One thing I have noticed since I started playing board games, is that it becomes painfully obvious how few rule books are play tested. So many designers will show off their games at conventions on anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to try it out. They’ll go to their friendly local game store and introduce the regulars to their game, and show them how it works. Play testing is often done with close contact to the designer, as questions are clarified and the game is polished even while playing the game.
By the time the game is officially published and finally out, everyone involved in the play testing and design process has already played the game by being taught to play it by the designer, or at least by players who learned to play from the designer. When the final rule book is made, no one seems to bother actually learning the game from nothing but the rule book. This is a huge mistake that so many designers are making, because the huge majority of your audience isn’t going to have you around to help them once your game is published. You’re not going to be there when the first Kickstarter backers receive their brand new limited edition copies of the game. Don’t let a player’s first experience with your game be soiled for no reason other than a poorly made and tested rule book.
I’m not even just talking about “learning” a game from the rule book, because equally important is using the rule book as a reference when a question comes up. Players need to both be able to learn the game from the rule book, as well as find answers to complicated questions that may come up during play, without having to spend too much time away from the game looking for those answers. When the designer is sitting next to a new play testing group, neither learning or reference is important, because within seconds the designer can make sure everything is running smoothly, and if a game breaking issue is found they can quickly correct the trouble.
One great example of what I’m referring to is a game I got from Miniature Market’s black Friday sale: Guilds of Cadwallon. As it turns out, Guilds was a Kickstarter game. Having not heard anything about it besides seeing it for cheap on Miniature Market’s website, I dug into the rule book. There are some rather egregious typos that make the “simple” process of counting components and setting up the game confusing. The numbers in the book don’t add up, and don’t match what your “District Deck” will actually have after setting up! Beyond obvious typos, there are rules that make no sense at all until you’ve finished reading the entire rule book, and even then there are ambiguities that I couldn’t make sense of. It tells you to optionally play action cards, but not how you get them. After a round and you finish finding out who won each district, the game doesn’t even tell you what you’re supposed to do from that point! It says determine who won the cards, and pass the first player token. It doesn’t say what you do with cards you won, if they go into a hand, face down, face up, who knows?
Of course, if you watch the 10 minute long “how to play” video on their Kickstarter page, you learn how to play really quickly. It’s a surprisingly easy game, but the rule book is utterly worthless. It’s obvious they’ve never sat someone down with their game, and played it purely by reading and learning from the rule book and no outside help.
All a designer has to do is take the “final draft” of the rule book, find a group of players who have never played before and know absolutely nothing about the game, and watch what happens. This is what I call the “Blind Play Test” and it is a type of play testing that needs to be done for every single game in addition to the play testing that designers are already doing. The main rule in blind play testing is that the designer can’t talk or aid the players in any way. The second the designer interferes with the game being played, they’ve already ruined the experiment. Instead, the designer should take notes on everything the players find themselves confused about, and especially note everything that the players do “wrong” in the game.
After the game is over, the designer should sit down with those players, and find out what they thought was confusing, and what could have made the learning process better. Any time that the game was played wrong, the designer should also question why they played that way. It is important to note that the designer needs to carefully word this question so that it isn’t accusing the players of playing wrong, but more that the designer is trying to find out what made the players make that decision. Specifically, what about the rules made it seem like that was the correct way to play, because clearly the rules didn’t cover that case clearly enough.
Using what was learned in the “blind play test”, the rule book should be revised and this process needs to be repeated until a play group (or several play groups!) makes it through a game with no major issues.
Lastly, I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Guilds of Cadwallon specifically because this is a huge problem for a huge majority of board games. Guilds just happened to be the game I most recently ran into this problem with. The game itself seems to be quite good and I look forward to playing it for the first time. The fact of the matter is that tons of games have rule book issues, and all of them could have been solved by play testing the rule book itself.
So, as someone who learns games almost entirely from reading the rule book and rarely gets a chance to be taught a game directly from the designers, please have your rule books play tested. Resist the urge to teach new players, and help them in their first games.