On the afternoon of March 12th, 2017, over 150 people came to the Civic Center in Urbana, Illinois to play board games. Visitors age six to 80 enjoyed a wide selection of games, from deckbuilders and dice rollers, to full-fledged Euro and abstract strategy games. None of these games were ones you can purchase at your friendly local game store (FLGS) though, at least not yet. You see, all of the titles being played were designed locally over the course of six months of intense work as part of CUDO Plays, Central Illinois’ annual board game design competition.
This event was the Grand Exhibition, the culmination of the fourth season of CUDO Plays. 15 teams of game designers presented their games and played them with members of the community. At the end of the night, eight awards were given out in categories including theme, visual design, and replay value.
When you talk to the designers themselves, the majority will say they never would’ve created a game without this competition. “CUDO Plays is a great creative outlet that offers all the tools, materials, and help I need to turn my ideas into physical products, instead of lying dormant for years in my brain thinking I'll get to it 'someday’,” explains Zack Kiedysz, a veteran of Season 3. “It's also neat that CUDO Plays is an annual competition. It adds a sense of urgency forcing me to make decisions.”
“Without the structure of CUDO Plays, the workshops, and the community on Facebook posting videos and articles on how to do things, I would never have gotten to this point! I would certainly not be thinking about next steps for this game and making other games in the future,” adds Karen Ruhleder, whose set-collecting game about planting a garden of native plants won this season’s award in the enrichment category.
A part of CUDO (the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization), CUDO Plays is unique among game design competitions. Instead of simply taking in submissions, judging, and giving out awards, CUDO Plays is structured as a six-month crash course in board game creation. “We help teams through every step of the design process,” says Tim Kuehlhorn, a founding member of the CUDO Plays Committee, “starting with brainstorming, then paper prototyping, playtesting, more playtesting, and, finally, creating a polished, marketable product.”
The competition starts in September with kickoff events to raise awareness of the competition in the community and among the students at the University of Illinois. Next comes the ‘Board Game Bootcamp’, a special event where attendees are broken up into teams, given random game themes and mechanics, along with materials, and asked to make working game concepts in just three hours. Every year, great ideas come out of Bootcamp that go on to become finished games at the end of the competition. Through the fall and winter, CUDO Plays runs regular, public playtesting events for the teams and their prototypes, as well as workshops on topics such as graphic design, 3D printing, and rules writing, leading up to the Grand Exhibition in March.
The CUDO Plays Committee does more than run the competition. During Season 4, they also partnered with a local elementary school to teach design learning to 3rd and 4th graders over the course of a month where the students created their own games. “We’re all really excited by the opportunities we’ve had to team up with other community organizations. CUDO Plays wouldn’t exist without our sponsors and partners, both in town and around the country. Our competition and all its events are free to anyone in the community,” explains Kaity Bequette, one of the Committee chairs. “Each year we get a little smarter about running things. Season 4 was our biggest yet, but we’re already working hard to make Season 5 even bigger!”