Board Game Design Basics: Playtest! Part I

As a game designer, you’ll probably spend more of your time playtesting than doing anything else. Awesome! What’s more fun than playing games all the time?

While playtesting your game should be fun (why would you want to be a designer if you didn’t enjoy playing games?), you can’t forget that you’re working, so it’s important to take it seriously and make sure you’re doing it efficiently. Today I want to discuss some ideas that will help you do just that.

A Shot of Theory!

Before I get to the nitty-gritty, I want to share some of my philosophy on game design.

As a designer, you are an explorer of game space. You hope to discover something awesome, but it’s very unlikely you’ll just discover something awesome immediately without looking around a little first. You may be a master of systems, but you can never really know how good your game is without empirical evidence. Why? Because games are more about people (and psychology) than systems, and while systems are often clean and understandable, people never are.

Just like a microscope lets a biologist see life in a fundamentally new way, playtesting lets a game designer see his or her game in a fundamentally new way. Image from Minnesota Public Radio.

Just like a microscope lets a biologist see life in a fundamentally different way, playtesting lets a game designer see his or her game in a fundamentally different way. Image from Minnesota Public Radio.

Playtesting is your main tool to get an understanding of the true nature of your game, similar to an astronomer’s telescope or biologist’s microscope. You will playtest to identify weaknesses in your current design and will use that information to iteratively improve your game, making it as good as it can be.

What does this mean practically? You should treat every playtest as an opportunity to acquire precious data. And just like a scientist performing an experiment, you should always have a goal and a hypothesis going into a playtest. It doesn’t have to be completely explicit, but you should at least have a vague idea of which part of your game you want to explore, and should have at least a rough idea of how the game will perform. Sometimes, playtests will offer unexpected results about parts of your game you didn’t see coming, but if you didn’t waste your time with a playtest, you will learn something about your goal.

Stages for the Ages!

As your game develops over time, you’ll go through several stages of playtesting. Your early playtests will often offer data that suggest sweeping changes. You should always be open to making big, structural changes, but as time goes on your goals should become more focused as you fine tune specific components. Below are some of the stages you’ll find yourself in and the goals you should be shooting for when you’re in those stages.

Early Exploration – In your very earliest playtests, you should have a very rough prototype, and your goal should be simple: is this game worth spending your precious time working on? Ideally, you will present your game to open minded gamers who can see past the ugly physical prototype and the completely unbalanced components to the core idea you have in mind. If your playtesters have fun exploring the concept and are excited to offer suggestions about how to play with the core mechanic, it’s a good sign that the game is worth further exploration.

Structural Uncertainty – Once you’ve decided to focus your attention on a game, it’s time to figure out the game’s basic structure. You’ll have some concept of how the game will work, and some mechanic will form the game’s core, but everything else should be up for debate (to be settled by data from playtesting). Should your game use cards or dice? Should players switch who plays first between rounds? What should trigger the game’s ending? During this stage, you’ll be making these fundamental decisions. Use your playtesting feedback to answer these questions, keeping the game accessible, intuitive, moving at a good pace, and of course centered on the game’s core.

Accessibility and Rules – Let’s face it: games get played way more for the first time than for the second, third, or any other time. While it’s very important to make your game have longevity with strategies that evolve and hidden synergies for players to explore, it’s much more important that you make it easy to learn and understand for the first play. If players can’t figure it out the first time, they’ll never discover all of the awesome depth you put into it!

Throughout your playtesting, make sure you test with new players who haven’t played the game before to make sure they can pick it up quickly and easily. It’s also vital to write the rules and to get players to learn the game with the written rules without your help. There are times when it’s appropriate for you to explain the rules so players can immediately have fun, but you absolutely must sit back and watch people struggle through your rules because this is how most people will experience the game. You need to make sure that experience is as smooth as possible, and iterative improvements are necessary to achieve that.

Balance – On the other hand, it’s important to find a core group or two of playtesters to play the game multiple times to make sure the game is well balanced and that it stands the test of time. And at the very least, you need to make sure that someone actually wants to play the game a bunch. If you can’t find playtesters that will delve into the depths of your game’s strategies, it might not have the legs it needs to survive.

 Just the Beginning

Playtesting is fundamental to game design, so it’s no surprise I have a lot more to say about it. Next time I’ll discuss who you should playtest with, what kind of data you should be collecting, and how you should take feedback from playtesters.

But that will have to wait for now. In the mean time, get out there and playtest your game! Just make sure you have a set goal in mind before you do.

Update: Read the exciting conclusion here.