It’s no secret that if you want to make a great board game, you’re going to have to test it a bunch. Games are complex systems. You make one tweak, and twenty things change. That’s why it’s important to learn how to identify and fix problems with your board game.
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The Problem Identifying Mindset
First things first, you need to be patient. If you expect to identify problems in your game, block off some time – you’re going to be playing it a lot! Start by making the minimum playable version of your game. It can be on paper or a rough digital version, whatever works. Whatever works for you.
You also need to be persistent. Play the game until it breaks. Usually, this won’t take long. Games with relatively minor issues have a tendency to break quickly. But sometimes it takes a while to coax problems into the spotlight, and you need to be prepared for that. Before you publish your game, you should ideally play it dozens or maybe hundreds of times to be confident that it works.
More than anything, you need to be skeptical. Before you publish your game, you should ideally play it dozens or maybe hundreds of times to be confident that it works. Assume your game is totally broken until you categorically prove it is not.
Coaxing Problems into the Spotlight & Fixing Problems as They Arise
1. Play the game “properly.”
First, play your game as it is “meant” to be played. Play it alone, assuming the role of all players. Play it for each number of players that the game can accommodate (i.e. if it’s a 2-4 player game, play as 2 players, 3 players, and 4 players). Assume that every player will behave as you expect them to.
Your game will probably still have major flaws. Identify each one. Fix them one at a time. Test each fix after you do it. Keep playing, assuming everyone will behave as you expect them to, and correct every single flaw you can find. Now you have a good baseline.
2. Play the game like you want to break it.
You’re not out of the self-testing woods yet, my friend. Now play it alone, assuming the role of all players. Assume all players are attempting to break the game. Identify places you think your game can be broken, and make all the players behave in a way that will attempt to break it.
Identify each way players are successfully able to break your game. Fix them one at a time. Test each fix after you do it.
Keep playing until you make all the corrections you think you need to make. Now you are ready to share your game with others.
3. Start play-testing with others and observe.
Other people will play your game for the first time. They won’t understand the rules. Eventually, you’ll have to edit the rules until they help them learn. In the meantime, clarify fuzzy parts where necessary, write down their feedback, and keep playing.
Other players are likely to use strategies you wouldn’t expect. Document their strategies and any way they break the game. Fix each problem one at a time. Test each fix after you do it. Keep bringing your game to players. Correct your rules as you go along.
Correct your rules until the people you play with don’t have any more trouble with them. Get the game to where you can play with other gamers without game-breaking flaws. Now your game is ready for blind playtesting.
4. Send your game to others so they can test it. Don’t interfere.
Send your game to blind playtesters – people who have never played your game before and who do not have any help from you. They will struggle with the rules and might have issues refereeing the game. They may even uncover game-breaking flaws.
Correct your rules. Correct the game-breaking flaws. Send your game to new blind playtesters. Keep doing this until your game does not have issues.
If you can pass the blind playtesting golden standard and your game is met with criticism rooted in opinion and not objectivity, you’ve succeeded.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where opinion and objectivity separate. You’ll never receive 100% positive feedback.
However, if you follow this process and get mostly good reviews from your blind playtesters, you’ve succeeded at identifying game-breaking problems.
Final Thoughts on Fixing Problems with Your Board Game
You may have noticed that I haven’t given specific advice on how to correct game-breaking flaws. That’s because that’s up to you and how you interpret your situation.
Every game is different, and as you playtest, you’ll understand the nature of your creation on a deeper level. This is not just about quality. It’s about self-discovery, too.
Still, that’s an unsatisfying answer, so I’d like to refer you to some other posts that you can read. In these, you’ll hear from specific designers on how they corrected the problems with their games.
When I was a neophyte game developer, I found an excellent article by Wizards of the Coast, creators of Magic: the Gathering, called Ten Things Every Game Needs. It was written almost five years ago, but the wisdom within the article is still very relevant. This two-part article was so influential in my initial design of War Co. that I actually quoted it in my business plan. No matter what type of game you’re making, these 10 elements are critical to making a good game.
