GDP: Playtesting Big Picture

Perhaps the most important step in the Game Design process!

Perhaps the most important step in the Game Design process!

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 And I’m guessing a few of you will be playing unpublished games that need playtesting.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)

What exciting sculpture is within, waiting to be found?

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

A masterpiece, just like your game design after numerous playtests!

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!


Posted on April 26, 2013, in Board Games, Game Design, The Boards and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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