Games are only as good as their playtesting sessions. Since a game is designed for interaction, there are elements of the design that can only be exposed and critiqued when the game is finally taken out for a “test drive.”
This is usually the most difficult part for any prospective game designer who has the discipline to get their ideas into a working prototype. Finding others who are willing to play an untested game—one that will undoubtedly have some rough edges and even, possibly, be “broken”—can be a real challenge. However, pitching the prototype to friends, acquaintances, and finally, “blind” playtesters (those who must learn the game from your written rules without you present), can also be good practice for eventually pitching to a publisher.
It is difficult enough for a wannabe designer to find those guinea pigs. After all, “beggers can’t be choosers”—they usually must accept whoever they can get. And it’s true that just about anyone can provide at least some helpful feedback, but some playtesters are truly better than others. A variety of playtesters and gaming groups is also important, as the game will play much differently each time. I always try to test my games, for example, with both my game designers’ group and at another gaming night, either at my home or the one I host at the community center where I work (and when I began, I had a weekly youth game night that enjoyed playing my prototypes).
Because playtesters are different, and each provides important feedback, I’ve compiled a list of the types of people I like to have at my gaming sessions to try out my new designs:
The Game-Buster: who you gonna call when you have a carefully balanced game with multiple paths to victory? If there is an extreme strategy that breaks the game or always proves successful, the Game-Buster will find it.
The Designer as a playtester is valuable on so many levels, and I’ve been fortunate to have several of them consistently attend my gaming sessions. First, they are practiced in game theory and criticism. If something is not working or is even slightly unbalanced or suboptimal, other designers can immediately point to the source of the problem. Even better, they can oftentimes find one or more interesting solutions.
The Historian: you don’t have time to play all the new games that are coming out, and you still haven’t played all the games that have ever been released. The Historian hasn’t, either, but chances are, he knows about most of them, and he’s played a great deal of them. Sure, you may not like to hear that your idea isn’t as original as you thought, but when you’re trying to think out-of-the-box, the Historian can help you avoid recreating the wheel.
The Opposite Sex: unfortunately, from my experience, most designers—and playtesters—of adult strategy games are men (only 2 of 18 game designers visiting our group were women, and only 3 of 20 on my photo wall of playtesters are women). I won’t go into the reasons for this now, but it is important to note that women think differently, they act differently in social situations, and, yes, they approach games differently (not better or worse, mind you!). This is not at all to say that women do not enjoy strategic boardgames—they are, in fact, a large part of my target audience, especially in this country. They offer a different perspective, however, and their feedback is invaluable.
The Winner: it is important to see skilled players interact with your game early on. Those who can learn rules to new games quickly and play the game well on the first or second try can speed up the design process.
The Casual Player: on the other had, it is also necessary to test the game with those who are not as analytical. Casual players need to have clear, intuitive rules in order to understand how to play a game well. They need to be engulfed in the story of the game, otherwise they will quickly lose interest. If a casual player’s eyes are glued to the game for its duration, you know that you are onto something good.
The Publisher: occasionally, I’m able to playtest a prototype with a local publisher. This is not a pitching session—although I would not object if he took the prototype with him—but just another opportunity to get feedback from yet another important source. The publishers I work with like to play games, and, just like everyone else, they want to have fun. But they also have the added experience of producing, packaging, cost-analysing, and selling games in the marketplace.
The Fun-Lover: lastly, and certainly not least, is the gamer who has such great social skills, he or she is usually the life of the party. Playtesting can often be frustrating, especially when there are overly competitive playtesters present. And, let’s face it, trying to work out the bugs of a design is not always the most cheerful process. That’s where the Fun-Lover can be helpful in making the experience enjoyable, even when the game still needs fixing. Since it’s so difficult to find dedicated unpayed playtesters, someone who excels in making every game enjoyable for everyone else at the table is invaluable to keep them all coming back for more. And if there is any potential “fun factor” in your game design, he or she will make it apparent during the playtest.
Of course, there are also some gamers you want to avoid when playtesting your designs. Players who suffer from over-analysis during their turns, for example, can really damage the experience for everyone, and unfairly skew the other playtesters' feedback. Mostly, however, it is a good guide to invite the types of playtesters with whom you would normally want to play published games. And don't forget to write down their names after each session. Someday, when that game is published, a simple mention at the end of a rule book is a great way to say, "Thank-you!"