Let’s talk about playtesting. You’ve got a game concept. You’ve been working on it for a while. You’ve got a rulebook, maybe you’ve even got a prototype. It’s time to make the sellsheet and start pitching to game publishers, right? Not so fast. While it’s entirely possible that you are the very first person to have developed the perfect game on the first try, it’s more likely that you’ll need to make a couple adjustments first. Think of playtesting as writing drafts of an essay in high school. You spend most of your time on the first draft. You get it to a place you like. Then you give it to someone you trust to read over, make some notes and suggestions, and then you take it back and decide what changes you actually want to implement. According to my high school English teacher, you should repeat this process at least three times, and while I don’t necessarily agree with that for an essay about The Great Gatsby, I can definitely get behind that idea for board game development.
But when it comes to essays, you know where to go for feedback. There’s peer review, other teachers, even siblings and parents. What do you do when it’s a game? Where do you find playtesters? What do you look for in a playtest? How do you even run one? We’ll walk you through it right here.
Hi! I’m Risa, I’m the Community Manager for Incredible Dream, and I’ve been running and/or participating in 2-3 playtests a week for the last 3 months for our upcoming narrative RPG board game, Kinfire Chronicles: Night’s Fall (and we’re always looking for more playtesters). I’m going to take you through the process of identifying, organizing, running, and evaluating a playtest, whether it's your personal game, your partner’s, or your job’s! Let’s get started.
Prototype of Kinfire Chronicles: Night's Fall
When are you ready to playtest?
The first sign you’re ready to playtest is you need to see how the game plays with more people. Maybe it’s just been you and a partner playing the game and you need to see it at 3, 4, or more players. Maybe you’ve been wrangling your kids to play, but you need some more grown-up opinions.
The next sign it’s time for a playtest is you need someone to break your game. Not literally! Please don’t let anyone snap your board or rip up your cards. But you’re the designer! You know how the game is “supposed” to be played. Other people don’t. So get them in there and watch them come up with strategies you didn’t think of (and they will). Some of these “breaks” will require rewording the rules so players don’t “um, actually” you, and others might be genius ideas that you want to lean into.
Another reason you might need some playtesters is that you’re stuck. If you hit a creative rut, put the game in front of some trusted people and see what they have to say. This is a great way to get inspired.
The last reason for playtests is that your game has been signed by a publisher, and the publisher wants to make balance adjustments. This is pretty normal. Publishers will often sign games that are not 100% ready to print yet; they might need a re-theme, or to figure out a way to add a player or develop a solo mode. We won’t get too deep into this kind of playtest in this article, but if that’s something you want to know more about, let us know!
Where can you find playtesters?
Well that does depend. If all you have is a physical prototype (and let’s face it, that’s 90% of games in playtesting), then you’re going to be looking for people who can play at a table together. You’ve got friends and family of course, but also think about the greater community. Most Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) have tables to play at and host game nights. Some of them even do playtesting events. If yours doesn’t, why not organize one? Also don’t forget about conventions. There are over 100 conventions a year in the contiguous U.S. alone, including UnPub, a convention specifically devoted to unpublished games (but we’ll talk more about that in a “How to Get Your Game Signed” blog). Most cons have a room, or at least a few tables, where you can set up your prototype and people can come by, play a couple rounds, and give you feedback. The great thing about conventions is that these are people who want to playtest new games. They’re not looking for perfection. The bad news is that they might have some… strong opinions that don’t quite gel with the direction you want to go in. It’s a give and take.
Do you have the skills to input your game into a digital format such as Tabletopia, or Sovranti? That opens the door to digital playtests as well. At Incredible Dream, we’re a 100% remote company, so we’ve been doing all of our playtesting (internal and community) online. Keep in mind this isn’t as effective if you’re looking to establish average playtimes- the digital interface takes longer on pretty much everything except shuffling cards.
There are a LOT of board game conventions out there!
Who is going to run the playtest?
Most of the time, it’s going to be the designer. Most playtests are run before a game is signed by a publisher, and are done because the designer wants to see how the game is balanced, or get some new inspiration.
Sometimes you get lucky, and you can get a friend to run the playtest for you. This might be worth it, especially if you know you’re the type of person who can get defensive. This game is your baby, and while nobody is intentionally trying to tear it apart (at least we hope not), it can be hard to watch someone not enjoy themselves playing it. It’s easier to hear about it later. While we all hope that everyone everywhere will love our game, statistically that’s just not likely. Even massive successes like Wingspan and Dominion have their naysayers. So if you have even the slightest feeling you might be that type of person, ask a friend.
If your game has already been signed by a publisher, playtests can also be run by a community manager (like me!). This is great because these folks are often clued into people’s perceptions and non-verbal cues, so they can glean some extra information about the vibe at the table. If you are able to participate in a playtest run by a community manager, keep an eye on how they run things. That can be helpful if you need to instruct your friend on how to run your game, or you can learn some new tips on playtester wrangling.
Screenshot of a Tabletopia playtest for Kinfire Chronicles: Night's Fall
To Pay or Not To Pay?
Ah, the age-old question. And the answer really depends. There are “professional playtesters” out there, who have specific experience in playing and developing new games. If that’s the type of feedback you’re looking for, get it! There are Facebook groups and Discord servers specifically devoted to this. However, usually playtesters aren’t paid unless the playtest is run by a publisher, and even then, that’s not always standard. But you can compensate playtesters without venmo-ing them or having them fill out a 1099. Compensation can take the form of a copy of the game, a special thanks in the rulebook, or even a beverage of choice. Long story short, figure out some way to say thank you for their time.
About to playtest some games at PAX Unplugged with Kovray Studios, Board Game Bakes, and Tabletop Express
So! Are you ready to start playtesting your game? If you’re not ready yet, that’s okay! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Cosmic Encounter. But when you are prepared, check out our next article, all about what to do at your first playtest.