Jun 28, 2017

Play-Testing Tips Part 2 of 3: With Designers


In this post I'm going to write about how play-testing with other game designers is different to play-testing with consumers or your target audience. Making the most of these opportunities can advance your project greatly and take it in directions you hadn't imagined. Last time I wrote about play-testing alone or solo and you should check that out if you haven't already. 

Most importantly, always show appreciation and gratitude to people who play-test your game; whether it takes ten minutes or two hours, always thank that person or persons who spent their time playing your incomplete project, as their time is valuable and they chose to spend it supporting you.


Play-Testing a Piece of the Game

It is perfectly acceptable (and sometimes even wise) to play-test one part of the game, instead of the full game experience. Especially at the very early stages of design, rapidly playing one part of the game repeatedly can quickly highlight issues and find fixes that feel positive and ensure each part of the game is as good as it can be. It is easy to think that for example, the bidding phase is where all the interaction and excitement happens, and so the other phases don't need to be interesting or meaningful, but play-testing just those other phases in isolation can really bring out the best in them instead of neglecting them as just necessary filler.


For example, with Nevera Wars it was incredibly useful to simply ask another designer to play the first two turns with me over and over. We did this in order to evaluate what options we had in our opening hands, if the options felt overwhelming, if the pacing or rhythm was appropriate, and other elements to ensure the game began as a positive experience, even though the majority of heavy action wouldn't come until later in the game.
If you are only testing the mid game experience, or end game experience, be imaginative and open with how you set those situations up. Try them with one player far out in the lead, and with all players pretty even, and with one player already out, to try and understand the implications of your design in different states of play. Even try with set ups that might not be possible with your current design in case that reveals some new perspective or solution.

Breaking the Game

This is probably the most painful part of play-testing, but is also the most valuable. If you can find play-testers who will intentionally break the game or break the game experience (for example winning by exploiting rules, finding infinite combos, or forcing stalemates) this will force you to confront serious design issues. By playing your game in ways you had not intended, it will quickly get you outside of your own headspace early in the design process.
With Nevera Wars, this was a very difficult experience not only watching another designer purposely try to break the game, but coming to terms with the fact that I had to change so much of the design I had become attached to. In older versions of the game, the only win condition was to destroy nine of your opponent's minions cards, and a designer quickly pointed out that they could force a stalemate by simply refusing to play any minion cards, which is what they did.
I was really adverse to adding any new rules, mechanics or phases, feeling like it would take away from the simplicity and economy of design I was striving for. But after several weeks of brain-storming and play-testing different ideas (remember there is no rush to find solutions) I eventually was able to settle on a small new rule that resolved the issue, and actually enhanced the theme of the game without adding more weight to it.


You Can Defend Your Decisions

Another important difference regarding play-testing with other designers is that you can defend your design decisions. It is important that you communicate your vision for your game so that other designers can help you get closer to it, by making thematically useful suggestions or genre specific suggestions.


If you communicate clearly that you are designing a co-op game aimed at families, the other designers will probably not make suggestions to add Take That maneuvers or interruption mechanics. If you communicate clearly that you are making a portable game that children can play on airplanes and in the back of cars, the other designers will probably not make suggestions to add a ton of counters and cubes.

This is different from being defensive, which generally means to avoid listening or avoid experiencing feedback,  conversationally maneuvering around hearing what someone has to day. More on this in the next section.

Show You Are Listening

Game designers love coming up with solutions to problems, fixes for broken mechanics, and ideas for new avenues of design. But they will stop giving suggestions and advice if they feel they aren't being listened to or that their input is not valued. The simplest way to make sure someone feels listened to is to not interrupt them, and say back to them what they said (or paraphrase).

Also make sure you understand what issue the other designer is trying to resolve when they make a suggestion. If the designer says something like "you could have some kind of bidding mechanic at the end of this phase", make sure you ask what they feel is incomplete or missing to have suggested that. If the designer says something like "you could have everyone take their actions simultaneously instead of one at time", make sure you ask if the issue is the game pacing or the lack of interaction. This will help you settle on a solution that really addresses the issue and help you understand where their ideas are coming from.

You should also have a notebook and be writing down every suggestion and idea you are given. Even ones you wholeheartedly disagree with, hate, or go completely against your theme. The idea itself might not be something you are interested in, but days or weeks down the line something about it might spark the idea for a solution, mechanic, component (or entirely new game). Also if someone sees you write down what they are saying, they really feel like you are listening and valuing what they have to say. Next time I will be focusing on play-testing with your target audience so check back in!



Jun 21, 2017

Play-Testing Tips Part 1 of 3: Solo



This is the first of three posts with play-testing advice based on my experiences designing and developing Nevera Wars. This first post addresses a topic I have not seen mentioned much on podcasts or other blogs, which is solo play-testing, or play-testing with yourself. 

Putting some significant time into play testing alone can really advance the design of a game before taking it to others to play-test, saving a lot of time in the long run. There are a lot of resources out there to take some of the heavy lifting off too before you even need to make a single component. Here are some small tips I gained along the way.


Begin at the End

After deciding on the objective of the game and what the core mechanic of the game is (what is the players' goal and how do they get it) the first action I take it to average out how many turns it might take to achieve that.



