Given the upcoming Protospiel at Pacificon, it’s time to take another look at playtesting.
The best games are yet to be made, and a key step in the creation of great games is to playtest. For designers, good playtests reveal the true manifestation of their creation. The rules and components they so carefully crafted become the vessels for interactions between the people sitting at the table. The decisions, feelings, and behaviors of the players are inspired by the design. The designer learns which aspects work, and which do not, and the experience informs how they will proceed with the development of their game.
When you play someone else’s design, you have a key role to play. The effort you make to learn the game and the manner in which you comport yourself can significantly impact the results of the playtest. When you sit down to playtest a game, you should understand that your role at the table is to help the designer observe how that specific prototype plays, within the larger context of helping them make the best game they can.
“Your role at the table is to help the designer observe how that specific prototype plays.”
Being a good playtester isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do. If you simply play the game to the best of your understanding and ability, you are doing everything right. Even if you provide very little feedback, the effort you make to play the game correctly is very helpful to the process. In all likelihood, you’ll probably want to do more than that, but be considerate of the following do’s and don’t's:
Being a Good Playtester
- Choose to playtest games that fit your gaming preferences and style. You can make your playtesting experiences more enjoyable by choosing games within the spectrum of games you usually like to play. If you are familiar with other games within the same genre or mechanical style, you’ll be able to offer feedback that’s informed by knowledge of similar games. If you do step outside of your usual range of games, keep that in mind as you provide your feedback.“I like Lords of Waterdeep and Tzolk’in, so I’ll playtest this worker placement game.”
- Try your best to learn the rules quickly, but don’t worry about knowing all the details at the beginning. Give the designer all of your attention and mental energy, to help make the playtest start quickly and run smoothly. Be ok with figuring out some parts of the game as you go along. Winning is not your primary goal. (I also suggest this approach when playing a published game for the first time. Make your first game the “learning game.” “I’m not sure I quite understand the endgame scoring, but that’s ok. I think I understand what I’m trying to do.”
- Play the game the way it is meant to be played. Pursue strategies and explore choices available in the game as players should. Yes, you can try to break the game by finding overpowered effects and interactions, but don’t break the playtesting experience through bizarre behavior. “I’m going to experiment with this item that let’s me draw more cards each turn and see if that’s a good approach.”
- Ask questions, but save deep discussion until after the game is over. Too many questions and interruptions can ruin a playtest. Undoubtedly, you’ll need to ask questions about how aspects of the game work. Save your deeper philosophical questions for the post-game debriefing. “Why did you make this… Oh, never mind. That question can wait until we’re done playing.”
- Take notes if necessary. Take notes on issues that come up during the game. Write down design questions. Help keep side discussions to a minimum. Prevent yourself from forgetting useful feedback that you’d like to provide the designer. After the game, include those notes in your written feedback to the designer or post-game discussion. “That part of this game is really interesting, I’ll write down a couple notes on that.”
- Focus on the game that is, not the game you want it to be. This one can be especially difficult at times when playtesting with designers. Each designer has their own style and preferences. Sometimes they’ll get very excited by the ideas they get while playing your game. “Change this, change that, and redo this, and your game will be perfect… for me!”
Instead help the designer realize their vision. Offer your suggestions, but don’t demand or assert that the game must be done your way. “I can see why you did this, but did you consider this other method?”
- Provide feedback that is clear, direct and honest. Say what needs to be said. Let them know what aspects of the game work, and which ones do not. Say what was fun, and what was not. Identify an area that you think needs the most work. Unless the game is very refined, you don’t need to belabor every detail, because those details will likely change as work continues on larger aspects of the game. “I found the game enjoyable, but to be honest, I’m concerned that it is too similar to another published game. I think your game may need something more to distinguish itself.”
Winning is not your primary goal.
- Don’t interrupt the flow of the game to make suggestions or criticisms. The middle of the game is not the time to discuss what the game could be, would be, or should be. Don’t make the designer justify elements of the game as they come up. Don’t tell stories or carry on lengthy side conversations. These interruptions will stop the flow of the game and drastically alter everyone’s perception of the game. Sure there may be some table talk and occasional side conversations, but don’t completely replace the game experience with socializing“That totally reminds me of that episode of Firefly. Did you see that? You’ve never seen Firefly?! Do you have Netflix?”
- Don’t judge the components or art of the prototype, unless the designer asks. Prototypes will vary greatly in how finished they look. Try to focus your playtesting on the “game” and the “gameplay”, not the physical representations of the game elements. That said, consult other resources on the League of Gamemmakers about building good prototypes. “I don’t know about these wooden meeples you used. Maybe you should get some minis. Do you have a 3d printer? I know a guy who’s good a sculpting.”
- Don’t play the game counter to the spirit of the game If the game allows moves that are completely unstrategic, taking those moves repeatedly may create annoyance, discomfort, or even a prolonged experience that could ruin the playtest. “Well, I’m supposed to chose and flip a card, but I’m just going to choose randomly each time and see what happens.”
Previous Articles on Playtesting:
Game designer by night, and middle school science and pre-engineering teacher by day. He lives in Santa Maria California with his amazing wife and two unrealistically well-behaved children.
Latest posts by Luke Laurie (see all)
- Ten Things I Learned in my First Five Years as a Game Designer – November 10, 2016
- How to Playtest – Part 3, Being a Good Playtester – August 24, 2016
- Why do gamemakers go to GENCON? – August 8, 2016