Note: This is less essay, more diary, than what I usually do. It’s a very spur of the moment thing and is somehow even less structured than my usual writing.
I submitted With A Smile & A Gun to the Cardboard Edison Awards. It’s a yearly contest where you submit a rulebook and a video overview of a pitch-stage game, and get feedback on it. I LOVE that contest, because you get high-level feedback on your pitch, and can have a better idea of the first impression your game idea has on people. Usually, by then, you know what works mechanically, and its just a question of what to emphasize and what to tune down a bit, whether it’s to pitch to publishers, or to customers when you get to self-publishing.
That kind of feedback is very valuable for me. I can walk away from a playtest without asking questions and still get a pretty good feel for how the systems worked, what mechanisms need to be dug into, and which part people struggled to understand. However, I have more trouble figuring out those first impressions, how much of a tester sitting down is interest in the game idea, in playtesting in general, or just politeness.
I had a LOT of feedback about it at ProtoTO, where there is a presentation of your prototypes, and you set up your game and spend an hour-ish telling people why they should spend their limited con-time testing YOUR game. But that is a very limited thing, it’s pretty hard to reproduce: at design nights, we usually all get a turn, you don’t have to convince anyone. If you bring a new prototype to your regular game night, it’s more about social aspects than your pitch itself–your friends probably want to help you, they know about your other projects, they know who you are and the kind of games you like.
I could probably find a way to ask playtesters about that pitch, but I never do. To truly grasp their first impression, it would probably have to happen before the actual playtest, and I’d worry about what it would do to the session’s pace–hook them, then feedback, then teach, then game, then feedback again? Or just do the pitch, feedback on pitch, and then thank you? Catch-and-release?
I wrote about thinking about your pitch earlier in the process in another article. I still think that is a crucial part of serious game design, and that you should test how excited people get about your concept before you start working on it. That being said, it goes against all of the “get it to the table ASAP” advice that we hear from the greats. Problem is, I haven’t yet mastered how to get feedback on my pitch during the game’s development, and so I either do it all at the end (which is VERY hard), or before (which delays the mechanisms from being tested).
So yeah. As I said, more diary than essay, and probably not that helpful to many of you. I’m hoping maybe we can get a discussion going about it? Do you work on your pitch during the game’s design? If so, how?
In D&D, specifically the 3rd edition I grew up on, there’s this sort of a treadmill of numbers: at level 1, your sword deals 5 damage to an 11hp Orc; at level 8, your +2 holy battleaxe deals 50 damage to an 110hp Fire Giant; at level 12, your +4 flaming magicbane greatsword deals 100 damage to an 220hp Purple Worm. The numbers get bigger, but they increase at the same pace, so it never feels like you’re making progress. Color swap the enemies and get on to the next dungeon. If all you saw was a health bar rather than the pure numbers, you couldn’t tell the difference. I guess at least you’re rolling more dice?
The same thing happens in many Euro games. A game where you do the same thing on turn 2 as you do on turn 18 gets boring quickly, so many designers use inflation to solve that problem: early on, an action nets me 2 wood, and building the inn costs 5 wood to get 8 points. Afterwards, by the time I get my engine going, I can get 6 wood as an action, but by then, there are no inns to build, only Castles, which cost 15 wood and give me 24 points. Same ol’ number treadmill as D&D. Inflation makes it feel like you’re doing more, but its a very thin illusion that doesn’t take very long to peel off.
Then, Caverna happened. I liked Caverna a whole lot, despite disliking Agricola. One of the big parts of it was how each action just gave you more stuff. Not “double every number”, but just more variety. You were sitting there, thinking “I need wood, let’s go here to get the 4 wood I’m missing… and a pig? Alright, sure.” Then, next turn, you’d have to choose: “do I try to do something with this pig, or use that wood I’ve accumulated?”
