This is a critical area of the game design process. It is very important to listen to what your playtesters mention. There’s usually a reason they say the things they do. But understanding what they actually mean can be tricky. Let’s start with some basics.
Matt Loomis, fellow game designer and blogger who I had the privilege of meeting at Protospiel-Milwaukee back in March, recently wrote an article all about this topic. You can find it on his blog – TheMetaGame.blogspot.com.
If you are a game designer I recommend reading his article and following his advice. One piece of advice from the article that I have also mentioned is this:
If players start the game taking the same actions every game, start the game from there.
The point of that is that if everyone makes the same decision on the first or second turns, make that decision part of the game setup. Players should start the game making unique decisions. I totally agree with Matt!
Here are a few pieces of common feedback that should be understood and interpreted:
- The game takes too long. (They are bored)
- The game isn’t fun. (They are bored)
- The game felt like work. (The game isn’t fun – see above)
- The game was really slow. (Too much downtime, or not enough to do on their turn)
- I couldn’t do much on my turn. (Not enough unique options or too limited per turn)
- My decisions felt scripted. (Not enough unique options)
- I don’t like the art. (Get over it… it’s a prototype!)
- You should use such-and-such component. (Thanks. Hey, did you realize this is a prototype?)
Obviously some of these are just not helpful. But players are saying them for some reason or another. So let’s try to examine why playtesters say the things they say…
Advice from Chevee Dodd:
I pinged Chevee about advice for interpreting and understanding feedback. For those who don’t know him, please visit his website (cheveedodd.com). He is the designer of Scallywags and a few other upcoming games that are awesome. Here’s what he had to say:
Understanding feedback is a vital part of game design that many people don’t understand. When someone tells you that you should dramatically change your game because they don’t like an aspect of it, that is not bad feedback… they may have just not worded their concern properly. Take this feedback and look at it objectively. If they want you to toss out a portion of your game, or add in a whole new layer, ask yourself “Why?” It is often because they felt that their options were limited or their actions weren’t meaningful enough. So, maybe their suggestion is to add atomic cannons that shoot rainbow fireballs, blinding your opponents and making them discard their hands. It’s very likely that this is completely wrong for your game… but at the core, maybe there IS a need for you to be able to mess with your opponents hands and not having that is making the game frustrating. So, you add a little ability here that lets you discard a card at random from their hand and suddenly you’ve added a bit of control (through chaos) to the hand-management portion of your game.
That is some excellent advice! I think the atomic cannons shooting rainbow fireballs sound particularly awesome!
I think Chevee’s point is that sometimes playtesters will mention something while meaning something else. When players mention things like adding awesome cannons that let you do great things, they are probably suggesting it because they don’t feel like they are able to do great things. And that is an important point of applying feedback. Before we get into interpreting feedback I want to make a more global point about all of this…
Don’t Take It Personally:
You’ve invited people over to try out your latest and greatest game design. This is the one you think will make it big and revolutionize the board game industry. You can’t wait to get it on the table because you just know people are going to laud and magnify you for it.
And then they play it. And then they hate it. Uh Oh.
They slander it. They posterize it. They straight up say it was the worst thing ever. You start to feel angry and think to yourself, “These idiots… they have no idea how awesome this is.” You get upset and ask them to leave. You feel dejected. You feel like you’ve been rocked by a rainbow fireball. You start to wonder where things went wrong and why they don’t like you. Boom… that’s the problem – It’s not about YOU!
Here is my favorite advice for applying feedback:
They are not rejecting or criticizing YOU. They are rejecting or criticizing your GAME!
The same goes for praise. Just because someone might love your game doesn’t necessarily mean they like you. The bottom line here is that we are applying feedback to the game and not to the designer. The game is what matters at this point. Don’t let your emotions cloud your opinion of your playtester’s feedback. And don’t take it personally if they think the design seems broken. Often if players feel a design is broken, it’s because it is broken. Get over it and move on!
Okay. So you did not take it personally and you are ready to interpret what your playtesters were really meaning when they said they hate your game.
Often playtesters do not think like a game designer. That’s why I recommend attending things like UnPub or Protospiel where you can get feedback from other game designers. You can often find other designers at your friendly local game store. But how can you interpret feedback from non-designers who may not know the best way to state what they actually mean? Let’s examine a few scenarios of a hypothetical game about boll weevils.
