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.