34 Playtesting Tips from April and May

At the end of April, I started my #PlaytestingTipOfTheDay series of Twitter posts. Each day, I post a short piece of advice on how to playtest your boardgame designs. Some are more practical, some are more philosophical, all of them should at least make you think actively about your playtesting process. Here’s a compilation post of every tip from the months of April and May!

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

I hope those were helpful! I post one every day now, so follow me on twitter for more quick tips!

If you want some articles about playtesting:
Playtest like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests
4 Myths about Playtesting

Working on Multiple Games

image of games I am currently working on

Now obviously, a lot of great games have been made by designers who have only worked on a single game at a time, but below represents a few good reasons why you should have more than one thing going at once. I am currently actively testing 3 games (meaning I run at least 1 playtest a month for them).

A short list of the advantages of working on multiple games:

 

Learn!

You learn a lot just from going through the design and testing process on a game. So why not learn those lessons faster by working on more than one thing? Exposure to how to test and analyze design problems for games of different mechanics, genres, lengths, etc are all useful game design skills. This is one of the reasons playing other designer’s prototypes is such a valuable experience as new designer. You’ll learn as much about what not to do, as things to improve your own design, so working on more than one project will help you “fail faster’.

Switch focus.

If you are getting hung up or stuck on a design issue, working on multiple games lets you take a break and switch focus. Let’s say you get a bunch of feedback about the player powers in a game, but you can’t figure out the design solution right away. You can sit on that feedback and spend a little design time on it each week while focusing on another project instead.

Test more frequently.

If you are stuck doing revisions, or haven’t had enough time to make a new prototype from revisions you’ve already designed, you can still show up to game nights / playtest sessions with your other game(s). Since this happens pretty frequently (you’ll have lag time in making new versions), it means you’ll be able to test more consistently. And that also is helping you build your own name in the design community, as well as keeping the wheels turning on your learning process and thinking about game design.

Test more consistently.

You can test different games with different audiences, and don’t miss getting any tests done because the player count, interest, or timing wasn’t right to test one of your games. That way, you are never missing out on audience. If you’re tabling at a convention, it helps to have games of multiple themes and lengths, so ideally you can have something that appeals to most people walk by.

You won’t be overly attached.

If you have more than one game, you won’t be as attached to your baby, and you’ll be able to make more objective decisions about cutting things out of it (or even scrapping a whole game). It’s easier for you to make the decisions, and its easier for playtesters to provide critiques.

Some parts of this article built out my replies in a thread over on BGDF, and some from a conversation with Jeremy Commandeur at a recent prototype night

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Playtest Like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests



I am fanatic about testing my games, and for the past 6 months, I’ve run 12 – 25 tests per month (not including playing solo or with co-designers on projects). My background is in user experience design and design research and I run user studies for a major retailer. User experience design is all about analyzing behaviors and using data from studies to drive change, and techniques from UX research have been incredibly valuable in my playtesting and design process for tabletop games as well. I wanted to start my posts on board game design with a series on how to improve the quality and quantity of your playtests.

Stop playing in your own tests:

One of the easiest ways to increase the quality of your playtest data is to stop playing in your own tests. I’m not saying NEVER play your own game, but try to avoid it whenever possible. Play your game for fun, or solo to test mechanics, but if you have a group of playtesters at a table, don’t play with them.



Why?

You can take better notes:

If all you are taking is notes on audible feedback or a getting players to answer a questionnaire at the end of the game, you’re missing 90% of what you can be capturing from a session. Not playing the game makes you more able to catch little moments for the other player. You can note every time players hesitate about a move, are unclear on the rules, miss a trigger or step. When playing, it’s easy to just say “oh this is how you do that” and keep moving, but making a note every time it happens will help you expose issues and identify trends.


Not playing in the game lets you spend far more time thinking about the way each player approaches the game. This helps especially when you are looking for areas of the game to streamline or cut rules. Players aren’t always able to articulate which parts of the game slowed them down or confused them at the end of the game, because they often understand the game and its systems better at the end of a test than they did at the start or during the middle when they had issues.



