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  • Playtesting is Sovereign, Part 2

    [09.02.10]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • How the Game Works

    Stages of play and pacing. You probably learn this in solo testing, if you do solo testing (which I strongly recommend). Are there identifiable stages in the game, especially ones where the typical run of play changes? E.g., in chess there is the early, middle, and end games. Pieces are deployed in the opening, mix it up in the midgame, and so forth. An exploration game has the expansion period followed by consolidation and then (usually) conflict. As another example, Britannia has historical stages, the Roman conquest, then the Anglo-Saxon conquest, then the Viking raids and settlements, and finally the struggle to be king in 1066.

    Replayability. This is less important in our "throw-away" age, but almost every excellent game is one you can enjoyably play again and again. Video games tend to become obsolete, but centuries-old board and card games (chess, bridge, go, etc.) can be played repeatedly. Some games have limited replayability because knowledge of the story makes a big difference, but these are exceptions, not the norm.

    Player interest/enjoyment. What part(s) of the game seem to be most interesting to the players? I'm not in favor of trying to figure out "fun", because fun comes from the people who are playing more than from the game design itself. And there are many games that I wouldn't call "fun" (including my own Britannia) that are nonetheless interesting and even fascinating.

    Scale it down. Can you change the scale of some aspects of the game? This especially involves numbers. If a player earns 50 resource points for occupying a particular location, and the least expensive item you can purchase with those points costs 10, why not divide everything by 10 and have the numbers be 5 and 1? (On the other hand, some people just LOVE big numbers, provided those numbers are tracked by a computer rather than by the players. So you can make it 50,000 and 10,000, in a video game.)

    Is there a way to combine two functions into one? Sometimes you can improve play by simplifying, without significantly reducing the choices the player(s) make. Can one thing take care of two questions or combine two decisions?

    For example, two of my students designed a simple, not-historically-based wargame. They collected resources (represented by plastic coins) from "mines" they occupied, then spent that money for new units and to replenish existing units. Each unit consisted of several stackable pieces. This all happened over the course of multiple turns, e.g. collecting from the mines every third turn.

    The setup was also lengthened by handling dozens of coins. I'd already suggested reducing the numbers by simplifying costs. For example, it was gain 50 per mine, spend 200 per infantry or 300 per tank unit, 25 per replacement piece within a unit. Why not divide everything by 25 for 2, 4, 6, 1?

    There is some pleasure in handling lots of coins, even if they're plastic. Yet in a published game this function would be fulfilled by paper money, most likely, to reduce costs. And even "play money" is expensive these days. So after several playtests I finally put my foot down and said, let's do away with physical manifestations of money altogether, and let the individual stackable pieces that made up the units help keep track of money. That is, each turn a player collects from his mines (so no one has to remember it's the "third turn"), all the money is spent immediately for individual pieces, and when enough pieces are accumulated at the base, a new unit can venture forth. This also left pieces to be used to replenish damaged units in the field. The result was that no money was needed.

    I asked why there was a turn delay between building a new unit, and moving it. "It represents training and so forth". OK, but in playtests new players often forgot or didn't immediately understand this. And this was a rather abstract wargame, not a realistic one. So in keeping with the idea of simplifying the entire economic cycle, I suggested letting the new unit move immediately.

    Who's keeping track? This especially applies to tabletop games, but can come up even in video games. Are the players forced to remember or keep track of things that aren't part of the enjoyment of the game? Some mechanism should make this easy, if it must be done at all. For example, in a tabletop game if something happens only every third turn, there had better be a really simple, more or less foolproof way to keep track of "every third turn". In a video game, the computer had better keep track of it and make it easy for the players to check the current state. The better solution is to find a way to change the rules so that "every third turn" isn't used. For example, can it be something where a third of it happens every turn?

    Is there a way to eliminate it, or make it easier to keep track of? This is more common in tabletop games, but even in video games, if the player(s) tend to forget to pay attention to something that is important, then it's "hard to keep track of" even though the computer IS keeping track of it.

    In general, anything that happens only periodically (every fourth turn, say, in a turn-based game) can be a problem.

    Components and Play Aids. Do the physical parts of the game help play flow smoothly, or does something need to be changed? Is there too much record-keeping? How can it all be simplified?

    Playtesting, for a game designer, is about being aware of what happens, and receptive to changes to make better things happen. It doesn't matter who thinks of the change, what matters is that a solution is found and implemented. Keep your mind in gear!

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