In my reflective article the other week, I mentioned that I’ve been involved in some play-testing for a board/card game over the past year. That article had already grown to fairly epic proportions, so I thought it might be an idea to carry some of the ideas over to this week, where I could give them a bit more time and space to be considered properly.
I guess one of the first questions to ask with play-testing, is why do it? You already spend a lot of your time playing games, and have probably spent a lot of your own money on games with nice art, good-quality components and the like, why should you suddenly switch to playing games or bits of games with potentially ill-honed mechanics, that you have to print, cut, sleeve or stick yourself?
Obviously, there could be many answers to this question. As much as it probably shouldn’t be the deciding factor, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that it’s cool to know stuff that others don’t. I can still remember getting the first email confirming that I’d been accepted onto the Playtest team, with an email link to the forum. Suddenly, months ahead of the official announcement, I knew that the next set of stuff would have a particular theme, and probably feature some particular things (I’m deliberately being as vague as I can here in the interests of non-disclosure).
As I say, this is undeniably cool: there was a definite rush from knowing, but it definitely isn’t the best reason, or (probably) even a good reason to get into play-testing.
At the end of the day, unless it’s your job, (i.e. you’re actually getting paid, whether in money or in product) I think that really the only good reason to play-test a game is because you want to make the game better for yourself and others.
Without playtesting, games are not likely to be very good. Professional game designers, experienced game designers, will often have a much better idea than the average man on the street of what will work, but the only real way to find out is to try it. Things which work in theory won’t necessarily work in practice, and only play-testing can bridge that gap. Obviously there are some people out there who play a small selection of games and are happy with what they have, but most gamers like to try out new things, and recognise that it’s good for the hobby as a whole if more games are brought out which are good, and have been play-tested properly.
So what is play-testing like?
Having established that there’s a point to play-testing, I wanted to think a bit more about what the play-testing experience is like. I’ve already alluded to a few things, but there are some big headlines that I wanted to cover now more explicitly.
Play-Testing may not be fun
This is probably the most important thing to realise. Normally when you play a game, the objective is “to have fun” (unless you’re playing competitively in a serious fashion, in which case it might be “to win”) that isn’t the case with play-testing. In play-testing, the objective is “to see if X works.”
If you play a game normally, you will choose the strategies that seem best to you. When there are options, you’ll customise the bits you like to fit your style; where there are variations, you will do the ones you like lots, and avoid the ones you don’t. Suddenly, that all changes.
You have to do all of it
First and foremost with play-testing then, you’ll need to play the bits you don’t think you’ll like. If you find something that doesn’t look like it works, the chances are you’ll be asked to do it again, and again, to check whether it was a freak experience, or a major flaw in the design. Sometime the designers will give you things they already suspect are broken, or just not fun, to see whether that’s your experience.
You have to do it yourself
Play-testing can also be a logistical nightmare- no boxes of pre-printed cards, or tokens that just need taking out of the punch-boards. At very least, there’s a chance you’ll need to do lots of printing, then there’s the added layer of cutting / sleeving and the like – whatever you do, don’t make my mistake and try to save ink with “draft” printing, only to have to spend hours going over everything in pen to make it legible.
I once spent 3 days (not constantly) cutting and sleeving a set of cards, a few days after that particular wave had been released to the play-testers. I finally got them ready to play, just as the designers released a load of updates based on the first batch of feedback. I then got paranoid and didn’t touch the cards for a month, convinced that any changes would be pre-empted, during which time the designers changed… absolutely nothing.
You have to do it properly
If you play a game in your home, particularly if it’s a complex game, or if you’ve been playing it for a long time with the same group of people, the chances are that you will have settled into your own ways of doing things. That might just be terminology you use: for example a game of 7 wonders in our house generally involves someone trying to get access to a Resource like “Kitchen Roll” and probably involves the player(s) building science collecting Waffles, Potatoes and Oreos. On a more plausible note, a game of Zombicide will shamelessly nab terms from Munchkin as players decide whether to “Kick Down The Door” or “Loot the Room.” Variant terminology probably isn’t going to cause anything more than confusion, but it could easily be more. It could well be that there’s a bit you’re actually playing wrong, inadvertently making it easier or harder. A mistake, or a house-rule that you’d forgotten was a house-rule. When you’re play-testing, that becomes a problem, because the designer wants everyone to be working with the same thing, so that they have consistent data. If you come back tell a designer the game was too easy, whilst accidentally missing something that should be making it harder, than that isn’t helpful feedback. Attention to precise wording and timing becomes vital. Of course, your feedback could be an indirect way of saying “this isn’t clear” but that’s still only useful if it actually gets spotted…
You have to do it against the clock
Often with play-testing, the thing I’ve found hardest to cope with is the time-constraints. Because of the amount of internal play-testing that designers do, and the deadlines imposed within the publishing company by art, layout, printing, packaging etc, you might be given something and told they need feedback within a week, even on a product that’s not due out for six months. Assuming that you have a real job to fit in around your game-playing, that can be challenging.
