Theory: Blame Your Losses on Yourself

You don’t need to be a great player to be a great designer, but it does help to play your own games reasonably well—if only so that you can participate better in playtesting. To achieve that, ask what you could have done differently after a loss. The answer to that question will be much more useful than grumping about external factors that may have contributed to your defeat.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes very hard to put a loss on your own shoulders! The temptation to blame the dice, or the cards, or your opponent’s cheesy strategy, can be strong. It’s especially so when the dice were objectively lopsided (don’t trust your memory on this! Write rolls down.).

However, saying “the dice got me” doesn’t tell you anything about your game. That feedback merely teaches that sometimes dice come up with unwelcome numbers at inconvenient times, which is hardly new information.

Taking the emphasis off of the dice, and putting it first and foremost on what you could have done, forces you onto a line of thinking that’s much more likely to end in useful design insights. Was there another strategy you could have pursued, one where the rolls you got would have been sufficient? If so, is that a strategy you want players to rely on when the chips are down? If not, does that point to a design problem, or are you willing to accept that sometimes players will lose despite having made good choices? All of those are much more useful things to think about than “dice sure do hate me sometimes.”

Of course, focusing on yourself instead of on random factors is also a great way to build skill in general—and that will further strengthen your testing. As you improve at a game, or at games writ large, you’ll be able to be say with greater confidence that a different strategy would have worked better, or that you really had no alternatives. There’s no faster or more reliable way to get to skill worthy of reliance than to put your own decisions through the wringer.

Ultimately, asking questions about your own play is a kind of quality assurance for the conclusions you’re reaching about your game. It helps guarantee that you’re identifying the right problems. You’ll find that a valuable contribution; after all, you can’t arrive at correct solutions any other way.

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