I got a question from a friend today:
How long were you working on your rulesets before getting playtesters involved?
For me, with Gaslands, it was about three weeks between the initial inception of the rules and the first shaky playtest with co-conspirator John. However, I played it by myself on the dining room table as soon as I finished it.
About two weeks later I took it to a Malifaux event and dove into the deep end, teaching it to a group of six drunken friends who all know their onions, gaming-wise. They had a great time and fell about laughing (mostly because of the booze). It was rubbish, but it had potential and people were happy to see that potential. (Six buggies are broken.)
A new game should hit the table as soon as possible. Like, the-same-day-you-wrote it soon. If you have the right mindset, failure is the strongest possible motivator for improvement. You need to find out what doesn’t work or isn’t fun as fast as you can. You must not keep your precious game a secret.
I’ll tell you a secret about your precious game… It’s terrible.
You need to show your game to other players as soon as possible. Multiple times I have designed a rules system in my head, in the bath, or whilst on my bike to work, and written some theoretical rules. The rules make logical sense, the system hangs together nicely. Then I put it in front of another human and its AWFUL. It just doesn’t work. It’s too slow, or fiddly, or unintuitive. Games cannot be validated in the mind of the creator, they must be validated on the table.
If you have been working on a game, and you have yet to play it with anyone else, I’m about 98% sure it’s terrible. That’s not to say it can’t or won’t be great, that just takes work, but right now it stinks.
It is simplicity itself to trick yourself into ignoring obvious flaws during the “hermitic” part of the development process. You know all the reasons for the design decisions. You know why certain compromises had to be made, or what other ideas you have discarded. You need the hermetic design stage, you can’t write the game at the table, but as soon as you shine the light of play on it with other (unavoidably much less sympathetic) players, you will find the cracks.
As with user testing in software, putting a new product in front of other players is just the fastest way to find out that your shit stinks… or better still, which PARTS of your shit stinks, so you can start learning and iterating.
You need to be prepared to write the same game over and over again. Just as with any creative writing process, writing is rewriting. You cannot be precious about your first draft, or your third, or your tenth. If it’s not good enough, re-write it. Keep previous versions of your document safe so you can return to them if if turns out, after the eighth revision, that the third revision of the combat system was actually the best after all.
If you keep your game permanently in the secret development phase, you will never risk it being revealed as the heap of crap that it is. As soon as you pop it on it’s bike and give it is first push into the sunlight, it’s going to topple over and hurt itself. So what. Fix it. Now you’re designing a game.
So, ideally, the answer to “how long were you working on your rulesets before getting playtesters involved” should be “hours”. Don’t keep secrets. Finish that scrappy first draft and get it on the table. If it stinks, rewrite it. The first draft of anything is shit.
If you want a chance to explain how much my current draft of Gaslands sucks, sign up to be a playtester.