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I have taken and slightly modified the ten success factors listed in their article and made them into one easy-to-read list. I’ve added my own commentary so I can give concrete, personal examples of why this framework worked for me when developing War Co. and then eventually Tasty Humans.
1. A clear objective
If there is one thing every game needs, it’s a clear objective. Survive to the end. Cure the disease. Get the most victory points. The objective of any good game must be clear, concise, intuitive, and memorable. It should also be at the top of the rulebook in paragraph number one.
In War Co., the objective is “run your opponent out of cards.” Last person standing, basically. In Tasty Humans, the objective is “win the most points” because it is a victory point-driven game.
Without constraints, the pursuit of an objective is not a game, but rather freeform play. Objectives and constraints together comprise the core framework of a game.
In War Co., the primary limits are the number of cards you can play and energy use. Energy use keeps you from playing all the strongest, best cards at one time. In Tasty Humans, points are earned by monsters for eating people and arranging their body part tiles in certain ways in the monster’s stomach. There are limits to exactly how you can place tiles, and you don’t always get what you want.
There’s a few forms of interactivity that you can find in a great game.
Constraints, expressed both through directly through rules and indirectly through strategy and tactics, must interact with the objective.
Game elements must interact with one another in ways that are both unique and understandable throughout the course of the game. The pieces in a game of chess have seemingly infinite ways to maneuver. The cards in Netrunner can be combined in complex ways.
In all games that are not solitaire games, there is some element of social interaction, even if it’s not a “party game.”
In War Co., interactions come from every one of the cards being unique and having a different effect. Socially, most of the interaction is friendly sparring in response to the “take that” nature of the game. Well, at least I think it’s friendly sparring. Tasty Humans, on the other hand, is much closer to being a solitaire game, but there is still a common pool of cards that all players interact with and change.
4. Runaway leader killer
Games, being intrinsically competitive, need to keep tension to the last move. While you want skilled players to have an advantage, players who are losing early on need a way to catch up. If you don’t have this, you may wind up players disengaging halfway through when they realize they have no chance. A modest amount of luck and chance, even in games of skill, can go a long way to achieving this.
In War Co., the number of cards you have left is effectively your life. Even if you fall behind, there’s a lot of ways to slow your discard rate, redraw old cards, and drag your opponent down with you.
Tasty Humans tallies up points at the end, so this issue is largely sidestepped.
Games need to keep a steady pace of interesting events to keep players engaged. Interactions need to feel meaningful and important. You don’t want players to ever feel like they’re “grinding” and you want to leave players wanting more when the game is done.
In War Co., there was no magic trick to nailing down the pacing. I just play tested it hundreds of times until it “felt” right and the game didn’t lag. In the worst case scenario, I have the rarely used “stalemate rule” which threatens players with heavy discarding if they don’t make a move. The mere threat is usually enough to keep the game going.
On the other hand, playing Tasty Humans has short turns, which helps the game stay snappy even though it’s a brain-burny puzzle game.
Predictability is the bane of games. Use chance and unique interactions to prevent games from having one path to victory. You don’t want your game to feel predictable. If you can use an algorithm to solve your game like a Rubik’s cube, you need more surprise.
In War Co., one place I’ve encouraged surprise is the facedown card mechanic. Players can play cards facedown and turn them face-up at any time – including their opponents’ turns – making their effects take place right at that moment. This creates a game of espionage and counterespionage, with a lot of bluffing thrown in, too.
In Tasty Humans, you never know exactly which adventurer your opponents will eat. Their choice of adventurer will affect the adventurers available to you, sometimes in profound ways. You can plan your whole turn ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean you will get what you expect!
To make your game worth playing for the first, second, and third times, you need to nail down interactivity, inertia, and surprise. However, if you want your game to be built to last, people need the sense that they can get better at it, refining their play style over time. Games need to encourage people to master them over time.
Strategy is where War Co. excels, sometimes even to the detriment of the first and second games. Each starter deck takes a few plays to completely understand since there’s so many secrets and combinations. As soon as you get used to that, then you’ll be compelled to create your own deck – a whole new kind of strategic challenge.
Tasty Humans is similarly strategic. Throughout the entire game, you must place tiles in your monster’s stomach in such a way that you will earn the most points from scoring tiles.
