The Big Question – How Do I Become A Better Playtester?

Ok, I’m back with a new Big Question.

This one has come up because I’ve been doing a lot of playtesting lately. And I want to get better at this. I want to give valuable feedback and learn how to think about the games on a deeper level.
So, all you, give some feedback in the comments below or send me an email at

Image is from Daniel Solis.



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2 responses to “The Big Question – How Do I Become A Better Playtester?”

  1. T. C. Avatar

    I’ve done a lot of playtesting over the last few years from both sides of the table (designer/playtester), and I think the absolute best aspect of playtesting is simply the playtest itself. Designers can watch the reactions of players and see them engaging in strategies that seem counterintuitive or odd, and gauge where the most fun moment occurred, how balanced the outcome was, and the overall “mood” of the table. Just donating your time is the most important part.

    But, there are some things to avoid:

    Whether it’s your first time playing or your tenth, actively commenting on something you dislike in the game, repeatedly, or offering fixes and suggestions to implement “on the fly” is not a good thing. Sure, if something is broken, mention it to the designer, and if he/she asks for a solution, offer advice, but play the game as created and reserve those comments for afterward. It’s not a courtesy; it’s a necessity. If you start actively complaining, the mood of the table sours or becomes awkward, and the designer can receive the wrong type of feedback.

    Don’t stay silent though. If there is something that you dislike, even if you can’t place your finger on it, mention it afterwards. A good designer craves negative feedback just as much as positive. If the designer is playtesting simply to “show off” then he/she shouldn’t be playtesting.

    And, put the phone away. Unless you want to take a picture.

    As far as being a “better” playtester: the best playtesters I have are kind but unafraid. In my writing workshops during college, the idea was to say “two things positive, and one thing negative.” Most people are silent until the floodgates are opened, and then they can’t stop saying negative things or suggesting random fixes. Stop yourself. Talk about the two really cool aspects of the game, letting the designer know what is solid. And then, find one key problem or fault and elaborate on that. Whether it’s a mechanic or a feeling, just say it. There’s nothing worse than saying, “this game is really good” and not adding a “but” to it. It’s good for the designer to have encouragement, but unless you sincerely have no qualms with the game at all, make sure to say something, anything that may need to be fixed.

    Those anonymous feedback forms from Unpub are also fantastic. I barely received any negative comments at Unpub 4, but when I looked at the feedback forms, I was able to aggregate the scores and see exactly what I need to focus on. Fill out an anonymous feedback form online for the game you just played. It’s very helpful.

  2. Keith Carter Avatar
    Keith Carter

    I enjoy playtesting a lot. It is one of my favorite forms of gaming even though it is a lot of work to do well. I literally come from the Steve Jackson school of playtesting having been trained by the man himself back in the early ‘80s. That means playtest playtest playtest using a variety of approaches that includes dumb strategies, abusing the game system, playing against theme, and smart play. Game designs reveal themselves more with more play. Taking different approaches is like looking at a complex object from different angles. You get a better understanding and the value of your contribution increases.

    The strategies

    Dumb strategy – Leave your car in a Car Wars scenario. Not because the grossly out- gunned ex-driver/pedestrian can win (better not be able to) but because it brings up situations not covered by the scenario rules like entering a building, taking the vehicle of a foe that is dead but whose vehicle is better off than yours, going down a manhole to escape, or the armor value of that shot blocking dumpster.

    Abusing the game system – Usually this involves pushing some parameter as far as you can to see if it breaks the game or at least produces a result significantly different than intended. The classic being the defender taking all GEVs in the first edition of Ogre.

    Playing against theme – Completely ignoring patients worked extremely well in the first version of Acute Care. Immediately evacuating the crew in Awful Green Things instead of trying to fight off the Green Things first. The anti-theme approach should not result in winning.

    Smart Play – this is what most playtesters do. Playing the game as intended and use the games’ mechanisms and procedures to optimize point gains, engine building, faction advantages, most efficiently manage resources etc. This approach is good for testing asymmetric forces (Blood Bowl), player specific victory conditions (Illuminati), game duration (the engine building of Race for the Galaxy), or simply that the game delivers the play experience the designer intended.

    Smart Play is the majority of what I do and is usually my initial approach. If I were to playtest a game 12 times the first 6 -8 would be Smart Play as I settle into the game with the remainder being the other styles after giving a heads up to the designer and/or the other players since at that point I am playing against the game design.

    The Concurrent Commented Dual Experience Analysis Approach
    Over the decades I developed an approach to the initial playtest sessions designed to maximize the results of a playtest team. This approach was developed with two person or two-sided games, mostly perfect information (what I used to call abstracts) and war games.

    Here is how it is done. A game is played with each player making written comments throughout the course of the game. These comments are not shared at this point. The game is then re-played with the two players switching sides. Again each player makes written comments through the course of the scenario. Only after playing both sides of the game do the players share thoughts and debrief\analyze\provide feedback on the game.

    The important features of this approach are:
    1. The game is played as designed at least twice before any comments or suggestions are made.
    2. Each player experiences both sides of the game to get a full perspective.
    3. Each player forms their own opinion without the influence of the other player’s opinions.
    4. The written record means thoughts and ideas are preserved. This means an idea won’t get forgotten later and you can cite examples and be specific when giving feedback or making suggestions.
    5. In my experience this approach results in broader range of discussion with the discussions more informed.

    I think the approach could be adapted to multi-player games like Euros. The drawbacks I see are that most modern board games are more interleaved. The window for taking notes without slowing down the game is smaller than a war game where the opponent is moving dozens or scores of pieces or an abstract game where the opponent may take a minute or two to move or place one piece. Most board games now have you experience only part of the system for the sake of extending the life of the game through variety. For example only 3/4 of the events, or factions, or roles might be used in a game. Two plays would give a broader perspective than one play but not a full perspective of having “seen it all.”

    I think better playtesters:

    1. Care more about the game than they care about the game designer. There is a very strong urge not to hurt the feelings of the designer, particularly when the designer is a friend. Be diplomatic but do not soft pedal critique. Don’t compromise the contribution of the playtest.
    2. Understand that it is not their game and their ideas are only suggestions that may not get put to use and may even be openly discounted.
    3. Are able to compare and contrast the game theme, procedures, mechanisms, board layout, rules, etc. with other games in the same market.
    4. Are specific and cite examples. They don’t just state bare conclusions.

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