Ignoring Kind Feedback

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In Friday’s post, I noted that the folks at Cardboard Edison had asked me two questions. The result of the first question was Friday’s post. The second question is answered, or so I hope, in today’s post. Thanks again for two great prompts!

Today’s Question: What do you do when a tester says “You removed my favorite feature?” Or, more broadly, what do you do when your iterations conflict with testers’ opinions?

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll notice a few recurring themes. The first thing that comes to mind to answer this is one of my most predominant recurring themes: what is your goal for the game? If you can answer that question succinctly, and I think you need to be able to before you do ANYTHING with your design, the choice is clear.

Before you respond to your tester in regards to any feedback, positive or otherwise, you must be able to answer these questions for yourself:

  1. What type of game do you want this to be? What are your high level goals for the experience?
  2. For whom are you developing this game? Who is your audience?
  3. What is the most important part of your design? To which part of your design will you allot the most complexity? Where do you want your players’ attention? What is their key decision point?

If you can answer those two questions, you can begin to answer these:

  1. Why did you make the change in the first place? Ideally, it was to bring the game more in line with the answers outlined above.
  2. Why do you think the change will do a better job of satisfying your goals?
  3. What were the alternates that you considered before deciding upon this change?

To be explicit in my expectations, you need to know why you’re making the change in the first place. Never make changes to your game just to change stuff. Understand fully what the problem is that you’re trying to solve and why you think the change will address it. Otherwise, you will meander for months or years with no forward progress.

Let’s circle back for a moment. You know the game you want to make and your target audience. Ideally, your target publisher as well (assuming you’re solely the designer). You know what makes your game special. You also know 2 or 3 areas where your game is falling short. You know what you want to fix in order to bring it closer to the goal. You act decisively and remove a feature that a tester enjoys. They speak up about it.

Quickly, I want to note what’s important here: You’re coming to the table as an expert. You’re bringing as much data, logic, and science as you can to this vile hobby of ours. You’ll need that.

Before you ask questions, I find it useful to come to an agreement on terms. Or, in absence of agreement (which really you don’t need, this isn’t a democracy), you can at least state your personal goals. Provide a lens: This is the game I want to make. This is what I think is important.

Your first question to the tester is, “Why is it your favorite feature? What did you love about it?” There are a thousand ways to boil and egg (are there?), and once you know what their end goal is, you can deliver that in a way that suits your goals.

Your second question is whether they agree that the problem you intend to solve is indeed a problem. This is a really good way to take their temperature on the end result. If, ideally, you can both reach agreement that you have a problem, then you can move forward. You can then brainstorm and discuss potential solutions that better preserve their favorite feature and still address your problem. This is why question 2 immediately follows question 1.

Really, this is about having a directed discussion. It’s your design, your project. Enter as the moderator and drive the conversation.

Many of us want to placate our testers. For the longest time, maybe years, they are our only fans. They are the only people who have played our game. They’re the only ones who know what we’re trying to accomplish. The difficult truth is, they may be our only testers ever if we don’t sign the game. But, and this is difficult, in the same way one must learn to listen to feedback and leverage testing advice, one must also learn to ignore it or leverage it accordingly.

Just as bad as changing a design haphazardly for years under your own direction is doing so at the behest of your testers. Never forget that it’s your design. You’re striving for your name on the box. It’s your vision.

In conclusion, know what you want. Know what you’re trying to achieve. Know what is sacred in your design and why it’s sacred. Then, work to know what your players like and why they like it. Or, on the opposite side, what they don’t like and why this is so. Enter every discussion knowing what works with your game and what isn’t currently working. Design is an art, but development can be more scientific. Identify issues and eliminate dead ends. Do this by understanding your design and your goals.

Feedback, positive or negative, is only valuable if you know how to use it. A tester who likes your game is fine, but remember that you’re seeking an audience of thousands, unless they’re buying the entire print run.

Using Reviews to Improve Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I don’t like reviews. I’ve been a professional video game developer for 9 years now and I’ve released quite a few titles. Loading up Metacritic.com or a review site is always nerve wracking, to the point where I have just stopped looking at them. BGG’s community is no different. If you’ve published a game, you know that scrolling past that first page is just asking for pain.

But, reviews are quite valuable. They provide a quick aggregate view of your customers’ feedback. Not only that, but reviews are often coming from your most vocal and enthusiastic (for better or worse) customers. You know, those who care enough to go onto a website to review your game. This sub-group is very important as they will be your evangelists and detractors.

For perspective, just a bit over 10% of the people who own Farmageddon have noted that they own it on BGG. A tiny fraction have commented.

Today, I want to discuss simple ways to take advantage of your reviews to make better games and have a better relationship with your customers. As Farmageddon is my only released title, I’ll use it as my primary example. It’s not quite appropriate for me to use The Sims from work for this forum.

The Extremes Serve Nobody: I believe fairly strongly, with no data to back this up, that the extreme reviews aren’t terribly useful. By this, I mean the 10s, 1s, 2s, and 3s.

A 10 should mean the game is perfect and could be played for years and is just outstanding. Also, it means you, the reviewer, just love it. A 10 holds great personal appeal. Some of us try to relegate our 10s sparingly, others do not. And while those games DO exist, it’s difficult to really take advantage of such feedback. A 10 is a deeply personal reflection of something the reviewer loves. Understanding it requires you be them.

A 1-3 should mean the game is utterly broken, does not work, and is just a shameful creation. While these games exist, most of the time, a game isn’t that bad. I find 1-3s are often a backlash against a particular mechanic, play style, creator, or pet peeve.

For Farmageddon reviews below about 4, you’ll see the same complaints over and over: Purely random. Purely luck. No strategy. Take that. Waste of time. The 1-3s aren’t people who love take that filler card games. It’s not that Farmageddon is the worst of its kind (for them) and they love Gubs or other such games. They don’t like this type of game.

