The Mercantilism Game - All About the Bullions (Part 2)
Playtesting is like an engraved invitation that reads: You are cordially invited to tell me why I suck.
Bring a friend.
— Jesse Schell
No Pain, No Gain
When you put a lot of energy into creating something, it can be intimidating to open it up for criticism. This holds true for game design as much as any other creation. And with how long it takes to craft an intricate game with interconnected parts, how can players know what to critique if you have them playtest too early in the process? It’s so tempting to wait until it’s mostly finished before opening up to that kind of feedback.
Resist this temptation.
Game design is iterative. No matter how much time you spend carefully crafting the perfect game, you’ll need to revise it again and again. The sooner you can playtest, the better the product.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for video game designers to first crank out a prototype using cards or physical objects to playtest their concepts. You learn a lot from this experience, including how to separate your ego from your creative work (note: this can’t actually be done, but do it as much as possible). These first playtests are with a crude iteration of the game, but they offer excellent guidance on further development of the game.
Crude Playtest #1: Is This Even Viable?
Once I had the basic structure of the game and a sense of the mechanics (see Part 1), I wanted to know if that structure would convey what I wanted. Does it make sense to have a resource-allocation game to demonstrate mercantilism? How should I balance the resources? Does the concept engage players?
To playtest, I solicited the help of a handful of family members. I didn’t have enough people to test both sides of the game (mother country and colonies), so I controlled the actions of the colonies and they each represented a European empire.
Each person would decide how their empire would allocate resources. To simulate the negotiations step that would precede these decisions, I decided to create messages from the “colonies” to offer agreements that may or may not be honored.
I explained the concept to my playtesters. Let the game begin!
“Clarify & Simplify”
Any teacher who’s tried something radically new with students knows what it’s like when the new thing doesn’t go as planned. If your students aren’t jerks, you’re presented with confusion and crickets chirping (the jerky alternative is confusion and complaining).
As my playtesters awkwardly looked at their papers and each other, the sound of crickets grew deafening. In my notebook I scribbled the first lesson I’d get from this playtest in the form of a basic command to my future self: “CLARIFY AND SIMPLIFY.”
If Clarify and Simplify had 4 letters each I could get them tattooed on my fingers as a constant reminder. Instead, I’ll need to learn my lesson through repeated failures.
After I set forth clearer goals, the game began. Slowly at first, but as they became comfortable I glimpsed some of the elements I was hoping to see. My game has potential!
Ultimately, in any game players need to know a couple of things virtually immediately: their objectives and the tools they can work with. They’ll experiment with the tools on their own, but they need to know where to go and they need actionable feedback along the way. This playtest gave me valuable insights into where my game was lacking in these essential features.
I better understood how to balance resources and got plenty of fresh ideas for what to try moving forward. I discovered it’s best to be open about things at the conclusion of each round as opposed to secretive (“France’s colony bought 3 products from Spain” as opposed to “France’s colony acquired 3 products from outside their own empire”). This gives actionable feedback which allows them to fully understand the consequences of their decisions. Plus, it creates conflict when people discover who betrayed them.
This playtest was a helpful course correction. Had I continued to design the game as I first envisioned, the gaps discovered in this playtest would have multiplied significantly. Armed with my newfound discoveries, I revised the game and beefed it up to a more full-scale version over the next few days.
It was time for my first run-through with students! That’s the run-through where I discovered that my game conveys the exact opposite of one of its core learning objectives.