Your game design has players developing a colony of boll weevils. Players will build a structure for the weevils, feed the weevils, and try to claim the best territory for the boll weevils.
During your playtest someone mentions that colonization seems too valuable. Another player mentions that they think you should have different abilities for the boll weevils. A third player mentions that they got to a point where no matter what they did it didn’t seem to help. Let’s examine these three pieces of feedback and interpret what they may actually mean.
#1: Colonization seems to valuable. (Balance is the issue)
In this case I could imagine the player falling behind another player who had chosen the colonize action. The best way to interpret this feedback is to understand that the player felt like the actions they chose were not as good as those of the colonizing player. In this case, as the designer, you may need to work on balancing the short-term/long-term benefits of taking one action over the other. Balance in a game is often a very difficult thing to get correct. The result is that you will often receive feedback that is directly related to balance without the playtesters mentioning the word balance.
#2: Add Different Abilities. (Lack of interesting choices is the issue)
The playtester that wants different abilities for their boll weevils is likely feeling that they cannot do enough on their turn, or that they cannot do anything interesting on their turn. They recommend adding abilities as a way to specialize their game and give them something more interesting to do. The key to understand here is that the player doesn’t feel like they can do enough interesting things. They want abilities so that they can turn dull decisions into decisions that require more strategy. When playtesters suggest adding things to a game it is often because they feel the game is lacking interesting choices.
#3: Nothing They Do Can Help. (Results of decisions are not apparent)
When players begin to complain that there is nothing they can do that will help them there could be several reasons. The first reason is that the game is about to end and they are so far behind that it does not matter what they do because they just cannot win. The second is that the game limits how much a player can do on a turn that each decision is so insignificant that it won’t matter. And a third reason is that players may not be able to understand how their decisions are effecting the game. Keep an ear open for any time players feel like their decisions don’t matter. This is a big deal. Games are supposed to be fun and if players decisions do not matter, how much fun could they be having? Players may say things like this when they are not having fun, or when they have lost interest. This will require taking a deep look at your game design and perhaps reworking a few things. As a designer it is critical to understand that you want every single decision that a player makes to have a significant effect on their opportunity to win the game.
Those are just a few scenarios out of an infinite playbook of playtester feedback. What I hope you have understood from this is that often playtesters will say one thing and mean something else. They may be very specific about what they think should change in a game while actually meaning something very vague.
So when playtesters offer feedback I recommend asking them why they suggested the change. Asking them why can open the conversation up to the real feedback that they are really trying to tell you. Ask them what is at the heart of their comment. This can be really useful.
We’ve discussed interpreting feedback. Now we dive into applying that feedback. This can be difficult and tedious, but now that you understand what your playtesters were actually saying, you are ready to improve your game.
As shown in the graphic at the top of this article I prefer having ten playtests between changes in my games. Ten seems to be a good enough number where you can likely hear the same feedback from several different players. If, over the course of those ten playtests, you do hear the same feedback, then you likely know this is something that should be changed or adjusted. If you make sweeping changes between each playtest you’ll have no idea what part may or may not have improved the game.
The other thing I like to do with feedback is apply one change at a time. With Scoville, for example, several different people had mentioned that the brown cubes felt a little weird in the game. But it took several playtests to hear it from those several people. Later on other players said they loved that brown cubes introduce a way to mess with your opponents. Here’s the key:
Don’t let one person’s opinion of your game dominate how you change the design.
When multiple people mention the same thing then you know that something’s up. Then you can feel free to address that feedback.
So my two guidelines are these:
- Only apply one major change to the design at a time.
- Try to playtest each change at least 10 times before adding the next change.
Using these two guidelines should help you to understand which parts of your game design are awesome and which need some work.
So now you have a way to interpret and apply feedback. Get to the root of what your playtesters are saying. Apply the appropriate changes one at a time. You will be well on your way to creating a well polished gem of a game! Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave your feedback of this article below. I will try to interpret it correctly!
Over the past four weeks I’ve been writing about a new game redesign of mine by the name of Trading Post. Since there has been a decent level of interest in the game concept I thought I’d write one more article about the game. So far I’ve covered the following:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
- BONUS Today 6-13-13: More on Trading Post
Today I’m giving you some bonus material on where the game is at, how to make it better, and some other tasty morsels. But let’s start with how good I am at focusing on things other than actually designing this game!