This seems obvious, but never lose sight of it. If you hate the game you’re playtesting, do something different.
War Co. was garbage in its first ten iterations. It stalled out for the next four. It was only around version 15 that it started being really, really fun. Tasty Humans is about monsters fighting humans instead of the other way around, which gets a sick laugh out of everybody who sees the game.
If you want your game to be great, it can’t simply be a technical masterpiece. Don’t just playtest it and refine the mechanics. Make it feel unique.
The best example of flavor of War Co. can be found in the artwork drawn by James Masino. Instead of being a generic sci-fi apocalypse defined in gritty, gray tones, he turned up the color and turned what could have been a by-the-numbers apocalypse into an operatic, psychedelic technicolor horror show.
On the other hand, with Tasty Humans, we kept the game by being dark by using really bright and pretty pastel colors.
10. A hook.
Lastly, once you make it technically clever and unique, there’s one last thing you need: a simple takeaway. Clever marketing messages are succinct: the soundbite, the earworm, or the logo. If you want your game to sell, it needs to be “the one where you X”. This is how you get people in the door to see all the rest of the work you’ve done. You can’t get people to appreciate nuances unless you get them in the door.
According to the Kickstarter feedback I’ve gotten, the biggest draw for War Co. is the art. Everything else after they see bright, beautiful apocalyptic spaceships is a pleasant surprise. For Tasty Humans, it’s all about the monsters!
BONUS: A narrative.
This eleventh element is something I came up with completely on my own. Nothing connects with people quite like a story. If you can give your game a story, you build a whole world of context that draws patterns in the mechanics and the theme. I’m very glad I wrote a novel’s worth of lore for War Co. It made game development, artwork, and promotion all a lot easier.
I encourage you to read the original article I’ve paraphrased and responded to above. By using my own work as an example, I hope you can read their original write-up with a concrete context and use their lessons to make an incredible game of your own.
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Then I got Twitter DM from Charlie at Fulfillrite saying they’d like to do a guest post on this blog. I’d already been researching Fulfillrite and was probably going to use their services in the future. I said yes, provided they make a really good educational post. They delivered! In fact, I learned a lot just by reading this before posting it.
In the interest of full disclosure, let’s cover something real quick: they offered me a small discount on futurecampaign fulfillment. Just telling you that ahead of time so you don’t think I’m hiding secret subliminal marketer messages.
I sent some questions to Charlie Brieger, which are in bold below. What follows are his responses to my questions, edited only for grammar and spelling.
Tell me a little about yourself and about Fulfillrite.
Fulfillrite has a lot in common with its clients, which is why it serves them so exceptionally well.
E-commerce is an industry populated by entrepreneurs. Individuals who value their independence. Individuals willing to take the risks, experience the frustrations, the highs and lows. They’re committed to never quitting. They’re going to see it through to the end until they achieve success.
My brother Joe and I share that entrepreneurial spirit. We always wanted to work for ourselves. I guess it’s in our family DNA to have that entrepreneurial character. Having previous experience with shipping and warehousing, we were disappointed in the level of service we saw in the fulfillment industry. There were many facets of the service we felt could be improved upon. So we established our company, Fulfillrite.
We empathize with the vision and goals of our clients. Our Mission Statement is to help our clients achieve their dream of building a successful e-commerce company. To us, it meant taking apart every part of the business. Breaking it down into its components to see where we can make improvements. We’re always challenging ourselves how we can further help our clients. By being so demanding of ourselves, we have innovated services and developed software that has become the benchmark of the industry. We’ve helped reduce our client’s costs in many ways. We’ve enabled them to enjoy a smooth error-free operation.
All I can say is that the hundreds of testimonials on the web tell our story best. They attest to the fact that we are succeeding in living up to our Mission Statement to help our clients achieve success. To us, it’s the true way of measuring our success.
Generally speaking, what happens between inventory arriving at the warehouse and the customer receiving their goods? What processes are involved in shipping to customers?
You know e-commerce is a business that lives or dies by its customer service. Customer satisfaction is everything. In a way, even though you never see your customer, and most likely never speak to him, the fact is he is looking at you squarely in the eye. That’s because, from his perspective, he’s dealing directly with the company owner. There is no retail middleman. So all of his gripes and complaints fall squarely in the owner’s lap.
