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Approaching Board Game Playtesting Pragmatically

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.

Balance is for cowards.

Peter Olotka, designer of Cosmic Encounter

I’ve heard that he said that, but I can’t find a source. If he did say it, 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…

Meet Color Space, a two-player strategy game

Hello everyone! I’m nearing the final work on my designs for Color Space (formally titled “A Colorful Game”), a two-player tile-laying strategy game.

In Color Space, players compete head-to-head to be the first to collect five of each of the three secondary colors (15 secondary colors total) represented as diamonds in the picture below.

Assets are subject to change. Move primary color tiles to create secondary color diamonds. Create a qualifying path of these diamonds to be able to collect some!

This game has been a year-and-a-half in the making, and the journey’s not over yet! I’ve got a lot more playtesting to do. I’m also working on a Tabletop Simulator version of Color Space. There’s YouTube videos, advertising, getting the kickstarter page going—aaaah! I’m stressed. I should play some Color Space to relax.

Here’s a sneak peak of the box art.

Box art is subject to change. I’m happy with what I have here, but I’ll add some texturing to make it stand out more.

What’s next? My immediate next steps are to lock in all of the designs and get some beautiful prototypes printed. Then I’ll be able to make gameplay videos with assets that better reflect what the game will look like.

After that, I’ll work on an estimate with manufacturers and fulfillment facilities, and create a minimum budget for the kickstarter!

Then it’s marketing, marketing, marketing.

Look out for some more fall updates on Color Space.

Overhauling Your Tabletop Game Mechanics

If you’re designing a tabletop game, you may have run across elements of your game that just didn’t click. Why, though? Well I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town! Wait, that’s not right. This is my first tabletop game, and it’s gone through many iterations. I’ve changed the theme, I’ve added or removed some minor mechanics, but for some reason the game still didn’t click. The answer came to me from one of my beta play test sessions. Someone gave me critical feedback. I don’t even think they were aware of how critical it was and how much I needed it.

Here’s what they said:

It just seems like all of these mechanics are a complicated way for me to just get one thing.

That’s when it hit me. I was trying to shoehorn in a resource management element to a game that’s about players trying to fumble together to create policy to solve problems. Later on, they—as an experienced board game player and statistician themselves—gave me advice on how I might change the mechanics to fit around the resource management mechanic. I, personally, took a different approach—I sliced that mechanic out with a machete and reconstructed the game.

So what was the problem?

The issue was that players weren’t encouraged to bargain with one another, they weren’t motivated to interact. There also weren’t any ways that players to make the game more difficult for one another. So I got rid of the resource management element in lieu of one that lets players tinker with the power of various factions.

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 10.35.30 AM
A prototype of the faction power board.

Now, players must create alliances and work together to solve in order to solve a crisis. If they can, their faction’s power increases. If they can’t, their faction’s power may decrease.

I’ve still got some work to do on this. I’m working to force more allegiances with players, and I may break this out into eight or twelve factions instead of just four.

What does all of that junk mean on your faction board?

You may have noticed that the green squares don’t necessarily go up at a steady increment—that’s a balancing technique, as it depicts the amount of influence that players receive at the end of a round. They use influence to bargain for an alliance, veto other player’s vote tokens, and to buy vote tokens themselves.

Players also have special abilities which are unique to their characters.

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 10.35.45 AM
Prototype of the character cards. (These are public knowledge to all players.)

The symbols on top of the sliders indicate a special ability that players who are aligned with that faction will get when they bring the faction to that level of power.

OK but how to do people win, just by bringing their faction to full power?

Players also have a hidden motivation. This is the true nature of how they win as individuals. I’m still testing this to see how much fun it brings to the game.

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 10.35.37 AM
Your motivation is only known to you.

Is that it, then?

I’ve still got more to work on with the bargaining and allegiance mechanics, and I have to figure out which special abilities factions will have when their power increases. But this is coming along! I’m hoping to have a mostly finalized version of the game for balance play testing within the next three months! (Stay tuned.)

Designing a Game is a Grand Balancing Act

Do you remember playing tic-tac-toe as a kid? What about checkers? Both were fun when you were young but got old just as you got old, right? That’s because both of them are solved games.

Are solved games what I think they are?

A solved game is a game whose outcome (win, lose or draw) can be correctly predicted from any position, assuming that both players play perfectly

Wikipedia, Solved Game

That’s one reason for a bland game, which results in loss of replay zest.

Then there are games that rely too much on random chance to support their mechanics. Both of these issues lead to the horrid plague of imbalance.

I’ve played Monopoly, now get on with it!

A well-designed game contains a medley of elements that prevent it from being solved and keep it from being imbalanced. I want to talk about these mechanics at their core. Note that these elements aren’t everything that you need to make a great game, but they’re four attributes that are important to think about when designing the mechanics.


This is important, but should be the smallest aspect of a game. Everyone has fun playing the odds a bit and it increases replay. Chance is also fair, as player outcomes aren’t as beholden to direct attacks from other players.

Too much chance comes with its own problems, though. It can drag some games out indefinitely (I’m looking at you, Risk) or it can make players feel like they have no control over their own outcome; like the game is pure destiny. You might as well spin around in a circle and point to the winner without even bothering to set up that game (Yahtzee, you’re only dice and paper but you’re still not worth the set up time).

Take a game like Bang! The Dice Game, for instance. There’s a lot of chance involved. But it’s balanced well with two factors:

  • The different mechanics of chance actually make the game nice and short
  • Chance doesn’t interfere with each player’s ability to take action—on the contrary—it lends to it

Attack and Counterattack

Fun games are ones that allow the players to take action against the game itself or other players (or both). I know that sounds like every single game ever made, but designing a fun, balanced attack move is difficult.

In Bang! the fun isn’t just in your ability to attack other players, it’s in what attack options they’ll have and their strategy for who they should attack and possibly counterattack.

Connected Mechanics

This is an easy idea to think about but a difficult one to continually put into practice. Mainly, because it means that you’ll need to continuously change and remove mechanics that may be amazingly fun, but don’t work well together.


I get it, this one is even more obvious. But at the same time, it’s not. The best part about winners in a fun game is that it feels like they deserve it. If the other three aspects are singing in harmony, then your win condition will be the least of your worries.

So, what did we learn?

I’ve been developing this game for a year, but designing mechanics for a tabletop game is still new to me. I’m familiar with storytelling, but my stories are always linear. I write them down, try to make them intriguing and fun, but the words on the final draft will always be in the same order.

The theme of the game (the setting, the events, and the player’s involvement), the players and the overall moves they could make—all of these ideas came naturally to me. Through trial and error, I’ve learned to make sure that attack and counterattack, connection between mechanics, and a little bit of chance make for a well-deserved winner. But if there are issues finding a winner, or that win doesn’t feel like it’s been earned—looking to tweak those three attributes allows the last one to fall into place.