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Themes & Mechanics 2.0

Bruno Faidutti

April, 2005

Testing and Prototypes

I am often surprised when aspiring designers present their first creation, by the care taken in the physical creation of the prototype. It is not unusual for the creator to make illustrations. Even when the game is not illustrated, playing pieces, cards, and boards are carefully constructed and are often of a higher quality than many published games. My prototypes, in comparison, seem highly unprofessional. Graphics (when there are any) are limited to a few bit of clip-art, and the technical glue-ing and cutting are primitive and without rounded corners. If you have not seen prototypes from other well-known authors, I can assure you that some are even more spartan.

Like the outline of a novel, a game prototype is indeed something that is never completely finished, never definitive—and I am also talking about the many versions which are presented to publishers. The prototype must be able to be changed quickly with quick stroke of pencil or scissors, a few pawns, some cards, or some boxes on the board. If you or your playtesters find the game a little long, or if upon presentation an editor asks you to trim the game somewhat, it will be much easier for you to remove a few boxes from an X-Press document rather than remake a gorgeous board that is painted by hand—I will not even speak of those which are carved into solid oak. It is moreover essential that the testers feel that they are dealing with a work-in-progress, where their ideas and suggestions will be welcomed, and not with a very finished product on hand for them to pass judgment. Your prototype must therefore be practical, clear, legible, but it does not have to be pretty.

Bruno Faidutti's Citadels in prototype form.

The first playtests are intended to see if an idea which looks good on paper can indeed lead to an exciting game. If the answer to this first question proves to be positive, then make the adjustments necessary to lead to the best possible game.

It is therefore a bad thing to arrive with vague thoughts about the general principles of play, but better to have precise rules (for me, I generally have written rules) that you are able to explain clearly, and all of the elements allowing you to test. This should not prevent you from changing this or that within a game, in the middle of a game if you become aware of a problem, or even to stop the game altogether if it does not function in its current state. Your testers will thank you for having spared them, and to allow them a little more time to play all of those other good German and American games waiting on your shelves. The first tests of a game are pretty informal, with interruptions to discuss finer points of rules which could be changed, aborted games, restarts, and it isn't bad to have beer and whisky around to help with inspiration. This is why I often prefer to carry out these first tests with friends, people who know a lot about our small world of games, and with other game designers who are able to make criticisms and suggestions which will help the game take on a more successful form. Sometimes these games are finally born as collaborations. Generally, these first tests will only amount to abandoning an idea which is more tempting than effective, but sometimes they will be followed by different tests where the game will, little by little, take on its final form.

One now leaves the living room to venture into the kitchen, and it all becomes a question of proportions and spices. To add a little bluff or tension here, to remove a little calculation or memory there, and to not forget the rascal pinch of chance which emphasizes the salt of the tactics—each adds its own flavour and each player has their own taste. For my taste, I try to arrive at the maximum tension with the fewest rules. That means that before adding a rule, I ponder whether it truly brings something to the game in terms of faithfulness to the theme and effectiveness of the mechanics, and if it is possible to arrive at the same result by modifying an existing rule, or even removing a rule. This principle of economy is undoubtedly the essential contribution of the German school, and is too often forgotten by beginning designers, who tend to add useless rules. Those last few tests of a game are often used by me to eliminate the residual rules resulting from previous versions, and which no longer have any great utility.

I often read that some of the more famous designers believe that it is wise to make the last tests blind, letting the players manage the rules and pieces by themselves. Certain famous authors even entrust their games to groups of testers who then submit a written "playtest report", with comments and ratings. This method has the advantage of being thorough, but it that is not how I proceed. Preferring to stay on the inside, I take part in all of the tests, which more easily enables me to intervene to modify the game when that is necessary.

I note nevertheless that too many authors (and even publishers) have a bad fault of having only tested the game by himself, but not the printed rules. Only the truly wise old gamers have learned little by little to write clear and complete rules; I advise the young ones to test their rules with a group of players without intervening, to weed out the lapses of memory, ambiguities and inconsistencies.

Diamant, which ventured to the grand salon of Nuremburg in the house of a large German publisher was thus tested in the United States by Alan Moon and his friends and in France by me and mine. In the first version, any treasure that could not be divided equally had the remainder simply removed from the game. The testers thought this odd, and not consistent with the story, that gold and diamonds disappeared. The testers suggested that the remainder is left on the spot and collected by the first runaways. This small simple rule immediately gave a new dimension to the game. There were now two reasons to flee: fear and greed, and provided an opportunity for jeers and insults between players. During this time, the American testers found the game a little "rough", and suggested some action cards; a weapon allowing defence from danger, a torch that lets you see where you're going, and a rope whose use I forget. We tested this, and this variant removed tension by introducing too many differences between the situations of the players, and was henceforth abandoned. The first prototype had 17 treasures with values from 1 to 17. Alan Moon had the idea to modify these values to include a lot more prime numbers, which increased the temptation to flee first. The best tester of this game was finally Friedemann Friese, who imagined that drawing a danger card ends the round, thus making tension increase as the game does on, by pushing players to take more risks in the latter rounds. It is also the man with the green hair who pointed out (no one else thought of it) that it was useless to have two voting tokens (continue or flee) when only one (whether in a closed fist or missing) is enough. And that tiny little push, and reducing 8 tokens, undoubtedly helped convince the publisher.

- Bruno Faidutti

(Translated from the French by Frank Branham.)

(This article originally appeared in Des Jeux Sur un Plateau magazine.)

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