I needed to do some playtesting for the pitting rules that I am tweaking as advanced rules for Championship Formula Racing and getting together 5, 6 or more people on a regular basis for that is hard. Especially since, these rules are best tested by experienced players. A newbie isn't going to know if this particular mechanic is unbalancing if they have no experience with the game at all.
What Google Hangouts lets me do is share my desktop with up to 9 other players. That was effectively the board. I can move the cars around, people can see the track. They can talk to me and tell me where to move the car. We can talk through options. I can point to spaces on the track with my mouse. It worked well.
But there was a lot that Google Hangouts does not handle well in this scenario... secret information being the first. Also, player specific information gets clunky as well. I probably could have tracked that on track as well. I essentially do it for PBeMs that way. But once I went down the rabbit hole of dealing with secret information. I was also worried about cluttering up the limited realestate of the screen with a lot of small information no one could see very well.
For those not familiar, in CFR everyone secretly picks their speed for next turn. Then we all reveal speeds and then resolve movement. In order to let people do that part, I had to build some online forms to record speeds then reveal them at the right time. While I was in there I built forms before that to handle pre-race car set-up and forms after that to record some things that happened -- usage of point pools, car damage, speed changes.
Considering that we were cobbling together Google Hangouts plus a home-built set of web forms for this it held together. There were some technical issues with the stuff I built, but that's not useful to anyone else. But Google Hangouts generally worked well for this.
Some things I learned:
- Sometimes Google Hangouts crashes. And you have to reload it. It happened a couple times to pretty much everyone. But was not hard to fix.
- You start on mute. That took some getting used to. Talking, talking, until someone says "Hey! Your on mute!"
- For this scenario, I shared my screen which worked brilliantly. I did not even have to keep my screen focused on the graphics program that I had the track map and cars in. But when I did that I had to learn to push the button on the resulting pop-up to share with everyone (or maybe it said to share persistently?). Effectively that meant it was always in front of everyone so that focus in the big screen did not shift when someone else started talking.
- That reminds me... so what I was sharing on my screen was a graphics program that I use to built the tracks. Then I built cars (like above). Shrunk the cars to fit on the track and moved them around in the graphics program as needed. Worked well. I'm using Xara in case anyone cares.
- I need a headset. People sometimes had a hard time hearing me with just my computer mike and I tended to start yelling which annoyed people in my house that were not playtesting a game just then.
- Google Hangouts takes a good amount of bandwidth. This did not affect the experience for any of us but one of the participants was using a hotspot and noticed that he had used a good bit of his bandwidth. I think it would not be a problem for most people with high-speed dedicated service but something to think about. It also might not work well if someone had a low-band width access.
- Small text can be hard to see. On a physical board you can focus your eyes in a particular spot or move in closer to see something in detail and then focus on the whole board when you need to independently of everyone else. With Google Hangouts we are all sharing one eye like the Fates do. If I zoom in on the upcoming corners, someone who needs to see the whole track right now is out of luck. I kept it zoomed out and there were a couple of times when people misread the speeds in the corners.
This was a success. It required some prep work, but I will definitely do this again. In fact, I'm planning a second play test Monday Night.