Use hidden information:


Not playing in the game lets you investigate the game from multiple perspectives. You can get up from your seat and watch the game from different perspectives, you can ask to see the cards in a playtester’s hand or their hidden objectives at different points. This lets you ties moves to a motivation of a player, look at and analyze how different sets of information impact play style. You can check which cards were discarded or put on the bottom of the deck without interrupting the flow of the game.

and finally, but perhaps most importantly

Don’t bias the data:


If you are playing, every action you take during the game is teaching other players. If you remember to take your 3 coins at the beginning of each round, it’ll remind them to take them as well. So if it turns out that players forgetting to take their coins is a often forgotten rule, you won’t know (or it will take you much longer to find out). Similarly, if there are non-intuitive strategies or unusual moves, you might demonstrate them instead of seeing how players find those strategies for themselves.

 Keeping yourself out of the game lets you see players exploring your game’s systems without bias. You won’t know what interesting situations can really emerge if you are influencing players’ paths through the game systems by being part of the decision making flow of the game.

Final Thoughts:

Hopefully, you’re convinced you should be taking notes instead of playing in your own tests. Now if you are at a convention and someone comes by your table alone, it’s still better to play with them than to not test at all, but broadly, try to stay out of your own tests and just focus on understanding your players.

Questions? Comments?
Post em below.



More articles in this series:
 4 Myths about Playtesting

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4 Myths about Playtesting:

I am fanatic about testing my games, and for the past 6 months, I’ve run 12 – 25 tests in per month (not including playing solo or with co-designers on projects). My background is in design and design research and I run user studies for a major retailer. User experience design all about analyzing behaviors and using data from studies to drive change, and techniques from UX research have been incredibly valuable in my playtesting and design process for tabletop games as well. I wanted to start my posts on board game design with a series on how to improve the quality and quantity of your playtests.



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Great Mistakes Incorporated Reports Record First Year Results

Shit Ideas Greenhouse Brainstorming Sessions, Food Prototyping, Critique Services & Dolls for Dads Drive Record All-time Revenue

Results Produce Record Annual Profit of $0.00 Billion

For immediate release:

NEW YORK, New York — February 6, 2016 — Great Mistakes Incorporated today announced financial results for its fiscal 2015 year ended December 31st, 2015. The Company facebook-posted record annual revenue of $0.00 billion and record annual net income of $0.00 billion, or $0.00 per diluted share. These results compare to revenue of $0.00 billion and net income of $0.00 billion, or $0.00 per diluted share, in previous year. Gross margin was infinite compared to NaN in the 2014 fiscal year.

“The Shit Ideas Greenhouse delivered Great Mistakes’ biggest year ever, thanks to the world’s absolute shittiest products and all-time record pace of brainstorming,” said Jason Paul, Chairman of the Board and renowned burglar/singer/songwriter.

“Everything is covered in danger, but everything is covered in foam,” he added, noting the positive financial outlook for the coming year.

“We taste like fruit and you know it!” said John Brieger, Great Mistakes Co-Founder and lead scent expert. “Ladies love a man who smells like pulled pork.”

Great Mistakes Incorporated is providing the following guidance for fiscal 2016:

  • revenue between $200 and $500 (an infinite increase year over year)
  • gross margins (really they’ll be disgusting)
  • operating expenses of essentially nothing
  • handmade gift exchanges providing non-zero shareholder value
  • the celebration of SIGmas on 9/8/2016

We look forward to new and meaningful growth in the fast paced Dolls for Dads sector during our next fiscal year. Great Mistakes’ board of directors has declared 2016 to be “the year of projects”. We expect between five and ten new Great Mistake product prototypes to be produced this year.

