Play-Testing a Board Game for Friends

The past couple Thursdays I’ve had the pleasure to play-test a board game created by two great friends. I do not want to preempt their schedule for releasing the game, as they have invested six months into its creation and design. But I want to talk about my approach to play-testing such a game and ways to provide constructive feedback.

The Fundamental Gameplay

Again, I want to give away nothing about the specifics, but a rudimentary description of the game is necessary. In a nutshell a group of two to four players (perhaps more) each choose a ‘class’ which has minimal statistics from modern role-playing games; there is also a set of sixteen skills available to all classes, but each class excels in four. The design gives the game a feeling similar to the d20 System except it requires only two six-sided dice. The players explore a square-based grid map attempting to collect a series of ‘targets’ while avoiding apprehension from non-player characters (NPC) who guard those targets. (Interestingly no ‘Dungeon Master’ or ‘Game Master’ is necessary to play those NPCs. The players themselves can do so.) The focus is cooperation, which I consider its stand-out feature. Everything facilitates teamwork, such as the freedom to constantly discuss strategies and to switch the team’s order of rounds at any time.

So that’s the gist: a small party has to work together in order to infiltrate an area, take possession of some targets, and make an exit. The dangers which can befall the part demands carefully planned teamwork.

What to Test and How

Accessibility

The first time I played the game my friends spent over half an hour explaining the rules. In retrospect this was unnecessary. In my opinion it should not take that long to get into a game. It should be possible to approach a game in less time. The test for this is simple: throw the players into the game and see how well they learn as they go.

I did not remember all of the rules after my first play-through. However, when playing last night we did not refresh ourselves on any of the rules prior to play (despite the designers creating a useful and terse instruction booklet). A number of times I need recourse to the rules for particular skills, rules on movement, things like that. Those rules were easy to find; more importantly, they became easier to remember as the game went on thanks to their pervasive consistency and similarity. For example, any time you need to roll dice you are attempting to get a result equal to or greater than some set value. Those values for skills are divided into four tiers of difficulty which made it easier to learn which class was best suited for certain tasks—the sixteen skills split across four tiers nicely reflects the four player classes.

There was no rule booklet made during our first play-through. However, the one we had last night allowed us to jump right into the game and play from start to finish with very little Q&A with the authors. I consider this a sign of good accessibility. Even though the manual is in a rough, draft state, it still presents the gameplay at a rapid but easily comprehensible pace.

Movement and Area

As I said, we play the game on a grid divided into squares. How to move character pieces around such a board may seem a trivial matter. But it is important to test for consistency in movement and everything related to distances.

For example, in the game we cannot move diagonally. That is simple enough, and a perfectly fine choice. But the rest of the game must adopt that same stance against diagonals. Line of sight is an example of a mechanic that benefits from consistency with movement—at least in my opinion. If I am trying to sneak my character past an NPC then how do we calculate the area that NPC sees and hears? It would be unbalanced if the line of sight of NPCs could travel diagonally across the board, giving their sight greater ‘movement’ than what is normally possible.

Testing this issue naturally involves examining…

Skills

Even though the game has items, skills truly represent the ‘arsenal’ that each character brings to the game. There are a number of factors to consider for testing skills:

  1. Is the chance of success feel fair when compared to the value of success and the penalties of failure?

  2. Is the skill rarely used? In our playthroughs there have been a few skills which we have yet to use. For example, lock-picking is routinely important to winning, but we’ve never used the ‘explosives’ skill, even in situations where it is a viable alternative for other skills.

  3. Is the division of skills balanced across the different classes? This is one aspect of the game which I feel demonstrates terrific design, because there are only four classes and each class is the best at four of the sixteen skills. Any character can attempt any skill, but mutually exclusive talents of each class go a long way towards encouraging the cooperative play that is the game’s heart.

One of the most educational and fun ways to test the balance of skills is to look for any opportunity to use them, particularly in ways the designers did not consider. When play-testing the game I intentionally search for exploits or ways to abuse a skill for either my own advantage or that of the entire team’s. A lot of board games have one gameplay mechanic which dwarfs the rest in terms of its pervasiveness, usefulness, and necessity for victory. That is the type of mechanic we should try our best to break.

Conclusion

So those are simply some random thoughts about my recent time spent as a play-tester for my friends. I look forward to writing more about it when my friends publicly announce the game. I enjoy games that emphasize teamwork and in that regard their game is an impressive achievement. Until its release I’ll continue to test the game in the ways above, e.g. stretching the limits on how to interpret the wording of a skill, but the truth is the game already feels solid, i.e. well-balanced.

In the future I will post an actual play-testing session to show more angles you can and should try approaching so that the gameplay feels air-tight in the end. No idea when my friends intend to release the game. But if you enjoy cooperative board games then you’re going to have a blast playing this one.

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