Theory: How to Be a Good Playtester

My last post got me in the mindset of playtesting, and having done a fair amount I thought I might write up some lessons I’ve learned. These aren’t gospel–different testers and designers can relate in different ways. However, I think these are good baseline principles to use when you’re testing for someone you don’t know personally.

1. Give reasons for feelings. “This isn’t fun” is useful so far as it goes, but it doesn’t give the designer guidance as to how the game should change. If you’re going to express a feeling like “this isn’t fun” or “I was bored,” include a “because” statement. “This isn’t fun because I can’t catch up once I’m behind” and “I was bored because it took so long to get from the campsite to the mountain” capture the feeling but also tell the designer where to focus his or her attention.

(This is also a very good way to avoid fights with significant others.)

2. Prioritize your feedback. Stream-of-consciousness responses can be very helpful, but it can also be difficult to tell what’s a big problem that absolutely must be fixed and what’s just an idea to consider. If the first thing someone says is “maybe the combat should use cards instead of dice,” they might be saying that they hated the combat or they might just be thinking out loud. It’s especially confusing if the next thing the person says is “the rules for flying are completely broken!” Give big problems first and work your way down.

3. Be polite. This is one of those things that can’t be emphasized enough. It’s OK to say that the game was bad, and why. It’s not OK to say that the designer is bad. The internet forum rule “attack the post, not the poster” applies here as well.

A long time ago I was taught the “sandwich” method of giving feedback: say something good, then something bad, then something else good. People are much more receptive to criticism when it’s surrounded by some positivity, so it’s clear that you’re not just hassling them. I can’t recommend this approach enough.

4. Play according to what the rules are, not what you think they are. Make sure you’re doing what the rules tell you to do–and only what they tell you to do. When the rules are ambiguous or you’ve fallen into a situation the rules don’t cover, it’s critically important to stop and at least make a note of the problem. Deciding on an answer and just keeping on is actually the worst thing you can do, because then the designer doesn’t know there’s an issue. A bad rulebook will most assuredly come back to bite the designer later.

5. If the game works under normal conditions, try something weird. Once the game has been tested enough to work when played as intended (it’s OK to ask if this is the case), do something the designer might not have intended. What happens if, in a wargame, you ignore the provided trenches and just charge the enemy lines? Or if you absolutely refuse to charge the enemy lines and never leave the trenches? What if you just never take any offensive action at all?

Testing how the game responds to odd behaviors is important in making sure that there isn’t a dominant strategy lurking. It also helps check the connection between mechanics and theme, by making sure that actions which are bad in-theme are punished by the mechanics. In a game about the German blitzkrieg of France it might be OK if France can win just by playing defense–but if the Germans can win that way something is wrong.

There’s a hilarious story about the testing of Pret-a-Porter that I think really captures the value of trying something you don’t think is optimal just to see what happens. It’s in this video, starting at 12:40, and only takes about three minutes. Take a look if you get a chance.

One thing that isn’t on the list is “be good at the game.” You don’t have to be a skilled player of a game to test it. Most people who play a game won’t be very good, just as a matter of math–only a fraction of players will take a game seriously enough, and practice it enough, to become strong contenders. As a newer player you represent the majority perspective, and your feedback is valuable.

Don’t be intimidated by the idea of playtesting. If you’re at all interested in doing it, or if someone asks you to test a game that you think looks neat, just jump right in when you get the opportunity. You might end up enjoying it or you might not, but I promise that if you keep these five principles in mind you’ll be a solid addition to the testing corps.

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