Playtesting is key to game design. You need people to play your game. If you can’t playtest it (like a million times), you’re never going to get anywhere with your game. But, sitting at home with your carefully crafted prototype waiting for playtesters to come to you isn’t going to work. You’re going to have to get out there. Go forth and find playtesters!
But, where do you start? For our games, we started at our own dining room table, but then soon learned we needed to venture out past that.
Where to find playtesters:
- Yourself/significant other: When you’re very early in the design process, you’ve just come up with this game and it’s a very rough handwritten prototype, you should play the game yourself. Run through it, play multiple roles, and just make sure the basics work. My husband Dave is the main game designer for our company, and when he has a new game idea floating around in his head, he starts making bits, cards, hexes, whatever, but soon after he’s got some basic pieces together, he’s asking me to play the game with him. Get your spouse, significant other, or a close friend over to help you run through the game and figure out what’s broken right away. Dave likes to play his games with me because it helps him to talk through the mechanics and figure out what’s missing. Honestly, they usually suck at this point. But, by playing it and talking through it, we can figure out how to make it better (and they do get better!).
- Friends and family: Once you feel like you have a playable game, then it’s time to bring in more people. We have some friends and family members who we like to play games with, and we’ve asked them to play our game designs in the past. We’ll provide food and drinks, and hopefully also have time to play a published game or two, so we’re not just torturing them with our early game design. But, you can get some good feedback from friends and family and also just start to see how the game plays with more people.
- Board gaming Meetup groups: At some point, you need to start playing the game with people that you don’t know. The feedback from your friends and family may be too nice. They like you, so they think your game is fun too. But, you’ll get more honest opinions from people you don’t know. We’ve been able to find some great local board game groups on Meetup.com, and I’m sure you’ll be able to also. Just go to meetup.com and search for board games and see what you find in your area. Join the group and start attending some of their events and playing games. I would recommend not showing up at your first event and immediately asking everyone to play your game. Try to get to know people a little bit first, play some games, and then eventually ask if maybe the next time you could bring your game and see if people would be interested in playing it.
- FLGS game nights: You may have a friendly local game store near you and if you do, they probably have game nights/days there. Our local game store, Pair A Dice Games, hosts board game nights on Thursdays. I’d recommend looking for a board (and card) game night, rather than going while all the Magic, Warmachine, or RPG players are there (unless that’s the kind of game you’re making). Try to go when you think people who might be interested in your game will be there. You may also go and talk to the game store owner and see if you can set up a playtest event specifically for your game, either during the regular board gaming time, or at another time when the store is busy.
- Board game design groups: Have you looked around for a board game design group in your area? Search around. Ours wasn’t immediately obvious to find (it’s a Google group), but we heard about it from someone on Twitter after asking if there were other game designers in our area. I know I’ve seen other board game design groups organize through Facebook groups or Meetup, or maybe your local game store knows about it. If there isn’t one already, create one! Ask around on Twitter or in the game designer Facebook groups if there are other designers near you. Then get together with them to play your games. Dave has been attending the San Diego Board Game Design Group for a couple years now and it’s been really great getting feedback on our designs from other game designers. They have a different perspective than regular gamers. They might be able to help suggest things to fix your game that you hadn’t thought of before. Getting together regularly with other game designers is a crucial part of game design.
- Local conventions: After you’ve met with other game designers and maybe played your game with a meetup group or at your local game store, it’s time to start going bigger to find playtesters. There are so many local board gaming conventions – there’s probably one not too far from you. You don’t have to start out with Gen Con or Origins (and if you do, you’ll probably be totally overwhelmed). We started with Strategicon in Los Angeles, and we recently discovered an even more local convention, Kingdom-Con, in San Diego, which Dave just attended last month for the first time. Find your local board gaming convention, and then figure out if you can add events to the schedule. Strategicon has an online form to submit events, and we’ve run our games several times at past cons. You post them as “demos” or “playtests” and then you have a reserved time and table in the board gaming hall to play your game. Bring some signage for your game, feedback forms, an email sign-up sheet, and get your game played by as many people as possible. While you’re there, try to meet other game designers, play other people’s games, and just meet other people in the industry. Maybe you’ll even find a publisher who’s interested in your game! Local game conventions are a great place to start networking with others in the board gaming industry. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn!