If you’re working on a game with an engine building aspect to it, I’d strongly urge you to look into this. Giving your players more varied yields to their actions is a lot more interesting than just giving them a lot more of the same stuff. It opens up your options. It gives players ways to feel clever. It opens up your design room: Now you can have more than one actions which give you wood, each with their own kicker!
And just to be clear, this isn’t just true of worker placement games. To go back to D&D, one of the main switch after 3rd edition was to go from a magical sword that gave you +3 to your attacks, to one that allowed you to push your enemies around, or which could turn to fire, or allowed you to teleport, or heal your allies. It’s the difference between Pandemic’s “5 action” Generalist, and every other role with a special ability.
You might think “this is the exact same thing as your post about straight-up VPs“, and you’d be right. Wow, you saw right through my ruse. I think it is applying the same logic to a different problem. There’s a lot more stuff you could apply this to!
I think building those power curves is a necessary part of designing most games, but too often designers default to the boring answer that is inflation. Open your horizons, and your players’ options!
Note: Life has been a bit hectic lately, making it hard for me to get another article written. I’ve dipped into my chest of old essays about games. I wrote this 5 years ago, so the examples are a tiny bit dated now, yet I still think it’s worth sharing. Were I to write this today, I’d nuance it a bit much, but I’m interested in what comes out of it.
I’ve just started reading “Characteristics of Games”, by Richard Garfield and two other dudes, and I saw a part that made me want to write a blog post about it. The section was about the continuum between innovation (new, unique concepts/mechanisms) and standards (old, familiar concepts/mechanisms) as opposed characteristics.
“People often decry the use of standards and claim they represent a lack of innovation […] But in the end, games are for people to enjoy, and most people enjoy games with which they have a certain comfort level. Innovation is sometimes appreciated, but convenience always is. So innovation is best saved for areas where it really pulls its weight—where the innovation improves the game experience in some ways. If an innovation is no better than what it replaces, it can fail to be accepted for two reasons: first because it is new and thus harder to learn, and second because being new it is easy for the designer to get the details wrong so that the new feature may well be unpolished. And when successful games do have innovative elements, they usually have just one or two; more than that and the game may be too overwhelming for most people. […]
All this is not to say that standards must be respected at all costs. Rather, deciding how and when to use standards is an important part of the game designer’s art. But the point is to consider standards as a good thing, to be deviated from when there is a real gain from doing so, rather than as a bad thing forced on unfortunate designers by an ignorant public or a cowardly publisher. When innovation really does add a lot to a game, to the point where it overcomes any audience resistance to nonstandard games, the payoff can be big.”
Innovation is challenging to players on three fronts: 1. Because it requires actual learning of actually new rules. When was the last time you explained a non-gateway game to a non-gamer? Recently, a light gamer decided to join a game of Rococo, because the theme tricks you into thinking it’s a light game or something. The card choice section of the game took him at least 20 examples to understand, mainly because he had not played Dominion (“What, there are still people who haven’t played Dominion?”, you ask? Yeah, I know). For those of us who had, the explanation was utterly simple: like in Dominion, you have your deck, hand, and discard, and when your deck runs out, your discard becomes your deck; unlike Dominion, you select, rather than draw blindly, which cards from your deck go into your hand. To us, this was an innovative twist, based on the standard set before by other deckbuilders. For him, this was an overwhelmingly new idea, and it took him a few rounds to understand (leading to his usual “oooooh, if I had known that, I wouldn’t have done so and so,” but that’s a topic for another time I guess).
This massive anecdote is just to point out the fact that standards are easy to explain: “this is a trick taking game”, or “you use resources to build buildings”, or “you put a coin on unused actions a la Puerto Rico”, or “the one who controls this region scores X, 2nd place Y, third place Z”. These are all teachable very quickly to people who know the standards.
