The State Of Games podcast was recently all about tips for playtesters. It was right before Unpub 6 in Baltimore, but it’s a good listen for people heading to any designer convention, or otherwise participating in their designer friends’ playtests.

To prepare for that podcast, Jessica put out a call for tips from designers to help players of prototypes contribute in the most helpful way when playtesting a game. I answered the call, and they summarized some of my comments on the show. I thought I’d share my advice here (cross posted from my own design blog) for anyone interested in reading the entirety of the email I sent them 🙂

“What are some specific tips you have for playtesters testing your games?”

I’m going to begin this answer as I often do, with the phrase “It depends.”

The type of feedback you’re after will depend on what stage your game is in, so as a designer it’s probably a good idea to clearly communicate that to the players before you begin. Otherwise you’ll end up with players interrupting the game to make suggestions about the graphic design of the player board that you just threw together to facilitate playtesting and will obviously be redone by a professional should the game ever see print!

TIP #1: Just play the game like it’s a normal game.

In most cases when I’m playtesting a game I just want players to play it as if it were a finished game that came off the store shelf. Unless I specifically request it, I’m not looking for a player to go out of their way to break the game by doing things that aren’t in pursuit of their own victory. Especially in early testing… finding game breaking loopholes and edge cases is my job as the designer, not your job as the player.

Now, if a you see a loophole that you can abuse in pursuit of victory, then by all means abuse it! But it’s a waste of time to intentionally try to torpedo the game while doing something you’re not realistically going to do in the game.

It’s a bit different in a late-stage playtest when the game is nearly done. At that point it might be good to intentionally do something stupid to make sure the game holds up. I wrote a blog post on the League of Gamemakers about making sure a bad play or mistake won’t keep a player from enjoying the game experience.

Tip #2: Avoid commenting on graphic design of a prototype.

Occasionally you’ll playtest a game by someone who’s self publishing, or a game that’s got near final art, and in that case it might be acceptable to point out flaws in the graphic design. But in MOST cases when you’re playtesting a game, it will have prototype components, lovingly hand crafted by the designer. That’s secret code for “cobbled together in photoshop (if not MS Word), and printed in B&W — and if you’re lucky there’ll be google image art here and there.” This is NOT the final graphic design of the game, and the designer knows that.

Some game designers are also graphic artists, and their prototypes make the rest of us want to hide in a ditch, ashamed of the bland, boring look of our handmade games. But even those designers are unlikely using final graphic design and iconography.

My point is that interrupting the game to say “you know, this icon should really be a triangle” or “your green and red centimeter cubes you got in bulk from an education supply store aren’t colorblind friendly” is probably more disruptive than it is useful.

I hereby apologize in advance for any difficulty you have learning and playing any designer’s prototype that hasn’t had the benefit of professional graphic design!

TIP #3: Don’t interrupt play with suggestions mid-game.

When an idea or suggestion comes up, it’s tempting to bring it up before you forget, while it’s fresh in your mind. But that can be very disruptive to the playtest, so often times it’s better to make a note of it and bring it up after the game.

TIP #4: Bring paper and pencil to a playtest session.

Speaking of note taking, it would be awesome if the designer handed out paper and pencil at the beginning of the playtest so that players could take notes of their thoughts during the game in order to revisit them later. Some designers do this, others (like me) would if they ever remembered to… but there’s nothing stopping you from bringing your own paper and pencil to a playtest session!

TIP #5: Stay on topic during feedback sessions.

Often times feedback sessions aren’t very structured, and that’s fine. But if a designer asks a specific question, or asks about a specific part of the game, it’s probably more helpful to address that question and only that question until the topic changes, rather than sidetrack the conversation with other unrelated thoughts (even if they’re well thought out and good thoughts).

Seth Jaffee

Seth is a designer, developer, and player of strategic board and card games. He is Head of Development for Tasty Minstrel Games. You can find Seth at many game conventions, from Protospiel in Ann Arbor, to BGGcon in Dallas, to Strategicon in L.A. to name a few. Find him and play a game!

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  1. Randy on April 13, 2016

    It’s hard to be a good playtester, just as hard is it to *run* a playtest. These are great tips for being a good playtester. Since most designers often participate as testers for other designers, we can work on these things for when we’re in this role. Thanks for sharing!

    But what about when we’re the ones running playtests? Do you tell your playtesters these tips? I’d be curious to hear any tips you have for us on how we can help guide our playtesters to follow these tips.

  2. John Shulters on April 13, 2016

    Hi Seth. Great and timely article (with UNPUB last weekend and SJ Protospiel this weekend!). We’re in the thick of testing, so we’re at pretty much every event in the area learning and relearning all these lessons. We always have pens and paper in our kit, along with feedback forms and a “the designers are away” sign for those times when we’re off playing other designers’ games and want to invite passers-by to do a blind playtest if they’re so inclined (we’ve received some great and objective feedback that way).

    In response to Randy’s question, we’ve tried putting up “how to be a good playtester” posters and such, but most people don’t bother with them. The most effective method we’ve found is directly related to your “it depends” qualifying statement…just be clear up front what you’re looking for from the testers, and nudge them toward the things you’re trying to test and away from things you aren’t. I think we can evangelize this approach by being good testers ourselves, and if the designer hasn’t started the test by telling us what to look for, we can preemptively ask (in a brief and polite way).

    Playtesting is certainly an art, and your tips are great ones to keep us all on the road to betterment. Now I’m off to go listen to that podcast! Thanks!

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