This press release contains forward-looking wish fufillment exercises including without limitation those about the Company’s estimated revenue, gross margin, operating expenses, handmade gifts, and holiday celebrations. These statements involve risks and uncertainties, and actual results may differ. Risks and uncertainties include without limitation the effect of competitive and economic factors, and the Company’s reaction to those factors, on consumer and business buying decisions with respect to the Company’s products; continued competitive pressures in the fastgrowing Dolls for Dads marketplace; the ability of the Company to deliver to the marketplace and stimulate customer demand for new foods, products, and scent-based innovations on a timely basis; the effect that product introductions and transitions, changes in product pricing or mix, and/or increases in component costs could have on the Company’s super gross, like totally disgusting margin; the inventory risk associated with the Company’s need to order or commit to order product components in advance of customer orders; the continued availability on acceptable terms, or at all, of certain components and services essential to the Company’s business currently obtained by the Company from sole or limited sources; the effect that the Company’s dependency on manufacturing and Artificial Intelligence services provided by third parties may have on the quality, quantity or cost of products manufactured or services rendered; risks associated with the Company’s intergalactic operations; the Company’s reliance on third-party snack foods and digital content; the potential impact of a finding that the Company has infringed on the intellectual “property rights” of others; the Company’s dependency on the performance of distributors, pigeon carriers, bakers, artists, dads and other resellers of the Company’s products; the effect that product and service quality problems could have on the Company’s sales and operating profit$; the continued service and availability of key executives and employees; war, terrorism, public health issues, natural disasters, and other circumstances that could disrupt supply, delivery, or demand of products; and unfavorable results of legal proceedings. The Company assumes no obligation to update any forward-looking statements or information, which speak as of their respective dates.

Great Mistakes Incorporated revolutionized personal and group ideation with the introduction of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse in 2014. Today, Great Mistakes leads the galaxy in innovation with products like American Grill Doll, Framin’ Raymond, Stubble Stamps (“Not Make-up, It’s Man-Up”), and Flavor Plates. Great Mistakes’ four platforms — Bad Ideas, Worse Ideas, Spaghetti Based Computing, and Smells — provide seamless experiences across all Bumper Car Dating devices and empower people with breakthrough food services including the Djamba Juice, Caffeinated Pesto, Pie, and Pop Tart Wine Pairings. Great Mistakes’ 10 ish members are dedicated to making the best/worst products on earth, and to leaving the world stranger than we found it.

People Who Get Me: The Lorax

This is Part 2 in a series about my influences. See Part 1 here.

The Lorax Gets Me.

If you have not read “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, don’t be worried. This article is littered with quotations from the book.1 But also, you should probably read it.

So why does the Lorax get me?

We can start with the physical resemblance:


Joking. Mostly.

The Lorax is about embodying idealism. Obivously, the book is about environmental issues, but I see him as an embodiment of the inner voice of the Onceler, telling him that what he is doing is wrong, that he needs to think about the environment. In that way, the Lorax is really representative of all the moral arguments and decisions we have to make.

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I’m asking you, sir, at the top if my lungs”-
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed-
“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”
“Look, Lorax,” I said.”There’s no cause for alarm.
I chopped just one tree. I am doing no harm.

Just one. What’s the harm? The Lorax is a story of understanding impact, of ramifications. I see a lot of parallels to the current technology sector boom as well.

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering… selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.

While my issues with modern capitalism I don’t exactly want to get into here, it boils down to this: corporations have a duty to provide financial return to their shareholders. That responsibility to shareholders can contradict responsiblity to the public, which often leads to decisions that maximize profit at the expense of some public good. In our current political system, the way to solve that is primarily through regulation.

The argument that the Onceler makes is similar to the arguments many industries make to avoid regulation when the government wants to introduce new policy.2

And then I got mad.
I got terribly mad.
I yelled at the Lorax, “Now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!’
Well, I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you
I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And, for your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering
On biggering
and BIGGERING
and BIGGERING
and BIGGERING,
turning MORE Truffula Trees into Thneeds
which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs!”

Especially in the wealthier parts of the word, we have a lot of difficulty understanding the differentiations between needs and wants, and the interconnections between the two. I have some much longer posts planned on that subject. It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially now that I work for a company that makes high-end goods. It’s easy to see your product as the center of everything. Something that “everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs!” It’s our responsibility to balance our love of our products and financial obligations with their long-term impact and externalities.

I believe that every individual has a moral obligation to try to make the world a better place. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but in the words of the good Dr. :

So yeah. The Lorax gets me.

