The Life of a Game Designer – Part 4: The Game Makers Guild

I join a craftsman league, like the Masons except nerdier, and I meet a new hero.

I did my best to ignore all the usual self-sabotage attempts that I unleashed upon myself during my plane ride home from Philly. After another restless night at home, I was anxious and apprehensive for what the day would bring. Fortunately, I was still enthusiastic when I awoke the next morn. In the past, I usually convince myself that the whole plan is fruitless and give up before I’d even begun.

GMG Logo
Every good guild needs a logo.

But this time, I sense of desperation is driving my need to succeed. I simply must have a plan in place within the next three to five years. But right now I have the start of a plan and only time will tell if it works or if it is yet another abysmal failure.

While at PAX Unplugged, Nicole Amato introduced me to Tim Blank. Tim runs the local Game Makers Guild in Boston where I live. This all seemed incredibly serendipitous, which hopefully proves that the universe is working with me this time around. Not only is he in charge of the very group of people I desperately need right now, but there is a meeting today. More serendipity.

I have no idea what they do, or how they do it, beyond knowing that they help game designers with prototypes. I actually thought that just to receive admittance into the group then you had to bring a prototype with you; just like that weird Magic Castle in Los Angeles that requires you to perform a new magic trick just to see the inside. In case I was forced to perform, I brought a deck of cards that I could use to simulate the rough mechanics of my initial game, Pocket Watch.

PW Proto1
The 1st prototype of Pocket Watch; handwritten blueprints and a deck of cards to substitute for gears and cases. BTW this is less than 24 hours after first imagining the game.

However, I am terrified to show anyone my game because I am convinced that someone will steal my design and claim credit for it before I do; because I live in a world where you cannot trust anyone. Ever. But more on that later. For now, I have a bastardized version of my game in my pocket and after dropping my son, Andrew, off at karate, I am off on a quest to hang out with a bunch of similarly desperate nerds. This should be as fun as a panic attack.

The Boston Game Makers Guild meets in a weird little townhouse that is owned by Emerson College. It is on the same street as the Colonial Theater right next door to the store that has the Grand Pianos in the window. If you live in Boston, you know exactly where it is, but you will have never noticed the door that I need to find now. It is one of those doorways that you eye never registers as existing, even when looking right at it.

GMG Street
The Game Makers Guild is in the itty-bitty building with the yellow arrow. FYI, I used to work at the red arrow, Old Towne Trolley Gift Store.

Fortunately, I happened to be following what I assumed to be the prototypical gamer nerd; an exceptionally thin white male in his mid-20s, wearing black-rimmed Clark Kent glasses, a pair of way too thin millennial pants and expensive casual shoes. Plus, he was carrying a satchel with a Catan sticker on it.

He probably thought that I was going to murder him as I followed him in. Especially since I don’t look like his type of nerd. I look like the BTK serial killer without the mustache. He led me into the third scariest elevator in the world. I’d been in worse elevators, but that did not diminish my certainty that this one would not kill me. On the third floor, neither the front nor the back elevator door opened, but rather a strange side door in the elevator allowed egress into the Emerson “Enrichment” Room. Whatever that means.

Fortunately, I did not need to bring my game to be allowed admittance. Thank God. There were about 25 people there but only 10 brought games. There games were up on a board usually paired up with another game. The people who didn’t bring a game, signed up to play at the table of those who did.

I chose to sit and play a game called Coal, which was described as a tile-laying, symbol-matching game, designed by a guy named Gene. Also at the table was a simple 18-card prototype that the designer, Chris, was testing the mechanics of.

Coal Box
Compare Gene’s prototype with mine above. We are at two very different levels of skill.

Gene Mackles is a white haired, middle-aged man with a warm smile. Chris is a, twenty/thirty-something with Jason Statham hair, but Ray Romano face. There was a third man there just as a player but I don’t remember anything about him, other that he gave good feedback following the games we played.

Speaking of the games, the first one we played was Coal, and immediately I thought that I was over my head with this group. I expected rough, unfinished games with shoddy production values. This game was too good; it looked professional. It came in a box, with labeling, and logos, and barcodes. This thing looked like it came from a store.

I knew nothing about game designer prototypes companies, like Gamecrafter or Panda. This game was very much a prototype; self-published by Gene’s personal PDG label.

