Play testing? What’s That?

I was playing the new game Epic from White Wizard Games the other night and a thought occurred to me. “I wonder how this game would play if, when you discard down to your hand limit of seven cards, if you had to banish those cards instead?” You see, in Epic, one of the win conditions is drawing through your deck. If you would draw a card and there are no cards to draw, then you win the game. There are a lot of cards that give you choices, and one of those choices is typically to draw a card or two. So, if you consciously decide to persue a “draw out your deck” strategy, there is no penalty for drawing as many cards as you want, because the penalty for holding too many cards is that you have to discard the excess, which plays right into drawing out your deck. If you had to banish those cards instead (banish means to place those cards on the bottom of your deck) then you aren’t using a penalty to help a strategy.

This article isn’t about the game Epic, nor is it about how I can make Epic better, it is about how we as players of games think we know better than the designer, after a very small number of plays, how their game should play.

As an aspiring game designer, one of the most received pieces of advice is “play test, play test, play test… And then play test some more.” Whenever a designer is working on a game, they get to a point where they can create a prototype as soon as possible, then they play test the game. They tweak, and then play test some more. Perhaps they cut whole mechanics from the game because it is too convoluted, but then they play test some more. Once they have it ready they sell it to a publisher, and then the publisher has it play tested even more! By the time a game goes to market, hundreds of people have played the game many times over, attempting different strategies and tactics, ensuring that the game is fair and balanced for all strategies. The upcoming game Scythe from Stonemaier Games boasts that they have conducted over seven hundred fifty play tests.

Why is it that we, as players of a game, think that we know better than the designers and their hundreds of hours of play testing? Perhaps it is because, as a game player, I have hundreds, if not thousands of hours playing many games that cover many different mechanics, themes, strategies, etc… Perhaps it is because as an aspiring game designer, I pay close attention to how every game I play works, so that I can come up with my own rules and strategies for games that I am designing. Perhaps it is just my opinion?

I think that in the majority of cases, opinion is the answer. Honestly, no one has enough experience with a given game aside from the designer and play-testers to be able to state for a fact that changing this rule or that one would make the game better. If you are playing the game for the hundredth time, and have consistently won or lost, and are able to pin point the exact rule or strategy that caused said outcome, then sure, you might be stating more than opinion. But for the most part these statements are made after playing a game just once or twice. I believe that a big part of the problem is that we state these opinions as facts, but do we consciously recognize that we are stating an opinion, or do we truly think that our statements are facts? Most people, when making these statements, simply say “this would be better if…” My hope is that the majority of them truly mean “I think that this would be better if…” My fear is that they think that their statement is truth.

Bias also plays an important role in these statements. Just the other day we played Bang! The Dice Game and after our session was done my wife wondered why the hidden roles were necessary. “I just don’t think it adds anything to the game”. It just so happens that my wife doesn’t really like deductive games, nor games with hidden roles, so it makes sense that she would attempt to make the game more appealing to her by getting rid of the part that she doesn’t like.

There is the possibility that our opinion or observation of a game is accurate. Perhaps a mistake was made? Arcadia by  APE Games had a print run for GenCON last year with a large group of cards printed incorrectly. They did right by those of us that bought the game and replaced the cards for free (I just got mine last week!). Heck, rule books are printed with mistakes in them all the time. I am an engineer and I pour over plans all day looking for mistakes, and even after multiple hours and multiple iterations of markups and check plots, mistakes still make it through to submittal. I’ve self published one game, and I thought I had everything perfect, only to find out that a couple of cards and the rule book were sent out with mistakes in them. I had changed a mechanic at the last minute and forgot to flush it through. Thankfully my run was only twelve copies, and it only went to family and friends. In the end however, we players don’t know if what we perceive to be a mistake, truly is one. We can point out what we think the mistakes are, but really the designer or publisher is the one that gets to state whether it’s a mistake or not.

What we gamers have to remember is that designers have play tested their games extensively. Therefore, they know better than we do if their games are balanced and fair. They have probably even play tested the game with our rule change and determined that it was incorrect. Furthermore, we have to realize that the statements we make, whether we truly believe them or not, are, in fact opinions, and we should, in my opinion, make more of a conscious effort to state our opinions as such, rather than stating them as fact and forcing people to interpret our statements.

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