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5 Things I have learned by playtesting

Trevor Harron
United States
Washington
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In the process of working on 3 games over the past couple of years, I have done a lot of playtesting. These playtests give me some insight into how people will play my games, what works well, what does not, and have even helped my understanding of how to better design games. From my times playtesting I have found that there were five lessons that playtesters inadvertently taught me:

Always Have a Notebook

Feedback is Always Good

Players Will Always Surprise You

Rules are Bad

Players Always Listen, Sometimes Read

Without further ado, let begin diving into these 5 lessons, how I came to learn them, how it has impacted my designs, as well as how it has impacted my understanding of games as a whole.

Always Have a Notebook

While you are playtesting games it is great to have a notebook to take notes. Some of these notes can be basic things like player count, time played, and notes about who won. What I have found though is that additional information comes up, ideas for mechanics, questions that you need to consider, or even on the fly observations about gameplay. If you don’t have a notebook you can miss out on key observations and notes that can be detrimental to your game in the long run. For every designer, it is always good to take notes on the fly and have a written record of your thoughts, especially during playtesting.

Feedback is Always Good

As any designer knows, people will always have opinions about the games you make. As I started playtesting my games more and more I found that there was a wide variety of feedback that people were giving me. Some of this feedback was positive some was not, but what was the most frustrating was when someone did not provide feedback. With the loss of feedback, there is the loss of potential lessons learned: positive feedback you see that you might be on the right track while negative feedback provides guidance to how a game can be improved. This helped me learn to enjoy both positive feedback and negative feedback and encourage it since it meant that as a designer I could improve my games beyond what I could initially conceive. From this feedback, I have been able to glean more information about who plays games, why, and what they want out of an experience and tailor my games to that feedback.

Players Will Always Surprise You

There is a famous quote by the German general  Helmuth von Moltke, “No Battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy,” that finds particular purchase with game design as well. When you design a game, you try to think of every possibility and how that could affect the experience of the game. However, I have found that, like Moltke, these plans rarely survived contact. There is a simple reason for this: players will try to play your game in ways you could not imagine. This is a good thing but can lead to trying to come up with rules and rulings on the spot and then writing them down for reference later. This experience from playtesting will lead to a better game if as a designer you write down the questions, concerns, or behavior you see that you did not think about. This made me think about how once games are complete and released, the designer now has to trust their rules to govern the game, that through playtesting were able to see how players would play their games and design accordingly.

Rules are Bad

As I have been designing and playtesting Who Wears the Crown I started noticing a few things about the rules and how players interact with them: players don’t like rules. If there are too many, the game becomes overly confusing and complex but with too few there are more questions than answers. Coupled with this that players rarely want to be told that they cannot do something. Feeling pinned into a action often leaves players feeling irritated and thus not enjoy the game experience. To deal with both the issue of complexity and telling players what they can or cannot do, I found that incentives and penalties are the best way to direct behavior. This way players feel good about making some choices and consider the options of taking a penalty to do undesired actions. The trick with this is to keep the benefits and penalties simple and consistent to keep players from becoming bogged down in the rules.

Players Always Listen, Sometimes Read

Much to my chagrin, I have found that in several instances despite having written rules, player aid cards, or handouts, I am asked a question that could have answered by reading. After having seen this phenomenon several times I started realizing that just because you have written a rule down it does not mean that it was read. Several games have solved this by having video tutorials of their games or apps that help and this made me realize that players listen but only sometimes read. If you think about how a group learns a game typically there is one person who understands the game and vocally teaches the others. This has made me think about how I construct the rules in a way that provides the minimal amount of reading required to get started and proficient in one of my games.

These 5 things have been some of the best lessons I have learned in my pursuit of game design, creation, and publication. It is because of these lessons I look forward to and enjoy playtesting (in addition to showing my games of course). As I continue to work on Who Wears the Crown and start developing new projects I try to integrate these lessons into my designs. I hope you have learned something as well and hope you have a great morning!
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