Honest Feedback

There is one thing that we as game designers need more than anything else. One thing that can help us truly nail the design of a game we are working on. And yet is also something that, at some primal level, we are terrified of. Rationally we know it is worthwhile, but emotionally the very idea often scares us. That thing is honest feedback.

No matter how well meaning our regular game testers are, there is a part of them that holds back. Usually they are friends, family, or fellow gamers. As such, there is an aspect of their testing and feedback that is always filtered through the lens of that relationship. They are testing our ideas from a sense of wanting to help out – even if it is never articulated as such. I am not meaning to put down any of the regular play testers we work with, especially not those who have been helping out with Tribal Conflict. Their input has been invaluable, especially in the earlier stages of the project where things were very rough and ready. But at some point the level of useful input starts to tail off. Familiarity with the game and the direction it is heading can cloud their judgement, no matter how much they strive to remain objective.

This is where the value of new play test groups and blind play testers begins to become important. A fresh perspective can reveal so much about our game and the actual state it is in. But even here a subconscious “niceness filter” is often in place. The majority of human beings would rather cushion negative input with niceties. A response of “It was fun, I can’t see anything broken” that is matched with poor engagement by a player rings a little hollow. Actually finding people who will give you honest feedback, especially feedback that is backed up with reasoning (rather than just “I didn’t like X”), is tough but invaluable.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to promote Tribal Conflict at a couple of events over the span of a long weekend. One of those was Board Games by the Bay, an event that allows gamers to come and play board games for the weekend – including the opportunity to test prototypes that local designers are working on. During that time I was able to sit down with a couple of board game designers and play through Tribal Conflict. One of those designers set out to deliberately try and break the game by subverting the core of what they were “supposed” to be doing, which revealed a number of issues with the core gameplay. After finishing the game we sat and discussed it for probably close to an hour. Initial discussions were around specific changes I had been testing, but we soon got to talking about the core of the game in an open and honest fashion. Essentially we tore the game to shreds and then talked through ways to put it back together in a more cohesive way. The perspective from other designers was refreshing and has certainly led to a refinement of the core of the game.

I have been reflecting on the feedback I received, as well as the process we engaged in, over the past week or so. The following thoughts come out of that reflection.

  1. Don’t Take Things Personally

    Keep in mind that the discussion is about the game, not you as a designer. I know it can be hard to differentiate between the two at times, especially if this is your first game. Our gut reaction is often along the lines of “So you think I’ve done a terrible job then?” If need be take a moment to step back, take a deep breath, and refocus. If your goal is to make a great game you need to be able to separate yourself from the design. Criticism of that is nothing against you or your abilities. Sometimes the game just needs more work done on it.

  2. Be Prepared To Make Changes

    The purpose of game testing is not merely to validate your work. If that is your intention then you are in for a world of disappointment. No game idea, no matter how great it may seem, survives contact with other people. Testing should be revealing issues and helping you to refine the original idea you had. Most often the problems lie in our implementation, not in the idea itself. Take on board the feedback you receive and look for ways to use that to improve your design.

  3. Engage With Your Testers

    Feedback, especially from other game designers, should result in a dialog between you. At the end of the day this is still your design. You are the one who carries the vision for the game, the feelings you want to evoke, the interactions you want the players to have. A play tester, no matter how well informed they are, does not carry any of that. All they can see is the game on the table in front of them. Their response is coming out of what they did and what they wanted to do. Their perception of the experience is influenced, at least in part, by what sort of experience they thought they were going to have. By engaging with them you are hopefully able to line up your vision to their experience and identify the key ways in which there is a mismatch. This will then give you some concrete things to work on for your next iteration.

  4. Keep An Open Mind

    This links in with all of the points mentioned above. In particular, it is entirely possible (if not probable) that there are approaches or solutions to issues facing your game that you have not yet considered. The perspective of another player may help you discover these. However, if you are closed to external input, unwilling to engage with others, or not prepared to make changes as a result of their feedback then you have ultimately wasted a valuable opportunity.

I had entered the weekend willing to engage with play testing and open a dialog around what changes might need to be made – especially when I was playing with fellow game designers. I still had to catch myself early on and not fight the honesty I was receiving. Once I embraced that and engaged in the process we were able to have a good honest discussion about the experience being promised and what was actually being offered. From there we were able to highlight some key changes that would help align those two things and provide a more cohesive experience as a whole.

Through this process Tribal Conflict has become a leaner, more focused game. Already I can see how the overall experience has been refined. The game feels different to how it did a couple of weeks. Some of my regular play testers are arguing that it is a direction they don’t necessarily want it to go. But I can see that the resulting game will be much better for it.

As a bonus a) the potential audience is now a little broader and b) I can get twice as much testing in due to the fact that the length of a game is being halved.

Refining a Game

I have been working on Tribal Conflict for almost 18 months now. The majority of the past year has been spent quite solidly making improvements. This is a long time, and it has gone by so fast.

One of the thoughts that creeps in from time to time is “Are we done yet?” This is particularly true when I make yet another change. I think I have hit close to 10 times now where I think “This is the last change I need to make”. Then, a couple of weeks later, maybe a month or two, another big change comes up.

That is not to say I am complaining about this. I am definitely prepared to put the time and effort in to improve gameplay. I have known for a while now that I am an in the polishing process, where I take a good game and seek to make it great. But that takes time, and at times it seems like this process will never end.

The danger is it can be easy to get stuck in this loop forever and never release anything. That is the last thing I want. As the game comes together I definitely want to get it finished and into the hands of other people. This is why I am in the early stages of planning a Kickstarter for next year. So at some point in the not too distant future I will need to call the game complete.


