Five tips to make your first public playtest a success

Jessica Berlin Playtesting 6 Comments

You’ve made an amazing new board or card game. You came up with an awesome idea, put together a prototype, forced your spouse or close friends to play it with you, refined it as much as you could, and now you’re planning to take it out into the wild.

Playtest, playtest, playtest, right? You know you have to playtest this game as much as possible so you can refine it and make sure it’s really great. So, you’ve scheduled your first public playtest. Maybe you’re taking it to a board game Meetup group, a local gaming convention, or an Unpub Mini event. But, wherever you’re going, people who don’t know you are going to be playing your game. What do you do?

I have five tips to make your first (and subsequent) public playtest a success.

1. Practice setting up and explaining your game

This may seem silly because you probably know your own game inside and out. But, it’s different when you’re setting it up in a new place and explaining it to people you don’t know. Figure out exactly how you’re going to set up your board or your cards.

Dave Berlin runs a playtest of our game Prism at Unpub Mini San Diego, an event organized by Galvanized Studios.

Our game Prism has a board that is made from hex tiles, but they can be set up in many different arrangements. So, before we take it out to be playtested, we need to figure out exactly which board configuration we’re going to test, maybe take a picture of it or write it down, so it’s easy to set up quickly when we get to the playtest event.

You also may consider “stacking the deck” ahead of time if there is something in particular that you’d like to test out. Set up your board a certain way or put cards in a particular order, so you can test a situation that you’ve been working on.

Also, explaining your game to someone who knows nothing about it can be challenging if you’ve never done it before. You need to explain the basic premise of the game, how you win the game, the actions a player can and can’t take on their turn, and the other basic rules. But, you want to keep it as brief as you can, so players can actually start playing. You can answer questions along the way too, so just give them enough to get going. Thinking about how you plan to explain the game and even practicing out loud with someone can be good preparation before your first playtest.

2. Create a feedback form (and bring pens!)

You should have a feedback form that your players can fill out after they’ve played your game, so you can collect their thoughts in written form (which they may not be as willing to communicate to you directly). Also, it’s good to be able to go back over the forms after the playtest and remember what worked and didn’t work and use that data to figure out what’s next with your game.

So, you’ll need to do a little prep work before the playtest to create this feedback form. When we first started out with playtesting our games, we used the Unpub feedback form, which is a great start. It’s available on their website as a pdf. You can just print out some copies of that, bring it with you, and you’re good to go.

Unpub feedback form

Unpub feedback form

But, you may want to go a little further than the standard form if you have anything that you’re looking to figure out specifically about your game. We supplemented the Unpub feedback form with a few additional questions of our own in the beginning, and then ultimately we created our own feedback forms, using some things from the Unpub form and some of our own questions. Here are our feedback forms we’ve used for Micromanage and Prism, if you’d like to see some examples.

I would also make sure to include a place for people to include their name and email address if they’d like to get more information about your game in the future. You can either do this on the feedback form (it’s included on the Unpub feedback form already) or you can have a separate email list sign-up sheet available for people when they play your game. But, you should try to get an email address from everyone who plays your game, so you can communicate to them about when your game might be available.

Finally, make sure you bring some pens along with your printed feedback forms, so your players actually have a way to fill out your forms!

3. Let them play without much interference from you

Okay, you’re at your playtesting event. You’ve brought your game, copies of your feedback form, and pens. You’ve succinctly explained your game to your first group of playtesters. And they’re playing! Yay! (And hopefully having fun too!)

Now, try really hard to stay out of their way as much as possible. Let them play the game. If they have questions or get stuck, feel free to answer them. But, try to be brief and let them figure it out on their own as much as possible. Don’t give strategy advice or tell them which card would be best to play.

Hopefully, you have enough players in your playtest that you don’t also have to be a player in the game. We’ve had to do this before and it’s so much harder to get a good playtest when you as the designer (and the person who knows exactly the right moves to make) are playing too. Also, if you’re playing the game, you can’t be quite as observant during the play, which is a much better use of your time. If you do have to play in order to have enough players in the game, then play on easy mode. Try to sit back as much as you can and don’t get too involved in actually playing the game (or winning the game!). Just go through the motions as a fill-in player so you can also still be observant, which leads me to number 4.

