Independent board game design is a grueling process: brainstorming, creating, playtesting, prototyping, playtesting, finding a publisher, more playtesting, finalizing, and one more round of playtesting; then finally ship it out for sale. Can you identify the biggest part of the design process? Playtesting!
Jay Semerad — cultivator of #IndieSpirit, founder of Apotheosis Games, and creator of the Kickstarter-funded board game Foretold: Rise of a God — knows a lot about playtesting. For the base game alone Jay spent over 100 hours playtesting, and later produced an expansion. We sat down to talk about lessons learned and how effective playtesting produces better games.
In order to playtest, naturally you need a game. How polished does a game have to look to be effectively tested?
To help attract my players, I wanted to make my prototype look kind of like a game, so I spent more time than usual on my prototype than other game designers would probably have done. I printed off new series of cards each time I made a few revisions. That would mean cutting out 100 cards, sleeving them up, and tracking the version number on each card. Not a lot of people do that.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just quickly mark changes up with a Sharpie?
Sure, it’s faster to just grab a pen and cross out text and write in new text. But my playgroup would show up and ask why things were all scribbled out instead of understanding the testing process. If you’re going to force someone to step into this lengthy experience – especially if your game is an hour or two long – you don’t want them to spend the time struggling to read the cards and not being involved in the world. I wanted to give them whatever I could in terms of the prototype to help motivate the testing phase. If you need a big change right away though, don’t be afraid to take a Sharpie and write on that brand new $50 game board you had printed from Kinkos. You’ll need another one made in a few months anyway.
Once you have your first prototype made, what is your main goal in those initial playtesting sessions?
You really need to get people who are vested, who are good gamers and are strategic, and you want them to try and break your game as much as possible. It could be something as simple as one person deciding to just do nothing for four turns. Is that really breaking the game by not abiding by the spirit of the game? You have to allow the players to lose the game on their own, but you don’t want to give them a way to spitefully kill themselves out. There’s a subtle line between doing nothing and doing something that ruins the game.
When you go into playtesting sessions, go in with a set time and a set goal. Tell your playtesters, 'This is the concept, and I want you to particularly focus on how we can make it faster, simpler, and more fun.'
What did you see in your first playtesting sessions?
Sitting down with people, when I was playtesting my first game (Foretold), you would see a strategy that had never been played before. It would be interesting to watch. Would that new strategy break the game? Did we want to allow players to choose that strategy even if it was clearly wrong? We could allow players to do that, or we could add a rule to prevent it. If the strategy was rarely used, then that was one less rule we had to put in the game. We just hoped that the incentive to use better strategies was strong enough that a player wouldn’t want to make the bad play. You incentivize players to make the right play.
Is there a preferred type of playtester or do you want anyone who can play a game to help out?
You want people who can give you critical feedback, people who can look at your game and say, ‘Here’s what’s fun, here’s what’s not fun, here are the basic concepts I enjoyed; why don’t you flesh that out more?’ You want people who can critically look at it and tell you what works and what doesn’t. And that’s important at the early stages of the game. As you get closer to a finished product, you want to be able to playtest that in front of who you think your target audience is.
There’s a trick to that, though. Let’s say that you spend a year playtesting your game with other game designers or serious gamers. That’s going to end up being your product unless you’re careful. If you practice and test around these guys, you’re going to end up with a game that’s probably more complicated than the average gamer wants to play. That’s fine if you want to make a hardcore game or a game that has appeal to serious gamers. But if you want something that has a broader appeal, then all of your playtesting up front with your other #gamedesign friends, or the people you trust, should be focused on making the game as fun and simple as possible.
So playtest groups should include a balance of both serious gamers and game designers?
You want to distinguish between expert gamers and expert game designers because they’re two very different things. If you focus only on expert gamers to help lend you feedback, they’re going to catch on very quickly. They’re going to be okay with certain complexities and certain ways of fudging the rules that aren’t the most elegant, because they’ve played so many games before and many game concepts will be second nature to them.
Expert game designers will be able to look at the game with a critical eye that distances them from the fact that you might not be reinventing the wheel, like if you’re basing your game on an existing style like a military style board game. An expert game designer will be able to give you very different feedback from your expert gamer friends, so it is very important to seek out other game designers who have had playtesting experience.
Once you assemble a playtest group, how do you get the session started? Do you tell players much about the game or let them play blind?
With my small playtest groups I would go over the four colors and play styles of my game at the beginning. I would just explain to them what the colors would do, and then they would just start the game wide-eyed and trying to figure out how to play. My game was fairly self-guided during the first few turns, and then that’s when the strategy becomes pretty open. I would wait until someone chose cards I had recently revised and then say, ‘I tweaked some of these cards, do they feel on flavor? Do the changes work?’ I received feedback all the way until the Kickstarter finished.
How did you know that a problem raised by the playtesting group was worth fixing?
