Observations of a Game Tester

I have played many different games all of my life. I have tested numerous games for Contagious Dreams. I have enjoyed helping several game developers make new games. I surround myself with potential players and creative thinkers. This essay discusses how good games get developed and why most games fail to become good games.

Original Ideas

A game designer must come up with a new idea for game mechanics. Often game design begins with an unrealized ideal, and the entire designing process is about realizing this ideal in a playable game. The game designer has a vision of a perfect game, and works to make a rule set that gets closer and closer to that vision. Other successful games begin with a clever new method of player interaction, which leads to filling in other parts of the game with mechanics that accentuate that new method. The game designer might borrow ideas from other games to help facilitate the rule set, but the primary goal in this case is to explore and utilize this new game mechanic. There must be the spark of creativity before the process may begin.

The original idea cannot simply be the game setting. Many games have a plot, with roles for players to take and goals that make sense in the plot. Some game plots are really neat, and make me anxious to open the box and read the rules. However, this is all just “color”, and if the game mechanics are not interesting, the game is a failure. I once played a game where players were famous criminals vying for control of a city. However, it was a card game with lots of luck and very little strategy. Once I read the names of all of the criminals, the game lost all appeal. Chess and bridge have practically no color at all, and yet many people devote their lives to improving their skills at these games.

Most new games simply copy other successful games. I like Monopoly and I freely admit that it has many flaws as a game, but I have yet to play a Monopoly rip-off that was worth my time. Some card games that copied Magic the Gathering may be better in some ways, but they simply took a working game and made variations on it. Perhaps it is good marketing to take a winner and simply revise it to steal part of the market share. That is not game design, that is product design, which follows a different path. That path is not of interest to me. When I try out a new game, I want it to actually be a new game.


I want to get good at a game, learn how to take advantage of opponent errors and how to best maneuver my own resources. I need to grow as a player. There must exist difficult choices and some frustration, be they barriers to overcome or future events to predict. There must be sufficient variety from one game to the next such that each new game played will likely show players something they have not encountered before, and thus something new to think about and new decisions to make. Experienced players should usually be able to beat inexperienced players. Great games will excite players to become better but will not allow them to become perfect. Otherwise, I will play the game once or twice and put it aside, having gotten all I can from the game.


Game designers often have qualities of play that they want their game to have, be it certain player interactions or sophisticated strategies. The best games allow these qualities to emerge from their rule sets. Diplomacy is a game where the designer wanted players to constantly negotiate with opponents, and yet nowhere in the rules does it say “negotiating with the opponents will be rewarded with X points.” Negotiation emerges from the rule set, rather than being coerced out of them, as players find great disadvantage if they fail to talk to their opponents. Blackjack designers want players to be unable to split aces, and state in the rules that “a player may not split aces”. Blackjack is unable, as written, to make it a bad strategy to split aces, so casinos coerce the rules by explicitly excluding an option from players, or by allowing players to only draw one card to each ace. Blackjack is full of special expectations and limitations, and is therefore inelegant. If people didn’t play Blackjack for money, people wouldn’t play it at all, because it is a poorly designed game.

Another aspect of game elegance is rule symmetry. Rules should be cohesive. When reading the rules to a game, I always appreciate when the rules follow a logical pattern. Even better is when I can predict what the second half of the rules will say based upon the first half of the rules. In Backgammon, the dice say how far you move. When you move pieces from the bar back onto the board, it is as if you are moving them from the edge of the board. When you move pieces from your home off the board, it is as if you are landing directly on the edge of the board. Backgammon could have been written that you must get doubles to get from the bar back on the board, or that once you have all your pieces in the home space that you roll one die and that shows how many pieces you take out of the game. However, neither of these rules is consistent with how the dice are used in the rest of the game, and they would be hard to justify.


After developing a rule set, if any rules can be cut from the game and still leave a good game, they should be cut. Extra rules mean that players have more to learn before starting play and more to remember during play. One of the great features of Go is that the rules are very simple. In fact, if I were to redesign the game, I’d want to cut out the ko rule, if possible, just to make the rule set even cleaner.

Rules state what a player may or may not do in the game. It is important that it be difficult to break the rules. Rules that players can unintentionally break just lead to confusion and arguments. If players are likely to break a rule, perhaps the rule should be struck, or changed to make it obvious when the rule has been broken.