4. Observe and take notes

Watch as your playtesters play your game and take notes. If they have questions or issues with anything, write those down. Where do they get stuck or have difficulties? What don’t they understand? If anything noteworthy happens during the game, write it down.

Take notes during and after the playtest.

Take notes during and after the playtest.

Another interesting thing to note is what players do during their downtime, when it’s not their turn. Are they bored, sitting around just waiting for other players to play? Or are they engaged and interested in what the other players are doing, and anticipating what their next move will be? Downtime is a good indicator of the pace of your game. If they’re bored, it’s probably too slow paced, or there aren’t enough interesting things happening to them or for them to figure out when it’s not their turn.

We also like to have a quick stat sheet we use to record some basics about each of our playtests. We include the following:

  • date
  • version number of the game (we try to track our versions as we iterate our games)
  • number of players in the game
  • time the game started and ended (and total time the game took to play)
  • number of turns in the game
  • high and low scores
  • brief description of who’s playing (since we use this for both internal playtesting and playtesting publicly)

You can modify this to your own needs, of course. But, if you have a list of these things you’d like to keep track of for each playtest, then it’s good to make a little chart or spreadsheet you can print out and just fill in, so you don’t have to try to remember all these things you want to write down while you’re also explaining your game, helping out first-timers, and observing their behavior.

5. Ask for feedback and then keep quiet!

After the players have finished the game, ask them to fill out your feedback form. You may also want to ask a couple open-ended questions to the group just to see how they’re feeling about the game. Ask things like, what did you think, did you have fun, did you have any major issues with anything. Then, when the players are answering, keep quiet and take notes.

Don’t try to defend your game, explain how they should have done something, or try to come up with solutions for fixing the game right there. Just listen, write down what they say, and thank them for their feedback.

When playtesting your game, you have to be willing to hear critical feedback. And if you start defending yourself or your game when you’re receiving that critical feedback, your playtesters may stop giving you the feedback that you really should be hearing. We’ve seen designers defend their games after a playtest before, and it shuts down the feedback process. Most players don’t want to argue with you about your game … you asked them for help, remember? Why bother doing a playtest at all if you’re just doing it to confirm your own beliefs about your game? If you’re not willing to listen to other people’s honest feedback, you may not be ready to share your game with the world. So, hear them out, let them talk, and make a note to review later.

Then, go home with all your wonderful feedback and data and figure out what’s next for your game.

What do you think? Any other tips for a successful first playtest? Any stories to share of playtesting success or failures? Share them with us in the comments.

Comments 6

  1. Another important aspect to successful playtesting is trying not to be a promoter when you explain your game. It kind of goes hand in hand with not interfering too much with the playtest itself. I’ve seen it firsthand and heard from other designers that at times they brought a lot of excitement to the explanation of their game, which seems fine (why wouldn’t you be excited about your game?). However, once the playtesters started playing, the excitement steadily died off (unless they kept feeding the fire). If you’re not careful, your excitement could make a mediocre, or even a poor game, seem really awesome and you wouldn’t even notice. Unfortunately, you don’t get to be there promoting your game every time it’s played once it’s published. The lesson is that playtesters enjoyment and excitement should come from the game, not by showing how excited you are about your own project.

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      That’s a great point! Thanks for your comment. We’ve seen this before when playtesting our games. Sometimes we tend to put on a show along with our playtest, rather than really just sitting back and letting the players play the game and let the game make the fun. Our feedback forms revealed this too. We got comments saying things like the person running the playtest was “great” or “funny,” etc. We realized later that we may have been feeling like we needed to make up for the game’s lack of fun… An indicator that the game needed more work!

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  3. Another strategy that I’ve heard people talk about is recording the session. Video would be awesome, but isn’t always possible but audio can be just as valuable. This is especially true for blind playtesting when you can’t be there. I haven’t tried this myself, but I can see the benefit.

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