- Playtesting events: You can also search around for board game playtesting events near you. Unpub and Protospiel are the two major organizations that run playtesting events and they each have large playtesting conventions at least once a year. Double Exposure Inc. also runs large playtesting events, like Metatopia and First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con. All of these events are usually located more in the eastern part of the United States. We participated in the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con 2015 and it was a great event. I have heard that the Unpub and Protospiel events are amazing also and I hope that someday we’ll be able to attend one or more them. They’re usually weekend-long playtesting events and you can get a lot of playtests in for your game. But, they may not be very convenient for you (they aren’t for us). So, look for Unpub Mini events or local Protospiel events. There are some at game conventions also. When we first started looking for playtesting events near us, there really weren’t any nearby. So, we decided to host our own Unpub Mini San Diego event. We’ve run it three times now and the fourth is scheduled for next month. They’ve been great events and we always have game designers flock to them. So, if there isn’t a playtesting event near you, maybe you should start your own!
- Online – print & play or mail copies: Another option to find playtesters is to look online. You can post a print and play version of your game on Board Game Geek, Board Game Designer’s Forum, or Facebook groups (Card & Board Game Designers Guild and Tabletop Game Playtesters Guild are good ones), and ask people there to print out your game, play it, and send you feedback. Or, you can post in those groups and ask if anyone would be interested in playing your game and providing feedback if you mailed them a copy of your game. We did this with our game Micromanage. We posted a little bit of information about our game in the playtesting forums on BGG, BGDF, and the playtester Facebook group. We had 10 people respond to us and offer to playtest the game, so we made a bunch of prototypes and mailed them off. We sent a lot of follow-up emails and even offered a prize (a gift card to Cool Stuff Inc.) if they sent feedback on the game by a certain date. It can be a lot of work (and money) to make prototypes, mail copies, and follow up with everyone to make sure you actually get feedback. But, it was a good process for us and we did get some good feedback on the game.
- Online – digital playtesting: Because of the challenges of printing and mailing physical copies of your game to playtesters, you may want to try using one of the online board game playing services,
like Tabletopia, Tabletop Simulator, or Vassal. We have only tried Tabletop Simulator so far, and it’s a lot of work to get your game into the system, but it’s great once it’s in there. I’d like to try Tabletopia for our next game because I’ve heard it’s a little easier to use than Tabletop Simulator. These seem like great options, although you probably still need to seek out playtesters to come play your games on these services through BGG, BGDF, or the Facebook groups. There is even a Digital Tabletop Gaming Facebook group that I’ve seen other designers post about their playtesting “events” they’re hosting on Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator.
- Paid playtesting services: Finally, there are companies that offer playtesting services. We haven’t used any of these services ourselves, so I can’t say how well they do, but if you really need playtesting, especially blind playtesting, you may want to look into these. We may look into these further and possibly use one or more to blind playtest our latest game, Prism.
- Indie Game Alliance has a free level of membership for game design studios, but for $20 a month you can join the Pro level, which includes “iterative blind playtesting through our network of experienced gamers.” IGA also offers access to convention space, advertising opportunities, member discounts, and much more than just playtesting services. So, it’s definitely an organization to look into as a game designer.
- I’ve also recently heard of two companies that provide playtesting services: Game Krackers and Coalition Game Studios. They each have slightly different offerings, and I don’t have direct experience with either one, but I think they’d both be worth looking into if you need more playtesting for your game.
Playtesters are out there. You just have to seek them out. It might take some time and effort, but that’s what’s required to make a great game. And, in the process, you’ll probably meet some great people, get some great feedback on your game, and be able to make it even better. Once you do get out there to start playtesting publicly, here are some tips on making that playtest successful.
What am I missing? Where else have you found playtesters? Do you have any experience with any of the services I mentioned, or know of any others that have served you well? Share in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think!