Game Lab: How to be a good playtester

November 11, 2010

When you build a system, you’ve gotta test it. And a game is most definitely a system. A system of rules. Playtesting is just working out the details, balance, and systems of a game through repeated plays.

Making the game in the first place, that’s design – creating the ideas, foundations, basics. But for most games it’s in the repeated hashing out of the twists and turns of the rules where the real work and long hours come in. Design is easy; playtesting is hard. So, if you’ve ever wanted to be a designer, you’ve probably got to do your time as a playtester first. How should you approach this job? Well, you could go get that degree is systems analysis or quality assurance that you’ve always wanted (right?) or you could read on and pick up some tips that’ll help you at the table.

It’s all about the goals

The first mistake you’re gonna make, because everyone makes it, is you’re gonna think that you know best about what is best in gaming and that what you like or don’t like is all that matters. Guess what? It’s not all about you. A good playtester doesn’t (just) evaluate a game based on their personal tastes and preferences. They think about the goals.

What goals? The designer’s goals! A game comes with some rules, but behind those rules are usually some basic goals the designer is trying to satisfy. Your job is to determine how well it’s meeting those goals. So the first thing you’re gonna want to do is ask about those goals and, perhaps, be prepared to infer them from the game if the designer isn’t present. You won’t be making the same suggestions if the goal for one game is “sell a million units” and another it’s “challenge hardcore gamers”. So… what are some typical goals, some typical conditions on which we can evaluate a game?

Intro to Evaluation Criteria 101

Is this game fun? This is a good consideration to think hard on as you’re trying out a game, but it falls into a strange space between important and deceptive. See, what’s fun for you is not, perhaps, fun for others. When you’re asking yourself this question, it’s always in the context of “fun for the intended audience” – try to get into their heads, try to understand what their reactions will be. If there isn’t a stated audience, try to imagine a group or type of gamer that will like it. If that group is too small or too obscure or just doesn’t exist, you should really start challenging the fun of the game. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because it isn’t your cup of tea, it’s bad. 1835 is a complex historical simulation of the development of trains in Germany. Gulo Gulo is about stealing eggs from a nest. Both of these games are fun. Just maybe not fun for the same people.

Is this game challenging? There’s almost as big a range of skill out there as there are different interpretations of what is fun, so be careful as you ask this question too. But remember much of the joy of a game is going to come from some level of challenge in the game. If there are no clever choices, interesting plays, or tricky tradeoffs, a game isn’t likely to be well-received, even by the intended group. Different games offer different challenges – dexterity, memory, planning, negotiating, calculating – but you should be able to identify those challenges and gauge that they aren’t too hard or too easy.

Is this game innovative? Another difficult question! Innovation is too often a buzzword wrongly interpreted to mean “good”. Often, it’s better to be descended from good stock than it is to be the awkward mutant that people can’t classify. True innovation is rarely successful, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Fresh interpretations are often very welcome. But look for the lineage of a game you are playing. Understand how it shares mechanics, style, or theme with other games for the same group or in the same genre. A good design often builds on the successes of others. For example, Galactic Emperor is a game heavily derived from Puerto Rico, but builds enough on that model to make something new. Civilization defines an entire genre of games, too; following in those footsteps is about the only way to build something in that group.

Would I play this game again? Replayability, the ability find something interesting in repeated plays of a game, goes right to the value and depth of a game. By its nature, with playtesting, you’re going to be playing and playing and playing a game, so you’ll have a great insight into how the game keeps repeated plays fresh. If every run through is turning out the same or one strategy is clearly best, those are great things to bring back to the designer – consistency isn’t always bad though, especially in a lighter game.

Is this game clear? Games are generally better when the players can pick up on the play and nature of the game quickly. Clarity isn’t simplicity nor is complexity the opposite of clarity. Clear really means that the game is intuitive, understandable, and direct in action. A clear game lets players enjoy the action of the game instead of fretting over many exceptions or interruptions or distractions. Often the best way to judge clarity is by looking at the action of the game and the victory conditions of the game – when actions directly contribute to victory, that’s clarity. In Caylus, you use workers to get resources and spend resources to get points. In Space Hulk, it’s marines versus aliens in mission based play. These are both good examples of clarity.

Does the game flow? Flow is a feeling that the game will move from phase to phase, step to step, action to action in a pleasing, easy manner. It should be more or less apparent to players what they should be doing next and that activity should rise naturally from the previous step. A classic example is “move, then fight” in a game like Axis & Allies; a player can expect to put units into action and resolve that battle.

Attitude is everything

The golden rule of good playtesting, though, is to understand that you are here to help, not hurt, to tune, not trash. It can be all too easy sometimes to say something cold, hard, or ugly about a game, especially a game that’s still rough around the edges. That’s wrong. Playtesting is a constructive activity, not an opportunity to deride a design or, worse, the designer. Remember that a big part of playtesting is feedback; you don’t have to be the one to fix what’s off about a game. That’s the designer’s responsibility. Yours is to provide detailed feedback, helping realize the goals of the design. And don’t forget that just about the best way to get good playtesting for your designs is to be a good playtester for others – treat them like you’d expect to be treated in return.

Be a ‘know ’em all’

That’s not “know it all” – nobody needs one of those. Instead one of the most valuable skills you can cultivate as a playtester is to be as familiar as possible with as many different games, especially different kinds of games, as you can. A huge gaming experience helps you understand the goals and taxonomy of games, helps you make good comparisons to what works or doesn’t work. It’s worth learning games that are the best of the best, but also good to study the train wrecks, odd ducks, and mediocre maybes of gaming. Learn role-playing, abstracts, video games, collectibles, and everything in between. The more you know, the more useful you can be.

Is this playtesting gig starting to sound like hard work? It can be, but there’s a great silver lining, a great way to pay yourself back for learning this skill. Just because a game is finished, purchased off the shelf with ready to go rulebook doesn’t mean it can’t be better or more fun. Once you’ve practiced playtesting, you’ll start to see neat additions and alternate options in almost every game you play. Take advantage of that! Make some house rules to tweak a game you like to make it a game you love. For example, I’ve been a big fan of Die Macher for years, but not a play of the game goes by without me unhappy about the auctioning of secret, highly decisive polls at the end of every round. Why subject your deep planning to a flip of a card for the win or lose? So, we’ve worked out all sorts of options to address this, like auctioning the polls face up. A minor change can make all the difference in changing the feel of a good game to an even better one.

Good luck and happy playtesting!