Secret Base Blog

Are your design goals improving your board game play testing?

Play testers are precious people. They give their time to help make imperfect games better. And they do it for nothing.

A while back I read 10 great tips on how to be a better game play tester. More on that later though, because I think a good play test session depends on how the designer manages it.

When people decide to play a new game, they have invariably been given some kind of pitch to help frame their expectations of the experience. So if you go into play testing unprepared as a designer and slap your game on the table and people just start playing, the play testers can miss a lot of critical context to help frame their thinking and feedback. That can be a waste of everyone’s time and lead to off-target feedback and designer brain pain. This is especially true when you're doing beta play testing (where your game is playable but still needs a lot of work).

So what’s the solution?

Well, you have your game design goals right? What…? NO?

Design goals

Soon after conceiving a game design I write some game design goals that address;

  • where the game sits in the gaming landscape, i.e. how it is both similar to and different from games in its market space
  • who its target audiences are
  • what type of mechanics they like / hate within the context of such a game
  • what its theme is and how it is logically expressed through the mechanics
  • what problems my game is trying to solve
  • roughly what price it should be
  • what components it might include e.g. cards, counters
  • what are the production goals e.g. the style / quality of art that is feasible; components appropriate to the price point; box size and so on. 

It’s proven very useful to think about these goals for game design, as many things flow from them. As a designer it gives me certainty about what I do and don't want in my design and things I can seek focussed feedback on from the right play testers. Of course your goals can evolve along with your game. But they give you a compass for decision making in a sea of feedback.

In Monstrous, a key design goal was that monsters' powers be thematically logical given the widely understood knowledge about monsters from Greek mythology. This is to increase immersion and memory of monster powers. Some examples:

The Harpy - from the game monstrous

Harpies were known for raiding and stealing so their power is to steal offerings (Faith) made to other gods. This got doubled from take 1 to take 2 Faith for balance reasons. Everyone likes a 4 point swing against the leader. It's a great way to start a spiral of petty, godlike vengeance, even from an accident. This is a core part of the theme space and so was also a design goal.

Gorgon - from the game monstrous

Gorgons could petrify any creature, so their power enables them to destroy even the most ferocious monster that hits them, and survive. Some play testers challenged it as being too strong and / or too negative. But others agreed it serves a great purpose in creating zones to avoid in the play space, heightening risk and drama, and creating out-of-turn engagement (another design goal) as god players roar at the misfortune of their rivals. Some play testers recalled ancient and recent mythology to understand that gorgons like Medusa could take down just about anything. So she stayed as the monster everyone loves to hate.  

Hydra - from the game Monstrous

The Hydra is a fearsome multi-headed beast that grows more heads the more you fight it. So how would other monsters deal with it? Run away of course. That fit my goal of having a double-edged, recursive bounce power. It started off returning just one hit monster to hand but with play test feedback got the more powerful return (all) hit monsters to their god's hands. More heads, more terror, more fun.

Phoenix - from the game Monstrous

And the Phoenix is a spectacular fire bird that can die but be reborn again and again so it has a recursive power to return to play several times in the game. We had to iterate this many times from its earliest recursively broken incarnation where its god got to immediately throw it again. But my design goals really helped me focus on finding a balanced but thematically logical power across those iterations.

So here's how I tried to frame play test feedback to fit my testing and game design objectives.

7 tips for guiding a new play test session

So, when prepping play testers for a first session on your game, I think it is helpful for designers to;

  1. give an elevator pitch (back of box description) of the game
  2. describe your target audiences then check play-tester (audience) compatibility with this type of game. Experienced play testers or gamers may be able to role play as that audience to some degree. It's then up to you to weigh the feedback you get against the perspective of those giving it.
  3. summarize your design goals to play testers. Or at least make design goal notes available for those play testers who are curious or who want to go the extra mile with repeat play testing.
  4. prepare and run through a scripted explanation of your game rules and play, and constantly improve that script. Try to keep coming back to the script during explanations. This will pay off for all, especially during first session for each group. You can evolve this into a simple play description or intro later (or a KS video!)
  5. explain feedback focus points for each session e.g. first impressions for first time players against a set of metrics like fun, downtime, interactivity, mechanics, flow, thematic logic, etc. (whatever can be reasonably ascertained from a first single play), all the way through to a repeat play test for e.g. testing a specific set of mechanics which have changed between iterations.
  6. outline how you would like to handle other feedback or bugtracking, too. During or after the game (if after, each player will need a note pad), observe keenly how people play, react to plays, struggle with gameplay or rules etc. Take notes of key feedback, especially if it comes from multiple sources.
  7. recap on the play test feedback focus points specifically at the end of the session during the feedback and analysis.

For a first-time play-test group, this may all take another 15 minutes but having laid these foundations, your play testers should be able to better follow the 10 playtest principles I mentioned earlier and give you clearer and more productive feedback aligned to your design and play test goals.

And don't forget to look after your play testers, and thank them for their generous time and thoughts.

Sessions with repeat play testers are invaluable too. Players are past the steep end of the learning curve and are now able to look deeper at the balance of strategies and tactics in the game. For these sessions you can just follow steps 5 - 7. 

There's a theory anyway. I can’t say I've yet come away from a session thinking that I prepped well enough and handled it perfectly by any means. By hey, you’ve got to have goals right?

Are there other key steps you think play testers would appreciate from designers at either initial or repeat play tests?

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Rampaging through stores in early 2016.

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