One way to make your playtests really valuable is by setting goals before you start. Giving yourself a direction and something to pay particular attention to means you’ll have a better idea of who to playtest with, how to prepare them for the playtest, and what questions to ask them afterward.
Is the game fun? Does the game work?
When I’m first playtesting my games, I’m usually just trying to figure out if the game is fun or if certain aspects work well with the rest of the game. This is perfectly fine! Not every game is fun the first few times you play it. For this type of playtest, I like to get people that are really good at playtesting, people who understand that the game isn’t done and that the graphic design isn’t final. This usually means playing with other designers or people who have done a lot of playtesting. It also helps if they are in the ideal audience for the game. It’s great if your game appeals to multiple audiences, but for initial playtests, you want the feedback to be really on point. For example, if you’re playtesting a press your luck game, get people that like press your luck games. Otherwise, even if it’s a great press your luck game, they might not like it. At this early stage, that sort of feedback can have a bit too much noise and not be useful.
When first playtesting a game, I usually ask a lot of questions at the end of the session, including the following:
Do you have any general feedback?
What part of the game was the most fun?
What part of the game was the worst?
Is there anything that felt like it didn’t belong?
What one change would make the game 10% better?
At this stage of the game, I also tend to ask during the game if players would like to complete the game or not once they’ve played enough to give feedback. Games don’t need to be played all the way through each time, so making sure to end the session at the right point means that you’ll have playtesters players that come back for future playtests.
Is the game truly thematic?
It can be very important for a game to be thematic. However, it’s sometimes hard to know if a game is thematic without getting the right playtesters. You’ll want to get people who know a lot about the theme of the game, of course, but also people who don’t know anything about the theme. You want the game to make sense to both types of players.
Regardless of which type of people are playing, you should ask them if anything feels like it doesn’t fit thematically. You might get wildly different answers based on how much they know about the theme. I’ve had sessions where people who know the theme think a part of the game is super thematic and players that don’t know the theme tell me that the same part of the game doesn’t make any sense. When I get that sort of feedback, it tells me that I might not be properly explaining the theme and I need to explain it better, like in a rulebook or with flavor text. It might also be something that doesn’t need to be in the game, but that’s on a case-by-case basis.
This can also be something you ask at the end of the session, regardless of which players played your game. You should always make sure to figure out how interested (or not interested) in the theme the players are. You should also ask them questions about what they consider thematic (or not) about your game so you can put their feedback into better context.
Varying player counts
The most important part about testing a certain player count is actually gathering the requisite number of players. When altering player counts, it’s generally better to have at least some people that have played the game before, as they can compare this session to other player counts. Including repeat testers also shortens the game length, which is especially important if you’re increasing the player count.
Furthermore, if everyone at the table has played the game before, you can get an idea about how long the game is and how it compares to the other player counts. With that said, once you have the specific number of players organized, you’ll want to pay specific attention to how long the game takes to play and compare it to the other player counts.
For larger player counts, you’ll also want to take note of the downtime between turns and how interesting the game is for players when it’s not their turn. Pay attention to anything that can run out, as more players can mean more components being used. If you run low (or out) of any, you’ll need to consider increasing the number of components in the game to support the extra players, unless there’s a limited number for a reason. For example, action spaces in a worker placement game or if only a certain number of items can be bought or sold.
For games that give out bonuses to players, you might want to give out more in a game with more players or fewer in a game with fewer players. For instance, in Gift of Tulips, the two-player game only gives a bonus to the player with the most tulips, while the three/four-player game gives a bonus to the two players with the most tulips, and the five/six-player game gives a bonus to the three players with the most tulips. This means there’s competition at each player count and there’s no point where players can earn a lot of points without working for them.
Does this strategy work?
There should be multiple strategies that players can use to win your game. If there’s only one ideal strategy, players will get bored of your game very quickly. Rarely, if ever, should a competitive game be “solvable.” One reason that I playtest is to ensure that certain strategies are still viable after I’ve made some changes to my game.
For instance, if you have an engine-building game and there are four different areas you can build up, there should be a decent strategy for focusing on any of the four different areas exclusively, focusing a bit on each, or only, say, two areas. You don’t need every possible strategy to be equally viable, but you don’t want one of the areas that the player could focus on to be a purely bad move unless it’s obvious that this is a bad move for a thematic reason.
When I’m verifying that certain strategies are viable, I tend to either make sure I’m playing the strategy myself or someone that really knows what they’re doing is doing it. I also don’t tell the other players what I’m doing as telling them can influence what they do and nullifies my purpose. It can also be bad for other players to know what strategy you’re trying to use simply because they can purposely block you, just like playing pretty much any competitive game.
One thing I’ve done is to give players a small nudge in a direction. For instance, simply suggesting that they can go in a certain direction, then allowing them to play however they want, lets me test out a variety of strategies in the same session.
Is the game balanced?
Determining whether the balance is correct isn’t always easy. Players aren’t equal; some players have more experience with the game or pick up the game quicker. A game’s balance is rarely about true balance, after all; perceived balance is generally the name of the game. Players make decisions based on what they think, which often influences the game much more than actual balance does.
With this in mind, I usually test out the balance by asking players at the end of the game what they felt was either overpowered or underpowered. During the playtest, I also take note of what players choose to do when they have a choice to make. For example, if players always choose a certain card first, it may be overpowered. If players never choose a card, that card might be underpowered. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the cards are technically balanced; if a card is never chosen, there’s something about it that needs to be fixed, either with the wording or the effect or the numbers, so that it actually gets used.
If you take notes during the game, you can ask specific questions after the game is over. Depending on your playtesting style, you might also ask questions during the playtest. You could ask, for example, “Why did you choose to take that card?” or “What made that card appeal more than this card?”
If players are taking a bit of time to make a decision, you can ask: “What are you thinking about?” Hopefully, they’ll explain what they think of the different choices and why it’s not an easy choice. This can also help clear up issues with iconography or confusion about rules.
Does the game end at the right time and in the right way?
Sometimes you don’t quite know if the end condition(s) is triggered at the right time or in the right way. A variety of things can trigger the end of a game: a certain number of rounds, when a certain game trigger happens, or when a winner is found. Sometimes it’s even when the game is lost.
One question you can ask at the end of the session is something along the lines of: “How long do you think the game took to play?” People generally (but not always) tend to underestimate the amount of time something took if they had a lot of fun and overestimate the amount of time something took if they didn’t enjoy it. So, if the players think the game took 45 minutes and it really took 60, then the game is probably ending at about the right time. If they say 60 minutes and it only took 45 minutes, the game most likely got boring at some point.
Does the game fit the audience?
I usually question the game’s audience once the game is close to pitch-ready or near-final when I’m not typically just making small tweaks. With this goal, the proper choice of playtesters is very important. If your game should appeal to families with kids aged 8+, getting a family with an 8- or 9-year-old kid is vital. You want to make sure that the age range is accurate, that all of the players in the audience are engaged, and that they enjoy the game from start to finish.
With this type of goal, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions about the players themselves to make sure that they fit the audience. You should ask what other games they like and what their favorite games are. For kids, asking their parents how familiar they are with games can also give you some insight. Kids vary on how well they handle games; some kids play and enjoy games way out of their age range if they’ve been around games for a long time. Just because one 8-year-old plays your game well doesn’t mean that every 8-year-old will.
Thinking about your game and the reason behind each playtest can allow you to organize the right playtesters and get answers to the questions you need to have answered. If you wait until the actual playtest to think about these things, you’ll most likely forget to ask certain questions and you’ll leave valuable information behind. Making the most out of each session will speed up your iteration and design process and you can make your game great in a much shorter amount of time!