While it might seem like just giving your time should be enough, doing a few simple things can make you a better communicator, and save you the frustration of potentially butting heads with a designer when playtesting someone else’s game. Here are my top seven tips to being a better playtester.
1. Pay Attention…Especially in the Beginning
Rules explanations are usually given in the first few minutes of sitting down with a board game. Whether you’re at a game night, convention, or blind playtest, there can be a lot going on between game sessions. I often find myself starting to relax right when I sit down, but this is actually the most important time to focus. After a particularly egregious yawn, I’ll often realize that I’ve missed most of the rules explanation.
2. Feedback Sandwiches
Giving negative feedback is easy. Giving negative feedback in a thoughtful, compassionate, constructive way is…more difficult. When giving a designer feedback that might be hard to hear about their prototype, I use a feedback sandwich. People usually take negative feedback more constructively when it’s paired with positive feedback. Why? Well first, it’s often equally important to know what is working as it is to know what isn’t. Second, giving positive feedback can help build rapport with the designer, making subsequent criticism more palatable.
3. Focus on Your Feelings
” I, me ” statements are invaluable for communicating. Keeping comments rooted in your own experience is more truthful and helps to avoid hurt feelings. It’s the difference between saying, “The end of your game is broken,” and, “I wasn’t as engaged during the last round.” The first statement sounds overreaching and presumptuously objective, the second statement leaves room for varying opinions at the table.
4. Let Others Speak
While you might feel like an expert (or you might be an expert), that doesn’t mean your opinion is automatically more valuable. As a designer, I actively seek out other designers for playtesting, but it’s not like they are the only people who will be playing my games. For designs I am working on, I regularly try to test with newer gamers to make sure my rules aren’t too complicated. Especially when playtesting in a group with a wider experience levels, give space for everyone to contribute to the discussion regardless of their prior experience.
5. Pick Your Battles
As a member of several Facebook board game design groups, it can be painful to see a designer argue with criticism –usually after they asked for feedback in the first place! In (hopefully unconscious) attempts to save their pride, genius, or a bunch of work, designers can use any number of excuses to argue with feedback. Don’t think I’m exempt either. I’ll often start to explain why something needs to be a certain way, before catching myself. But the point of playtesting *in most cases* is gathering information, not synthesizing it. If you find the designer isn’t looking for changes or open to feedback, then I wouldn’t recommend giving it.
6. Bite Off What You Can Chew
It can be tempting (especially online) to volunteer to playtest more than you have time for. Heed my warning: don’t do it! Most designers and publishers have tight schedules to work around. No-shows and late feedback can create a bad impression. I’ve found that it’s pretty difficult for me to build and test print and plays with my current schedule, but I have had time to playtest in person.
7. Accept the Game for What It Is
Finally, respect the designer’s vision — it’s their game after all! Suggestions about large changes to mechanisms, theme, and gameplay may be well received, but in my experience it’s better to leave these decisions to the designer. It’s usually better to ask the designer how tied they are to one element or another. If they consider an element to be essential, move on, or direct your attention elsewhere. Hopefully though, the designer has already explicitly given you context for what is being tested. After all, there’s no sense in getting frustrated with a designer for making the “wrong” game.
So, those are my 7 top tips for playtesting. Do you have any other tips for being a better playtester? Let me know in the comments! Also, if you liked this article, subscribe to stay updated on my current design projects and other news.