Game Design Chores: Playtesting
Hey blogosphere, I'm back. After a long haul of playtesting and an excellent birthday week I have returned to regale you with tales of my trials and adventures. Today I want to talk about playtesting - the often arduous task that allows rules such as those designed on this site to transcend from wish-listing to pragmatic material.
Lately much of my hobby time (see: all of my hobby time) has been spent fine tuning the upcoming Codex: Stellan Hoplites. As a deranged, ego-maniacal game designer I have scarce allowed anyone to view my work thus far fearing how my fragile sanity might respond to any callous criticism. One thing I have not shirked from, however, is playtesting. This is not by choice, of course but rather because I know I cannot ever consider the project completed until this near-to-final step has been taken. Thus I've laid bare the rules I've toiled so long over to the heavy criticism of no less than three different gaming groups here in Athens.
Receptions have been mixed to say the least. Some despise my work as an unbalanced piece of garbage that strays heedlessly from GW's maternal bosom. Many have claimed that if it were by GW it would be the best page-for-page document they had ever produced. It's been tough sifting through bias and weighing opinions according to the experience level of those that offer them. It's been a headache through and through to be honest but it has also taught me much and so I'd like to share some of those lessons with others that might begin the long journey to completing a fandex.
Lesson 1: "You can bring a [insert favorite animal here] to water but you cannot make it drink."
Some people, though they may claim an open mind, will never, ever accept anything that does not carry the GW logo clearly visible across the cover. Now I'm not referring to the people that have no love for fandex's in the first place - we all know custom rules are not for everyone. Rather I'm describing those players that claim to enjoy fan-made work but are, in fact, opposed to any idea that is not GW sanctioned.
For instance, there are many players who are constantly in your ear about how much better my fan-made unit is compared to one of GW's whenever they remotely similar stats or wargear. There is no consideration for that fact that units cannot be compared in a vacuum and even less consideration that you cannot compare any units that have not come out since 5th edition and even those are often well below par.
Some people do not want or enjoy fandex's and will argue to the death heedless of reason or logic.
Lesson 2: "Maximum Iteration."
You played a game against Space Wolves with your custom 'dex, and then another and then another. You've played a dozen games and every time the units you field appear to sneakily shift one way or the other across the points-efficiency spectrum. In the course of two games key units become useless and fringe units become linchpin line-holders. Are these units too cheap or too expensive?
Many who begin the journey of playtesting are not informed of how long it is. You need what video game engine designers call "iterative power." You rolled a little off-average on that assault - stand the casualties back up and start it over. Roll the dice again and again just to see what would have happened. Maybe the below-average shooting in the previous phase was to blame for that unexpected outcome... start the turn over. Then roll it back to the deployment phase.
Playtesting needs patience. Every game becomes 20 or so games wrapped into one and both players must understand that although some fun might be had, playtesting is work.
Lesson 3: "Balance is an Illusion"
I am a good player - one of the best in my area. When I play pick up games sometimes I take a look at the opponents list and simply field whatever I think is comparable. In my latest game I played against a hybrid Blood Angels army with that "little bit of everything" symptom that newbie players tend to suffer from. I play Airborne Imperial guard and as my opponent explained his list to me I unpacked a few models and began to deploy.
After a thrillingly close game which I won by hair a "hard number" count revealed my army to be just 1355 points compared to his 1750. But the game was fair. Not just in terms of my experience compared to my opponents but in terms of what tools each of us had at his disposal to win the game.
What this means is that the game's balance is left largely in the hands of the players - not the rules. There is no way to guarantee an even match with the point system that is currently in place because there are too many variables by far. Essentially, what I'm getting at is that points don't matter. That's right. For whatever reason, the system as it stands has ceased to function as well as it should and points are not the foundation of army balance because there is so much that can't be quantified. The haphazzard system of points allocation in codeces is largely held together by the fact that many rules documents feature overlapping rules.
It's not the value of the point systems we're discussing however, but how it affects playtesting. For me personally it has led to heavy consideration of such things as "physical restrictions" and "codex homogenatization" - in other words the pursuit of roundabout methods for unit efficiency balance and cross-comparison.
I'm not always good with words so here's an example of the issue I'm getting at: Rhinos are dirt cheap. Why? Surely they are worth more than the paltry 35 points! And yet they aren't. In fact it would hardly make a difference at all (or not as much as you would think) if Rhinos came free with every ten man Tac squad. Here the "physical restrictions" are that a) Rhinos take up physical space and often become a burden to the owning player just as much as the opposing when used en masse and b) the Tac squad requirement further exacerbates this issue since more is not always better when it comes to limited capability units.
"Codex homogenatization" is an issue I've discussed before and may be the only route to accurate point-costing and playtesting. By focusing forces to narrower cross-sections of their broader factions (i.e. Deathwing instead of Dark Angels) balancing forces against one another actually becomes feasible.
These are just a few thoughts on the playtesting arena as I've experienced it. Once I've poured over my notes I'll be able to give better advice and in more detail.
Wish me luck!