Last week I attended UnPub 8, four days dedicated to improving currently unpublished games through playtesting in Baltimore, MD. Games can be in any state of “unpublished” from an initial prototype to games that while under contract are still in a stage of development where playtester feedback is still valuable (ie. not already in production/on their way into distribution). This was my third UnPub Prime in Maryland. It was also the first event held at the Delta Hunt Valley; the previous two that I attended were held at the Convention Center in Baltimore-proper’s Inner Harbour. The shift of venue had its pluses and minuses (and offered a strange insight into someone’s love of horses) but I believe was overall a good thing, especially when it came to after-hours open gaming and testing remaining centred in one place as opposed to spreading between multiple hotels.
Read on for my impressions of the convention but let me give a disclaimer first – I think UnPub does some great things and has built some impressive community. That being said, over the last few years, in my opinion, I’ve been seeing a culture shift that has me questioning whether I’ll attend in the future. I’ll go into details on my experiences in that regard at the end of this post but I’m starting with the great times I had first so if all you’re interested in is the games I played and enjoyed, then don’t read on after the switch.
The Good and the Great
I had a VIP Playtester badge which gave me access to the Thursday night Designer Mixer and the daytime Friday Designer Day panels/testing time. The mixer was a good chance to catch up with a few people and grab some food together before things started in earnest, although soon enough people migrated downstairs to the hall to get games and prototypes onto tables. There was something of a shortage of chairs and places to easily rest a plate, but it was fine as people moved up from their chairs once they’d eaten allowing for some rotation. The cash bar was expensive but welcome, although I was tempted to just wander to the hotel bar where I didn’t have to have actual cash, but instead borrowed paper money from Matt Wolfe. I did admittedly forget to pay him back and ended up paypalling him money a few days later leading to some confusion on his side.
Designer Day itself had a pretty interesting panel line-up focused on helping designers with various aspects of the process and discussing dealing with different types of publishing. There were two I was really interested in given my disinterest in actually designing a game myself, and so I wanted to listen to Dustin Schwartz take about rulebook writing and Matt Leacock give a Q&A. I didn’t make it to the latter event, but did make it to Dustin’s talk. He broke down his advice into 5 major things to keep in mind when writing rules and then followed it up with a Q&A. I took a ton of notes and found a lot of things to be interesting when considered from the point of writing podcast scripts and written reviews, even if on an initial glance, they seem very different.
In terms of other events, I did attend the start of a Shark Tank-esque pitching event, held in good fun. A selection of UnPub’s VIP designers plus a raffle winner & some special guests pitched games to a panel of 4 publishers in front of an audience. Nobody knew what to expect, including the designers and publishers, and the packed room surprised them but overall the response was positive. There was plenty of laughter and fun (some fueled by alcohol) along with an interesting look into the way publishers consider a game and what they want in a pitch. I didn’t stay for the whole thing as I was standing at the back and the room was HOT, but I’m glad I saw what I did.
I also played some really, really good games and some that were perhaps not really good yet but that were fun and will be really good with time. Let me briefly talk about some standouts:
- River Valley Glassworks This cards with numbers set-collection game from Ben Pinchback & Matt Riddle features players building a collection of Depression-era glassware. There’s a really interesting way to determine whether you’ll add cards to your hand or into your tableau (or china cabinet as I was calling it) and the game could be gorgeous with the right art. Glassworks has built in nostalgia value, is super quick to pick up but still full of meaty decisions, and I cannot wait to buy a copy when it’s inevitably picked up. Plus it’s a set-collection game about collecting something people actually collect!
- Cardstock This card-laying game from Burke Drew uses domino like cards to build the crowd at a music festival. Players score points as each band finishes their set based on the types of symbols associated with them and some area majorities as seen in the current crowd. What set it apart for me was the fact that you layer the cards atop each other instead of laying dominoes side by side or end to end, and as sections get closed in, their symbols are covered by camps shifting the board-state in interesting ways. There were fun combos to play and build big turns, yet the whole things plays super-fast and could be a great lunch-time game to keep in a pocket or Quiver.
