Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The importance of a 'bad' playtest

This past weekend saw me traipsing down to London for the monthly meetup group Playtest. Organised by the ever capable Rob Harris, this is a group of local (and this month, international) board and card game designers who get together at a pub to playtest each others games and provide ever-valuable feedback.

Being able to attend groups such as these can be as terrifying as it is rewarding, as getting relative strangers (although after attending this group for over a year, the other members are far from this now!) to playtest and offer critique of your games allows you to get feedback that you could never get from your close circle of friends and regular playtesters, but that feedback is also hard to anticipate or expect.

This particular month I brought along the first prototype of a game, Trinity, that is a new collaboration between Brett Gilbert and myself. Trying to follow my own advice (see the last post) we had spent the last month exploring what the game should be, what our goals were for the game, and the particular mechanics that we could use. Brett and I think about games in quite different ways, and having discussions like these before we even make the first prototype can be a productive way to explore the design space available to us.

In the end, we made the prototype in parts - Brett took care of the dice and board (as his talent for graphic design far exceeds mine), and I created the content for the many cards that were part of this prototype. The game is a sort of choose your own adventure, exploring, questing kind of game - a genre that is actually fairly foreign to both of us (and this aspect of designing games outside your comfort zone may well be the topic of a future post).

Needless to say, we finally got it to the table, and had three other willing playtesters to help us discover whether there was trash or treasure within the game. After an hour and a half of playing, with some laughter, a lot of reading and some confusion, we had found some small specks of gold, but they seemed to be lost in a morass of the gaming equivalent of sludge.

There were many things wrong with the game, and many of the points raised by the other playtesters resonated with my own fears and concerns for the game, that our aim of trying to take a narrative, thematic experience and to pair this with strong, clear and interactive mechanics, might be trying to fulfil diametrically opposed goals.

Suffice to say, I came away from this seemingly 'bad' playtest experience feeling a bit despondant, and almost wanting to shelve the project for some time. Thankfully, Brett was there to rescue me from my despair, and on the train journey back to Cambridge we proceeded to pick apart the game and see what we could make of it.

The surprising thing was, as a result of this conversation, we had even more inspiration for the game, and a good shot of enthusiasm to take it in a new direction for our next prototype. The very next day we met over lunch, and we now have the makings of a new game that has risen from the ashes of the previous one, combining the best parts of the former with some new elements.

Designers sometimes say that a playtest where everything goes wrong is valuable because it clearly shows you what works and what doesn't work in your game, much more than when everything is going smoothly. I would agree with this. But I want to add something more. A seemingly 'bad' playtest can be even more important at the very beginning of game design, because it truly allows you to shake off the shackles of the parts of the design that were weighing you down because you thought they were necessary or central to the experience you were trying to create. A bad playtest frees you to open yourself up to making a truly new and creative game, and to not be constrained by your initial ideas.

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