Every game designer has their favorite and least favorite phase of developing a board game. My favorite is playtesting, probably because I’m constantly brainstorming game ideas or musing over playing with a group of friends enjoying a cold pint. So when I finally get to sit down and play The King’s Legion (no matter what phase of development it’s in), I get to see the game in action.
Even though you are staring at a bunch of black and white pieces of paper, tokens with handwritten notes, and colored, detail-less cubes, it’s satisfying to see there’s something to show for the time you have already spent.
The reason we playtest is to refine our games. You’ve spent hours typing up rules and cutting out pieces. Now you have to put them all together and see if the game is fun.
So here are six tips for playtesting. I hope they help:
- Do it early.
We all conjure in our minds a fantasy of playing our board game with our friends. We’re sitting around a large table, enthralled by the clever game mechanics we’ve put into it and having a blast. Everyone’s happy. Chances are, though, that won’t happen the first, second, or even third time you playtest the game. Expect turbulence. Maybe the game setup is confusing. Maybe, after a couple rounds, the winning condition doesn’t make sense. Or maybe the game is just boring because players aren’t presented with any interesting or fun decisions.
It’s likely some, if not all, of these scenarios will happen. So my first tip is to playtest your game as soon as you have rules developed and pieces to play with. Don’t spend much time typing up formal rules, proofreading for grammar, and making your game pieces look nice. The sooner you playtest your game, the sooner you can spot major issues it has, and the sooner you start making the game more and more fun. This leads me to my second tip…
- Take notes.
If playtesting with other people, be mindful to not disrupt the flow of the game (which can immediately turn players off and give them a sour experience). However, while playtesting, you will notice multiple possible changes that might improve the game. Or you may come up with new ideas for the game. These thoughts may quickly be forgotten, so jot them down while they are fresh. So keep a pen and pad of paper nearby while playtesting.
- Start playtesting by yourself.
Theoretically, the biggest flaws and most sweeping changes to the game will be in the earliest phase of development and playtesting. This is another reason you want to playtest early. It is also the reason you should initially playtest your game by yourself. This early in development, the game will have the most bumpy roads and navigating other players through a rocky experience can be disheartening. Instead of having to defend your game or feeling the judgement of those playing your game in its infancy, solo playtesting will help you stay focused completely on the game experience and allow you to stay in a game designer’s frame of mind. Whether your game is cooperative or competitive, play every role. Focus on finding the major imbalances and take notes as to possible changes.
- Get feedback
Whether playtesting solo, with others, or blind playtesting (when you aren’t playing the game), constructive feedback is the singularly most important element of playtesting. Without feedback, you have no direction on how to refine your game. Before playtesting (and on your own time), have questions ready for playtesters. This will guide feedback and be easier on the playtesters. Here are a few general questions you can use as a start:
- Are the decisions players have to make interesting?
- Is there adequate player interaction?
- What are the game’s strengths?
- Where does the game need the most improvement?
- Minimize revisions between playtests
Especially early on in playtesting, you are going to have a million changes you want to make. However, the bigger the changes are, the fewer number of changes you should between playtests. The reason why is so you can track the impact of the changes. Make too many revisions, and the next playtest will feel like a completely different game. While they MAY cumulatively improve the game, it’s more difficult to track how each revision impacted the game experience. And as a game designer, we want to know how each rule and each mechanic contributes to the overall game experience.
- Don’t be disheartened
Designing a game is a lot of work, and as stated previously, playtesting won’t ALWAYS provide the exciting experience we’ve hyped up in our minds. However, that does not mean you don’t have a solid foundation for a fun game. Don’t lose motivation if your playtest doesn’t go as expected. Instead, use your energy to determine what was fun and what can make your game more fun.
Hopefully I didn’t paint playtesting as a bleak, miserable experience. It wouldn’t be my favorite part of game development if it was. Playtesting is rewarding and, if not fun, is at least motivating.
Are there any hurdles you have with playtesting? Are you getting constructive feedback afterwards?
Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts or questions.