A Duel Among Friends book banner
A Graveyard in the Sky book banner
Warded Gunslinger book banner
Into the Wild book banner
Last Stand at Rimont book banner

When to start playtesting – or – Earlier than makes sense

Playtesting is more important than you think!So you’ve got your idea, you’ve got your stack of index cards, your pen, your pencil, your coloring markers, water colors, word processor, online sharing, blog, and, while we’re dreaming, signed 20% royalty contract. Fine. But where do you start the route to finished game?

You know the answer to that one: with a crude prototype and lots and lots of playtests. But how crude is crude, how complete does your prototype need to be in order to start playtesting it, what do you need?

Answer: Nothing. Not a thing.

Ignacy Trzewiczek writes in his 51st State Design Diary on BoardGameGeek,one of my favorite design diaries of all time:

I have thirty cards. Each of them has a red watercolor on the top and a blue one on the bottom. Each has a name written in the middle. One is called Guardhouse, another Petrol Station, and another Bunker. I take all thirty of them and go to the board games club in Gliwice.


Asiok is the first one to arrive in the club.

“Come in, let me show you something,” I say and take out the cards.

“A new prototype?” he asks

“A brand new one,” I say and give both of us five cards each. “It’s set in the Neuroshima universe, a post-war world with the mood from Mad Max. We’re the leaders of some organization with the aim of expanding our power. Every turn we scan the horizon in search of interesting locations. There are three ways of making contact with a location. You can assault it to immediately get a lot of resources, or you can start collaborating to get a smaller amount of resources every turn. You can also incorporate it into your micro-country by building a road; in this case, you use that location to its full extent. Okay?”


Asiok looks at his five cards.

“Ignacy, these cards are blank.” He shows me his cards marked with paint with names in the middle – like I never saw them before.

“Imagine that there’s something there. Show me what you’ve got. There, you have a Petrol Station. If you assault it, you’ll get lots of fuel at once. Or collaborate with them and get one fuel every turn. Or build a road there and you can start selling that fuel to me.”

“Okay, I’m assaulting the station and take lots of fuel.”

“And I have a Watchtower. I’m making a road connection.”

“What does a Watchtower do?” Asiok asks.

“I have no idea to be honest. Let’s say it defends you from attacks.”

“Can you attack one another?”

“For the time being you can’t. Keep playing. What’s in your hand?”

He’s got nothing. Some colored cards, some names, some theme. No game. Not even the beginning of a rules set. He’s making it up as he goes. And while he’s making it up he’s testing it: what elements do his players take to, what do they find fun?

He’s also, by implication, testing what doesn’t work. All the things that could be added but weren’t, all the giant aliens, D6/D8/D10’s, miniatures, story paragraphs that weren’t included, weren’t added on the spot, just didn’t feel right. All those things fall away before they’re even there. And that’s a very, very good thing.

I once spent two weeks designing a light area control game. I drew up maps, calculated crossings, average-areas-controlled-per-player and cube values. I wrote rules and turn sequences and generally had a blast feeling my brain being on fire. Then I tested it and realized that I’d re-invented Vinci/Small World.

It was fun to run with the design, it gave me pleasure, made my imagination stretch. But if I’m going to realize my long time goal of making money, possibly even a living, off game design I can’t spend two weeks on fun-and-games. There’s a name for that: vacation. And when you’re self employed (as a beginning game designer invariably is) you can’t spend your time vacationing.

Brandon Sanderson[amazon text1=B001IGFHW6&URL=www.amazon.%TLD%/e/e/%TEXT1%?tag=%TAG%], the writer behind the Mistborn books[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=076536543X] and the last Wheel of Time novel, talks about writing between classes and work. Stephen King spent his early career working in an industrial laundry and then coming home, bone tired, to write. They put in the perspiration in order to live off their inspiration. No vacationing.

So you’ve got to balance whim and whit, inspiration and income. No fun will make game design (for me) pointless – I’m doing it because I love it. But if I want to do something I love for a living I have to make a living of the thing I love.

And that means weeding out the bad ideas as early as possible. As Trzewiczek’s example illustrates: test as soon as you’ve got something.

Usability guru Steve Krug, in his Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=0321657292] (and isn’t that title a usability nightmare), writes:

But if it’s one thing usability professionals agree on, it’s that you want to start testing as early as possible.

They know from experience that it’s possible to detect serious usability problems very early in the development process, even if you have very little to show.

And they also know that it’s usually far easier and less costly in the long run if you can fix usability problems early, before you’ve started building out the site with the problems embedded in it.

Unfortunately professionals also know that people resist the idea of testing early. Some common reasons:

  • We don’t have enough done yet.
  • It’s too rough.
  • Why waste people’s time looking at something we know we’re going to change?

Sound familiar? I’ve seen a number of beginning designers fall into the “it’s gotta look good or people won’t like it” trap (and let me tell you that I did too, big time!). Here’s the thing: you’ve got to make a game that people will like in spite of it not looking good. You’re designing a game, not art, not graphic design. If your game needs graphic design to make it good then you haven’t made a good game; at best you’ve made an OK game.

Sure, graphic design can lift a good game to greatness. But don’t use it as a crutch in your prototypes in order to get people’s interest. That’s fine for getting blind playtesters, but not when you’re ironing out your frequently changing prototype. For that, there’s a single maxim (blatantly stolen from Steve Krug): start testing earlier than you think makes sense.

Your future players will thank you for it.

[amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&asin=0321657292,076536543X,B0024H7OF6,B0047UC1HY]

The Flowers of Crystal book cover
A Graveyard in the Sky book cover
Last Stand at Rimont book cover
The Warded Gunslinger book cover
A Duel Among Friends book cover

Get Free Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories!

I hope you enjoyed this content!

If so, subscribe to monthly(-ish) newsletter and get free copies of some of my stories and collections!

No spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time!
Pen icon

1 comment

Leave your comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Get Free Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories!

I hope you enjoyed this content!

If so, subscribe to monthly(-ish) newsletter and get free copies of some of my stories and collections!

No spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time!