Top 6 Most Annoying Playtesters and What They Can Teach You

Troublesome playtesters can drive a game designer insane but under the right circumstances they can provide valuable insights. Read this article to find out how to make the most of your playtest sessions.

The early stages of playtesting make up something I like to call “The Churn”. It’s arguably the most unpleasant part of the game design process. No game is perfect at its first playtest so something will inevitably go wrong. As if that weren’t enough to make you anxious, certain playtesters have a real talent for making The Churn even more difficult than it already is. However, there are tools you can use to turn even the most irritating playtester into an invaluable game design asset. Below I’ve listed my Top 6 Most Annoying Playtesters and how to get them to help you move your game one step closer to success.

The One Who Wants to Skyrocket Your Costs

This playtester couldn’t care less about your final production costs. This is their opportunity to convince you to make the “bling-iest” game ever and they are all in! Are you using plastic poker chips in your game? Deficient. You need 3 inch satin nickel coins! Does your game require standard six-sided dice? Garbage. You need custom transparent engraved 10-sided dice!

Their suggestions are leading you into a game design pit of no escape. High component costs will haunt you regardless of whether you plan to pitch publishers or go the Kickstarter route. High component costs will result in higher shipping costs, increased hassle/complexity, and increased risk in manufacturing and marketing. As a game designer, one of your goals should be to minimize your game’s components without sacrificing its core experience. Once you are the CEO of an international board game corporation, then you can have more leeway with your component choices. But as an indie designer, you should always strive to reduce component costs.

Cincinnati Tabletop Game Designers Playtest Night April 24, 2019

Making the Most of this Playtester

When this playtester suggests you put in more components, they’re basically saying they would like to see an aspect that is currently missing from your game. This playtester likely thinks the addition of components will solve a problem. Try to get this playtester to talk less about what components they want to see and more about what problems they think the added components will solve.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • How do you think the game will improve with the addition of these components?
  • What do you think is currently lacking in the game that the components will add?
  • At what point in the game did you wish the game had these components?

The One Who Lost the Playtest and Now Hates Your Game

This player had everything: intelligence, a winning strategy, and superior skills over their opponents. But they still lost. There can only be one possible explanation — your game design is deficient.

You can often learn more from a playtester who lost than a playtester who won. Choosing win conditions is relatively easy. The winner is either the person who reaches the objective first, scores the most points, or achieves some other goal. A winner is generally happy with gameplay regardless of game design. One of the more challenging aspects of game design is designing so that the other players lose in a way that still provides a fun and satisfying experience. You generally want every player to feel that their decisions matter right up until the last round or two of the game.

Making the Most of this Playtester

If a playtester is upset about losing, it’s likely because they felt their decisions didn’t matter in the early or middle portion of the game. Try to understand when players felt they had lost the game. More importantly, it’s a good idea to find out when players felt like their decisions no longer mattered. Furthermore, most games include some kind of catch up mechanic. Sometimes catch up mechanics are not intuitive. Ask this playtester if they considered the catch up mechanic.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • At what point do you feel your decisions no longer mattered – that you were going to lose regardless of what you did?
  • Did you see there was a catch up mechanic? If not, what would make the catch up mechanic more intuitive? If you did, is there any reason you did not attempt it?
  • Was there something you wanted to do in the game to increase your chances of winning but could not do?

The One Who Has a Problem with Something That’s Not a Problem

My good friend Paul Becker has a great example of this type of playtester. He told me the following:

I made a game about Filipino food, and I would CONSTANTLY hear about how I should avoid the theme because I’m not Filipino (nevermind that standing next to me is my Filipina wife), or because nobody could appreciate the theme since the food is too foreign so it wouldn’t sell well. But when a Filipino sees the game, their eyes light up, because this game is for THEM in a way no other game is.

You will undoubtedly disagree with your playtesters about what aspects of your game are and are not problems. Keep in mind, as the designer, you make the final judgments on the elements of your game. It’s a good idea to listen and give thoughtful consideration to whatever feedback you get. But you should also feel free to reject any ideas that don’t line up with your vision.

Making the Most of this Playtester

While you may not consider something to be a problem, the last thing you want to do is spend your valuable playtest time arguing with a playtester. The real key is to patiently listen and acknowledge their concerns. Afterward you can guide the conversation to other feedback.

Furthermore, this playtester may be providing you valuable information. Be sure to write down their concerns, particularly if these concerns are also voiced by other playtesters. Afterwards, go back and write down why you think it’s not a problem. You may even want to try to find ways to gather evidence that supports your argument. This can come in very handy if a publisher or a potential Kickstarter backer raises the same questions. Having a well thought-out response goes to show that you are a thorough and thoughtful designer.

Consider giving the following responses:

  • That’s an interesting thought and you’ve given me a lot to consider. Are there any other concerns you have with the mechanics? How did ________ work for you in the game? I really need help with that.

The One Who Played Your Game Just to Confirm How Much They Hate Your Type of Game

Battlecats was the first game I playtested outside my local design group. It was a deck builder inspired by Thundercats that I brought to an Unpub event in 2016. There were several other games of all types at the event, ranging from co-op to sports to strategy games. This playtester saw my game, was curious, and sat down to give it a try. After several rounds, I asked for feedback. We went through several minutes of him giving some interesting suggestions that would completely change the nature of the game. But eventually I was able to get to the core of his dissatisfaction.
“I just don’t like your game,” he said. “I’m really not into confrontational games.”

I responded, “So, if you saw my game on the store shelf with the name ‘Battlecats’, would you think it’s a confrontational game?”

