Mary Russell

Playtest, playtest, playtest. Even folks who only play games, and never make the transition to designing, know that playtesting is an integral - maybe even the integral - part of the process. A common refrain when a game disappoints us is, "Did they even bother to playtest this?"

There are various reasons why we playtest. First, to make sure the game works as intended; second, to make sure the game is fun; third, to catch and eliminate ambiguities; fourth, to make sure that there's some decent amount of replayability; fifth, to ensure the game's balance isn't broken. And there is a general expectation that designers and publishers will provide games that work, are fun, are unambiguous, are replayable, and are not broken. That is, I think, a completely reasonable expectation.

I don't think, however, that that expectation extends to catching every single possibility. For example, I had someone who owned one of the original Shields & Swords games tell me that the game was hopelessly broken. I was a little shocked to hear that, and asked the player for more information. They explained that since there was no limit on the number of game turns, and that since players during a movement phase may move "any, all, or none" of their units, that both players could simply refuse to move, and the game would go on forever. "These are the kinds of things you need to catch!" he said.

"Did you play it that way?"

"No, but someone could do that. So the game is broken."

(It was as a gentle tweaking of that gamer that I included the "Don't be boring and dumb" rule in High Speed Hover Tank.)

So, let me just say, if you're reading this and you're nodding your head in agreement with that guy, then, I'm sorry, but maybe we can't be friends anymore? Because a definition of "broken" that involves both players acting like smug brain-dead jerks is not a definition that I can ever get behind.

"War of the Ring", photo by Adrian Wiechec

And I find that as I get older, and I work on more games, and I try to make those games more interesting, I'm kinda having trouble getting behind definitions of broken that involve even just one player acting like a smug brain-dead jerk. For example, I remember reading years ago about SPI's War of the Ring and its Mount Doom "strategy" that consisted of Sauron stacking everything he had in that one hex and twiddling his thumbs for the rest of the game, making it impossible for the free peoples of Middle-Earth to destroy the one ring. And at that time, I thought, jeez, that's broken, how did no one ever think of that? Did they even test the game?

But now? If I was sitting down to play that game with someone, and they pulled that stunt? I would probably say, "Yeah, that's cute, can we really play the game now?" And if my opponent went all "I am playing the game, this is totally allowed in the rules, this is a perfectly valid strategy," at that point, I'd find someone else to play with. 

Would the game be better if someone had tried this during playtesting? Sure, probably. Do I feel that the developers were derelict in their duty because they didn't anticipate someone acting like an obnoxious prat? No, not really. Not anymore, anyway.

My general assumption is that when two folks get together to play a game, that they're both looking to have fun, and that their definition of fun isn't to be obnoxious. My job is to facilitate that fun, and in doing that, I'm going to assume a certain degree of good faith.



  • I play consims to get insight into the past and learn history. I understand Eurogamers building the perfect victory point engine, but in historical wargames I always try to stay within the context.

    Bending the rules to ‘win’ ahistorically is no fun.

    Lang Jones

  • I used to play with a guy whose proudest brag was that he was once a play tester for SPI…and it was true. Every game I ever played with him he tested edge conditions so that if he lost he could declare the game broken. Of course he usually won because he exploited any design flaw he discovered to the max. I did finally decide to stop playing with him despite his “pedigree.”


  • I agree with Tom. I have very little patience with Stupid Gamer Tricks. Clarity in rules is one thing, where it is meant to help the players along, but people who sit and try to think up things that the designer didn’t or couldn’t have anticipated outside of the imaginary frame of reference of the game are just being jerks. (the magic circle that Huizinga refers to in his book Homo Ludens, the place where the real world gives way to the rules of the game – of course, this is complicated by the nature of most wargames, which try to be modest simulations of that real world).
    Another quote from Huizinga: “In the absence of the play-spirit, civilization is impossible.”

    Brian Train

  • The designer can also take the direction the Founders did between federal and state powers. If a situation’s not in the rules, then it’s up to the players to decide how to deal with it


  • “Rules lawyers” are a pain; however, I always try to write my rules so as to thwart any possible complaints from them. The great thing about that is, if you succeed in putting out a set of rules the lawyers can’t break, that also means those playing for ‘fun’ will be fully satisfied in that regard. So they do us a service in motivating us to continually make our rules more precise and clear.

    Ty Bomba

Leave a Comment