My first Metatopia Experience

My reaction after my first Metatopia is simple. If I had known what I was missing, I would have started going years ago

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See that? It says “Professional”

I was only there for about 28 hours, but I feel like those 28 hours were as productive as twice that amount of my own time. Over the course of the weekend, I was able to play two prototypes from other designers that I was really looking forward to playing. I also got to play a number of small prototypes from friends that I wasn’t expecting to play, outside the scheduled testing times. The weekend was so productive that it took me several days to write up some feedback and send it to people, which is why I’m only getting around to posting this a week later. And of course, I had some playtests of my own games, and came back from Metatopia with one more game than I had when I arrived. 

I didn’t know what to expect at Metatopia. The website is very minimal in its description of the convention, and I had to ask several designers what it is like to attend. This is a convention for playtesting. If you register as a designer, you can request a number of 2-hour playtesting slots. When the schedule is finalized, (less than a week before the convention) you can select any events to fill in free time you have. In addition to playtests, there are panels and talks. One really nice thing about Metatopia is scheduled meals. No playtests are scheduled between 1 and 2, or between 6 and 8. There are still panels, but you won’t get stuck at a table all day. Since playtests are scheduled, people sign up for sessions they’re interested in (so you’ll need a one-paragraph description for each game you want to schedule). And the staff, (basically Vinnie, the founder/manager of Double Exposure) will walk around and find people who can come play your game.

Metatopia is a pretty small convention. I don’t have attendance numbers, but there were about 20 6-8 player tables in the main boardgame room, and another 15 or so smaller tables in the lobby, with a few other tables in other parts of the hotel. There are also about a dozen small testing rooms for closed or invite-only events, which are typically more focused playtesting. But far from being hard to find room, one of the biggest surprises to me was how easy it was to find time to grab a couple of friends, find a table, and play something during off times. And I got plenty of time to hang out with all of my designer friends basically the whole time I was there, which is very difficult to do at larger conventions.

One thing that can’t be understated is the effort Vinnie and Avie put in to make sure the event runs smoothly. I was late in signing up, and only really had Friday night and Saturday to test, but they still found me tables and testers. They called and emailed personally to get information about the games I wanted to bring, and the tests I wanted to sign up for. It’s amazing that they can complete this in just a few short days.

My Playtests

My first playtest on Saturday was One Card Wonder. I was testing some major changes, and didn’t have all the details worked out. But I got some great suggestions from the testers for how to make the setup work better.  Critically, I was able to test those changes in my second session, with two different variations, and get feedback on those. Importantly, I got a wide variety of opinions that really helped me gauge the direction that the game should go to appeal to a wide variety of players. I got to iterate the design changes over the course of the day, to produce something I was happy with.

I also had the chance to do a public playtest of Cash Out, which I described briefly before Metatopia. I got two games with the same group during my single session. In the first game, the point values were off, resulting in an anticlimactic experience. The second test used a slightly different distribution, and players felt much more engaged. I got great feedback from both games, which will help me to bring more balance to some of the special abilities, and make the overall game more enjoyable.

After dinner Saturday, we were sitting around, and I pitched a concept I had in my head to a friend. He was intrigued, so when someone else we knew walked by, we pitched the concept to him. He was also interested, so we found a couple more friends and hacked together a prototype from what we had on hand. Everyone contributed a suggestion, and 20 minutes after the idea first left my lips, we had a working game. That is sort of Metatopia in a nutshell. You run into everyone you know, find the nearest table, put a game on it, and make it work a tiny bit better.

Metatopia versus Unpub

So, now for the big question. How does Metatopia compare to the other big designer event I attend, Unpub? The two feel very different. Metatopia is much more intimate. And because it’s so scheduled, you don’t have to worry about finding players or a table. It’s very low-stress. Metatopia is also very designer heavy. Most of the players are either designers or designer adjacent, so the quality of feedback is really high. Even at the open testing, but especially at the closed testing. It feels a little more like a giant Unpub Mini. In contrast, the next Unpub is expected to have roughly the same number of designers (between 150 and 200), with an extra thousand players walking around. The last Unpub was already a bit overwhelming, and this year promises to be even bigger.

Practically speaking, Unpub is a great resource for designers to network, with players, with other designers, and with publishers. You can show your game off to many more people and get a wider range of feedback. And, all of the Unpub feedback is recorded and collected for you. For better or worse, you’ve got a table devoted to you, so you need to make sure you’re ready to handle it. Metatopia, on the other hand, is a more precise tool for game development. It’s much easier to focus on specific problems and fix them. It’s a working convention, not a demo convention. I think they fit two different needs, and that means  Metatopia will probably join Unpub as a must-attend event.

I consider myself fortunate to have spent time with all of my friends and to have gotten such good feedback. I got exactly the amount of testing I needed to get, no more, no less. Thank you to everyone who played games with me, gave me feedback, and spent time talking to me. I can’t wait to see you all next year!

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