 

1 HAH! LITTERING JOKES!

2 I’m thinking mostly of Uber here.

On the Changing Positivity of Full

image via Oprah (because Oprah)

A classic optimist describes the glass as “half full”, a classic pessimist decribes the glass as “half empty”.1

I am a convert to a digital lifestyle, “a world of the electron and the switch, the
beauty of the baud”2 . Our lives and our memories are limited only by the containers in which we put them.3 The last thing I want is to run out of space. So now when I refer to something as “full” it is invariably negative.

“My hard drive is too full.”

“I’ve got a full plate this week.”

It’s nothing new to say that someone is full of shit or full of themselves, but the issue in those statements is the contents, not the fullness. To be full was about being sated, about being content. I feel now that to be full is to be constrained, to be confined. These meanings are by no means novel uses of the word, more I feel a general connotational shift. Lexographical musing of the day.

1 My personal favorite answer is that the glass is twice as large as it needs to be.

2 The Hacker Manifesto – The Mentor, Phrack Magazine

3 Like these square watermelons they grow in Japan.

Reflections on Pittsburgh’s Last Steel Factory

A therapist I used to see once compared college to being in an open water race. All around you, people are furiously chopping through the water. It’s hard going – you can tell that they, too are spending a lot of effort to travel. You look at them and try to move your arms, your legs. You’ve moved before, you are certain that you can get to where you are going. But everything you do is slow, cumbersome.  You expend all your effort and travel 1/20 of the distance that they do. Going to college with depression is like trying to run in the water while everyone else is trying to swim.

I have a hard time evaluating my Carnegie Mellon experience. My success and failures here are so intimately intertwined that it’s not going to be possible for me to get perspective on them for a long time. CMU has afforded me with endless opportunities, opportunities that put me in an extremely privileged position. It is without peer in my field, and I’m truly, truly lucky that I was able to find my passion here. There are few places in this world filled with as many bright, motivated people as Carnegie Mellon.

This institution pushes us. It beats us down and makes us into something that is hopefully stronger. Yishan Wong once referred to Carnegie Mellon as “Pittsburgh’s last steel factory.” I think he meant it with pride.

I have no pride in having been through the forge. I have only hardwon shame that I couldn’t figure out how unhealthy the forge was for me. Somewhere between the best times of my life, Carnegie Mellon took in a bright, hopeful boy who wanted to help people and spat out a deeply sad young man who can no longer reconcile the differences between his self and his self-image.

As I write this, I’m studying for my last final at Carnegie Mellon. Or rather, I’m writing this while I should be studying. There’s a scene from one of my favorite novels that keeps coming to mind. The central character of the passage, Will Navidson, is desperate to finish his book in a place of total darkness, with only a box of matches for light.

In the end, Navidson is left with one page and one match. For a long time he waits in darkness and cold, postponing this final bit of illumination. At last though, he grips the match by the neck and after locating the friction strip, sparks to life a final ball of light.

First, he reads a few lines by match light and then, as the heat bites his fingertips he applies the flame to the page. Here then is one end: a final act of reading, a final act of consumption. And as the fire rapidly devours the paper, Navidson’s eyes frantically sweep down over the text, keeping just ahead of the necessary immolation, until as he reaches the last few words, flames lick around his hands, ash peels off into the surrounding emptiness, and then as the fire retreats, dimming, its light suddenly spent, the book is gone leaving nothing behind but invisible traces already dismantled in the dark.

– Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

So here I am, postponing my final bit of illumination. My final act of reading, of consumption, trying so desperately to keep ahead of the immolation, one last time. At least Carnegie Mellon can take some grim satisfaction in dismantling my traces when I fly home, head hung low, slag from Pittsburgh’s last steel factory.

The World’s Greatest Google Doc: The Story of Shit Ideas

When I was little, I went through a phase in which I had but one purpose: become an Inventor1. To me, Inventor was a perfectly clear career path, right up there with Train Conductor and Cooker-Man2. Inventors were uniquely qualified to create something from nothing, responsible for dreaming up new and fantastic things. In the way that all kids do, I was constantly inventing — with forts made of the old bricks in my backyard, games generated from the patterns of cracks in the street. Anything and everything around me was used in an ever-evolving series of games, stories, and pastimes. It’s possible that at that time, I had a clearer picture of who I would become as a young man than I did at any other point in my life. It would take another 10 years for me to find that clarity again, during my Sophomore year of college. But this isn’t that story. This is the story of a list. This is the story of a lifestyle. This is the story of The World’s Greatest Google Doc.