I’m Good at Wasting Time (and Effort!)
One of my downfalls in life is my desire for perfection. Perhaps perfection is the wrong word. That paints me as someone with OCD, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Perhaps a better word would be aesthetics. I desire for things to look good.
At the end of May an article was posted on Example of Play called, “The Benefits of Crappy prototypes.” I will provide a rebuttal for that article next week, but I wanted to mention it today because I am not a believer in crappy prototypes. And this may be my downfall.
I love a good looking prototype. I love good game art. If you’ve read my board game reviews you’ll see that artwork is consistently mentioned as either a like or a dislike. I approach game design as though I’m reading a story. I like to be enveloped in a different world and escape this one for an hour or so. Artwork is a key way to get that experience across to the players.
What this means is that I spend way, WAY too much time in Inkscape making prototype artwork. The upside is this:
The downside is that I have four logos (as seen above) for a game that no one has yet even played! I just can’t help myself.
So I had a think about what this all really means. I was a little disappointed in myself for the artwork side of things when the game design part of it seemed lagging. But then I remembered the whole purpose:
Games, and game design, are supposed to be fun! Why else design games or play them?
So I’ve realized that though the artwork doesn’t specifically help a game design move forward, I’m having a lot of fun working on the artwork. Thus, I shall continue.
Solo “Playtest” #1
Last week I showed the picture of the game setup. I’m repeating the image here for easy reference:
Since this is an insight into the inner workings of my mind I am sharing the thoughts I wrote down while attempting to play the game for the first time.
First, some rules. On your turn you can take up to 3 actions. These can all be the same, or they can all be different. That’s up to you. The actions you can take are determined by the number of action points you have for each action. For example, if you had three points in the EXPLORE action track, then you could use all three actions on your turn to EXPLORE. After you have taken your 1, 2, or 3 actions, you must then move other action’s track cubes up in value. This is what I am calling a “Zero-Sum Action Point Allowance System.” (I would go with the acronym ZSAPAS, but I’m not going to use the term again in today’s article). Basically, for every action you take there is an equal an opposite reaction.
Here is a little game design nugget that you might enjoy:
During testing, if it seems like the first turn for all players is dictated, SKIP that first turn and make the result the new starting condition in the game.
What that means is that if all players have no choice (or only one beneficial choice) for what their first turn should be, fix it! Ever wonder why players start with 4 train cards in Ticket to Ride???
During the first solo playtest I made it 6 turns before I realized I wasn’t happy with the design. Here is the list of my chosen actions on this six turns:
- Explore/Harvest/Explore – Increased Fulfill/Trade/Trade
- Harvest – Increased Explore/Explore/Trade (I suppose you can always move up three action cubes – so much for “equal and opposite”)
- Explore/Explore/Trade – Increased Harvest/Harvest/Harvest
- Harvest/Harvest/Build (Stable) – Increased Explore/Explore/Explore
- Explore/Explore – Increased Harvest/Harvest/Harvest
- Harvest/Explore Quit.
After 6 turns I had been unable to fulfill any orders and I was only able to purchase one building. In Scoville players only have a total of about 7-10 turns. So after these 6 turns I realized that I have basically done nothing. At least nothing very fun. I need to adjust it so players feel a sense of accomplishment on each turn, or at least feel like they are setting themselves up for accomplishment soon.
Here are the notes I took at this point:
- Should the “Orders” be stacked? (What I meant here is that should the low level orders come out first, then the better ones, then the best, a la Power Grid Power Plants?)
- Should the highest valued Order card be replaced each turn that an order is not fulfilled?
- Should players always get to move their pawn 1 spot per turn without taking an action to do so? (Using the Explore action seemed critical and it was thus used very often. Then it had to be refreshed, so there were turns where I couldn’t move anywhere.)
- It takes too long to build even the basic buildings, which means it takes too long to get the man-made resources. How can this be sped up?
- Should players be able to complete a trade even if their pawn is not on a spot with another player or in the Trading Post (a la Settlers of Catan)?
- How do I make TRADING the focus?
That last point is a big one. Let’s talk about that…
Put the “Trading” in Trading Post!
Thus far in the design the trading aspect of the game has, for some lame reason or another, been the lesser focus of the design. I have always been more interested in the land exploration and development side of things. Why?
