They Want To Like Your Game

It’s important to note that this isn’t an article about what to do when someone doesn’t like your game. It’s an article about getting honest feedback no matter what they think of your game.

I’ve talked a few times about play testers and the experience they bring to game design. However, I’ve only danced around one of the most important concepts in working with your testers. That is, for the most part, they really want to like your game. This is something that is true in film and stage. Anytime a person puts themselves out there for others the people receiving the performance, art, or medium, all things being equal, want to like it. It’s empathy. They know if they put that much of themselves out there that they’d want someone else to give them a fair shot, or maybe more than a fair shot.

That’s a good place to come from as makes it easier to get new people to test your games. However, it is very much a double edged sword because when it’s all said and done most people will have a hard time telling you the truth when the test is over. Let’s assume for a minute that they didn’t hate your game, odds are in favor they’ll like it more than that, so most people will honestly like or love your game. The problem is when you have people who would have liked it if something was a bit different, but they don’t want to bring the play test down with their honest feedback. They don’t want to “be that guy.” These are the play testers you need to watch for. I find it’s best to resist the urge for feedback mid game. It tends to hurt the flow, and can cause outcomes in the play style that would never happen in the wild. So you have to work from experience at spotting the people who are actively stuck on a point in the game’s design. Sometimes you will get it wrong. I know a few times I was certain someone wasn’t into one of my games, and at the end they couldn’t stop talking about how much they loved it. Still, with practice reading the body language of a gamer will tell you who needs coaching at getting honest feedback at the end of the play session more than not.

So once you’ve hit that point for feedback it’s still best to guide the players without leading them. Just because you think you know who will have more insights to share doesn’t mean you should push them to the front. Again, partly because you might have guessed wrong, and partly because that may make them shut up faster than anything. I find it’s best to give them open questions that make them feel safe. In the past I opened with “Did you have fun?” but that can put a person on edge if they didn’t have fun, or if they only had a little bit of fun. Instead, I assume the negative, and ask “what got in the way of the fun?” This tells them I’m OK with negative feedback, and I assume it will happen. Fortunately, the typical answer is “nothing.” However, sometimes that “nothing” is followed with a “but I’d like to see…” The best part is their thoughts are usually the kinds of things you need to know.

Having a great opener is nice, but you need to back it up with your body language, and follow up questions. You need to resist the urge to defend a point in the game’s design. It’s OK to clarify a design point, but remain open, and take their feedback into consideration. If they are the only person who has ever felt that way, then you’re probably OK. If they are the 3rd, 4th, or 5th person to mention it over time, it’s time to really take a close look at it. In general, it’s just a good idea to remove yourself from the equation, and be glad you have people who are putting your game through a gauntlet of testing.

It doesn’t matter if the game is balanced

Recently I’ve begun testing a new game that I’ve designed. The feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive that I’ve decided to fast track its production. That said, very early on its design I hit a rough spot with the scoring. You see each time I played it with four people one of those four would always make a comment like “I can’t win.” about half way through the game. This wasn’t always the case mind you, but the player honestly felt like they couldn’t win, so I would explain to them how they could win. As it turned out if they said that, then odds were in favor they weren’t going to win, but they still had a chance. At first this didn’t bother me a lot because the math said everything was balanced tightly, people still could come back from that position, and it was a short game running about 20 minutes. (The current version runs about 30 minutes.) However, as I continued to test it with people that comment seemed to pop up every single game. Eventually, I had to face facts 25% of my players weren’t having fun about half way through the game. It didn’t matter how much the math told them they were wrong, if they weren’t having fun, then the balance meant squat. I did eventually find an alternate scoring systems that did a good job of removing that feeling while making sure that the right amount of skill and luck determined the winner. I was able to keep the balance, and to be honest the game is a lot better for it.

As tough of a pill as it is to swallow, with game design, the final truth is what the players feel while they play the game is what truly matters. There are games that are fairly dull or uninspired, in my opinion, but if 90% of the people who play those games are having fun, then that’s all that matters right? I mean perception trumps game balance is the point I’ve been making this whole time, right? I mean I said as much in this article’s title.

