Published on July 13th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen3
Creating A Playtesting Network
There is a lot of advice on the internet about how to playtest your board game design, and how to take feedback as a designer. A lot of that advice just boils down to “don’t be an egoist” and “have a clear idea of what you want your game to be, and stick to that” or some way to balance those two goals. While those lessons are important, they are predicated on the assumption that you’ve already got people ready and willing to play your unpublished (and most likely broken) game, then give you feedback. So how do you get people to play your Frankenstien monster of a design and be excited about doing it?
The first thing you need to do in order to create a playtesting network is get yourself prepared and organized. You will need to know: where you are going to meet, when, and for how long. You’ll need to know about how many people to will show up, and how you’ll get the word out that your event is happening. You probably want some playtest feedback forms, a way to gather people’s contact info for follow ups, and at least small amount of signage.
Know what open MeetUp tabletop groups are active in your area, find out what locations they use to meet at. Find out what games are popular with which groups or locations- in my city story gamers stick to two locations downtown for the most part, while wargamers are rarely seen inside the downtown area. Depending on the kind of game you’re making, your location could drastically change the feedback you receive.
You’ll also want to have a pretty good idea of how long your game takes, including teaching the rules to brand new people. You’ll want to be able to tell people who are interested in testing the game how much of their time it will consume, and if you hem and haw they may expect it to take too long. Knowing this also lets you know how many different sessions you could fit into one block of time at your location of choice. Being organized includes knowing if you’re going to have just one long game session or if you’ll be able to run multiple play-throughs with different people.
Get some Feedback forms ready for your event. Designing a good feedback form is really its own topic and deserves an article to itself. You should customize it to the needs of your group, but here are a couple of sample questions that I think work well:
- What was the most tense moment of the game?
- Was there a mechanic that was confusing or hard to learn? Which?
- Did you avoid any actions because you didn’t want to “harm” someone in-game?
- Did you pull off a combo-move of some sort? How?
- Was there any moment that was frustrating for you?
I generally avoid asking people to rate a game, as in my experience players (even anonymous ones) will tend to inflate scores or try to be nice if they know that a designer will read through the feedback afterwards. Ratings/scores for games tend not to be particularly useful for that reason, and because they don’t give you anything concrete to base changes off of. A rating of “2/10 – would not play again” and “8/10 – it was pretty fun!” are equally meaningless when it comes to trying to advance your design goals. Figure out what you, as the designer, consider to be a problem with the game and try to design feedback forms that get to the root of it, so you can craft a solution.
Lastly, some signage never hurt anyone. For our first events we just did up some small posters on 8.5″ x 11″ paper for the event itself, then had a table tent sign with the designer and game displayed for passer-bys. You can also include info like your website URL or twitter/instagram handles. You might also consider eventually making some professionally printed banners. Vistaprint does 2.5′ x 6′ banners for under $30 right now, and a stand will set you back around $50, but if you have some extra cash you want to throw at your project, signage can be an effective way to draw crowds over.
One of the more important parts of the process of building a network is finding other like-minded designers that are willing to show with you. While you could create events to accommodate the amount of players that your game can hold (2-5, typically), you’ll have much better success if you can gather many different designs under one banner. Players like having multiple designs to play- it gives variety to the event and helps get players excited about the process as a whole.
Don’t worry about the designers’ games being at all alike. Many times, players will come to one of our events because they heard about a specific game they want to play but then they will play every game at the event anyways. The first game that they get excited about (usually because of the theme) acts as an ice breaker, and once they see everyone else’s designs players will try out anything else that looks moderately appealing to them. At our events we have many different games at differing levels of complexity and prettiness, with a range of themes and mechanics and all of them get play.
Then again don’t worry if your games are all similar. If you happen to have a bunch designers with a similar theme (food, farming) or mechanic (set collection, route building) you might make a special night just to test those games. In that case, the strong theme will draw people to it, and will get a lot of the right eyes on it. A theme night is a great way to draw out the enthusiasts of any given genre and get their opinions. It will also give you the opportunity to see what kinds of mechanics other designers have gone for in an attempt to emulate similar ideas.
In general, other designers are a great resource and another reason why coming together for your events is a good idea. While you may have played a lot of games, as the main designer you have certain blinders on as to how you think of the game. Other designers may be able to offer you high level, compelling insight into your game that other playtesters would not be able to give. Though we have changed our game based on typical gamer feedback, our most innovative design changes have come from trying to answer questions other designers have proposed to us. Designer to designer collaboration at playtesting events is one of the most important functions of our events.
In our mostly hobby-based community the word “branding” can be seen as kind of dirty, it gives off a sort of “money in politics” vibe. That said, being able to quickly and easily identify a product or service is the main goal of branding and that is a goal that every group or business needs to have. While no one really needs to hire a graphic artist and spend lots of money on logos and things, some consistent branding and imagery will go a long ways in helping your playtest network to maintain visibility.
After a while of running our playtest events we were contacted by a group called PlaytestNW. They had another group of game designers that met at other locations in our city. After meeting with them and taking a look at the groups they were building, we decided to merge our group in with theirs and stick with their (stronger) branding. Not only were we able to collaborate with more game designers, but players started to recognize our playtest events at local conventions. By having a catchy name, logo, banners and t-shirts we have been able to make the playtest group itself into a staple of the local con scene, something that adds value for everyone.
Adding value for everyone can be difficult. How do you convince players that testing your game is worth their time? How do you convince a convention to give your playtest group several tables? Well, you have to ask yourself- what do they want, and how can I give it to them?
Most players want to have a fun time and feel like they contributed to something. That said, a little bribery helps as well. At our convention events we set up a table of board games that have either been donated by a FLGS or bought by the organizers. Every two hours a raffle is called and the winner gets their choice of prizes from the table, with the tickets going to any player who completes a game and fills out a feedback form. Playtest a game, win a prize!
Of course, you could do other incentives. I’ve seen designers offer a free prototype copy off their game to anyone who can beat them at it, or to a player who wins in a max-player session. If your events are not convention based or monthly then you might have just one game you auction off. You might partner with a restaurant, cafe or bar to host the group and offer a percent off their tab to the person who wins the raffle. Whatever you decide, make sure that it’s something that the group as a whole wants, as that’s what will keep them coming back for more.
It’s also good to remember that if you want your event to be asked back to a location that you need to look for ways to give incentive to the venue- be it cafe, FLGS or convention. Cafes, bars or restaurants (common places for board game events in my area) are really going to be looking for ways that you either A) bring in foot traffic, or B) buy a lot of food/drinks while you’re there. Ideally it’s a bit of both, but one can compensate the other by quite a bit. Game stores and conventions will be looking for just “A” mostly.
Communicate with your venue to see what kind of signage you’ll be able to display (in order to draw in said traffic) and ask how you can best compensate them. It might be worthwhile to charge designers a small fee and use that to pay the venue for its space. Every space is different and will have different needs, but if you can help meet those needs then the venue will be much more willing to work with you in the future.