How to Set Up a Play-test Session

Published on 15-07-2022Krys Martis - Viral Spiral

Play-testing is a crucial time in the gestational period of a new board game. With a game like Viral Spiral, with its many layers of rules, world conditions, and creases that were still being ironed out, the play-test rulebook had to be a crucial document to guide us through our play-tests.

A game can only be as good as its rulebook. I still remember my first experience reading a rulebook for a game that wasn’t Monopoly. It was in the middle of the lockdown, and my sister and I were trying to figure out how to play Settlers of Catan. The rulebook in our copy of the board game was in German (don’t ask), so I downloaded a PDF from the internet and read through it on my phone.

Well, “read through it” is an overstatement. I glanced at the set-up instructions, skimmed through the How To Win section, and told my sister I had it all figured out. Reader, I did not have it all figured out. That first game took us four hours to play, because we had to keep referring to the rulebook and unlearning the wrong rules I had “read through”. We also may or may not have picked up some German out of sheer desperation.

So, what does it take to learn a new game? A 30-page-long PDF, a foreign language, an entire weekend? Ideally not. All it should take is a well-worded rulebook, or a game master who knows what she’s doing. This was the first problem I tried to solve when I joined the Viral Spiral team: What is the best way to teach people this game?

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

In my experience, people have amazingly short attention spans. I once spent forty minutes explaining the complicated ins and outs of ‘Scythe’ (an engine-building game from Stonemaier) to a table of four. After I was done, one of the guys around the table scratched his head and asked me, “Wait, so how do I win?”

And, in short, that’s the best place to begin. The win condition for a game should ideally be at the very top of the rulebook, and among the first things to come out of your mouth. “This is a game about X, you win by Y” is my go-to script when explaining any game to anybody. Once they know how to win, all the other rules are immediately contextualised.

TL;DR Tired: “This is a game about sharing news on the internet. Every time you share a piece of news you gain one point. Some cards have biases and affinities…” (They’ve already lost interest because they don’t know how to win, and so have no motivation to learn about biases and affinities.)

Wired: “This is a game about sharing news on the internet. The first person to score 15 points wins the game. You gain points by…” (All following rules become valuable in the context of “you need 15 points to win”.)

After players know how to win, they need to be told what to do in their turn. This is essential to get to the point where you can Just Start Playing Already. If you don’t get players to that point, they’ll want to skip ahead themselves, which will lead to them interrupting your elaborate rule-splanation to say “Can we just play already?!” And yes, that question is as hurtful as it sounds.

So after your how-to-win spiel, it’s important to tell them what they’re expected to do in their turn. This is often the gateway to familiarise them with more rules, but again in the context of knowing what to do in their turn.

TL;DR Tired: “So the cards have biases and affinities. And you belong to different communities, like the redshirts, or the blueshirts, and so biases can increase against either of the communities as the game progresses, and—” -- “Can we just play already?!”

Wired: “You start your turn by drawing a card from the deck. You can then choose to keep the card to yourself or share it with someone around the table, which will score you a point.” -- “Why wouldn’t I share a card if it’ll score me a point?” -- “Well, you see, some cards have biases and affinities…”

No Such Thing as a Self-Explanatory Rule

After I became well-acquainted with the rules of Catan, I once tried explaining it to a friend. I thought I did a pretty good job, so you can imagine my surprise when, in her turn, she tried building a road extending out of a port. “No!” I said, “You can only build a road along a hexagonal tile.”

“You should have told me that,” she said glumly.

No game is completely foolproof, and so rules that may seem obvious to us might be confusing to new players. This also means that the language of a rulebook must be absolutely clear, and account for all possibilities.

TL;DR Tired: “Every time you share a card, you gain a point.”

Wired: “In your turn, when you share a card with someone, you will gain one point. If you are simply re-sharing someone else’s card in their turn, the point goes to them, but your bias or affinity may be affected depending on the card.”

Learning to explain a new game well has positive repercussions beyond having a successful play-test. This learning experience has helped us to develop and simplify gameplay, anticipate gaps in our rules and account for them, and get more specific in the language with which we use to describe the game, which is never a bad thing.

It also helps, after wading through the nitty-gritty rules of the game, to keep returning to its essence. This is a game about sharing news on the internet. You need 15 points to win. Let’s start from there.

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