Playtesting

Last year saw some fairly interesting experiences for me – not least among them, I started this blog of course! – but I thought I’d regale you all with some thoughts on my experiences as a playtester.

I don’t know how much of this is common practice, and how much is peculiar to my own experience, but anyhow. I was initially approached via boardgamegeek as to whether I’d be interested in beta-testing a specific upcoming expansion for a game, which really excited me so, following the NDA documentation going through, I was sent some material in the post that had a large “BETA” watermark across it all. The fairly loose instructions given to me were to basically play it as much as possible, and let the designers know how my sessions went, if there were anything untoward in the game experience such as broken combinations or the like. It all went pretty well, and no sooner had that finished, than I was asked to do some more. I don’t know if I had proven to be particularly useful as a beta-tester, but I leapt at the chance!

So a similar scenario occurred, whereby another package in the post was followed by another round of gaming, followed by more write-ups and such. It’s worth mentioning that the beta-test material was of a really good standard: all the artwork was in place, and so forth. So part of my feedback was focused there, also. At any rate, I was then asked if I would like to take part in a third beta-test, but also if I’d like to take part in formal playtesting of a still-in-development expansion. The latter sounded fantastic, so I bit the guy’s hand off and signed myself up!

I was invited to a private google group, where I had access to a series of pdf files. These were the development-stage cards that had no artwork or fancy formatting – they were basically words typed into a space large enough to fit on a standard playing card when printed off and cut out. We were instructed to do so, and put them in card sleeves to make things easier to play. And then we were asked to play as much as possible, and come back to the group as often as possible with feedback.

I’m still technically under NDA, so can’t tell you what it was I was involved with, but I will say it involved nine individual games, released as a small box and then a cycle of six packs. Long-time readers of this blog will likely have an idea of what I’m talking about, I imagine! I’m saying this because it’s fairly relevant to some thoughts I’ll get to shortly. Anyway. That’s nine individual games that needed to be played as regularly as possible, but as they were in something of a state of flux, I’d also have to check into the group every day to check that I was still using the most up-to-date version of the cards, or else I might find a problem that had already been corrected by a new version. Some of these things entered a version 4 or 5, I seem to remember.

So for about three months, I played. What had once been my favourite card game was becoming more of a chore than a pleasure, reduced to nuts-and-bolts gaming rather than any sort of creative, adventure storytelling. It got old really quickly, and when the playtest was done, I didn’t touch the game for months.

I suppose this is the danger inherent in turning something you love into a job. Obviously, playtesting this game wasn’t full-time work for me, but it began to feel like I had to play this game, whether I wanted to or not, much in the same way that I feel I have to go to work, whether I want to or not. A sense of obligation arose, and it became a task to complete rather than a wondrous feeling of escapism. I love playing tabletop games, but while many people seem to think of it as a dream come true, I would never opt to actually work in that field for this precise reason.

Something else happened that I didn’t quite expect; I lost all enthusiasm for the expansion cycle when it came time for its official announcement. Don’t get me wrong, it was a little thrilling to see some of the amazing artwork on the cards I’d last seen as text-only black-and-white pieces of paper stuck inside card sleeves. But I found that I wasn’t really interested as I had been for previous expansions. I know what all of the cards will be in this expansion, so it holds no surprises for me, whereas previously I’d enjoyed the speculation as to what would be coming up next, what twists and turns the designers will have put into it. Part of me even feels a little annoyed that I did it now, as I know what to expect for the next year of releases.

I do actually still love this game, and I’m returning to the state where I once more think of it as my favourite card game. It’s been a good ten months or so since the playtesting period ended, and I’ve tried hard to forget what happens during this cycle, but I don’t feel the same level of excitement as I have previously. It remains a great game, but having seen up the magician’s sleeve, as it were, I don’t think I would ever opt to be a playtester again.

Have you ever playtested a game? What did you think of the experience?

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