hammer
The playtest of my Secret Game X (which is in development with a publisher) seemed to be going well enough. The three other players asked questions, made big plays and seemed to consider their moves carefully. But at the end of the game when it was feedback time, there was a big silence after I asked, “What did you think?”

Then the harsh words began: “There’s almost no game in the box.”

“I would never play this again.” “This is usually my type of game, but this was not a game I enjoyed at all.” My publisher, who was also sitting at the table, tried to change the mood by asking, “Ok, so what did you like about the game?” The three playtesters didn’t take the bait. Instead, they decided to launch into another round of things about the game they disliked!

Rewind back a few months, and I was demoing my published game, Völuspá, at Kublacon. Most of the folks I taught the game seemed to be having a good time. But then there was this one guy who seemed visibly upset: “Is this it? Is this all the game is?”

With every move he made, he would grumble more: “Wow, I can’t believe this got published.”

To make matters worse, a few days later, this same disgruntled gentlemen decided to write a review of Völuspá on BoardGameGeek that included phrases such as “ I give this game a solid 2/10 for geek rating. Additionally, I am aware that the base game includes some “expansion” tiles, but no amount of additional tiles would make Völuspá worth playing.”

Ok, the playtest and review were rough, really rough, but I’d like to share some advice on how I dealt with these sessions and turned them into a positive. Maybe this advice could help you too.

  • Your Games Are Not You

    Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you think: If I design a bad game, then I must be a bad game designer. Maybe you think: If I design a bad game, then I must be somehow bad.
    But not so fast. It’s easy to identify our creative work as us, but our creative work is not us. It exists outside ourselves and the quality of our creative work does not define the quality of us as game designers or people. Good designers can design bad games, but that doesn’t mean everything they design is bad.

  • Take A Breath and Keep Perspective

    But let’s take a step back. A small subset of people don’t get to decide if your game is good or bad. If most of the feedback you receive is positive, then how much weight really should you give to a few vocal critics? Consider the whole range of feedback you have received. If your game hasn’t gotten the best reviews overall, keep in mind all of the players who have enjoyed it.

  • Let the Community Respond For You

    I admit I was tempted to comment on the bad review I got for Völuspá. Hey, this guy was publicly trashing my game. However, it is really hard for a game designer to win a debate about his game. The game designer is seen as inherently biased.

    But within a day of the bad review being posted, something really cool happened. Some guy I had never heard of started commenting on the review, defending my game. He was nice about it, but he challenged the reviewer point by point. It was heartening to say the least. That’s the great thing about BoardGameGeek, if your game has any fans, they are usually willing to speak up for you. Also, many publishers will advise you that they will answer bad reviews for you so that you don’t have to worry about getting into the ring.

  • Do Some Deep Listening About Their Root Complaints

    Ok, this is a hard one, but on some level, your worse critics are absolutely right. Unless they are insane, their anger was triggered by some real concern. If you dare, dive through the harsh language and polemic tone, and try to understand the root complaint.

    In the case of my Secret Game X, I realized the players at the table didn’t feel like they had enough strategic control in the game and they didn’t like the lack of interaction with other players. If I thought back to my other playtests, I heard some of those same concerns before, though with nicer words. As the game wasn’t published yet, I took on the challenge to answer these concerns and 1 year later, I can say I’ve made major changes to the game, adding new strategic choices I never considered. I will freely admit the current version is definitely better in every way.

    In the case of Völuspá, I realized the key complaint from the reviewer is the inability to setup complex plays for onrself and form a longer term strategy in the game. Especially for new players, the game can feel like a simple exercise of finding the best place to play one of your tiles from your hand. To some extent that is true, though I would argue good Völuspá players are thinking several moves ahead. Still, this complaint has been a driving force as I develop new expansions for the game.

    While I cannot share too many details, I have definitely focused on adding tiles that let players plan ahead more and execute combo plays that were never possible before. This new direction in the expansions has made Völuspá an even more compelling game for me and my playtesters. Plus, as I design new games, I keep all of these complaints in mind, hoping to design a game from the beginning that will answer even the toughest critics.

Scott Caputo

Scott Caputo loves to get creative: doubling up on board games and poems. His publishing credits include Völuspá, Kachina, and the forthcoming, Whistle Stop. By day, he manages a team of casino game designers and by night, he gets soundly beaten at board games by his wife. With her help, he’s busy raising two young boys to be total board game nerds.

13 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. Jason Greeno on March 14, 2016

    Scott,

    Thanks for sharing a personal story with some gut-punching moments. It really helps to see this type of advice. I’ve certainly had my share of bad reviews. Your approach is sound.

    I think the insight I received from reading your post was that games will ALWAYS have a range of reviews on Boardgamegeek. Every game will get a 1 and 2, as well as a 6 and 7. We can strive for 9s and 10s but let’s not strive for 100% acceptance. That’s not a real thing and just makes us pull our hair out. 🙂

  2. Zach W. Lorton on March 14, 2016

    I’ve recently designed a rules-light tabletop RPG, and I put it out into the ether asking for feedback. One guy sent me an email with a point-by-point blast of what he liked and didn’t like, and what he didn’t like FAR outnumbered what he did. I honestly found his comments funny, even the critical ones, and I quickly understood the perspective he was coming from. As a result, I thanked him for his honesty and put some of his suggestions into play in the revised edition of the rules.