2. Because it invalidates some of your prior knowledge regarding strategy. As gamers, you develop a certain meta knowledge about games in general: if you have a choice between an endgame bonus and a special power each round, you go for the latter early on, and the first later; in worker placement, more workers is better; in deckbuilding, a lean deck is more efficient; in area control, you’re better off winning by one cube than 12, because that gives you as many points; in games with subsequent auctions, the first and last few cost more. However, innovation invalidates part of that prior knowledge: when “feed your workers” started, having the most workers wasn’t necessarily smart; when The Manhattan Project came in, blocking actions in Worker placement was less simple; when Ascension: Deckbuilding Game gave use points for each card in our deck, slimming it stopped being such a good idea. A bit of innovation forces us to adjust our strategies, but too much innovation makes that prior knowledge useless, or even worse, counterproductive. And that makes experienced gamers frustrated.
It lengthens decision taking. If there’s one thing most board gamers, Amerithrashers or Euro gamers, can agree on, is that AP sucks. Innovation, by its very nature, forces you to reconsider your meta-strategy, by giving you new choices to evaluate, rather than the same ones as usual. Which is good and exciting and all, but too much innovation undeniably leads to either AP, or even worse, stupid random play, where a player feels incapable of taking even a good enough decision, and just does whatever. Either of these can ruin any player’s experience of a game.
Let’s apply this theory in some examples (I am, after all, an educator):
Example 1 When reading this, I thought back to Bruxelles 1893. It has so many cool mechanisms that when I saw a review of it, I was amazed: the player-controlled evolving market, the scoring bonuses, the two different worker placement boards which work differently, the auction-area majority-worker placement combo, so many cool mechanisms. However, when playing it, I felt so overwhelmed: by the time I would think about my last option, I had forgotten the first one I thought of. So many things to think about, so many options, each of them having so many impacts… Overwhelming. However, it wasn’t really because of how many options there were, it’s because none of these options I was used to, everything was new. When I play a Worker Placement, I’ve played enough that I know where I’m going: they might have a twist or two, but I know some basic strategy concepts raised by the mechanism (get more workers, get the more sought after actions first). However, Bruxelles added so many twists that none of my previous knowledge applied.
Example 2 I then thought of other games which followed the authors’ perspective: Louis XIV(recently reprinted as Mafiozoo), for example, is a worker placement/area control/mancala mix, with (I think) really interesting action selection. However, knowing that the gameplay was the real focus of the game, the brain burning part, the scoring was real simple: five resources, each mission requires 2 resources to turn into 5 points and a special power. By using such a well known mechanism (turning a certain set of resources into VPs), an experienced gamer does not need to focus on it, and can instead focus on the worker placement/management.
Example 3 On the other hand, a game like Vikings has very simple gameplay, with turn overview that can be explained to non-gamers in less than a minute: buy a Viking/tile duo, pay for it, re-adjust the market price if you bought the 0 value tile. However, the focus of the game is on the complex, innovative scoring: each row has a different impact, some activate each round, others every other round, and others at the end of the game. The simple gameplay allows you to focus your attention, your concentration, and your learning, on the scoring, and how that affects your strategy.
Conclusion An interesting thing to keep in mind, however, is that what constitutes standards and what constitutes innovation is in the eye of the beholder, as proven by my earlier Rococo example. This is probably why Dominion is barely played anymore: when it came in with this innovative mechanism, it had to keep everything else simple; when deckbuilding became established as a standard, other games came in and stole the spotlight from the very, very vanilla Dominion. This might be one of the hardest parts of our hobby: given how fast it evolves, and how fast new mechanisms go through the cycle of birth-copied-overdone-dead-built upon, and the number of games produced each year, designers cannot possibly expect players to be familiar with mechanism X before they get their hands on their game: as such, innovation is even more of a gamble. Maybe I’m wrong about that though.
This year, I’m a mentor in Mike Belsole’s Mentorship program (if you don’t know it, go check it out, it’s pretty sweet). I don’t consider myself accomplished enough for that title, but I thought that if I think myself smart enough to write about game design, I guess I should be smart enough to mentor game designers, right?