I don’t know. So I am going to switch over the focus of the game to actually put TRADING at the forefront. Sometimes I wonder how I get this far without realizing something so critical to the design. Which leads me to another game design nugget:
Designers should step back from their design every once in a while and pick apart every aspect. Ask yourself specific questions about each design decision and try to think if there is a better way!
One big example is when a level 1 friend pointed out that the black and white peppers in Scoville should cross-breed to silver/platinum/other grey color rather than gold. Color-wise it made sense. But since my original design was that they made gold I had simply stayed with it because I had never gone back and questioned why I did it that way. And I never asked myself if there was something better.
So the new thrust of the design for Trading Post is to bring trading to the forefront. Now I think that on every turn you will complete a trade at the start of your turn. This could then aid you when you choose your three actions for your turn. I’m imagining a “Trade Route” of trading cards on the table, which would still represent things the Trading Post needs. They could be set up like the races in Small World or the foraging trail in Morels or the buildings track in The Manhattan Project. In each of those games players can choose the first option(s) for free or pay to take one further done the path. This mechanic would work very well for the “Trade Route.” Or I could use a rondel for increased Euro-y awesomeness!
Another way that trading would become more integral, and increase player interaction at the same time, is to allow trading with other players no matter where you are located. Sometimes it’s easy to let thematic correctness run the show. But this is game design and we can fudge things now and then. Settlers of Catan is a very popular game that allows player to trade resources with other players no matter what. Now, explain thematically how that makes sense. What if your settlements and their settlements aren’t anywhere near each other on Catan? Well, if it’s good enough for Catan, then it’s good enough for this game!
The bottom line is that trading needs to be what makes this game special. If you want a game where exploration is the focus, then find some 18XX game.
How to Reboot…
So I am going to jump back a little and try to re-figure out how to play this game. Admittedly it wasn’t ever really set to begin with. But to make trading the focus will take some effort. I really think this can be a fun theme/game and so I will continue to work on it.
So it’s time to take some of the blank cards I ordered and put them to use. I’m excited to work on the Trade Route/Rondel idea and see how it changes the focus on the game.
Another thing I’ll probably change is that players should draw all their land from their set of ten land tiles as part of their setup. What this would do is drastically lower the exploration aspect of the game. Players would also be able to plan their moves more deeply and more intentionally. I like the sound of that.
Once I nail down how I want the trade route to work then I can put the pieces back together for how the rest of your turn would work. This should be pretty interesting and I’m going to take an open-source approach to this design. That means I’ll be posting about it for all of you to read. I hope to provide you with a designer’s perspective on making appropriate choices within the design process, and how to keep things simple. Trading Post posts likely won’t be weekly from here on out, but they will definitely pop up now and then as I work through stuff.
Thanks for reading and joining me on this ride!
I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the last of 4 articles about it. Here are the four articles in this series:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- Today 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
Today we’re looking at my path forward with Trading Post as we near GenCon. I am hoping to have a game that has been playtested, is fun, and is able to be played near the Blue Noodle (UnPub area). So I’ll cover some development and what I’m hoping will happen with the game.
The Development Phase
Currently the game has not been played. What? You mean you’ve been reading a month’s worth of posts about some guy’s game that hasn’t even been played? Yes. And thanks for reading! I have nearly all the components together for the game. All that is missing is a scoring track and coins. Here is a picture of the game in its current prototype state:
So let’s talk about the different components that we see in that picture and discuss their purpose in the game.
Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. In the center is the land portion or map portion of the game. Each player has their own region, which is shown on the right. It is a player’s objective to explore their territory throughout the game. As they explore their territory they will draw a tile from their land tiles. These tiles are shown in the image above as the stack of hexes next to the player mats. The tiles will be either Meadow, Hill, Forest, or Mountain.
On the right of the map portion is the tree of buildings. Besides exploring your territory during the game you will also want to build buildings. The downside of building is that you lose a resource region of your territory. The upside is that you have a new trading opportunity in your own territory. Other players may visit it to complete the trade shown on the building hex, but they will have to pay you to do so. Buildings also count towards some of the scoring cards, which I will explain below.
To the left of the map portion are the resources. There are four natural resources in the game and four man made resources. The four natural resources are gained by harvesting them within your territory. The man made resources can be earned through the trade opportunities in certain buildings.
