Playtest UK: Birmingham

Recently I had the pleasure of joining the Birmingham division of Playtest UK for their monthly meet up and…well, playtest.  This was my first experience of going to one of these meet-ups; up to this point Bad Pets had only been put in front of local gamers, friends, and family.

These guys were game designers, experienced playtesters and I was a little nervous.  They were worn and battle tested by countless prototypes, rulebook writings and solo run throughs, in their wake the remains of once hopeful and futile game mechanics writhed in agony, as their bootsteps crunched ever onwards through the piles of discarded cards, tokens and meeples.  Okay, that’s a little over the top.  They were (in order of appearance), Rich, James and Chris. In short; they were all top bokes and each brought a unique, interesting and thought provoking perspective to the games we managed to squeeze into the evening.

Unfortunately, we only had time for two games, Bad Pets – mainly because I was there
first; early bird ‘n’ all – and because it only takes two people twenty minutes to play.  After that we launched into the impressive looking, sounding and playing; Master of Olympus.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what I did as a designer having my game tested that could have been done better, and what I did well.  Did I get some valuable feedback?  Yeah, I sure did.  Could I have gotten more?  Yup, I sure could have.  My game was ready for testing, but I wasn’t.  Rich’s game was certainly ready, and he seemed a lot more prepared than I.

Now don’t get me wrong, it was an incredibly valuable experience and I would urge anyone thinking about designing a game to go along.  Even if you just want to do some testing first before you put yourself out there.  Before you do any of that though, maybe have a look at my thoughts, failings and “Rules of Thumb” below, so that maybe you can dodge them:

The PitPitchch – this may seem like an obvious one but pitching your game is really important, for two reasons.

  1. For you; it is solidifying what the game is in your head, it may have gone through a few changes, so it may not be what it started as. Also, it’s really good practice, especially if you want to put you game in front of publishers.
  2. For your playtesters the pitch should act to set the tone for comments, but also sets their expectations. Bad Pets is a very light, quick, cartoony game; so comparing it to Scythe or Fury of Dracula is kind of redundant.

I think I did this well, I dusted off the old description of “competitive jigsawing” and it was well received as both a joke and as a very general description of the game.  My playtesters Rich and James knew it was a light game going in, so their end game comments (and…debate might be too strong a word, but there was a definite difference of opinion) about its depth for me indicated I have the game weight I want.  

Target Acquisition – game design is as much art as it is science, anTarget_acquiredd changes are
iterative, so playtesters should be very clearly informed what they are testing for.  Playtesting shouldn’t be done for fun, it shouldn’t be approached the same way as a game night and the clue is in the name.  You are there to test.  To me, that sounds more like work, ok; work that is fun, but work none-the-less.  In the early stages you might be testing everything.  It the latter stages you might also be testing everything.  But in the middle, you need to know what outcomes or experiences you are looking for, and so do your playtesters.  This may mean you don’t have to play the whole game from start to finish.  If you are just testing one aspect, then set the game up to enable that test to come about.

 Richard did this very well, he knew the Athenians might not be well balanced, and that my Macedonians may also need tweaking.  He had also recently revised his combat system, and was curious to see how it went.  I, on the other hand didn’t mention any of my last changes (I had added a third bonus, removed Pets, and added the Clock and Picture tiles) all of which needed testing, and I didn’t mention one of them.  This meant I was prodding for feedback on something they hadn’t paid a lot of attention to, so I missed out there.

BuggsBuggs Bunny – Why is there a rule called Buggs Bunny?  The catchphrase: “What’s up, Doc?”  The question of whether or not you will accept, welcome or completely ignore “suggestions” is one that you, and you alone can answer.  There are merits either way and it is fair to let your playtesters know which side of the fence you stand on, and your stance may be different for certain parts of your game – and that is cool too.  So what is up for change?  What is up for refinement, enhancement?  Ultimately, everything is “sort-of” in this category, even if you don’t want it to be – if enough people tell you X thing is bad/doesn’t work, it probably means it doesn’t work.

 Bad Pets is, I think in a pretty good place and I’d like to think that it mainly comes down to balancing and fine tuning, that being said; the guys did present some really interesting ideas for bonus tile actions.  There were also a few rule refinements needed but their out of the box thinking, a completely new, novel idea is one that is certainly worth exploring.

 Criticise – Please note that this is not “Provide constructive criticism”, no, because that is paradoxical and silly.  But mainly because as a playtester you are more or less literally being asked to criticise, it is the designer’s responsibility to be constructive with that criticism.  The more objective and specific you can be, the better; however, you don’t have to be.  Telling a designer that “something felt a little off”, “it felt a bit flat” is valid feedback.  Games are, fundamentally; exercises in fun and if something isn’t working for you, the player, then say so.  This then starts a conversation, and discussion about the why, the what and how., led by the designer.

I was told that there didn’t feel like a lot of control in Bad Pets, and that it felt like there was a lot left to chance.  Fair feedback, but not the feedback I wanted to hear for a game that is meant to be light strategy:  This is where there was a difference of opinion.  For Rich’s game I really, really wanted to do something that the rules allowed, but the gameplay didn’t really want me to do.  This was a surprise for Rich, as no one had tried to do what I was doing (so hopefully very valuable), and I was the only person “negatively affected” by my actions – I still got to do what I wanted, just not in the way Rich had intended (and I won the game).

I gotcha back – But remember, don’t be a dick, and that supporting designers, publishers, and developers is how we have gotten to this fantastic playscape, where there is pretty much a game for every possible theme, every mood, and occasion.

Shut Up – Okay, so this is more advise I’ve heard, but many people advocate the Shut Upimportance of the designer not getting involved with the game, just sit back and watch it played, and if someone “attacks” your design, listen first, think second, have a cup of tea third, think some more about it, really think about it fourth.  But don’t argue, don’t defend or justify.  It is your game, and you can design it the way you want…but, there could be a seed of value to what they’re saying.

My game did come under some (very mild) criticism, and it was really hard for me to just listen to it, but by not saying anything, or rebuffing the comments my silence encouraged a conversation and debate leading to my favourite “I think I’m going to be mulling over how to play this game all night.”  It also led to some really great ideas to move the game forward…however; I didn’t remain completely silent…  

 

In writing this piece, and ahead of playtesting and designing a game in general I’ve found some excellent resources, so if board game design and or playtesting is something that sounds like fun (and they both are great fun, trust me), you should check these out:

Playtest.co.uk – is the place to start (if you’re in the UK), find your local group and go along, I bet you’ll have a great time, play some interesting games, and meet some top class people.

The Board Game Design Forum – is a hotbed of resources, and a place where like-minded people can virtually gather and share ideas, and support.

The Board Game Design Lab – is your one stop shop for “How to’s”, Gabe has collected, collated and indexed pretty much everything there is to know about building a board game found anywhere on the internet.  Well done Gabe!

Additionally, Gabe hosts a great podcast where he talks specifically about designing games, in this interview with Rob Daviau they talk about Playtesting.

Brandon Sanderson’s almost related video on writing groups also makes for a very interesting and comparable advice, just switch things like “character” for theme, and “plot” for mechanics and you’re away.

 

If you’re in the area and fancy joining the Birmingham Playtesters we’ll be meeting on 11th May 2017 – you can find the group on Facebook or on Meetup.com – where we’ll hopefully be playtesting Jame’s Greek Mythology RPG Hetairos and Chris’s stock market game set on the island of Yap, where they use large stones as money.

 

Thanks for reading folks

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