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A Penny For My Thoughts: Master Mines and the Ashcan Front

One of the great things about Game Chef was continual feedback and encouragement. The groups there did an excellent job of telling me what I needed to know while maintaining my momentum. I wasn't the only person who felt this, and not long after Game Chef ended, a small group of us started up Master Mines. As Ryan Macklin explained:
Master Mines started with Mike Sugarbaker emailing me (Ryan Macklin) about starting up a design group, similar to the very active, very collaborative design groups from this year’s Game Chef. After reading a thread on Story Games about a site to form design groups and seeing the group that Jonathan Walton & Shreyas Sampat formed on their own, he grabbed me (since I do a game design podcast), and we started Master Mines. He grabbed me at exactly the right time, because I was thinking about announcing my own game design challenge on Master Plan called the “Put Up or Shut Up” Challenge, challenging people to design the game that’s been in their head for years alongside me & my design efforts. I was (and still am) very much on board, and took some of my ideas from Put Up or Shut Up — namely pinging inactive people and really turning the “support network” idea to 11 — and incorporated them into the Master Mines philosophy. Then we grabbed Paul Tevis, who was all over this idea, and you have the origin of Master Mines.

The Master Mines group blog turned out to be an excellent place for me to work through the design issues I had with the game, and I'm indebted to all of the participants there. Soon, as I mentioned last time, I started wonder how I wanted to get the game out there for more people to see it. Fortunately, Matt Sndyer and Paul Czege came to my rescue with something they called the Ashcan Front. As Paul put it:
For purposes of this endeavor an ashcan is a printed RPG rulebook with the following characteristics:

  • The game rules have been playtested and are 90% solid in the designer's opinion, but the game isn't quite delivering on his/her design goals and so he/she doesn't consider it fully baked yet.

  • The text is written not with the aim of fully baked games, to communicate the architecture of play to the customer, and to inspire play with the fullness of its vision, but with the goal of provoking playtesting and feedback toward the as-yet-unrealized design goals.

  • As such, the text includes overt language about the game's design goals, and directly calls out mechanics that need validation and/or refinement.

  • The text invites the purchaser into conversation with the designer.

  • The book as an object has a hand assembled or copy shop aesthetic, or in some other way is clearly not "store ready."

That sounded an awful lot like where Penny was, so I signed up. Continuing with my "rules text as in-game artifact" aesthetic, I assembled a version of the document structured like a medical chart, complete with top-binding. I took this with me to GenCon where I sold 17 copies and gave away a few more. (I also sold a few more after the con.)

While the sales were nice, what the Ashcan experience really taught me was how to explain the game. There was an entire set of terminology that I junked and replaced with the words I used in those demos. I also got to see people whose opinions I respected get really excited about my game. So with those two things in my pocket, I headed home to revise the text as the playtest reports started to come in.

To be continued...

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