It’s no secret that a primary cause for customer dissatisfaction is late delivery. The customer expects it to be there when promised. It may sound simple, but the fact is there are steps that occur between the arrival of the products at the fulfillment warehouse and arrival at the customer’s door. A mishap at any step will often lead to delays in shipping.
I can’t speak for other fulfillment companies. I don’t spend time investigating them. My knowledge comes from when our clients write or call to share their appreciation, and in doing so compare our shipping to other companies in a very exemplary fashion.
The fact is that from the moment we opened our doors we made it a priority that there should be no delay from the time the product arrives at our door until it is shipped to the customer.
Speed and error-free are often contradictory terms. Yet, with fulfillment, they are two equal necessities. To achieve both Fulfillrite has a proprietary computerized pick and pack system. To enable the system to operate properly, a scannable SKU or Barcode is required for logging the product into our system, shelving, packing, labeling, and shipping. With our pick and pack system, orders are ready for shipping almost immediately after arriving at our door. If we receive the shipment before 2 pm, orders can go out the very same day, which is unheard of in the industry.
We provide the client with very clear guidelines for inbound receiving. As long as the client follows those guidelines correctly we can have an order ready in and out the door within 2 hours. And, we actually incentivize our clients to follow the guidelines; by doing them so we do not charge any receiving fees, as other fulfillment services do.
A concern for every E-commerce owner is shipping to the wrong address. Often, the first time the owner finds out about the problem is when he hears from an irate customer about not receiving his order. By then the opportunity for a positive image and relationship is almost certainly ruined. At Fulfillrite we prevent delivery to the wrong address by verifying every single address before shipping to assure that its deliverable.
Orders can come in at any time, and customers expect the product to arrive on schedule as promised. So we push the envelope on on-time delivery and have Fulfillrite operational 6 days a week.
The point is we’re constantly looking for ways to enhance our service and live up to our promise to help our clients live up to their promise to build a successful company. There are so many small details that make a difference between success and failure. We’re constantly monitoring our service seeking ways to improve. We’re not afraid to invest money in developing proprietary software, in training our shipping specialists. We work hard on behalf of our clients to negotiate rates from national and local carriers.
Let me be frank. People think all fulfillment requires is to open a warehouse, stock up on packaging materials, connect with a few carriers and you are in business. It doesn’t work that way. To provide clients with maximum advantages and benefits requires a true commitment. The investment in terms of time, effort, hard work, and funds is considerable. There’s no shortcut to becoming the best.
Let me add that another strong reason for our on-time shipping is the professionalism of our shipping specialists. It’s not simply a matter of scotch taping a package and slapping on a label and postage. Our specialists go through a rigorous training process until they are thoroughly familiar with our phase of our fulfillment system. Our proprietary software is the heart of the system, but our staff is the key to making sure every single package is shipped out on schedule. Our specialists are rewarded well with salary and bonuses. They take pride in being the best in the business.
Why is fulfillment through a third party a good idea?
Every businessman is looking to save money, to cut overhead, and save on expenses. E-commerce business owners naturally look at fulfillment as a place to contain costs. The question they ask themselves is why pay an outside service when they can do it themselves?
This is a legitimate question that deserves an answer. Our answer is that there is no one answer for everyone. Each e-commerce owner needs to take a close look at cost of an outside service and his alternative to handle it himself.
All I can do is give your readers the big picture of what is required for fulfillment.
Take product storage as an example. You need to warehouse inventory. One option is to rent space. Right away you have an overhead expense. The other option is to store the inventory on the premises. Very likely this will interfere with other aspects of the business. Let’s face it, having boxes piled here, there and everywhere is not conducive to a smooth running operation.
The next issue is: who is handling the fulfillment? Does the owner have time to spare from all his responsibilities to pack and ship? Probably not. So an employee has to be delegated, quite possibly more than one. That’s another expense. How much training will the employee receive? Warehouse employees are typically at the low end of the wages scale. Odds are they won’t be too professional and motivated. Poor handling of orders can have major repercussions on customer satisfaction. It could even lead to bad online reviews which can be very damaging to a business.
