Playtesting can be difficult to arrange, so when you manage to get a prototype in front of people, how do you make the most of the opportunity?
Here are 21 tips to help you prepare for your next playtest (featuring photos from recent playtests):
1. Define your aim for the playtest. What specific things do you want to learn? What are you focusing on? Are you interested in the strategies players choose to adopt, the ways in which players interact … or do you just want to see if you can play a full game? You don’t need to share your specific aim with the players, but you may choose to do so.
2. Set expectations for the playtest up front. If you are likely to stop the game part way through, or make changes to the rules while you play, let players know. Experienced playtesters will be used to this, but others might be taken aback. A playtest must meet the needs of the designer and may not run like a normal game. Also – before you start, tell players how you want to receive feedback (during the game or at the end).
3. Be prepared. Make sure you have thought about how to teach the game – it’s usually best if you don’t have to refer to your own rulebook, (other than to check numbers of resources for set up etc). Check you have all the required components for the player count. Have a notepad and pen at the ready
4. Adopt an open frame of mind. Even if you think that your game is nearly done, make sure you are open to making changes as a result of the playtest. And to help with this…
5. Make sure prototypes are easy to update and amend. If you’ve spent lots of time and/or money making a beautiful prototype, you’re less likely to want to change it, even if that is what is necessary for the game. (Learn more about making board game prototypes here.)
6. Cue players up to adopt different strategies. The first time a playtester sees the game, it’s worth watching what strategy they are drawn to. But if they’ve played the game before and you’re particularly interested in how different strategies match up against each other, tell players what you’d like them to try.
7. Write things down. It’s easy to assume you’ll remember everything that happens in a playtest. You won’t. Write everything down, even the obvious stuff. Your future self will thank you.
8. Focus on the player experience. Are you trying to create a game that is silly, thinky, chaotic or mellow? Do you think the players are having the kind of experience you intend? If not, try to identify what it is about the game that is stopping players from having the kind of experience you are trying to design.
9. Pay attention to players’ confusion. Which parts of the game cause confusion? Make a note of all rules clarifications that have been asked if possible. This will help you improve your rulebook and teach the game better in future. Be especially aware of rules/mechanics/structures that are asked about multiple times? These elements of the game are clearly non-intuitive and need development.
10. Pay attention to players’ disengagement. What are the moments where players lose interest? Is there an issue with downtime? Is the game interesting enough? Is there enough progression to hold interest? If you’re not sure what is causing players to disengage, then ask them.
11. Be prepared to make changes mid-playtest. If it’s clear that something isn’t working, or if you have an idea you can easily incorporate, it’s fine to make changes while playing. If you are tracking scores and play-times don’t forget to make a note that you changed a rule mid-game.
12. Test extremes rather than marginal creeps. If points values aren’t right – instead of making small adjustments double, triple or halve them. Make abilities super powerful. Shower resources on players who take certain actions. Make the game really rich or very sparse. You’ll learn more from big swings than tiny nudges. You can always pull it back later.
13. Watch the strategic decisions that players choose to make. What are the strategies that players think will be the most fun? And conversely, what do they ignore? What is the perception regarding the relative strength or weakness of a certain strategy?
14. Find the fun. Pay close attention to the bits of your game that captivate players. What gets them excited? What are the elements that create interest and excitement? Note them down. Back in development you can think about how to dive fully into these elements.
15. Don’t try to solve issues immediately. You don’t need to have all the answers to problems that crop up during a playtest. Just note issues down, be aware of them. You can then ponder these afterwards, when you’re next working on the game.
16. Structure feedback. Have specific questions you want to ask after a playtest. Give each person the time to answer. Be aware that some players’ opinions may be coloured by other players’ feedback. The wonderful Bez Shahriari always begins post playtest feedback with questions that players answer simultaneously on a scale of 1-5 (double thumbs down to double thumbs up). This gives her quantitative feedback that is not yet coloured by others’ opinions.
Bez demonstrating double-thumbs up
17. Ask questions about things you can’t see. Ask players how they feel about aspects of your game. Players may hide their emotional reaction unless asked about it. Ask how interesting their thought processes were during the game.
18. Don’t ignore your niggles. Which bits of the game do you have niggling worries about? Ask players specifically and deliberately about these things. There’s no point brushing them under the carpet. Small niggles have a way of becoming big problems.
19. Remember that some players won’t want to give negative feedback. This is particularly true of people new to playtesting. Make sure playtesters know they are in an environment where honest feedback is really important. Reassure playtesters that any feedback they give is about the game, rather than the designer, and will be taken as such.
20. Don’t argue with playtesters. You may not agree with them. And you certainly don’t have to implement their suggestions, but they may have some good points. Note them down, sleep on them and return to them later. One of the reasons to put your game in front of playtesters is to stress test the game. Let them approach the game how they would if you weren’t there. Remember point 4 – adopt an open frame of mind.
21. Make notes for your next playtest. Make sure you test the game at multiple player counts, with different power cards active, with different players. If your game has a lot of different set up modes, make sure you test them. It’s during a playtest that you’ll often think about the next playtest – write these thoughts down.
Unless you are in the final stages of development, your aim for any playtest should be to come out of that playtest with a bunch of things to think about, problems to solve, ideas to try and refinements to make.
It’s a cycle that spirals inwards. Playtest… Develop… Playtest… Develop…. The further you go into the spiral the closer to the final game you become.