I met with my mentees, and there’s one piece of advice I repeated often, and so I thought maybe I should write a blog post about it:
“You should work on more than one game at a time.”
Working on multiple games is, I think, the difference between a game designer and someone with a game design project. Many will disagree, and that’s fine, but I think working on a second game, and probably even a third, will make each of them better.
Rebuttal 1: But Jon, I barely have time to work on this one game?
When I was in university, I used to say that about working out. “I barely have enough time to live my life as is, how can I add a half hour of physical activity a day?” Then I realized that by doing a half hour of physical activity every day, after a few weeks, I had an extra hour’s worth of energy.
It’s the same thing with game design. Working on multiple games takes time, but that investment will very quickly pay for itself by allowing you to bypass blocks (when you get stuck, hop to something else), to group actions (printing three prototypes is not three times as long as printing only the one), and by allowing you to take some distance from your work (which helps you avoid dead-ends and death spirals).
Rebuttal 2:But Jon, this is my baby! I don’t want to work on anything else
I said earlier working on multiple designs is the difference between a game designer and someone with a game design project: if you want to stay in that second category, that’s fine. I still think your game would be better if you took on a second project, but I get it. It’s too much trouble for just the thrill of creating something. Fine, this advice doesn’t apply to you specifically.
However, if your goal is to design games, you need to get rid of that “my baby!” feeling ASAP. You know the saying “kill your darlings”? You need to turn that baby into a darling to even start considering killing it. And to a mere tool to start cutting efficiently. That distance, it comes from spreading your love around, just like with actual babies (wait what did I just write?) It’s what gives you some
Rebuttal 3: But I have very limited playtesting opportunities!
Probably. You know what though? It’s a lot easier to get testers to try something different than the N-th version of a prototype they’ve played twice a week for 3 months. It also becomes easier for them to compare your prototypes: when you say “I need to test something, what do you want to play?”, their reaction is the first feedback of that session.
Also, I strongly suggest working on games which don’t overlap in game length and/or player counts. I usually try to have one filler, one 2-player game, and one mid-weight Euro going at any time, and if I could design a party game, I’d add it to that list as well. If I work on two mid-weight Euros at the same time, they do take away from one another’s playtesting time, but with this system, they rarely compete.
Rebuttal 4: When I spread my focus, I don’t get anything done
That’s a tough one. I’ve been there, trying to make 20 games at the same time, wheels spinning so fast that I rarely was working on only one. If the first 3 are mostly misconceptions, this one is a true pitfall: you should only get started on a second game after you’ve made some progress on the first one. Don’t just go running after the shiny new idea: write it down, keep it for later. If you find you can’t focus on game 1, jump over to the new idea, and use that drive to get it to a testable state and get it to the table.
I find that people who jump from project to project without getting anything done are usually not certain what the first step is. You get that new idea, and because you’ve been stuck in the idea stage forever, you’ve lost any momentum to the previous one: it hasn’t gone anywhere, and so why not jump to a new one? That is not what I’m advising here. That being said, once you’ve turned an idea into a game, something with enough structure to get it tested, then is the time… to get it tested! After that, you reiterate, and test again. However, when you start getting frustrated, then! Then you probably still want to work on it a bit more.
It’s hard to know when any creative project develops an energy of its own, but at some point, even if you leave it on the table for a month, you’ll go back to it. At that point, you go look at your notebook full of ideas, find the one that excites you the most, and try to turn it into a game as well.
Rebuttal 5: I don’t want the quality of the work to suffer!
It won’t. It actually is suffering much worse right now, because you’re not working on other stuff. You’re lacking the distance to be more objective, the ability to put it down when you’re stuck, the experience you gain from solving problems in Project A which helps you in Project B. You’re lacking the momentum that comes from the early steps when you reach the later ones.