Below the map portion in the image are the Orders cards. Thematically here the Trading Post is requesting certain orders to be fulfilled. On your turn you have the opportunity to fulfill any number of these if you have the action points available. Along with building buildings it is also critical to fulfill orders during the game. This is a significant way to earn points. It is also a way to earn endgame points if you have a scoring card that requires certain colored orders be fulfilled. Once orders have been fulfilled, at the end of the current turn they are restocked to the number of players.
In the image the game is set up for six players. Each player has a player mat, their ten territory tiles, a pawn for the scoring track that is not in the image, and two scoring cards. Each player will also have some coins to begin the game, but I have not yet totally figured out the role I want coins to play in the game. They may ultimately be excluded.
Scoring cards represent hidden endgame scoring conditions. These are similar to the route/destination tickets in Ticket to Ride. Some of these are requirements for building certain combinations of buildings. Others are for fulfilling certain combinations of orders. But they are all ways to score points at the end of the game. I chose this because I like all players to be able to hold on to hope. And endgame scoring is a mechanic for hope.
The player mat is where I think a lot of the interesting strategy comes into play. The mats in the picture do not have numbers on them, but you can imagine each row having 0 1 2 3 4 5 on them. Each row is a different action. The number on which your cube sits tells you how many of that action you have available on your turn. At the start of the game all players have two of each action available. On your turn you can do three different actions, each as many times as your cubes indicate. The cool part is that as those actions decrease, other actions have to increase equally. What we have here is a zero-sum action point allowance system. Here is an example of a first turn where the player has chosen to EXPLORE twice and HARVEST twice. This allows them to discover new parts of their territory, set themselves up to have more resources available on subsequent turns, and have some resources to use on their next turn. So they spent a total of four action points. Then they have to move non-used actions up by four points. In this case they chose to increase FULFILL by 1 and TRADE by 3.
On their next turn they will be unable to explore and harvest. So likely their only option is to move their pawn to the Trading Post and hope they can fulfill an order or perform a trade based on the resources they harvest on their first turn. I think having this zero-sum action point allowance system in place will lead to some tense decisions in the game. Players will have to make sure they’re leaving themselves with the action points they want for the next turn.
Obviously, since this hasn’t yet been tested, this zero-sum action point allowance system will have to be extensively played. That leads me to the next thing I wanted to mention…
The first time I tried to play Scoville it played through to the end in a surprisingly well manner. I am a little worried about that with Trading Post. I feel like this will require much more testing than Scoville to get it to a point where I am comfortable showing it to a publisher. But GenCon is two months away, so the testing shall commence soon.
My main objective with any playtesting is to continually make sure the game is any fun.
It’s all about fun, right? Who wants to play a boring, crappy game with some weird, offbeat theme that doesn’t relate to anyone?
Now, perhaps there are a bunch of you who think the western trading post scene is for old guys who grew up watching John Wayne. I can assure you that in Trading Post out here a man settles his own problems. Trading Post is designed with a Euro identity in mind, but without anyone from the 13th-18th centuries looking boring on the cover of the box. I am very excited about this game and its potential.
I am fortunate to have a great group of friends who are willing to playtest my games here in town. So I am guessing they’ll try out this one as well. Since playtesting will be my focus for Trading Post over the next two months I figured I would list the things that I view as important during the playtesting phase of game design.
- Keep your design objectives in mind – do not get carried away on wild tangents just because one player mentioned something unusual. Keep asking yourself why you are designing this particular game and why you think it is unique and interesting.
- Offer bribes of beverages, snacks, and an awesome atmosphere to lure playtesters. And telling them their name would be in the rulebook if it were to get published doesn’t hurt either!
- Try to make sure the game is playable before subjecting anyone to it. This means solo playtesting.
- Don’t change major things on the fly during a playtest.
- Don’t implement more than one major change at a time between playtests – if you add two things and the game gets way better or way worse you may not know which change should be attributed to the difference in play.
- I recommend playtesting at least ten times before integrating major changes. This gives you a solid pool of plays from which to draw an understanding of an “average” game and also gives you enough opportunity to perhaps see any unusual play.
- One of the keys to playtesting is watching for patterns. If several different people all mention the same thing (not in the same playtest) then you’d better start paying attention to it.
- And I’d like to recommend shooting for a playtest goal of 100 playtests, but I’ve not done that with my games, so how could I hold you accountable. Do it! I don’t. You should. So 100 it is!
