Confessions of an Amateur Designer – The importance of Playtesting

After part 1 of this occasional series I dived into my new design ‘This is my Blade, hear it’s Tale’ (still thinking about a snappier title so let’s just call it ‘Blade Tale’ for now) and started going over my playtesting notes. I write these down as I go and then look at them again later so I get some distance between the immediacy of play and the logic of rules writing.

It’s a brave thing to put a game out there and you must be prepared to hear some unfavourable feedback, but what do you listen to and what do you not? What is the importance of playtesting and are there different stages to it? Get comfortable, grab a cuppa and let’s have a conversation.


Alpha Testing

Blade Tale is just past the alpha stage now, though some of my designs basically never leave it. I consider Alpha testing to be that very early stage: you’ve shot the rules out of your head onto whatever form of papyrus you have chosen, put your components together and now you are ready to put it in front of people not in your head. Good luck.

At this stage of testing you are primarily looking for ‘does this idea work at all’ kind of feedback. You may not even get to the end of the game, but that doesn’t 100% matter. What you are seeking here is the core of the game: does this worker placement mechanic work, do these cards interact interestingly etc. Most importantly you are looking for if the game engages your players: are they asking interesting rules questions, rather than just being confused etc.

I was lucky with Blade Tale that I got two complete playthroughs with no real rules issues first time out. That is unheard of for my designs so I was extremely happy with that outcome but that doesn’t mean I am about to go out and sell it to a publisher. The game is nowhere near ready and the rules I took to the first playtest were an abomination, mostly because it was raw thought poured into a google doc.

Blade Tale Rules Alpha

If you like the game you’ve expelled so far then you are ready to leave the alpha stage of testing and proceed into the long beta stage. If it’s not quite grabbing you or the players yet then it probably isn’t wise to take it further until you have ironed out those fundamental problems. Really work on getting the core correct, even if that isn’t your vision for the final game as a strong foundation will help you build the rest of the systems on top and make it easier to see solutions to design problems. Finally if you are enthusiastic about your game, that will come through in your explanations, infecting others with that enthusiasm and garnering you better feedback and easing the development cycle.

Beta Testing

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Blade Tale worked! Twice! Woo! It’s time to move it on a little in playtesting as the core is solid and determining whether that is the case or not is what the alpha stage is all about. The first thing I did was make sure I had all my notes saved from the playtest at the bottom of the rules and I then made a copy of those rules and started into rewriting them so they made a little more sense. You can see the results of my efforts here

Blade Tale Beta 0.1 Rules

Couple of things to note here. I’ve found it useful to highlight different voices whilst I am noodling through rules: Text in black has generally come from a previous version of the rules, Blue are new rules I want to test that are fully formed in my mind, Red are mechanical thoughts and provides context to the new blue rules or thoughts I am having about things currently set in stone. I find this helpful in distinguishing between what I’ve tested, what I might need to concentrate on in the future and where I should maybe take the next iteration of the rules.

The other thing to notice between this version of the rules and the alpha version is I have already started to try and firm up terminology in the game. I find this effect is two fold: it helps me be more consistent in explaining the game to new players and it clears the rubbish away from my mind so I can clearly see the ruleset, which allows me to manipulate it better. For Blade Tale I’ve started to call the Encounter river the Dungeon for instance and I’ve been more consistent about calling the weapon a Blade rather than switching between Blade and Sword.

You are likely to be in this mode of testing for sometime until the game really sings, and it is here where what you listen to during playtesting can become confusing. You need playtesters, you need to get the game played but not everyone who you show it to is going to have valid feedback. Looking back at the Alpha stage you should have built a strong core and it is always that you have to keep at the forefront of your mind whilst playtesting: it’s no good listening to someone who suggests you should make an area control game when you are designing a dungeon crawler.

I can’t give you a definitive list of what you should and shouldn’t listen to, I don’t think anyone could, but let’s have a look at the sort of things you might want to pick up on, and the sort of questions you might want to ask after a playtest:

  • What caused people to enjoy the game? What did those same people not like?
  • Was the game long enough? Could the players have played it for longer or did it drag?
  • Did people understand the game? Explaining a new game can be hard but seeing where the complicated bits in your rules are can help you write clearer explanations.
  • Did the theme come through? This will not matter for all games but it will for the majority. Theme is a major component on drawing people into your game and its world and getting it to come through correctly can be difficult.
  • Was the game state clear at all times? Did players find the information provided by the components gave them a clear idea of the current state of play amongst all the participants and a route to make choices. This can be partly down to rules explanation but what we are really looking for here is a beginning to the graphic design of the game. Can this font be bigger? Is that icon clear?

These are just a few of the questions that occur to me to ask after a given playtest but there is an infinite variety of things you could ask. What I would say is that once you get to the the beta stage it is a good idea to have something to achieve in each individual playtest. Looking back at my new version of the rules you will see I’ve made a note at the top of the rules of the things I want to concentrate on in the next test. I’ll be playing the game as a whole of course, but keeping in mind the things I want to pay special attention to will hopefully mean I can iterate faster to the final version of the game.

Blind Testing

When you feel the rules are tightly written it is time to get the game in front of some blind testing. What I mean by this is that you give the game and the rules to a group of people who haven’t played it and let them muddle through. You may want to be present for this or you may want to send the game to a group to play either with a physical copy or via the magic of the interwebnets (I’m looking at Tabletopia myself just now for this very purpose).

The point of this stage of testing is to see if the game plays as written. Are the experiences the same as those you have had during playtesting? Are the players enjoying it still? What rules questions come up and how can you make their answers clearer? You may think you have written the best rulebook of all time but believe me people will still ask questions you think you have answered. The trick, I think, at this stage is to decide the difference between what is a legitimate rules enquiry and what is someone just reading a rule wrong.

I would have to say that I think this stage of testing is actually the most important. The number of rulebooks I have read where it has obviously not happened is far too large and it is definitely something I see a lot from companies going to Kickstarter. I backed Sedition Wars in the early days of Kickstarter and their rulebook was unreadable to the point that I was looking up rules in the first paragraph and I was not alone.

Blind test your games please folks. For the sake of us all.

Putting it all together

When are you finished with playtesting? That is a hard question to ask and I guess it comes down to a number of factors: your own happiness with the design, consistent good feedback from playtesters and what your ultimate goal for the project is.

This last one is probably the most important one. In the end it is up to you to decide the eventual fate of the game you are making. Are you just doing it as a hobby, making a game or you and your friends? Maybe you don’t need to be as rigorous with the rules then. Are you wanting to pitch it to a publisher? It better be as tight as possible and you need to be able to answer any questions that might be thrown at you. Are you going to Kickstarter? Well that is basically the same as pitching to a publisher except this time those questions are going to going from hundreds and thousands of backers, we hope.

You may have decided what you want to do with your game early on in playtesting or it may only blossom over the course of the development cycle. With Blade Tale my eventual aim is to take it to cons and pitch to publishers so I am not going to be going through much in the way of art development but I do need to make the game sing as best I can. I have no idea how long this will take me, but I am aiming to have it done by the end of the year and then start pitching in 2019.

I hope this little dip into how I perceive playtesting has been helpful to the up and coming designers out there, those just setting out on the journey like myself. In the end no one can make you playtest your game more than you think is necessary but I hope that you realise that being rigorous about how you go about this stage of development can lead to a much better game and in the end that benefits us all.




Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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