Most of all though, working on projects one at a time exposes you to the biggest problem all designers, especially younger ones, face: the kitchen sink. By focusing on one project at a time, you never have to define what it is: it’s just your game. You never have to define what it’s trying to accomplish, what are the must’s and the don’t’s. By spreading out a bit, you have to draw the line somewhere, if only to differentiate A from B from C: that keeps your projects focused, and makes you ask the dreaded question: “what makes this special?”
It might seem illogical, but I swear: I’ve been there, and I’ve been part of multiple design groups, I’ve had discussions with others. I’ve seen the difference it makes. This blog is about offering advice that goes beyond the first-level, often discussed stuff, and this is perhaps the most underrated design lesson I’ve come to.
So this is the first post in what will hopefully become a weekly series of interviews with more established designers. In each episode, an established designer will come and talk about a Roadblock they’ve run into with one of their designs, how it showed up, how they identified it, and the process of fixing it. The goal is to give you specific examples of the process of designing a game, and ideas of what you can do when faced with similar situations.
Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Sen-Foong Lim, designer of so many games, such as Junk Art, Belfort and Akrotiri, just to name a few, and fellow Canadian! Sen is also the first ever recipient of the James Mathe Mentorship Award!
SFL: Hey there, thanks for having me! Jay and I have designed a ton of games together and we’ve got another one coming out soon!
JV: Awesome! And this one I’m really excited about! First, can you give us a bit of background on the game you want to tell us about today?
SFL: The game that’s been on my mind (no pun intended) recently is MIND MGMT. I co-designed the game with my long-time partner in crime, Jay Cormier, and the creator of the comic book of the same name. Matt Kindt is a New York Times’ bestselling author, comic book writer, and artist. He’s a force to be reckoned with!
The comic that the game is based on tells the tale of secret agents who work under the assumption that they are saving the world. They quickly find out that their organization, MIND MGMT, may not be everything it seems to be on the surface. A group of agents go rogue and try to bring down the organization from the outside. The game tells the take of these agents trying to stop MIND MGMT from recruiting enough agents to follow through on their diabolical plans. It’s a one-vs-many hidden movement game with a system that allows the game to adapt and change over repeated plays. Did I mention that these secret agents have psychic powers?
MIND MGMT is going to Kickstarter in early March 2020. This is the first game that Jay will be self-publishing under his “Off The Page Games” imprint, so we really needed to get it right!
JV: Secret agents with psychic powers sound like an incredible game right there! Now, what was the issue you ran into, and when did you first encounter it?
SFL: The real problem was how we had tested the game – we had primarily used the same 2 groups for multiple playtests. As they got better at the game, they wanted more challenges and so we complied!
And this was a huge problem.
We poured our hearts and souls into this game which resulted in it being overdesigned. There were so many player powers and extra bits and stuff that we had built into the game that players who had never played it before felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options they had. They were paralyzed by all of the options.
We actually broke Matt Leacock’s brain during one of the playtests. He was just overwhelmed by all of the possibilities in the game. To have a designer the calibre of Matt give us that feedback was really powerful. That told us that we had swung too far in one direction, and made us take a step back to reflect upon what had happened to the game as we developed it.
JV: Was there something about the game that pushed you towards testing with the same group all over again? Or just happenstance?
SFL: We just got comfortable in our groove, with our testers, and we (looking back) probably didn’t want to teach the game to new players again and again. We were also likely in the brainspace of “more is better!” without realizing the detrimental effect too much content would have on new players who were just trying to grasp the basics.
Jay and I live in different provinces and we both have playtest groups. We thought that would be enough diversity but we failed to recognize that skill creep is a thing. To go along with this, we can turn to the psychology of meaningful engagement as demonstrated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Csikszentmihalyi states that as a persons’ skill in an area improves, they require the challenge to rise accordingly or they may disengage from the task. Applying this to game design, what was happening was that our players were getting more skilled in the logic and deduction part of the game and so they needed more moving pieces to keep the game interesting for them. You can see this in many games – the constant influx of new cards in Magic: The Gathering is a great example where it is phenomenally difficult to understand ALL of the cards EVER as a new player, but experienced players clamour for more because they like the game and new cards maintain their engagement level.
