How to bounce back after a bad playtest (and how to use this experience to make your game much better)
I’m revisiting this post from a few years ago. I’ve definitely grown as a game designer since then and do my best to check in with my playtesters and keep my games to a more reasonable length. Still, it’s a great reminder and I hope you take away some important lessons from this article. Enjoy!
It ran 50% longer than the average game length. Some of the players became disengaged by the end. Two of them actually said they never wanted to play the game again.
It was a rough playtest, to say the least.
But this reminded me of a few key things that you must keep in mind when playtesting your game.
Check the pulse
It’s good to check in with your playtesters while they are playing the game to see if everybody understands how to play and to gauge how they are feeling.
If there is something unclear, a player can get frustrated very easily.
Maybe they are unsure of what actions they have available to them or may have missed something in the rules explanation.
You have to remember they are taking in a lot of information about a game they’ve never played before, so you may have to go over things again in your game to ensure that all players understand what they can and cannot do. This can help to open up other options or paths for players that they didn’t realize they could take.
It also reminded me to pay close attention to body language, along with what players are doing when it’s not their turn.
A couple of the players were looking at their cell phones in the last couple of rounds while they were waiting for other players to finish.
This is definitely not a good sign.
It could’ve been they received a message from a partner, family member, or friend that they felt they needed to check, but more than likely they were simply getting bored.
At the very least, I should have asked players how they were feeling and checked to see if they were still interested in playing further.
Call the game early
While I wanted to do a full run-through of the game to ensure that the different paths to victory were well-balanced, which I made all players aware of at the start, I could have ended early and still had a good idea about the balance.
There’s nothing wrong with ending a game early. You can usually get just as good feedback and it’s definitely a positive move to make if players are losing interest.
Putting things in perspective
Fortunately, I kept an open mind, wrote pages of feedback, and was thankful to the players for playing my game and letting me know the issues they found.
I went over my notes with my co-designer afterwards and he also reminded me of something really important: there are always going to be games that you don’t like, and this goes for any gamer.
Think about it for a moment. Are there any games you’ve played once that you would never want to play again? I’m sure there are at least a few that you can think of.
It might be something about the theme, mechanics, the rulebook, or anything else that just doesn’t appeal to you.
And these are published games! Thousands of copies have been made and there are probably lots of people who are big fans. But that doesn’t mean that everybody loves that game.
Turning a negative into a positive
As I mentioned in a previous article, you need to always be learning, and this is especially the case when things aren’t going right.
While the playtest and feedback were discouraging, it was also helpful in highlighting the parts of the game where players lost interest. If I had just written this off as one bad playtest or taken it personally, my game would not improve.
The next day, I came up with some ideas to address the identified issues. I trimmed back some of the cards, adjusted the way scoring happened during each round, and got a great suggestion from my co-designer on how to further speed up player turns.
We tried it out, and lo and behold, it worked! The flow was much faster, and it didn’t take away from any of the other great aspects of the game.
Of course, more playtests are needed (as always), but it’s definitely back on track.
Have you ever had a playtest go really bad? What did you learn from this and how did you use this to improve your game?