Those are just some guidelines. I also like to get into some nitty gritty stats when playtesting. For Trading Post I’ll be keeping stats on how often each color of orders get fulfilled, how often each type of orders get fulfilled, how often players will get to the green buildings, and so much more. There is a lot I could analyze with Trading Post so I have another recommendation for playtesting:
If your design is complex, playtest the game ten times and only focus on one element. Make no changes to anything else. Once that element seems “good,” move on to another.
I think I will have to proceed this way with Trading Post. I may start by watching how the buildings get purchased and built for a set of ten playtests. Then for the next ten I may focus on how the scoring conditions seem to play out. (Note: the data from the first ten playtests where scoring conditions were not the focus can still be used in this portion of the playtesting).
My goal over the next two months is to get 15 playtests completed. That’s one every four days, which might be a bit much, but you gotta have ambition if you wanna get anything done! Entering Protospiel-Milwaukee I had had 18 playtests in on Scoville. By then, even with only 18 under my belt, I felt I was able to teach it quickly and explain the thrust of the game. That way I was not wasting other playtesters time. I hope to meet this goal so that I don’t waste anyone’s time at GenCon where there is so much awesomeness to be had!
Pitching at GenCon
Well I’d be a knucklehead if I assumed that a game that hasn’t even yet been played could be pitchable by GenCon. That will depend on how playtesting goes. So I am not going set of goal of pitching this game while there. My goal for moving forward with this game as GenCon approaches is to have something where the wrinkles have been ironed out and it seems fun.
But for those of you who may be pitching your own games I recommend reading the following two articles:
- Networking Earns Pitching – http://www.cheveedodd.com
- Pitch Like a Pro – http://www.hyperbolegames.com
The first is something you should probably be working on right now if you haven’t already done it. The second is an awesome guide to how it all works and how to do it right. I’m guessing my 2014 GenCon will be more about pitching than my 2013 GenCon.
While I won’t be pitching the game at GenCon I will definitely have at least one copy with me. If you want to give it a shot just let me know and we can schedule something! Head for the Blue Noodle! (www.UnPub.net)
Path Forward for Trading Post
Now I just gotta sucker my friends into playing an unpublished game that likely has no balance, and no reason to be good. Of course I’ll have to figure out those insignificant things like what you actually do on a turn. But I’m getting very close to solo testing. If this game seems to work after a decent amount of playtests then I’ll likely send a copy into the Prototype Penpal Program run by Grant Rodiek. It’s a great way to get designer level feedback and to see if your game is broken. Plus, it’s always fun to know that somewhere out there other people are playing your game!
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed my articles over the past few Thursdays about Trading Post. I’ve received some interesting feedback already and I appreciate all the kind things you’ve all said. I hope that this game seems fun to you. I’ll keep moving forward with it and will definitely keep blogging about it. Someone also suggested making Thursday the default Trading Post day. We’ll see. Thanks for reading! And don’t be shy with any comments about any of this.
First things first… should there be a space between the words “play” and “test”? Does it matter? I prefer them together so for the duration of today’s article I will refer to it as playtesting.
Today I am continuing a series of articles about my take on the Game Design Process (GDP). It’s Friday so there’s probably a few of you out there who will be playing games tonight. And I’m guessing a few of you will be playing unpublished games that need playtesting. So this article should be of some assistance today!
Let’s imagine the playtesting process as if we’re carving a sculpture into stone. (In fact, one could reasonably treat the entire game design process in a similar way). For this article let’s assume you’ve already chosen the stone you want to carve (this is equivalent to creating your CONCEPT and creating the first PROTOTYPE). As Michaelangelo said (notes in parentheses are mine):
Every block of stone (protoype) has a statue (refined/perfected game) inside it and it is the task of the sculptor (designer & playtesters) to discover it.
So today I’m going to cover how the playtesting process takes that raw stone of a prototype and carves it down into something that is beautiful!
Rough Cut that Stone! (Playtest #1)
So you’ve chosen your concept, decided on your mechanics, and created your first prototype. It’s time to rough cut that stone.
Getting the prototype to the table is an exciting moment! You’re ready to try it out. Don’t let disappointment cloud your excitement. And don’t expect things to work perfectly.
The goal of playtest #1, like rough cutting a stone, is to get rid of the large chunks that need not be there. To put it in gaming terms, find what’s broken. If there are broken mechanics, either eliminate them or chip away at them. The more you chip away, the closer you’ll get to a beautiful game!
