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!

MANOR OF FACT – Supernatural Roleplaying with “Betrayal at House on the Hill.”


In a previous blog, I looked a GM can take the Kill Doctor Lucky board game and adapt it for an RPG game map. This week, we’re looking at one of my favorite new games, “Betrayal at House on the Hill.”

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a horror-themed board game designed by Bruce Glassco and published by Avalon Hill Games (now a subsidiary of of Wizards of the Coast, which is owned by Hasbro). The 1st edition debuted in 2004 and is out of print, while the 2nd edition debuted in 2010. The premise is simple, the execution complex; 3-6 explorers are locked in an old haunted house, encountering the many twisted and dangerous rooms. At some random point in the game, the Haunt begins, turning one of the “heroes” into a traitor; no one knows who it will be until it happens, even the traitor himself! To say that “every game is different” is a bit of an exaggeration, but with 50 random end games to stumble across, it means that there’s ton of variety and replay. If you’ve never played it, I highly recommend you go to your local store or con and buy it.

Official Box Art from the Game, used without permission. Find it at http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=ah/prod/houseonthehill

How Does it Rate as a Game Mat?

Given that I’m looking for a spacious haunted mansion that the players are exploring for the first time, I’ll be ranking the game on the following scales:

Structured vs. Random

Creepiness & Surprise



Structured vs. Random?: This first criteria is more of a spectrum, as Structure and Randomness are polar opposites. By default, the map you create is definitely random. If that’s what you want, wonderful. However, some of the rooms are designed to show up in more specific locations: you will only find the Bedroom in the Upper Floor, only find the Furnace Room in the basement, etc.
Can it be Structured?: If you want to go through the time of mapping each room by each room, recording it, and having the characters run through it, you can, but it is a bit of a hassle. The best way to handle this would be to build the entire house and then flip the tiles over- those, the players know where the next room is located, but not what’s in it. (Although, you’d still have to keep records yourself so you know without having to peek every few minutes).

I would recommend allowing a little bit of randomness; for example, have some important events in your adventure occur in specific rooms, and trim down the deck so players will stumble upon those rooms faster. Likewise, you can craft three “decks,” one for the ground floor, one for the upper, and one for the basement; this means you have strict control of which rooms will appear close to other rooms, even if their exact placement will shift about.

Random: 7, Structured:3

Monica Marier and a rulebook that's very clear (mostly)

Monica Marier and a rulebook that’s very clear (mostly)

Mood: This game is dripping with mood. Drip. ping. Be careful how you stack it on your shelf, as it will drip on to games underneath it, turning your edition of Candyland dark and spooky. Dripping ceilings? Check. Great art? Check. Even the font keeps me up at night. I give it a 9/10- about a 7 by itself, but the bonus cards pick it up to near perfection (more of those later). Mood: 9

Suspense: Whether you’re going with a randomly generated map or one that the GM has created and flipped over, it is very easy to keep the players in the dark over what is coming next. The only people who are likely to see what’s coming are the players who own the game and have memorized all of the room names. (On a side note, if you want to study game craft, the default game has great ways of building suspense on its own.) Suspense: 9

Space: This is the one place where Betrayal is poorly suited for RPGs: the space. Each tile is roughly 2.5” by 2.5” long, which is barely big enough to fit the six 20mm figures that come in the box, let alone any monster or larger size figures you might supply yourself. If you’re playing Fate Core, it’s hard to imagine any room being bigger than a single zone, making the conflict in one room nearly identical to a conflict in another. The exception is the entrance hall, which is three long rooms connected together, making it the most interesting location to have a conflict. With this is mind, it might be a good idea to have a “Betrayal” RPG adventure involve the characters exploring in and retreating back to the entrance; alternatively, you can have them wake up in the strange place and have them explore until they find the way out.

The only other option I see setting up complex multi-zone areas involves a partially pre-built the map: a GM could link together three separate room tiles and declare them as one space that’s split into three zones (ex. The characters start in on the Balcony, with slender Tower bridge which leads to the open air Chapel.)

The last issue comes from Movement. Fate Core is very loose with moving out side of a conflict (no limit) and very strict during a scene (one zone for free, nothing else). I recommend that outside of a conflict, a character can explore one new room a turn. Once explored, they may move one room OR one room for each Athletics point unless they’re in a conflict. If a fight breaks out, they can move one for free, or use their action to move several (must use Athletics, to an overcome a difficultly equal to the number of extra rooms you’re moving). For, tiles have special rules regarding movement (ex. The Tower, the Collapsed Room) treat those rooms having situation aspects, which make movement in the zone difficult and will block someone from running through several rooms that exchange. Space: 2

The game we played... as lightning crashed outside. Brrrr.

The game we played… as lightning crashed outside. Brrrr.

Extras: Almighty Jeebus, the extras in this game are fantastic. If you ever need inspiration for random events to occur in your game, look no further than the 13 omen cards and 45 event cards, which range from mildly creepy to Grade-A Nightmare Fuel. The game includes decent plastic figures, close to 145 tokens, and some decent mechanics. Some of the room tiles themselves have suggestions for obstacles and situation aspects. If you don’t mind spoilers, you can even read the scenarios themselves for ideas for adventures (but at that point, you might as well just play the game as is). I almost wonder, though, if the Omens and random tiles are enough to create a random adventure on the fly as it is (although, Fate Core might not be the system for that… I’m wondering if that would work better with an Apocalypse World game, like “Monster of the Week”). Space: 10

Total Score: 40 / 50

Comparison: Kill Doctor Lucky: 38/50

Even if the game was terrible (which it’s not), the tiles and extras make this game a great buy for any GM that loves running horror games. Snatch it up and break it out for a Halloween.