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

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 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.

 

scientist-with-erlenmeyer-flask
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.

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.

16 Mistakes I Made on My First Game & How You Can Avoid Them

Posted on 6 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, in the spirit of Halloween, I wrote Performing a Board Game Autopsy: Learning from Your Mistakes. The analogy is morbid, but the concept is simple. If you spend time analyzing your failures, you can pick out specific things that you can do better next time. In April of this year, I did an autopsy on my first game, War Co.

 

 

I launched War Co. on Kickstarter in August 2016. Collectively, 146 backers raised $12,510 to bring War Co. to life. The game was published, shipped and fulfilled ahead of schedule, and I broke even on finances. By most measures, War Co. can be considered a modest success.

With the ever-critical eye of a designer, I can see a lot of extremely simple mistakes I made. It was a huge learning experience. I was way out of my comfort zone and ended up learning a ton simply because I took a big risk. I recommend you do the same because trial-and-error is often the fastest way to learn once you do the basic research. I’ve listed 16 mistakes I made on War Co. – every single one of which I had to learn by trial-and-error.

 

1: I did not test whether a CCG would work well in the market.

If you want to make money, you need to find out what people spend their money on. It’s as simple as that. Because War Co. started as a childhood dream, I did not do that. I made the game I felt like making, which essentially made it a passion project. Because of this, finding people who wanted the same things I wanted was an uphill battle.

This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s important to ask yourself what’s most important: self-expression or money. They’re not mutually exclusive, but you need to pick one ideal to focus on. I chose self-expression with War Co.

If you’re going with self-expression, then do what you want and find people after you do it. If you’re going for money, you need to do market testing. Look up people’s Google searches. See which Kickstarters get backed. Make a bunch of Facebook ads and see who responds the best.

Lesson: If you’re in it for cash, test the market.

 

2: I did not order a prototype prior to manufacturing from the same company that printed.

This was an objectively dumb thing to do. I trusted that Print Ninja would be a good printer with nothing more than their standard-issue sample kit. It would have cost several hundred dollars to have them set up their offset printing machines to do a single copy of War Co. for my examination. In retrospect, though, I probably should have negotiated or paid for the custom sample before trusting them to print all the inventory.

The cards came out in excellent quality. In fact, Print Ninja even printed a slight overrun, giving me more inventory than expected. My issue here is entirely with my method and not with the results.

Lesson: Don’t ever take product quality as a matter of faith.

 

3: War Co. was designed as a six unit product instead of a single-box product.

 

 

This caused logistics and marketing problems. War Co. consists of six different decks. That means six different shippable units and a ridiculous number of potential orders. This six-deck product design caused me to pay extra for “pick-and-pack” fees with overseas suppliers, multiplied the minimum order quantity with the printer by six, and confused customers who weren’t sure which decks to buy. The funny thing is that most people ended up buying all six – so I could have conceivably put them all in a single box.

The takeaway here is that if you do alternate versions of your game, each one will become a shippable unit. If you have one game with plastic tokens and one with metal tokens, you have two shippable units. It can get complicated quickly.

Lesson: Simplify before you ship.

 

4: I did not even know that hobby board gaming was a market until SIX MONTHS into development.

You have no risk of making that mistake since you’re on this blog.

Lesson: Know your audience!

 

5: I did not have enough day-to-day board gamer interactions.

This is actually separate from the previous point. Even after finding out about the hobby board game market, I still focused primarily on an untargeted social media approach. It wasn’t until about February or March of 2016 that I started really talking to board gamers. Bear in mind that by this point, I’d already failed at Kickstarter once.

Lesson: Talk to your customers.

 

6: I charged way too much for international shipping.

 

For everyone in the USA, you don’t have to worry about shipping or customs fees at all!

For everyone in the EU, shipping for two decks of cards is $20, four decks of cards is $25, and six decks of cards is $30.

To Canada: Shipping for two decks of cards is $12, four decks of cards is $15, and six decks of cards is $15.

To Australia: Shipping for two decks of cards is $20, four decks of cards is $25, and six decks of cards is $30.

 

Many backers did not realize this, but the high shipping costs were a direct result of War Co. being a six unit product. That means I had to cover pick-and-pack fees as well as normal shipping fees. The downstream result was that about 80% of my backers were in the USA, as opposed to 60-65% for other similar campaigns. I left tons of money on the table with this mistake.

