I. TWO KINDS OF PLAYTESTING
I’m relatively new to tabletop game design, but one piece of advice I have encountered again and again as I learn the craft is “Playtest as much as possible.”
I often hear this advice repeated as a reminder to prepare for “edge cases”: The rare play styles or occurrences that your rules might not have accounted for. This is good advice. Rules should be able to handle any and all play styles; an unresolved edge case could result in a game that quickly becomes unplayable, so this kind of playtesting is important.
There is another kind of playtesting, however, that I haven’t heard as much about, but is still just as important. If the usual advice is for the designer to engage in “edge case” playtesting, I’ll call this other style “high-skill” playtesting.
II. SELF-AGGRANDIZING THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
Imagine that your game, whatever it is, has achieved massive popularity and has a vibrant organized tournament scene. These players have spent hours and hours studying the efficiencies of your game, and know which move is the right one in just about every case. One of them has even written a guide book on playing your game.
Does your game hold up to this level of rigor? Most games should. Not every game requires this kind of playtesting. Immersive games, party games, games of chance; these games are not designed to create the kind of skilled play that classical perfect-knowledge/skill-only games like Go and Chess can create. But if your game involves mastery and skilled play, your playtesting regimen should include testing sessions with highly skilled players.
III. TWO NON-HIGH-SKILL PLAYTESTER TYPES
Most playtesting, in my experience, comes with a mix of edge-case players and middle-of-the-road players. No one has played the new game enough to develop intuition about correct moves or to grok the game’s core systems enough to understand them. The “average” playtester will follow the session leader’s cues, attempt to play the game well, and will end up playing at what is hopefully a representatively normal level of play. Other playtesters take pride in being edge-case wizards. These testers will not play to win. They will play to find the holes in your rules. Both playtester archetypes described here are valuable, but neither is a “high-skill” playtester.
IV. HOW TO GET HIGH-SKILL PLAYTESTERS
So how to you develop a group of high-skill playtesters to ensure that your game holds up to the rigor of top-level play? I’m not entirely sure what the answer to this conundrum is. As the game is in development, it is bound to shift, which means that no player can grasp the systems with the requisite depth to play at a top level. My answer so far has been to playtest it myself. As a designer, I tend to have blinders to some of the game’s flaws, so I’m NOT recommending replacing playtesters with yourself. I am, however, recommending supplementing your (hopefully rigorous) playtesting with some high-skill self-playtesting.
V. A FEW GUIDELINES
When self-playtesting at a high level, I’ve found it helpful to follow these rules:
1) Always make the optimum move: I’m tempted, when playing my games as multiple players, to develop a little personality for each of them: “Red will play defensively, blue offensively.” etc. Don’t. For high-skill playtesting, every player has to be a min/maxing machine. Always make the smart move.
2) Play the game all the way through: I tend to end my self-playtesting sessions once a winner is clear. It is useful, however, to see if a high-skill play style can turn a seemingly-certain defeat into a victory.
3) Take the time to run the numbers: This is my least favorite part, but high-skill players will do it. If you’re playtesting and deciding between two moves, use math to figure out which move to make. It’s time-consuming and annoying, but this is what high-skill players will do with your game once it’s out in the wild. Having done it yourself will give you real insight into whether or not your game will hold up.