Playtest #1 should be a solo playtest. Don’t submit your friends to something that is likely to be a waste of their time. Note: it will not be a waste of your time. Playtest #1 is a HUGE step in the game design process. But do it by yourself.
When sitting down for your first playtest I recommend having some questions prepared in advance. These can be things like whether or not you think mechanic A is broken, or whether mechanic B doesn’t work quite right, or whether the cards are balanced enough. For games with a lot of depth/detail it’s important to ignore the small things during this first playtest and even the first ten playtests. Remember, we are looking at the big picture here. We’re rough cutting the stone. So go ahead and rough cut your game!
Shaping that Stone! (Playtests #2-10)
Here’s a rule of thumb I try to follow when playtesting:
Don’t change things on the fly while playtesting, never change more than one thing at a time, and make sure you have enough plays under your belt to be able to compare your changes to the previous form (10 playtests seems appropriate).
Following this rule means that playtests 2-10 will be run with the same rules/components/etc. Since you’ve already rough cut your game via Playtest #1, feel free to invite your friends over to try it out. By getting 10 playtests under your belt you’ll begin to get a feel for what the beautiful sculpture within the stone actually looks like. Those first 10 playtests should provide a lot of great feedback.
But don’t change anything during those first ten plays unless there are things which obviously don’t work or are broken. These sorts of things should have been cleared up during solo Playtest #1.
During Playtests 2-10 try to pay attention to what people are saying about the game, how they react to certain elements, and most importantly pay attention to any feedback that is mentioned by different players independently. The more people that mention the same thing, the more important that thing is.
Fine Shaping that Stone (Subsequent Playtests in increments of 10)
From here forward you are in the “Fine Shaping” realm of game design. This is a VERY important section of game design. This is were things really begin to look like a final product. The objective here is to take each element of the game and work on making it beautiful. Here’s a list of things to pay attention to during these subsequent playtests:
- What is your goal/objective with this game design?
- How well does each mechanic work?
- Does each mechanic do what I want it to do? (Note: this is different from the previous bullet)
- What portions of the game are players responding positively/negatively to?
- When implementing new things (every 10 playtests) how are players reacting differently from the previous version?
- How well are things balanced? Do players always make the same choices? Is there only one path to victory?
- Pay attention to Downtime, Kingmaking, Runaway Leader, Tension, Endgame Awesomeness.
Those are just some of the things I try to pay attention to when playtesting. But the point of emphasis is not to change things except for every 10 playtests. If you change things sooner than that you’ll likely not have a good enough understanding of your game to really be able to tell if it has gotten better or worse.
That’s also why it’s important not to change two things at once. If you change two things and the game gets worse, how will you know which one caused it? Sure, sometimes it might be obvious, but it’s still an unnecessary risk. Change one thing at a time every 10 playtests so that you get to know your game really well.
Smoothing that Stone
We’re getting to the fun point. You’ve rough cut the game, you’ve shaped it, and you’ve refined it. You’re almost there. Once you’ve done a lot of playtests it’s time to start thinking about finishing it off and making a high level prototype. This is where things get a little different from the sculpting stone analogy.
When sculpting a stone, once you remove a chunk of that stone it’s gone forever. But with game design you can always add material back into the game. I chose the stone sculpting analogy because I am a proponent of keeping the game design simple. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned along the way:
It’s easy to add complexity and detail. It’s very difficult to simplify down to the game you actually want.
By this point in the game design process with numerous playtests under your belt you should only have to be changing small details. You should be at the point where you can see the beauty of your work. There’s just small imperfections in it. So smooth them away with refining.
The “Final” Product
You’ve done all the dirty work. You’ve chipped away, you’ve refined, you’ve smoothed it out. You’re all set to pitch the game (which is something I know nothing about!). Your beautiful product is “complete.”
Okay, the word “Complete” is an absolute misnomer unless you publish the game yourself exactly how it is. Unlike a sculpture, board games can continue to be worked on incessantly. My perspective is to get the game to a point where you are confident in sending it to a publisher, and then send it to a publisher! If they sign your game, they might change it from something like David into something like the Sistine Chapel but it will still be YOUR work of art!
This has been a sort of 10,000 foot view of playtesting. In the future I’ll write another article more focused on an individual playtest session. Thanks for reading!