- Exploratory & Vistacrats It’s probably no surprise that both of these quick games from J. Alex Kevern were damn good as the man’s frustratingly talented while also being super genuinely nice. But what did surprise me is that I prefered Exploratory to Vistacrats against my expectations. Vistacrats was good but Exploratory was great – uncovering your personal dig site based on area majorities on a shared board was really interesting, especially as getting presence in those areas meant first letting others score from it due to the really interesting conveyor belt card play and scoring triggers.
- Those Meddling Kids This cooperative game designed by April & Kevin Cox brings to mind tales of kids taking on strange mysteries and events in media like ET, Gremlins, or Stranger Things. In fact, the scenario we played was essentially the game homage to It and did a great job of placing us in a fight against evil where we had to be sure to avoid ending up grounded for skipping school or neglecting our chores. The division of players into sets of siblings, each family with its own shared chore and home to return to, led to increased immersion as players began to role-play. My little sister (Adam Hill) and I were determined to pool our cash and buy a dog for example, while Richard just kept complaining from the other side of the table that his brother got away with doing fun things while he was left to do their chores. It was a great romp through a familiar story and I can’t wait to see what they do with this easily expanded system.
- Valor City Vigilantes Brad Smoley’s superhero game combines dice-based combat and tile-based city building into a fun-filled romp through various comic-book tropes. I love his art on the heroes and villains and it’s fun building up your dice pool to defeat harder and harder challenges. The game, while competitive, allows players to help each other out in exchange for a cut of an encounter’s rewards, and as each hero has their own personal storyline quests to complete, it means people are focusing on different things as opposed to always racing for the same endpoint. I know Brad said he had a bunch of ideas on where to take the game next and I’ll be looking forward to future opportunities to play again.
- Magnificent Marvels I first played this game, which i keep mistakenly calling Marvelous Marvels at PrezCon in 2017 with designers Paul Owen & Keith Ferguson, so I was eager to see how things had changed, especially as I’d been hearing good things. It’s an interesting worker-placement game about building giant mechanical contraptions and has a few intriguing twists on the familiar: you only own two workers but expand your pool with temp employees, recalling workers is done from a particular zone and will return everyone’s assistants, and not every action needs a worker, allowing you to hold off on recalling in the hopes that someone else will do it for you. That last point leads to a good amount of player interaction as you try to anticipate and predict everyone else’s plans in order to take advantage. The game has been streamlined since my first play and hums along beautifully; it just needs to be picked up by someone soon so I can see some amazing art bring the marvels to life.
UnPub let me catch up with a lot of friends along with meeting fantastic new people, some briefly and some a little more fully, and was able to continue putting faces to names which is something I tend to struggle with. I will say that Matt Leacock is a charming, incredibly nice and friendly man, even when sitting at the end of a table watching Forbidden Sky kick your ass, and getting to play that game with a great group of people was definitely a highlight. In addition there were some great discussions over lunches and dinners, whether in larger groups or as chances to chat more intimately, and when there was a restaurant across the street serving a burger on a waffle, everyone had something non-gaming to talk about!
The One Actually BAD Thing
This likely isn’t what people who know me were expecting me to say, but the one truly bad thing about the event was the scarcity food options at the hotel itself. This was a hotel dedicated to hosting events, and there were multiple conferences in attendance over the weekend. But for some strange reason, the shut their restaurant/bar food options at 2pm and the small cafe at 3pm. This left a two-hour block until the restaurant re-opened at 5pm. Unfortunately for UnPub designers, the tables switched at 3pm meaning that after a morning of testing and showing their games, those participants could only consider options requiring access to a car, crossing a 5-lane highway on foot, or that would deliver. Luckily there were options around but driving in and out of the hotel was annoying due to traffic patterns and not everyone had a vehicle. I was able to pile in with groups to go get food but not everyone at the event has the luxury of being or knowing someone who drove to get there.
Adding to the food-related irritation, the hotel restaurant was terrible. Food was frequently wrong, service was lacklustre and always slow, and they charged $2.50 PER PERSON to split a check in the restaurant or bar (although I did have that waived in the bar despite it being listed on their menu). Again, this was a hotel catering to events, yet apparently it was one determined to be as unwelcoming to attendees as possible.