Expenses aren’t the sole criteria. They may not even be the most important criteria. Fulfillment, like any business, requires professional expertise. Negotiating for lower rates with major carriers is no simple matter. It requires an understanding of how carriers evaluate the value of a client. Obviously, a fulfillment service that generates a large volume of business is in an equipped to negotiate lower rates. But there’s more to it than that. Carriers are competitive, fighting each other for business. That too has an effect on rates. Knowing the business from the inside, knowing the high and low range of a carriers pricing structure, allows us to negotiate even lower rates.
And, then there is the power of long-established relationships which transcend the purely business end of the business. Carrier representatives deal more favorably with people they know well and trust on both a professional and personal level. Over the course of many years, Fulfillrite has established very favorable relationships with the major carriers, and Indeed Fulfillrite’s rates are among the very lowest in the industry.
In addition, we provide free padded mailers, which adds up to handsome savings over time depending on volume.
In which cases is fulfillment through a third party not appropriate?
I’d say there are a limited number of situations that preclude working through a fulfillment company. Obviously, I can’t speak for other companies. All I can mention are a few factors that relate to our company. What makes our company so successful, and our clients so satisfied is the insight we bring to the business. We don’t make casual, quick decisions. Everything is carefully thought out as to how we can be more efficient, more cost-effective.
Based on our thinking and experience, Fulfillrite has specific parameters that decide a new client’s acceptability. By the way, that is for their benefit, as well. Companies that don’t meet our parameters won’t benefit from our service. As an example, clients that have fewer than 50 orders a month. Or, clients that have expensive products which require special handling and packaging. Companies that have high SKU counts are difficult to integrate into our system. Same for clients who require custom packaging.
Our focus is on small, lightweight products, typically under 5 pounds, with a minimum volume of 50 orders a month. Our system is designed around this. Everything we do, all the proprietary software we develop, all the unique benefits we provide are built around this clear and very defined understanding of what our core business is. That’s why we’re so effective. Also, high SKU counts, as well as clients that require custom packaging will not meet the parameters. In such situations, in-house fulfillment may serve the client’s need best.
How do you successfully choose a fulfillment service for crowdfunding projects?
For crowdfunding companies, fulfillment is the tail end of their planning. For obvious reasons they are focusing on the product idea, having it manufactured, creating the website. Usually, it’s when all the other aspects are in place do they think about how they are going to get it to the customer.
The best advice we can give crowdfunding companies is do your research. Don’t leap into the business simply because you have an idea for a product. The first question should be is there another product similar to it? The other product doesn’t have to be exactly the same. If there is a product that essentially provides the same benefit in a similar manner, you’re developing a commodity. A commodity is a product or service that is non-distinguishable from other similar products. This means there are other options for the customer to choose from. Usually, when that happens the typical response is to lower prices to be more competitive. So you end up in a price war. It’s a no-brainer that no one ever wins a price war.
Three good places to begin researching whether there is a competitive product are Google, Amazon and Ali Baba. A patent search could prove helpful. A patent attorney can easily charge thousands of dollars. But patent search may prevent serious problems arising in the future that could have serious consequences. Consider this real-life occurrence.
That famous yellow smiley face that you see all over was created at the behest of a large insurance corporation to elevate the spirit of the employees that had suffered through a merger. A graphics designer was hired to come up with a visual concept that would have people smile and feel good. The smiley face was his graphics solution. It caught on and became very popular. Two gentlemen, realizing the concept had never been trademarked, made some slight modifications and trademarked the image. As we’ve seen, the image appears on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts to posters and school supplies, bedding, stationary you name it. Over the years the two men have earned millions in royalties. The graphic designer who created the concept and image was paid by the insurance company sixty dollars. He never earned a penny more.
Assuming the product concept is fresh and original, the next step is to have a prototype made by a tooling company. The cost of a mold depends on complexity, size, and the raw materials required. There are many factors guiding where the initial prototype should be created, local in the US or overseas. Once the prototype is created, the individual has to find a factory, here or overseas.