Lesson: Don’t charge too much for shipping.

 

7: I did not optimize the card layout before the campaign.

 

 

I ended up pivoting during the campaign after gathering opinions from one of the updates. People overwhelmingly preferred design B. While I’m glad we were able to correct the card layout during the campaign, launching with design A probably cost a lot of money on Day 1.

Lesson: Make your product gorgeous before you launch.

 

8: I did not finish the box art before the campaign.

This is an extension of the above. Pretty box art would have worked a lot better than the photo I’d initially used for my Kickstarter campaign.

Lesson: Again, make your product gorgeous before you launch.

 

9: My social media approach was untargeted and used suboptimal content.

Since I had no idea who I was marketing the game to for the longest time, the War Co. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook drew the wrong crowd. I was posting cool sci-fi art and corporate satire. What was conspicuously missing from my feed? Board game and card game content.

My social media accounts got big because I was very active and aggressive about outreach, but the poor targeting meant that relatively few people actually backed the campaign.

Lesson: Pick a specific target audience and make sure all your social media is designed for them.

 

10: My attempts at advertising were ineffective and untested.

I played around with Facebook ads, but I suffered from the same problems as above. I didn’t have a clear sense of target market and I did not polish the advertisements. As a result, very few people clicked on them. I didn’t have a systematic approach toward correcting bad ad results like I do now. I just gave up and focused on other things.

Lesson: Pick a specific target audience, test ads with small amounts of money, and change what doesn’t work.

 

11: I underestimated taxes.

Assets are taxable in the United States. That means all the War Co. inventory was considered taxable at the cost I paid for it. I ended up sending a $1,250 check to the White House earlier this year. Whoopsy-daisy.

Lesson: Know your federal, state, and local tax laws. Call an accountant.

 

12: I denied obvious and unpleasant facts.

This is one of the dangers of working alone. I was emotional about War Co. in ways that I’m not emotional about Highways & Byways. That means I took way too long to fix bad game mechanics, clean up bad ideas, and so on. I did eventually polish the game to a state which people really enjoy – it just took me way too long to correct my course when I went astray.

Lesson: Find someone who can give you hard feedback.

 

13: I nearly burned out.

There was a time where I was working 70 hours in a week between work and War Co. I had headaches all the time. I was tired. I was stressed. I was constantly anxious. It’s pretty obvious looking back what was going on. I was burning out.

Lesson: If you feel like crap all the time, something is wrong and you need a break.

 

14: I got too attached to untested ideas.

This is an extension of Mistake 12. Part of why I am so rigorous about testing my ideas now is because I know how much emotion can take me for a ride.

Lesson: Test everything.

 

15: I got too focused on superficial metrics.

I cared way too much about social media followers, web traffic, and what specific individuals were saying. All of these were misdirects. You have a limited capacity to care and you shouldn’t waste it on garbage. If you want money, focus on sales. If you want attention, focus on web traffic or mailing list size. If you want quality, focus on BGG rating.

Lesson: Only focus on the metrics that relate to your results.

 

16: I set impossible expectations on time to deliver.

Setting a schedule is one of the hardest things to get right. To some extent, you just need to know how long it takes to develop a game, market it, campaign, manufacture, and fulfill. There was a time when I thought all this would take a year. It ended up taking closer to two. Thankfully, by the time I launched the campaign, my time estimates were really accurate. However, I suffered a lot by holding myself to impossible standards of development.

Lesson: Don’t hold yourself to arbitrary deadlines.

 


 

Even with all these little failures listed out in plain text, I want you to understand something. Taking calculated risks is one of the best things you can do. Trial-and-error is a fantastic teacher. Book learning, blog posts, online courses, and all that jazz can only go so far. Go out there, make mistakes, analyze your mistakes, and do better next time. Embrace the journey.

Got any stories of your own mistakes you’d like to share? Leave a reply in the comments 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’ve updated the game to version I-3.
  • I’ve had more people blind play-test it.
  • The jury’s still out on whether the post-Protospiel updates are enough to finalize the game.
  • James’ art deliveries continue to be fantastic. Would you expect anything less?