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Blog [CS] – Of Playtesting

Apologies for missing last week, and for the late arrival of this weeks blog article. Beginning of the year has been super busy and not only left me little time to write, but left me little to write about. That said, I wanted to take the opportunity this week to shine a spotlight on one of the most important fundamental tools of games design, and one that is often compromised and minimised….. Playtesting. As most people are aware, playtesting is the process of getting some games in, and checking to see how your rules/army list plays on the table (and I have separated these two categories for a reason. On the surface, it seems obvious. You need to play games to see how things work in reality. But its actually more in depth than this. Playtesting allows a designer to see specifically highlight scenarios or units or situations, and play through a single engagement or a single turn. However, there is an art to the process. Playtesting really needs to be incremental. That is, initial playtesting should focus on the core rules engine, and this is where Dark Portents is currently. I am specifically looking at games with only a couple of units of basic troops armed with simple combat weapons or bows, and a couple of champions. No cavalry, no monsters, no cannons, no war engines……

In addition, I am using Orcs and Humans in my playtest games, not because these are the armies that I love to play, but because they are the probably the simplest armies. The aim here is to minimise your variables, that is, try to ensure that the number of actual rules in play at any one time is kept to a minimum so if – for example – the Human bows over perform, it can really only be the rules for bows of more specifically Human bows that is the reason. This is also why I separated out playtesting of the core rules engine and the army lists above. The initial stages of playtesting cannot be rushed, because later playtest sessions will build on these foundations and it is much easier to be able to assume that everything else is working fine…. although you cant even do that always as previously stable rules can become totally unhinged with interactions that you never even planned for.

And then there is ‘math hammer’, the process of working out statistical probabilities. Yes, it can be useful to say ‘if I need a 5+ to hit and a 4+ to wound, I am going to need six strikes for every wound I cause’ but – and I cannot emphasise this enough – its a starting point. The problem with working out the math in this way is that it ignores the synergy and context of army lists and forces on the table. For example, you may have a unit that hits on a 2+ and wounds on a 2+, but if they move super slow and have a very short range, they are still going to find it difficult to engage any enemy without getting torn apart, and similarly if your army is a ‘stand off and shoot’ style army, the addition of a solid combat option in the army is going to be far more useful and valuable to them than if that same combat option was added to an army that already have five other similar units.

The problem is that, in the context of sitting down and playing games and pretending its actual work, playtesting often isn’t fun. How many of you play games without points values? That’s basically what playtesting is, a game with no points values. Initial games are often not balanced at all and the analysis after the games must focus on whether any specific result or outcome was because of the rules themselves, the player, dumb dice luck or any other factor.

Finally, there is one factor that is maybe the most important of all. every gaming group will have its own culture. You can find this out very quickly by talking to gamers from different locations at conventions or online, and discuss things like how much terrain is used their games, what the most common armies are, how long and how many points their games are, is certain army styles more common, and lots of other factors. Getting people to playtest your game from different groups and different countries and with different play styles is invaluable. Its easy for even the designer to become entrenched in their own personal gaming bubble and not even realise, and opening up playtesting to people with totally different play styles is the best way to expose inbalances or other issues.

So, please do continue to give us feedback here at the Assault Bunker. I can honestly say that we really do appreciate every single comment we get and every time one of our games hits the table.

See you in 7!

CS

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