Game Design

Approaching Board Game Playtesting Pragmatically

Get the most out of your playtesting sessions by understanding some of the best practices and different phases of playtesting.

Hello Otherworldly Beings,

As you might know, I’ve been working on a two-player tile-laying strategy game titled Color Space for the past year and some change. This game has had several iterations. It went from a card game, to a tile and road game with cards, to just a tile and road game that took too long to play, to a tile and road game that takes just the right amount of time to play. How’d I get from point A to point B, you might ask? Why, through the rigorous process of playtesting, of course!

I thought I’d share my process and key takeaways, as well as some things that I haven’t tried, but that you might try yourself. To start, I’ve got a checklist of things to think about as you playtest. Let’s get cracking.

How to get the most out of playtesting

Here are things that I’ve found valuable before or during playtest sessions.

Playtest your game before you think you’re ready to

Playtest sooner rather than later. Don’t worry about polishing your game before you get it out in front of others. It’s not perfect; people’ll understand. Create a low resolution physical or digital version of your game as soon as you possibly can and get people to play it.

Keep your game low resolution for as long as possible. If you spend all day designing fancy icons, only to find that you’ve got to throw away an entire mechanic, you’ll have wasted a lot of time.

I’m currently playtesting a new game that I’m on early development on: a two-player coop deck builder. I created the game in 45 minutes by writing everything on index cards and playtested it with my spouse. I immediately found gamebreaking issues. I also saw what could make this game a whole lot better. I likely wouldn’t have discovered so much about the game so quickly if I’d waited to playtest.

Have a feedback form ready

Your form can be paper or digital. You might have specific questions or more general ones depending on what you’re aiming to find from your playtesters. Here are some basic questions that I’d recommend adding to your form:

  • How much time do you think it took you to play this game?
  • Would you want to play this game again?
  • Do you think this game ended too early, too late, or just at the right time? (You’re aiming for “too early” here because that likely indicates they really do want to play again.)
  • How many people, including you, played?
  • Did you win?
  • Do you feel like this game was fair for all players?
  • Are there any outstanding issues that you noticed with this game?
Playtest at least ten times

I understand if it’s hard to find playtesters but to make sure you can properly detect any trends and patterns in your game, it’s good to playtest at least ten times. Any less, and you risk not being able to identify whether something is coincidence or common.

For remote playtest sessions, ask if players can record themselves

I’ve found that I get a different kind of useful information when watching people play my game. What someone doesn’t say after the session is over, either because they think they’re trying to spare my feelings or they just forget to tell me, might be gleaned in the recording.

Some things to look out for in a recording:

  • How long did it take players to figure out how to set the game up?
  • Did they have to reread any rules? How many times?
  • Do both players look like they’re having fun?
  • Do players ever get annoyed with an aspect of the game? (You might hear them say things like “not that card again” or “you keep doing that.”)
  • How much downtime does one player have when another player takes their turn? Do they seem bored?
  • How many times do players check their phones?
  • Do players get extra excited when doing something in the game?
  • How much time did it take for players to finish?
Give as much as you get

Thinking back on that same playtest session. I also felt like some designers wanted to playtest their games for a bit, then playtest other people’s games. That’s how we grow as designers, right? Unfortunately, it seemed like other designers were expecting to have their games playtested without playtesting other people’s games. One person stayed at their own table the entire session and didn’t even try to talk to the other designers. Not cool. Their game was mostly complete, with fantastic artwork and all, and when I spoke with them after the session ended, they stated that they were mostly there to raise awareness for their game.

I’m not against doing that but it’s unfortunate that this designer didn’t want to give other people the time of day. Especially since as I spoke with them, they raved about the playtest events and how much those helped them. Seems like they weren’t willing to return the favor.

Key takeaway here: don’t just spend an entire playtest session waiting for people to play your game. Get a playtest or two in, and pack your game up to playtest some other designer’s games.

Turn your statements into questions

A great way to get the most valuable feedback you can from someone is to try asking them a question instead of explaining to them how you intend for something to work. I’ve had a lot of playtest sessions that give me exactly what I needed to hear because I’ve phrased things as an open-ended question. Here’s a small example conversation to help illustrate this better:

  • Playtester: I didn’t really understand mechanic X. I think I used it wrong.
  • Designer: What do you think was done wrong?
  • Playtester: I used it to achieve this goal, but it ended up doing this other different thing.
  • Designer: Why do you think that happened?
  • Playtester: It’s because my opponent did Y and Z before I could finish doing X and I didn’t have a chance to stop them.

Even if your conversation doesn’t go quite like that, you’ll always get more insight out of asking questions instead of offering static statements.

Don’t expect people to know how to fix your game

You might be able to ask another designer what they’d do about a certain mechanic, but the majority of people are only able to communicate the problems they see. Solutions are up to you, friend. That doesn’t mean ignore a potential solution if someone offers it. Mainly that at the end of the day, you’re the one who knows best about your game. Own your solutions.

Most importantly, listen and don’t take things personally

I’ve been on both sides of the feedback coin, both listening to and providing feedback. I recall my most recent experience with playtesting at a local event—this was several months ago. I was playtesting a different game (not Color Space) that was in its infancy and that I eventually decided to shelve. I received great feedback all around from designers and players alike on what they found good and bad about the game. I still have that feedback recorded just in case I decide to pick the game back up again in the future, but for now…it’s all about Color Space.

