Six Tips for Playtesting

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.

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Solo playtesting The King’s Legion since GenCon

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:

    1. 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…

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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:

      1. Are the decisions players have to make interesting?
      2. Is there adequate player interaction?
      3. What are the game’s strengths?
      4. Where does the game need the most improvement?

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

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2 thoughts on “Six Tips for Playtesting

  1. Mike says:

    Good post! All things I have found to be true in my own play testing adventures. One thing I noticed that was absent was volume. How many people do you test on before you decide it works?

    I have discovered with my own game play tests that everyone loves to help play test a game. I have had 1 person out of the dozens I have asked turn me down, and his reasoning for it didn’t make sense (but thats all a different story). I have found that the most effective way to get lots of people in on a round of play testing is to first invite good friends and family members. Do a couple of tests with them, and when you have a lot of positive feedback (not disregarding the negative feedback) ask them if they’d be willing to host a play test for you. Everyone who has played my game is eager to host a play test, and I have now tested the game more with strangers than with friends.

    Anyway, you never really address how much testing is needed. I’ve heard a couple of different numbers, but the most common one is 100 hours of testing with 100 people. Obviously thats a big number. For my game and typical number of players per test that works out to playing about 20 games with all different people, but it will end up closer to 25 or 30 plays.

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    • You make a good point. Volume of playtests and playtesters could be a topic in and of itself, but is worth mentioning.
      You are a bit further along in your playtesting than I am. I’ve had more friends and family playtest than strangers, but I have gotten a couple blind playtests in. I am just now starting to build prototypes for my friends, so they can host test games on their own.
      I’m glad to hear you’ve been successful with playtesting; I’ve heard many others not be so successful in finding playtesters.
      To respond to your questions:
      How many people do you test before you decide it works?
      As many as possible. I went through a bunch of solo playtesting before reaching out to friends and family. I have about 15-20 friends that want to playtest. Then I hope to get that many blind playtesters in as well.
      How much testing is needed?
      Since I can’t speak from experience (I haven’t finished), I’ll give the obvious two answers: as much as possible, and every game and designer is different. I’m sure simpler games require less playtesting. But The King’s Legion has a lot of content and many different chapters, so a lot more playtesting will be required. However, I like your synopsis. 100 hours is a very solid goal. I’d say that’s a great milestone. Finish 100 hours and reevaluate. You may find it’s been tried and true after 100 hours of playtesting, but you may find it needs another 100 hours.
      Thank you for the feedback! Next week I will more thoroughly introduce The King’s Legion and how my development is progressing, including some of my goals.

      Like

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