Playtest Like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests

I am fanatic about testing my games, and over the just the past year, I’ve run hundreds of playtests (232 in 2017). My background is in user experience design and design research and I run user studies for a major retailer. User experience design is all about analyzing behaviors and using data from studies to drive change, and techniques from UX research have been incredibly valuable in my playtesting and design process for tabletop games as well. I wanted to start my posts on board game design with a series on how to improve the quality and quantity of your playtests.

Stop playing in your own tests:

One of the easiest ways to increase the quality of your playtest data is to stop playing in your own tests. I’m not saying NEVER play your own game, but try to avoid it whenever possible. Play your game for fun, or solo to test mechanics, but if you have a group of playtesters at a table, don’t play with them.


You can take better notes:

If all you are taking is notes on audible feedback or a getting players to answer a questionnaire at the end of the game, you’re missing 90% of what you can be capturing from a session. Not playing the game makes you more able to catch little moments for the other player. You can note every time players hesitate about a move, are unclear on the rules, miss a trigger or step. When playing, it’s easy to just say “oh this is how you do that” and keep moving, but making a note every time it happens will help you expose issues and identify trends.

Not playing in the game lets you spend far more time thinking about the way each player approaches the game. This helps especially when you are looking for areas of the game to streamline or cut rules. Players aren’t always able to articulate which parts of the game slowed them down or confused them at the end of the game, because they often understand the game and its systems better at the end of a test than they did at the start or during the middle when they had issues.

Use hidden information:

Not playing in the game lets you investigate the game from multiple perspectives. You can get up from your seat and watch the game from different perspectives, you can ask to see the cards in a playtester’s hand or their hidden objectives at different points. This lets you ties moves to a motivation of a player, look at and analyze how different sets of information impact play style. You can check which cards were discarded or put on the bottom of the deck without interrupting the flow of the game.

and finally, but perhaps most importantly

Don’t bias the data:

If you are playing, every action you take during the game is teaching other players. If you remember to take your 3 coins at the beginning of each round, it’ll remind them to take them as well. So if it turns out that players forgetting to take their coins is a often forgotten rule, you won’t know (or it will take you much longer to find out). Similarly, if there are non-intuitive strategies or unusual moves, you might demonstrate them instead of seeing how players find those strategies for themselves.

 Keeping yourself out of the game lets you see players exploring your game’s systems without bias. You won’t know what interesting situations can really emerge if you are influencing players’ paths through the game systems by being part of the decision making flow of the game.

Final Thoughts:

Hopefully, you’re convinced you should be taking notes instead of playing in your own tests. Now if you are at a convention and someone comes by your table alone, it’s still better to play with them than to not test at all, but broadly, try to stay out of your own tests and just focus on understanding your players.

Questions? Comments?
Post em below.

More articles in this series:
 4 Myths about Playtesting

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5 thoughts on “Playtest Like a Researcher: Stop Playing in Your Own Tests

  1. You have an extra apostrophe in “the game and it’s systems”.

    Regarding the content, I do absolutely agree. Specially with the last point, which is critical.

    Also, if you’re enjoying the game, then you set the tone for everyone else to enjoy it too.

  2. I absolutely agree. Specially with the last point, which is critical.

    On that same note, you’re enjoying the game, then you set the tone for everyone else to enjoy it too – perhaps more than if you weren’t artificially anchoring their excitement levels. Of course, your excitement is great for demoing and getting playtesters, but not so great for genuine feedback.

  3. No surprise that I totally agree with you. When I’m involved in playtesting my own games my player instincts can come out unintentionally and I focus on playing the game to win, rather than observing the game to learn. Much as I enjoy playing my own games during playtesting, I find it far more productive to watch

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