A 1-3 is a deeply personal reflection of something the reviewer hates. Understanding it requires you be them.

You’ll notice I repeated myself. You cannot rely on those who just get it to represent most or even many of your customers. Nor should you try to chase people who just fundamentally don’t appreciate your offering. Farmageddon will never be the game that a reviewer who gave it a 2 will appreciate.

The extremes serve nobody.

Pluck Low Hanging Fruit: Ignore all numbers, not just the extremes, and instead catalog the qualitative complaints against your game. You cannot action against whether your game is a 5.7 or an 8. That’s just not quality input.

Instead, scroll through the comments for reviews between the 4 and 8 range. Create a spreadsheet and group the comments by type. You’ll often find a few consistent notes.

For Farmageddon, the game’s recurring thorns are:

  • Can Mirror Bean be destroyed with a Flame Fruit?
  • Can I steal a Crop using Genetic Super Worm?
  • Can I Foul Manure a Foul Manure?
  • And a few others…

These are clear and easy opportunities to improve your relationship with your customers in a few ways:

  • Create and update an FAQ.
  • Respond to forum threads with clarification.
  • Write blog posts and designer diaries explaining your decisions.
  • Create How to Play videos that maximize focus on these key areas.

All of these demonstrate your commitment to the product, are easy methods of customer support, and will increase the enjoyment of the play experience for your customers. After all, if someone is playing incorrectly, 9 times out of 10 that means the game is less fun. Unless, of course, you didn’t test your game sufficiently to determine that. But, we don’t do that, right?

Also, if you’re lucky, you can include these tweaks in future editions and printings. For Farmageddon’s second printing, we made 3 tiny rule tweaks, one of which was a change in one word. It makes a big difference. Being responsive to your consumers shows humility, dedication, and is such an easy win for all parties.

Find the Holes: In addition to the easy, low-hanging concerns for people learning the game, you’ll also find holes or criticisms of the design itself. You’ll find opportunities for expansions to address concerns, or you’ll learn for the sake of future games. For example, with Farmageddon, I found a few issues that I wanted to address with the expansion, Livestocked and Loaded:

  • People wanted a little more strategy amid the volatility. Farmageddon will never be Agricola, but adding in Livestock as a long-term strategy really broadens the game in a great way.
  • There needed to be more uses and decisions around low-level crops. Now, you can discard planted Sassy Wheats to Feed animals.
  • Some people felt frustrated by lack of control of Action cards. Some of that comes with the game, but the Farmer’s Market Action, as well as the Livestock Actions, give players more choice over their path.
  • With Livestock and Loaded, the 2 player experience is far richer and more compelling. It becomes less a slug fest and a little more cat and mouse.

I’ve been very fortunate that Farmageddon has sold well enough to allow me to improve the overall game and address the critiques of my fans. Now, let’s say it hadn’t sold well and therefore no expansion would be forthcoming. It’s still useful to know the critiques so I can address them with future games. Some ways to see this in my current designs include:

  • Putting more thought into iconography and graphic design sooner to facilitate learning.
  • Creating a glossary up front for a game so that cards use fewer words that are more consistent.
  • A better understanding of balance sooner.
  • A better understanding of broader strategies.
  • A better understanding of luck, interaction, and variance.

Your critiques are a gift, especially those in the middle range. I believe, again, without data, that those in the middle range have played your game, understand it, and are providing a more rational critique. Those at the extreme ends of the spectrum are on a tilt, either an extreme high or low, and are less likely to provide you actionable and honest input.

Thanks for the Review: This is a parting note, and a suggestion from years of observation and experience. If you receive a negative review, and you will, you’re allowed to do one thing: Post, “Thanks for the review.” You may also try, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the game. Thanks for the review.” Not everyone will like your game, especially when you make a game with certain highly contentious elements. You have to recognize that opinion. Note, I didn’t say you need to respect that opinion.

By appearing to say “Thanks for the review” you do a few things:

  • Demonstrate that you read all reviews, not just the good ones.
  • Demonstrate that you’re an adult and can take the criticism. This is a VERY important skill for designers.
  • Gives you an opening for dialog. When they see points 1 and 2, they might engage with you further. Making a friend now will pay off in the future.

As a personal example, I sent Josh Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh an EARLY prototype copy of Farmageddon. This is back when it was on The Game Crafter. He really didn’t like it and he gave me a lot of input. I responded to it and used it to develop the game further. A year or so later when he reviewed the final game, he did so far more favorably. Yes, I made a better game. But, I also did the work to be a reasonable person.

Finally, upon reading the review, you may find the reviewer made some mistakes in reading your rules. This is an opportunity!

“Thanks for the review. I’m sorry you didn’t like the game. One thing I wanted to note was that you made one slight error in regards to a rule. I’ll make sure I update the FAQ so others don’t miss it! Thanks for pointing that out. Instead of doing X, you want to do Y. Hope that helps.”

It is unlikely, honestly, that you’ll win that person over. But, others will see this dialog, will learn from it, and will appreciate you being a reasonable person.

I hope this was useful for you. What advice do YOU have for taking advantage of reviews?

Giving Feedback


Post by: Grant Rodiek

On this blog me and other writers have discussed how to use feedback, how to interpret feedback, what questions to ask of your testers, but never advice on how to give feedback. If you’re anything like me, you associate with other designers and you play many prototypes. As people who understand and love design, we can probably better our community (and quality of games) by giving better feedback. Or, at least providing it in a more useful fashion.

This list is based on my experiences at GenCon, Protospiel, and casual test sessions. It’s the result of pet peeves, great insights received, and things I’d like to see more of.

Save your perceptions until the end. I cannot properly express in words how frustrating it is to be told of a feature’s imbalance 2 turns into the game, or to see a more casual friend bow up just by looking at the number of pieces. “Oh, it’s too complicated! I won’t have fun.”

