Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.
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Play-testing has been really high up on my radar for the last couple of weeks. Between 7 Subtle Player Behaviors You Should Notice When Play-Testing and The Art of the Play Test: Designing Tests and Keeping Records, you might think that’s all I’ve got on my mind. You’d mostly be right to think that, too. Highways & Byways is ready for blind play-testing, and I’ll be spending this weekend setting up a plan on how I’m going to coordinate testing from this point forward.
It took me a long time to get this game ready for blind play-testing. But before we talk any more about blind play-testing, let’s define it.
Blind play-testing is when you give your game to other people with no instructions on how to play. You can choose to observe them while playing or elicit their feedback after the game has ended.
I tend to break this definition down even further. Please note these are “Brandonisms” and not formal board game design terms I’ve seen anywhere else:
- Single-blind play-testing is when I give my game to other people with no instructions on how to play, but I still play as a player. The benefit is that I can observe directly how players act in response to certain strategies. The drawback is that it’s not truly blind play-testing, since players can pick up on what you’re doing.
- Double-blind play-testing is when I give my game to other people with no instructions on how to play and I do not participate in the game at all. I can observe during the game or ask questions after the game is played, but the critical piece here is that I must not interfere with the game as it is going on.
To give you an idea what goes into getting a game ready for either type of blind play-testing, here are some things I’ve already done. I’ve play-tested the game a lot by myself, acting as 2-4 players at a time. Self-testing was my primary form of testing in the first and second versions of the game, when I wasn’t even sure if some of the core concepts would work. Then I started testing with my brother whose indefatigable patience and ready availability makes him invaluable in play-testing. A few versions later, I was testing with my parents and cousins. Once the game was pretty clearly on the right track, I started testing it with friends online and offline.
Blind play-testing requires that your game function well in both gameplay and communication aspects. Knowing when your game is ready for blind play-testing is not an easy call to make. For that matter, it can be scary to pass it on to people who may or may not like it. Yet blind play-testing is critical for making a market-ready board game and there is some data that only blind play-testing can provide.
8 Signs Your Game is Ready for Blind Play-Testing
1. The game can stand alone. You don’t need developer input to play any more.
If your game has gotten to the point where people can pick it up and play it without asking you questions, that is a very good sign. If you find that play-testers do not ask you many questions during your non-blind play-tests, you’re definitely on the right track.
2. Your game cannot be broken.
Part of why game developer presence is so important in early play-testing is because of the possibility for games to completely break down. If your game becomes unplayable due to a glitch in the rules, a logical inconsistency in mechanics, or even a wickedly overpowered strategy, you cannot blind play-test it. Period, point blank. Your games do not necessarily have to be good before you start blind play-testing, but they must be finish-able every single time.
3. You have functional artwork.
Blind play-testing is a test of both gameplay and communication. If your game requires certain visual cues in order to be properly tested, you need to have enough artwork to be able to properly test.
As an example, Highways & Byways starts with a drafting round in which the Byways on the board are divvied up among players. In order to test the game’s ability to communicate, I needed a completed board map. The board art was then recycled for the Byway cards, which reference specific places on the board. While this only comprises about 10% of the art in the game, the board was mission-critical to further play-testing. As it turns out, the experimental design techniques that James and I have been using work beautifully, enough there was no way to know that without putting in the time to develop art.
4. The rule book is usable.
This ties into point #1 about not needing developer input, but is important enough to warrant a separate point on my list. Your play-testers, having never played the game and having no input from you, will be learning your game from the rule book. You might have kept only a skeleton of the rule book until now, but that will not cut it during blind play-testing. Here are some resources you can look to if you need to clean up your rules:
5. Players do not get stuck.
If players get lost on the board, in the rule book, or in the decision-making process during the game, that should concern you. Players are less likely to get stuck in “analysis paralysis” with the developer right there to help them. If players do get stuck with you right there, then the problem will probably be worse during blind play-testing and you need to address it prior to blind play-testing.
6. There are multiple viable strategies available to players.
Though your game does not necessarily have to be great before starting blind play-testing, it needs to have a few workable strategic angles. If you have multiple different viable strategies, then balancing them is often a matter of tweaking rules. If you only have one viable strategy, you could be looking at problems baked into the mechanics or even core engine of your game. You generally don’t want to be messing with your game on that basic of a level once you get blind play-testers involved because they’re often hard to find.
7. You know what your game is like, but have trouble describing it.
Blind play-testing is great for finding problems, but it’s arguably even better for marketing. In addition to the fact that many of your blind play-testers will eventually become customers, you can use the things they tell you about your game as part of your future sales pitch. When someone says “this part of your game is appealing,” the odds are good that it will appeal to lots of gamers.
8. You cannot go any further in development without outside feedback.
At some point, you’ll hit a wall in play-testing that you cannot scale without bringing in fresh points of view. That is where I am right now. Highways & Byways is a few subtle tweaks away from being a solid performer on Board Game Geek. Yet I believe it would be an act of hubris to think that my family, close friends, and I are capable of spotting all the problems ourselves. You need lots of different opinions to refine a creative work so that it meets its full potential. Blind play-testing is how board game developers refine their work.
Most Important Highways & Byways Updates
- Highways & Byways is ready for public play-testing.
- I’m putting together a plan this weekend on how I’ll coordinate play-testing, including where play-testers will gather, when games will take place, and how they’ll be notified.
- In addition to the above, I need to consider single-blind and double-blind play-testing when developing this plan.
- James is continuing to develop art for the game. None of this art is necessary for play-testing, but it will be important later on for game quality and promotional reasons.