Up to the Test – 5 Tricks to Tweaking Your Playtest


Next month, Tangent Artists will be going back to GenCon. Two years ago, we had a great time showcase our WIP at the First Exposure Playtest hall, and we were so pleased by the experience that we had to sign up with them again.  We’ll be getting four slots to show off our two new games, Penny-A-Pitch and Eco-Schism.

When we first went, we had thought of it as a way to showcase and network.  If there’s only thing that disappointed us about last First Exposure, it’s that we didn’t really get much exposure; we’re used to conventions, when you spend 8 hours giving 30 second pitches to hundreds of people. Rather, it’s an intense 2-hour session with the exact number of people you need to make the game work. In our hubris, we went to a playtest hall expecting to get very little feedback, only publicity. O, how wrong we were.

As we prepare for our next session, I thought I’d share with you what few nuggets I’ve learned about running playtests (mostly from mistakes).

1. Know Your Pitch

When you sign up with the First Exposure Playtest Hall, they ask you to submit a short pitch and a long pitch. The long pitch is a short paragraph, tiny enough to fit in a tweet. The short pitch is a sentence. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being the “booth babe” at a convention for ten years, it’s streamline your pitch and have it memorized. Most strangers tune you out after less than a minute, so you have only one or two sentences to get them interested; this is called the elevator pitch.


As for our two new games, here’s the two versions:

Penny-a-Pitch – Short: A game of Midway Moguls.
Long: A light worker placement game of Midway Moguls. Mama Maxie is retiring, and whoever buys her Ferris Wheel will literally run the show. Can you sucker enough rubes to make the cash, while still keeping Maxie happy?

Eco-schism – A game of weak links in the Food Chain.
Long Adds: The Alien Mothership is asking your genetics department to rebuild the extinct ecosystem of planet Earth; but you’re not satisfied being just another cog in the machine. Prove that your “improved” fauna can dominate the food chain!

You’ll notice that the short version of Penny-a-Pitch leaves out the “light worker placement” addendum. Why? Because in a one-sentence pitch, any discussion of games and mechanics is irrelevant. You might be able to stick “card” or “board”, but focus on the flavor, not the gears.

2. What’s the Point?

This one was taken from Mark Rosewater’s podcast series, “Ten Things Every Game Needs.” If someone is going to play your game, the most important thing to convey is “how do you win?” Despite the fact that it’s the last thing that occurs in a game, there’s a reason they always stick it near the beginning of a rulebook (for the other reason, see #3.)

Why is this important? Because the playtesters need to be focused on what they are supposed to achieve. It gives them a mission, an objective, and something to be excited about. If the testers are confused about how to win, they’ll fail to see the point in anything else.

Also, if you’re playing with the group, and you’re the only one who knows how to win, you likely will. (See #4).

3. Don’t Frontload the Rules

When playing games on their own, most players don’t read all of the rules until after they’ve started. Similarly, you should not explain 100% of the rules when the game starts; just get them the win condition and enough to get through turn one or two.

4a. Do Play Yourself

Lead by example. Add yourself to the test; you can lead by example, show the rules in action

You can, of course, hover around and try to orchestrate from beyond, but this can come off as bossy. Sure, this frees you up to go around and explain cards that people have in their hands, but if the cards aren’t clear without your explanation, it’s probably not clear enough.

4b. Don’t Play to Win

I remember joining in one designer’s game test, during which the designer blew the other tester and myself out of the water. “Don’t feel bad,” they said with a chuckle after an easy win, “I’ve played it a lot.” I can’t tell you how much of a turn-off it was. I didn’t want to play again or buy it, I just felt frustrated.

If the game is composed of several rounds (like poker), it’s definitely fine to win a hand or two to show the other players how it’s done. However, your role as the play test leader is this: to explore the frontiers.

When a new option is made available, if other people aren’t exploring it, do it yourself. If everybody is choosing option A, try option B; even if B is a bad choice, they’ll learn from your mistake what the pros and cons are. They’ll see, “it’s bad for a player to do X now, but it might be useful to do X when Y is in play.”

Don’t stick with one strategy, take the “sampler” approach; be the jack of all, master of none. That way, if a player spreads around like you, they might tie. If they narrow their energies towards a specific strategy, they have a decent chance of pulling ahead of you; that way, even if they lose the overall game, they’ll feel accomplished that “at least they had more X than you.”

5. Make it Clean!

Try to make the game look as pretty as you can. Start your first few tests one index cards, but then upgrade to something more streamlined.

Cards: this trick I learned from the DC Metro group, “Break My Game” (click the link for their Meet-up page). Type up your cards, print them on simple paper, and add them to card sleeves. To give the cards thickness, add a playing card behind them (you can buy one or two card decks from the dollar store for 99 cents). Voila! Now you have something slick, stiff, and shuffleable! If you can afford card sleeves of different colors, you can easily sort your cards into different deck types without having to print on both sides of the paper.

One thing I’ve learned on my own: buy colored paper. It’s a lot cheaper to print black text on colored paper than to print color on white paper.


