4 Things to Expect on the First Play-Test of a New Board Game

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.



This week, I talked about How to Play-Test the Core Engine of Your Board Game. This is the process by which you confirm that the game you ultimately want to make is possible. When you’re creating and play-testing the core engine of a game, it’s going to be rough. Really, really rough. Because of that, it can be discouraging if you’re expecting it to be fun. It can be hard to tell the difference between “not very fun, but lots of potential” and “not very fun, better try something else.”

With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to set expectations. The very first few times you test a board game, it’s going to be rough. That’s why I recommend testing the earliest stages alone until you make something that won’t break on the table. Only after your game is functional and has a few mechanics and rules do I recommend bringing in play-testers. This is what you can expect before you reach that point. Early play-testing feels more like science than art.


Early play-testing photo.


1. Creating a functional game may take longer than you expect.

Sometimes you can draft up a simple game in a few hours and it’s playable. Other times, it takes a long time to even get a game to a point where you can finish a single play-through. This can be for a variety of reasons. If you’re making a complicated card game like I did with War Co., it takes a lot of time just to come up with all the different cards and their effects. Then you have to test them until you eliminate all game-breaking issues before it is, strictly speaking, a functional game. I don’t consider a game functional until you can consistently play it without it breaking and stopping entirely. Functional, by the way, is a much lower threshold to cross than “fun” which takes a lot longer.

Even if you’re just making a game with a board, something simple like a classic euro-style game, it can take a long time to get the basic engine of your game running. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months to get a game working. You need to be mentally ready for that.


2. Your game will not be fun for a long time.

“Fun” is a nebulous and weird concept for game developers. At this point, I don’t even chase “fun” because it’s a vague, poorly defined concept. I chase functionality, theme-mechanic unity, and smoothness of experience. Those are the things that can earn high quality scores from play-testers which is the closest definition to “fun” I’ve found.

Fun is the natural state of a well-made game. Games are fundamentally fun. They are entertainment at the core no matter what your specific “core engine” is. Because of that, I don’t see fun as being achieved but as a natural state that is muddied by poor execution. That is to say, I believe that games are fun by default and screwed up by design. A well-made game has well-implemented rules, mechanics, art, and so on, all of which seamlessly allow the game to be its natural fun self. A poorly made game is broken in such a way that the fun leaks out of it and players are left cold.

The brutal thing about this is that players can feel huge impacts from small problems in rules and mechanics. Your game will probably be bad for 90% of the development process. That means in the first few play-tests, if it’s tolerable and the basic ideas make people smile, that’s a good sign. That’s what you’re looking for and that’s how you know when to keep pursuing your game idea.


3. Your game will be broken.

Games are complicated systems strewn together from a lot of mechanics and rules. It is impossible to imagine how a game will play out without really testing it. That means the first time you try it, unless you’re making a really simple “filler” game, you probably won’t be able to get through a test. You’ll likely find yourself in a pattern of playing for 5 minutes, tweaking something, and starting over. This might continue for a long time.


4. Your game will be borderline impossible to test with others until you fix the obvious breaks.

Because your game will start out in a broken state, I recommend testing your game alone or with your teammates when you first start. The goal is simple: just get it playable. Get it functional. You can invite play-testers to try it out once you make sure you can get through a whole game. Yet I would not waste play-testers’ time with anything that you can’t get through a whole game of non-stop. Play-testers are hard to find and, frankly, if there are simple logic problems that prevent the game from being played out, you don’t need their feedback. You just need to fix the obvious problems first. Play-testing feedback is more about the subjective parts of a game. That makes their feedback invaluable and irreplaceable, but only once you cross a certain threshold.


Got any stories you’d like to share of early game development experiences? Share them below in the comments 🙂




Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’ve got Event Card art. You’ll see it being posted on social media in the weeks to come!
  • I’m still play-testing this game. I haven’t had to make any massive changes yet.
  • If the version I’m currently on, I-3, doesn’t need any major changes, then I’m willing to send a copy to reviewers after 100 play-tests. It’s that close to completion now.

How to Play-Test the Core Engine of Your Board Game

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Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the second of a 19-part suite on board game design and development. I am going to teach you my own methods every week for the next four to five months.

My board game design philosophy is stems from the Five Levels model, which I created and explain in depth in Five Levels of Communication through Game Development. The basic idea is that board games are a means of communication that facilitate gameplay. This communication happens on five levels: the core engine of the game, mechanics, rules, the internal narrative or “theme”, and the external narrative or “community and marketing.”

