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  • Abstract Games

On Playtesting

Last night we visited the NYU Game Center's Playtest Thursday for the third time.

The MAGNET center is the biggest playtesting environment we've been to, but it gets small fast. It fits about fifteen tables, with some overflow room, and four chairs per table. And it was 50°F in Brooklyn, so it was packed. We had about thirteen players through the night, with seven small games, one three-person game, and one game on our medium-sized board.

As we've playtested more, we've started to pick up some things about the playtesting process that are worth writing about. None of it should be taken as gospel—this is our fourth public playtest, after all—but we thought it might be interesting.

Use rule sheets and test them too.

We like making simple games, but players sometimes think they're more complicated than they are. The rule sheet on the back of our small board is bite-sized at 250 words, and addresses every rules question we've received in a playtest. It also provides visuals for our two core game mechanics, connecting and capturing, and an explicit statement that it is OK to concede if there is no way to win.

Testing the rule sheets was important for us because they'll end up in the final game, and we want them to stand on their own. We ask players to read the rule sheet before they start, and then answer further questions as the games progress.

And we make sure to write down their feedback. Our most recent comments were you need arrows to show how stones jump! and you need to say that you can't capture diagonally! So we added that into the most recent draft.

Keep it simple.

We want to make the simplest games that are still engaging to play. We sometimes get suggestions to add elements like starting the game with stones in random positions, or placing a stone where you've just captured an opponent's. But we think that the best games are the ones that have the least to explain. And we also like that players aren't forced to build from a specific position. They can play anywhere, at any time.

Subtle changes can make a big impact.

In our original rules, players who lost a piece to capture subtracted it from their score. At last Thursday's playtest, someone suggested that we change the rules to add stones that a player captured to their own score. In a two-player game, this doesn't make a difference in score. Whether the stone counts for one player or against another results in the same outcome. But in games with three players or more, this rule is—pardon us—a game changer. Even if a player is isolated in a small part of the board, they can add enough points with aggressive play that they can still easily win.

Furthermore, adding captured stones is a big psychological difference. Instead of playing conservatively, our playtesters played faster, looser, and more aggressively—and engaged with other players much more frequently. That's a win in our book.

Gather data, and gather emails.

Most playtest guides talk about collecting feedback, but it's almost as important to organize feedback. We have log sheets with spots to easily record most common information (scores, captures, etc.) but also developed a spreadsheet to archive it and provide a way to analyze the data collected. We might use this to determine if the starting player wins more often, and then determine an appropriate handicap to even the score.

We also started collecting emails for our mailing list this week. Since we want to sell the game using Kickstarter, we want to build our network early and connect with as many people as we can. We're using Mailchimp to organize that list for us.

Abstract board games are important.

As the evening went on and more and more players came in, we found that our table was an oasis of calm. Players stayed focused, took their time, and played deliberately. It's anecdotal at best, but most players seemed more relaxed after leaving the table.

At a playtest night with 80% of games being played on laptops, it was good to be a place where people could sit down, quickly learn the game, and play quietly without distraction. There were no discussions of themes or motivations, and no visual distractions. Just quiet, meditative play. We think there's a larger place for that in day to day life, and that's why we're so hopeful about our game.

Bring a pen.

Seriously. It's rule #1, and yet we still forgot to bring pens. Luckily we were able to borrow some from fellow playtesters, but not before we lost out on at least four names, emails, and game records.

That's all for now.

We'll be at Boardgame Nights NYC tonight from 7-10PM, at the Think Coffee on Mercer Street. See you there.

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