Sam “King of the Hilltop”
This is a struggle for me. When designing a board game, I like to try and make people happy and enjoy the game. So, when I am looking for feedback, I am always looking to make changes. I am now here to tell you, that is NOT how you should be going into a playtest or a discussion session.
So, wait…what is the point of playtesting then if it’s not to make changes? The purpose of a playtest is to test your game in an environment so that you can observe it. Ideally, you should have an end or result in mind before you even design or playtest a board game. Changes may be necessary or they may not. So in other words, you are doing the scientific method as it applies to board game design!
Step 1: Make Observations
As many people have mentioned in interviews, conventions, seminars, or anywhere else where you talk to board game reviewers, previewers, editors, and designers, the secret to starting the process is to play games. Different games and exposure to different board game designers, publishers, and genres lead to a memory bank chock-full of game mechanics and ideas. However, you not only have those game mechanics and ideas but how they function together. Many games will splice multiple mechanics together with themes and ideas that make for awesome play experiences.
Now, when someone gets on to you for playing games, you have a reason. I am conducting important research. At least, that’s what I will tell my wife as I purchase Terraforming Mars, Splendor, and Small World on my computer to play online with my brother. It’s research!
Step 2: Construct Hypothesis
In general, a hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon based on reasoning and limited evidence. So, how does that fit into board game design?
This is really the part where we talk the most as board game designers, the creation of a prototype. This is where you actually create your game. You create pieces and components to work with certain mechanics to be used within the rules created by you. You are crafting the player experience or the experiment if you will.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Where you get your meat and potatoes for your stew. I have more of those but you get the picture. This is where you can really start the process of experimenting and iterating your ideas.
An important note for me during this creation step is, what do I want the players to experience? Should they build an engine that starts to get better and better over time and they feel a sense of accomplishment? Maybe it’s a social deduction game where you want to emphasize social interaction, specifically accusations and conflict? These are all things to keep in mind that will craft your game and playtesting to achieve your final goal of a complete game. Keep the end in mind from the beginning.
Step 3: Test With Experiment
Now that you have a game, it’s time to test it! When creating something, it can be difficult to let others see it or play with it. It is a vulnerable time in a creator’s life. However, until this step is taken, the potential of the game and its creator is limited. It will never truly become awesome until is tested, tried, and refined.
There are a lot of “rules” people say you should have when playtesting or any number of things that have to be done but for your initial playtests, most don’t hold true to me. I suggest that you just need the following: components, notes, and a willing player.
My first playtests usually just involve me, as the creator. I will fiddle, fidget, and test a game on my own before it even sees the light outside of my basement. This is a good start. Then once you do that or even before then, invite some trusted friends. They may not give you the whole objective truth about the game but at this point, you are observing the game in a safe environment. There is less stress than throwing it out into the world of unknown playtesters. That is totally fine. Now, if you are a guy who likes to see destruction and chaos at every turn, finish your initial prototype and then throw it to the wolves and pick up the pieces later. That’s fine too. You do what works for you, but playtest it, playtest it again, and then playtest it some more.
There is something called blind playtesting and this is something I personally reserve towards the end. This is after you know it works but you need people to recreate your game experiences without you or someone there to help them along. This requires a completed rule book (not finished since changes may occur) and intuitive components that make sense with what the rules are saying or showing. Blind playtests also need testers who have never played the game. That way, they are not biased to knowing information before hand.
Step 4: Draw Conclusion
After a playtest or multiple playtests, there will be feedback. If not, you should seek feedback and try to have a conversation about the game. Some people are more willing to give feedback than others and can even spiral into the negative. Now, you also need to avoid “this game is perfect and you can do no wrong” attitude as well. So, I like to apply a method I learned from my leadership classes of yore that provided a piece of applied knowledge that I have found to be very useful. It’s called P.C.P. No, not the drug but it stands for Praise, Comment, Praise. Start with positive praise for the game, then move on to comments about the game where improvement is needed or expectations were not met, then finish with positive comments/praise for the game at the end.
What does P.C.P. look like after a game?
