Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
— Sun Tzu
How does change happen? That’s the question that’s been occupying me, in amongst the many recent playtests of my and other designers’ games. The initial creative spark is remarkable enough, but no game arrives fully formed, and so all games once created go through a process of change. Playtesting is the method we rely on to both initiate and validate those changes, and it is the very blackest of arts.
For one thing, it can be incredibly painful. Reaction to a new game can range from elation to derision or — which is demonstrably worse — indifference. As a designer you have to learn to suffer these slings and arrows and emerge unscathed, even if your game does not. But what happens then? If playtesting reveals that all you ever had was a bad idea, that’s one thing: throw it out and start over. But if playtesting reveals that you gave a good idea a bad execution — signalled by the playtester’s familiar refrain: “I like it, but…” — then the designer’s work is only just beginning.
First, the designer must learn to properly filter the playtesters’ comments: to tease out, as dispassionately as possible, some degree of genuinely objective meaning. And, assuming that’s possible, the designer must then have the gumption to actually do something about it: to embrace change. However, it is the received wisdom about the nature of that change that I would seek to challenge.
The risk is that game design is perceived from the outset as a process of necessarily iterative, evolutionary change: small, inevitable steps taken along a path that, if through nothing more than plain, plodding perseverance, will eventually reach its goal. But this approach, with each step taken to address a detail not the whole, can, perhaps paradoxically, often excise the heart of the game while leaving the surface scarred but intact.
My advice then is this: that radical, truly transformative change is, far more often than not, the only way forward. It will feel unpredictable, unstable, counterintuitive, dangerously uncontrolled, but the simple truth of it is that anything more timid is just death by a thousand cuts.
No, that’s not the truth of it. The truth, as Wilde observed, is never simple. But I see the result of timidity in my own designs and in those of others: I see it as a palimpsest of carefully placed, well-intentioned footprints, each one obscuring a little more, precisely that which the designer was seeking to reveal.
Change is necessary; a journey is demanded; and if you take big enough leaps the footprints disappear.