    Since then, I’ve had a chance to playtest it 3 times with three different groups of people, and the positive feedback I’ve gotten across the board is pretty much the same. So I’m building on the aspects of the games that are strong and rethinking the ones that cause confusion or general dislike among the players.

  3. Norv Brooks on March 14, 2016

    Great post! “Your Games Are Not You” I connected with this section. As a designer that is mostly theme driven, I have seen a movie, read something or maybe a news event that has inspired a game design. Actually it’s sometimes seems like a curse to see a game in so many things occurring in life. Some designs that I’ve done from this approach have fallen flat on their face once a paper version or a simple prototype has been done & discussed with designer friends. You make notes about it but move onto something else. Some themes should remain a movie or actual event.

  4. John Shulters on March 14, 2016

    Great stuff, Scott. Thanks for vocalizing pains we’ve all felt (or at least feared). The thing is, playtesting A LOT with a wide variety of players is the only way a game is going to get better and become the best it can be, and the more people we play with the greater the chance that we’ll run across players with strong negative opinions (but also positive ones as well).

    The thing that has helped me deal with negative reactions is to first determine if that player falls within the target market of the game. For example, if this person is a hardcore hobby gamer and they are bored with your family-friendly card game, that totally makes sense and shouldn’t bum you out. But like you said, it’s still valuable to listen to their feedback, as their reactions may contain some wisdom to improve the game for the target market as well.

  5. Dan Limbach on March 14, 2016

    Nice article, Scott. It’s always nice to hear real stories from designers. It’s kind of like being a songwriter. Everyone is not going to like every song you write, but some people might love some of your songs. Using feedback is very beneficial, and can definitely make for a better game. Do you ever feel you should stick to your guns on certain issues if you think your work is special and may take a little while to sink in with the public? Sometimes a masterpiece starts out being panned, then it becomes beloved. (hopefully before the artist dies)

    • Scott Caputo Author on March 14, 2016

      Hi Dan. Good question. I like the advice of my poetry publisher. She always says, “Only use the feedback that feels right.” For me, that means sitting with suggestions for a while and getting past initial reservations I might have. Most suggestions are good, especially if it comes from someone who really understands what your game could be. Occasionally, there are suggestions that completely clash with my vision for the game and no amount of sitting with it makes the idea any better, so I don’t worry about ignoring those ideas.

  6. Gregory Frank on March 14, 2016

    Also keep in mind that not all games are for everybody. You might have a great game, that game might also be perfect for it’s genre and still some people will hate it. The thing I learned from negative playtests is that some of the feedback is worth wild, others are those who are trying to give feedback based on the game they would create. Best to do is process the feedback and see if there is a valid issue or change to make but always remember you can’t please everyone. Instead set a percentage, if 90% of all testers and customers love my game, then it is good. Try not to set it too low or too high. Try changes, see if it works, and if it is an improvement great keep it, if not, throw it out and move on :). I made a storytelling game and only the person who won complained, most of the time. Everyone else liked or loved it. so 3/4 players enjoyed it a lot. 1/4 didn’t. Out of a 100+ tests it was more like 10% didn’t like it, that is a small enough percentage that I was happy with it. One feedback was can you remove the storytelling? Nope, it is a storytelling game.

  7. Chris Riedl on March 14, 2016

    Excellent article and a good reminder of how to take criticism. Reminds me of the old adage that great books are not written, they are rewritten and then rewritten again. Game design, like any creative endeavor, is a process. And that process is rarely smooth. Thank you, Scott!

  8. Sam Oplinger on March 15, 2016

    This is a really great article and echoes my experience trying to self-publish Last Starfleet – which is in the picture you used, apparently losing a fight against a hammer? Hehe. 🙂 There were some pretty toothy and spirited reviews, but they were very few and I tried to set my “introspective commentary on my self-worth as a human being” aside… and try to listen to the nuggets of wisdom in what was being said. I engaged a paid reviewer who trashed Last Starfleet in its first version to try to do some damage control, I guess. Obviously that didn’t go well. But I learned from that – deciding not to respond, damage control, or try to get some sort of retraction ever again. Maybe they are making a mountain of a mole hill. Why not fix the mole hill? Well done article, sir!

  9. Sam Oplinger on March 15, 2016

    I’m glad you moderate these comments! Please disregard everything except that you wrote a hell of a good article. 🙂

    This looks a LOT like last starfleet on a small screen like my phone, but I just pulled it up on my desktop and it isn’t! Awkward turtle. 😀

  10. Frank Zazanis on March 15, 2016

    Great Article. Voluspa is one of my go to games for late night con. This is one of the most important thing a designer of anything needs to learn, I wish this had been written back when i first started designing.

  11. Stephen Sanders on April 22, 2016

    That was a great read. The part titled ” your game is not you” is something every designer should read and take to heart.

  12. Seph North on May 26, 2016

    That’s the sort of playtester you should treasure, one who genuinely doesn’t care about hurting your feelings and will not pull any punches in giving feedback.

Have something to say?