The perils of playtesting

Normally, the meetings of the game design group I organize in Portland are events I can reliably enjoy.  This last get-together was going to be special: I’d worked hard over a long weekend to prepare my tabletop space empire sim for play testing.  I was looking forward to showing the game to members of the group—all of whom are designers and experienced players capable of giving detailed feedback—and basking in the warm glow of recognition … not praise, mind you, but the recognition that I’d worked hard and the effort showed in the prototype I presented.

I wasn’t quite prepared for what actually happened, though.  The best summary description of the session I can provide is it was a “friendly fire incident.”

Don’t shoot, I’m on your side

TransgalacticMy 4X space game, Transgalactic, is big and complicated and a little obtuse.  No … it’s quite obtuse.  It’s more simulation than game, to be fair.  That is to say, it contains (so far) very few of the progressive and competitive elements that gamers crave, such as a scoring mechanism.  It’s a system, to borrow a roleplaying term, waiting for campaign materials to be written for it.  I did not anticipate this would be an issue with high-level players who also design what are often complex and abstract games.

The game took a while to set up.  I could have, perhaps, organized that better.  Still, as I said, it’s complex.  While I was setting things up, I tried to introduce my three players to general game concepts.  Because the game’s mechanics are intricate, I thought it was important to lay out terms and explain components.  Then, less than five minutes into my (admittedly awkward, being unrehearsed) explanation, one of the players grew impatient and interjected.

“Let’s just start playing.”  The others agreed.  Things went downhill from there.

My play testers thought they could intuit how to play based on experience with similar games.  This might have worked if I hadn’t put so much effort into making this game different from everything else I’ve played.  Everything was wrong and out of order.  They didn’t know what to do on their turns.  They asked a torrent of questions.  I, being too polite to rein things in, got flustered.  After 10 minutes, I had to call a halt.  We weren’t playing my game; we were playing something else.  I apologized for not being able to continue, promised to be better prepared next time, and collected my bits.  My brain had locked up, and I couldn’t have continued in any event.

It was disappointing.  I was angry, embarrassed, frustrated.  It felt like I hadn’t been given a chance to properly introduce these people, whose opinions I valued, to my creation.  Two days later, I’m still trying to make sense of the experience.

What’s in a game?

I’m guessing my testers saw familiar details and figured they could skip the introduction and jump right into gameplay, and I appreciate their enthusiasm.  But I’m also let down by the notion that the intent behind my design—the fact that I was trying to do something essentially different from mainstream board games—was so easily dismissed.  My game was conceived and has been constructed with more than clever strategy, competition, and victory conditions in mind; I’m trying to craft an experience.  Maybe that sounds a bit lofty, even arrogant, but I’ve come to this place out of dissatisfaction with standard, single session games.  They don’t quite scratch the itch, and I’ve been seeking a more engrossing experience.  What itch?  What are games, anyway, at least to me?

IMG_1172Games have always played a powerful role in my life.  I reflected on this in light of the play test debacle, and it struck me: games are a primary way I relate to others.  From playing simple board games as a child with family, to playing Atari 2600 and computer games with friends, to creating wargames using G.I.Joe figures with my brother, to running Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in grade school, to writing my own roleplaying games in high school, to Playstation 1-3 and more computer games and Gameboy, to the current board game revival and mobile gaming … all of these have been a platform by which I share experiences with others.  Not my only platform, mind you, but an important one.

My attempts to create larger experiences are, in a way, an attempt at sharing deeper and more profound experiences with others.  The ideal game, to me, should be a portal to another world where the out-of-game world fades from view and players craft a collective experience together for the time they share a tabletop.  And while I tend to emphasize immersion (think roleplaying), I also place a high value on collaboration: competition is nice, but when the “losers” can say they had as much a hand in a game’s outcome as the “winners”, it’s a better experience for everyone.

But here’s the rub: I haven’t been to this ideal place, this gaming nirvana, in a long time.  I think the last time I felt fully engrossed in a game with other players was in high school, when I was creating entire worlds for players’ characters to inhabit and spinning tales for them to complete.  Since then, less involved diversions have risen to the top of the tabletop market that was once dominated by D&D and its ilk.  My design work is a quest, of sorts—a search for a path back to the sanctuary where imagination, shared with others, elevates mere play into something transcendent.

A way forward

I guess now the question is: can I still get to that place?

I think so.  But, a course correction is needed.  I’m not discouraged enough to give up; I don’t feel obligated to redirect my energy to other things, and my commitment to designing and playing games is undiminished.  But I’ve been taught a valuable lesson, I think: in front of any but the ideal audience, there will be difficulties presenting my work.  Our meetup venue is raucous, and we were already well into the session.  My schtick was unpracticed.  The game is a jumble of board pieces and bits and esoteric nuances.

IMG_1059So, there are rules to write out, vague points to clarify, player references to create, and a rules summary to rehearse.  And because this game continues to evolve, it may be a while before I bring it to the table again.  But I’m committed to being ready, when the time comes.  Perhaps a dedicated venue (such as home) will eliminate distractions; perhaps setting up the game ahead of time will cut short the waiting that leads to impatience.  In any event, the next demo will be better.  And the next, better still.  Useful feedback will be gathered.  Perhaps even a small sense of pride in the time and effort I’ve put in will begin to grow.

And maybe—just maybe—someone will enjoy playing it.  That will be the true measure of my success.

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