The thing is, your perception is useful. It really is. If you perceive an imbalance and that taints your enjoyment, that’s something I’ll need to try to address. If you think the game looks overwhelming, that matters because it may change my target demographic.

But, what’s also important is how you feel at the end of the experience, or even just further along. For example, if you think the game is imbalanced from start to finish, that means one thing. If you thought something was imbalanced, but by the end felt that it wasn’t, that means another thing.

These little gut quirks can be distracting for the test, both for you and the designer. When you get a knee jerk, take a note of it, check it at the end of the game, and bring it up with all the information.

My favorite example of this is random turn order in York. Without fail, someone goes “ugh random turn order that breaks everything!” Then they play for an hour and find that they don’t really care (often). I’ve had people cry over the imbalance of a single Fleet card in Blockade, only to watch them devastate their opponent the very next turn.

Therefore: Note your gut reaction. Think on it. Provide input later based on the result.

Be aware of the current state of graphical presentation. Many prototypes look like garbage. Yes, there’s a healthy (and interesting) debate about how nice a prototype should look. My stance is typically to focus on functionality and simple icons to represent actions in a less abstract manner.

It’s not unreasonable for you to ask at the outset: What sort of feedback are you looking for in regards to the graphic design and presentation? The designer’s answer can greatly focus your thoughts.

In my experience, it’s very frustrating to be told my typeface choice lacks theme when I’m on an early prototype. On the other hand, it’s very useful to be told the current layout makes a player think an action means one thing when it really means another.

Good things to point out are:

  • Whether you need a reference card to remind you of actions
  • Where text lacks clarity or supports multiple interpretations
  • Where diagrams could be added to improve understanding

When I took York to Gencon 2012, I found that the layout of my player boards did not properly highlight or organize important information. The round track didn’t remind people of scoring, and the score reference didn’t tell them how or when to score things. Getting feedback on this was monstrously useful.

Basically: Ask what to look for in regards to graphics. If it’s time to nitpick fonts and the size of the icon, fantastic. But more likely, you’ll need to help the designer improve functionality.

Share a little bit about who you are. I’m fairly decent at reading people, but often times, before I can properly evaluate your feedback, it helps to know who YOU are. This is a weird fuzzy point, but addressing it is a good way to give the designer an anchor point. Some things to tell them:

  • A few of your favorite games. This tells me what you think about Euros versus Ameritrash, luck versus skill, complexity, game length, theme choices/interests.
  • What you look for in a game, or, why you play games. Some people seek the aggression of war, or engine building, or thorough, long-term analysis and optimization. Or, seeking exploits. Some people just want story.
  • Some of your least favorite games. It helps knowing what experiences or mechanics really rub you the wrong way.

At GenCon 2013, my friend Cole tested his game Aphelion with a group of random guys on Wednesday night. Aphelion is greatly influenced by Talisman, so it was really useful to hear: “Hey, we love Talisman. This has a Talisman vibe we really enjoy.” He knew they were arguably his target audience.

Conversely, if I were testing Blockade, a game about direct conflict and lots of dice rolls, and honestly, not an intense amount of deep strategy, my design friend Gil Hova would probably hate every part of it. I need to understand his point of view to properly evaluate his input.

Help the designer understand your point of view. Where possible, remove the cuneiform from the conversation.

Give the why. It’s really simple. If you like something, or don’t, the more explanation as to why you feel that way, the better. Remember, your feedback will hopefully spurn action items for the designer to improve the game. If you just say “I strongly dislike this mechanic,” we’re suddenly at a 4 way stop with no clue as to how we should turn.

This is an extension of who you are, as the why might vary from player to player and be influenced by your perception. But, provide the designer with additional, colorful input on why something did or didn’t work for you.

Feel free to discuss the high level experience. Often, folks focus on the minutiae, which is useful as a designer may have a particular trouble spot or may ask for advice on improving a specific aspect. But, it’s shockingly useful when someone comments on the overall experience of the game.

At GenCon 2012, some folks whose opinion I greatly respect told me that York‘s biggest issues were bad pacing and shoddy presentation. The game was slower and more confusing than it needed to be. That insight drove some of my best iterations on the game.

Recently, many peers noted that York is just too tightly wound. The tuning is unforgiving and there’s just not enough flexibility. Again, this has driven a lot of good, useful changes.

Far too often people discuss the tiny details. This is very useful and appreciated. But, don’t forget to take a step back and discuss high level things about the overall experience and vibe of the game.

How to Use Feedback

Jay is fresh from Unpub 3 where he took a few of his new prototypes to test with a flood of designers and gamers alike. He’s also been participating in the PPP program. Therefore, Jay’s input on gathering and using testing feedback is useful and should be read!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

You’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to design a flawless game without any playtesting. Yet, figuring out how to improve your game after a playtesting session is often a mystery. How can you turn your playtesters’ nebulous comments, insane ideas, and bad advice into useful feedback? I’ll share a few tricks with you and I hope you’ll share yours in the comments.

Ask the Right Questions

“Yeah, that was pretty good.”

The first piece of useless feedback every designer hears is the patronizing reassurance that your game isn’t 100% crap. You ask, “What did you think?” or “How did you like it?” and 99/100 people will answer the same way. What they’re really saying is “It wasn’t good enough. I can imagine a worse way to spend as much time, but it involves fire and shackles. I can’t tell you exactly how bad it was because I was taught if I can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

While you will get more pointed feedback from your peers in the industry who know what you need to hear, and you must seek that level of feedback out at some point, you need the perspective of real players first. If you want more useful responses, you have to ask better questions. Crap in, crap out.

Be as specific as you can. If you’re aware of any points that might be less than perfect, call them out and ask for opinions. “What did you think of mechanic X? Was it fun? Balanced? Confusing? In-Theme?” Once players realize you know there might be a problem, they’re no longer the messenger and are more willing to discuss it.