Last week, I talked about How to Design the Core Engine of Your Board Game. This week, I’ll tell you how to test your ideas to make sure they hold up well enough to make a game out of them. If you need a refresher on good play-testing practices, please see The Art of the Play Test: Designing Tests and Keeping Records. When in doubt, keep a spreadsheet with information on how the game went. You can always refer to that data later if you don’t catch something important when you first play.

In order to teach you how to play-test the core engine of your game, I’ve split this article into three sections:

  1. Making a Core Engine You Can Test
  2. Setting a Definition of Success
  3. Testing the Core Engine of Your Game


Making a Core Engine You Can Test



First things first, in order to test the core engine of your game, you need something playable. It doesn’t have to be fun, challenging, or meaningful. Your game, during this very early stage of development, just needs to be an activity which can be completed by following instructions.

If you haven’t made a functioning game yet, you’ll need to make one. The way you go about this differs based on the idea that you are trying to capture.

For War Co., this involved creating about 300 really rough cards that followed extremely simple trade-off calculations. The trade-offs were the engine I needed to test, but in order to test them, I had to make cards. The trade-off calculations behind it were designed to slowly dwindle all players’ resources to make them feel like they’re in a post-apocalyptic situation.

For Highways & Byways, the idea was to make players feel like they were travelling across the United States, exploring all of its hidden roadside treasures. The way I created the core engine was by making a map of interconnecting roads. I needed this in order to be able to move a piece across the map. This was how I built the game to have the constant sense of motion.


Setting a Definition of Success


After you have a testable version of your game’s core engine, you need to define what success looks like. For War Co., I just needed a game that steadily removed cards from players. If after a few simple tests it consistently performed this function, that would be successful. Likewise, with Highways & Byways, as long as I was able to move around the board non-stop, that meant the core engine was working.

Again, I’d like to reiterate that you’re not looking for fun. You’re looking purely for function and coherence. At this stage of development, War Co. was terribly unbalanced and Highways & Byways had no objective – it was just movement.


Highways & Byways Test Board
Not pretty. Just functional.


Testing the Core Engine of Your Game


At the risk of sounding sacrilegious to experienced game designers, I recommend that you test the core engine of your game alone (or with only teammates). Obviously, it’s not acceptable to test your game alone and push it to Walmart shelves without another person laying hands on it. Yet at this stage of game development, you’re not testing for subjective experiences like player enjoyment. You’re not even testing for unexpected strategies. You’re testing purely for functionality. That is something you can test alone.

However, I’m not just saying you can test alone. I’m saying you should. Play-testers can be hard to find and their time is valuable. You don’t want play-testers to get a look at your game too early on. That can make it hard for them to give meaningful feedback later on. It’s a weird psychological issue caused by people knowing where your game came from, how far it’s advanced since it started, and how much they’ve invested in it emotionally.

The other benefit of testing this way is that you can stop the test if anything breaks. You can fix it on the spot and either restart or resume testing as appropriate. I play-tested Highways & Byways alone until I knew I could move freely about the board without getting stuck anywhere. When I did get stuck, I’d draw a new line and drive across it.

How long does it take to get through the core engine testing? There is no clear answer to this question. It could take a few speedy run-throughs or fifty games. It really comes down to the complexity of your game and how you choose to express it. You just have to keep testing until your game is functional on a basic level and it succeeds at expressing the ideas you want to express.



To summarize, testing the core engine of your game requires three parts. First, make sure you have something really simple and basic since you’re just testing for functionality. Set a clear definition of success so you know if your play-testing is successful. Test alone or within your team. If at any time during the testing, you are unable to complete a test, stop the test and tweak the game.

In next week’s article, we’ll talk about how you make mechanics for your game. This will help you add some meat to the bones of your game’s core engine. In the mean time, please leave your questions and comments below 🙂

Birth of Byways: A Peek Into My Early Board Game Development Process

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.



This week, I posted the first article in my 19-part suite on game design. It’s called How to Design the Core Engine of Your Board Game. The basic idea of the core engine is “what’s left when you strip a game of mechanics and obstacles. The core engine is a mix of the objective of your game and the feelings you want it to evoke. The core engine is the bare minimum set of mechanics and concepts you need to have a functioning (but not necessarily fun) game.”

That’s a dicey definition because it’s based on feelings and subjectivity. That’s why I want to give you a really specific example. I’m going to give you a peek into my early board game development process. This is how Highways & Byways was born.


Current version: Interstate 3 (version 21)


All creative processes are different and individual. That’s why creativity is a form of self-discovery. This is my story and my story alone – don’t try to imitate it, just try to learn from it.

