Why Blind Playtests Are So Important
Updated: Nov 27, 2018
I have learned a ton from being on both sides of playtesting. But, of all the kinds of playtests that you must go through before publishing your game, the blind playtests are the most important.
It is very easy for you as game designer to tell people how they should approach your game and to start off explaining things to them to help them approach your game. However, it is essential to have playtests where you do nothing. For Furtherance, we even did playtests where we didn't explain what the game was before they came to the playtest. We told them they were playing a board game, then they showed up and had to figure it out (I was there, but I just observed).
Of course, in order to do this properly you need a rulebook. It doesn't need to be a complete rulebook. In fact, we learned more from blind playtests with our word document rulebook than we have from our more recent picture-filled rulebooks.
With just words players couldn't be pushed into a certain way of thinking. They were presented with something incomplete and had to fill in the blanks themselves. And, what we interestingly found was that many people followed the same trains of thought. So, we adjusted our cards and iconography to follow the trains of thought they had. This forced us to make the game feel more natural for players.
In order to do this successfully I recommend you watch everything they do (even down to what they choose to look at, talk about, and focus on during the game) and take really good notes. However, remember, you can't answer questions. Don't be rude about it, but explain that you can't tell them anything.
There were times in our first few tests where we completely forgot to put certain rules in the book and players really wanted to know the answer. However, by not being able to get answers they were forced to come up with their own rules for each undocumented situation and, on some occasions, we ended up making adjustments because their rules sometimes made the game more interesting or fun than it would have been with the original rule.
Now of course, even when you complete your rulebook you will need to do blind playtests. But, by that time, the way your board, cards, and rules are laid out should be pretty good based on what you learned from your early playtests. But, the blind playtest are still essential at this point because that's exactly what players will face when they play the game for the first time.
If you have a video explaining the rules, purposely avoid telling them about it. See if they can figure it out from the box or rules and, when they do, see if it is easy enough for them to look up, watch, and learn from.
Ultimately, blind playtests are the best because all of your preconceived notions and suggestions are forced to melt away as brand new players experience just your game (as they would in a store when it's released) for the first time.
As soon as you have your first prototype with a rulebook, try a blind playtest. It may make you uncomfortable at first, watching people play your game incorrectly, or come to odd conclusions based on your rules or card wording, but I assure you, the sooner you find all of this out, the better.