18 Jul

Analog Game Design 103: First Solo Playtests

Analog Game Design: First Solo Playtests

Analog Game Design: First Solo PlaytestsSo there I was, a game in my hand, my game, my cards, my design. Felt great.

For about two minutes. Then I was ready to see if I could commit suicide by paper cut. That’s what my first, solo playtests usually do to me.

But let’s recap. I’ve written about the spark, the part where creativity reigns free and I spew ideas the way a first-year computer science student spews regurgitated lager[note]No, I’ve never actually spewed lager, even though I have been a first-year comp-sci student, and on the ölhäfv (speed-drinking beer) team.[/note]. I’ve written about building the first prototype. This post is about what happens next: the solo playtesting, where crappy games are beaten into gold[note]Or, to be truthful, slightly less crappy games.[/note].

The Story So Far

Das Amt (that’s German for “the Office” or “the Department” because, you know, all great games are German, is, at this point, a light, take-that card game for 2 to an-unknown-number-but-probably-5-or-6 players. It takes an unknown number of minutes to play, but certainly not more than 30 or I’ve failed miserably. Here’s a rules overview, directly from my notes, albeit slightly cleaned up to make it readable:

  • Cards come in 6 colors and 4 types.
  • Each color has 8 files (stuff you want to get rid off), 5 clerks (stuff that lets you get rid of files), 4 neins (stuff that let you block clerks) and 1 boss (a card that looks cool but that I have no idea what it’s supposed to do yet – but, hey, it’s a game about an office, there has to be a boss that does bad things to you).
  • Clerks force you to draw cards (drawing cards is bad, because it gives you more files), neins (nein, BTW, means “no” in German) bounces that back on whoever played the clerk.
  • Clerks have two colors, and can affect files of those two colors.
  • Neins also have two colors, and protect from only those two colors.
  • Scoring:
    • Each file in front of you: -1 point
    • Each file in hand: -2 points
    • Most files in front of you (you’re a diligent worker): 0 points (but files in hand possibly still count).
  • Game ends immediately when the last card is drawn.

So, like, those are the rules, now all I need to do is test them.

The First Playtest

Imagine a table. Imagine a skinny kid sitting by the table, playing four hands of cards against himself. Imagine other kids throwing their chocolate milk at that card-playing kid. Imagine the tears on the kid’s chocolate stained face, the way he wipes the cards clean, over and over again.

That was me, during my first playtest (minus the chocolate, I’m on a low-calorie diet). It’s what it feels like to do a solo playtest for the first time: loads of excitement at finally being able to try my amazing game, and then a shit-storm of “this isn’t working.”

[bctt tweet=”First playtests: loads of excitement + a shit-storm of ‘this isn’t working.'” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

Stuff that didn’t work in my first playtests (I ran four of them in my first sitting):

  • There were way too many clerks and neins, creating situations where nobody had any incentive to do anything. Like, wow, I’ve got a hand full of cards, and nothing to do with them. Amazing game my ass.
  • There were situations where the game bogged down with nobody having anything to do that would move them forward. And people were running out of cards to play. Truly amazing, yeah.
  • The deck wouldn’t end. The game was so amazing it ran on forever.
  • There was no incentive to take cards from other players. There was no incentive to play your clerks because the clerks were too crappy and the files were too few to matter.
  • The game stunk. Amazing!

Ok, I’ve run plenty of solo playtests for other games so I knew what to expect. Even so, I fell into the First Trap of Solo Playtests.

The First Trap of Solo Playtests

Here’s the thing: when I play a game I focus on what’s in front of me. I’m exactly the same when reading or critiquing fiction: I look at the page, the stuff that’s easily accessible. And that’s completely wrong. You’re missing the forest for all the trees.

When you’re looking at your first draft, whether of a game or a story, you care about the forest. You care about the high-level questions, the shape of the forest. No forest, no game; sorry.

[bctt tweet=”Care about the high-level questions, the shape of the forest. No forest, no game.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

For me, that means letting go of the small things, the cool things. And I’ve learned this the hard way, by creating a wonderful board for a game that was so broken that it would never work. Oh, well, that’s life.

Doesn’t make forest-spotting any easier.

I have to remind myself that I need to focus on the high-level issues. The stuff that decides if there is a game at all. The stuff that overshadows tweaking and optimizing. And with Das Amt, it was the question of “what should players actually do?”

Missing the Fun

What I decided that I wanted was for players to trade off between playing down the files they had, sending off files to other players, and being forced to draw cards.

But what would make it fun? I wanted players to laugh. And the laugher would come from shouting nein, nein, nein.

Meaning that this was a game about denying opponents. If shouting nein was central to the game, then you should have lots of neins, lots of chances to use them, and lots of sneering and jeering.

And it wasn’t happening.

But that, and how I solved the problem[note]Or rather, how my playtesters solved the problem.[/note] is a story for the post on alpha playtests.

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