How You Should Test Your Kid's Game

Making games for kids is the biggest challenge in game designing.

There it is. Controversial statement? Perhaps, and it is very much open for discussion, but so far every experience I had in making board games only provide more and more proof to this statement. Oh, sure, you can spent way more time working on a titanic and super-heavy strategy game, spending countless hours on testing, cutting the corner cases, balancing the mechanics and so on, but ultimately it is still easier, simply because when you’re making a game for gamers, you’re doing a game for yourself.

As a gamer you know what you demand from a game and you have expectation of players behaviours. You will instinctively know which mechanics will be cumbersome, where players will struggle and which points in the game will click together. Of course it do not mean that making ‘gamers games’ is an easy thing – new games are released every gosh darn day and only few of them climbs to the top of gamers desires.

But when you make a game for kids, all your expectations fly out of the window. You simply cannot know what will work for them and what will not, even if you try your best to predict the outcome, kids will always surprise you!

Like yesterday, where we had a testing of our newest game in the class of 2nd graders. The game ultimately was not aimed for the youngest audience, but lately we discovered that the theme and the light mechanics might just suit them well enough, and decided to cut it down to fit them. Still, two mechanics were rather… complicated, even with adults sometimes being unable to catch on them quickly, and we rightfully feared that the test will only prove to us, that the core of the game would need a complete overhaul, because kids will be utterly unable to dig into it.

Gosh, we were quite mistaken.

Testing provided valuable information to us. First, that the kids did not found the game hard or the mechanics complicated… No, in fact they caught on them pretty effortlessly and had no issues with grasping the concepts we deemed to be hard and complicated. It was a mild shocker to find out, but not as big as the fact, that the point when the kids struggled was one we never imagined would be a problem, because for adult gamers it is so intuitive, we did not thought it might be a problem to anyone.

Kids had problem with managing cards. See, the game require players to grab cards from the pile on the table and then play them down on the table, forming a row of five cards in order. That’s it, really nothing more to it, and not a single adult ever stumbled on this part of the game, since it’s so completely basic! And yet, it was the biggest issue with our youngest testers. They had no idea what to do with the cards, no matter how we tried to explain it, they constantly missed the spot to play them, they did not know what is the meaning of playing them in order and why they have to form a row of five cards.

It was extremely educational for us to see, that when kids had no problems managing complicated mechanics, as long as they were intuitive, they still stumbled on the most simple part of the game, just because it was hard for them to make a connection WHY they have to do such things with their cards.

There is a lesson there…

Making games for kids is not hard because of the unending balancing act of simplicity and fun factor the game provides, but because ensuring the game is easy to understand and play for them is an entirely new set of experience a game designer need to gather.

Mostly because testing with kids is such a hard thing! Oh, it was a delightful session, full of laughs and fun, but when adults usually will give you their honest feedback, kids simply won’t. If you ask them “Did you like the game?” they will just quickly say “Yes!” and be done with it. Kids have no expectations of the game other than that it provides fun and distraction – they won’t tell you which part of the game was boring or bad, they won’t inform you that they felt some lack of balance or that the luck factor was too strong. In fact the best thing you can squeeze out of such tests when it comes to verbal feedback is just to learn if they enjoyed the look and feel of the game and which part of the game play was most entertaining, and that’s it!

And that is why when testing with kids you have to be extremely cautious not of their words, but their reactions. You have to observe them like a hawk, because what they won’t tell you even just to lack of vocabulary, they will still display with their emotions, since kids just don’t have that iron control of them like adults tend to develop in time. You will see their obvious joy when the game is fun, you will observe the growing boredom if something is not tickling them fancy, you will see the anger and impatience flashing like thunder over their faces when they feel somehow cheated by the game mechanics or other players.

And there is no other way! To make a good game for kids you have to test it with them and ensure that everything works the way they want it to work… In fact, we’ve done a little extra test to see how are game is seen by them. Simply put, after a few enthusiastic rounds we put Dobble on the table and played a few quick games with them. Seemingly the reactions were similar – happy squeals of joys, cries of dismay at the defeat… And yet, after we finished we asked them which of the two games they would like to play again.

Every single kid pointed to Dobble.

Seems that there is still a long way ahead of our game to cross.

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