Petty Diplomacy

Any three or more player game where players have control over each other may suffer from “petty diplomacy,” where the actual mechanism of the game becomes unimportant and instead the winner is the player who convinces everyone not to attack him. For example, “Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back” is a three player game where each player takes turns adding three points to his score or removing two points from someone else’s score; the first player to seven wins. Let’s say that Abe, Bess, and Chet play this simple game:

Round Abe Bess Chet Comments
0 0 0 0 Everyone starts at zero
1 3 3 3 Each takes three
2 6 3 3 Abe takes three
2 2 3 3 Both Bess and Chet reduce Abe’s score to stop him from winning – ganging up
3 5 3 3 Abe takes three
Bess could take three, and then Chet could not stop either Abe or Bess winning, but he could pick which one wins. Chet tells Bess that he will throw the game to Abe if she takes three – king maker
3 3 3 3 Bess therefore reduces Abe’s score by two

The game is now the same as it was after the first round, and should never end. Had Bess somehow managed to convince Chet to reduce Abe’s score instead of her own, then she would have won. Notice that the results are the same even if Abe passes on his first turn: he’ll have time to catch up because Beth and Chet will stop each other from winning. Games that have petty diplomacy are all isomorphic to “Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back,” and are not interesting.

Many things can prevent petty diplomacy in games where players interact: hidden information, randomness, or great complexity can help. Or the player interaction can eliminated and the game can be a simple race.

Play Testing

The WTS play testers are some of the best imaginable. They will try out any game at all, will deliver useful feedback and suggestions, and work together very well. They find rule loopholes, patiently allow rule fixes during a game, and recognize interesting and effective game mechanics that make a game worthwhile. I suspect that most game designers are not so lucky to have such a group of play testers available. It may be possible to create a great game without honest hard criticism from many smart players, but I have yet to see it happen. A game designer must treasure his or her beta testers.

So many games I have played have clearly not been tested sufficiently. When I first play a game, I try to find the killing strategy that makes the game trivial. You do not play tic-tac-toe anymore because you know that X must move first to the center and that O must then take a corner. I have played many games where I can find the best strategy which will undeniably give me the win, and thus I and everyone else quickly loses interest in the game. We call such a rule set “broken” and often work to fix this failure if possible. We went through at least eight major rule changes to Ice Traders before settling on the final version, because in each previous change I found a strategy that broke the game.

Sometimes the best strategy is not necessarily one that breaks the game, but takes a long time to do. Players have an incentive to examine the game board and predict the outcome of each move, but if such prediction can be accurate enough that a good player will take a long time to do it, then the game will slow to a crawl. We call this the “analysis-paralysis” problem. If it takes me ten minutes to figure out my best move, but I know that I will be able to figure it out, then I’m going to take that time. Hidden information and random future events can remove this problem, as can a game too complicated (like chess) or too simple (like tic-tac-toe).

The only way to determine if a game will work is to have lots of different people play test it. If they keep coming back to play it more, you have a winner.

Throwing Out Ideas

You must be willing to trash rules, or even entire games, that don’t work. People often want to show James Ernest games they have designed, and he tells them, “if this is your first game, throw it out.” Your first efforts in any design are just practice, be it painting, poetry, gardening, or game design. The creative process is thinking of new ideas, considering them, trying them, seeing what other ideas they inspire, and tossing the vast majority of them away. What makes a great creator of any sort is the ability to think of new things, recognize what is good, any lay aside the rest.


Good writing is hard to find. Game rules seem to have the same problem, which is unforgivable. A game lives and dies by how easy it is to learn the rules, and careful writing and rewriting of the rules is critical. Good rules are terse and clear. Usually several people must edit and revise any piece of writing to make it the best it can be, and this is particularly true when the writing in question is attempting to teach players a brand new game. Well written rules will make bridge seem like an easy game, and poorly written rules will make go fish unbearably complicated. I hate struggling through unnecessarily long rules which still fail to answer basic questions about game play. I have written and edited the rules to many games, and doing a careful job makes all the difference.

Game pieces themselves need to be carefully considered. I appreciate cards, pieces, and boards that look professional and feel sturdy. More importantly, they must facilitate the game such that they compliment the rules nicely. For its flaws, Monopoly does have the advantage that nearly all the information you need is on the board and the cards, without which it would never have succeeded. Simple games can afford to be elegant without writing rules on the board or pieces, but more complicated games must often give players enough help so that they can worry about winning the game rather than stoping to read the rules. The less time players spend reading and understanding the rules, the more time they can spend playing the game.

Many games seem to skip straight from the initial creative spark to the format of the game pieces. Such designers attempt to make up for a bad game with good production values, which is really a shame. Proper game design does not focus on the actual physical manifestation of the final product until the game rules and mechanics are finalized. Axis and Allies has lots of neat pieces and a very attractive board, but the game itself has simplistic strategies and lots and lots of dice rolling. You will not catch me wasting time playing it.

A successful game in the end will be one where the rules make sense, the game looks interesting, and players feel compelled to start play and want to play again after finishing each game. I believe that such a rare and wonderful game can only come about from a long and thoughtful creative process.