JV: Is there something about the game that made it more susceptible to that overdesign?
SFL: In this particular case, logic and deduction games require skills that you can learn and improve upon with repeated plays, especially if you play with the same group. So as the Agents learn how to use their psychic powers to improve their chances of capturing the Recruiter, the Recruiter feels like they need more tools to combat them. We didn’t think about the product in terms of a long-term thing over many plays. We just kind of “thought vomited” all of the ideas we had into the box and that was what was overwhelming.
JV: Did that overdesign lead to anything useful? Were you able to keep some of that content?
SFL: Oh yeah, we scrapped nothing. The overdesign wasn’t in the content, it was in the content delivery. In fact, the way we changed content delivery allowed us to develop even more content because it would have less risk of being overwhelming.
JV: Can you talk about the steps that you took between figuring out the problem and finding the right way? What did you try that didn’t work?
SFL: There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and lamentation. A few tears may have been shed. After we had our pity party, we stepped back and took a good hard look at the game. The game was awesome. It was just too much all at once. We really wanted to keep everything we had spent so much time working on, but knew that we couldn’t expose players to it all at once. We thought about expansions, but didn’t like the idea of people having to buy more things to experience the game as we had fully conceived it. We wanted to give people all of the content, but not all at the same time. It had to be doled out in the right amount, each time.
The massive amounts of content went from being a design bug to being a design feature once we figured out how to deliver it all in a way that made sense.
JV: What was the right way to deliver that content then?
SFL: Rob Daviau had just shown us the power of Legacy games with Risk: Legacy and Pandemic Legacy (co-designed with the aforementioned Matt Leacock). We didn’t want to make a Legacy game, so instead we took a different tact by asking a different question: “What if the game changed between games based on who won or lost the last game but in a non-permanent and customizable way?”
We wanted players to be able to reset the game should they be playing with a new group. We also wanted players to have some control of their choices in terms of what to add to the game the next time they played.
So we came up with the Shift System!
The Shift System is a little bit like Rob’s Legacy System in that there are things that you unlock over the course of the game. It’s a system in which the team that lost the last game gets to pick advantages for them and disadvantages for their opponent. Players track their victories and losses, so the more losses a team has, the more advantages they can give themselves / disadvantages they can give their opponent in future games against an opponent that trounces them regularly. In that way, it can help balance games for players with differences in skill due to age or ability.
JV: What advice would you have for designers to identify these overdesigns before they go too far?
SFL: In general, it’s all about testing and finding the fat.
Test your game widely. Test it with people who’ve never played it. Have a new team learn your game without any input from you except the rulebook. What you’re testing for if you think you’ve overdesigned your game is looking to see if people can’t make a good decision because there is too much to process (though, sometimes, that is intrinsic in a design – see Space Alert).
Things that need to be cut often appear to me in these forms:
– Rules that are forgotten or played incorrectly by players
– Rules that take longer to explain than they’re worth
– Rules that drive the game procedurally but are not a decision point
– Conditions that are passively triggered versus actively engaged
– Components or rules that are underutilized or have low impact.
JV: And once the overdesign is identified, how would you advise a designer to deal with the problem?
SFL: Some of this is preparation, some of this is mindset, some of this is testing
In terms of preparation, keep versions of your past games as well as documentation about your changes. The changes themselves are important – the rationale as to why you initially made the change may be more important, though. Your rationale for change will guide you in how you might tackle the problem from a different angle – the problem likely still exists, it just needs a different solution. You may also, as you alluded to above, have to roll back to a simpler version because it was, in fact, better!
