Down the Playtesting Rabbit Hole

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Said Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke as he surveyed the discarded pieces of cardboard and playing cards that had been very deliberately thrown down.  Clearly, the playtesting session with some pals had gone…well, not exactly to plan.

Ok, so that didn’t happen.  Von Moltke was really writing about an actual battle with an actual enemy, but that gets a little morbid, and let’s face it, the abstract idea of killing a wooden cube or a card is far easier to digest.

What does this have to do with playtesting?  In a word: everything.

“The biggest factor in the playability, the successful gameplay, of a game is not the quality of the ideas, nor the strength of conception, nor the marketing skill, nor the skill of artists […].  It’s the quality and quantity of playtesting and the resulting improvements made to the game.” – Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish

About Playtesting

Before we go further down this rabbit hole there are, I think, two types of testing that need to take place, and in tabletop game design these two types happen (more or less) simultaneously: Game Testing and Bug Testing

Game Testing – “Does the game work as intended?”

Here you’ll encounter issues like fun, theme, player interaction, turn sequence, the need for more or fewer components etc.  You’ll be testing whether the game is a game, or rather you’ll be testing your idea and feel of the prototype and matching that against the idea and feel of the game in your head.

Bug Testing – “Do the mechanics of the game work well?”

This is where you’ll resolve issues of weighting and probability.  The number of actions per turn, what happens when one player does this or that.  You’ll be testing both the amalgamation of the rules – how one rule interacts with another, and the little details of the game.  The focus on bug testing is ensuring that each player, in every game has the same (or intended) chance/possibility of completing and or winning the game.

Even though a tabletop game will be playtested for both types at the same time, I think it’s important to recognise which side of the proverbial line the issues fall, and it’s important to recognise that there are two types when you start playtesting, especially when you start getting feedback from other people.


Rules of Playtesting

Using the previous two quotes we can assume 4 fundamental rules:

  1. Your design will fail (but that is okay)
An early game of mine about a race through space…or maybe dragons which got exactly this far.

The most important rule on this list: with almost certainty your game will fall flat on its arse the first time you play it.   To paraphrase Von Moltke, “Your game design will not work when it is first played.”    This, dear reader, is a good thing.  Just like a baby learning to crawl, a chick learning to fly, and Bruce Wayne falling down a well. You will learn to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get better.

Better at thinking about all sorts of games,

Dr. Seuss’s Waiting Place – in case you missed the reference.

About structure and mechanics,

About rule writing, and rules that are lame.

Better with things like economics.

 You’ll discover new levels of simplicity,

About randomness and chance,

Player roles and asymmetry

You’ll learn, improve and advance.


Yes!  Everything will get better.

(If I don’t get ‘Likes’ from a Doctor Seuss-style rhyme about board game design, then there must be something wrong with the Like button!)

I consider game design just as much as a piece of art as writing, painting and music.  In those professions, and let’s take writing, for example, a chapter of a novel might not feel the way the writer intended, so they can either change their intention or go back and identify where the writing lost its way and put it back on track.  This is a very different process to the way a writer will deal with mechanical things: typos, spelling mistakes, and errors of grammar, or pace and structure.  It’s easy to take this analogy and apply it to a musician, a painter, an illustrator, filmmaker and yes, even a game designer.

  1. Playtest a lot. A lot.

The most important rule on this list: Some problems can hide.  Back at the UKGE 2016 I met Gary Wareham (of Entropic Games and designer of Oligarchy which successfully oligarchyfunded on Kickstarter last year and will be reaching backers and retailers very soon) and he explained to me that roughly 1 in 25 starting hands of cards are dud, and so a Mulligan is needed- certainly when demonstrating a game at an event like UKGE. Now, to calculate those odds, that game must have been played at least 25 times but was mostly likely played more.  Many, many more times. (Note to self: arrange interview with Gary)

The point here is that quantity is needed, whether you plan to Kickstart your game or sell it, it will need to be played over and over again.  Further to this is that every time you change something, no matter how small; that running tally of playtests gets set back to zero.

