I recently had the privilege of spending a week in San Diego with Renegade Games for the Renegade Summit. It was a fabulous week of play testing prototypes and eating pie from Julian’s. My deepest thanks to Scott Gaeta (and his family) and Sara Erickson for being wonderful hosts and including me in this excellent board gaming extravaganza.
The concentrated play test time meant I had a concentrated time of fun… and frustration. I played games with engaging and unique themes and intriguing and interactive mechanisms. I also spent a lot of time agonizing over rules inconsistencies, confusing components, and even had to put some games aside because they were too difficult to get set up.
While I’m far from a playtesting expert, I’ve certainly learned a lot about it and I thought I’d share some of the “things I think designers should consider with their prototypes” as a blog post. Ultimately, it all boils down to this…
Remove any barriers that hinder people from playing and enjoying the game.
- Send a playable prototype. As Scott Gaeta says, “I don’t like to do arts and crafts.” Without a doubt there are a lot of people who love doing Print and Plays…printing up pages of cards, cutting, sleeving, even printing out boards. But when submitting to a publisher, don’t count on their ability or willingness to do that work. Whether you hand craft a prototype on printer paper with wingding icons or pay a print-on-demand service to produce a polished game, give the play tester something they can simply open and put on the table.
- Art isn’t necessary but… it can help make the game more memorable. This is especially valuable when a lot of prototypes are being played in short order (i.e. an UnPub, Protospiel, design competition, or publisher evaluation blitz.) While I wouldn’t advise investing in expensive custom art for a prototype, just try to do small reasonable things to make your game stand out.
- Help set expectations. Publishers, especially, are used to playing games in different states of polish. Include contextual notes such as what player count the game was most tested at and what count you think it plays best at. Information like this can help the play tester prioritize their time. (Thanks Marguerite Cottrell for this great tip!)
- Does the game need a player aid? Most benefit from one. Include it! A list of available actions, game phases, or scoring conditions are all helpful things for play testers to have in front of them.
- Include a detailed component list. Since prototypes often use parts gathered from other games, make sure it’s obvious what those components are for in your game.
- Sort the components into labeled baggies. This helps for out-of-the-box start up and it sets a really positive tone as players set up the game.
- Put a component list in the box that includes photos of the components. A list is great, but an illustrated list is ideal. A sheet that shows a photo of the component, component count, and what it is in your game is hugely helpful.
- Rules. Oh rules. There are many people far more skilled at assessing rules than I. But, play testing so many games made it abundantly clear why publishers hire professional rules editors. I think the key challenge with rules is that the game designer who is writing them is the person most intimate with the ins and outs of the game. This easily leads to assuming key information as a given, meaning it doesn’t get defined in the rules… and leaves the unfamiliar play tester in a lurch.
- Include game setup instructions. This makes it easier and faster to get the game to the table. Ideally, show a photo of the prototype set up. But any notes on where the components belong when you start play are helpful.
- Give examples. Specific examples are immensely helpful in clarifying vaguely written rules. Movement, battle, exchanges… everything can be made clearer with examples. They can also reinforce rules are being interpreted correctly. And if your game has complex scoring? Include examples of that too!
- Version the rules. If you’re loading rules to BoardGameGeek.com (or including multiple rule sets in the box) make sure they’re versioned. And do you best to submit a consolidated “best of” rule set with your prototype. It’s an awkward experience to have to reference the movement rules from an older ruleset but the battle rules from the current ruleset…especially when those rulesets aren’t labeled well.
- Include card diagrams. If your game uses cards with multiple elements on it like damage, defense, cost, value, etc. include a labeled picture of the cards. Without a visual reference, it’s incredibly challenging for a new player to figure out what the different things on the card are for.
- Be specific with words. “Number” can mean a few things in a game. The count of the card? The value of the card? Use terms consistently and do your best to use distinct words for elements that could be confused for each other.
6. And finally, don’t forget to include a tiebreaker. ‘Nuff said.
Thank you so much to all the creative designers out there working hard to make awesome games. I cannot calculate the passion, effort, time, and stress of designing a game and the guts it takes to submit a prototype. Before the Renegade Summit, I never considered myself a playtester, but I now look forward to my next opportunity to do so.
If you are interested in submitting a game to Renegade Games, please check out the Submissions page.
Suzanne Sheldon is a board game and social media enthusiast. She is part of the Dice Tower Network team and a regular on Board Game Breakfast. Suzanne also coordinates the annual #GenCant event (the unconventional unconvention for those who can’t Gen Con.) Suzanne lives in the Seattle, WA area with her non-gaming husband and her two children who, thankfully, love games.