Blind Playtesting

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If you’ve designed your own boardgame, one of the first things you want to do is get it playtested.  You get some friends together, try out your new game and see what people think.  It’s a critical part of the game-development process.

There are several different types of playtesting though.  From testing the game out on your friends, to seeing what strangers think of it, to the all-important (and often neglected) blind playtesting.  What is blind playtesting?

Blind playtesting is where you give a copy of your game (along with the rules) to complete strangers and ask them to play it.  However, they are not allowed to receive any help from you (or anyone else).  You can’t explain the rules, help them with setup or correct them when they get things wrong.  They have to play your game ‘blind’.

Basic playtesting is very helpful.  Any issues with how the game plays will quickly become apparent in playtesting.  If your game is imbalanced (eg. one of the factions is too strong/weak) or if it is susceptible to a runaway leader (when it becomes impossible for anyone to catch the person in the lead) or if it takes far too long, these things will all be highlighted when you playtest the game.

Lots of things won’t be highlighted during basic playtesting.

However, there are lots of things that won’t be highlighted during basic playtesting.  Why is this?  Typically it is because the designer (or someone who is very familiar with the game) is on hand during playtesting.  The designer will usually explain to the playtesters how to play the game and correct any mistakes that they make.

However, when people buy your finished game and try to play it with their friends, you will not be there to explain how to play or correct them when they make mistakes.  They’re on their own.  You might be surprised just how wrong people can go without someone there to explain things!

This is why blind playtesting is so important.  Most people will play your game ‘blind’ so you need to make sure it holds up in that situation.

You can actually tell pretty easily which games haven’t been blind tested just by reading the rulebook.  I’ve written about the importance of a good rulebook before, but if you get to the end of a rulebook and still have a bunch of questions about how to play the game, chances are it never went through blind playtesting.  Any questions you have would have come up in blind playtesting and then they could have been addressed by improving the rulebook, for example.

Obviously, you need to get feedback from people when playtesting your game.  If you’re playing the game with them, this doesn’t usually need to be formalised.  You can see what works and what doesn’t, what people understand and what people struggle with, because you’re involved.

However, in blind playtesting you’re not involved so it’s critical to put in place some method for obtaining feedback.  Now you can obviously speak to the blind playtesters afterwards and ask them what they think, but you’d be surprised how much you miss if this is all you do.

You really need to observe them while they play.

What you really need is to observe them while they play.  You could sit with them and observe, but you have to resist the temptation to help them out when they’re stuck or when they make mistakes – that can be really hard!

The other option is to record their play.  This might be difficult for practical reasons – you need the facility to set up one or more cameras that can record the entire play session.  However, it guarantees that you won’t interfere and you can then watch through the recording at your leisure.

However you decide to do it, observing a blind playtest will alert you to lots of things that, as the designer, you take for granted:

“What?  How could they misunderstand that?  Surely that’s obvious?!”

Well, to you it may be, but trying to learn a game from the rules is a very different kettle of fish to having someone explain it to you.

Blind playtesting is time consuming and, frankly, rather dull.  If you’re developing a game, I’m sure you can think of 101 other things to do that seem to be more important.  However, I strongly recommend that you make time for it.  It will make a big difference to how your game is received and ultimately how successful it will be.

Can you tell when a game hasn’t undergone blind playtesting?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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