For example, if the goal is to inflict 20 damage to the opponent, and the player inflicts an average of three damage each turn (because even if my power increases each turn, likely so will my opponent's defenses), then it will take seven turns to complete the game. Even taking nothing else into account this gives an early indication of the numbers that can be manipulated to get closer to the idea finished experience. If I want the game to go longer I can increase the damage limit or decrease the average damage I expect to be inflicted.

This might sound overly simple but can be very useful when deciding what numbers to start with. Even if I expect my power to increase by one each turn (on turn one I inflict three damage, turn two I inflict four damage, and so on) the game will be over in five turns. So this gives a very clear indication about what experience I want my players to have, even if I am just speculating with averages.  


Turn Length

Another factor that can be grappled with early in development is how long a player's turn might take. A great tool was the simple combinations calculator, this tool basically shows how many different possible subsets can be made from a larger set. This is great for quickly showing how many choices a player has at any given time.

If a player can choose to do 4 actions out of a possible 10, there are 210 possible combinations they can choose, but if a player can choose to do 4 actions out of a possible 7, then there are only 35 different combinations.

This is great for getting an early indication of if your game will give the player too many choices which can really take away from the fun as they struggle to determine the best course of action. This in combination with the speculative number of turns it will take to complete a game can give a good starting point for design.


Dead Hands

One of the most useful tools I have used tools for number crunching in my development have been The Vault, which is a tool for building Magic: the Gathering decks. This tool has a huge number of secondary functions which can be useful for sculpting many games.



You can see from this image that I made a deck using Magic: the Gathering cards which are stand-ins for the cards in my game, and then I wanted to see what the likelihood is of drawing a specific card in an opening hand, which can quickly be shown using the graphs within the tool itself.

This helped me refine the deck size, opening hand size, and other elements within my game that might have otherwise taken months of play-testing to refine. Using this I crafted my components and rules so that players have an almost 0% chance of starting with a hand they cannot play with even before I began play-testing with other people.


Next time I will be writing about play-testing with other designers. Stay positive!


Jun 13, 2017

Designing Components for Nevera Wars


One of the most significant elements of my game Nevera Wars was how to track damage. Unlike some games, damage done to creatures is permanent, and can go as high as 50, so there needs to be a good functional way of keeping track of the count, especially as there can be up to six creatures in play at one time. Some games resolve this by having counters or tokens, but this always seemed cumbersome and inelegant in my opinion- a vital element of game components is that they feel right.


My goals for this component were that it be easy to use, not cumbersome, cheap to produce, and aesthetically pleasing. This is a description of some of the design stages I went through.


Dice

Functionally, dice are an idea placeholder for many game components and mechanics while development is still underway. Very early in development I was using two D10 for each creature, one to represent the tens place and one to represent the ones place. For a long time my plan was to include twelve of these D10 as part of the game components for the final boxed game.


However after many play-testing nights with other game designers, the feedback was clear that the dice were too susceptible to being knocked (or rolling if the table were to be bumped). It was also uncomfortable to watch my fellow designers turn them over and over in their fingers looking for the right number. It was time to leave the dice behind, despite them serving me well during prototyping.


Dials

My next stage was to try using a dual dial, you can find the  template for free here on The Game Crafter. I was immediately excited at the mechanical and solid look of the component and quickly made six of them just with my home printer and some paper fasteners (or split pins as we call them in England).


What also attracted me was the opportunity of having illustration on the dials and how I could make them fit into the theme of the game visually. The art is already a strong element of Nevera Wars so a new surface to illustrate was a big positive.

Long term though, there would be problems with manufacturing. I did not know if the manufacturer would assemble them (at probably a high cost) or if the consumer would assemble them (which would not be ideal either). The feedback from play testers when using them was also not positive, and so I began searching for a new option.


Two Cards

One feature I wanted to include on the component was the ability for both players to easily see the damage count. There is a lot of information on the board already in Nevera Wars and so making the information easy to visually digest was very important to me as a designer. Eventually, while on the bus on the way home from the gym, a few neurons fired in a certain direction and I was inspired to design a card with a very specific layout.


This card would have all the numbers twice (one set upside-down for the opposing player to read) and another card with two holes that would sit on top and could be moved around easily to show different numbers. In this way, the damage for each creature could be tracked with a component that would fit into a deck box, plus the cover card with two holes could also be an opportunity for illustration. Also I felt very clever for coming up with the design, which is not a big factor in the success of a component, but should also not be dismissed; motivation and morale is an important part of any project and should be cherished.



Final Design

The final design for the damage cards is shown here, they printed very dark for this prototype but they function just as I envisioned. There was some difficulty in finding a manufacturer who would easily produce them with the holes already cut for the final game, but fortunately I was able to secure a company.


It is important to remember that components are often a matter of taste and preference; there is no way to design a game component that will please everyone. The most important lesson is to listen to feedback openly, be prepared to try different approaches, and to not be afraid of trying ideas that you are not in love with or have a good chance of having to abandon. With that in mind, I will be soon writing a short series on my lessons learned in how to make the most out of play testing.