Well, the article title is only telling half of the story. As I’ve said in previous posts when I play a game if the theme is awesome, but the rules are bad, then the game very obviously suffers. If the theme is boring, but the rules are good, then the game still suffers, but in a different way. If you can have an awesome theme, and awesome rules, then you cast the widest net possible, and maximize enjoyment. It’s why I design fusion games (games that use American type themes, and lighter Euro style mechanics), and why I prefer to play fusion games. Everyone at the table is likely to enjoy those games more than the games that are only American type or only Euro type.

In the same way, a game that isn’t balanced, but feels fun or balanced isn’t as strong as a game that is both balanced and fun. In the end you need both to make the best game possible.

Game Design – Rapid Prototyping 101

Last week I mentioned my rapid prototyping system, but only hinted at some of the details. Now I’m going to share a little bit of what goes into my rapid prototypes. It’s important to note that every designer should find their own process and style for designing a game. What works best for me may not work best for you.

The first step in rapid prototyping is having a set tools at the ready. That is, have sharpies, pens, pencils, blank cards (easy/cheap to order on Amazon), deck protectors, dice bags, dice, and tokens in your supply. Odds are in favor that quick list I gave will cover most of the elements you’ll need in your prototype.

Myth: To make a prototype card you should have cheap Magic cards, playing cards, or some other card stock base to tape your paper stock card over.
Fact: Having cheap blank cards from Amazon is plenty. In fact the only reason I use them instead of regular paper stock is I have to cut out paper cards, and the blanks are already cut. If you don’t have blanks that are already cut, and you only have paper stock, then all you need to make the card workable is a deck protector. They will give more than enough sturdiness for the rigors of play testing. Please don’t waste your time taping your prototype cards to existing playing cards. This tip also applies to print and play games as well.

The next thing to consider when making your initial prototype is what are the bare minimum number of pieces you need to test the game once by yourself. This helps with a couple of things up front. First, you can very rapidly see if your game idea will behave as well as you hope. In addition, you are more likely to be open to changing things, even dramatically, if the initial test doesn’t go optimally. The general rule of thumb is the further you are into the design process the less likely you are to change things. The problem with that is if you are really far into the design process before you find out that you should change something, you are much more likely to justify not making the change. I’ve said before that play testers want to like your game, but the truth is if they only had middling fun, or worse with their initial experience, then they are much more likely to politely decline testing in the future. This leads to the final advantage which is you are more likely to put a polished game in front of your play testers.

How do you decide the minimum number of pieces? Let’s look at a card game for example. If you envision the final game needs 108 cards, ask yourself what the minimum, or typical number of players will be. If it’s 3, then ask how many cards will you need to get 3 players through 3 or 4 rounds. You might find that 32 cards is all you need. Pick 32 cards that you believe will give a good sense of the game experience, make those, and test the game by yourself. If the game has potential you should know after those first few rounds.

Of course all of that assumes you’ve put your ideas down on paper, or other medium in a way that lets you quickly transcribe the well thought out pieces, cards, etc. into physical space. Having the above components, and a process for turning them into usable game pieces is actually the second step. You don’t want to decide to make a game about something, and not have all of the cards, and other components thought out ahead of time. I personally suggest using Excel with multiple tabs to help map out your initial game idea, and details on pieces.

One tab can list some quick notes about the goal of the game, setup, turn order, victory conditions, and misc. notes that should be kept in mind. These aren’t complete rules, but just a space to organize your thoughts. For example, if the game has factions, for whatever reason, note the factions, and how they vary.

A second tab will likely list the cards in the game, perhaps their faction, color, cost, or other consistent attributes. Additionally, it will likely have a column called “special” which is where the special text that breaks the rules of the game go. If there are multiple types of cards in the game, then you’ll likely want a new tab for each type.

Depending on the game’s design or requirements other tabs can be created to note what the pieces are, and their vital stats. Other tabs might be used to track any math behind your balance, and notes for expansion possibilities. By putting all of this in Excel you’ve pretty much designed the core of the game. From here you can take your blank cards, and other pieces and quickly transcribe them.