The problem when it comes to game design is to not let the “finished” nature of your game stop you from making necessary adjustments to potentially core elements. The further along a project is the more we have to battle mentally to make any significant changes. I’m talking about changes that are more than just cosmetic touch ups to the physical design. For example, in the past month these are some of the changes I have made.

  • Complete overhaul of the heroes that will lead your armies in combat. Each of these provides modifications to combat to help you swing the odds in your favour. I have introduced some new ones and completely rebalanced which heroes each tribe has, which invalidates all of the nice looking cards I had printed so far.
  • Completely changed a spoils of war deck to a hostage deck. This simplifies the concept of those cards and cleans up the rules around how to use them. As a result of this I have renamed the victory tokens you get to be spoils of war, which is a much better fit thematically. This does reduce the number of victory points present in the game, so the total needed to win is reduced. However, to encourage combat against non-castle tiles you now have a small random chance of winning a spoils of war if you kill an enemy hero – usually by destroying their army rather than hurting them enough that they choose to retreat. This then makes retreating a stronger tactical consideration.
  • Reworked the setup phase to incorporate the random construction of the board into gameplay. This came as a suggestion from people who had been playing, and makes the start of the game more interesting.

These are some fairly significant changes that help improve the game. At the same time, they do not actually change the core of how the game plays. As you can see, sometimes a relatively simple change can have a lot of flow on effects. But the options opened up here are much nicer – both from a gameplay perspective and from a thematic perspective. Overall the game is starting to feel much more cohesive, which is a great thing.

Encouraging Response

I was doing some two player testing with a friend last night. This friend was part of the first test we had of Tribal Conflict early last year. He has been involved in the testing process all the way through, generally playing every month or two. This means that he is one of the people who has seen the game progress the most. From the first test where we made got almost nowhere, to the first game where we actually hit a win condition in a reasonable time, through to now where the game is starting to feel polished. His comment, as we wrapped up discussion on how things had gone, was “Every time I play I enjoy it more”. This was encouraging, since it shows progress is being made.

I have noticed a similar thing myself. Despite having played lots in the past year, I still enjoy having a game (when I can take off the designer hat long enough to just play). The look and feel of the game is starting to come together, and I now find myself excited to see it in its final form – even though I know that is still months away.

As a designer it can be so easy to get caught up in the middle of the project. We are aware of all of the small tweaks being made, the minute improvements that are hopefully adding up to a much better experience. However, because we are so close to it all it can often be hard to see the big strides forward that we are making. An outside perspective can be useful to remind us that those small changes are making a difference.

I should wrap things up so I can go prepare for more game testing, this time with some new players as well as some people who have not played in months. Hopefully their enjoyment of the game matches that of my friend last night.

New Venture

For the past year or so I have been messing around with designing board games. My first game, Tribal Conflict, is getting serious enough that I have created a decent looking prototype through The Game Crafter. The goal is to eventually launch a Kickstarter to help cover the costs of an initial print run. After that, who knows? Hopefully by that point I have other games in the works, but that is all a big unknown at this stage.

Anyway, things look like they are getting more serious now. Game design is still a project on the side, but it is one that I enjoy. And I have to admit that producing a finished product is a nice feeling – even though I have not fully reached that point yet.

The Journey So Far

My name is Elgar Storm. I am a software engineer by day and a game designer on the side. I studied Computer Science at the University of Otago. Since then I have worked in a number of jobs as a programmer, honing the rudimentary skills I picked up at university. I enjoy the process and challenge of helping to create meaningful applications. But, like many people, I do not wish to restrict my skills to the workplace, and so I have dabbled in a variety of side projects.

While I was at university I took a paper on game design. Since that time I have played around with digital game design to various degrees, including writing up a tutorial for Unity (see http://www.stormtek.geek.nz/rts_tutorial). Board games are interesting, but I never seriously considered designing one. I program computers, after all, so why would I bother with something physical?

Personally I enjoy playing games. I especially enjoy those that involve a reasonable amount of strategy / thought. When I was younger I thrashed Risk, spending countless hours playing it – often solo, but with others as well. Through the process of growing older I have had exposure to a much wider variety of games. What annoys me now about the core mechanics of Risk is the heavily luck driven element. It is possible to play well at a strategic level but still end up destroyed, which tends to leave a sour taste in the back of my mouth.

About eighteen months ago I had the thought “How can I reuse the core of my Risk set, since I have no real intention of playing it much any more?” I messed around with tweaking the mechanics, but nothing seemed to work. In fact, it revealed how closely bound the concepts of combat and reinforcements are within Risk. As much as I might dislike it, the design underneath is rather solid. So I pushed the thought to the back of my mind and carried on with life.

My board game design journey started properly at the start of last year when a relatively well formed idea for a board game popped into my head. More accurately, my brain informed me that it had finally come up with a viable solution to the idle question I had posed months earlier. The answer to that question was the core of what is now Tribal Conflict.

Since that idea first emerged I have been immersing myself in the physical aspects of game design. Cards, components from other games, hex tiles, dice – my workspace is littered with them. I have learnt the value of iteration and play testing, of rough drafts and prototypes. Over the coming months I will expand on some of these areas.

Where To From Here?

This blog, along with the associated website and social media accounts, represents the first major step towards making something official happen with this hobby of mine. The goal here is to start to writing up a collection of thoughts I have had (and continue to have) around the whole game design space – particularly in relation to board games. I will do my best to keep these thoughts short and sharp, but I can’t make any promises. Hopefully some of it is at least interesting or inspiring.

I look forward to seeing where this journey takes me.