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How To Make A Game: Playtesting Advice From Game Designers

How To Make A Game: Playtesting Advice From Game Designers

So you’ve designed a game. You had a great idea, come up with some rules, and you even made a prototype. Now you’re ready to launch a Kickstarter and make a million dollars, right? Well… not yet. Playtesting, the process of playing an unfinished game to get feedback on its design, is an important phase of designing a game. We talked to designers of successful roleplaying, board and card games to get their best advice on playtesting your game.

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Marcus Ross from Water Bear Games playtests Beeeees! using unfinished game pieces.

Yes, You Should Playtest Your Game

“I think all games should be playtested for one reason or another,” said Avery Alder, designer of tabletop roleplaying games including Monsterhearts, the Quiet Year, and Dream Askew. But not all games need to be playtested in the same way, not even all games of the same type. “I think there is a common myth or misunderstanding that every game needs major playtesting as a part of its development cycle. Playtesting has different specific uses, depending on what you are trying to learn.”

Designers say that playtesting can help in a variety of ways, to help the game “find what it wants to be,” to make sure it’s fun, to test mechanics, theme, and to make sure the rules make sense to your players, even when the designer isn’t present. The designers interviewed said each game starts with a clear goal: to examine a theme, replicate a feeling, explore a mechanic, or something else. Once you know what your main goal is, use playesting to help your game find its footing. 

Marcus Ross, designer of Discount Salmon and Beeeees!, said that his company’s games go through many stages of playtesting before they are finished. “You want to start playtesting as soon as humanly possible. Put it on the table, see if there’s anything usable, and be prepared to make a lot of changes.” To get games on the table quickly, Ross said he uses resources like game-icons.net to get free art for his games while in playtesting, before enlisting his partner at Water Bear Games, Cara Heacock, to create the art and design. 

Run Your Game A Lot, For Different People 

Of course, the type of feedback you’re looking for will depend how finished your game is. Hayley Gordon and Vee Hendro, the two-woman team behind Good Society: a Jane Austen Roleplaying Game, say that their playtests start with a close group of friends, then travel to conventions around Australia for 30 or more tests to get feedback and experience.  After that, Hayley and Vee start “blind testing” the game, where they can observe as other people use the rules, not instructions from the designer, to run a session themselves.

“I think that’s really important, because when game designers often take a very leading/directing role in all their playtesting, they don’t articulate in their text what they’re doing. When other people try to play it, the game just fall apart,” said Avery. 

The rules as written may not include enough information to get the feeling of the game across without having the creator present, so sitting in on a session where you are not the one running a game is a good way to make sure you aren’t “filling in the blanks” without realizing it in your own tests, said Hayley.

Another way to get good feedback is to be sure to diversify your testing base, said Marissa Kelly. Marissa is a game designer and co-owner of Magpie Games, which has created Bluebeard’s Bride and CartelShe emphasized that games should be tested many times with different groups of people: gamers and non-gamers, friends and strangers, to make sure your game appeals to folks beyond your group of friends.

Cara Heacock said another benefit of getting strangers to playtest your game is that they may give more accurate feedback. “Don’t just play with friends who don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said.

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Players playtest Avery Alder’s forthcoming game Dream Askew at the “Liberatory Story & Play” retreat in Nova Scotia. 

Finding (A Lot of) Playtesters 

How do you find people to playtest your unfinished game? Conventions like GenCon and Metatopia were mentioned by many designers as good places to find lots of players, and many tabletop-focused conventions have a system to help designers meet up with players to get tests together, whether formal or informal. But if you can’t make it to a convention or need to fill in the time between big events, there are still lots of ways to find players.

Avery said, when she was working on a few of her games, she worked with the players she could find. “I was living in a cabin off the side of a rural highway and there were no major cities within a four-hour drive,” she said. “My playtesters were my friends, my mom, and people who happened to be staying on our couch.”

Marcus started a game developers group where he lives in Omaha, Nebraska, at a local board game cafe. Designers can meet weekly to test their new projects on each other. Many such meet-ups exist at game cafes and game stores around the world. Find one in your area by talking to the owner of your local game cafe—and if one doesn’t exist, start it yourself!

Hayley and Vee from Storybrewers say the community for games in Australia is a little smaller than that in the U.S., but they’ve found more ways. “The Internet is your friend,” Hayley said, especially for RPGs. Gaming sessions can be run over Google Hangout with folks from around the world. Google Plus, Facebook Groups and websites like the Gauntlet can help you find players and set up a session.

Know What To Look For

So once you’ve made a game prototype and are ready to bring it to the table, what’s next? Designers say that going into a playtest with a plan will result in the most meaningful feedback. Just playing the game and then saying: “What do you think?” may not give you anything to work with.

“You can’t really measure fun. You can ask people how they feel about one aspect of the game,” said Jon Ritter, Operations Manager of Lay Waste Games, who created the board game Dragoon.

“Generally speaking, I will come in with specific questions – did you feel like you knew how to play your character effectively in every scene you were in? Did you feel like you made a difference in the story?” said Avery.

Marissa said that she uses a system called “Roses and Thorns” to get feedback after testing one of her RPGs. “I ask for one thing that the player liked, and one thing they didn’t, that caused friction or they would have liked to seen more of.” The specific ask can make people more willing to give critiques, she said, and limit the burden on the playtester to spend a lot of time giving feedback.

Take Good Feedback, and Ignore The Rest

One of the scary parts of playtesting a game is receiving criticism. You want everyone to love this game you made! How do you get over this fair, and how do you know what feedback to take seriously?

“Don’t be afraid that people are going to tell you your game is terrible – it may just not be for them,” said Jon. Keep in mind where each player is coming from.

“It’s sort of like cooking,” said Marissa. “If someone says there’s too much salt, and you didn’t add any, you have to wonder: did salt get in the dish, or is something else going on?”

“Understanding where a person is coming from and contextualizing what they’re saying to you will maximize your understanding of their comments,” said Vee.

On the other hand, Hayley said, one good way to know that you should definitely be listening to feedback is sheer quantity, “If you run a game 30 times and you hear the same thing then you should fix it!”

When you do decide to make a change, Avery said to keep in mind that you know your game and your goals better than anyone else. “I pay attention to what people say the problems are, and very little to what they say the solutions should be,” she said. Ultimately, the designer knows her game better than someone who’s just started to play it. So take the feedback, and evaluate it yourself.  

Just keep trying, testing, and playing until you have a game that succeeds at what you set out to do!

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Our Game Experts: Cara Heacock & Marcus Ross, Hayley Gordon & Vee Henro, Marissa Kelly, Avery Alder, and Jon Ritter.

What games do you think have the best design, and why? Tell us in the comments!

Want more boardgame design advice?

Image Credits: Cara Heacock & Marcus Ross, Haley Gordon & Vee Henro, Marissa kelly, Avery Alder, Jon Ritter, Teri Litorco

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