There are other staple questions that can lead to more useful information. “Was the game too long?” “How much would you pay for this?” “Who do you think would enjoy this?” There’s a subtle difference between these questions and the following: “Was anything confusing?” “Would you buy this?” “Was the game too hard?” Take a moment and think about why the first three might be good and the last three might not.

“Was the game too long?” Unlike “Did you like the pacing?”, this question acknowledges that the game might be too long. Answering “a bit” doesn’t make the respondent a villain, it lets them confirm your line of reasoning. More on what that answer means soon.

“Would you buy this?” is a binary and personal decision. The player only has two answers to give; one of which will be a lie and the other will hurt your feelings.

“How much would you pay for this?” gives them a scale to grade on, the upper and lower bounds of which are not clearly defined, so whatever they answer can’t be interpreted as an insult. Even though ‘you’ is the same word, this question feels more like an abstract question where the ‘you’ is more of a general ‘one.’ I might not buy your game for $40, but I know people who would. Note that this question is less to help you set a price point and more as a secret gauge for how good your game is.

“Was anything confusing?” is an attack. Your player hears “Are you too stupid to play this game?” They will always answer ‘no,’ unless they made a bad play during the game and would rather pawn off responsibility for it to the game. A better question is “Where can I improve rules or game text to be more clear?” Or “Can anyone word this better?” Or “Did scoring seem cumbersome?”

“Was the game too hard?” Also an attack:. “Was the game too hard for you?” Instead ask, “What felt imbalanced?” or “The game is meant to be a challenge. Do you think I should increase or decrease [some element]?”

“Who do you think would enjoy this?” allows the player to give you a positive response without committing themselves to a lie about how much they hate your game. They might say “hardcore gamers” which tells you the game is too complicated or “kids” which tells you it’s too simple or luck-based. If they say “my play group back home” you can do a little dance inside.

Under the Veil

Very few of the comments your testers give you will be directly applicable in tweaking your design, but all of it is useful data. Your job is to interpret what they’re saying (the hard part) and decide how to use that information (the other hard part).

“The game was too long.”

Your player(s) weren’t engaged the whole time. While we all prefer short games, that’s a learned defense mechanism against bad games. No one who enjoys Cards Against Humanity minds playing for two hours straight or D&D for four or more hours. A game is only too long when it’s boring.

The more players there are in your turn-based game, the longer a player has to wait before her next turn comes around again. If the game isn’t highly interactive, all of that time is boring. Try to make turns shorter by giving players less to do and preventing analysis-paralysis by limiting their options. Try to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn by giving them stuff to do out of turn, or making sure they care desperately how the current player takes his turn.

If a player feels overwhelmed or doesn’t get the game, they will tune out. “I don’t know how to improve my score/position because I don’t understand everything” leads almost instantly to “I don’t care. Please let me stop.” You probably need to simplify your game. Consider making a basic/introductory game or improving your initial presentation, but probably, you need to simplify your game.

If a player feels they can no longer win the game, or that there’s so much luck that their choices don’t matter, they will disengage and want to escape. Make sure that you have an appropriate amount of luck in your game for the length and gravity of the game (they’re inversely proportional) and that the amount of work a player has to do to take their turn (analyze the situation, make a decision, move pieces around) doesn’t exceed the impact of their choice on the game. It’s fine if your game is mostly luck, provided it’s short, light-hearted and easy.

“I didn’t like this mechanic.”

Many comments mean very different things depending on who said them and the context. You have to be reading your players throughout the game so that you will know how they mean what they say afterward. Honestly, you shouldn’t even need to ask “did you like the game?” If your players were laughing and smiling, they definitely did* and if they were checking their watches or nodding off, they definitely didn’t.

*Good company can make a game the same way bad company can ruin a game, but you can tell how much of the fun was just friends joking with each other as if they weren’t playing at all.

If a player lost the game because he misplayed or because another player leveraged a mechanic against them well, “I didn’t like this mechanic” often just means “I didn’t get this mechanic” or “I lost to this mechanic and I don’t like losing.” If they play again (good luck with that) and have the same opinion, consider upgrading them from ‘sore loser’ to ‘onto something.’

If a casual player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too novel/complicated for him. Reconsider your audience, or simplify your game.

If a hardcore player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too old/shallow for her. Reconsider your audience, or look for a unique twist to cast a new light on this classic mechanic. If you weren’t aware the mechanic was old, ask for at least two games that use it and go play them. Also, play more games. Musicians don’t not listen to music. Boxers don’t not watch boxing.

If an industry peer hates your mechanic, ask them why. They could fall into any of the above categories, but if not, they probably have a really good reason and whether you agree or not, you need to understand their reason.

“There’s too much luck.”

Funny how you almost never hear the opposite. The reason is that in a game with luck, players can blame their loss on something other than themselves; in a game with no luck, your only recourse is to blame the game balance or complexity; it is a rare player that acknowledges their own mistakes.

That said, there’s probably too much luck. We game designers love our dice and cards and rarely do the math to see exactly how much impact they have on the game. It’s okay, that’s what playtesting is for. Just don’t be afraid to make some big tweaks (always start with big tweaks and iterate your way down to small tweaks—it’ll save you time, guaranteed). Editor’s Note: Famous video game designer Sid Meier of Civilization fame has a classic rule for tuning: double it, or cut it in half. I’ve been using this for years and it has served me well.

Games need variance in order to create suspense, so don’t remove all the luck. Just make sure players can’t invest more work into the game than you can guarantee they will be rewarded for. Again, shorter and easier games can have more luck, but longer and harder games can’t. Think of a bell-curve. If your game is 5 minutes, it’s okay if the more skilled player only wins 60% of the time, but if your game is 5 hours, it’s not okay if the player who played best doesn’t win at least 95% of the time.

