Hello designers,

During the creation process of my sci-fi strategy boardgame I had 3 blind testing
sessions per week or more for a long time and it's been great, while very
exhausting. I am a very receptive person and I do not mind good feedback,
feedback that actually makes sense and is in the spirit of the game. I've made an
interesting game that makes people have a good time only because I've listened to
play testers.

For those making a game it's no great advice to playtest your game, because
everyone will tell you this. What info you can't get from anywhere is what to do with
the feedback you receive. Interpreting the play testing sessions is crucial. Below I
want to make a top 5 list to keep in mind when playtesting your game:

1. Choose the right people.
It's not useful to pick people that don't play your type of game on a regular basis
because their feedback will not be that relevant. It's like asking a person who
doesn't like the horror genre if X horror movie is good. So make sure you create
play testing sessions with people that understand what you are trying to create.
However, I suggest you do pick some players that are a little bit out of range,
because they can provide some interesting new perspectives. For example, when I
play-test MIND I usually try to pick at least one player that is not that much into
harder board-games to see how he manages and what obstacles he faces.

I got some amazing feedback this way, feedback that made the game more
streamlined. A tester who was pretty new to strategy games told me that there
were some cards that referenced too many things that he didn't understand and
this made him require the rules a lot. This was interesting to me because other
players that play this type of games didn't report this problem. So what I did was
to redesign the cards so that they do not reference words but icons. Everyone gets
icons because they are language free. But this new card layout and design was
such a small change yet so big that it was amazing. On later play-testing sessions
the tester was handling this new cards with no problem, so the change was a
success. Now the game was reaching a new level of players. However, showing my
game to players who play only Monopoly, for example, will not provide good
results so the point remains, choose your play testers well.

2. You watch, you do not play!
Of course you get to play your own game but the most valuable feedback you will
get by observing others playing your game. On very rare occasions I join the
game, and usually this happens when a play tester has to drop out of a session.
Even so, usually I prefer to cancel/postpone that session as it creates 2 issues: first,
everyone wants to beat the designer because it's fun and a challenge but this
skews the game and second, I get to influence the game in an unnatural way.

What I like to do is just sit around the table, drink a beer or something nice and
sometimes just answer to a question or two about the rules to skip the rule book
checking step. But all this time I note things down, things that the play testers are
not even aware or are not even showing in their game. There's great feedback
even in what they do not do.

3. Ask the right questions
As a designer asking “but is it fun” is a nice question but quite vague and not the
one you want to start with. I recommend creating a sheet with questions that asks
all sorts of questions to be filled by the testers. After a session is over I usually
start asking all the testers the following 3 questions:

a.What annoys you in the game?
b.What would you change about the game?
c.What do you like about the game?

The difference between asking these 3 questions and “is it fun?” is that they target
key points of the game and while vague in formulation will give out explicit
answers. The first question targets the issues the tester had with the game, the
second targets his suggestions and the third targets the core elements that make
the game good.

Besides these initial questions I then target specific game mechanics.” What do you
think of the Overpower cards?”. “How about the colony management?” Etc. A very
key note here is do not ever skew the question into an answer you want to hear.
There is a big difference in “What do you think of the Overpower cards?” and “Did
you like playing the Overpower cards?”. The first way it really lets the tester
express his opinion while the second already puts a “fun” word inside the tester's
mind and is dishonest. Not only that, but you skewed the answer into a fun not fun
answers when maybe he had something else to say about the subject.

Don't be afraid of asking questions that may have answers that hurt you as a
designer. I have no problem in hearing people they do not like something I have
created but I have to ask the question in order to improve. If I see someone having
trouble with the game, not enjoying it I really need to understand why. He holds
valuable information. Why don't you like it? What can I do to make it better? But
there's a catch here. Not all testers have valuable information and now we get to
number 4.

4. Not all testers are … useful.
While feedback is nice it's not always useful. You do not need to obey your testers
and it is up to you to know what is truth and what is just preference. For example,
MIND the Fall of Paradise is a really confrontational game. It has take that, it has “I
steal this from you”, it has “I backstab you, sorry our alliance was great but I want
go to with this guy now” etc. So there were play testers that would really give
feedback that would change the game into a more euro and into something I did
not envision for the game. The ongoing diplomacy inside the game is key, and I do
not want it to go away.

There's a difference between this point and the first one in this article. Because a
player may like Game of Thrones and the confrontation in that game and may not
like MIND cause it doesn't gel the same way for him. But that tester is still on a
right niche for me, but I do need to see when a tester's feedback crosses a realm
that becomes less useful.

Another example is when I had a tester that really hated having enemy items inside
his colony, from enemy units to sabotage actions. While this aspect of the game is
a core element he really wanted full control over his things. The conclusion was
that the game was not for him, not that the rules were bad.

5. Think outside the box.
This one is really lame advice though, it's like asking someone not to forget. You
do it or you don't. However, the idea is to find solutions to the issues play-testers
put out that are not just patching the issue, but sometime maybe reinvisioning it.
Also, a play-tester may give a good suggestion, don't just take it as is. Improve it
even more. The tester only put out an idea he didn't polish it out. It's not his job.

I have so many great example from my testing sessions. One game changing
suggestion that I got a while time back was that the game turns are a bit too long
and the downtime is quite big. I literally didn't have an answer to this. I couldn't
think outside the box. Each game turn had factions go through 5 different phase
steps each on their own. But one day a tester told me “Hey, why don't we interplay
our turns. I go through step 1, then he goes through steps 1. So instead we both
wait each other a whole turn we only wait a step”. My mind was blown. This literally
made the game better in one swoop change. From 20 minutes down time it went
to 0. Zero. I was amazed and the playing experience also changed.

Another example is with the Faction Super-powers that didn't feel super nor
powerful. Play testers weren't using them much and in general they felt like
hanging. One day I was walking down the street and all of a sudden it hit me out of
nowhere how to fix it. But it wasn't a patch, it was a redesign all together. But this
change made the game a lot better.

The designer - tester relationship is fragile and both sides need to work at it. I now
have an amazing game because of them but it is hard work. You have to be
creative and also receptive. Listen to feedback but don't bow to it. Also, BE
CONFIDENT IN YOUR GAME. When it doesn't work don't let go. It will work, just
think about the solution. Sometimes you have to make 3 steps back though in
order to move forward.