Playtesting: Self-Imposed Objectivity

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
Happy playtesting!

Form Fits Function

I was in the process of designing some cards yesterday when I realized that they were unplayable. They weren’t unplayable because they weren’t balanced, or they weren’t of sufficient quality. No, they were unplayable because they just sucked to use.
With my most recent iteration of cards, I wanted to make the card text larger and make stacking more streamlined. Unfortunately, my “brilliant” solution for this ended up being garbage; the horizontal layout I had hoped to use just didn’t make sense when you held and played the cards. I kept craning my neck to see what the text/symbols were, and half the time my iconography was covered up. Nobody is going to hold cards in their hand horizontally, and we’re so comfortable with placing vertically-oriented sets from our hands that it’s weird to ask people to hold the cards one way and play them another. A game should be fun – not an imposition. I needed to redesign their layout based on how they’d actually be used.
For my particular situation, I thankfully had read Joseph Z Chen’s great article on card design and remembered it during my self-playtest. I won’t rehash it here because it’s excellent and you should go read it. But I will say that it saved me a ton of time and I now have some ideas on how to move forward.
The further point I want to make, however, is how important it is to keep the overall experience in mind when designing a game (or anything for that matter). The title of this article comes from a commonly cited (and frequently unimplemented, based on my experience as a structural engineer) phrase in the architecture community. The form of your game, its mechanics, its components, etc. should fit their intended use. You wouldn’t design a 12-person party game that takes 2 hours to complete, right? Keeping the notion of form fitting function on the top of your mind as you design and test can, as I found out, help save a ton of time and heartache.
More importantly, it can also help save you from a slow, drawn-out project failure.