Jan 26, 2006

Playtesting - Part 3

I will attempt to try to organize my beliefs about playtesting in a chronological order over a series of posts. That will be more useful as a reference for when you run your own playtests. If you do use it, just remember that you are taking advice from someone who has never been published. Kids, don’t try this at home.
Part 1 - Create a Playtest Team
Part 2 - Organize a Playtest Session
Part 3 - Introduce the Game

Part 4 - Play the Game
Part 5 - Get Feedback
Part 6 - Make Changes
This will be different depending on whether this is the first time all (or some) of your testers have tried this game; even if they have, there is also the consideration of how much it has changed since they last saw it.

Let’s assume for the moment that this is a completely new prototype. You want to begin with the “hook” of the game. Specifically, what is the theme of the game, and how is that theme represented in the broadest strokes by the players’ actions.

In addition, it is helpful to tell them up front what the goal of the game is, as everything else should be thought of in relationship to that goal. If you wait until the very end to tell them what the goal is, then they will then have to go back in their minds and try to fit the steps previously described with the goal. This will usually prompt a series of questions that basically has you reviewing everything you said up to that point. Save yourself the hassle and present the goal up front.

An example is in order. Here’s the way I plan on introducing one of my designs that is currently in preliminary prototype construction:

“Theme Park: (my prototype titles are always unimaginative, I figure I’ll let the publisher come up with one)
In this game you are all trying to create the most successful section of a theme park. You will do this by building rides and amenities represented by structure cards and try to attract customers represented by visitor cards. The first person to simultaneously have five customers in their section of the park wins.”

At this point take a moment to gague the response of the players. Remember, this is almost all that most people who consider the game will ever know before deciding whether to move on or take a closer look. The best of games can live or die by the hook. One publisher’s submissions guidelines that I have gone through specifically asks you for the hook of your game. Another asks you to begin by sending them only your concept and the rawest of logistical information. Companies know how important the hook is. Be sure to refine yours during the development process.

Following the hook I like to ask a series of rhetorical questions in anticipation of what my testers want or need to know at that stage. Usually it launches from the specific way that the goal is achieved.

“How do you attract customers to your section of the park?
Each customer has both requirements, along the right side of the card, and preferences, listed by number in the middle of the card. The vertical title on the left just tells you who they are. Each turn a die is rolled and the customers will attempt to go to the nearest structure that matches the preference indicated by the die.”

I feel that at this point, and not before, it is finally time to describe the game’s initial conditions and the turn structure.

“You each start with $50 and four structure cards. On your turn, you first flip over . . . and then it goes to the next player clockwise.”

Then you go over special conditions.

“Now, if you have a Roller Coaster structure at the beginning of your turn, you get to . . .”

You then finish by reminding them of the goal and asking if there are any questions. If someone looks as if they’re thinking about something but doesn’t speak up, prompt them gently. Most of the questions at this point will be reminders about the order of actions or how certain situations are resolved, but also be prepared for strategy questions.

Handling strategy questions at this point is difficult. You don’t want to spoon-feed strategies to your testers, because if you do then they’ll assume you know what you are talking about and do exactly that and you won’t have gotten any real testing. Respond to strategy questions with a range of alternatives and their potential implications in both the short-and-long-term. If you did your job right as a designer, there shouldn’t be any single “right” or “best” answer to a strategy question anyway.

“So, is it best in the early game to build the structures you have in hand or to research for new structures?
Well, researching new structures will allow you to see what preferences the customers have before committing money to potentially unwanted rides. However, having a ride or two out before anyone else will guarantee that you won’t lose customers just because they are too far away from you and will give you the money to research and build more and better structures later. Of course, building early might mean that your rides overlap with your neighbors in the kinds of customers they attract, so you might just want to hold back altogether to ensure that you can have a monopoly on certain types of rides.”

Now, if some of your testers, but not all, have played a previous version, this is when you want to go back and highlight the differences between the versions. This is critical. Far too often have I had testers complain in the middle of a game that I hadn’t told them that I’d changed a certain rule which will now screw them over. Of course, I did mention the new rule, but they were not paying attention because they assumed it was the same and zoned out while I explained the entire game to the new players. You must make sure to address the changes seperately and directly to the experienced playtesters.

If all of your testers have played a previous version, then start by asking if anyone needs a refresher and then proceed with the changes.

Now you’re ready to test.


  1. Matthew Frederick2:31 AM

    I disagree with the paragraph that begins "So, is it best in the early game to build the structures you have in hand or to research for new structures?"

    In my opinion it's rarely a good idea to pass along strategy tips befoe a playtest. In the final game you're probably not going to include them in your rules, and if you do, the bulk of player will never read them.

    If instead you are silent on that front and watch and let your playtesters discover strategies of their own, you often discover all kinds of interesting things about your game you otherwise wouldn't, including ways that players of your published game might well "break" it without your strategy tips.

  2. I agree it is best not to jump in with strategy direction but you don't think that by refusing to answer such a direct question you might create frustration in your playtesters?