We're just over a month from the Kickstarter launch for Imperial Harvest, and it's down to crunch time for finalizing and perfecting the ruleset. In that spirit, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at approaches to playtesting, and how you know when a game is ready (or as ready as it will ever be).
The First Goal of Playtesting: Finding the Fun
Depending on how you approach game design, you can get a lot done before the game ever hits the table. Indeed, you need to have working components and a somewhat cogent set of rules or else your game might crash and burn before you finish the first round. But if you take your game too far, trying to perfect the statistics and the design details, you might paint yourself into a corner without ever knowing what your game really is.
What do I mean by that? If you're the designer, surely you know what your game is. It's your game, after all. The fact is, though, almost every designer can tell you about a design they were working on that they thought revolved around one thing, but when they got it to the table, the players were completely enchanted by something totally different.
This is the first reason you need to playtest: to see what makes your game work. What is the hook? What will keep players talking about your game, and keep it coming back to the table. Once you find the fun in your game, then you can really start developing it.
The Second Goal of Playtesting: Fixing the Rough Edges
Once you know what works in your game, then you need to find - and repair - what doesn't work. There are inevitably going to be rules that are clunky or confusing, and mechanics that slow your game down without adding anything interesting.
Sometimes you'll find a decision in your game that really isn't a choice at all - there's always a right answer. Ditch it. Save your players the brain space.
Playtesting will help you find what parts of your game aren't fun to players, or where your game can bog down or break down. A game works a lot like a computer program, and if there's a way players can get caught in a loop, you want to know about it.
This can be the most difficult aspect of playtesting for two reasons. One, the most obvious, is that you need to have a thick skin. When people tear down your game, they're actually being helpful, even if it feels like they're insulting your baby.
Secondly, though, you need to be able to filter out the good recommendations from the bad. Not every piece of feedback or advice is valuable. Some of it is circumstantial, some is personal preference, and some is just downright wrong. Filtering feedback is an article in it's own right, so I'll leave it at that for now, and just warn you not to blindly follow every piece of feedback you get.
The Third Goal of Playtesting: Balance or Something Like It
Finally, once your game is flowing well and has hit its sweet spot, you need to check for balance. Whether that means balance between pre-ordained factions, or making sure that no one path to victory is too efficient, you need to make sure that there's enough balance for every player.
This may also mean checking for balance between skill and luck. The games that become classics in the eyes of most gamers are games that are fun for both beginners and veterans, and that requires careful balancing of accessibility, while still rewarding good strategy.
This can be the most time-consuming part of game development. It can take dozens if not hundreds of playtests to uncover a balance issue. You're not just designing for a single play, but for the thousands of plays your game will see across its customer base. Many of the games that we see rushed through the Kickstarter process falter here. It can be the least fun part of designing a game, but also the most critical. Incidentally, this is where we've been with Imperial Harvest for about 6 months now.
These are the three main goals of playtesting over the course of the game design process: Finding what makes your game fun, fixing what makes it not fun, and making sure everything works together in a balanced way. Once you've done all that, your game should be in good shape to dazzle publishers and players.