The unspoken element in all of this of course is while designing these cards you have to constantly be planning for balance, and fun.

Don’t Make Your Game Look Too Good!

Recently, I gave a talk at a panel during AndoCon 2014 on board game design. There were a lot of great questions during the panel, and some of them were on topics I’ve already covered previously on this website. There were also a few great questions, that I haven’t shared my thoughts and experiences on, so I thought I’d answer one of those today. The question asked of me was on prototyping. It ended up being a multipart question that covered a few key points. The first being what’s the best way to make your game look good during a prototype?

I love this question because I’ve approached this several ways in the past, and I see designers approach it in a number of ways as well. The best approach is to have your game look as good as it is done. What do I mean by that? Basically, if the game is new, and has barely been play tested, then it visually should look pretty rough, and be made from unimpressive components. In that way, if the game is nearly done, then it should have great visuals, and nice pieces to reflect its state of completeness. This may seem counter intuitive. Why not have a game look great early on? Honestly I see a decent number of developers have wonderful pieces, for early drafts of their games.

Let me tell you a quick story. When I first got back into game design I decided to share a game I had designed with a local gaming circle. I decided I wanted to show them what I knew would become a great game, so I wrote the rules in great detail, created wonderful art, and even imported little glass vials and filled them with glitter to use as a game pieces. The game was gorgeous, and so the first time I took it to the board game store where I wanted to play test it all I had to do was open the box, and people flooded over to see my work. Let’s just say the game was nowhere near ready to have other people play. I in fact only took it to the store to buy deck protectors for it, and I wanted the cards with me to test. I was trying to keep the game a secret till I tested it a few times. I was talked into trying it the next day, and it went poorly. It didn’t go poorly for the reasons you might expect. Don’t get me wrong the game wasn’t ready, but that was only half of it. The real trouble was everyone could see the huge amount of effort I put into the project, and that made it really hard to get real feedback about the game. It wasn’t until a year later, and long after I scraped the project, that I finally found out details about what people thought.

Seeing that so many hours were lost making the game look good I decided I needed a way to get my ideas on the table faster. I also needed to get people’s expectations in line with the current state of the project. If the game was a rough draft, so were the visuals. With that in mind I eventually came up with my rapid prototype system. It started as an experiment. Get a bunch of cheap blank white cards on Amazon, grab a pen, and other bits, and see if I can design a game from idea to a finished playable game in under two hours. On my first try I had a game ready to play in just barely that time. It played, well, OK. It wasn’t great, but I had come up with an idea, and made a playable game in a very short amount of time. I later tried it again, and had a game ready in an hour, and it was honestly a better game. However, the goal wasn’t to make a good game, or a great game, but just prove that functional prototypes didn’t need to take countless hours.

Since that time most every game I work on uses some variation of the rapid prototyping system, and I found as a great side effect people give me more open and useful feedback. It also ironically seems to be that rapidly making games seems to improve their quality. Several of the games I’ve designed using this system barely change from their first draft to their final draft.

The real question people have for me is what is the rapid prototyping system? And that is a great question. I meant to answer it during the panel, but we moved onto another topic, so I’ll answer that in next post.

Havok & Hijinks – Don’t slay a dragon… BE one!

I’m really excited about this week’s interview. About a year ago I had the pleasure of meeting the team at Epic Slant Press, and not only did I get a chance to try their incredibly fun card game, but I learned a lot about the business of game design, Kickstarter, and even leadership. I was so impressed with the team I backed the project that night, and later when I found out about their other projects I had to share them with the rest of you.

Recently, their team leader, Adam “Ferrel” Trzonkowski, took a few moments to talk with me about all of these things including Havok & Hijinks

Twix the Magnificent

David : Hello Adam thanks for taking the time to meet with me today.

Adam: It’s my pleasure David, thank you for your interest in me and our project.  I really appreciate it.

