I spend a LOT of time testing out my games before they get published. This is part of the legacy I inherited from the late lamented Ensemble Studios. I remember once attending a seminar at the Game Developer’s Conference with Greg Street (a fellow designer). The speakers were the designers of a popular and well-respected real time strategy game (like the ones Ensemble Studio produced). The following exchange happened.

Audience Member: Give us some tips on developing a real time strategy game.

Seminar Speaker: well it’s really important that you spend LOTS of time on playtesting.

(Greg and I look at each other and smile, sagely agreeing with the speaker.)

Seminar Speaker continues: we cannot over-emphasive the importance of playtesting.

(Greg and I nod vigorously in approval.)

Seminar Speaker finishes: In fact you may want to spend as much as THREE WHOLE MONTHS in playtest.

Greg and I stare at each other in disbelief and start to laugh. 

At that time, our current game, Age of Empires III, had been in daily playtests for more than 18 months! So clearly our world view was far more playtest-focused than these guys.

And I’ve maintained that view since then. I playtested The Gods War for 18 months after the initial design (from January 2014 to June 2016). I playtested Cthulhu Wars for 14 months, Orcs Must Die for about 12 months, and over a year for Planet Apocalypse and Hyperspace, my most recently designed games. There are three different things I look for during my playtests.

Speed of Play

I always want to speed up gameplay. Partly this is selfish (I can get more games in), but also I just simply like games better that move faster. I remember when Cthulhu Wars came out, people openly mocked my estimated play time of 90 minutes, only to find that this was actually the case. Lots of games under-estimate their play time, sometimes grossly (I’m looking at YOU Axis & Allies 1914). I don’t.

I am looking at two factors for speed of play. One is that I don’t want people to have to wait to do something. I want a quick turn-around per player. Second, I want the game overall to be short enough that you can get to it, teach the rules, and finish a game in a single evening.

Gods War lasts about a half-hour longer than Cthulhu Wars, mainly because of the Council phase, which takes a few minutes of discussion and often negotiation every turn (in contrast to Cthulhu Wars’ Doom phase, which is lightning-fast). I don’t mind this extra duration, because it doesn’t increase the time between making decisions. Instead, everyone is doing stuff in the Council phase, and stays involved.

Game Fun

Why play a game that’s not fun? I am always looking for things to modify or change that make the game more fun. What is “fun” to Sandy? Lots of things. One obvious thing is “making decisions that matter”. The Gods War has a plethora of these. A typical game ends with the top two scoring players often only 1-2 VP apart, which means literally every decision these players made may have affected the victory. Another fun thing is exploiting abilities or game features. The Chaos player gets to lord it over everyone else during the Chaos Rift segment, and this is always super-fun for him.

The Earth Gift Extinction is fun for Earth. This ability lets you earn a Rune when a kill is scored in a battle containing her Behemoth. And if the Behemoth itself gets killed, you earn an extra Rune. This is fun not only because you often get to make a decision (should I kill off my Behemoth for an extra Rune?), but because you can make other players squirm. I remember in one closely-fought game when I moved my lone Behemoth into an area with an enemy Ziggurat. When I declared combat the other players shrieked in protest because they suddenly realized that my Behemoth was certain to die vs. the Ziggurat, and therefore I would earn 2 Runes, possibly giving me enough Victory points to end the game during the Action phase and win, before the next Council phase. Man that was a glorious day. Even though I didn’t get the 3 VP I needed, and lost the game by 2 points during the ensuing Victory phase, it was great.

Game Balance

In a highly asymmetrical game like The Gods War, keeping the various empires equal in power, while still differentiated, is key to making the game fulfill its promise. Therefore, when we play a sequence of games, and a particular empire seems to be struggling, or to be winning too often, we take steps to address the issue.

The Last Balance Change

The very last change I made to The Gods War, before considering it complete, was a change to the Moon empire. For a long time, the Red Goddesses unique ability was to advance the lunar cycle 1 step when she was in a battle. But this seemed like not enough. We also noticed that she often didn’t have enough units out and about, so we changed her ability so that she got to spawn a Selene when she entered battle. This was cool for a while, but then we wanted … more.

So we altered her ability (called Menses) to give her an interesting choice. When the Red Goddess enters battle, she can choose either to add an Assassin to her area pre-battle (so it participates in the conflict) or to add a Selene post-battle. The Selene is a more expensive unit (with a gift that makes it even better), but the Assassin can boost combat and possibly soak up a hit. It’s a real decision. It also bumps up Moon’s threat enough to make her a competitor, and Moon players have said it makes the Goddess seem way better psychologically.

Anyway, that’s how it works at Petersen Games. Now you know.

– Sandy