  1. Playtest well.

The most important rule on this list: “No-one is as smart as everyone”, some smart person once said.  What does this mean for you and your game?  Well, you probably play games in a certain way/style, you also probably play with the same group of friends (be that a large or a small group, which in turn means you will probably play your game the way you play games, as too will your friends.  You probably won’t try to “break” your game by playing it badly, your friends (if they’re the nice kind) probably won’t either.  You and they will no doubt play the game the way you intend them to.  But that isn’t the way everyone will.

There are 3 stages to playtesting a game well:

  1. Alpha Testing – or solo testing

You’ll play on your own, against yourself.  You’ll take different positions around the table, or perhaps line up your old teddy bear or an action figure to represent a different player (I use my dogs).  my-playtestersYou’ll take copious notes, pause the game while you create a couple of new cards, or even stop the game part way through because you just need to do something completely different.  You do all of this on your own before exposing anyone else to this cripplingly boring process. (For the non-designer that is).

  1. Beta Testing- other players

You’ll do this when you have a game that can be played from beginning to end without interruption, and you’ll rope in your most loyal and friendly gamer friends and family.  The journey might be bumpy, but you’ll get them from the start of the game to the end.

  • Charlie Testing (most people don’t call it that, they consider it beta 2 testing, but they’re missing a trick here: Charlie is what the military call the enemy (well, in Forrest Gump they did), and this links back to our pal Von Moltke)

charlie-testingThis is blind playtesting.  You’re not there when the game is played (or if you are you stay out of the gameplay altogether).  The players read the rules and play your prototype as if it were an actual, real game.

  1. Improve your game

The most important rule on this list: inch by inch, and mile by mile your game design should change.  Hopefully, that great game idea you had is still there, although that may have changed too, the design will have done certainly.  Whether you start your game by painstaking making every component and then testing the whole thing, or you start with the very basic, foundation level of your game and build up, there should be changes at every step along that route.  Some of these changes will be huge; you’ll add a board, a whole new deck of cards, a different action or resource type.  You might take things away too.  You may even do both.  Multiple times.  The important thing here is to recognise and be prepared for the fact that your game/design will change.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Those I would consider 4 of the 5 fundamental rules of playtesting.  And they are important, but rule 5 is a biggy:

  1. Enjoy playtesting.

You are going to spend a lot of time playtesting your game, a lot of time fine tuning it.  Try and enjoy it.

In my experience, the tabletop gaming community is brilliant and friendly and clever and generally awesome.  Ask for help at your local gaming club or store.  The internet is rife with help too, I’ve found these to be particularly useful: the board game designer’s forum – need I say more? this site will also list region groups (so if you end up starting one be sure to let them know)


I’ll be discussing Playtesting Analysis in my next post, with more pictures, fewer words, charts and Playtesting Questionnaire downloads.

Do you have any tips you’d like to share about your experiences as a playtester or designer?

If you’ve enjoyed this article hit the little star icon to let me know.

Thanks for reading folks!



4 thoughts on “Down the Playtesting Rabbit Hole

  1. I was part of a beta for a table top game… It was an interesting experience! The dev wasn’t exactly pleased with our feedback,since he had been going around to different game shops and teaching the game, and none of *those* players had any issues with it.

    …I’m just going to leave that one there for a second.

    I’m not sure whatever happened after that, as I moved and I lost track of the dev, but it was a really cool game, so I hope he works out some of the kinks!

    I’d be interested in getting into more beta testing – it was fun trying to find out ways of play that “broke” the game (I say that in the best way possible!). It was like you were trying to outsmart the rules and mechanics!


  2. Hi – thanks this was great! I have always likened board games to books in terms of telling stories, but there are many more parallels as well. And as a UX person myself I am always banging on about the importance of actual testing, not just ‘bug testing’!


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