Coal Game
Once I get my act together, I’m going to

But it did not play like a prototype. To me, Coal was a fully developed game, ready for whatever the next step in game creation is. Coal is a pattern laying game that has 8 different symbols on little tiles. You have 4 random tiles in your hand. On your turn you can place them in any single row or column provided that every tile in the row is all different or all identical. Points are scored along all row and columns that were added to with bonus scores for completing a row with 8 symbols.

The game was great and I understood it right away. But I had a real sense of déjà vu. The game was very similar to another game that we love and one that I talked about in my Top 10 Travel Games. Iota is published by Gamewright and I was concerned that Gene had inadvertently copied another game. They weren’t identical but there were many similarities.

Coal Iota compare
The same, but different.
Coal size
And the differences don’t stop there. Just compare these two boxes. Nothing like the other.

I said to Gene, “I really like this game, but I’m getting a real strong Iota vibe.”

Gene floored me with his reply, “I’m not surprised. I invented Iota.”

“Shut the front door!”

“No, it’s true. I invented Iota.” It was true. I was playing a game with Gene Mackles. And I know this because I stole his wallet.

Iota and Gene
Gene carries this photo around in his wallet as proof that he invented Iota.

I felt as if I’d met a celebrity. I spent the rest of the evening star struck. Imagine sitting on plane reading a book and the author was in the seat next to you. And the author was friendly, humble, and perfectly willing to talk about whatever you wanted. It was that cool.

I don’t even remember what Chris’ game was that night. We played it; don’t remember it. Sorry, Chris. His game was a rough prototype also using cards from a standard deck. So, at least I learned that not every game needed to be as polished as Gene’s was to be played here. And that’s good news, ‘cause mine ain’t.

We had a little extra time, so we also played a less polished game Gene was working on. Of course, it was in a printed box with laminated cards and professional tokens. Gene’s idea of prototype is vastly superior to mine. The game is called Mavens and is all about promoting ways to discuss art without needing a degree in Art History.

Mavens Box
One thing is true about all Gene’s games. There are definately Simple, Elegant, & Fun. 

Well, I minored in Art History, so I loved it, but I know the market for this game is small. This game actually has a brilliant way to help people get over their intimidation of Art, if we can just get people to play it. Part of the game involved being deceitful and I mentioned that I think the game plays better if everyone was honest about their answers. He said he liked the idea and he would test it out.

At the end of the night, I sheepishly handed out business cards to my table mates. I wasn’t trying to sell my website, though it may have seemed that way. I’m just trying to build as many contacts with this group because I don’t know who among them is the best to gravitate towards in my perhaps, overly rambunctious quest. I apologize.

Overall, it was a great experience, but it was a little weird. I still hold on to my Boomer apprehension of accepting my nerd gene. I know that I am one, but I’ve spent so many years as a closet nerd, that I find it difficult to publicly embrace it. Plus, working in Corrections, filled with alpha males, failed jocks, and angry ne’er-do-wells is not an environment conducive to declaring my dorkiness. There are a very few select officers with whom I’ve shared my affinity for meeples, my penchant for penmanship, and my yearning for mechanics creation.

But enough of my hangups; back to the Guild. I had a great time. I was nice to see so many people coming together with a shared passion and a willingness to help each other. It was great to be one of the first people to play new things before anyone else. I believe we might have been the very first to play Mavens. And it was awesome to meet and talk with a Gamer Celebrity.

Mavens Art
In Mavens, I really appreciated that Gene picked lesser known works of famous artists, so that we didn’t have any pre-existing notions about the art.

I had a million questions that never got asked. We were mostly focused on playtesting the games at the table and not my inane queries. And I do wish that we took a few moments at the beginning of the night, before we blindly picked a game to play, to meet each other. I would have liked to get to know the other members, their backgrounds and what they were working on. I felt that everybody already knew everybody else and I was the odd man out.

But all in all, the Game Makers Guild is a great group. If you have any interest in game design or playtesting or have an idea you would like to develop, then try and find a similar guild in your area.

For us here in Boston, The Game Makers Guild has a website, that has tremendous info about game design and is the best way to contact them.

Maybe next time, I’ll actually discuss my first game and why I am terrified to tell anybody about it.

Catch up with Week 3 here.

Move on to Week 5 here.

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