Also, if you have the time, include art. It doesn’t have to be fancy, either; simple and iconic is easier to print, and easier to keep consistent. I recommend the site game-icons.net, which has thousands of images you can use for your prototypes. All of them are free to use, and come in a default, clean black and white (although you can play with the slider to add color and/or a border).

Hope that’s inspired you a bit for your tests. If you’re going to GenCon, I hope to see you there! Until next time, Game On!



In which Dave gives you a preview of the card game Dystopio, and a strange approach to the creative process.

Let me start, as is befitting a member of the group named “Tangent Artists,” with a little background. I have a friend who’s writes fiction as a hobby. While she publishes a small portion of it, she is less than enthusiastic about the rest… so she DELETES IT. Removes it from her hard-drive and the world, never to return. The very idea of this keeps me up at night. That is an act of heresy on par with wrapping myself in a burning flag while clubbing an orphaned baby seal with a crucifix and cursing at my grandmother. It’s simply not done.  I never throw away anything I write: my hard drive contains old ClarisWorks and .txt documents from the dawn of the internet. I have three composition notebooks containing a novel I wrote by hand during NaNoWriMo, which I have yet to transcribe into digital form (I’m holding out for a cheap voice recognition software). I have tiny pocket notepads with the home-made Magic the Gathering card ideas I dreamed of during middle school history classes (Wizards? Call me!). I throw nothing away.

Sadly, “nothing” includes non-literary items too. I’m a terrible packrat, with no sense of organizational skills. I have an orange Home Depot apron that I keep in my closet just in case I need it for a costume someday. I have stacks of Styrofoam packing lying around, in case I want to make scenery for a game I never play anymore with friends who want to play it even less. It may have some advantages (my car always seems to have a silly hat in it, and not by design), but it also makes finding stuff an ordeal.

photograph by Николай Аввакумов,  distributed under an Attribution 3.0 Unported http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

photograph by Николай Аввакумов, distributed under an Attribution 3.0 Unported http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

Flashback a little less than a year ago: Around the same time this blog started up, I started working on a new card game. I was inspired by Stalin’s 5-Year plans; his first five year plan took four years, his second took seven. It reminded me of the Eddie Izzard line about Microsoft:”lt’ll be done by Saturday… Tuesday… next week…  We’ll bring it out when we’re *%$#ing ready, right?” To me, there’s something darkly comedic about the whole thing, resulting in a game about players trying to create the most brutal and oppressive regime they could. The working name of it is Dystopio, and we’ve made sure to pepper with allusions to serious works like 1984, A Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, as well as pop culture settings like Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, and Death Race 2000. I made spent a weekend making mock-ups on index cards, played it with the Tangent Artists, and took notes on the feedback.


Earlier this month, our group was planning to go to Brunswick Games Day, where I had hoped to run a pick-up game of Masters of Umdaar. However, I had also planned to test Dystopio out, but was unable to find the mock-ups.

“Hey, no worries, I’ll just write them down again.”

To my horror, the only notes on my computer were nearly a year old. They had my rough brainstormed ideas, but nothing concrete.

I remembered the basic mechanics: every player has a Plan. It counts down from 5 to 0, going down by one each turn. If it reaches the end and the player possesses the necessary Projekts (one specific one, and one general one), then the player wins. If the player doesn’t possess them, then the Plan fails, and the player has to start at year 5 with a new plan.

Example Plan: Human Hatcheries. Requirements: Projekt – Genetic Engineering + 1 Ministry of Education Projekt.

Of course, my notes didn’t have the A + B = C information… all I had was my rough list of dystopian themes and several different names for ministries (in honor of George Orwell, the British term “ministry” sounds more imposing than the American “department.”) So, I rewrote them from scratch, brought them to the show, and ran a few games, and got more feedback.

And then I found the old cards.


You hear all of the time about editors and English teachers saying, “write it again.” For a packrat like me, that’s harder than it sounds. Our work is our children, and even when trying to write from scratch, I’d intentionally try to make it close to the original as possible. Even in our brains, we are packrats, refusing to throw anything anyway.

Now, I would never advice you intentionally lose your notes. Likewise, I understand that certain projects have a deadline that doesn’t allow you months to forget your previous phrasing; but the end result is fantastic.

Essentially, I now have two complete versions of the game to compare with each other, picking the best of both. It’s like having a co-writer that happens to be you. Unintentionally, I was renaming weaker cards and coming up with odd rules that I wouldn’t have come up with before.  Here are some more examples:

Old combo: Gov-recreation drug + Ministry of Facts Projekt = Touchies Movies 

New Version: Recreatio-Drugs + Ministry of Safety Projekt = Super Soldier Steroid.

Old: Mandated tv + Ministry of Freedom Projekt = Murderball 

New: Mass Diversion + Ministry of Safety Projekt = Murder Sports

When in doubt, it also means that losing a work is not the end of the world. Even if it’s not quite the same, that may be a blessing in disguise. One way or another, that idea is like Minerva, buzzing around in your skull until you let it out.

Happy crafting!

* I lose a lot of stuff. I sadly missed posting last week because I wrote an entire blog post on my laptop and, you guessed it, lost the laptop. It turned up in coworker’s car.