For various reasons then, play-testing is often not going to be as enjoyable as playing the game normally – in fact, it may even be the case that doing the play-test saps some of your enthusiasm for playing the game normally. If you’ve just got through 3 hours of trying to break the new mechanic, do you really want to spend the next night playing the game again?
You have to do it with other people
It’s also worth noting that in play-testing, as in playing published games, not everyone will feel the same as you. I find it fairly dispiriting when a game I play gets errata-ed, and most of my experiences with this in the past (aside from hitting an inherent dislike of rules being different from cards as printed) have tended to take the mechanics in a direction I wasn’t happy with: typically making cards less powerful / games harder, when I didn’t think it was necessary.
For most games once printed, however much designers will look back at something and think “we’re never doing that again” they will often be very reluctant to issue an official errata. I play-testing though, that changes: the inertia of having a printed, official product isn’t there, and they might give you something they suspect is broken, just in case it isn’t. The trouble is, your take on whether it was broken might differ from theirs – it makes me sad to see a character come out in a retail expansion and sigh, remember when he used to be able to do XYZ instead of just x. Sadly, I was in the minority of thinking that XYZ was a good thing.
You have to learn to keep your mouth shut
Generally speaking, when you’re play-testing a game, the designers want to know your thoughts. That said, they typically don’t want you to do their job for them. We had one instance in the play-test I did where the designers asked us “what do you think of X new mechanic? Is it fun? Is it overused?” which we took as an invitation to re-design the entire thing by committee – thankfully they were very polite when they stepped in and told us to stop it, so hopefully no-one’s feelings got too hurt.
The other thing I’ve noticed designers being very particular on, is that they don’t want the world at large to know what got left on the cutting-room floor. This could be for any number of reasons: they might be operating from a place of professional pride, where they think that the finished product is so far beyond the initial concept stage that it would be detrimental to their reputation to be publically associated with it. It could be because they actually thinking something which didn’t make the cut for this box is still really good, and they plan on using it somewhere else later.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Whether you sing something legally or not, agreeing to work with people on a playtest implicitly involves agreeing to respect their views about the privacy or otherwise of what they have created. Just because you play-tested it, doesn’t mean you’re now in charge.
So remind me, why are doing this?
I’m conscious that I probably haven’t painted the most attractive picture in the world of play-testing here. I do want to reiterate that, on balance, I’m glad I’ve done play-testing. It’s given me a real appreciation of the work that goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully a more realistic sense of the finite nature of a playtest.
On a good run, I’d say that roughly every other article I publish on Dor Cuarthol will feature some kind of custom content, and I also did a bit of work on the original First Age expansion from “Tales from the Cards” – it’s a fairly safe bet that nothing I post on here will ever have been play-tested anywhere near as thoroughly as Ian’s output, and I’d suspect that he doesn’t have the resources to play-test as thoroughly as a company manufacturing games for a living.
There’s probably a part of every gamer that thinks “my ideal job would be making games for a living” and that probably comes with a temptation to idealise the role, and under-estimate the amount of graft involved for those who do it. For the very limited number of game designers I’ve met and the slightly larger number I’ve communicated with via the internet, I’d say that the majority, and certainly the best ones retain a great sense of being fans of gaming, and often fans of the IP they work on – I’ve never felt the sense that they’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s a pretty cool thing to do to be able to work on games all day, even if when it gets hard.
For me, and probably for most people reading this, professional games design is almost certain to remain nothing more than a dream, but for all that, it’s nice to be able to look at a new bit for one of your favourite games and be able to think “I helped make that a little bit better.”