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Playtesting Puzzle Games Pt. 1

As I begin the playtesting process for the new game, I thought I might write some notes based on what I learned while playtesting The Tale of Ord. It was my first time doing playtesting a tabletop game, so if you’re new to it too, hopefully some of this will be helpful.

Finding and choosing playtesters

Before you begin choosing playtesters, be sure to ask yourself who the game is for. Granted, this is a question better asked way earlier in the design process, but it’s always good to remind ourselves. Consider difficulty level: is your game for beginners, hardcore puzzlers, or something in between? How many people should it be played with? What age group is it for? Once you make/confirm these decisions, try to find a diverse group of playtesters to cover different ends of that spectrum so you can see and hear about a variety of experiences.

Let’s say it’s a game meant for 1-4 players with a medium difficulty - test it with every player count from 1 to 4 and make sure there is a mix of beginner and experienced puzzlers, ideally in mixed and separate groups.

  • Do the puzzles make sense to the beginners?

  • Are they still challenging for the experienced player, or are they too easy?

  • Is it fun to play by yourself?

  • How does it play with 3-4 people? Does everyone have enough to do?

How do you find playtesters?

  • Friends and friends of friends - that’s an obvious one, but not always the best one, because friends may not give you the most honest feedback. Still a good place to start, though friends of friends who don't know you will likely be more impartial.

  • Facebook groups - join a Facebook group for mystery/puzzle game/escape room enthusiasts (for escape rooms, there may even be one for your area specifically). Introduce yourself and your game and ask if anyone would be interested in playtesting - there are usually many takers.

  • “Secret” Escape Room Slack - not such a secret, but full of people excited about puzzles! Try the #puzzles channel for remote testers or a regional channel to find people in your area.

  • Puzzled Pint events - if you live in or near a city, chances are there is probably a Puzzled Pint event near you. This is a monthly meetup of people who love puzzles, so there’s probably someone there who will want to try your game - maybe not on the spot, but it's a good place to gather contact info.

  • Game cafes - if you’re lucky enough to have a board game cafe or store where you live, ask if they do any playtesting events or public game nights that you could bring your game to (keep in mind this works better for shorter games).

  • Playtest Co-op - Currently in beta, but keep an eye on it! The goal of this site is to be a place where designers can connect with other designers and playtesters in order to get feedback on their games. It won't work for games with physical components, but if you can make a print-and-play version, you can upload it here.

Blind vs in-person testing

One of the biggest challenges with playtesting puzzle games is that (with a few exceptions) you can only play the game once, so be sure to make each playtest count. I found it was helpful to make adjustments after every session so that obvious problems could gradually be sifted out, but I’ll write more about that process in the next post.

In-person playtests

One great way to make playtests count is watching them in person (thank you Juliana and Ariel of Escape Room in a Box/Wild Optimists for that wise advice.) Watching in person is the best way to get an understanding of what people actually do and feel throughout the game. You can see their unfiltered reactions, ask questions if need be (I normally try to stay quiet and ask questions at the end, but sometimes they’re needed in the moment!) as well as take notes throughout, keeping track of how long each puzzle takes, where players get stuck, what hints they use, etc. You can also do a follow up interview immediately after and the bonus is that you'll have a better idea of which questions to ask in the first place.

Blind playtesting

Blind playtesting can be tricky for two reasons. The first being that you’ll never get the same level of detail in the feedback. Things will inevitably be forgotten, and a recount of an experience after the fact will usually be inferior to your observation of the event in real time. The second reason is a hard truth: sometimes people are just flaky and unreliable. If you send them one of your precious few prototypes, there is no guarantee it will actually be played. I particularly had this problem with The Tale of Ord, since it’s such a long game and a big time commitment. It’s true that this may be less of an issue with a shorter game, but I suggest finding puzzle enthusiasts that also have a decent amount of free time. Meeting people in person might limit your tester pool and take up more of your time, but people are usually more dependable when they have to be physically present. That said, depending on how many tests you are running or what area you live in, you probably can't be present for all of them, and that's fine. If you have a reliable person who will take diligent notes for you (thanks, Alex!), blind playtesting can still be very useful, especially for early stages in testing when you might not have added all the frills yet and just want to make sure everything is solvable. More on that next time!

Am I missing anything? Where do you find playtesters? Do you prefer playtesting blind or in person? Why?

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Angela Lawson-Scott
Angela Lawson-Scott
Apr 16, 2019

I have gone into this whole "creator" role blind, and really appreciate your posts - I am learning as I go, and your advice has been so helpful ;) Thank you.

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