So this will be short and sweet: I just wanted to quickly document where I’m at and where I’m going in the game design process (given the two-week hiatus in blog posts).
- The past two weeks, aside from being phenomenally swamped with life, I’ve been wrapping up a few bits of playtesting for other designers. It’s been phenomenally instructive (you can read about my overall thoughts in my previous post).
- I’ve been documenting a number of kernel ideas for games. Some of them are fast, word building card games. Some are more substantial, including a colony survival/light RPG game. One of them is a terribly-themed, wedding-planning game, but I like the overall structure that was the impetus for the game, so wanted to roll with it to see if I could uncover a theme that sucks less.
- Overall, I’ve been doing a fair bit of background work – basically, things outside of directly designing my games. The thought process is to alternate between game design and these alternate tasks so that I don’t get too bogged down the minutiae of game design or get frustrated when I get stuck. Also, it’s to ensure that I’m constantly drawing on new sources, not just getting stuck in a narrow track of skills/thoughts.
So, the plan for the next week is to take what I’ve learned and jump back into the games I’ve started designing (mainly the colony survival and light word games).
I recently took some time to blind playtest the games of other designers and wanted to share my experiences. The short version is that I’m fantastically glad I did. I think everyone interested in gaming should do some playtesting (if for no reason other than an intellectual exploration and appreciation of the design process).
The slightly longer answer is that I think there’s a lot to be learned from stepping outside your own creative process to really evaluate the work of others. You get to objectively see what works, what doesn’t, what’s polished, and what’s confusing – all without the fog of design to obscure things. Here are some of my takeaways:
How I Anticipate my Playtests Will Impact my Game Development:
- Spend ample time on the rulebooks, focusing on overview and simplicity
- Start with an overly-verbose, excessively long, and tediously-thorough rulebook with plenty of explainer graphics, reminders, and overviews
- Spend multiple edits paring down the text; increasing clarity and reducing walls of text
- Play through the game alone several times with an emphasis on questioning everything
- It’s impossible to be truly objective, but reading the rulebook verbatim and not skipping steps should help reduce some of the blind-playtest confusion
- Really focus on the balance between ‘easy-to-learn’ and depth of replay
- Easy-to-learn games are fantastic for adoption, but often fizzle out quickly
- I want to try and inject complexity into my games through content and varying strategies rather than an increased number of mechanics and/or required steps. Tension via options per decision + concise # decisions >> # Options via multiple decisions and rules
How I Plan to Utilize Playtesters for My Future Games:
- Make it clear
- If it’s lengthy, or requires many components be supplied, make sure the playtesters know up front
- Provide discrete questions to guide their review. “Did you like the game? What would you change?” is difficult to answer well.
- Make it easy
- PDF PNP files that don’t need explanation on printing, cutting, or assembly
- Make it consistent
- Web forms aren’t sexy, but they should be great for getting and tracking consistent data points
- One person citing a problem isn’t as powerful as ten people citing the same problem
- Provide an incentive
- It doesn’t have to be grandiose – a simple mention as a playtester on the website or rulebook to give credit is far more than nothing
- Can be substantial if it makes sense (e.g. lengthy game)
My Thoughts for Those Who Wish to Playtest:
- Really consider why you want to playtest and what value you can provide to the designer
- Even if you’re not a designer – think about how they might utilize your feedback
- Being nice isn’t helpful if the game is garbage, but neither is slamming their game without explanation
- Your observations are likely close to priceless, and your proposed solutions are likely close to worthless
- Don’t worry about trying to solve their problems (that’s their job), but being thorough and precise is crucial; you try to imagine coming up with a solution for “the setup didn’t make sense”.
- Get basic information about the game ahead of time
- Things like number of players, expected time of play, required components, etc.
- The goal is to ensure that you have an understanding of what you’re taking on so you can follow through
- At least one of the games I playtested ended up requiring WAY more time than I expected, which resulted in some longer, more frustrating nights on my end (as I wanted to keep my word to the designer)
- DON’T, however, be tempted to get too much information about the game if you’re blind playtesting
- Every piece of gameplay information you have undermines your ability to objectively stumble through the rules
- No playthrough videos, no overview of the setup…nothing
- If you’re getting stuck, either because the rules or rulebook are broken or unclear, come up with something plausible and keep moving
- Something might clarify itself later in the game
- Even if the game is broken, you can still provide insight into the rest of the game (and problems), by moving past the sticking point
Why design a board game?
Although I’ve spent some time pontificating about my thoughts on working, starting, and the inception of this blog, I realized I never actually explained what I’m doing and why from a board game standpoint.
I’ve always loved games. When I was little, it was a way to compete with everybody in the family (I’m super competitive). I wasn’t big enough to beat my Dad, Mom, Uncles, etc. in physical feats, and when I was older it was a way to level the playing field when the aforementioned relatives were older and less spry, but my younger brother and cousins couldn’t keep up with my peacocking teenage self. But more than all this, I loved the focused mix of theme, mechanics, strategy, and togetherness. You couldn’t be off in separate rooms playing a game. You couldn’t lose yourself in worldwide Risk domination if you were also reading a book. You couldn’t win at Rummy 500 if you didn’t pay attention to what others had picked up. It’s the focus that was fantastic, and it’s something I still revel in today.
So when I finally got around to making time in my schedule to work on another project, board games immediately floated to the top. It’s something I was passionate about. It had design challenges I could sink my teeth into. It would have logistic execution challenges that I could flex my professional experience at. Above all, it’s something that could be both fun and rewarding.
With regard to the type of games I’d produce, that was (and is) less clear. I love detailed, multi-hour heavy games just as much as well-designed party games that some hardcore gamers scoff at. So I have ideas for both in the works (and another that’s in-between). In the end, my games need to be fun. That’s it. How we get there is more or less irrelevant.
So this blog will continue to chronicle my journey as I try to become a board game designer. As we know, I can’t call myself a designer until a game is actually finished. Until then I’m just a guy screwing around on the internet. Regardless of the outcome, I’ll be able to provide some value/commiseration/help/enjoyment to those reading.