“Absolutely!” he answered.

I’m sure I tried, unsuccessfully, to not make my Then why the hell are you bothering me face.

Battlecats Deck-Building Game

Some people are going to hate your game. Games are not made to appeal to everyone. The best advice I received from veteran game designers is to know your audience. Is your game for casual or heavy gamers? Does it appeal to gamers who like social deduction or strategy? I suggest writing this down somewhere so you’ll remember your target audience. If a playtester tells you they hate your game because they don’t like your type of game, then they are outside your audience. They likely can’t help you with the finer details of your game design but they may be able to help you with general aspects of your game.

Making the Most of this Playtester

Try to focus your discussion on broad topics like theme, visuals, game length, etc. Even if you don’t get a lot of feedback for your game, it’s not a bad idea to talk to them about what games they like and why. That information could come in handy for your future games.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • I made this game for a(n) ___________ audience. Do you think the game appeals to that audience?
  • If you saw this game on a store shelf, what kind of game would you expect it to be?
  • What kind of games do you enjoy and why?

The One Who Missed Their Calling as an Art Critic

These days there seems to be only two acceptable reactions to game art:

  • A) Pick your jaw off the floor and share the game on social media, or
  • B) Snort derisively at the game designer and walk away in silence.

On the positive side, the demand for high quality art is probably a symptom of a fast-growing game community. Beautiful art is a way to stand out among the competition. However, it becomes problematic when breathtaking art becomes the expectation even for indie designers. Furthermore, even decent art isn’t cheap. Anyone who has done research in hiring an artist for their game has probably come to the same conclusion I have: I’m no expert in art but I am an expert in what I can’t afford.

Fortunately, we haven’t quite reached the time when exquisite art is the industry standard across the board. But you may run into people who do believe that’s where we are. Again, the last thing you want to do during a feedback session is spend time arguing with a playtester. Listen to the feedback and write it in your notebook.

Making the Most of this Playtester

When a playtester says they don’t like your art, try to get some details so you can understand if it’s just a matter of personal taste or something more specific. If it’s personal taste, note it and try to move on. However, if you believe it’s more than just personal taste, you may want to get more specific feedback from the playtester. In particular, if they talk about mismatches between your art and your theme or your audience, you’ll want to pay close attention.

Your art should complement the experience of your game. Games with lighthearted themes should have bright colorful, almost cartoonish art. Games with heavier themes should have darker, more realistic art. If a playtester brings this up, you should pay particular attention. While you think your game is lighthearted, playtesters may feel the game was dark and serious. A game whose art doesn’t match the tone of the game is discomforting to play and will likely require changes.Your art should also be in line with your audience. For example, if you’re making a family type game you don’t want any graphic violence depicted in the art.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • Does the art match the tone or mood of the game?
  • What kind of audience do you think this game appeals to? Do you think the art would be agreeable to that audience?

The One Who Hates Your Game with a Passion

This playtester has an opinion and will do whatever it takes to make sure you have a crystal clear understanding of it. The quality of your components is not just bad, the components insult the players who have to handle them. Your primary game mechanic is not just flawed, your game devalues the game community as a whole.

The snarky tone of this playtester will compel you to ignore them completely. This is natural but don’t ignore them. In my experience, most people who take this kind of tone want to be heard by not just you, but by the other playtesters (who are often designers) because they see a flaw in some game aspect that is of personal importance to them. They may have some expertise in this aspect, studied it in depth, or made a similar mistake regarding this aspect in the past.

Making the Most of this Playtester

A very detailed explanation will likely follow the initial snarky feedback. The explanation may even be a very personal lesson learned. Try to get the playtester to move past the insults and focus on the feedback and the reasoning behind the feedback.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • Sounds like you’ve seen this kind of problem before. What’s your suggestion?
  • I’m not sure I see why this is a big problem. Can you elaborate?
  • Can you be more specific about the problem and how you would fix it?

My Best Playtesting Advice: Embrace “The Churn”

There’s an old saying I picked up from my time in the Air Force – Embrace the Suck! Going through The Churn can be an unpleasant experience. But embrace what it offers. Every playtest session you have, every annoying playtester you deal with builds up and strengthens your game. Every new idea provides a step in your game’s evolution. Challenge yourself to squeeze every bit of useful information you can from the process. Accept that your game is flawed. But also accept you are skilled enough to fix it. Embrace the Churn and bring your vision to life.

About the author

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Gary Chavez

Retired Air Force Major, Aerospace Engineer, Salsa Dancer and Instructor, Married 11 years with 2 kids, Owner of GCRS Games - I love playing and designing board games and talking to other people who play and/or design board games.

8 Comments

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  • I bingo-ed almost all of these types of playtesters. Oh maaan!

    The most common type is the guy that – in an advanced prototype – wants to change the foundation mechanisms you’ve already tested and set for the game, when you are testing other aspects like balancing numbers and stuff.

    Sometimes there is the “troll guy”: does not pay attention to the explanation, keeps his attention on damn smartphone, does not think ahead his turn (making it goes slower for everybody else – and putting the burden on the game, of course). He basically does not know what he’s doing there, does not understand the game and does everything to make others’ experiences the worst possible.

    As the saying goes, a good playtester is worth his/her weight in gold!
    But even annoying playtesters can contribute to the game – and to the designer – to improve!

    Great article with valuable tips! Thanks!

    • Yes, I’ve run into the playtester who wanted to change my deck-building game into a roll and write. If you find a good playtester, keep them close! Thanks for reading the article!

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