Playtesting is an important part of our development process. However well a murder mystery game’s been written and edited, it can’t be considered finished until it’s been thoroughly tested.
We call it ‘playtesting’ because it takes the form of playing through the game in the normal sort of way that you would if you’d bought it yourself. We aim to make it as close as possible to what your experience is going to be like! The only difference is that afterwards, we ask the guests a bunch of questions about how it went for them.
Our usual preferred pattern is to run at least three playtests, once the game is complete in draft.
- First, the author of the game playtests it themselves, on their own family and friends. This will reveal any elements that basically don’t work, or serious timing issues, or where something important isn’t being communicated properly to the player.
- Second, once all those things have been fixed, we run a playtest ourselves; using experienced players who can be relied upon to identify inconsistencies, imbalance, characters without enough to do, characters for whom the game starts or finishes too quickly or slowly, and if there are any subtle problems with any new rules or bits of system that we’ve introduced for this game.
- Finally, once all that’s been sorted out, we send the game out to a new host who’s never seen it before, and they run a party for their guests exactly as if they’d just bought the game. This is particularly helpful for exposing any parts of the host’s instructions that aren’t explained clearly, and also for how well the game works when there are less than the optimum number of characters. It’s also good for cultural differences: as most of our customers are in the USA, we like to have a US-based host run an eye over the game – particularly if it’s been written by a UK-based author, as most of ours are.
Any or all of these stages will get repeated more than once if there are serious problems that need re-testing after fixing.
So anyway, for Death on the Rocks it was actually a combination of stages one and two. Jessica the author wasn’t able to test the game herself, as she lacked the facilities. So we decided that as it was a pretty straightforward game with no new rules or complications, we would run a test together with her, using our experienced playtesters.
A cellarful of murder
We held the event in the basement room of a pub in central London that we’ve used a few times before for playtests. They know us now, so they’re happy to let the murderous mayhem proceed unabated! We usually use either London or here in Ipswich where we’re based, simply because it’s easier to rustle up 20 or so players for a given date in those places. We would like to run playtests elsewhere too, to spread the love, but it’s been difficult getting enough people together.
We ran the test over a Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 6. Most of our customers’ parties are in the evening, but that’s not quite so convenient when we have to think about last trains back home and so on. Customers’ parties often involve a good deal of drinking, too! – but we prefer to keep that restrained at playtests. The feedback at the end of the game might not be quite so useful otherwise!
How did it go?
Really well! Death on the Rocks is a game that we’ve been working on for quite a while – Jessica actually first came to us with the idea as far back as 2006! – so we were pretty confident that it would work properly. It’s always nice to have that confirmed, though!
Our playtesters gave us some excellent feedback on details that need attention, but generally they were very happy with the characters, with pacing, with how much they had to do, and so on. One general concern was that the murder was too difficult to solve – several of them did identify the murderer correctly, but by suspicion rather than by following the intended clue trail. So we’re going to make the clues a bit more prominent, and spread knowledge of them around a few more people.
So those changes are in process now, and in a few weeks we’ll be sending the revised and improved version of the game to our next tester. This is Matthias, who’ll be running his playtest around the end of August–beginning of September. We’re looking forward to hearing what he and his guests make of Death on the Rocks!