Note that luck and skill are not opposite ends of a single axis. There are games with low luck and low skill (Tic Tac Toe) and games with high luck and high skill (Poker). One does not preclude the other. There are also vastly different sorts of variance. That’s a whole other article, but consider for one example the difference between Candy Land and To Court the King. Candy Land’s dice decide who wins the game, while To Court the King’s dice usually just push toward one strategy or another.

“Have you considered X?”

Players will suggest ways to change your game or things to add. Especially industry peers. Some of these suggestions will be so dumb, you have to lock off the part of your brain that heard them so it doesn’t infect what’s left. Some of these will be so brilliant, they turn your game from “ehhh” to “yeahhh.” You have to listen to these suggestions and even harder, you have to consider them.

Suggestions like these are to be treated like a brainstorm. No matter how bad they sounds, you must not criticize or dismiss them, or it will be the last suggestion you get from that playtester. You can either write them down and promise to think about them later (which you should actually do) or talk them through on the spot. Make sure you understand both the core concept of the proposal as well as the reason the suggester thinks it might improve the game. Often, his solution will be unusable, but the problem he’s trying to solve will be a very real problem that you need to address.

This actually tends to be the easiest way to tease out a problem from your testers. “What would you change/add/remove?” will often lead to terrible ideas that pinpoint with laser accuracy a deficiency in your game. For example, “I would make separate cards for cowboys’ horses” :: “You haven’t integrated the Western theme enough.” And “eliminate the bidding step” :: “the bidding is unoriginal and doesn’t really impact the game.”

Remember that no one understands your design or your vision as well as you do. Just because Richard Garfield would add powers to your character cards, doesn’t mean you should. But if you don’t understand exactly why he suggested that (the game’s too simple) and exactly why you shouldn’t (your audience is the elderly), then you need to find out.

Is there another comment you’ve gotten you’re not sure how to interpret? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

What Next

You’ve got your feedback. You think you know what it means. How should you change your game? Try all of it—one at a time. So many of man’s greatest achievements have come from accidents or from crazy ideas that someone wouldn’t give up on. Don’t let your instinct throw away an idea because it doesn’t sound helpful. If you don’t know exactly how that would work out in every possible situation, you owe it to yourself to find out. Most of what you try won’t improve the game, but everything will improve your understanding of the game.

Design is an exploration. You are entering an unknown reality where you don’t even know the rules of physics. You can only discover the boundaries by pushing ahead in a direction until you hit a wall. The more you push, the better intuition you have of what’s possible and what’s not, but if you stop pushing when you find something good, you’ll never know if you missed a secret passage to something vastly better.

Design with the intention of failing, or you’ll never have the perspective at the end to know if you’ve truly succeeded or merely stopped designing.**

That said, don’t try everything at once. If you try three changes at the same time, and the game improves, how do you know if all three helped or if one helped a lot and the other two held it back. If the game worsens, how do you know all three changes were bad? More importantly, how do you understand how each change impacts your game and what that means about your game? Editor’s Note: The scientific method will treat you well.

You don’t have to prototype every change. Most games and most changes have to playtested with other humans to see their true impact, but sometimes you can do that without making new playing pieces. Just tell the players X is Y this time. Some changes you can eliminate socratically: What if players could pay $10 to the bank to roll an extra die in Monopoly? They wouldn’t bother in the early game, and would know exactly when to use it in the late game. Does the mid-game matter? Do you want players paying marginal amounts to the bank to completely bypass their opponents’ hotel chains? You have to be really careful with this type of thought because it’s ridiculously easy to miss important details and still be 100% certain your right. If you are going to skip this test, at least run it by another player to see if they agree with your conclusion.

**How do you know when you’re done? If you blind playtest the game with at least three new groups of your target audience and they all love it, and you can’t find any way to make the game better (without making it worse), you’re probably done.

Multiple Paths

You’ll often reach a fork in the road. Perhaps your game is half-way between a party game for gamers and a fun party activity for non-gamers. You have to go one way or the other because the split won’t please anyone, but how do you choose? This is the other other hard part.

Sometimes, you have to go back to your original vision for the game. If you set out to make the fastest, lightest tactical wargame ever and you have the chance to instead make a meatier game that really stands on its own, maybe you should stick with your vision and complete your original goal. Put your thumb in the page of this choose-your-own-adventure, because you can always go back and explore the other path when you finish this one.

Sometimes, I’m thinking most of the time, you have to forget where you were coming from and listen to what the game wants to be. Like carving stone, of course you have to start with a plan in mind but you might get half way there and just see something else waiting to be revealed. Something better. It’s rare that the act of executing one game idea doesn’t lead me to discover something different, something a little more natural and unique. Unlike carving stone, you can always undo a change and go back to what worked better.

Ultimately the decision is yours and yours alone to make, but remember that you can always ask friends and peers for their opinion. The value of another perspective is immeasurable.

Calm Down

As a parting note, I wanted to touch briefly on designer ego. It’s impossible not to be invested in your game. It’s your baby and if you aren’t invested in it, it’s going to be trash and you’re wasting the playtesters’ time. What you have to learn to do, though, is to divorce the quality of your game in its current state from your self-confidence as a designer. A bad playtest doesn’t make you a bad designer. It doesn’t even make the game bad, because your game isn’t finished. It just means you’ve learned something and found a way to make your game better.

The only way to be a bad designer is to release only bad games, and the only way to do that is to ignore your playtesters when they tell you what’s wrong with your game. Or to not playtest.

Within Your Reach

Post by: Grant Rodiek

If your mother was anything like mine, you may have heard the phrase: “Don’t worry about what they are doing. Worry about what you’re doing!” We tend to over think and overreach towards the things outside our control instead of focusing on what we CAN control.