I’ve split this into five sections:

  1. The Inspiration – how I became interested in travel
  2. The Emotions – what I took from road travel and what I wanted to put in the game
  3. The Research – how I picked the roads you see on the board
  4. The Map – how the map came to be as a cohesive unit
  5. The Testing – how I confirmed this game had a chance


The Inspiration

When I was 22 years old, I had a bad case of wanderlust and more money than I’d ever had in my life (in retrospect, a really low bar). I had just graduated college and gotten my first job. About six months into my tenure, I took two weeks off, flew to Europe, slept in hostels, on planes, and on boats. I flew from Chattanooga to London on a three-part redeye flight (it was cheap!) and then took trains and buses to France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and back to the UK. It was amazing and a defining time in my life – it was a rough-and-tumble trip that involved sleeping in places not meant for humans to sleep, getting lost in places where I didn’t speak the language, and walking until my feet bled.

This lit a fire in me. I can’t do trips like that all the time – they cost way too much. However, I found out that road tripping across the United States and staying in budget motels is actually shockingly cheap. On a whim one night in 2015, my brother and I drove from Chattanooga to the Blue Ridge Parkway and slept with the backseats pushed forward and our feet in the trunk. This was in a 1990 Toyota Camry on the side of the road (which I do not recommend). We powered through fatigue and fear for some of the most beautiful, unspoiled land in the American southeast.


Not exactly the mattress store.


We did a similar trip down to the Mexican border in Brownsville, TX a month and a half later. Then I drove out to the Tail of the Dragon  a month after that. A year later, I’d taken off a week to drive all the way to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Five months after that, I drove to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Then I drove to Maine six months ago.

At some point along the way, while seeing so many green highway signs pass, I said to myself “this would make a great board game.”


The Emotions

I noticed that long distance road trips came with a lot of emotions. There’s the magic of wanderlust. You experience amazement at new sights. You experience boredom and fatigue. You’re steeped in nostalgia as drift in and out of motels that were built in the Golden Age of Travel in the 1970s and not renovated since. (Color TV!)

These emotions have been baked into Highways & Byways. The most important one is the very specific emotion that comes with being in constant motion. The game’s mechanics center around that. There is also the feeling of 1970s nostalgia, which the art is specifically designed to evoke. The act of planning your destination with Byway Cards evokes the anticipation one feels when getting ready to travel. You’ll be pleased to know I left boredom and fatigue out of the game 😛



The Research

It’s one thing to feel a game, but it’s another thing entirely to create a game around that feeling. Some see the Highways & Byways board and wonder how I picked the roads I did. Famously, all the roads I picked are real roads and their position on the board is strikingly close to where they really are, with a little creative license for usability and prettiness.

I started out by checking for scenic byways in every single state. I was reading sites like My Scenic Drives, Scenic Byways Info, and even state tourism departments. Once I found a road I liked, I plotted the route in Google Maps, copied and pasted the shape, colored it red, and pasted it to the map. I later cleaned this up quite a bit, but my priority was just getting roads on a map at first. Usability would come later.



The Map

With around 100 scenic byways on the map, I had a lot of work to do to make the map work as a game. All the byways needed to connect. I needed to make sure I couldn’t get stuck. I needed to make sure I could go from Maine to California, Florida to Washington state, Texas to the upper peninsula of Michigan. The Byways were initially laid out like what you see below.



I eventually started connecting them with highway lines based on the routes of real US highways and interstates. I eventually smoothed them out to make a really clear message: byways are winding roads and highways are straight lines. The whole map was eventually connected as fluidly as the United States itself. I started placing spaces every 100 miles on byways and every 120 miles on highways. I later cleaned this up to reduce the number of spaces since it was an overwhelming amount of dots.


The Testing

After a ton of research, placing lines, and making spaces, I finally had it! That is, I had a map that I could move a piece along non-stop without getting stuck. This well-connected-but-ugly map and the feeling constant motion were my core engine. I had a functioning game, although not a very fun one and not one with any real objectives. Remember: this was before the game had a purpose! I was just designing the core engine of the game – no extra mechanics and no rules.

I tested this map alone over and over on Tabletop Simulator to make sure I could not get stuck. I kept doing this on my own before even getting my brother involved. Why would I waste the kid’s time? I had to make sure the game was even usable before getting anyone else involved or going any further.





As you can tell, building Highways & Byways is a long and winding road. This is just the story of how I built the core engine of the game. There is a lot more to it than what I’ve described here.

I hope that by sharing my creative process, you more easily find and define your own. If you’re reading this and you’ve got your own process, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below 🙂



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • James has delivered most of the Event Cards to me by now. You’re really going to enjoy it when I start posting it on social media!
  • I’m struggling to find time to play-test right now. I’m learning Benefits at work which is, of course, beneficial, but it means overtime for a little while.