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Game Design

How to test your game even when you have no one to playtest with

If you’ve taken that game idea that you’ve had in your head for a while and created your MVP (minimum viable prototype), you should give yourself a pat on the back. You’re finally taking the steps to make your own board game, the first crucial step in board game design.

If you need more guidance on this, check out my previous article on creating a prototype quickly.

This may seem like a very inconsequential step, but it’s one that many aspiring game designers never even make it to. That game idea just sits in their head and it never ends up on the table. Many inexperienced game designers just get stuck at this step.

But what do you do once you’ve gotten your makeshift board, index cards with your handwriting all over them, and random parts that you’ve scavenged from your game collection?

Rather than immediately looking for other people to play your game, which may completely fall apart when you turn theory into practice, you can avoid this uncomfortable and possibly embarrassing scenario by first trying out your concept by yourself.

Figure out the setup and what players need to get started

Going back to the idea you had in your head, set up your game as if you had other players with you around the table. Depending on your game, you might just want to set this up as if there were two players to start.

Give each of the players what you would imagine they would need to get started. Shuffle any decks of cards and deal out a hand to each player, giving them any dice, gems, or any other components that may be necessary, leaving the rest of the components within reach.

Figure out where you will place all the objects, such as a board, decks of cards, or anything else used in your game, and set them up in the way you have imagined.

Take turns

Now, what you’re going to do is play the role of each player.

Starting with the first player, go through the motions of taking actions you’d expect to take on your turn. If you anticipate a player will need to draw and/or discard cards, do just that.

Then go to the next player and figure out what they would do in response.

Keep taking turns back and forth to get a feeling for the actions that each player would take, what they are trying to accomplish, and how they would accomplish these goals throughout your game.

If something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t be afraid to make adjustments as you go. If 3 cards in your hand is too limiting, try 4 or 5.

It’s not about trying to “win” against yourself (which is kind of strange to say out loud), it’s all about getting a feel for your game at this point.

What to do if it’s a game that doesn’t work without others

But what if your game contains some element, such as bluffing, negotiation, or deduction, that you can’t really test all by yourself?

I imagine it would have been really difficult to playtest Werewolf or Spyfall and take on the role of multiple players in any reasonable way!

Well, you can still deal out the cards or other components and figure out what types of questions players could ask, what type of information could be revealed, and the timing for when certain actions or events could take place.

You might quickly discover that your game just won’t work for 3 players, even though you thought this would be the minimum player count. Now you know that your game requires at least 4 players, which is helpful information (and better to find out now rather than after you set up a playtest with 2 other people!). Or, you might discover that you will need a different set of clue cards, more rounds than you anticipated, or something else.

It might feel strange to be trying to deduce who the spy is when you already know, but you can still get a good feel for how the game could flow and may very early on discover something that wouldn’t work as it currently stands.

Take action

I want you to take that MVP you’ve created and try it out by yourself, taking on the roles of different players. Set everything up on the table as you’ve imagined the game in your head, and take on the roles of each player, figuring out what each could do on their turn.

In the next article, we’ll look at what you’ve learned from your self-playtest, so that you can make changes and feel good about putting this in front of other real people to try.

Have you self-playtested your game? Did you run into any issues?

Please leave a comment and let me know.

I read every message I receive.

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    I have self-tested a number of games. My biggest issue sometimes is trying to keep track of everything especially at 4 “players”. It is easy to make a mistake and then I have to start over.

    Yes, this is a challenge. Especially if the phone rings or something else distracts you and you have to remember where you left off!

    If you can minimize any possible distractions, and perhaps use a token or other component to track whose turn it is, this can definitely help.

    Hi Joe.

    Thanks for the pointers. My game can go up to 6 players, but i tested a 2 player which in a knock out game makes it a special kind of test.

    I learned quite a lot just from 15 mins playing like this, especially as I’m on my third version of the MVP. It was the first time I’d tested out my changes from the last set of feedback from others. It’s given me things to think abbout how I manage them now, but the good news is I can make these changes and re-test them before my bext formal playtest, which should make it more useful in terms of output, and hooefully more fun for the people playing!

    Cheers, Jason.

    Hi Jason,

    Great to hear you’re moving along quickly with your MVP. This is so crucial. If you just keep your idea in your head or try to build a massive first prototype, you’ll often never get your game to the table.

    Happy designing!

    Hey Joe,
    First, I would like to say thanks for the Board Game Designers Guide book, I found quite a bit of good information within it.

