Game School: Play Testing or how I learned to stop worrying and love the criticism

You’ve spent your time designing your game, you’ve gotten together enough scrap paper to make a physical version of your game and there it sits on your table, staring back at you.  Now what? I don’t care if you’ve spent 45 minutes working on this game, or 4.5 years. If you haven’t play tested it yet, and if you haven’t done it with people you don’t know and had it done while you weren’t even there, you don’t have a final product.

play testing
Never use animals to play test your games. This is probably not what this image was originally intended for.

I believe that play testing board, card or role playing games should happen in three broad swaths, which start at home with you, and end up having you play your game with as many people as possible, as publicly as possible. Let’s dive right into our swaths and swaddle ourselves in play testing.

Swath the first – Go it alone

As you can see, I didn’t play test that metaphor at all. On purpose. It’s horrible. Who swaddles themselves in swaths? Who over the age of, oh, four months swaddles themselves in anything?  There’s a reason why games are play tested, and thats because there are two, possibly three people on this great Earth who can sit down and design a wonderfully honed, functional game in one go. That person isn’t you and it sure as hell isn’t me. Play testing allows us to find the things in our games that aren’t quit right. They can be small things, such as moving that number from the top right of a card to the top left, to better facilitate fanning out your hand of cards. They can be large things, like a mechanic that just plain doesn’t work, or takes away from the game as a whole.

That’s why the first thing you’re going to do is sit yourself down at that table with your hand drawn, or quickly printed prototype and play the hell out of it. By yourself. Alone. Solo. By the way, Han shot first.

Take the role of the lowest number of players you can play your game with and have at it. This is where you get to fire up the game mechanics and see what they do in the real world. And more importantly, you get to do with yourself so you can find those deal breakers. The rules that make no sense when you try to actually implement them using the bits you created on the table. That win condition that is never quite reached, causing your 15-30 minute game to last 73 minutes. The way over powered move that can let you win the game in three moves, every single time. I think this is the second most critical phase of play testing. You want to get this stuff out of the way before you bring others into the mix. If you find your game is unplayable the way it is, and you find this out all by yourself, you’ve done yourself and your future play testers a great service.

If that happens, it’s back to the design phase to smooth things out, or clarify the rules so that the mechanics make more sense. Then, once you’ve got the big issues ironed out (if there were any) ramp up your self play testing. Take the role of as many players as you can stand playing and have a go at it for a few games. Once you’re comfortable with what you have in front of you, and nothing is obviously broken, it’s time to move on.

Swath the second – Failing with friends and family

If your friends and family do this after a play test, you’re probably on the right track.

Okay, you’ve ironed out all the show stoppers that you could find on your own. You’ve played through several games and nothing’s come up that would prevent the game from moving on – it’s not terribly broken! Congratulations! Now comes the public failure. I suggest you start this phase with your friends, family, a few trusted people who, while they may not give your the most honest opinion, will still sit down and play a potentially broken game with you for an hour or two.

Why not jump right into some public play tests? You can if you want, but my suggestion is going to be going with a small group of people you know well and trust. They may not provide the most honest feedback, but there’s a reason for this, so we’ll go explore that!

If you’ve got friends and family like mine, they’re probably excited for you because you’ve just finished this new game idea thingy. Excited and proud, and perhaps a bit perplexed. They’ll gladly sit down with you and play your game, even though it looks like a 3rd grade art project at the moment. They may give you lots of praise, and when you ask for criticism, they may say something like “oh no, dear, I think it’s wonderful! I especially like how you hand tore the cards! It makes them look so… hand made!”

That’s fine. You should take their praise and stockpile it in the back of your mind, because you’re going to need it later. You should also be thankful for their good will and the fact that they’ll play this thing with you. It allows you to take a good, hard look at how the game plays with actual living people who aren’t you. You can see how someone who hasn’t spent the last twelve years honing their Settlers of Catan strategy may approach your game. In short, they’ll do things, and think in ways that just wouldn’t occur to you. And that’s your game’s second real test. Does it stand up to other people mucking about with it?

Chances are you’ll find a few more issues, big or small, which are important to take care of in the next step. So finish up playing with your close people, buy them beer, chocolate or flowers as appropriate and prepare to fail in a spectacular, public way!

Swath the third – Fail big, fail publicly

failureYou’ve already begun your journey to public failure, now it’s time to move on down, move on down, move on down the road. This is, without a doubt in my mind, the most important phase of play testing.

You’ve first got to become comfortable with the fact that your game design may not stand up to public scrutiny and play. At least, not the first time. Or it may do very well but run into that one person. You know, that person. The one who finds something wrong with every game. They may do so loudly, and at a table with you while playing your game. Which brings me to another point – where does all this stuff happen?

That’s a damned good question, and this may be the hardest portion of your journey to thoroughly play test your game. It’s not always easy to get strangers to sit down and play an unknown game with you. Especially one that consists of bits cobbled together from your ancient collection of family games, note cards and no attractive graphics. This leads you to a have to make a decision. Should you pretty this up before you go public with it? You’ll have to answer this before even we find this table to sit down at with that person.

