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Glossotechnia playtesting report

From:Jim Henry <jimhenry1973@...>
Date:Monday, March 5, 2007, 16:32
Sunday, I playtested the first version of my conlang card game
Glossotechnia with my brother and four other friends.  (See for my first
post about it, back when I was started to design the deck and rules.)
It went over well with this intelligent but not linguistically
oriented group of guys, after I explained some of the terminology used
on the cards (like "phoneme", "plosive", "fricative" and so on).  I
was slack and had never gotten around to preparing translation
challenge sentence cards, so before we started play I handed each
player a few yellow index cards and asked them to make up some not
excessively complex sentences, which we then shuffled and dealt from.
I think the cards people drew were:

* You should offer more variety.  [drawn by eventual winner; see
* He was a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people-eater.
* Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of our country.
* Could you find my keys?  Because I can't.  [I drew this one, and had
  defined every word I needed except "because" and a question particle
  when another player won.]
* Send me a letter on your vacation.
* Where is the restroom?

The common challenge for the players as a group was

* The steak is against me!

eventually translated as, I think,

wuNSu tisi    Du  yd
steak against 1SG [copula]

I obviously need to work on coming up with a balanced translation
challenge deck where all the sentences are of roughly similar

The playtesters had a few suggestions for improving the game, including:

- starting out with some random phonemes and syllable cards already
  face down, so players can start coining words on the very first turn

- modular translation challenges with mix-and-match subject and
  predicate cards

- action cards that let one player place requirements on what another
  player can do on their next turn; e.g., must coin a word of a
  specific part of speech, or must use their new word in a sentence

- action cards to let players retrieve cards from the discard pile, as
  in Chrononauts

- having two-stage missions, with players drawing an "easy"
  translation challenge card at the beginning of the game and then
  drawing a "hard" translation challenge card after they have
  translated their first sentence

- add more incentives to express sentences in the gamelang, besides
  the basic game-winning goal of translating your challenge card

- the translation challenge sentences should have significant lexical
  overlap, so once players get familiar with the deck, they can't
  guess what sentence someone else has by the first few words
  they coin.

I also noted that I probably need to have a slightly higher proportion
of syllable cards to phoneme cards, to get word-coining play started
as soon as possible in the early rounds, and need a higher proportion
of grammar change cards in the deck.  After the game was over we
talked about how the number of phoneme and syllable cards in play
tended to grow without limit and that there should be some mechanism
for limiting the number of either in play at a given time.  I'm not
sure what would be the best way to do that -- maybe add several cards
setting a maximum phoneme inventory limit (10, 15, 20, 30...)?
Or roll dice at the beginning of the game to set the initial limit,
and add action cards that allow a player to increase or decrease the
limit by an amount given on a new die roll...?  What do y'all think?

The word-coining went smoothly, with nobody needing to resort to
English to explain their words -- I think all were defined using some
combination of charades, pointing out examples in the environment, and
use of previously defined gamelang words.  I said that drawing
pictures was allowed too but no one found a need to do so.  Probably
the most abstract words we coined were the auxiliary verbs /p&d&/
"should" and /ziuN/ "can".

The players took well to the "exotic" (non-English) phonemes that
ended up in play -- I had told them that if they drew a phoneme card
they couldn't pronounce they could discard it and draw another, but I
don't think anyone took advantage of that.  Cards for /y/, /2/, and
/J/ were all played and all were used in at least one word -- since
/J/ was the second consonant played, it got used a lot in the early
rounds, in words like /sJi/ (to eat), /sJ2/ (men), /SJi/ (key), /j2Ji/
(letter, message), and /sJisJ2/ (you (2PL)). (For a
while early on the only syllable card in play was
Fricative-Nasal-Vowel and /J/ was the only nasal phoneme card in
play.  Most players tended to pronounce /sJi/ as /Sni/ though they
handled /J/ fine at the end of a word or between vowels.

Three sound change cards were played: a Phoneme Split (/m/ became /N/
between vowels), a Phoneme Shift (/2/ became /O/ in all contexts), and
a Simplify Cluster (epenthetic /i/ broke up all initial
plosive-fricative clusters).  The maximum phoneme inventory was, I
think, 14 consonants and 6 vowels.

The game went on for about thirty turns or five full rounds, an hour
and a half or two hours.  24 words and one suffix were coined, and we
managed to say three or four complete sentences in the gamelang.  Ryan
Crenshaw won this first game by translating his challenge card
sentence "You should offer more variety":

sJisJ2 Znu&Z   s&SiNi p&d&   myd&Ni.
you-PL options more   should give

(The syntax cards in play were SOV and Head-Modifier.)

In the unlikely event that I manage to come to the conlangs conference
this year, I'll certainly bring the Glossotechnia deck.  Other people
are welcome to make their own decks based on my so far vagueish
descriptions, or email me asking for a detailed list of the cards in
my deck if you're interested.  I'm considering making an Esperanto
version for the next couple of E-o conventions I go to; depends on how
much free time I have before them.

Jim Henry