The Unfortunate Stuff
So my concerns about the atmosphere at UnPub. As I mentioned in my introduction, this an event focused on playtesting, or at least that’s the stated goal. But as the event grows and more and more publishers attend and pick-up games, the focus seems to have shifted to designers trying to get signed. This led to times when it felt like playtests or the associated feedback was quite frankly something they didn’t care about. I had a number of interactions where a designer looked up as I approached their table or read their sign, assessed my badge or face, and then ignored me. Combined with the way the room seemed to be hyper-aware of the publisher representatives moving through the room, and it really started to feel like people had a list of the publishers they wanted at their table, and since I wasn’t on that list, I wasn’t welcome. Well, wasn’t welcome as anything other than a body to push bits around so their targets could watch the game in motion. As I walked around the room, with one exception, the only offers I had to tell me about a game or for a seat at a table came from friends. In some cases I stood uncomfortably at the end of a table trying to get an idea of play while the designer avoided looking at me, eventually giving up and walking away. It was shocking as at previous UnPubs, people talked when you approached, at least giving a quick hello and synopsis of a game while a test was going on so I could get an idea of whether I wanted to try and join the next one. I was even told by one person that designers prefered publishers at their table because “that would get them good feedback;” I ignored the implication that non-publisher playtesters don’t provide good feedback and moved on.
There were many conversations with people abandoned as they rushed off to grab the publisher they’d just spotted, and many playtests being interrupted by urgent needs to talk business with someone not involved in the test. When you’re playing a game for a designer who’s paying zero attention to the game because they’re talking to someone else and who spends the typical feedback portion of the test scanning for a rep while you awkwardly discuss the game with the other players, well, it makes me wonder why I spent the money to attend. And when constant chatter in the room revolved around the same few names, checking where they were, who they were looking at, how they could be lured over, well… it was creepy, really creepy. I really hope some of the publisher reps in attendance were unaware of how their movements were being tracked, as it felt stalkery and uncomfortable. At one point a rep was standing giving feedback to a designer while a total of four other designers hovered around her trying to catch her attention; it felt invasive and wrong to watch and had me wanting to rescue her the way I might intercept a woman having her personal space invaded at a bar.
Setting aside the hyper-focus on publishers, another thing I found weird was the inclusion of publisher tables, something I don’t associate with UnPub. But two publishers were showing and playing games at a table that had been designed by someone else in the UnPub system. In each case, the designer was at a table somewhere else in the room working on other designs, and it just added to the feel that this was about networking and pitching more than designers improving their games with the community’s help. Various games weren’t even added to the database by their creators, and while I’m sure some of that was due to missed deadlines, it certainly didn’t suggest those designers were bothered about collecting that data. Sure, in-person feedback is very helpful, but people want to please others, especially when they’ve taken the time to share their game, and so pointing out problems can be tricky. The anonymity of the forms allows people to give an opinion without worrying if the person they’re talking to will get upset, and so has to be considered important.
Speaking with organizers later, the concern was brought up that perhaps I was being dismissed due to my gender, an explanation I hadn’t considered. They were extremely concerned about both possibilities and were worried that while they could stress the importance of playtesters in future events, addressing gender issues is a lot more difficult while obviously important. I don’t know if this is true, at least one guy I know reported similar cases of awkwardly standing at a table being ignored by a designer, but perhaps in some cases it didn’t help. During the event it certainly felt more like I wasn’t valuable because I wasn’t someone who might offer advancement, and UnPub is an event where I haven’t felt the gender biases I have elsewhere, and is a convention notable for having a board consisting of mainly women. But regardless of why I felt the way I did, it was an expensive trip that was very close to another event, and if budget concerns are taken into account, I just don’t think it was worth my money or using my vacation time. UnPub offers a great opportunity to build connections and improve your games, but for me wanting to play prototypes, talk games, and maybe help someone figure out their next steps? I don’t know that I’m part of it anymore. I haven’t ruled out returning next year, but I would have to find a way to lower the cost of attending and I’d have to go in knowing that there’s a certain subset of designers who aren’t interested in people like me.