The 54 Card Guild: #5
If this is the first time you're seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain much. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It's a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you're interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com.
I apologize for the delay with this entry. It appears I have a day job and in the midst of that, a trip to Texas was incurred. Today, I want to discuss testing. This post will be followed up with Guide #6, which concerns iteration and development. Due to the close proximity of these two topics AND the horrendously unreliable pace with which I've been writing them, they've been written at the same time. Yes! Guide #6 will be released shortly.
If you've been following the assignments, you have:
- Brainstormed and narrowed down an idea
- Filled out an Outline to answer high level questions
- Completed a first pass of content for your game
- Completed a rough rules outline to guide your instruction (and hopefully answer more questions)
- Conducted a solo test
- Iterated against that solo test
If you're ahead of me here, then bear with me. Side question: how did "bear with me" become a saying? I would think other things would occur when "bearing" aside from patiently standing idle. Like, mauling people taking selfies, or catching salmon with one hand like a Heisman trophy winner, or climbing into a hammock, or stealing pickanick baskets. My knowledge of bears is off...
Let's find some suckers willing testers who can get our game off the ground and into development.
Designers often note that you need to test with people who will give you an honest opinion and not sweet talk you, else you'll think more highly of your design than it deserves. However, such a notion is pre-mature at this stage. You don't need 4 members of the BGG elite telling you precisely why your game fails. At this stage, your game is probably a hot pile of garbage. You're not looking for nuanced critique, but warm bodies to help you triangulate the fun and identify gaping holes in your hypothesis.
Therefore, Step 1 is to find a number of people that matches your ideal player number who are kind, open minded, and patient. These should probably be friends or family. Should you include yourself in the first test? At this stage , I could go either way.
- If you AREN'T playing, you can focus your efforts on explanation and furiously take notes.
- If you ARE playing, you can guide players through the rough spots of your rules and mechanisms by taking turns and demonstrating how to play.
I tend to be fairly observant and good at taking notes while moving, so I tend to play in all of my initial tests.
Final note before we get started: buy pizza for everyone and provide cold beverages. Bribery is a wonderful way to warm folks up to pain you're about to inflict. Always remember -- they could be doing something else. Something fun. When I'm at work with lunch, I bring cookies for everyone. It helps!
Now, we're at a table, ideally with melting cheese in close proximity, and some number of people chosen more for their kindness than analytical skills. For your first handful of tests, typically 1-5, you're demonstrating more a work of high concept than gameplay. It's a rough draft and you should present it as such. Before I deal the cards or explain the rules, I give everyone the elevator pitch.
I'll use Gaia as an example to demonstrate my point.
Gaia Elevator Pitch
"I love Netrunner for many reasons, one of which is my love of crafting decks ahead of time and showing up with something unique. I love building a plan out of a pool of cards and pitting against an opponent's deck. So, pre-constructed decks. Naturally, I cannot have infinite cards like Netrunner, which alters my design.
I also love Carcassonne. I think tile laying is a simple, tactile, and brilliant experience. Therefore, I asked myself, how can I combine these two experiences?
In Gaia, two players are powerful beings, more or less gods, who are fighting to take control of newly formed planets. You will build, shape, and influence the planets. Each player will construct or draft a 9 card "deck" out of a small pool of only 45 unique cards. This gives you a taste of deck construction without the mental or financial investment of a traditional CCG."
Reference your Rules Outline (from Guide #3), which you should be keeping up to date, to explain your rules. Naturally, if you've explained rules before, you don't need the Rules Outline! But, if you tend to be wayward and distracted, or, as it's a new game, you're not clear, use the Rules Outline to introduce the game. Remember! You're using your friends' time that could be otherwise spent playing something fun. Respect their time and give them a nice, focused piece of instruction.
Bustin' a U-Turn
In a recent interview on the Shut Up and Sit Down Podcast, Eric Lang noted that during a play test if something isn't working, he'll immediately adjust and change the design to seek the fun. I believe this is pretty standard, but if I'm wrong and it's not, hopefully you'll listen to Eric Lang!
The idea is that you shouldn't struggle to the bitter end. You aren't testing balance. You aren't validating a fair end game. You're trying to determine whether your core mechanisms, your core ideas, and your fundamental conflicts and decision spaces are compelling.
Note: This illuminates the need for a Guide devoted to the core loop. I apologize. I'll write one.
How do you know when to change?
- Look at the faces of your testers. They will truthfully reveal their emotions when they aren't having fun, or when they are having fun!
- When someone pauses for a minute to consider something, ask if they're confused, or stumped, or frustrated.
- When another player is thinking about their turn, ask the previous player what they think. Use that moment to get a quick pulse.
When you think you've found a hiccup or a problem, say "stop!" Explain what you're changing, why, and how it is changing. Make sure everyone gets it -- never forget that your players are taking in a lot of new, fuzzy, maybe poorly presented new rules -- and move forward again.
When something goes wrong, pull the e-Brake and bust a U-Turn. Just change it. Use your time wisely to test as many theories as possible and find the answer as quickly as possible.
Throughout the test, note your observations. Do not seek to immediately identify solutions, or fully understand why you're making the observation, but note things which you observe to reflect upon later.
- What do players ask questions about?
- When do people pause?
- When did people laugh? Smile? Frown?
- Something seem too easy? Too tough?
- Is the game advancing too slowly or too quickly?
In a sense, you're conducting a session of people watching around your game. For these early tests, you're trying to figure out whether your game makes a good first impression. It's like bringing a friend to meet your core group, or meeting the girl you've been talking to via Ok Cupid. People are making quick judgements of your game -- try to capture these judgements, when they are made, and why they are made. Just watch and learn.
Overall, relax and take a deep breath. Take it easy. Check your emotions at the door. Your game is most assuredly going to be bad. Take advantage of your friends's kindness and good spirits and bolster it with your enthusiasm for the game and appreciation for them being there.
You might not play a full game -- it's okay if you don't. I've tested Project Gaia 3 times without actually finishing a game. Why? It's not ready. It's not there yet. I learn a few things every game and then stop the test. I'm hoping I play a complete game for #4, or maybe #5. It's key not to waste people's time. It's also key to not try to solve every problem your game has in a single test.
When you get home, examine your notes and compile them all in a small diary. Read them a few times, then, when you're ready, begin iteration. We'll cover that next time.
Write an Elevator Pitch for your game. Review and update your Rules Outline. Finally, call an ideal number of friends over, order your favorite pizza, and conduct your test. Open a Word document or Google Doc and begin a development diary listing your notes, changes, observations, and desires for the game.