Up to the Test – 5 Tricks to Tweaking Your Playtest

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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.

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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!

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