How We Do Boardgame Playtesting in a Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Singapore's board game industry hard. Not only did the sales of our games jump off the cliff, our product development also took a major hit as we were unable to perform one of the most important phases of any tabletop games development: prototype playtesting.
In a typical game design process, there are two periods of time where developers need to perform extensive private and public testing, before moving on to the next stage. The first period is when the mechanics of the game is starting to form up and you invite guests to try out the game with bits of pieces of paper and cupboard. During this stage, the development of the game can change quickly with major changes being made with every iteration, until a final stable form takes place.
The next period of time is when the development team works on the user interface and graphic layout of the game. Is this symbol intuitive? Are the words used on the card clear? Are there multiple interpretations of what a rule could mean? You will be surprised how a line of text can be misinterpreted when shown to different people from different cultural and social economic backgrounds.
Thanks to the pandemic lock-down, the roster of games we have in development waiting for game testing grinds to a halt as the team is unable to meet in person to do any testing. To solve the testing problem, we tried to use video conferencing with a camera trained on the table, as the designer tried to describe the game and move the paper and cardboard around. The rest of the team would provide feedback on what may happen hypothetically that may break or improve the game but the result was often unsatisfactory as there was no way to properly test newly tweaked mechanics without really playing the game and getting a real feel of how the cause and effect of our design decisions pan out.
After struggling with this method for a month, we recall that we had a neglected and forgotten Tabletopia account which we used to showcase one of our older games.
The first game we ported over is a dice rolling, fast grabbing dexterity food game called Check Out!
The result is definitely not ideal as our testers have problems rolling the virtual dice and picking up individual die and placing them on the correct food cards before rushing to check out to end the turn. This results in virtual dice flying all over the place and programming bugs causing dice to disappear into the table or floating in mid-air unable to move. It was an hilarious experience and we all agreed that the virtual experience is no match for the actual dice chucking experience.
Mechanic: Dice Rolling Dexterity Game
Virtual Test Verdict: 3/10
The next game we tested is a game which uses a hot potato mechanic similar to the bomb from Exploding Kittens where players who drew the bomb can put back the bomb back to the central deck in any order without other players knowing. Hence here lies the challenge, we need to make sure that nobody is peeping at the screen while the player tries to manipulate the deck so that the player is able to slot the bomb back in the right order while drawing cards one by one.
Solving the first issue of preventing players from peeping is not too difficult as we had a Zoom on with a neutral spectator watching the Zoom chat to make sure no one is peeping. The other issue of slotting the cards into the deck is a bigger challenge.
Very often, new users to Tabletopia are not familiar with the manipulation of the cards using the mouse and most common mistakes include drawing out the whole deck into the hand instead of a card, or accidentally shuffling the deck or just putting the bomb back onto the top of the deck because they got too frustrated with trying to manipulate the cards one by one. The strategical element of the game is undermined every time such an incident happened and we are flooded with comments on how difficult it is to manipulate the cards rather than giving feedback on the mechanics of the game.
Nevertheless the experience gets better as the users become more familiar with the platform, but as a testing tool for the new-comers, it is definitely not recommended.
Mechanic: Hot Potato
Virtual Test Verdict: 3/10,
With Experienced Tabletopia Users: 5/10
Another game we were working on is a horror theme hidden identity game where players are trapped in a haunted hospital (The most haunted hospital in Singapore!) and you are supposed to fulfil various secret objectives while trying to keep your identity hidden as there are spooks and opposing forces out to eliminate you as their game objective. This digital adaption panned out beautifully as the game needs certain amount of set-up and the digital adaptation allows us to start up the game quickly with the set-up already prepared at a click of button. The biggest drawback of the virtual system with the hidden identity mechanic is that you are unable to draw any clues from the facial expression of the players, and can only guessed by the tone of their voice and their in game actions to deduce their real identity. It kinda gives those with lousy poker faces or quiet players who refuse to take any verbal bait a leg up in the game.
Mechanic: Hidden Identity
Virtual Test Verdict: 7/10
In conclusion, we managed to get around the lock-down by going digital but we aren't able to fully test every aspect of our games, especially those games with some form of dexterity and deck manipulation. However, we discovered another advantage of digital testing: our partners from overseas are able to join us on the testing and giving us feedback on the game with the limited experience they have. It certainly helped us break through the stone wall we faced and helped us develop the games even in this period of lock-down.
However, the true beauty of the face to face interaction can never be duplicated by this online method and this is what makes tabletop games special.
Will we continue to use this method after the world exits from the pandemic madness? I will say "Yes" as we see many opportunities for the digital format with regards to developing, teaching and demonstrating to various stakeholders... and we are glad to have made used of this crisis, and turned it into an opportunity for digital learning.