A big red flag when playtesting Foretold was if all four players at the table couldn’t figure out what a card was trying to say, then it was probably too complicated. We needed to find a simpler way to make that card. If we couldn’t word it simply, then we had to either scrap the effect or we rolled the effect back and made it simpler, so we could make the text better.
When an issue or an awkward rule interaction shows up, where do you get inspiration on ideas for solutions?
A lot of changes come through the discussion with playtesters. Someone will say, ‘this isn’t working for me,’ and you can ask them what they would put in place to fix it. They might not have the direct answer for you, but you might have four people at the table with you who will throw ideas at you. When you stop the game and talk about designing it, it feels like you’re playing the game on a different level. The playtesters have joined the ranks of the game designer and are helping to design the game. That feeling is pretty engrossing, and people will give you very good feedback over a long period of time. They’ll talk to you for an hour over your ideas, because inherently that’s what gamers like.
Gamers just want to be creators?
People who play games like Magic and build decks have in a sense already spent hours and hours designing a game – taking a limited toolbox and creating a series of interactions that appeal to you, and then taking those interactions to play against someone else. That’s game design. So if you show up with your prototype and you get people talking and engrossed in it, and then something bad happens or something just doesn’t work, don’t let them walk away from it thinking that it’s terrible. Tell them, ‘this is an issue I noticed and want to fix, what do you think can fix it?’ If you can identify that pressure point, then you can find ways to get around it.
Who else did you bring in to improve the game during testing?
I had a Level 3 Magic (the Gathering) judge go through my rules spreadsheets before we rendered all the cards. He would go through and tell me whether a card made sense, or whether there was a simpler way to word it. We would go back and forth quite a bit, even some heated arguments late at night when the #Kickstarter was nearly over and everything was ready to print. We were fighting over templating and consistencies and what should be capitalized and shouldn’t be, all the way until the day we shipped out the final game.
It sounds like there’s solid value in getting people who are heavily involved in other games.
If your audience is casual Magic players like mine was for Foretold, then you have to appeal to people in that realm. If you’re making a Euro-style board game that’s all about resource management, then you want to go to Protospiel (a game design event series) and meet with the guys who made games like Race for the Galaxy or the Manhattan Project. It’s all about finding the right people and consulting with the right people.
Let’s say you’ve been playtesting for a few months, and you’re feeling pretty good about the quality of the game. Are you ready to find a publisher?
There are some game designer playtest groups, like Protospiel that has regular events throughout the year (in the U.S.). You can show a prototype or just show up and help other designers test their games. I took Foretold to Protospiel, and the designers there had been through the same process I was going through, probably a dozen times. They can tell you about shortcuts they’ve found, maybe some elegant solutions they already know of, and generally tell you where to focus. That was very useful to me early on. From there it was just a matter of finding a playgroup of friends that I could trust to give me feedback and play semi-regularly.
How do I get an expert designer to see my game?
It’s important to be respectful about what is expected. Walking up to designers at their booths at a convention when they’re trying to sell things isn’t the best way to get them to look at your prototype. But leaving them your card and asking for a half hour or hour of their time over a drink to look at it, maybe you’ll have better luck that way. A lot of these guys have what’s called ‘Publisher Speed Dating,’ where you can show your game off to a lot of different publishers in 5-10 minute demos.
Okay, if after playtesting, consulting, and revising a game for over a year, getting a Kickstarter funded, and signing a contract with a publisher, how would I know if the game is ready for the store shelves?
You really may never know if you’ve playtested enough. It’s really just a matter of whether my time is up, if it’s time to publish. When they pick up a game, publishers expect that your game is more than 50% done. You have to have all your components in place and ready to play with, but it doesn’t have to look perfect yet. You just need to be able to show the publisher a sample that lets them envision what the finished product looks like. They’ll probably give you a deadline and you just work up until that deadline. Then you have to set it free, like a piece of music or anything you create or write. You have to eventually call it quits and know that you can always expand on it later if it’s a success.
After all of that work, I’d be really nervous to see how the game does at retail. How did you handle it?
You have to be able to sell the game to your friends in order to get them to playtest it, you have to be able to sell it to a publisher to get it made, and you have to sell it to fans. The fans are the hardest part, but don’t worry about whether they like it. It could be your fault they don’t like it or it could be their fault, or their friends just did a bad job at teaching them the game. What matters is that you like the game you made.
Final thoughts: what do you say to a fresh indie game designer who thinks they have an idea for the next great game?
Map out all the resources in the game and figure out how long you want the game to be. Present an outline of the game, similar to a spec sheet like if a publisher was trying to sell it to distributors. That shows your original intent and what you think you can do to implement the game you have in your mind. Once you have that, start designing and working hard, but stick with your original plan. The game is going to change over time but at least you have a set of guidelines you can stick with to end up with a finished product. Understand that it’s going to take a serious effort and a lot of time.
Keep rolling along and always, always provide beer (or soda) and pizza.
(Photos provided by Jay Semerad)
Have you ever playtested a game? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments!