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Playtesting Advice: Don't Play Your Own Game

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JohnBrieger
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I am fanatic about testing my games, and for the past 6 months, I’ve run 12 – 25 tests per month (not including playing solo or with co-designers on projects). My background is in user experience design and design research and I run user studies for a major retailer. User experience design is all about analyzing behaviors and using data from studies to drive change, and techniques from UX research have been incredibly valuable in my playtesting and design process for tabletop games as well. I wanted to start my posts on board game design with a series on how to improve the quality and quantity of your playtests.

Stop playing in your own tests:
One of the easiest ways to increase the quality of your playtest data is to stop playing in your own tests. I’m not saying NEVER play your own game, but try to avoid it whenever possible. Play your game for fun, or solo to test mechanics, but if you have a group of playtesters at a table, don’t play with them.



Why?

You can take better notes:
If all you are taking is notes on audible feedback or a getting players to answer a questionnaire at the end of the game, you’re missing 90% of what you can be capturing from a session. Not playing the game makes you more able to catch little moments for the other player. You can note every time players hesitate about a move, are unclear on the rules, miss a trigger or step. When playing, it’s easy to just say “oh this is how you do that” and keep moving, but making a note every time it happens will help you expose issues and identify trends.

Not playing in the game lets you spend far more time thinking about the way each player approaches the game. This helps especially when you are looking for areas of the game to streamline or cut rules. Players aren’t always able to articulate which parts of the game slowed them down or confused them at the end of the game, because they often understand the game and it’s systems better at the end of a test than they did at the start or during the middle when they had issues.



Use hidden information:

Not playing in the game lets you investigate the game from multiple perspectives. You can get up from your seat and watch the game from different perspectives, you can ask to see the cards in a playtester’s hand or their hidden objectives at different points. This lets you ties moves to a motivation of a player, look at and analyze how different sets of information impact play style. You can check which cards were discarded or put on the bottom of the deck without interrupting the flow of the game.

and finally, but perhaps most importantly

You bias the data:

If you are playing, every action you take during the game is teaching other players. If you remember to take your 3 coins at the beginning of each round, it’ll remind them to take them as well. So if it turns out that players forgetting to take their coins is a often forgotten rule, you won’t know (or it would take you much longer to find out). Similarly, if there are non-intuitive strategies or unusual moves, you might demonstrate them instead of seeing how players explore those strategies for themselves.

 Keeping yourself out of the game lets you see players exploring your game’s systems without bias. You won’t know what interesting situations can really emerge if you are influencing player’s paths through the game systems by being part of the decision making flow of the game.

Final Thoughts:
Hopefully, you’re convinced you should be taking notes instead of playing in your own tests. Now if you are at a Con and someone comes by your table alone, it’s still better to play with them than to not test at all, but broadly, try to stay out of your own tests and just focus on understanding your players.

Questions? Comments?
Post em below.



More articles in this series:
 4 Myths about Playtesting

The Professor
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Great advice!

Tyralis,

As a developer these are words one needs to heed to be successful. Years ago, I would play with the group, but as you mentioned, I missed so many of the little things that happen during the game because I was far too fixated on following the rules I had helped write, the strategy I had developed, etc. Instead, it's best to simply sit back and observe (and write), or what I do now, send out sets to play-test groups in three different States and the District of Columbia and have them make notes.

Cheers,
Joe

JohnBrieger
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blind testing also very important!

Totally agree Joe about sending copies out as well. I think I probably want to write a whole separate post extolling the virtues of blind testing.

Semi blind has been pretty useful for me as well, where I have people learn the game from the rules and I don't speak or interact during the test at all, but I am still there in person observing.

questccg
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I don't quite agree...

But during an entire day of demo-ing my game - every group that I played with wanted me to be a part of the game. They could have played a three (3) player game - but instead insisted on me playing along with them. And this happened on several occasions aside from two (2) player duels where I was playing the game with another gamer.

And these groups were avid gamers not newbies to tabletop gaming.

It's not like watching me play will unearth secrets in how the game plays. But one particular gamer made a very interesting suggestion. Which of course I took with a grain of salt: He said because of the randomizing of piles part of the deck-building experience of "getting" more powerful cards as you played was missing in the trial of playing my game.

Which could be true. But if you play the game, you'll see that ALL the cards are important. It's not like you can specialize in one pile of cards over another since all cards are equally important in the equation.

This generalization therefore lends well to the randomizing of piles, because it means that even with a smaller deck you can play optimally. The opposite would be true - if cards were in order and had a natural progression since you would need to buy ALL the cards on the table before being able to enjoy the game's "core".

All this to say, you can't trust one player's opinion. He/she doesn't have enough experience playing your game. Take all advice and criticism as a grain of salt and most of all APPRECIATE those who are willing to sit down at the table with you ... even if you are a part of the game or not.

Personally I like playing my own game. And I hope to expand on the depth and strategy it has to offer. So when I get the chance to play ... why not. Have FUN!

Cheers.

The Professor
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Interesting item of note

Tyralis,

Interesting note: Kris is actually one of the designers for whom I serve as a developer. He's in Canada, while I'm outside Washington D.C.

Cheers,
Joe

AbErRational
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I've used blind testing

I've used blind testing methods when I was last time seriously developing a game. Even with such an experience there were nuances which stayed unnoticed. So after reading this writing, I decided to take notes from it. So many thanks for writing it.

But. There is some points you either thought to be obvious or missed. Most important point is that during the early stages of playtesting, most important thing is not to get some players to play it. You need players with development skills or otherwise you might well get lost with your project. My experience on game design and development says that if you have qualified developer(s), play with them until you feel that most parts of the game are working well and the overall feeling about the game is good. By doing so you'll also save a lot of your potential playtesters nerves and so they'll be more eager to test your games in a future.

When I last time used blind testing method, my procedure was as follows:

I created graphical data sheet to quickly figure out each players backgrounds in playing tabletop games, overall feeling of the game after one play as well as a cross axial grid to quickly identify two major variables we thought to be important to see if we were where we supposed to be with the game. In addition, there were an open comment field.

We had three different sized groups playing at the same time and I took notes while trying not to give any advice to the test groups. After the test, each player filled the test related parts of the sheet and then we had an open discussion.

The Professor
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Well stated!

You do need to have your game at the 90-95% mark before you have play-testers get hold of it. I can only imagine the mayhem during the game and the carnage of what would remain if you present a not-quite-developed game to them.

lewpuls
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Yes

Though my experience is not in UX, I have been saying this for donkeys years. You've expressed it very well.

I am particularly suspicious of questionnaires. Most are quite biased, and also, there's a big difference between what people say they'll do, and what they actually do. Pay attention to actual.

"Should you play in your own playtests of games for more than one player?"
https://youtu.be/ku-LAP-Vzs8.

The questionnaire video is in my playtest course, not generally available.

cynical81
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4 Myths about Playtesting

That's a great article (and series of articles). Thanks for sharing.

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