This is Part 2 in the blog series: So you’ve designed a game… now what? 

If you’ve not yet done so, please read Part 1: What’s your motivation? Links to future parts will appear here over the coming weeks. In those posts, I will cover:

The enthusiastic cook

Imagine, for a moment, an enthusiastic cook. This is someone who enjoys cooking, who can follow recipes, possibly with simple twists and produce dishes that please the family. But now they have decided to start from scratch – to create a whole new dish of their own invention. They’ve had an idea about how two ingredients might work together and they start throwing things in the pot.

The cook tests the food as they work. From time to time they have to scrap it and start again, scribbling notes and ordering new supplies as required. But eventually they have a new dish to share with the family. The family knows how much time and effort they’ve spent on this creation and they’re liberal with their praise. 

But now, buoyed by the encouragement of their family, the cook is sure their creation will be the next big food craze and decides to manufacture and sell this dish. They order industrial equipment, pay for expensive packaging and take time off work to meet with potential distributors… and from there everything spirals. They’ve sunk so much time, energy and money into this new project that they can’t bear to see it fail. 

Looking at this story it’s easy to see what steps the hypothetical cook missed. Nobody with an objective viewpoint tasted the dish. The tasters were biased and the sample size was too small. The cook should have asked lots of people to test the dish and gathered their feedback. The feedback would have told the chef that very few people like the combination of flavours they created… or that they’ve created something that already exists… or that it’s just not that exciting to eat. (The cook also skipped the research step… but more about that in the next part of this blog series.)

Don’t be like the enthusiastic cook and become a victim of your own enthusiasm. Skip playtesting and development at your peril.

The playtesting and development cycle

There’s a process that follows the initial design of a game: prototyping… playtesting… developing… prototyping… playtesting… developing… and repeat. The more you complete the cycle the closer you get to the end game. It’s a spiral that takes you ever-closer to the centre. Don’t misunderstand – it’s rarely a consistent path. Set backs make you feel like your jutting further away from the original starting point. Sometimes the spiral seems endless – but other times you’re there after a few short loops

A complete cycle could happen during a single playtest – you start to play the game (playtesting), decide to make a change (development) and scribble changes on the cards (prototyping), then restart the game again – and back into the cycle you go. Playtesting and development (including prototyping) are natural partners. It’s very hard to meaningfully develop your game without playtesting and there’s no point playtesting your game unless you’re prepared to subsequently develop it.

Stress testing

In the post Why you shouldn’t avoid playtesting, I wrote about the reasons to test your game with different kinds of people – friends and family, other designers and target audience. Have a read of the blog for all the juicy bits, but one key point is stress testing. Designers will try to break your game. They’ll look for the holes and play in a way that exploits them. It may be annoying, it may not be ‘in the spirit’ of the game. But if the game allows it, they’ll do it. It’s honestly better that your game is broken at this point – so that you can rebuild it before you pitch or publish it. 

I remember a couple attending our playtesting group with a card game they’d only played with family up to that point. On your turn you could pick up a card or play a card. The experienced designers quickly realised that it was to their advantage to never play until almost the end of the game, so spent every turn picking up cards. The couple argued that ‘that’s really not how you’re meant to play the game’. But there was no hand limit, so that was exploited. 

You won’t be there to teach everyone how you want them to play the game after it is published. So you better make sure that the game stands on its own before that point. 

Blind playtesting Don’t Count Your Chickens

Finding playtesters

Playtesting in person: In the UK, we’re lucky to have the Playtest UK network – with playtesting meetups scheduled all over the country. In the US, look at UnPub. Also – make sure you’re aware of your local board game conventions as these will likely include playtesting opportunities. If you can’t find any formal playtesting near you, visit your local board game cafes and ask about setting up a playtesting table… or join a board game club to find players who might be prepared to test. 

Playtesting online: Online playtesting has been an absolute godsend for many designers. Yes, you need to earmark some time to learn about the online platforms and then upload your game, but once you’ve done this, changes are easy to make and you suddenly have access to playtesters worldwide. Look for online playtesting groups through Facebook and through the BGG forums.

Don’t forget, playtesting with other designers only works with reciprocation. Test their games and they’ll test yours.