In this strange backwards design diary we began by finalizing the rulebook. Then we reviewed why I chose to move toward release when there was still testing that could have been done. Now the clock is reversing still further, and we are firmly in the production phase, refining ideas. At this stage, what questions are suitable for testing?
The answer, of course, is: any of them, so long as you develop the right test.
What makes for the right test? Zach explains here. In summary, a good test is the smallest thing that will answer the specific question you have.
As an example, let’s take a look at how I worked through one of the fundamental actions in Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons: attacking at range. In fiction battling robots fight with lasers, missiles, and all sorts of sci-fi armaments. That meant there needed to be some way for robots to knock each other over at a distance in the game as well.
I also wanted everything about Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons to focus on the toys it’s played with as much as possible. Hence, I wanted the results of one robot blasting another to be established using the toys, and not through dice, cards, etc.
Early on, it became clear that the best way to accomplish those goals was for the players to throw something. Now, kids know two facts about throwing: (1) it’s fun, and (2) it’s more fun when you’re doing it indoors. Those facts, it turns out, hold throughout life. People love throwing things at toy robots. Throwing things is, for some players, the best part of the game.
Based on that positive feedback, I came out of the ideation phase absolutely certain that players were going to simulate ranged attacks by throwing something at their opponent’s toys. In production I needed to answer the question I was begging: what, exactly, should players throw?
As silly as it might sound, that was a huge issue. I wanted ranged attacks to meet four key standards:
Be effective, but not very effective: through some combination of weirdly bad aim and mechanical toughness, fictional robots generally don’t suffer much harm in long-range battles. Decisive confrontations happen up close. Whatever the players threw needed to be able to knock a toy over, but to protect the theme it couldn’t do so reliably.
Reflect differing fictional capabilities: some robots are tougher than others. Even without a canonical storyline, toys can be bigger or just look like they’re meant to take a hit. The effects of the thrown object needed to affect toys in ways that made sense based on the perceived toughness of the toy.
Cheap and commonly available: to the greatest extent feasible, I wanted people who find some old toys in their attic to be playing Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons the same day. This vital game component should be something they have, not something they’ll need to go out and buy.
Limit collateral effects: throwing things indoors always involves a certain amount of judgement. One must have the good sense not to play when heirloom glassware is on the table. My goal here was to build mechanisms that would serve as reminders and helpers in using reasonable care.
With my question, and these intended outcomes, I was able to design this very silly—but very effective—test:
OK, yes, the video is staged—but this is what I really did. I got several toys, of differing heights, weights, and numbers of appendages, and I threw a bunch of stuff at them. That was the smallest thing that answered the specific question I had.
After doing so, I knew all of the following:
- A well-thrown toddler sock is moderately likely to knock down an average-sized robot toy (about 5”). It’s mostly useless against anything bigger than about 6.5”, unless that toy is standing on a surface with some traction, such as a rug. In that case, if you hit the target high enough the drag on the feet enables you to overbalance the figure.
- I went into this test thinking bouncy balls would be great. They’re cheap, they’re available everywhere, any home that’s ever had kids live in it probably already has a couple, and they have some—but not too much—mass.
- As the second clip in the video shows, though, they’re much too bouncy. Hit or miss, they go everywhere. Even if you don’t break something, you have to find the ball in whatever distant corner it rolled into every time, which is annoying.
- Adult tube socks are comically powerful at this scale. Even big toys are quite vulnerable to tube socks.
- Other kinds of socks end up somewhere between toddler socks and adult tube socks in terms of their knocking-toys-over potential.
With that test complete I had the grist for the final rules. Players would use rolled-up toddler socks, unless the game surpasses a critical mass of larger toys, in which case it’s tube socks all around. To constrain both striking power and collateral damage potential, players are required to throw with an elbow on the table, and to bounce the sock into the target rather than throwing directly. Add some technical cleaning up, and you have what’s in the rulebook now.
This isn’t the kind of playtest that’s often discussed on Boardgamegeek, or what you’re likely to see at a public playtest session. That’s fine! I didn’t need other people to get the data I needed, or to play the game all the way through. In fact, I didn’t need to play the game at all; setting up a battlefield and moving toys around wouldn’t contribute to answering my narrow question.
Finding that narrow question, and setting up a limited test to answer it, are the keys. If you try to address every issue by playing your game all the way through repeatedly, hoping to develop the broadest possible understanding of the problem, you’ll never finish. Build and run the smallest thing that answers the specific question so that you can get what you need and move on.