I do lots of idea work on (digital) paper. Typing gets ideas out of my head and organized in a way I can reference and work with. I usually end up with a list of concepts and theme-mechanic representations that can eventually be turned into rules and components. One of my biggest struggles has been knowing when to pivot from this on-paper designing to play test designing. At what point do the ideas have enough structure to them that testing will yield valuable information?

A collection of ideas has to have some mechanical structure to it before it can be put on the table. Sure you can put one mechanic on the table and play with it some but you cannot play test a game until the main building blocks are there. A game takes place at the intersection of those building blocks so some early form of them needs to be in place to actually play test a game.

The common advice I hear is to “just put it on the table”. But when? This is helpful advice but much too broad for me. I need something more specific – triggers that tell me it is time to put a game on the table. This will obviously be different for each person but I hope sharing my triggers will help you think about and identify yours. Keep in mind that this is from the perspective that a game has not been prototyped or play tested at all. It solely exists on paper and in my head.

I need to put a game on the table if I start iterating based on qualitative (“better” or “more fun”) kinds of decisions.

If I find myself saying, “this game would be better if…” or “Ooooohhhh! I should change that mechanic because it would be more fun this way” I need to stop. If I am thinking along these lines, I can be pretty confident that the core of my game to be tested is there. My brain is drifting into fun “what ifs”. These decisions cannot be proven out on paper. They must be put to the test.

I naturally go down this path when I have thought through most of the game. I am just riffing on the concepts and mechanics of the game instead of filling out new game space. If I see or sense that I am doing this, I need to stop and get a rough prototype on the table. There is no way I can know which iteration is truly “better” or “more fun” until it is tested.

I need to put a game on the table if I get too deep into the details.

If I am creating card layouts, trying to do graphics, or spending lots of time with rules wording then I am too deep in the details if the game has not been on the table yet. All of this will be done later when the game has been tested multiple times and things are starting to cement a bit. Don’t go down this rabbit hole. It is a distraction, maybe a fun distraction for me but I will find myself a bunch of pretty stuff that will all have to be changed later after testing reveals all of the flaws.

I need to put a game on the table if I have multiple “great” ideas competing for game space

This goes back to the iterating. I might come up with several systems or mechanisms that fill the same game space or accomplish the same goal. There is no way I can decide on paper or in head how these will play out so it is time for the game to hit the table. I need to try them out and see which works better in practice.

And there you have it. If I find myself in any of these situations it is time for me to stop, get a prototype together, and play it. Otherwise, I am headed down a black hole of iteration that will end with me getting frustrated that I can’t see clearly through the fog of conflicting ideas I have created. The game must hit the table in some form.

What are your triggers that signal the need to pivot to play testing?

Originally posted on BoardGameTheory.com