That’s the silly side of human nature — chasing what we can’t manipulate instead of firmly gripping what we can. In discussing this with a friend, we realized there was a simple blog post to be had. After all, so much of our time as designers is spent fretting over publisher feedback, play tester feedback, reviews, BGG comments/ratings, and more. It’ll kill you if you let it.

As a designer, your first and only task is to focus on the things over which you have direct control. Not everyone will like your game, as people have opinions, tastes, and preferences. But, reasonable players, who are the only ones with whom we shall concern ourselves, will appreciate a basic average of quality and craftsmanship. Your goal should be that the worst review you get says “It’s a good game, just not for me.”

The question then is “What can I as a designer control?” For a moment, let’s pretend the publisher won’t change every little detail. And for some designers, who use Print-On-Demand and Kickstarter self-publishing methods, this is an accurate assumption as YOU are the publisher.

Things firmly under your control include:

Game Length: One of the first decisions you should make is about the length of game you’re targeting. This is a front of box detail that will greatly dictate who buys your game and when it’s played. Aside from absurd analysis paralysis folks, this is under your control with the game’s end condition, length and complexity of player turns, overall complexity of decision making, and more.

Quality of Rules: The rules are a publisher’s, player’s, and reviewer’s first exposure to your game. It is the foundation of their entire experience. If your rules are poorly written, poorly laid out, and of insufficient quality for explanation, you are unlikely to have happy players. Take the time to proofread, test, and iterate. You control this. If you have confusing elements, fiddly exceptions, or pockets of “whaaa?” step back, refine the mechanic, and try again.

Theme: The quality of your theme is very much within your power as a designer in a few ways. Firstly, the quality of its integration. Does it fit, or did you just tack-on steam punk to make it more marketable? Do the art, text, and components reinforce the premise of your game? Also, is the theme appropriate for your audience? If you’re targeting a broad gender neutral market or a younger audience, half-naked females (I hate this cliche) aren’t appropriate.

Theme is most assuredly a preference. Some prefer elves to space marines. BUT. How appropriate and well-suited it is executed is in your court.

Number of Supported Players: One of the first questions a designer must answer is “how many people will play this game?” Although it is tempting to expand what you say the number of players is, you need to do what’s right for the product and your customers.  2-6 players looks way more marketable on a box label, but if 3-5 is correct, you need to say 3-5.

In addition to your honesty, it’s also within your power to do the design work to make your intentions a well-executed reality. Modifying the rules and content to support that extreme player number is a pain, but you never want a review to ding you for bad player numbers.

Art and Layout: As noted above, art is purely suspect. However, there is a quality bar that you can avoid, namely, does it resemble a piece of work made by a child using MS Paint? The layout of your board, cards, and rules is also very controllable. You can prove that it works through testing and iteration. Furthermore, there are best practices like using clean, easy to read typefaces, using a sufficient font size (6 point font is a no), avoiding distracting or aggravating colors, and putting things together in a way that lends itself to how people read and process information.

If all else fails, blatantly lean on the best layout work of some of the well-established publishers. If you know a game has a great card layout, use it. Start from there.

Mental Accounting Required: One of the things most designers overlook, especially on initial prototypes, is that players can only account for so many things. If they are holding 5 cards, each with 6 pieces of information, and must examine a board, and a reference board, and dice, and 6 opponents, their heads will explode. Focus your design such that the key elements towards making decisions are the ones in play. Strip away the rest.

Things firmly outside your control include:

One’s appreciation or fondness for your mechanic: Some players hate deckbuilding games. Or dice, or randomness at all for that matter. Take-that can be hugely controversial and some people absolutely despise direct interaction between players. But, for all those examples I listed, there are more people who love them. Hell, there are people who love Monopoly and the original Risk. Do your best to focus on those who might love your game, not those who absolutely won’t.

Empire has random turn order. This will probably be noted in every review of the game. But, those who play it find it’s not a problem and that it works for the game. So it goes.

Bad Players: You simply cannot count on player skill. If you create a game that has strategy, depth, and at times complex decisions, some people will simply play your game badly. For example, Trajan hurt my skull and I’m not really inclined to play it again. Between the mancala bowl puzzle and the broad range of choices, I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of things. The game isn’t bad, it just wasn’t for me. I was bad at the game.

One of the things that was most difficult to balance for Empire is that some factions are less obvious and straightforward. Skilled players had a fair and balanced experience. Poor players would be trounced by the more straightforward factions. You can deliberately choose to widen or narrow the skill requirement, but at the end of the day, some will simply play poorly…and many will curse you for their mistakes.

A Group of Random Players: If you’ve attended a board game convention and played with a random assortment of people, you may notice the game experience varies wildly than when you play with close friends. For better or worse, this will affect everyone’s opinion of your game and you can’t quite control that.

For example, I played a very interactive, take-that game at KublaCon. It was a 6 player game with me and one other solo player, then a boyfriend/girlfriend couple and a father/son duo. The game quickly became tedious and not fun because the two couples played as a team, so I was a solo player versus two combined factions. It wasn’t fun or fair and I don’t look on the game experience fondly.

On the opposite side, I notice when playing Farmageddon at GenCon that some children ALWAYS pick on their sibling or their parents. They aren’t playing “to win” per se, but they are playing for schadenfreude and the poking often accompanied with families. This didn’t ruin a parent’s experience — they are used to it! But some siblings grew VERY angry. When asked if they want to play my game again, I would wager many would shout “No!”

Your game simply might falter in a convention demo or at a random game night. It happens.

Did I pick all the right elements? Did I miss something? Do you disagree with me? Let’s chat in the comments.

A Makeover for Empire Reborn

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was smugly satisfied with the quality of the prototype I brought to GenCon (shown above). Perhaps it was the actual design, but for some reason I looked upon the hideous prototype much like a 4 year old proudly gazes upon his heap of mud. The praise was undeserved, even if it emanated exclusively from my mind.

