[Part 2 of 2]

Play Testing – Hang On – Let’s Examine Prototyping More

Play testing is the heart of game design. This may or may not be obvious but let me expand this a bit: Ideas are a dime a dozen. Brilliant ideas might be 15 cents a dozen – but are hardly worth much.

Seriously. My brilliant idea is utterly useless without the next critical steps:

  • A meaningful design
  • A useful prototype
  • A LOT of play testing

The interplay between prototyping and play testing is significant and every designer will need to work out their unique process. I’m certainly still working out mine but I can tell you that it involves hard, brute force work, and (for me) rapidly learning how to use tools that could reduce the amount of work needed to produce something on cardboard. This is my specific idiosyncrasy, but I avoid grabbing markers and blank components and hand drawing my game. Indeed – this would get me into a useable prototype fast – but in all but the simplest of component designs – this is an utterly unsustainable model. If I need to make changes – I need to redo that entire process. It burns up raw material, it burns up time. And because of the potential labor – it is hard to motivate myself to make necessary major changes.

Automation tools are key. This means a bit more set up time in the beginning but it also forces you to think about your game in a methodical fashion. If I use more than a few cards in a game, I typically will create a spreadsheet with the card values and then upload that (in CSV format) to Component.Studio. Similar methods can be used in Adobe Illustrator – likely there are several other tools that can do this too – the main point is that you design a layout, you make a dataset that can be plugged into that layout, you merge the data into the design tool and export into a printable format (like a PDF). From there you print it (onto sticker sheets, paper, etc.) and assemble the components.

The three most popular methods to make cards in particular are:

  • Print directly to card stock – (typically this needs to be done by a commercial print service like Staples, Kinkos, FedEx, UPS Store…) but you might have a beefy printer than can handle the stock.
  • Print to paper – and then make a card with a sleeve, some sort of blank / junk card, and the printed paper card. This way you can swap out card designs quickly. After an initial investment in sleeves and junk cards (you can get these at thrift stores dirt cheap) – you have a collection of re-usable components for prototyping.
  • Print to stickers – Print to sticker stock, cut it up and stick it to old stock. Andrew Looney (of Looney Labs) favors this method. It is fast and potentially not as fiddley as unstuffing and re-stuffing sleeves. You do have to be good at applying stickers,

All these methods need printing, cutting and assembling. Having a good paper cutter is advised, but comfortable scissors will work well.

While my description is focused on “cards” the technique can be applied to any flat printed component – and you may need to mix and match the techniques. Stickers might work well for chits, sleeved paper for poker sized cards, heavy card stock for tarot sized cards. Find what is best for you but remember that the crafting stage is a means to play testing. So efficiency and effectiveness really matter. That is, unless you enjoy crafting and want to linger in that process. Just be aware that you are sacrificing pay test time if you delay in this stage. If you are intending to make a game – that is a significant consideration.

Play Testing

Play testing is the heart of game design. This cannot be said enough. All the math, graphic design, pre-play testing (your own “solo” play testing), can only identify some deep flaws, not all of them. And more importantly – it cannot reveal if the game is enjoyable.

You need players. Lots of players. Ideally somebody other than your immediate friends and family circle (but they are good for play testing too). Use social media tools like “Meetup” and “Craigslist” to advertise that you need play testers. Set up a location like a local board game store that has an open play area, a board game-friendly bar or restaurant, or some friendly public space (please talk to management about using these spaces first – be a good citizen!). Hopefully you can get people to come out, maybe pre-populate your group with a few friends or design partners.

Look for play test and game designer focused events at board game conventions, “Protospiel” events, Unpub – use your favorite web search engine and look around. With modern technology – you should be able to find some play test options.

Going “low-tech” isn’t a bad idea either – a simple flier in a game store can produce impressive results. Another low-tech pointer: make a sign. One that can sit on your table(s) indicating who you are, what you are doing, and welcoming any interested play testers. I’ve added several people to my play test group just from curious passers-by. Be friendly, welcoming and open. Don’t forget to smile!

Then you need to cultivate this group you found, and you need to keep it growing, because people drift in and out, they have lives, and a variety of players are important to test your games: different play styles, personalities, preferences, learning styles, etc. etc. etc.

Ask to be sure it is okay, but take pictures, post them onto social media to generate interest.

Finally: Thank Them. Show your appreciation, these volunteers are crucial for your success. They literally will break and make your game. Their role is critical.


This blog entry is running long…. so I think it needs more installations in the series. So I’ll break right now with these parting thoughts:

  • Prototype your design, quickly, effectively
  • Refine your prototyping process
  • Test it

My next installation will actually focus on the play test process, and things you should be focusing on. There is a lot to cover. I’ll try to organize some additional resources for you – because I’m hardly an expert.