I came downstairs this morning to find my kids playing AOX. This makes me happy. Since signing the licensing deal on the game, I've been a little hands off, having moved onto other projects, so revisiting it (to resolve a rules 'fight') was really fun. It got me thinking about the game...
I'm insanely proud of AOX. Mechanically speaking I feel like it's something a little different, well balanced and a constant head scratcher - these are the criteria that I have always felt need to be present in a strong abstract game. I didn't come here to tell you how awesome I think my game is though... This morning got me thinking about just how the game got to where it is.
It's all about playtesting.
Well, actually, theres more to it than that, but I wanted to take a minute to highlight the importance of great play-testers. I'm lucky that I know a few.
There are many 'serious' and experienced gamers out there (you might be one of them!) and plenty of people that can figure out a rulebook in minutes. Some of these people make great play testers, though most of them only 'think' they'll be great playtesters, when in fact they are just great game players. Let me explain.
When I created AOX I kept it small for a while, playing with just me and a close friend, Adam. Adam ended up having the kind of input that changes a game and very firmly moved himself from 'play-tester' to 'developer' in my eyes. I've bounced a few of my game designs off Adam and he fits a very unique criteria:
- He loves games, but isn't totally obsessed, nor has he played every game under the sun. As such, he doesn't compare every small detail to other elements in really obscure games.
- He asks questions. Lots of questions. Every step of the way is met with "what if?", or "what happens if I?". This does 2 things - firstly it finds loopholes and previously unresolved niggles, secondly, it tests me and ensures that I really know how the game works (and that all the answers are documented in the rules!).
- He has opinions, but doesn't tell me how I should have made the game (more on this later).
- He is a genuinely nice person, who people want to spend time with. He's not obnoxious, has no ego and he doesn't think he's the authority on things.
These 4 points make Adam pretty much the perfect person to bounce ideas off before they reach a wider audience. Anyone who has designed a game and been through the process will most likely know someone who meets this criteria and can relate. Once AOX was though the Adam test I went further afield - public events, gaming groups and cafes etc. The game was met with some stunning feedback from abstract players and I was feeling pretty damn excited about it.
Now, just for a moment I want to step back in time to the UK Games Expo last year. I was demo'ing Package!? and Schism and played those games with about a million people over 4 days. Some of those people stood out to me... One such group were the Henderson family. Father and sons, all experienced gamers with a deep knowledge of strategy and a love for abstracts. Something about them rang bells with the criteria I laid out earlier and I ended up exchanging contact details and sending a copy of AOX out to Ian and his clan to playtest. I figured that one more set of eyes on it couldn't hurt, even though I was already feeling pretty confident.
At this point I also sent copies off to reviewers (those copies were recalled when I signed the license to the game, but there are a few reviews out there based on the prototype) and the feedback was great - another nod that I'd done something right. OK, fast forward some months and I'm at Essen, helping some fellow publishers promote their games when I bump into the Hendersons. They knew I was going to be at Essen and came armed with the copy of AOX I sent them. After a quick introduction Ian says, "Can we play AOX. I need to show you something". Interested (and a little concerned), we find a corner of one of the halls, sit on the floor between the hustle and bustle and set up the game.
"Let me go first. I'll beat you. Guaranteed". This'll be good. I've played AOX a million times, usually opt to go 2nd anyway and 'usually' win (unless playing against my 8 year old son who has a mind like a super computer). Go. Oh. I lost. "Again" he says. Again I lose. We could have done this all day and he'd have won every game, for Ian had found a loophole, one which not I, Adam, 30 or so public players and 4 reviewers had not seen. One, which I expect only a tiny handful of people would ever have seen - but one which could have derailed the game. What Ian and the guys had done is played a mechanic rather than playing the game - concentrated one specific game element and gone full-bore with it, even when the decisions seem counter-intuitive or not in the best interests of your game plan. By hammering a specific mechanic over and over and over regardless of your opponents decisions there were able to find a tiny loop hole which eventually put them out in front. They were so thorough with their testing process that they applied the same mentality to pretty much every other strategy that could feasibly be conceived for the game. Thankfully none of the others gave similar results.
Now the fix for this was relatively simple and didn't take much work. That fix, shifts the balance for anyone trying this power play so that the edge can't be taken by it. If I sent the revised rules out to everyone who had played it before it wouldn't change the way they had played the game before at all. To the casual observer, the game hadn't changed... but I and the Hendersons know differently.
So, whats my point?
Well the Hendersons went above and beyond. I guess they created point 5 for our perfect play testers list: "Test every little element of the game until your head explodes". I am an overly thorough designer and consider myself to be pretty precise in the way I work, but having the right eyes on things makes a huge difference. Ian and his family had no ego, they didn't want to prove me wrong, they loved the game and wanted to live up to the expectation of being great play-testers, so they lived and breathed my game. Their input was crucial in making the game that AOX has become.
If you want to be a great play-tester and want to help our designers try to hit as many of those criteria as you can. To summarise it:
- Don't have an ego. Don't think you know better. Be constructive with your feedback.
- Be excited about what you're doing. You are trying to help make something creative and brilliant. If you are bored, go home.
- Ask questions. If there is not an answer to your questions then you have just helped the process. If there is an answer, go with it.
- If a designer has questions for you about specific elements, make sure you give that feedback. Don't just nod and say it was great if it wasn't, but be polite. Don't be a dick!
- Don't tell a designer how they should make their game. This is the number 1 thing that jumps out at me when I play test my games openly. There are people who will ask questions to seek answers and work out if I've thought of everything - this is good. There are also people who say, "You know what you should do with this and that" - this is not good. There is ALWAYS at least one gamer who wants to design his own game, see a certain mechanic used, make the game more like Blood Rage, or want to prove that he knows the ins and outs of more games than you. These gamers are de-motivators. They all think that they are incredible play testers because they are full of 'ideas'. This is not constructive. Don't be this person. Thanks.
If you are a games designer or are thinking about venturing into your first release, don't be afraid to playtest. When you find great play-testers, hold onto them and acknowledge their input to the development of your game. Most of all, never be afraid to do just a little more testing, even after everyone says, "This is great. Go for it!", just take another minute, get a new perspective and trust your play testers.
PS. For those interested, AOX will be released via Word Forge Games later this year!