Playtesting Tips Round Two — Lessons from Protospiel 2015

Not long ago, I wrote a post with some baseline strategies for running a successful playtesting session. I just got back from Protospiel 2015 in Chelsea Michigan (full conference write-up to come soon!) and had a few new observations for this helping to tune this process.

Lay out the tools: Let your testers know what kind of approach they should be using when dissecting the game. One designer this weekend, Andy[1], described himself as “better with a chainsaw than sandpaper”, and I adopted the phrase in the form of a question the rest of the weekend. In the same vein, another useful tool you might want testers to use is a hammer — do you want them to be seeking out strategies that will break the design? Or should they try to optimize for a victory they would in a finished commercial game, to make sure they have workable options?

Identify the ‘hook’: After the session ends, a question I’m finding leads to incredibly insightful feedback is: “what were the moments from the game?” What are the testers going to remember? Was it the moment when one player looked like they were about to successfully complete a difficult quest, only to be stymied at the last minute by a player he had slighted earlier in the game? Perhaps a time when a player was able to collect the perfect combo of cards in her hand during a deckbuilder that would slay the dragon just in the nick of time before it recharged a dangerous fire breath ability? Was a specific mechanic uniquely fun?

These moments make the ‘hook’ which will bring people back session after session, and will leave players with positive memories. Make sure your mechanics are geared toward maximizing for these ‘hook’ moments, and minimizing the time and fiddliness between them.

Time it: A glaring omission from my first round of playtest tips, always make a note of the time (or start a stopwatch) when the game begins, and again (or stop) when the game is over, or grinds to a halt when there are rules issues. I’m discovering more and more that publishers are really looking to target that 60–90 minute range, and without some history of metrics around game duration, you won’t be able to know whether your efforts tuning rules are getting you closer or further to that sweet spot.

I’m pretty exhausted from traveling to and from Michigan this weekend, so that’s all for now. Any other playtesting tips you think designers ought to keep in mind? Post to comments!

[1] Andy, if you read this, hit me up with your last name in comments or email me at this domain @ gmail so I can give you full credit for the expression!

  • Mike Petty

    I was at Protospiel on Friday last week and I’ve been thinking a lot about this too.

    I like what you say about the hook. About 10 years ago we worked on some questions for a Protospiel playtest sheet. Two that I always felt were insightful relate to this idea:

    What were you looking forward to as you anticipated your turn?

    What would you look forward to if you were going to play the game again?

    Knowing what (if anything) players anticipate from turn to turn and game to game speaks volumes about the game’s originality and staying power. If I understand you correctly, this touches on the hook of the game. It’s what sets it apart from everything else you might want to play from the game shelf.

    I’d add to all of this that nothing is more important than knowing the designer’s goals for the game. I think that during playtesting, having a clear statement of the design goals beats a great looking prototype, catchy elevator pitch or a polished rules summary.

    The designer needs to know what he’s aiming for, but so do the playtesters. If they don’t, they’ll start evaluating the game immediately based on their assumptions of what makes a good game.

    And part of the design goals statement is a clear description of the target audience. Playtesters need to know if they’re in the target audience. If they’re good playtesters, they’ll be able to help even if they’re not in that group. If they don’t know upfront, though, it will seriously limit the effectiveness of the playtest session.

    All things considered, good playtesters will speak to the game in light of the designer’s goals, not their own gaming preferences. I can always tell when a group of playtesters is helping bring my game closer to my vision or if they’re trying to make my design into something they want to play. There’s a place for the latter, but if the designer and playtesters can’t distinguish between these types of statements then the process is muddled.

    And finally, I realized as a playtester there’s a huge difference between when I’m playing and when I’m acting like I’m playing. Again, there’s value to having a lot of good playtesters act like they’re playing your game so they can see if it works. Acting doesn’t imply they’re faking fun, but rather that they’re taking on a role, thinking in a way to work best toward the winning conditions even if this isn’t the form of entertainment they’d choose at the moment. At some stages of playtesting you might want more actors than people just hoping to play.

    As a designer, though, I have to step back during each session and ask myself if I see signs of true play. I have to be able to ask my playtesters if they felt they were playing at any point in the session. It’s hard to accept this when I realize the game I love and worked on for months is not generating honest play for most people who try it out. Anything less than such honesty is missing the point though.

    I could go on, and I need to put more thought into recognizing this idea of true play. I always remember Will Niebling’s advice at an early Protospiel though. He said to look for the spark of life. Good games have it and when you see it, you’ll know.

    • woodardj

      Mike! Thanks for the insightful comment — I was only there Saturday and Sunday this past weekend, so I’m bummed we didn’t get to meet. I love your additions to the list. Playtesting is such a nuanced art, which I definitely underestimated when I jumped into this whole ‘design’ side of boardgaming.

      I forgot to link to another post I wrote ( where I do mention trying to parse out whether a tester is actually in your target audience; this only occurred to me when a tester described my game Valour as ‘extremely heavy’, when I consider it ‘medium-heavy’, and when I dug in a little further, the hobby games he’s played and really enjoys are Catan, TTR, werewolf, etc., where I was stacking up against Twilight Imperium, Brass, and such. After a little back and forth, we determined that this wasn’t really the kind of game he would buy on his own (if he didn’t know me) which is totally fine, and great info for a designer! I have other designs queued up I know he would enjoy.

      Please please let me know if you put together a post or an article on this concept of ‘true play’/’acting play’. I would love to see that fleshed out a little more, and I’ll definitely post about it here if you do.

      It’s so interesting to look back on this weekend and identify in hindsight these notions you’re describing. I definitely ‘acted’ a few times, and I definitely observed games with and without the ‘spark of life’.

      So cool. Thanks again for reading & commenting, Mike!