The Board Game Design Course

Where great games begin

Game Design

Playtesting questions to ask (and other things to look for)

When it comes to playtesting, there are plenty of different questions you can ask. Some are definitely more helpful than others. But aside from playtesting questions, you also need to pay attention to other things as well.

Look at body language. Are people leaning in and showing interest or are they pushed away from the table and not really engaged?

What are players doing on their turn? What are they doing when it’s not their turn? Are they strategizing and preparing for what to do next, or are there long downtimes and major changes to the state of play that don’t allow one to plan their next turn?

These are all important considerations to look for.

You’ll gather a lot of important insights just by watching people play your game. They will also often be open to general feedback on your game, but you want to be prepared to dive a little deeper. When it comes to the end of your game, make sure to have some specific questions in mind to ask them about their experience and any recent changes you’ve made.

Of course, what you ask will be highly dependent on the state of your game (early idea, middling playtests, near completion, etc.), so we’ll look at some good general questions and some more specific ones based on the status of your game.

Here are some of my favourite questions to ask after a playtest.

Judging the balance of strategy and luck

If your game has lots of elements of strategy, it’s often good to turn to the player who just won and ask them, “do you feel you earned the win?”

This makes a player think about their strategy and whether they felt like they played the game well or if the game played them. You want players to feel like their decisions mattered and that their victory was earned.

Conversely, you should also ask all the other playtesters if they felt like they were still in the game up to the end. It’s never fun to feel like there is no hope of winning 10 minutes into a 2-hour game because you made one suboptimal play early on. Rather, you want all players to feel like they still had the opportunity to win or at least come close, even if this would have required a bit of luck.

If players felt like they had no chance of winning, you can look at the different possible strategies to see if any were overpowered (OP), try to re-balance the game, make some or all scoring hidden, or look at other ways to make the game more competitive.

You want to deliver a fun and engaging experience for your players, one where they had to make interesting decisions that really mattered and felt like they had a chance of coming out victorious.

Good vs Bad

Two of the most common questions that designers will ask their playtesters are “what did you like most about the game?”, followed by, “what didn’t you like?” or some variation of these questions.

This is often a good way to get things going, allowing players to say something nice and not feel that they are coming down on you too hard. Then you open it up and allow them to detail what they felt could be improved.

Another option is to ask playtesters what they would like to see different about the game. To paraphrase Sen-Foong Lim, designer of Junk Art, Akrotiri, and many other great games, “If you could change one thing about the game, what would it be?” A question like this lets the player focus on and identify the one thing that they feel needs improvement, which allows the designer to also focus in on one thing to change, rather than a laundry list of problems.  

A good question to ask at an early stage when you’re first testing the game is whether it was a fun idea that’s worth pursuing. This can save you a lot of time or guide you in another direction much earlier than it would have otherwise, allowing you to have a better focus for your game or move on to a better idea.

Length of Play

I like to ask players how long they thought the game took. If players say “30 minutes” and they had actually been playing for 45 minutes or longer, this is a good sign. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, so if they felt the game was shorter than it actually was, this can be a good sign.

You could also simply ask if they felt the game was too short, too long, or just about right. Obviously, you are hoping they say, “just right”, but there’s a chance that they felt the game went a round or two too long or they didn’t get to accomplish everything they hoped for and would have liked more time.

You don’t want a game to overstay its welcome. If it felt too long to players, it probably is too long. Look for ways to shorten the number of rounds, trigger the end game sooner, or make turns faster.

If players would have liked a bit more time, there may be good reason to look at extending the game. However, it’s also good to leave players wanting more. Perhaps they would just choose to play again if they really enjoyed themselves. It is up to you as the game designer to determine whether a change is needed.

Get Specific

If you’ve just changed something in your game, whether it be the number of rounds, the type of drafting, or the iconography, ask playtesters about this. Let them know right from the start that you are looking for specific feedback on this change so that they can hone in on this and provide you with their thoughts about this at the end of the game.

The same thing goes for aspects you’re not concerned about at the moment. If you know that the balance is off or you’re not looking for feedback on art or graphic design at the moment, let the players know this from the outset. If it’s early on, you’ll probably suspect that the economy isn’t right and things will be unbalanced, and that’s ok. Just let them know this and that you’re just trying to test the concept to see if it works and if it has potential.

Wrapping it up

Pay attention to players as they play your game and be ready to ask them some specific questions about your game, whether they are aspects you have been tweaking or something that you noticed during the playtest, such as nobody purchasing a certain card or using a specific action.

The questions you ask will provide you with the answers you need to move forward, so ask your questions well!

What playtesting questions do you like to ask that you feel are particularly helpful?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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    Joe: Super post on playtesting. One of the most helpful I have ever seen. Thanks for sharing!

    Thanks so much, Jack! I also appreciate you letting me know about that this blog hadn’t gone live this morning. All fixed now!