I usually ask after a game, “I know you will have some or even a lot of comments about this game and I want to hear them but let’s go around and start with each person saying one thing that they liked or was good about the game.”
Then once everyone has an opportunity to give their comment, I move on to say, “Now let’s look at what didn’t meet your expectations and where the opportunities are to make this game better.”
It is imperative that you write these comments down. Even if you already know the answers they are giving or even know that they are wrong, you take notes and you write down what they said. Don’t pretend, don’t change what they said, write it down. You may ask clarifying questions and I would highly recommend you do to get a better perspective on where they are coming from and why they said what they did. Don’t get defensive but you can offer your perspective of why you chose a certain design decision. Toss that at them and get their opinion on what you did. They may agree or disagree. That’s okay. Write it down. However, if you see a lot of disagreement with your choice, you may need to re-evaluate to see if it is important to your desired player experience.
Then try to end the discussion on a positive note and you can wax theoretical here and ask, “If we made these changes you suggested or tweaked the game in a certain way, do you think this is something you would play again?” Some will say yes and others will say no and you want as much information about those people as possible. What kinds of games do they play? Where do they get their information for board games? Over time you may see trends of where your game does and does not fit. This allows you to make better decisions about what to change and not to change as you narrow or widen your target market for the game. Meaning, if you are making a social deduction game, the feedback from heavy historical euro board gamers will have a different perspective and value on your game than those people who play nothing but social deduction games.
Step 5: Accept or Reject Hypothesis
After feedback and analysis of your playtests, you will have to make a decision to say whether it is good enough and move on to the final step or send it back in order to modify and change the game. Notice that I said if the game is good enough. No game is perfect, even those that we venerate as evergreen or as genre classics. At some point, it needs to be deemed good enough or it will forever stay in development hell. Now, some games need these long development cycles, some don’t, and some people are perfectly okay with the long development process. This all ties to the final step of getting your game ready to publish, crowdfund, or pitch to a publisher. This also depends on whether you are depending on a game for your livelihood or if it’s a side gig. Those answers will determine what quality or how long you have to get it right.
Step 6: Report Results
Here it is, the final step. You made it! The game is good enough. The player experience is where you want it to be. Now, depending on your end goal this process will start over again, but many times in a different way. If you are self-publishing, you are going to have to get the marketing campaigns ready, the artwork, the box design, the component materials, and much, much more.
If you are going to pitch it, you will get the sell sheet ready and make sure your prototype is intuitive and legible. Make your descriptions concise and rules that are logical and legible.
If you are going to crowdfund, develop a following and a crowd to fund your game. (See what I did there!?) Get your game quoted and prepped for production, look at your margins and your stretch goals or maybe you won’t have any stretch goals.
Maybe you just want to print your game and have a personal, nice looking game that you can call your own. That’s a perfectly good end goal as well. I know some people think that they have to publish a game if they create one. Why? Why do you have to? The process of creating games is a wonderful and creative endeavor but be sure if you want to try and publish a game, you are ready to be a publisher and not a game designer. Two different things.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this article and we would highly value your feedback. This is our longest article to date and we are not sure how it will be received. Let us know. Is this a good length? Do you want the articles broken up into smaller pieces? Maybe you want even more information and examples? We want to hear from you so let us know on social media or by posting on this article. Have a great day and stay safe out there!
Constants and Variables
Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”
Using this scientific method, it is important to track your constants and variables. Just like any type of scientific experiment, it’s important to make sure that what you think is causing something actually is.
What makes a good constant? This really depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you goal is to appeal to a certain market or player type then ensure the constant when playtesting are people in that market or segment.
Another good constant is playtesting the same rule set. Testing the rule set with different groups to ensure you the problems you think are there actually are. An example of this is when you think a rule or ability is overpowered. This could quite possibly be the case but it should be tested in another group or several before any drastic changes are made.
Another important thing is to keep your variable or variables to as few as possible. In the initial stages you often have to change multiple things in order to make any kind of real progress. Once your game starts to really come together it is important to try and only change one thing at a time. This is to make sure the root problem you have identified has actually been solved and that what you are changing is doing so in the way that you want
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