In the spirit of the previous article, I thought it would be good to share some more effective methods of providing feedback and ways to playtest games without being counter productive to the discussion. Armed with these suggestions, we might all be able to help improve the games we love so much and have some amazing discourse while we’re at it.
Keeping that in mind, this list is geared towards games that are incomplete games (tabletop prototypes and digital betas/early access titles), using these methods in finished or competitive games can be just as valuable, if not more so.
- Breaking One Element
One of my favorite methods and one of the fastest ways of finding balance problems, the method of breaking a single gameplay element seeks to expose weaknesses in the design by forcing one action down the game’s throat so to speak. You can find routes of play that don’t really add to the depth of a game or even strategies that completely circumvent the intended flow of play.
This method is also an important means of finding First Order Optimal Strategies, or strategies that serve as entry points for beginners that are powerful, yet can be countered with a bit of thought or advanced tactics. Extra Credits does an excellent job of explaining this in their YouTube series. These strategies are important to help guide players along the path towards learning your game and gives them a sanctuary of sorts to still compete with skilled players.
- Play To Win
If you are one of those skilled players, your best course of action when testing a game may be to be as cutthroat as possible in your quest for victory. This provides a few valuable points to work with and shows the game in a harsh light. By playing to win at all costs, you can unveil the depth of high level play as well as obvious points of distress that break the game and may not be apparent on the surface.
- Breaking One Player
Being cutthroat may not be enough to stress the game’s systems, and that is where trying to break one player comes into play. This method focuses on ganging on one player as a means of seeing how much one player can fight against the mob in your design.
While this may not be immediately apparent to players dealing with games featuring cooperative designs, most games have a means of shutting one person out if the group tries hard enough and those avenues are worth investigating further.
- Play Passively / Play Kingmaker
When a player feels sufficiently cut out of the game, like in the last method, they may become very passive-aggressive or even hostile towards some players. When employed properly, passive plays can be a good way of testing the possible repercussions of eschewing certain mechanics or trying to punish bad mannered players.
This method also enables the kingmaker scenario. In this scenario, the kingmaker is described as a player who, while out of contention for the win, is in the fortunate position of being able to determine the winner of a particular encounter. While being the kingmaker provides that player with a disproportionate amount of power relative to other players, it traditionally feels very unappealing to the players fighting to be chosen king. The social climate of the game fades somewhat as it becomes a political contest rather than the game being the focus of the action (unless the game is designed to be political).
- Study Beforehand (or Not At All)
It can behoove you to take an all or nothing approach to preparing for a playtest. Sometimes having no information is a good way to see how well of a job the game does teaching a player mid stream. That said, knowing everything that the game should be doing gives you insight into the most effective strategies and what the other players might be up to.
- Play Normally
When push comes to shove, the best course of action is to just act normally. Playing with your group in the way you normally would on any given evening tells you about how engaged you and your group is by the game. While this may not seem like it does anything, knowing the engagement level of a game is just as important as knowing how the mechanics feel or are balanced. Being a light game that requires a great deal of scorekeeping will turn away a group rather quickly.
My final suggestion when testing a game is to remember that most of the time, you are dealing with an incomplete product that may change drastically. That said, be sure to provide as much objective data as you can and keep the anecdotes to a minimum unless they struck you as particularly noteworthy. It’s alright to have opinions on the game, it just may not be what the designer or developer is looking for in that particular test.
Above all else, though, remember to have fun and be sure to share your favorite methods for testing games in the comments.