I wrote up pretty detailed rules before we even made a prototype and started playtesting. I realised very soon after that was putting the cart before the horse and I've gotten the initial planning so very wrong. It would have been much better to note down the main rules and test those out first before attempting to fill in the nitty gritty.
It so happens that our first game is a heavy game. We did not start out intending it to be, but the theme, Three Kingdoms, required it to be if we wanted to bring out the full flavour.
Due to the heaviness, playtesting was a big test on our patience. We couldn't hurry the process and just had to grind it out slowly. There were times when we wondered if and when the game will be balanced. I remember telling my Significant Other, also the co-designer, while watching a general election rally in 2011, "I'll be happy if we publish the game before the the next general elections (2016)". As it turned out, we did!
Playtesting also depended heavily on our playtesters' availability and schedules. For that, I cannot thank enough the playtesters of our game for making time out.
There were certain mechanics that I felt was critical to the game, yet there were times when they just don't feel like they could be balanced. An example is the asymmetrical starting positions of the three states, which was designed to increase replayability and strengthen the theme. It was at those points in time that I trusted my gut feeling and convinced my Significant Other to persevere a bit more. I'm glad we did.
At the same time, there were also certain mechanics that looked nice on paper but just did not work out during playtesting. For example, I wanted to include an element of espionage and sabotage in the game and that was present in the early versions of the game's prototype. Alas, it just did not work out and we made the reluctant decision to remove it. I was a wee bit upset when we culled it but that feeling soon disappeared because the game felt better after its removal.
Lesson learnt: Be prepared to cull parts that are not working, even if we have spent lots of effort on it
This part is somewhat tied to the "patience" geeklist item above. There were times when we had to redesign parts of the game completely. It was quite heartbreaking because it felt like the effort we put into all those previous playtests were "lost". We had to move backwards to move forward again.
The best example of this was the general skills. We were reaching a point when the initial set of general skills seem balanced, but our playtests were telling us the replayability wasn't high enough. And that was after 100 playtests or so.
We bit the bullet, re-looked at all the general skills and revamped the majority of them. It was a tough decision to make and even our regular playtester was unsure about our decision. Eventually, we proved to ourselves that the decision was right, because we had so much more fun playtesting it with the revamped skills.
Lesson learnt: Sometimes, we have to move backwards to move forwards again
As we progressed to first impressions playtesting, we receive much more varied opinions. We quickly realised that we can't please everyone. Indeed, some of the opinions were at complete odds with one another. We just had to make the decisions based on our judgement of what is best for the game and go with it.
Nonetheless, we thank all playtesters who gave up their precious time and for their opinions. All of them, whether implemented or not, are important to us.
We found out quickly that there are board gamers out there who are willing to help us. We were initially shy about asking for help but found out that such help do exist.
By help, we do not mean just playtesting, though most of the help we received pertained to that. We also received help such as advice on distribution, physical muscle power to move the game stock etc.
We also learnt to be more mindful and sensitive towards the other person when asking for help. We generally try to find out more about the person's interests and schedule, read his/her body language etc. before asking.
Lesson learnt: Don't be shy and ask for help (nicely)
Between the two of us, my Significant Other doesn't handle stress that well. To the extent that she would fall ill when things don't go our way. During those tough times, e.g. game just doesn't feel like it will ever be balanced, I had to stay calm and remind her to do the same. I often remind her that if we don't enjoy the designing process, then we might as well stop. It is important that we enjoy the process so that the end-product will be filled with the fun we experienced, and not with stress.