RECENT ON BLOG
A week ago Iain wrote a post about playtesting and now I would like to add a few opinions about this half-mythological subject. Every time we hear about game designing, one of the key words are ‘playtesting’ and IHMO sometimes it’s a kind of fetish. Is this SO important? Today I would like to share my opinions about it.
- At the beginning, let’s divide playtestsing into two groups: authors playtesting and blind playtesting. Authors playtests are tests which you do personally as a designer, or you assist with the game and can explain the rules. Blind playtests are made by a separate group of players who just get the rules and try to use them. Both of these are very important. Author testing can allow you to verify you how close the game is to your vision of how it should look like. Blind tests are important because often it’s hard to find your own errors.
- In Poland we sometimes say “Z gówna bata nie ukręcisz”, which literally means: “You won’t roll the whip from shit” (believe me: slavic proverbs can very poetic!). Playtesting will NEVER replace good rules writing and coherent game conception! You are the author and you are the first in line to find gaps and it is your responsibility. For me the best method is to become “Devil’s advocate” from time to time. From time to time after a few days away from a project I read the rules or think about them and try to break them by finding gaps. Another method is composing as OP unit combinations as possible and consider if you really want to see something like that on the table.
- What are the main goals of playtesting? First to find the bugs and gaps, that’s obvious. This role can be reduced if you follow point 2. The second role is as important as first one or even more! Wargames are for fun. You do not try to create a timeless opus which brings you immortal glory. Wargames are part of popculture and they have to be cool and allow people to spend the time nicely. It is a very important aspect to let the players judge if the rules are good or not and which parts require some corrections. Some solutions you design are coherent and work but for example can be disliked by players because they make the game longer, are overcomplicated, make the game less fluent or simply do not follow general game logic.
- Are the playtests a way of finding balance in the game? Yes and no. They can be helpful to find game breaking rules units and combinations – but we should always look at it in perspective of fun (as marked above) and game purpose, army composition and assumptions of the rules. For example if your game is about gladiator combat the models which can do too much comparing to their cost should be definitely redone (game breaking). But what in case if your game is about combined arms warfare? Some unit combinations are better when another and that’s the goal, isn’t it? On another side finding the perfect balance is like a holy grail: some believe that it exists but nobody seriously is looking for it.
- Playtesting is done by humans. Always remember this. Select your testers carefully. The rules are always for a specific group of players or for nobody. If you are doing the competitive, tournament game send it to group of grizzled powergamers first, if you are making the historically accurate wargame find historical wargamers with proper knowledge. If you are making a fast beer and pretzel game, find a relaxed group with a lack of time. Simply put: the bulk of your testers should be people who are interested in the subject, otherwise you will face purely negative feedback only, or they simply do not start testing at all. Also you have to remember that wargames are complex and all players are not equal: they have different play styles, different experience and different skills. Keep it in mind.
- Use the tests results carefully and always verify them. If your testers find something wrong find the cause, if needed eliminate it as soon as possible and consult the alternative with the testers.
- Mice are not good playtesters.
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!
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