During that playtest, I also provided feedback on someone else’s euro-style worker placement, resource management game. I thought it was great to play but some of the rules weren’t clear. The designer also didn’t explain some of the rules aloud, they’d just take actions and expect us to know why.

When it came time to leave feedback to this person about their game, they were barely even paying attention to me. They had quickly gone from razor-sharp focus, looking all players in the eye, talking to them, to a distracted and disinterested person as soon as they asked for feedback. They didn’t write anything down, and they had flimsy defenses for every piece of feedback I provided. Most of their rebuttals amounted to “well, the game’s still in development so…” It quickly became an awkward and unproductive experience. I got the feeling that that designer actually didn’t want feedback, they thought their game was good already and were just checking a “did you playtest this” box.

Moral of the story: whether someone’s a designer or an enthusiast, listen to what people have to say about your game. Thank people for their feedback and write it down. It’s up to you to decide whether you’re going to incorporate their feedback or not. Don’t worry about that while receiving feedback, just be personable and respectful.

Phases of playtesting

When you playtest, it’s important to think about what you’re playtesting for. Are you just getting started? Are you trying to balance a mechanic? Are you trying to ensure that the game can be played without you being there? Hone in on that type of feedback, but don’t discourage other types.

Here are the phases of playtesting I’ve laid out for Color Space:

1. Early playtesting

This is all about figuring out the major kinks in the game. I used painted wooden hexes and Catan roads for this. I playtested it about 10 times. So many numerous discoveries were made. This is the most important phase in game development. I also playtested variants of the game, even when I had something solid. I just wanted to make sure I was on the right track.

2. Fun-factor playtesting
It’s perfectly fine if your game isn’t fun in the early stages of playtesting. Games rarely are. But after you’ve settled on a lot of the rules and have something that you think is fun, it’s time to find out if others do too. It’s a grand achievement to make something you find fun. It’s an even grander achievement to make something that others find fun, including people you’ve never met before.

If you hope to sell your game to another living soul, you need to see if there’s a market for it out there.

After they finish playing their first game, ask your playtesters this one key question: Do you want to play this game again?

It’s far more important to ask them that question over “did you have fun” or “did you like the game” questions. You’ll find people will almost always say “yes” out of politeness. If you ask them whether they’d play again and they answer YES to that, you know you’ve got something good on your hands.

The mark of a great game is not whether people will play it, it’s whether people will play it again.

3a. Balance playtesting
I’m still using the low resolution version of my game for balance playtesting. As long as you have a good version of your game, you don’t need high resolution assets to work out balance kinks. Most of your major issues should’ve been discovered in early playtesting. Use balance playtesting to make sure your game feels fair. Emphasis on feels.

The idea of balance is like a false god of game design. Balance is for weenies!

Peter Olotka, designer of Cosmic Encounter

I believe Peter said this in an episode of the Ludology podcast. I think what he meant is that we should be more concerned with what feels balanced instead of worrying so much about tweaking values. In fact, something that feels unbalanced on paper might translate to something wonderfully fun in gameplay.

Balance is about making sure that all players feel like they have equal opportunities to do what they can to win, and that one player isn’t advantaged over others. At the same time, you might find that there’s one thing you can’t balance no matter how hard you try: experience.

Someone’s skill level, based on their experience with the game, is a difficult thing to balance against new players. I personally don’t bother driving myself trying to balance for that.

3b. Layering on other mechanics & making tweaks
If you have something that feels great and balanced, you might take an opportunity to try out adding a new mechanic to see how it feels. I think of balance and layering as two halves of a single step, as you might make tweaks on a mechanic as a result of balancing.

Disclaimer: I’d recommend thinking long and hard before you add a mechanic to balance something. Everything that you add to your game creates more complexity. Ask yourself if tweaking an existing mechanic or removing something altogether can accomplish the same goal. You might be surprised at how much better your game runs by tweaking/removing something versus adding something.

4. Blind playtesting
Now it’s time to bring your full self to the table by removing yourself from the table. Blind playtesting is where you provide a copy of your game to people and have them play it through without relying on you to explain or elaborate on any aspect of your game.

You can definitely be there for blind playtesting but, if you can make it work, sometimes it’s better to not be present at all. You’ll find that people are more willing to give more critical feedback when the creative responsible for the game isn’t in the room to be offended.

You’ve got two goals with blind playtesting: 1) Make sure people can take your game out of the box, set it up, and play it through on their own without any hiccups and 2) make sure your game is easy to set up and fun for your players.

5. Roadshow playtesting
You’ve made a complete board game! This is your victory lap. Roadshow playtesing is one of the many ways you can raise awareness for your game. You may find some people offer feedback about it still, and that’s fine. It’s still good to listen and write feedback down, even if it’s too late to make the requested change.

Your main goal here is to talk about your game, ask people if they’d play your game again, raise your brand awareness, and further connect with the board game community.

Remember, though, that you need to give as much as you get!

What are your tips for good playtesting? Let me know in the comments below…

By Neutrino Burrito

A writer and board game designer currently puttering about the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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