License to Suck

by Gil Hova

As part of the preparation to 4P in January, I will be doing a series of posts aimed towards new designers about how to approach playtesting your first game. But this advice is good any time of year!

Perhaps you’ve tried designing a game before. You thought over it in your head and eliminated a bunch of rules and edge cases you could tell wouldn’t work. You thought about it in the shower and during your commute. You spent a long time on the rulebook and the components. And then you got it in front of players.

And they hated it.

It was broken. It wasn’t fair. It took too long. There were too many rules. By the time they understood the game, it was over. The images were unclear. The components weren’t good quality.

I’m here to say: that was an acceptable result. It’s your perogative, as a designer, for your new design to suck.

Lots of new designers expect their game to work straight away, and get discouraged when their first few playtests don’t work. But that viewpoint doesn’t work for any creative venture. Being afraid to suck is an invitation to writer’s block. It’s like expecting a newborn baby to walk straight out of the womb. It just doesn’t happen.

Don’t be afraid to suck. Get your new game out onto the table.

That said, here are some tips that will help you:

  • Start solo. Make a rough version of the game that only you will ever see. Play it yourself, taking the actions of all the players. You should see a bunch of flaws right away. Keep iterating until you have a version that seems reasonably okay. Only then should you bring the game to other people.
  • If you can, your first playtesters should be with other designers. They know the deal. They know your game probably won’t work very well.
  • Make sure your playtesters know what they’re getting into. Don’t just spring the game on them. Make sure they know they’re playing a new design that may not work.
  • If the game is clearly broken after the first few rounds, end the game. If the game is running long (like over two hours), and players are clearly no longer having a good time, end the game. Don’t prolong an un-fun game, especially if your players aren’t used to testing new games. In either case, make sure you know what broke the game, or why it lasted so long. If you’re not sure, then ask your playtesters why they thought it broke or ran long. Their perspective will be valuable. Either case is common for a new design, so don’t feel bad if it happens.
  • If necessary, bribe your playtesters. Have beer and/or snacks available. Buy dinner. Agree to play anything afterwards.
  • Ask for your playtesters’ feedback. Listen to it. Listen to it all. Don’t argue. Don’t contradict them. Remember, you don’t have to implement all their feedback (and you shouldn’t), but you do have to listen to it.
  • Your playtesters are not judging you as a person. They are criticizing the game, not you. Don’t take anything personally. Tattoo that on your arm if you must, but don’t ever allow early-stage feedback to let you think that you’re somehow not cut out to make games.
  • If a playtester is really bent out of shape about how unfair or broken the game is, and you’ve already made it clear that this is a fragile, early-stage prototype, thank him or her kindly for playing, and then make a mental note to avoid playtesting a game with that person. Not everyone who likes board games can be a playtester.

Note that the license to suck doesn’t just apply to your game when it’s new. Any time you make a big change to the game, you’re opening yourself to failure. Embrace it. Make it clear to your playtesters that you’re trying something new, and it might not work. Don’t be afraid to fail.

When I was studying creative writing in college, I had a classmate who didn’t allow anyone else to look at his first drafts. He was giving himself his own license to suck when he wrote, and he rarely got writer’s block because of it. Giving yourself permission to fail early in the process will help you succeed later on.