LESSON 5.5 - NO REALLY, PLAY TEST! - The Cardboard Designer


Play testing is so fundamentally important, I’m choosing to write 2 posts in a row about. I am hoping this one will provide slightly more practical advice that the last!

In the first of this duo of articles, I focused again on the importance of play testing, some of the hidden benefits like creative group-mind, as well as telling you to just jump in and do it, because it will be scary whenever you take the plunge. In this article I want to give you a few tips to get the most out of play test sessions.

I am a prepper – always have been, ask me mum! I don’t mean prepper in the sense of, “the world governments are about to collapse and I’ve a bunker outside stocked with jars of pickled onions.” I mean prepper in the sense that if everyone else spends 10 minutes planning something, I will spend 15 minutes. I don’t imagine all game designers prep to the level I do. I have met designers that are much more in the moment and go with the flow. I just personally prefer a belts and braces approach, so that’s what I am going to teach you!

So here is how I like to think and work through things:

  • Be gracious in defeat and appreciate the favor
  • Guide the conversation if you need to
  • Don’t push people if they are uncomfortable
  • Is the issue mechanical, thematic or dead on arrival
  • For the love of god, don’t change too much!

And then just to be further meticulous, I’d consider a game in 1 of 4 stages of play testing

  • Solo testing
  • The inner sanctum
  • Wider audience with guidance
  • Open playing fields

Be gracious in defeat and appreciate the favor

When asking people to play-test your game with you, especially at the beginning, you are not doing them a favor. There is a chance that you could nail it first time and have an amazing piece of frivolous delight. If that happens every time, please start writing a blog so that I can follow you. The likelihood is however that it will be a broken unbalanced mess with issues you’d not even considered. If that happens – your are going to be receiving a lot of feedback that will be critical. Critical in the sense that it will be important for you. And critical in that it will be largely negative.

  • Be as enthusiastic about the criticism as you can. When people see they are upsetting others, they tend to stop doing the upsetting thing. So as hard as it can be to hear people pull apart your new incredible mechanic, you have to be as upbeat about it as you can.
  • Don’t argue their points, even if you disagree with them. It is their player experience. If it seems wrong to you, then the issue is the game, not the player.
  • Note everything. No matter how big or small. Firstly it’s amazing the things that you think you’ll remember that just float out of your mind moments later. Secondly, the most unassuming comments from play testers can end up leading you to a eureka moment for your game!

Guide the conversation, but only if you need to

This is one of those areas, where I spend some time prepping. I think about what I’d like to achieve from the play-test. If it’s the first time I am trialing a game in front of people it may be hard to define specific questions but it’s still good to jot down a general idea of things I’d like to bring up:

  • How does mechanic x or y feel?
  • Does mechanic x work well with mechanic y?
  • How does the theme of the game make you feel?
  • What’s your overall experience?
  • What frustrated you most about the game?
  • What was most enjoyable about the game?
  • Was there anything you wanted to do that you were unable to?
  • Was there anything that felt too powerful?
  • Was there anything that felt too weak?

The above list could be almost endless, and as your refine your game more, you will be able to refine your questions to those areas where you know things aren’t working.

I do want to emphasis guiding the conversation only if you need too. If the conversation is flowing and people are organically offering information, it makes no sense to dissuade them. These organic conversations will highlight to you the most important pros – and cons – of your game as far as the player is concerned – which is a nugget of wisdom you may lack they are shoehorned into answering your questions!

Don’t push people if they are uncomfortable

This is something it took me a while to figure out… quiet people are just as valuable in play-testing your games as outspoken ones. I used to hound quieter gamers after a play test to get some information out of them. I wasn’t intending to make them uncomfortable, but my focus was on writing as many notes as possible. I thought that all my information had to come verbally from play testers. Some people are really uncomfortable with being vocal about giving a game feedback.

Invite these quiet souls to as many of your play sessions as possible. Watch them closely as you offer up your tweaks and changes and see how they react to the games improvements. It will tell you a lot. Board gaming does attract a lot of quieter types, and it is important to glean what you can from these people as much as the more sociable. Don’t make my mistake and bombard them with questions. On more than one occasion, someone who had been silent during a play event would email me or tweet me later with oodles of feedback that I might have otherwise missed out on.

For the love of god, don’t change too much

I have already talked about this at length in the Iterative Design piece so I will keep it brief, but be very very VERY careful the amount that you change between game designs. The worst way to scupper a fruitful play test is to essentially present a new game to testers each time rather than the same game that you can iterate upon.

It’s much better to tweak just 1 or 2 things, and rerun the game until your comfortable with those things before moving on.

Four stages of play testing

One way we can consider where games are in their development cycle is their needs where play-testing is concerned.

At the earliest point, I will solo-test which is where I will play all the positions in the game, make sure it works as expected on a fundamental level. I try to stay in this level of play-testing for as short a time as possible as when you test your own games, you will follow the rules almost without realizing. I can say I am done at this point when a game essentially has working core mechanics and I feel that it’s not horribly broken.

From there – I will reach out to my inner circle a term lovingly ripped off Andrew Looney:

…my inner circle of friends. These are my best gaming buddies, a group I’ve carefully cultivated over the years to be willing to try out every crazy idea I’ve got and to give me me their honest opinions.

Andrew Looney’s “How I Design a Game” in Kobold Guide to Board Game Design

The inner circle play-tests are where you are going to spot the biggest issues. The game might be too long and shorter sessions might be needed. It might be horribly unbalanced and need stopping halfway through as someone has an insurmountable lead. Perhaps a needed component/tracker/rule is missing that needs to be included on the fly?

The inner circle play-tests will likely include lots of iterative design over just a few short hours. It’s about starting to get into the meat of the game and see what tastes good and what tastes bad. By having a core group to seek out, you can iterate several times with the same people and learn the right path together.

At the latter stages of inner circle play-tests I would also expect to be refining certain elements of the game. The questions will be driven in certain directions – as as we play through the game, I might even ask people to take on certain gamer personas to see if we can “break” the game together.

After I am comfortable with this phase, the really scary stuff begins. I’d be looking at playing the game with a wider audience – usually people in my social bubbles, maybe from board game meet ups or friends of friends. I would then extend that to taking the game along to conventions where possible, and guiding complete strangers through the game. At this point, I’m looking to iron out anything else really. The rule book should be well on it’s way and I might even ask people to do a read through. I’m looking for ways to maintain the feel and play of the game, but widen it’s appear and accessibility.

Once I feel ready with the rule book, the game will then enter it’s final stage of play testing – open playing fields. At this point the game is given to people as a prototype, rule book included so that people can play it without any guidance. The main goal of this stage is to make sure the rule book covers all bases and I haven’t missed anything that is discovered by particularly sneaky players. At this point, I can be pretty certain that the game will move ahead fully. If I get this far and find a serious game ending bug, then I have missed something on the way.

At it’s core, game design is in the play testing. It’s easy to design something that never gets critiqued, as you never find out the designs limitations. It’s only when you hit those issues and problems and find elegant ways around them that you are, in my opinion, truly designing.

So spin up that prototype, call up your inner circle and get out there and play.


The best way to learn is by doing and luckily its easier than ever to get involved in a few play-tests. Even at the time of writing as Covid ravages the globe, things like Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator mean you can playtest from the comfort of your own home.

So that’s the exercise. Get out there and offer your services as a play-tester.

BGG Seeking Playtesters

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