So – you’ve invented a game. It may be your first, or you may have been through this process many times before, but there will always come a time (if this is going to be a real game) when you have to bring it out of the back room / shed / inventor cave where the magic begins, and put it in front of regular folks.
And no, people, your loving family does not count. They will support you, help you, even criticize you, but they will never be truly objective, and that is what you need.
Play-testing is an essential part of creating a game. It isn’t always easy, and may not always be fun, but without it, it may be impossible to discover all the flaws – and all the potential – in your new baby.
No one else may know your game as well as you do, and understand the subtleties in the rules and the breath-taking originality of the end game, but I can be reasonably confident in asserting that, at this stage of development, you don’t know it as well as you ought. It is only when you see players interacting with your rules and each other (without your guidance / interference) that you can understand exactly how your game plays, compared to the way it plays out in your imagination.
You can – and should – test your game at every stage of development, and that testing should be appropriate to that stage. In the early stages, when you are still figuring out the length and phases of the game, finalizing components and software and trying to ensure the right degree of balance, you can work with a small number of players, friends and family, even playing multiple hands in some cases. At this stage you are establishing basic mechanics; once the framework is there, you can add the essential details that you will use to tell the story.
These initial stages are somewhat different for every game, and for every inventor, but in all cases there will be a process of development (which may well involve the odd blind alley) leading from a basic, possibly theme-less mechanism to a finished prototype with working, written rules.
At this point you need to be ready to have real people play the game, and be prepared to listen to what they have to say. Play-testers are not an inexhaustible resource, so you need to make the most of them, and hope that they will look forward to testing this and other games of yours again. So here are a few suggestions of ways that you can get the greatest benefit from the process :
Make the experience fun
A game needs to be fun to play.Play testing is not a normal game playing experience, granted, but you want your testers to come back and play again, so make sure that the fun of playing is the memory they take away.
Choose appropriate testers
Although it can be interesting to mix things up and get varied viewpoints, it makes sense to test with players who are representative of your target market.You wouldn’t test the next with 5 year olds, or a simplified version of ‘Pandemic’ and ‘Lucky Ducks' with hardcore Euro gamers.
Have multiple and varied groups
Within the confines of point 1, try and vary ages and numbers. Play with 2, 3, 4 and more. Many Euro games play to 5, and a lot of party games can play with 6 or more. If you are specifying number of players in your rules / pitch sheet (hint: that’s a good idea!) then make sure you have tested both ends of the spectrum.
You are not a player
In the earlier stages of development and testing you will be playing your game over and over again. At this stage, you need to step back and prepare to be an observer. Yes, teach the game, and for a first game (if short) take part, but as soon as possible, step back and let the players get on with things. The more they forget that you are there, the more ‘natural’ an experience your play-testers will have.
You are not the rules
Try not to be the one explaining the rules to everyone.Not only will you explain them the way you want people to play, but also you may well explain them in a better way.Let one of the players read the rules and teach the others (just like in the real world!).
Let mistakes happen – address them next time
If someone makes a mistake, or does something stupid, don’t leap in and correct them.You won’t be there when a family is sitting down to play your game once it has been published.Be ready to act as arbiter if needed, to overcome a broken or stalemate situation, but remember what led to that situation and make notes, so that you can address it before the next test.
Change one variable at a time
Once you have played through the game, and you have come across a problem, it may be blindingly obvious what is wrong and how to fix it. However, there often be a number of different causes or solutions, and you may need to try changing a number of elements – randomisers, cardware, player numbers etc. If there are multiple variables at question, change one at a time, take notes and evaluate. It may take a little longer to play through so many times, but it is the only way you can be reasonably sure of identifying the culprit.
Take notes throughout
Play-testing is a valuable, and scarce resource, so make the most of it. Don’t rely on your memory to make notes after the dust has settled and testers have gone home – make careful notes of names, times (of round / hand / phase durations as well as game durations), and component usage. How many cards did you get through? How many times did a particular die face / feature come up? How many coins / tokens etc. were used? Were there particular elements that didn’t get used, or weren’t used as expected? Which player / seat won, and which lost? Were there any unexpected patterns? Taking a video on your phone (if you can do it without disturbing the players) is a great way to keep a record, but make sure that you have players’ permission, as any usage can have legal implications.
Finish a session with a quick wash-up
You’re not looking for a lengthy or detailed analysis, but it’s a good idea to finish up by asking your group for their immediate thoughts on :
‘Good’ – something they liked about the game
‘Bad’ – something they didn’t like about the game
‘Better’ – something that could be improved.
You may end up being surprised about the impressions that people take away!
Accept criticism – don’t argue, but remember it’s an opinion, just like yours!
You will probably know that, apart from an enquiring mind, the most useful asset of a game inventor is a very thick skin. Being able to take criticism and rejection with equanimity, and learn from it, is a very useful skill. If someone makes a negative comment, or criticizes features of the game, the worst thing you can do is get on the defensive, or argue with them. They are entitled to their opinion, and you have asked them for it, so accept with good grace. You may decide that it’s an ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ moment where you make a note on your mental Etch-a-Sketch and then shake it vigorously a little later, but listen, say thank you, and then you can decide later whether you want to react to their comments.
This is by no means an exhaustive list; you will all have your own suggestions, I am sure. These are a few points that have proved useful in my experience, and I hope they will be of some benefit to you. If in doubt, make sure you adhere to Tip Number 1. Without that one, the others are purely academic!