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Customs Creation - April 2019

Posted April 28th, 2019 at 12:49 PM by HS Codex

Customs Creation
Getting the Most Out of Your (Playtesting) Time
Author: Scytale

Coming up with ideas is exciting, putting together cards is rewarding, and showing your customs to other people is fun. It is even fun to put them in a game. But serious, deep-dive playtesting is often more work than play, something all too easy to brush aside. Yet it is perhaps the single most valuable and important part of the customs creation process. Serious playtesting not only is essential to refine (and sometimes rework) a custom design, but it also teaches valuable lessons that can improve future designs.

But time spent in playtesting is not always valuable, and in fact it can easily become wasteful. At the very least, repeating the same scenarios grants diminishing returns. We are all busy with activities outside of Heroscape playtesting; so, instead of trying to get by on sheer quantity, it is better to spend your time on the sort of tests that give you the best bang for the buck.

There are a number of things that playtesting needs to address, but for the most part they fall under the broad categories of gameplay and balance. Balance is the more obvious to define: is the unit too powerful or too weak (mostly a pricing question, but not entirely). Gameplay is more vague and includes the unit's overall effectiveness, style of play, role, and thematic elements. The simple way of looking at it is the question: "Does the unit do what I designed it to do?"

Gameplay, while harder to define, is actually the easier of the two to address with playtesting. The goal is to determine how the unit actually plays on the battlefield. Are the powers useful? Do they cause unintended problems? Does the unit play like you intended it to? Does the theme you are aiming for come through when you play it? When the goal is to determine the answers to these questions (and more), the type of game and point values used are not as important, as long as they fit within the parameters of the unit's expected value range. For example, testing Raelin in a 1x1 100-point army game is not a good indicator of Raelin's playstyle. Cheerleader abilities need units to boost, after all. But while testing 300-points vs 1000-points can be important for balance testing, it likely won't make a big difference in testing how Raelin plays. In fact, testing in actual games is not necessary. Setting up mid-game scenarios can be an even more effective use of your time, especially if the unit is designed to be situational, such as a late-game cleanup unit.

When doing gameplay testing, the most important thing is to set aside your creator biases and play the unit optimally. This can be difficult to do, but in the long run, even in a relaxed home environment, a unit will end up being the unit it is best at being, not necessarily what you wanted the unit to be. For example, imagine a hero with a fun teleport ability. You intend to create a hero that's exciting to play and unpredictable for opponents due to its constant blipping around. When you test, you are certain to teleport every turn because that's what you want the unit to be. However, if you were playing optimally, you would teleport next to a key target such as Raelin and stay there until the target is dead. The latter is how the unit would end up getting played—if not right away, then eventually. Ultimately, that unit is not what you designed it to be.

The best way to get the sort of optimal play you need is to have a someone else—an experienced, skilled Heroscaper—to try it out. But that's not often what we get. So when testing it yourself, try to divorce yourself from preconceptions and play the unit in different ways. Try to find the most effective way to play it, even if (and especially if) that turns out to be something unexpected. Once you have a grasp on that, decide if that's really what you want for the unit. Think about how well the gameplay matched your intended theme, and look to trim powers that are not essential to how the unit is actually used.

Testing for balance is less creative and more mechanical, but ultimately is as much a judgement call. With the goal in mind to maximize the use of your time, design your playtests to give you the most data. Do not, for example, match your unit against a unit that counters it, such as taking your huge beast against Axegriders. That is a valid data point, and is good for fine-tune testing, but it for the most part it is not a good use of your time. Do, however, match your unit against units it counters, because pricing must take into account optimal usage. But don't rely solely on that info. Always be sure to play against some solid units without specific strengths or weaknesses to get a baseline. I like to use the Sacred Band and 4th Mass.

Many of the most exciting moments in Heroscape are when the unexpected happens: a Blade Grut rolls four skulls against a no-shields Q9, or Ne-Gok-Sa gets a 20 on his first Mind Shackle. Those are great gaming moments, but they're bad playtesting moments. Just because these outliers can happen does not mean they give you any insight into the unit you're playtesting. Quite the opposite, in fact: these moments can skew your results. Don't be afraid to throw out these outliers. Remember, you are trying to understand how your unit will perform in a mostly average game. Instead of running a hundred tests, keep your handful of tests inside the bell curve.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that simply looking at win-loss records is the best balance indicator. Nor is simply looking at how many points worth of enemy figures your unit killed. Those are useful data points, but there are far too many other factors involved to treat them as reliable. As an extreme example, it's easy to imagine a 10-point filler unit that wins every game it is in, but only because it's in a top-class army or the player is superior to the opponent. The unit may never even get an order marker! An overpowered unit can lose repeatedly as well, based on army composition, map choice, game type, player skill, or just plain luck.

What you really need to decide is: "How much I would be willing to pay to draft this unit?" Of course, that's a difficult question, as the amount often differs based on game type, map type, point totals, and level of seriousness of the game. A unit's value in a 500-point double-blind tournament will be different than it would be for a 2000-point epic scenario with friends at home. It's really more of a judgement call based on experience, compared to the rest of the units in the game. With experience, you learn to expect a certain amount of value from a unit given the price you paid for it. When playtesting, is it exceeding expectations, or it is underperforming? Use this as your guide, and build test environments to help you decide either way.

Playtesting is vital for unit development, as it is for your own development as a designer. Do not skimp on this step, but don't be wasteful with it either. Focus on your ultimate goal of determining the gameplay value and point cost of the unit. Design your tests to gather the most useful information, and don't be afraid to set aside bad matchups or throw out outliers. Learn what your unit is truly best at doing, and decide how much you'd honestly be willing to pay to put it in your army. Doing this will not only teach you about the design you are testing and allow you to improve it, but it will also give you valuable insight you can apply to future designs.
Total Comments 2


Tornado's Avatar
Great article Scytale! This could make for a great thread as well I think.
Posted April 30th, 2019 at 10:01 PM by Tornado Tornado is offline
flameslayer93's Avatar
Another great article, Scytale.
Posted May 2nd, 2019 at 05:42 PM by flameslayer93 flameslayer93 is offline
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