David: I want to start by saying I had the pleasure of meeting you, and your team at Epic Slant Press, during last year’s DragonCon in Atlanta Georgia. You told me several things that have stood out to me as interesting, and useful. In fact I’d say I got more from our brief conversation than an entire con’s worth of panels. The first of those being that Epic Slant Press works to be a business run with a positive tone both inside, and out. I didn’t think to ask for details on how you do it, but even in our brief conversation I saw signs of it. Still, I’d like to learn more about this practice?
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Where is the Pig?

Recently I decided to reboot a game I was play testing. It was actually a pretty well received game, but as I’ve said before you have to make a game you like. I decided this game was a bit too euro for my tastes, and the theme begged to be more lightweight than the mechanics allowed. A lot of my play testers were shocked when I dropped the old design, but I stand behind my conviction about the game you design having to really appeal to you.

I say this because the new game, with zero rules in common with the old, does share the same theme and story as the old one. It also uses some mechanics I’ve been dying to put into a game for some time now, so I’m really pleased with the design. The tricky thing is I purposely left the mechanics a bit on the spartan side. I’ll talk about this more in a future article, but generally speaking I prefer to design a game with fewer mechanics up front, and make it “deeper” as I play test. With this game I knew I’d likely need to add something to help push the story of the game along, but the mechanics were so unique I just wanted to confirm the game had potential before fleshing out the rest.

Meanwhile, I’m talking with a friend of mine who hasn’t done a design, yet, but he likes to muse about game designs that would appeal to him. In his game each player controlled a team of goblins piloting a steam powered mech, badly, trying to beat each other up. He spelled out a decent overview of the rules, and mechanics without going too deep for a pitch to me in an email. His final sentence in the pitch was “and if a goblin team can get the pig into the other player’s goal they win.” At no point previously did he even mention the pig. He didn’t have to. I instantly knew what he was going for, and I realized something. My game needs a pig.

As an homage to the idea I even named the mechanic in my new game “the pig.” Ultimately, I dropped that mechanic, but I was still worked to find the right pig. That is to say every game needs a pig, not just any pig, but the pig that will make it stand out, and move the story of the game forward, create that unique decision, or take the whole experience to a new level. It doesn’t have to be the most creative pig, but it’s nice when it is, but it does have to be elegant, and promote one of those core ideals of game design.

Just in case I’m not being clear about what “the pig” might be I’ll list a few well known recent games, and their pigs.

Mice and Mystics – The Cheese Wheel.
Finca – The windmill.
Forbidden Island – Water rises cards.
Dominion – Deck building.
Shogun – The dice tower. (It’s not a cube tower. It’s actually the battle tower.)
Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan – Tribute dice.

Of course not every game has an easily described pig. Look at Sentinels of the Multiverse. It’s an incredible game loved by gamers of all types, but I personally am at a lose to describe its pig.

Still, just because it may be tricky to describe a pig doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put one in your game. It’s critical to have a pig. So the next time you’re designing a game, playing a game, or play testing a game ask yourself “Where’s the pig?”

Our Amazing Druidess

I’ve showcased Bramasta’s art for our up and coming game Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan a fair amount on the site. I am a great fan of his work, and one of my favorite things is to wake up to see a work in progress (WIP) from him. Some days I’m lucky enough to get two or three WIPs, and that can turn any day, that would have been a bad day, into a wonderful day.

Today is one of those days, and I’ve been missing them, so I wanted to share it with you. Here is the first WIP for our lovely druidess:



For those of you who haven’t had a chance to play test the druidess she is one of my personal favorites to play. Her ability to wield nature in ways to both help herself, and hurt her opponents is always satisfying.

The first time this game has hit the table!

OK, I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s a terrible secret. I’ve been lying to you. Well, I’ve been lying to you if you’re one of my play testers.

So yeah, maybe if you’re one of my play testers you should look away now.

When I say “this is the first time the game has hit the table.” I’m just being dishonest. (I got tired of the word lying.) The truth is, as many game designers will tell you, the game has hit the table plenty of times before you’ve ever seen it, or possibly even heard of it. The process I’m about to describe isn’t a revolution in design, and each designer will have his own spin on it, but it’s a critical step in the game design process, and one that I’ve seen some designer skip.

