Monday, June 02, 2008

Playtesting 101

So, somebody has asked you to playtest their board game... is this a honor of the highest order or a clear clue to what a creampuff/pushover/Weeble you are?

I guess I fall into the "creampuff" category, as I've done a decent amount of playtesting & have volunteered to do more.

Why, you ask? Well, I think there's probably a healthy dose of "I got to play it first" along with the whole "I helped build that" thing that happens when you walk into a game store & see something you had a hand in making better. In most cases, I playtest for friends - people I genuinely like & respect as designers - and so there's an element of "get by with a little help from my friends" vibe going on as well. (Yes, everyone may now spend the rest of the day humming various selections from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" - but you get negative victory points for using any cover versions from the late 70's movie except Earth Wind & Fire's cover of "Gotta Get You Into My Life".)

I've been involved in a three different types of playtesting:
  • the "let's see if this will work" phase
If you don't like the game designer, avoid this at all costs. This is the moment where their precious baby - the design they've dreamed about & sketched & worked the math & thought about while they were in standing in the shower (hey, some of my best sermon illustrations happen in there!) - is pushed from the protective nest of the designers' bosom to see if it will fly - or drop like a stone. Most of the time, these experiments end in a giant thud & usually without a satisfactory conclusion to the game. Personal examples: this was the stage at which I first playtested Ty Doud's Victory & Honor (which was a lot of fun) and with some other games (which weren't).
  • the "try to break the game" phase

Most of the playtesting I've done in the last 2-3 years falls into this category... this is where the rules & components of the game are pretty well-established and your job is to find the holes through blind playtesting.

For the uninitiated, "blind playtesting" is where the designer gives or sends you a copy of the prototype & the rules and lets you try to learn the game on your own. It is, btw, an ESSENTIAL part of good game design that is too often neglected. (Hint: when many of the playtesters have the same last name as the designer and/or publisher, it probably hasn't been blind playtested.)

We had a lot of fun sending Ray Mulford bizarre e-mails about his (as yet unpublished) Everybody Limbo when we discovered that our playing style was completely different than his original playtest group. (It, btw, is a neat card game - I wish someone would pick it up.)

  • the "tweak the little things" phase

I like this stage - whether it's helping test special powers for Frank Branham's Battle Beyond Space (SOMEONE PUBLISH THIS ALREADY!) or checking game balance for Joe's Scream Machine, it's nice to play nearly finished games. (I also got to do a bit of this for Hasbro, but if I tell you what games, they'll come to my house & burn it to the ground... at least I _think_ that's what the NDA that I signed said. It may be worse than that.)

As a final note, I will say that having your name printed in the rules is really cool. What's humorous is that while I've tested a number of games for Frank Branham, the only published game of his that has my name in the credits is Dia de los Muertos, which I only played once and that VERY late in the development. OTOH, I did a lot more work & play on the "Evil Geniuses" prototype (which became Nodwick: The Card Game) and my name's not anywhere on that one. I figure we can call it even.

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