My senior year at Carnegie Mellon, I was introduced to a brainstorming technique I’ll call Shotgun Brainstorming. The premise of the Shotgun method is simple: sit down and think of as many ideas as you can, without any evaluation of them. College is incredibly good at teaching you critical thinking: looking at ideas to find their limits and find connections, with an emphasis on reason and logic and value. But Shotgun Brainstorming isn’t about these things — it’s about production. By committing all of the ideas to paper, regardless of quality, you are free to let your mind wander beyond the confines of the prompt, beyond the confines of what you know to be true and what you can implement. In ideation free of critique and free of a value system, you can float from place to place, genre to genre, naturally and comfortably. In short, it helps you create like a child.

For one class, we had to come up with 50 ideas for games in two days. So I made a Google Doc and began listing game concepts. They were, of course, mostly terrible. Eventually, I just titled the whole list “Shit Ideas”. Over the course of the two days, every game concept I could think of went into the list. It seems quite difficult, but you get into a kind of “creative groove”. Conversations you have will reflexively inspire ideas, or iterations of previous concepts. When the two days were up, I just kept going. I decided to include non-game ideas, beginning with art projects, but eventually expanding to pretty much everything that could be made or produced.

snippet out of my doc
A snippet out of my doc.

Recipes, concepts for short stories, software services – the list slowly grew. I would often pause in the middle of conversations I was having as comments sparked new additions. This naturally led to many discussions over the Shit Ideas Doc with those around me. After a time, some of my close friends began keeping idea documents of their own. Our lists grew and grew, and occasionally we’d have conversations where we’d talk through the finer points of some of our concepts.

A year later, I received an interesting email from one of those friends, Jason Paul. He proposed that we put together some kind of group, a forum to discuss all of our ideas. With many of us recently graduated (excluding myself), it was a way to flex our creative muscles. We put out some feelers and began what is now known as the Shit Ideas Greenhouse3. Every two weeks, we have a group video chat in which we discuss anything from ways to improve dating apps to flavor combinations of the Dorita (a frozen margarita with a rim of crushed Doritos). Every member of the group keeps their own Shit Ideas Doc, and each session we create new entries in a shared document (lovingly entitled “Communal Shit Ideas”). In the words of Jason, “…it’s communal because of contribution. Shared ideas, not a list of separate ideas from different people.” The creation of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse is one of the best things to come out of the Shit Ideas process.

Drawing is key.

The title “Shit Ideas” shouldn’t be taken as an implication that all of the ideas on the we discuss are bad. It refers more to the fact that we don’t exclude ideas based on their shittiness. We often spend large chunks of our time discussing one or two really viable ideas, pulling them out of the Shotgun mentality and into values-world, where we look at their limits and their merits. Many members of the Greenhouse are employed in fields that don’t always give them a creative outlet, and it provides some peer incentive to keep ourselves in the creative habit.

It helps, too, that we are ideating for the sake of ideation. So many brainstorming exercises are focused on creating ideas for a product or business, or to address some specific issue. But ideas have a value in and of themselves, and often in our haste to find the “right idea” that solves our problems, we miss some terribly great ideas along the way. So the Shit Ideas Doc and the Shit Ideas Greenhouse provide a way to stop and smell the roses, so speak, on our creative efforts. We are designers, engineers, artists. But above all, we are Inventors — creating something out of nothing, uniquely qualified to conceive the impractical creations of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse.

1 Capital I. As everyone knows, Inventors make Inventions of a most clever sort.

2 My very first career ambition was to be a Cooker-Man. Chefs are for the bourgeoisie.

3 The Shit Ideas Greenhouse is still growing. If you are ever interested in joining us, shoot me an email at jwbrieger@gmail.com