I had the idea for Codename: Vacuum about fifteen months ago now. It got its first proper play at Games Night during February last year then nothing really until July when I played it with my friend Paul whose Games Night I attended twice a week for most of our five year sojourn in York. Since October last year it's been played at least once a week as I try to iron out the kinks and fix the balance issues.
The first play was, to my mind, disastrous: the game lasted many hours and the play was dragged out by numerous discussions about things that could be changed about it, most of which would have completely changed it, certainly radically altering it from the game I first had (and still have) in mind. The second went much better with my friend Paul who had been one of my key playtesters during my Reiver Games days.
Since then, I've tried to focus on playing the game a lot with friends at work and at Games Night (there is a large overlap between those groups of people). The focus has been on teaching people the game and me personally working out which decks/cards are weak. Every month or so I've printed out a new version of the game incorporating potential fixes to the problems I've found.
Wary of the wealth of wildly restructuring ideas I had at the first public test, I've not been asking my playtesters for much in the way of feedback - I've just been using them as opponents to enable me to test the game and spot potential problems/weaknesses.
Obviously, this is a pants way to proceed, but it got me over the hump of not playing the game and has allowed me to make three or four complete revisions of the game, each of which I think is slightly better than the last. But playtesting is not just for playing the game - it's also for gathering feedback and I've been doing very little of that.
My current playtest crew for Vacuum is a core of four people who seem genuinely keen to play it. Dave has played it getting on for ten times I think, and gives me a good run for my money, winning as many (if not slightly more!) games than I do. The other three have probably played two or three times each, and I don't think any of them have beaten me yet (though I might be remember that wrong!). I'm now asking these core guys for really critical feedback after games in the hope I can use this information to hone the game still further and address the weaknesses of the game as a whole.
Possibly more interesting and useful would be feedback from the five or six people who've played it once or twice and don't seem particularly keen to play it again. What is it about the game that they don't like or do they have any ideas what it is about the game that doesn't excite them? I need to gather that feedback too, but I need to do it without seeming to be pulling them up for their lack of interest. How to do that, I'm not sure yet.
The other thing about my process that's changing is that I'm going from making a new version every month or so to just tweaking a card or a deck and re-print those out for testing. Printing and cutting out a whole new copy is about an hour and a half's work, but I can do a single deck pretty quickly (especially since I changed the form factor of the artwork - why oh why didn't I do that earlier?). It feels like the game is coming on nicely and I'm still having plenty of new card ideas - at this rate it's going to have an expansion's worth before I'm ready to publish/hawk it!
Setting my goals for the year a few weeks ago has really focussed my mind on moving things forward - I'm driven now to get a couple of copies out to my previous gaming groups in York and Bedford (both populated by Reiver Games playtesters!) by the end of February, but before I do that I want to improve the game still further.
I also need to create a rulebook that's complete enough to learn the game from, but time is tight, especially as I have to do a Self-Assessment Tax Return for the last year of Reiver Games before the end of this month :(