Luke Peterschmidt. Though this was not the kind of game that I usually go for, I did enjoy learning its combat mechanics and thought they seemed pretty solid. The second was Party Poetry by Sheri Knauth, a game in which the players each secretly contribute one line to a larger poem and then vote on which amalgamation they consider the best. Again, not a game I would usually choose, but I was feeling venturous and was impressed by the poetry that can come out of such a process. The third game, Rain Dance by Matt Loomis and Isaac Shalev, was definitely more my style and seemed nearly ready-to-go. Simple cards allow players to plant, water, and harvest crops, while the choice of replacement cards allows them to flood out the crops of their opponent.
And though I didn’t get a chance to play it, probably the most exciting news out of Unpub for me personally was that Dave Chalker is working on a Midnight at the Well of Souls board game based on the novel series by his father, science fiction author Jack Chalker. During high school, I devoured every one of his books as they came out.
Unpub is a tremendous asset to game designers and a wonderful experience for those interested in seeing some of the process behind their favorite entertainment. Look for it again next year in Baltimore, March 23-25.
And the inaugural Unpub Midwest will be Nov 3-5 in Grand Rapids MI.
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