Monday, May 27, 2019

Wargame Design: Playtesting- Only the Strong Survive

Congratulations, you have moved your rules from a Concept, the 4Ms, your Initiative mechanics, and put together some profiles and chrome. You have come a long way and are ready to play your game! Now comes the hard part, seeing if your game actually works at all the way you intended it to work! To find out there is only one way to figure it out.... you have to play.

Typically, there are a few phases of playtesting. Each stage of playtesting builds off the previous level. Through playtesting you are looking to find out the following things:

  1. Do your core mechanics actually work?
  2. Are the rules clear?
  3. Do your rules have blindspots?
  4. What is unnecessary bloat?
  5. Does the game play like you wanted?

As you playtest, you need to be ready to be ruthless. Now is the time where you MUST be ready to “kill your babies”. What does this mean? You must be willing to discard the mechanics you have built so far and go back and start again. This is very, very hard. However, to fail here is to fail your game.

Keep your Design Goals handy. It will be tempting to go into every detail or do something completely unique for each scenario. The Design Goals will keep you grounded and avoid going off the rails. It does you no good if during this stage, you “Kill you babies” but go so far outside of your design goals that the game is no longer what you wanted to accomplish.

Level 1- Just and some Paper
You will probably be doing this as you go, but I wanted to make it explicit. Here you sit down, and just walk through the game in the abstract. You make sure you covered all the 4Ms, that you know how to and when to activate, that you know how to get a result, that you know when the game ends. At this stage, you may grab some dice, calculator or a probability chart and work through each stage looking for gaps you missed or things that are not clear or covered in the rules. This will make sure you covered most of your gaps and nothing glaring is missing.

Some people design Use Cases to test, build programs to run probabilities, or other elaborate steps. It is up to you how rigorous you want or need to be. I will caution you. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A game that never gets finished and played is no good to anyone. An imperfect game is better than the game that is never played. Let your creation eventually hit the table.

Level 2- Just You and the Table
You should begin your playtesting very simply. No one knows the rules of the game better than you. So put some templates on the table and start playing. Run through a very basic game with no complications. Take copious notes as you do this. The whole point is to find places where the rules do not work.

As you hammer out the details keep playing. If you want keep adding a few complications or modify the scenario. You want to make sure you hammer out all the obvious things you can find on your own play-through.

At this stage, you need to be willing to go back to the drawing board are start all over again. It isn't easy, but if something doesn't work, it doesn't work. Once you are done with this stage, all the obvious problems should be hammered out and the game should play smoothly.

Level 3- You and your Buddy
You have hammered out all the obvious issues in playtesting with yourself, at least the issues obvious to you. Now, you need to give your rules to some of your preferred opponents. Set-up a evening of gaming or two and let them read the rules on their own before the day of the game. Ideally, they will help you find editing issues but you are really looking for what questions they bring about the rules before the game. These are areas that need to be tweaked and explained better.

Once you get together you can play. Try to not give a tutorial or major explanations of the rules. You gave them a copy, so start playing. Again, as you play take careful note of where you find gaps, your opponent asks questions, and what strategies your opponent used. These insights allow you to see not only if the game works, but does it work AS INTENDED. i.e. do the rules lead to the conclusions you wanted?

If possible, go back and make tweaks; and come back to your buddies with the updates. Let them read the updates and ask questions. Take note of what they are asking and what conclusions they come to from reading the rules as written. This will guide you to streamline and clarify.

If you game does not play the way you intended it you need to go back and re-balance incentives your game puts on actions to naturally apply to the way you want the game played. Again, be ready to “kill your babies” because the game is not doing what you wanted it to do. Refer to your Design Goals to stay on track.
From Wikimedia Commons

Level 4- Gamer vs. Gamer
At this stage, the rules are ready to be given to a group of players without your guidance. Instead, you give them the rules, they read the rules, and then they play games. You make this as structured as you like. Some designers provide briefings and test cases for what scenarios need to be tested, some gather detailed data through observation or after action reports, some use 5 point scale surveys, while others just solicit ad-hoc feedback. The process is up to you, but typically the more rigorous the testing the more rigorous and specific the output from your testers.

Your testers will have plenty of ideas and thoughts about what you should or should not do with the game. Keep in mind they do not have the perspective on the Design Goals and what the game is intended to do. Only you do. At this point, the hardest part is balancing the feedback with the Design Goals. Therefore, not everything a playtester says should immediately become the truth.

It is very easy for a designer to fixate on a single pain point from one player and overlook the positive feedback on the exact same topic from other players. You will need to separate the “wheat from the chafe” and decide what needs updates and what does not. Frequently, you will find things that need to be clarified or made cleaned in the rules.

This is also the most likely stage where “imbalance” will be discovered as players try to “break the system” for advantage. Players can see what the designer and his buddies will miss. They are not wedded to the game and have the right amount of distance to break it. At this stage, you will need to re-balance and re-calculate any balancing mechanics that are in your game. This will require multiple attempts to get to feel right as no game has perfect balance.

From Wikimedia Commons

Level 5- The Big Wide World
You are now ready to release your baby into the big wide world. Be assured, it will be savaged. Every game has detractors and critics. Guaranteed. However, that doesn't mean what they are saying is unwarranted. Despite the best playtesting process, things will be missed. No playtesting group is as good as dozens or even hundreds of people playing your game looking to find the loopholes and exploitable points. They will be found and they will be criticized.

Again, remember that no one has a clear vision of the Design Goals like you do. It is ultimately up to you to determine what to do with the information you are given. Some games do FAQs, updates, or other tricks. Depending on how your game went to the public you might be able to make updates as go. Others will require separate and posted changes.

The thing to remember is, if you get to this level of playtesting; your game is out in the wild! You have made a game. Congratulations!

Via Wikimedia Commons
Only the Strong Survive- Where is it at?
So, we have been following the process for Only the Strong Survive. Where is it at with play testing? Good question. I have completed Level 1, and am ready to move onto Level 2.

Through using level 1, I discovered a couple of issues:

- There was not a great mechanic for dinosaurs to lose without dying. Don't they run away ever? That is probably the most common way for a wild animal fight to end; with one running for it. Just like human battles, this is a dangerous time as they must turn away from the enemy. Therefore, I updated the rules for some factors and tests for when a Dinosaur may decide to leg it no matter what the player wants them to do.

- I made some modifications to the reaction process. Instead, it took Instinct Dice to be allocated for a Reaction test to even be made. Therefore, a player would be forced to decide if they wanted the chance to react or if it was better to put it all into an Attack or Defense instead. Again, another decision point.

- I also made some tweaks to how and when you allocate Instinct dice.

- The method of determining who starts the turn was streamlined and provided for. Before it was unclear.

These were all tweaks or gaps that I found while just working through the game on paper and typing out the rules into a document for playtesting. This found the obvious gaps or clunky bits. Now, it is time to test if the game actually works on the table. Onward to Phase 2!

If you want to help out with the playtesting you can check out the draft rules here.  Feel free to comment on them on the Messageboard.  Thanks for your help! 

S.S. Onward from Wikimedia Commons

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