I talk a bit about doing this in Prototyping 101, which I invite you to read. Whatever your decision, let’s get you to the table with your game.

First, I’d suggest pulling out all the stops with your own gaming group, should you have one. And by that, I mean ordering a pizza and saying “look folks, I need your honest opinions here. Tell me what works, sure, but tell me what doesn’t and why it doesn’t too.” And thus your public career as a game creator has begun.

Next, you’re going to want to broaden your circle of play testers.  You’re going to want to prepare yourself for this too. You may run into folks who just don’t like your game, even if it’s a great design. You may also run into people who find flaws with your game – real things that need to be fixed, that can stop  a play test cold. That’s fine! Prepare to fail, and prepare to run up against people who just don’t like your game. You can’t please everyone, and you can’t create a perfect, platonic game the first, second or fifth prototype out. Fail publicly, where others can point out your game’s flaws. Fail often, but fail early.  The more you play test like this, the more likely you are to find things that critics and gamers may pick apart later on and stomp them out of your game. This can be surprisingly hard to do – but never fear, I’m here with some helpful tips. We’ll divide this into two sections – Blind Play Testing and Vanilla Play Testing.

Vanilla Play Testing

This is where you sit down with people and play your game. It covers all of the testing you’ve done above so far, and anything that will happen afterwards where you’re present and either playing or actively explaining the game as your players move through it.

The easiest way to get this done is with your friends, family and gaming group. Even if they’ve already taken part in the second swath above, include them here. It can be good to have folks who’ve seen this game mature and get honed down into something worth play over and over again. It’s also a good way to judge how engaging your game is going to be.

However, you’re going to want to get some folks into this who haven’t seen or played your game before. It’s really critical that you do so because those extra sets of eyes will see things that you and those closely associated with you may not. That’s a good thing.

First, try your friendly local game store (FLGS) – see if they have a game night or two, and ask if you can stop by, use a table and demo your game. Your responses may be mixed but in my experience you can get folks to at least try out a few turns, with a good number of people sitting down for a full game.

Second, conventions. Conventions are the lifeblood of game networking. Many larger conventions will have a protospiel area set aside just for people like you. Participants go there with the express purpose of trying out new games before they are published. This can be a gold mine for a game designer. Not only can you get plenty of play testing done, but you may even bump into a publisher who would be interested in your design.

Third, there are online options. Google Plus Hangouts have a few plugins that allow you to upload components and cards to simulate a board game online. If you can’t find people close by to test with, this is always an option.

Last, give Meetup a shot! There are often local groups of gamers in your area who use this online tool to schedule times and locations to get together and game. Feel a few of these groups out, if you can. Join up (it’s free) and head out to a few events to see if folks are amenable to play testing. There may even be a Meetup group in your area full of fledgling or experienced game designers like yourself.

Blind Play Testing

This is where you get your game, with the rules, in front of a bunch of people and then hurriedly leave the room. Or at least pretend like you don’t exist for a moment. This is a critical part of play testing. It lets you see what happens when people try to play your game without you around to explain it to them. Should your game go to publication and be available at amazon, this is what the vast majority of players will go through. The trick though, is finding people to do it.

Your first option is to create a Print and Play version of your game, and then pack it up and head online with it to beg and plead for people to play it. I find this is a great way to get people to download your game, and a lousy way to get feedback. If 100 individuals download my game, into which I’ve packaged a quick survey with my contact information, I’ll generally get 2 responses. Not a great ratio. And then you have to convince people to download the game in the first place! Board Game Geek, Google Plus, Facebook – use all of these resources. Beg and plead (without becoming spammy).

Another way to get some blind play testers is to save a few folks from your personal circle. Don’t include them in your first few sit downs. Let them know that you’re looking for their thoughts on your game without you explaining it to them, give ’em the prototype and the rules and let them have at it.

Your other big option is to go to your friendly local game store (FLGS) or head off to a convention or four and recruit people there to blind play test your game. This is not as easy as sitting down with them to play test, but the results can be wonderful, and you’re right there to get their feedback when they are done.

the endMade it all the way down here, did you? Good on you! When you think game design, play testing should be first on your mind right after actually designing the game. It’s a critical step that every designer, and I feel I’m correct in saying this – every designer play tests their game. Or if they have the clout, they do it themselves for a select group and then have their publisher do broad blind play test to a hand picked group of volunteers.

How do I know play testing is critical? I’ve designed seven card and board games so far. While none of them have been published by someone other than me (something I’m hoping to change soon), every single one of them has or is going through as much play testing as I can get. I always, always find flaws with my games when I first play test with them. It’s a fact of game design that you cannot foresee everything.

Also, while I can’t name names, I’m currently involved in a broad, print and play test for a large game company. You can be absolutely sure that if the big name designers and publishers do it, it’s just as important that we all do.

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