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It’s all fun and games at annual ProtoTO game-testing convention

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Game designer Pam Walls closes her eyes and uses a marker to draw what looks like a cowboy — leaning over a stick figure on a table — on the erasable white board she is holding in her hand, while the other players seated near her watch intently.

When it comes time to guess which title she has picked to draw — A Startling Revelation — Walls says the image is supposed to be Indiana Jones digging up an archeological treasure and there’s laughter when player Kevin Farnworth says he thought it was someone killing Dracula in his sleep.

From left to right: Game designer Erica Hayes-Bouyouris, volunteer Kevin Farnworth, vendor Sherri Cormier and game designer and ProtoTO convention founder Pam Walls test out her new game, Everyone's a(n Art) Critic, at the ProtoTO game-testing and design convention.
From left to right: Game designer Erica Hayes-Bouyouris, volunteer Kevin Farnworth, vendor Sherri Cormier and game designer and ProtoTO convention founder Pam Walls test out her new game, Everyone’s a(n Art) Critic, at the ProtoTO game-testing and design convention.  (Patty Winsa / Toronto Star)

“(Professor Abraham) Van Helsing said ‘wait ‘til morning,’” says Farnworth of the fictitious vampire hunter from the Dracula novel, explaining why he mistakenly thought the title of Walls’ drawing was Wait Until Morning.

It’s all part of the fun at ProtoTO, the annual game-testing and design convention in Toronto, which was held at the Ramada Hotel on Jarvis St., south of Carleton St. on the weekend.

Walls founded the convention after participating in a playtest event in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, which helped hone her trivia game — Hold That Face — which was eventually picked up by Hasbro.

“When you have an idea you test it out and see how the players respond,” says the 33-year-old, “and then you can change it to make it a more fun experience.”

This year’s conference attracted about 80 game designers, up from 52 in its first year. A number of publishers also attended, such as Spin Master and Outset Media, companies that produce and distribute games. Walls pitched four new concepts to them, including a co-operative trivia game called Facts Machine and a speed charade game on Friday.

Walls says she draws on her skills as an events co-ordinator for U of T’s faculty of architecture to organize ProtoTO.

The convention drew more than 200 people in all, many of them participants — called game testers — who joined sessions for two to three hours to play and test a designer’s game. At the end, a designer can ask for feedback on aspects of the game, such as the time it took to play or the clarity of the instructions.

Walls was testing her latest prototype, called Everyone’s a(n Art) Critic, a game where a player has to draw an image, based on a title, and the other players try to guess which title it is. The player whose turn it is to draw does it with their eyes closed.

“You can’t make it obvious,” says player and fellow board game designer Erica Hayes-Bouyouris. “You’ll give away points to everybody else.”

Hayes-Bouyouris, an elementary school teacher, has designed a number of games that have made it into production such as Roar: King of the Pride, a survival board game. Her new card game, Ghostbusters, will be released this fall. She gave the keynote talk at the conference on Friday.

Walls has been working on her current prototype for more than a year. She grew up in Calgary playing board games with her family, who ignored the instructions to games so routinely that they made a new name for the ones they created: Walls rules.

She says her parents helped her come up with many of the titles in her current prototype, such as “Golden Years,” “Cosmic Movement” and “Clear Vision.” And the family still plays board games when they reunite for holidays in Kelowna, where her parents moved after retiring.

Walls moved to Toronto in 2008 and became interested in board game design. She says Toronto has a surprisingly large and active community of game designers that includes Christopher Chung (Lanterns) and Hayes-Bouyouris, and she began testing her games at designer nights at Snakes & Lattes and 401 Games, where she sometimes got brutally honest advice.

One designer told her: “Don’t focus on this game. Your other game is better,” says Walls.

That “other game” was the one liked by Hasbro.

Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data enterprise reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @PattyWinsa

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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