The Final 100 Play-Tests: How to Put Final Touches on a Board Game

Posted on Posted 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.

Highways & Byways is basically complete. I’ve started the final 100 play-tests. This is a process I follow to ensure a game’s quality. This method may not be appropriate for every developer, every team, or every game, but it is one I like. I’ve done this with War Co. and I’m doing it again with Highways & Byways.

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The final 100 play-tests start once I feel a game is basically where I want it to be. I start the final 100 play-tests after I’ve done a substantial amount of blind play-testing. I wait until I have all the art assets I need. I only start the final 100 play-tests when I need to test the game for outliers.

When I use the phrase outlier, I’m referring to something really specific. To quote my good friend, Wikipedia: “[i]n statistics, an outlier is an observation point that is distant from other observations. An outlier may be due to variability in the measurement or it may indicate experimental error; the latter are sometimes excluded from the data set. An outlier can cause serious problems in statistical analyses.

In English, that means that the more times you do something, the more weird stuff you’ll see. With enough games, outliers tend to balance each other out. That’s called the law of large numbers, but I’m not going to get into this because this isn’t Brandon the Statistician.

When people play a game, their expectations are formed by whatever happens in their first game. On average, the game is average. Shocker, shocker. But every once in a while, somebody’s first game is an outlier. That’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s something game devs need to be wary of. Outlier games still need to be a good experience.

The only way to catch outliers is to just play a lot of games. For some games, 25 is enough, for others, it could take 500. Considering where I am with Highways & Byways, 100 games seemed like an appropriate goal. It’s a big enough sample size to suss out statistical curveballs, but small enough for me to actually produce the game in a reasonable time frame.

This is a checklist I like to check off before I start final testing:

  1. Get the physical prototype ready. It’s too much of a pain in the butt to try to do this on Tabletop Simulator and you need data based on the real physical experience.
  2. Get all the print files ready and perfect aligned with the manufacturer’s templates.
  3. Check everything for grammar and clarity.
  4. Make sure all the components are good, especially in terms of accessibility (physical, visual, etc.)
  5. Make sure there are no broken parts left in the game.
  6. Proofread everything again.
  7. Create a spreadsheet to track the following: game number, date, time, players, length of game, critical stats*, and comments.
  8. Find play-testers 🙂

* For Byways: vehicle, start space, and spaces left at the end of the game

Once all the prep work is done, I start thinking about my main objectives for the final 100 play-tests. I like to keep it simple:

  • Play enough to catch outliers.
  • Correct minor mistakes.
  • If there is something seriously wrong, iterate again and reset the count.

It’s gritty work and it’s meticulous, but it’s straightforward. You want to put your best foot forward for both your players and your business. Players in the Board Game Geek age don’t accept anything less than very polished products. You need to stand out in a crowded market and you want to get positive reviewer feedback. There are both morally high-minded and economically self-interested reasons for putting yourself through all this effort.

It helps when going in to have an idea of what kind of situations could cause a problem. For War Co., I flagged about 50 cards I thought could have dangerous synergies and play-tested with them slightly more often. Highways & Byways, mercifully, is simpler to test, but I’ve still got some concerns. I’ll just spell them out here so you have concrete examples. Maybe hard examples will get your juices flowing for when you do your own hardcore game testing.

What if certain Start Spaces give players an unfair advantage? This one is pretty straightforward. In Highways & Byways, there are six start spaces represented by stars on the map. If one puts you close to every other road, that makes the entire route shorter. That’s a flaw in a racing game. If statistics prove one Start Space to be clearly superior, I’ll simply move the Start Space. I’m awfully suspicious about that one near Scranton, PA…

What if there is a first player advantage? Just about every game has some variation of this concern at some point. Highways & Byways is no different. Only thing I can do is test.

What if one Vehicle is stronger or weaker? There are six Vehicles in the game. Each one has a special ability. These special abilities have changed a lot since my original intentions. Like the class cards in Pandemic, your ride determines your game’s strategy. If one Vehicle has an unfair advantage or disadvantage, I better nerf that now. The only way to find out is, as you guessed it, raw statistics.

What if some Event Cards have overpowered synergy with Vehicles? All Vehicles play with Event Cards to some degree, except for Rustbucket, but there are two that I’m worried about right now. Stationary Wagon lets you churn cards in your hand twice as fast as other Vehicles. It has no immunities and the action still requires you to move less to use it, but – I don’t know – I could conceive of this being overpowered. On the other hand, Five-O lets you move four extra spaces when you draw a Distance card. Distance cards already tend to let you move more in a turn, so this can lead to turns of dramatic and extraordinary movement, although very irregularly.

What if somebody drafts a really easy route and others draft really hard routes? The drafting mechanic allows for players to plan their road trips to a limited degree. It’s possible to get royally screwed over and have to pick something way out of your way. You do have some limited degree of control because you can pick better roads and draw up to 2 of 12 that are just not working for you. Yet at the same time, it’s totally possible for someone to get roads clustered in one region while others have to go to multiple. It’s rare and Event Cards mitigate this, but I still have to test it out to see how fair the game’s drafting really is.

Testing a lot will soothe my mind. I want this game to be not merely good, but great. I want every experience on the tabletop to be amazing for everyone involved. That’s why I’ve got to play tons and tons until I know it’s fine tuned. Only then can I put it in a box with my name on it. Only then can I ask for people’s money without guilt.

Are you in a similar place in your projects? Have you been there before or perhaps think you’ll be there soon? Leave your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear them 🙂

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’ve started the final 100 play-tests.
  • All art is done.
  • I’ve ordered an updated version of the prototype.
  • I am play-testing as much as I can simply to assure quality at this point.
  • I want to be ready to print review copies on January 1 – it’s an ambitious goal, but doable.

4 thoughts on “The Final 100 Play-Tests: How to Put Final Touches on a Board Game

  1. Good luck in your final 100 play tests. I do not have 100 final play tests. After 3 and half years it has already been play tested well over 100 times, and still being play tested.
    Only in the last two months have I come up with a better combat mechanic for my game, but it was not from the play testers I sent my prototypes to; it was by me just having an epiphany on how to improve the game and time played.
    So now I have to continue play testing with the new mechanic to ensure it works without breaking the game. I will be doing this until my Kickstarter.

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