In terms of mindset, the old adage of “kill your darlings” is echoed by many because it’s true – you need to be flexible enough to see your way around problems to find new solutions and sometimes that means removing something entirely. To ease the pain of that loss, remember that you can often keep things you discard for later use! If something does not support the primary hook of the game or the overall experience… cut it.
Remember: less is often more.
In terms of testing, you not only need to go back to the drawing board, but you’ll need to test your changes again. You cannot assume that things will work. You need to put the new implementation through its paces. Often times, you’ll also find that players are naturally efficient and will make new sense out of your game that will streamline some of the processes for you. If players almost always do B before A because it makes sense to them in practice, go with it!
JV:Well thank you Sen! I do feel like overdesign and designing in closed groups are a kind of problem new designers face a lot, and it’s interesting to see that it doesn’t seem to go away with experience!
And that was the first episode of Roadblock! Hopefully you found in it something that was helpful to you and your design process. Now imagine we had a cool 90’s out-tro with weird punk music: ROADBLOCK! ROADBLOCK! ROOOOOOOOOOAD BLOCK!
So during a playtest, I’m an Observer more than a Poller. I find 95% of the feedback I get from looking at players’ engagement, listening to the questions they ask, spotting the mistakes they make. Usually, at the end of a playtest, I’ll mostly share my observations so they can either be confirmed or nuanced by the testers.
That being said, I have 5 questions I love to ask in playtests, and thought to share them with you with a quick rationale. Overall, you’ll notice a pattern: I rarely ask the question I want the answer to. I was a Research Assistant in Psyc in college, and learned quickly that people get in their own way a lot, especially when you ask them to analyze their own experience. By asking related questions, they tend to overanalyze a part I’m less interested in, and share truer reactions about what I care for.
How long did you feel like the game lasted? If their impression differs from the actual length, it gives you a great amount of insight in how engaged they were. Of course, it’s important too ask this one before people look at their phones and watches, or you lose that subjectivity–which is exactly what you’re asking for!
I also like to follow it up with “how long would you like a game like this to last?” I’m not really asking for the number I should aim for, but there are two types of comments that can come out of this: (1) The game finished a turn too early/too late to feel satisfying; or (2) This has too little depth / too much complexity for its length. Asking follow-up questions is how you can make the difference between the two, although sometimes the vocabulary used is a hint on its own: “It could have ended a round early” vs “I feel like this is a 30 min game”.
How well do you think the final scores represent your performance? This is my favorite question because of how much can come out of it: perceived balance issues, frustrations, actions that players really enjoy doing but are not incentivized. I’ve before that balance is not as important as the feeling of balance, and that is exactly what this question addresses.
I’m trying to add variability to the game: do you have any suggestions for special powers or special goals? Hint: I rarely actually am thinking about those things, but it’s the best way I’ve found to get players to talk about other stuff they’d have liked to do, or do more of, or limits they found frustrating. And sometimes, you even get an idea for a little bit of variability! It’s how, for With A Smile & A Gun, I got a lot of players saying they wanted to move the police around more, send it out of their ways and into their opponents’, and that became a core part of the game.
Can you rank these in order of power? It can be actions, strategies, special abilities, goal cards. Usually, a table will be able to come to a consensus (sort of), because of social dynamics and the impact it had in that one game. That being said, you’re keeping that info handy to compare over multiple groups: if you see a consensus across groups, then there is a problem.
What do you think should happen? This is more of a question during games, but it still is one of my favorite tools: if players run into a corner case and ask “so what happens now?”, even if I know what the official answer is, I ask them what seems intuitive to them. If they come to the right conclusion, great! If not, that’s okay… unless it happens all the time. And if you didn’t have an answer yet, it gives you (1) a proposition, and (2) some time to think about it. In that case, you know you’ll have to figure it out, and you just want to make sure it doesn’t break the rest of the test.
So these are my go-to questions, and aside from asking for confirmation or explanations, they’re almost the only ones I ask. What are your go-to’s after a playtest?