As noted in this post, one of the biggest pieces of feedback I received with the prototype was that it was poorly presented. Information was not easily obtained nor retained. Things were not presented in a way that reinforced the actual gameplay. It was merely a smattering of information and the player had to both find what he needed to find, then re-learn how and when to use it.

The two biggest changes were made to the game board and the player Reference boards. Let’s take a look!

Game Board Updates

This new board features:

  • A score tracker for players to easily reference and track their scores.
  • A place to set the Strategic Victory cards (previously they were off the board).
  • A larger board to accommodate 4 players and many pieces.
  • A more balanced map: more territories more evenly distributed, equal distribution of valuable territories for all players, and modified placement to eliminate edge rules.
  • The Score indicators on the round markers now tell you WHEN a scoring phase occurs, but also WHAT is scored (using icons).
  • An actual map with some decent art! A friend, Chevee Dodd, quickly whipped this up for me. You can quickly see the difference between cities, HQ, normal territories, and Seaports. Plus, you can do so when setting up.

Here is the map from the rules with the call outs for all the components (click on image for a larger version).

Player Reference Board Updates

These saw about 4 or 5 significant revisions. Before I go too deeply, here is a quick snap of the boards I tested at GenCon:

Here is a new card with the explanations on it (this is from the rules):

  • Instead of merely listing the round phases, I now present them from left to right in Black boxes with numbers. These are at the same level. The intent is that everything you can do in THAT phase is listed accordingly.
  • There is space (at the top) to store all of your tokens and markers. This is for easy upkeep, but also, I can glance at your board to see what you have.
  • Tactics, previously very confusing, are shown as you can use them. Defensive Tactics pointed to. Then offensive Tactics.
  • Lots of color coding. I will reinforce things subtly and then with a sledgehammer.
  • Little rule and scoring reminders sprinkled throughout.

Card Improvements

Cards were given some tweaks as well. I’ve upped the sizing from mini-cards to standard poker cards. I also created a very simple box in the top left of the card to hold the functional information. I was inspired by Morels here.

The other big change is that two of the cards no longer have their functionality listed on the Reference boards. This was stupid of me and the information is now on the cards. Here are two cards so you can see the difference. The top is a simple one used for Tactics or Reinforcement. The bottom is one from the same faction for the Field Marshal card. For now, I’m using the same art for each card, with every faction having different art.


Overall, the protoype will look and feel much better. Presentation and satisfying tactile elements are so fundamental for a good board game experience. The new prototype now features:

  • Full poker cards for the player decks.
  • Mini-cards for the Strategic Victory cards.
  • Quad fold board. This will be far higher quality than the mat used previously.
  • 10mm cubes (up from 8mm cubes).
  • More tokens for Control and white disks for the Battle flags.

And for my own personal prototype, I obtained these…

If this prototype tests well, I hope a few things will happen immediately. One, I hope to send one to the publisher. Two, I intend to post a Print-And-Play version for enthusiastic people to download and try. Finally, if there’s interest, I’ll allow folks to buy this beta version IF they want, with the understanding it’s still in development.


GenCon Diaries: Testing Empire

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Some of the photos for this post were borrowed from Jason Tagmire’s post on GenCon here. Secondly, I want to thank the many people who helped me test Empire Reborn. If you’re reading this and your name isn’t in the playtester section, hit me up in the comments.

Aside from promoting Farmageddon, my number one task for GenCon was to test a quality build of Empire Reborn. I assumed (correctly) that GenCon would provide me access to dozens of testers. This is far above and beyond my typical week. For the past several months, I’ve been pushing Empire as much as possible to really take advantage of the show’s audience and hopefully show it to a publisher.

Before I get too far down, you should be aware of the First Exposure Playtest Hall at GenCon. I paid $150, and in exchange they promoted and recruited dozens of excellent testers for my game. Every night, for four hours, I ran 4 tests of Empire Reborn. At a cost of $12.50 per play test, I think that’s money well spent. If you have a game you wish to test seriously, I highly recommend you take advantage of their program. Also, don’t forget UnPub.

The purpose of this post is to outline the significant revisions I’ve made to Empire Reborn and my purpose for doing so. Really, everything falls under one of three primary things:

  • The change is implemented to improve the pacing of the game.
  • The change is implemented to eliminate a question.
  • The change is implemented to improve the presentation of information for players.

These changes were fairly clear from observation (especially the second one), but I was fortunate to have a publisher and several of his designers sit in and play the game once. Their mixture of precise and philosophical feedback really pushed me in the right direction to update the game quickly and decisively.

Before I get into what I fixed, I should note the core mechanic of the game of playing cards for Reinforcements or activating battlefield tactics worked and was well received. Someone asked how to buy it in every play test. More surprisingly, the results were fairly balanced. Not surprisingly, the more straightforward Imperial and Brigade factions won the most (tied), with the Militia and Yorkans winning slightly fewer. Finally, nobody was able to “break” the game, which was a relief.

Improving the Pace

Empire is intended to be a relatively short, 60 minute game for up to four players. Currently, it’s 75 minutes to 90 minutes and far more if the players are prone to analysis paralysis (AP). In addition, there’s too much space between player turns. Players play actions, conduct battles, and more. By the time the fourth player’s turn rolls around, folks may be lost on their cell phones.

One thing that’s very much within my control is shortening the length of the game from 7 to 6 rounds (potentially even 5). I also jump-started the game by giving players 3 Units on the board at the start of the game. One of the three scoring rounds was removed.

The game, as it was presented at GenCon, was very conducive for AP players. There was too much information available on the board and the information was presented such that players would often check, double check, then triple check their options. One test of four AP players lasted for an astonishing two and a half hours! I’m removing some of the information.

