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Jennifer Ellis-Juncaj and Allison Ramsey -Playtesting during COVID-19

(Jennifer Ellis-Juncaj and Allison Ramsey)

The sharp turn of Spring 2020 semester was one neither of us could have anticipated nor something we signed up for, especially Allison who was focused on closing out her final semester of college. As two students in the midst of building tabletop games, we were both excited about reaching such huge milestones within our programs. However, not even halfway through our semester, the global COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country.

As every designer knows, playtesting is a key component when creating games. The sudden enforced social distancing yielded an opportunity for us to rethink how to conduct playtesting while observing six feet of distance from one another. Part of the production pipeline with game developments requires being nimble. We had to incorporate new tools and methods to playtest our games. This brings us to how we met—online through the Women In Toy’s Facebook page. Our identical predicament on opposite ends of the United States brought the two of us together.

Allison was building an educational board game as the capstone project for her degree in Industrial Design. Her game, Sagarmatha, aims to reduce and prevent math anxiety through Everest-themed gameplay. The game, titled after the Nepali name for Mt. Everest, is a collaborative game designed for players ages 10 and up. In this game, you play adventurers, seeking to forge a new path to the summit of Mt. Everest. Though players have individual goals to complete, they must work together to make it to the top of the mountain. You can read more about Sagarmatha and how it reduces math anxiety here.

Jennifer was part of a student team in a game design class at the University of Southern California. They were building a single-player worldbuilding card game called Cosmos Creator. Players create new civilizations in the solar system while guiding them through cataclysmic events. The goal is to achieve a high cosmic score by creating the most interesting and developed planets by working with elements, magic and technology. You can watch a video about the team's final project here.

To playtest our games from a safe distance while allowing players to still retain complete control over their pieces, we each needed a virtual tabletop simulator. After some research, we both decided to create virtual versions of our games using, an online arena for playing games. Their knowledge base system provides user friendly instructions on how to upload assets and create tabletop games online—plus there is no need to have coding skills. After playtesters make it through a brief learning curve, Tabletopia offers an experience which is almost comparable to an in-person session. However, playing through a video communication platform such as Zoom does limit the feedback gained through the session. You also lose the ability to observe in-person behaviors with the physical aspects of the game such as touch and body language.

Although we both utilized the same tools, due to the nature of our programs, we approached our projects from different perspectives. Jen’s final grade was based on the mechanics, while Allison’s was heavily influenced by the final form and aesthetics. We both learned a lot about our design process and would like to share tips, especially as they pertain to playtesting during social distancing. Keep it simple by working with paper, pencil and other mediums early in your process as it will allow you to quickly change your game as you play. It is okay and even encouraged that these be unrefined, because you want to ensure players enjoy the gameplay, rather than your visuals.

Tabletopia, while an excellent resource, can be time consuming to update. Be sure to have your basic gameplay somewhat established and balanced before moving into this medium. We recommend you playtest with others in person if you can. If not, it is still possible to playtest alone. If your game is collaborative in nature, like Allison’s, or a single-player game, like Jen’s, this shouldn’t be a problem. However, if your game relies on varied player strategies, consider writing user personas on flashcards with goals pertaining to your game. For example, when you control player one’s pieces you might have a goal to collect as many points as possible, but when you control player two’s pieces your aim might be to finish the game as quickly as possible.

Finding support from your community is also vital. Some communities we turned to for help included Women in Toys, the Chicago Toy and Game Group, Board Game Broads and other groups through the Facebook community, such as Gameschooling (Teaching with Games) and Digital Tabletop Game Playtests.

Going forward, Jen is building a student organization for toy and game inventors. She is looking to connect student inventors to industry professionals for feedback and manufacturing resources. Most importantly, she is looking to ensure that students receive the skills they need in college to better navigate and succeed in the professional world. Allison has a passion for creating playful learning experiences and is actively seeking to continue her adventure through a career in design. In the meantime, she is looking to get her two educational games on the market to benefit both students and educators.

About the Authors

Allison Ramsey is a recent graduate from Cedarville University and their partner school The International Center for Creativity with her bachelor’s degree in industrial & Innovative Design and Visual Communication Design.

Jennifer Ellis-Juncaj is a Creative Technologist and a Google Women Techmaker Scholar in Computer Science 2020-2021. She is enrolled in simultaneous graduate technology programs at the University of Southern California and Tufts University.

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