He has to decide “is a well-designed package required?” It depends on the product and the retail cost. It should be kept in mind that product packaging is a key branding instrument for e-commerce, since the product typically isn’t seen in stores, or in offline advertising, such as magazines. Packaging could play an important role in the branding positioning and imagery created through the website.
With product manufacturing in hand, the next vital step is to select a fulfillment service. Here too the owner should undertake careful, deep research. Fulfillment plays a critical role in operations. More importantly, fulfillment can be a deciding factor in retaining or losing customers and in profitability. Fulfillment fees and shipping costs do affect the bottom line. On the simplest level, the right fulfillment service will mean a smooth frustration- free integration with his platforms. Knowing that he can rely on his fulfillment partner to provide on-time, error-free shipping allows him to fully focus his energy on building his business without the nightmarish worry of delayed, or lost shipments, and unsatisfied customers.
Here are key factors that should be researched:
Shipping costs: how competitive are the shipping rates negotiated with major carriers, such as FedEx, UPS, USPS, and others. Do they offer truly discounted shipping rates?
Beyond shipping costs, does the service provide very useful information about the arrival time, even the arrival time of day, so the e-commerce owner can make a more comprehensive, in-depth decision.
Does the service system integrate with the e-commerce platforms he is using? How well? Does it integrate with more than one system?
How computerized, and hence simplified, is the order processing? Is there integrated computerized inventory data so the owner knows exactly where the order is in the shipping process?
How are returns handled? Do they go back into inventory, and if so how quickly? And, how quickly is the owner notified so he can make internal inventory adjustments, including placing or not placing future orders from this manufacturer?
How quickly is shipping expedited? Customer satisfaction hinges on as promised arrival.
How professional is the customer service? Does the customer communicate with a personal rep who knows his business inside out, someone he knows he can rely on in all circumstances? Or, is he handed off to the first person who answers the phone, and who is not familiar with, let alone up to date with his business needs and circumstances.
Google should be used to see if there are any reviews regarding the fulfillment service from e-commerce industry sources, as well as current and previous clients.
What sort of fees can be expected?
A fulfillment service’s fees are generally broken down into these 4 main categories:
Inventory Receiving Fees – free for all Fulfillrite accounts when inbound guidelines are followed.
Inventory Storage Fees – first month is free for all crowdfunding campaigns, thereafter the pallet storage cost will vary by the amount of pallets spaces used.
Fulfillment Fees or “Pick and Pack” – we offer tiered pricing on our calculator online and offer discounts based on the monthly order volume.
Shipping Costs – based on the product weight, dimensions, and the destination – we always offer our discounted, highly competitive, negotiated shipping discount rates.
Then you can also account for the possibility for one-time costs, for example, Special Projects, barcode labeling, shipping boxes if needed, container loading, and other such services, will incur one time fees.
How do custom taxes and VAT work?
The customer receiving the product is responsible to pay for any duties or taxes due upon receipt in the destination country. We are currently looking into the possibility to offer an option that is duties and taxes fully paid before leaving the country
Can you integrate with shopping websites?
Once a client is approved, he is given login access for account set up on the wizard screen where he fills in the details about his account. Once this is completed he can connect to our software via API or supported apps, and be seamlessly connected with his shopping platforms. He can be connected to multiple shopping carts.
We integrate seamlessly with Shopify, WooCommerce, Skubana, Backerkit, eBay, ShipStation, Etsy, Amazon, Magento, and others.
What makes your customer service so exceptional?
As I mentioned at the very beginning, customer satisfaction is the backbone of Fulfillrite, it guides all we do. We pride ourselves on treating each and every customer with the respect and dignity they deserve. Every customer has a personal rep who knows their business who responds to their scheduled calls. The rep knows the details and particulars of their business and so can answer the questions correctly and handle any issue that arises without delay. Plus, on our site customers will find guides and FAQ’s that will answer most of their questions.
To us, customer service means more than being responsive to a customer’s call. It means constantly looking for ways to improve our service. The driving force behind every proprietary software, every innovation is how we serve our customers better.
The testimonials we receive show we’re doing an excellent job. But that won’t stop us from looking how to improve it even more.