    As a recent college student that came into the hobby of game design to fill the few free hours I had between assignments, projects and sleep, I play-tested on my own most of the time and several times before even putting my game out on the table with friends. For me, this is a time of self reflection on the game that I am making. It usually gets a little confusing trying to keep track of multiple players “thoughts” in your own head, but I have come to find this time spent solo-testing is where I come up with ideas on how to pair the game down and get rid of unneeded parts, or add in a component that helps with game flow. Even distractions that took me away from the round of testing usually became learning tools, because while trying to figure out where I was in the game before the distraction, I found holes in my mechanics and rules that didn’t make sense. So, though I do agree to minimizing distractions during solo-testing, I can recommend building in some, such as setting a time limit or number of rounds before taking a mid-game break. Then when you restart, go over all players situations and plans for their next actions. It is typically during this time that I found faults and/ or fixes to faults in my game. I think it is because of the mid-game break and rethink of next actions for each player that helps me slowdown and rethink individual pieces of my mechanic and its reaction within the game that can help bring attention to something out of balance. I believe the stop/ rethink process helps to keep me from running on autopilot while trying to think like multiple people in a game, therefore ending up running right through a hole in my mechanics without even noticing.

    Thanks again, Michael

    Great points, Michael! Thank you for sharing your approach.

    I have done this a few times, sometimes with success and other times without. I find the more information I have to try and track the harder it is to actually do.

    Recently I have been testing a roll and write. I found that this works really well solo as I can roll the dice and mark up my board as players would just to get a feel for what writing would actually feel like with more players.

    However, big games with multiple actions I find a bit more challenging. One thing I have done is cut out action cards of all the actions available and set up a row for each dummy player. When it is their turn they take the topmost action available to them. If they can’t legally take the top action, you just go down the list, then move the action to the bottom when you take that action. This helps me not to spend brain power on what “I would do as a player” and rather, “does this flow right?” Or, “Does this action feel like a good action to take?”

    Thanks for the comment, Wayne. It definitely can be hard to track this, especially if you have a large player count you’re testing or your game has a high level of complexity.

    This is a great process you’ve outlined for taking the actions of the other players around the table.

    Thanks Joe, I do a lot of testing like this, not only for my own designs but the things I work on as a developer. It can be done on most game types, and certainly the type of things I design and work on and provides lots of great feedback. As well as helping to form the basics early on it’s great for stress testing certain setups, combinations, or strategies. I often use post-it notes for each player to remind me of their overarching strategy or mindset. Up to 4 players I find pretty easy over that can be struggle at first but as one of my designs is a euro that goes up to 7 players I’ve had plenty of practice!

    Great point, David. I failed to mention in my article that I also use post-it notes or scraps of paper placed in front of each player to indicate the strategy each is taking. Otherwise, it can be a lot to remember every time you come back to a player’s turn!

    Loved the article! The big takeaway is to make sure your players can play with just the notes you have provided.

    As I was reading the comments I was wondering why don’t we playtest with ChatGPT or similar models.

    E.g. Upload the outline of the game and gameplay (the critical part I think the post is about). Go down granular to the point of sending the model a picture of the hand of the/each player. Asking questions on what they would play next and why, what could be better explained or illustrated/improved.

    Also do sit back without interference to see what the game loop looks like and adjust the game instructions to get closer to your vision, also look out for additional features you can strengthen. Sometimes shortcuts can become a major feature. ChatGPT could generate the missing illustrations and or text when needed. It’s time to go out and play! =)

    Thanks, Henk!

    I’m not a big fan of the use of ChatGPT and other models myself. I prefer to playtest with real people and get their honest feedback to make the game better (I may also discover future backers!). Maybe there’s something that could help here though. I’d be interested to see what you or others might discover using these tools.

    Solo testing a game can avoid subjecting playtesters to problems that can quickly become obvious. For instance, once I got up to the full 6-player count in one of my games, I realized that the first several players could take all of the available actions in the first and even second rounds, leaving the rest to just twiddle their thumbs. I tested decreasing the starting resources until each player had a chance to play each round. I’m happy I learned that on my own where I was the only person that could frustrate.

    I haven’t used sticky notes yet, though that sounds like a great idea. I do often give my virtual players different stratrgies, like playing safe or risky, always drawing or playing the same kind or number of resources, playing tactically or strategically, paying attention to what other players are doing or being more self-focused, playing quickly or taking a more analytical approach, etc. While certainly making the playtesting more complex, this gives me a lot of data and even some sense of how the game feels.

    Thanks, Kiva! I wholeheartedly agree. I like testing out my games first on my own to see what’s working and what’s not. As you have explained, you can quickly discover some issues that will need to be resolved before putting this in front of others.