Please don’t hold it against me. I’m still mostly human.
In any case, I think writing rules for games falls right into my wheelhouse. In fact, when our game group gets together, I invariably get the job of reading the rules for a new game and explaining them to the group. I pretend that I don’t enjoy it, but, secretly, I love it.
Look at all those juicy, juicy rules.
But, to be clear, I am a new school attorney, and we don’t favor the legalese of the past, mostly because no one knows what ‘wherefore’ and ‘hereinafter’ means. Just as I expect my legal documents to be easy to read, I demand the same simplicity from my game’s rules.
The goal when you write rules should be that when a person reads through them they immediately think, ‘makes sense to me.’
They should be laid out in a manner that makes sense as well. I prefer games that order the rules in the same manner that you will encounter the components of the game. Start with how to set up the board, explain what each player can do on his/her turn, etc. Complex rules should be deeper in the manual. Ease people into the hard stuff.
Always remember that you may have played this game hundreds of times, but your players have just started their first game. Baby steps is the best approach.
I’m also a big fan of beginner versions of the game and expert or expanded versions of the game. Meaning, that the players’ first game might have some components removed for simplicity. Let people learn the core functions of the game before hitting them with the juicy strategic elements.
Basic setups help, too. During your first game, it can be very challenging to put together a cohesive strategy. By forcing players to make big decisions (like where to place a town, etc.) right away, you can set some people up for failure without them even knowing it (Ever built a mine instead of a farm on your first turn in Through the Ages? I have). Little things like that can ruin a game for someone before it even gets started.
Last bit of advice, have a non-gamer proofread your rules. I know your game might be designed for hardcore gamers. I don’t care. Have a non-gamer, who doesn’t read rules every day, proofread everything and make sure they can follow it. Not everyone who tries your game is going to be willing to handle gamer jargon or common game rules. You want to make sure your game is accessible to everyone.
This article is the next in my line of articles discussing playtesting. You can see my overall playtest guide here.
As you run playtests of your game, you will get criticism. That’s the point. But some criticism is easier to take than others.
Your mom is going to love the game. So will your friends. But as you open up playtesting to a wider circle, you’ll start getting negative criticism.
That’s the exact criticism you’re looking for.
I know it’s not easy to hear, but you want honest feedback – telling you exactly where your game sucks.
The good news is that you can take the criticism like a champ. Here’s how:
The first step is to simply listen to the criticism. And I mean actually listen to it. Don’t just dismiss it or ignore it. That would completely defeat the point of playtesting.
2. Ask questions
It is extremely important to ask clarifying questions. If someone says, “your game sucks,” you need to ask why. And be prepared to ask ‘why’ hundreds of more times. Like a toddler.
You’re not asking ‘why’ to annoy the person who dared to criticize your perfect game. You’re asking ‘why’ to clarify the actual problems.
The goal in playtesting is to make incremental changes to your game based on suggestions from the public. Without asking questions, you will have no idea exactly what needs to be addressed.
3. Put the criticism in context
A funny thing happens during our playtests, I find that the players who do poorly tend to have the most suggestions for improvement. This is a natural response to losing a game.
“That character is too strong.”
“That system is broken.”
All excuses made by someone who lost.
Don’t get me wrong, those problems might exist, and you should still listen to the criticism. However, remember to keep it in context.
Was that person having a tough night? Was it the last game of a conference and people were tired? Context matters.
4. Write it down
I hope this is obvious for everyone, but you need to write down the feedback you receive. It will help you actually implement changes later and help you track responses from playtesters over the long run.
Your memory is not as good as you think it is. You will remember things that are convenient to remember and forget the other stuff.
Seriously, write it all down.
5. Think about the feedback, then make changes
Changes to your game should not be made willy-nilly. Every change should be for a reason. Therefore, when you are considering a change to your game, give yourself time to process the change before you make it. Sleep on it, as they say.
I find that putting the game down for a day or so helps to separate yourself from the criticism and allows to think more clearly. That’s when you should make a decision.
I’ve written a lot about playtesting over the last few weeks. If you’d like to get an overview of my playtesting strategy see my overall playtest guide here.
So you’ve been playtesting with friends and family, Alpha Testing as I call it. The game is coming along great, and now you’ve hit the moment where you need to expose the game to people who don’t care about you – people who will give you honest feedback.
So how do you find those people?
You mom is not a good beta tester.
That’s an extremely tough question to answer. Anyone who has been through the playtesting process knows that it’s hard to find playtesters outside of your group of friends, but I have some thoughts.
First, you can go to Board Game Geek. They have a pretty active playtest community. I recommend playtesting other people’s games before you ask for people to test yours, that’s just common courtesy. In fact, I think that one of the main problems with online playtesting is that there are a lot of developers and not a lot of playtesters. Lots of taking, but not a lot of giving. If you’re going to be part of the community, own it and playtest some games.
Second, you can use friends of friends. We have had some success using this strategy. For example, we have a friend in our gaming group who happens to play with another group he met through work. We have used that second group as a playtest group to great effect. You just need to expand your service one layer.
Third, you can demo your game at local game stores. This can be hit or miss. I recommend contacting the store in advance to make sure they will make space for you on a day when they expect a decent number of players to be present. I also recommend offering gift cards (to the store you’re in) or some other incentive to participants. That way your more likely to get cooperation from the store and the players.
Last, you can attend conventions. We have attended Stonemaier Games’ Design Day twice, and we plan to attend this year. It’s a convention for designers to demo their games and receive feedback. It’s also a wonderful time playing board game with some truly awesome people.
There are tons of conferences like SMG. Find some and show off your work!
If you have other ideas, feel free to leave a comment!