Tuesday 28 December 2010

The TLS test

Mark Hypolite writes:

Back from Essen and talking to the game designers there I got a golden piece of advice on game design – the TLS test. A good game should make you Think, Laugh and Swear. I liked this a lot so I started analysing this test in the context of games that I had designed and played. The more I think about it, the more I think that it is a good, rough guide to whether a game works on every level. The quantities of each element vary from game to game, but I believe that they all have to be there. 


All games require an element of Thought even that is only a simple decision on each turn. Chess is the archetypal thinking person’s game – there is no luck whatsoever, it boils down to outsmarting your opponent. Depending upon your ability it can involve many layers of thought:
  • Remembering openings;
  • Analysing threats and opportunities;
  • Identifying a strategy;
  • Responding tactically;
  • Applying psychological pressure to your opponent;
  • Sacrificing pieces.
If Chess moves were random, it would be no fun whatsoever. Depending upon the type of game that you playtesting you have to decide what the correct level of thinking and random elements should be. As a generalisation there tend to be less random elements of heavily strategic games and more random elements in children's games or family games. You might also want to consider what type of thinking you want players to engage in; should it be the type of multilayered thinking typical in Chess; answering questions; creative thinking, business decisions or guesswork? 


The basic reason that we play games is enjoyment; however players derive enjoyment from games differently depending upon the game.
Chess is not usually about laughing out loud (in fact that could be humiliating for the loser) however, it provides the wry smile that comes from a well executed plan, spotting something that your opponent hasn’t seen, or simply winning.
Absolute Balderdash encourages players to make up silly and amusing stories, so that the process of playing the game can be very funny. Players often do laugh out loud.
Dixit uses beautiful pictures and encourages lateral thinking to create a pleasurable experience for the player.
When playtesting ask yourself:
  • whether the players are enjoying the game;
  • why they are enjoying the game, and;
  • if the reaction was the one that you as designer intended.  
Identify the trigger points in the game for the positive reactions. For example in Chess, taking a piece or placing a King in check are two obvious pleasure points. 


Swear is the most controversial: it has to be distinguished from a game making you sulk, cry, write a negative review online or demand your money back from the game shop.
In games, as in sport or in a movie, the payoff (scoring a goal, getting the girl etc) has to be balanced by risk (conceding a goal, losing the girl). You either win or lose.
The Swear Test measures something different, do you care whether things go right or wrong? The Swear Test measures your emotional investment in the game. People who support a football team are more heavily emotionally invested in the result than neutral observers. A neutral observer becomes more emotionally invested if he bets on the result of the football match. If you do not swear (or at least feel like swearing) when things go against you, ask yourself, how emotionally invested in the result are you? Why are you emotionally invested? Or why aren’t you emotionally invested?
Some things that create emotional investment:
  • Creating plans or strategies;
  • Rivalry with opponents;
  • Game characters;
  • A compelling story to the game;
  • Historical or fantastical themes;
  • Great art work;
  • Making money ;
When playtesting ask yourself:
  • whether the players are invested in the game;
  • why they are invested in the game, and;
  • how you can create more investment as the designer. 

I think the designer with the 'golden' insight was Andy Hopwood of Hopwood Games. He certainly follows his own design philosophy with his excellent 2-player game, 'Mijnlieff'. 
- Rob Harris (www.playtest.co.uk)

Hi, for the record, this is indeed my approach to games design. Thanks for the article, I think you've hit the nail on the head with your thoughts.
For me the BEST games make you do all 3 AT THE SAME TIME! No mean feat.
Whenever I play any game I always watch for those moments when players are in "game heaven" and try to get a feel for what caused it.
The swearing bit can also be represented by phrases like "doh!" or a protracted "nooooooo", always best when followed by a small laugh of resignation. I even count a pulling of the hair or the "flop back into chair". It's a difficult one to explain but I think we all know what we mean.
-Andy Hopwood (Hopwood Games - www.hopwoodgames.co.uk)

Thursday 2 December 2010

Playtest @ Dragonmeet 2010 Report

The week before was a whirlwind of activity, but eventually we arrived at Kensington Town Hall at 9am on Saturday 27th November, ready to set up for Dragonmeet. The playtesting duties fell to Brian, Katarina and Rob as other members had work and family commitments. Angus and Neil, the convention organisers greeted us warmly and showed us to our spot, a set of tables in front of the stage in the Main Hall. We were in a great position for footfall and our neighbours were Leisure Games and Cubicle 7. First of all we put up the ‘Playtest’ banner and then rolled out the table covering, which although it was an end-of-roll cutoff turned out to be the perfect length. Phew!

 The set-up went well and we had time for a quick hello to some old friends and a toilet break before the crowds descended. We had brought some game prototypes for playtesting, but were also keen that designers would respond to our pre-publicity and bring their own designs. The ‘Playtest’ games were Ladders, a card-based race game; Stack, a children’s card game and Labyrinth, a board game complete with revolving maze.

By 11.00am we also had several guest designers; Ian Macdonald with a fascinating design based on the Gods of the Ancient World; Graham Marsden with a great knockabout bar-room brawl card game and David Brain (the designer of Essen hit, Keymarket) with a whole bag of new prototypes.

It was pleasing how receptive the attendees were to playing the prototypes and offering their opinions on how they felt they could be improved. Some games were subject to blind-playtesting with only the rules as guidance, while for other prototypes the designer would describe the gameplay and then sit down to play with the visitors. Playtest feedback forms were on hand for designers and playtesters and provided a valuable reference to review.

There was just time for a quick sandwich break before we were meeting more people across the playtesting table. Miles Ratcliffe brought two games he is planning to launch through his own company, Chaos Publishing in 2011. His prototypes got a lot of attention, because of their superb graphics and playtesters were keen to provide him with useful feedback.

At around this time, Rob was whisked away to record an interview with Mark Oxley for the Control Geek gaming podcast. The playtesting group was discussed and his gaming background. Mark promised that with editing he could make him sound like a well-adjusted individual.

Just as we were beginning to flag mentally we remembered the bowl of sweets for the attendees that we had forgotten to put on the table. The sugar rush came just at the right time and drew a fresh batch of passers-by. The ladders race game had received a mixed reception from playtesters, but with a few suggested changes the set-up was modified and the overall gameplay greatly improved.

We offered entry into a prize draw for each playtester and designer with vouchers for Leisure Games for the winners. Thanks Andy for your help!
By the end of the day we had far more entries than expected and the draw was delayed while we had to separate and fold-up all of the raffle tickets. The eventual winners were Debbie Thompson and David Brain. Congratulations to you both!

Highlights of the day were seeing the enthusiasm of a young attendee while he playtested a card game and sitting down to play a prototype with David Brain themed on an event in modern UK history. It played very simply, but with a surprising depth of gameplay.

The convention hall closed at 6pm and 8 hours had seemingly passed in no time at all. All that was left to do was to pack up and head to the pub. It was a great first convention outing for ‘Playtest’. We learned a lot and met too many great people to list here. We look forward to seeing you next time.