  • Only one turn order marker will be drawn from the bag at a time. This means a player will have limited information as to who will follow him and what they will do.
  • With only 2 scoring rounds, players have fewer turns to over-optimize to squeeze out one or two additional points.
  • Battles resolve in a new phase following turns. This means players take fewer actions during their turns and remain engaged to participate in the battles.

This may lead to some significant balance problems with the game. It may also completely shake the game I’ve built so far. However, I’m confident the next test will be mostly positive and the information gained from IT will lead to something special.

Eliminating the Questions

In order to appeal to new players and not exhaust existing players with questionable mechanics, I took notes on every recurring question in order to just cut them out. Put another way, I began to streamline things.

Instead of making it such that you can only use seaports to travel to territories adjacent to the ocean except headquarters, I just made all of the headquarters landlocked. Rule removed.

You can no longer place a control token in a territory with a headquarters. It does nothing to have two, except confuse players.

The Fighting Withdrawal tactic used to remove 1 Unit from each Army. However, if the Brigade has only 1 Unit, it begs the question of “Do they still get a trophy then if I lose?” Now, the Brigade doesn’t lose a Unit, they inflict 1 casualty and retreat.

The notion of Actions versus Reinforcement versus Support Tactics baffled players for the first round. And for good reason — it was clunky. Here is the new player turn order:

  1. Reinforce
  2. First Action
  3. Second Action
  4. Reinforce (only if not done in step 1)

You still only reinforce once and it’s clearly presented so that you do it at the beginning or end of your turn. As for Support Tactics, they are now called Staff Orders and they are one of the four Actions available to a player. They were always more or less very effective Actions, so they are just that now. The world is better for it (I hope).

Instead of putting the text for the Field Marshal and Imperial Guard cards on the Reference boards, they will now just be on the cards. I had a strange obsession with removing all text from the cards, but the trade off was not valuable.

Previously, territory could be controlled in one of three ways: have control of the fortress, have a control token, or have the most units. This last one was very rare and was unclear. Now, it will only be the first two. This also means I can setup the player reference board so that instead of counting your control tokens, you’ll just see the space you have that indicates how many are off and you can then do simple math.

March and Sail were two very similar Actions. I’ve merged them back into one; mobilize. I’ve also reduced the number of Strategic Victory (formerly Bonus Objective) cards (from 4 to 3) to reduce the amount of information players need to process.

The rules are also greatly clarified based on slight details and questions that can only be obtained from thorough testing.

Final side note. The other night while browsing the About page for Academy Games, I saw this helpful information, which they call the Warcholak guide, by Nicholas Warcholak.

1. Is the rule necessary to simulate the TYPICAL (over 10% of the time) conditions and outcomes on the battlefield? If YES, keep. If NO, go to 2.
2. Does the rule require significant mental resources to remember to play? (Significant is defined as needing to remember more than 2 facts.) If YES, dump. If NO, go to 3.
3. Does the rule add to the fun of the game? Does it produce outcomes that add significant replayability, oh-no moments, gotcha moments, or simulation pay-off outside the general flow of the game? If YES, keep. If NO, dump. 

Improving the Presentation

The biggest problem here is that my current reference boards are, put simply, heinous. They are a sloppy assortment of data that is barely functional and does not make it easy to obtain or retain data pertinent to the game.

The board is not much better. My little “score box” is supposed to show you what earns you points, but the iconography is illegible and it is sorted in a way that confuses more than aids.

I’ll start with the cards. The layout here won’t change much, but I took inspiration from Morels. Here are the cards prior to the tests:

Notice how the number and symbol are smashed in the top left? Now, notice how Morels does it:

Symbol followed by number. Much easier to read. And to restate, special cards will have explanatory text at the bottom.

The board will now contain far more essential details and spaces to contain information. The score tracker will have a symbol to denote when scoring takes place as well as icons that display WHAT to score at that time. There will be 3 spaces for the Strategic Victory cards that will lead nicely to the end game scoring.

The board will have a score track, which I think is better and more easily viewed than private coins. There is no need for the information to be private in this game. The board will be slightly larger, which will allow for more room of the pieces.

The Reference boards will receive the majority of the graphical design overhaul. I will probably do an entire post JUST on them after I make them, but here is the gist of what I intend.

  • The top will display the icon, color, and a short description of the faction and how to play them.
  • There will be spaces for players to place Units, Control Tokens, and Trophies. This expedites setup AND makes it easier for a player to glance across the table to see the status of an opponent.
  • Tactics and Staff Orders will be arranged and color coded based on when they can play. The board will tell a story from right to left so that the player sees what he can do now, then what he can do next.
  • In particular, the battle order will break out and better present the Offensive and Defensive Tactics so you know only the information relevant to you.
  • All of the Actions will be listed on the board.

Other Changes

The board will be increasing just slightly to allow for a little more maneuvering and strategic setup. The number of player Units will also increase from 12 to 15 as a result.

Several of the Tactics have been modified to account for the new phase system.

Players each have 6 Control tokens instead of 3. I began testing with this halfway through the GenCon sessions and it was a significant improvement.

The Field Marshal now lets you draw +3 cards, so in effect, +2 for the turn. I want playing the Field Marshal to be a significant, not obvious decision, because the turn you use him should be decisive. After all, it will allow you to more likely play a second (or third!) Tactic or Staff Order.

There will now be numbered Battle Flag tokens to mark the order of battle resolution.

There are now 8 Strategic Victory cards instead of 4. There will be 3 each game, so this should add some variety to the game. Controlling an enemy HQ is now a Strategic Victory. This should greatly clean up the scoring and this rule.

Coal territories have been renamed to Cities.

If you’d like to read the updated rules, you can find them here. Please note they might change. In fact, count on it. You can always find the most current rules linked at the bottom of the Empire Reborn game page.

Thoughts? Concerns? Feedback? Anything jump out as “wow cool!” or “please no!”