I can’t stress this enough. Do not skip these steps, or the steps like them when designing a game.

The first step is to play the game in your head before you even finish writing your initial notes about it. Walk through the rules in your head, as best you can, and play out a turn from top to bottom. Focus on each detail of the process, and what the player will be doing on his turn. Imagine the mechanics at first, and then later when you run things through your head, after you’ve written down the rules, imagine his experience. Is he making a choice that is interesting? Or is the game just sort of playing itself? Are there steps that are slowing him down, getting in the way, confusing to describe? Find those weak points in the player’s experience, tweak the rules, and replay them in your head again.

That first step hasn’t made me dishonest just yet. The game doesn’t even have pieces at this stage.

At some point after you’ve done this you’re on to actually prototyping some pieces. My advice is to have as few pieces made as needed to play a quick version of the game. There are tons of guides out there on prototyping, and I’ll talk about it more in greater detail in later articles. The thing to remember now is make the prototype as quickly as you can justify making it. Cut all corners you can cut while still making a playable prototype. That is to say if you can play a sample round or two with 20 cards, don’t make 50. You might find that the game needs heavy tweaking after you test it, and you’ve just wasted a lot of time, and energy if you made more than you need.

Once you have the prototype ready setup the game where you are the only player. This means you are taking on the function of player 1, player 2, and maybe 3 and 4 depending on the game’s requirements. Now start playing rounds of the game. This is easier said than done depending on the game’s nature, and mechanics. A hidden Identity game will be very tricky to test in this way, but with a bit of effort you can still get a sense of play by yourself. Meanwhile with a game like Addictive Alchemy it’s really easy to test all of the roles as one person. You can’t account for individual behavior by yourself, but you can see a lot. Whatever the game type is test as much of it as you can by yourself with actual pieces before putting in front of other people. Like I said before I’ve seen designers bring games to people, and they haven’t tested things, and it’s rarely pretty.

OK, that was it. That’s how I’ve been lying to you. I have a good reason though. I don’t want you to suffer with a game that might not even work right from the first round. I need it to be something that has a chance of functioning correctly when I’ve asked you to give your time to test it. I need it to be something that won’t waste either of our time.

So the next time I tell you this lie, just look the other way, and pretend like you don’t know, because really it’s the first time that it has hit the table and mattered.

Defending your game

At some point in the past, possibly recently (I’ll remain vague), I was sitting near a table of people play testing a game. I have no idea whose game it was, because I wasn’t looking at them, or even what game it was. Whoever these brave play testers were they had just finished the game. As is fairly common in play tests the designer was there to watch, or even play along with the others. It was fairly quiet, so I couldn’t help but overhear the feedback session. It was a lot like many feedback sessions I’ve heard.

Play tester 1: The game was too [something mumbled].
Game designer: Really? OK.
Play tester 2: Yeah, too [that thing again].
Game designer: Oh well, I don’t think [that thing] because [some reason].
Play tester 1: It really does need to be less [that thing].
Game designer: But when you look at [who cares], then it’s not really too [that thing].
Play tester 3: Can you do [some idea] to make it less [that thing]?
Game designer: [That thing] shouldn’t be a problem for people who play games.

First I want to say to Game designer. I hear you. Players just love to not get your game. I mean you’ve thought through every detail, did the math, and probably even did some trial runs in your head before you ever started building pieces. Not only that you’ve played it with other people who played the way you wanted them to. These play testers who have concerns are clearly missing the point. Let them know what they’re not seeing. Right?

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A little bit of Rogue

OK, I have a confession. I’ve been a bit stingy with you guys about some of the art we’ve been developing for Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan. I’ve shown you some great early art concepts of the Druidess, Illusionist, and the Necromancer.

In fact right now I’m going to even show you a very early draft of the Princess.

However, one thing I haven’t done is show you some of the final art for any of these beautiful epic heroes. With that I present to you…

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