This past weekend, I attended the Global Game Jam for the first time. A Game Jam is basically 48 hours in which you and a few teammates develop a game (video game or board game) that adheres to a general guiding theme given to you at the start.
This year's theme was "extinction." I'm sure this was picked because, while unspecific, it inspires certain connotations that make it easy to fall into a creative trap. Here are a few examples of games developed at the Jam I attended: Dodo Island, Dino-soar, Top of the Food Chain, Agent of Extinction, etc. One of my teammates, as soon as he heard the theme announced, looked up "extinction" in the dictionary. One definition is the state of not existing. The fundamental idea behind the game I worked on (with two other guys) was making a game mechanic out of existing or not existing.
We decided to make a card/board game, which meant that we were able to playtest much earlier than the teams that were working on video games. Our first game, Quantum Cowboys, was a real-time card game whose cards read "exist," "non-exist," and "shoot." It was a reflex and timing-based shooting gallery (in card form, oddly enough) which rewarded only one strategy: "non-exist, exist, shoot, non-exist" (hence Quantum Cowboys). Playtesting our game only a few hours into the event, we realized that our design was fun, in a stupid way, but also massively flawed. We changed the rules after almost each game, sometimes in bits and pieces, sometimes in the form of large-scale revisions and redesigns.
This process of iteration and refining through playtesting led us to our final design, a board game called Nonexistent Pirates!, which pits three players as pirate ships racing against each other to escape the pull of a large whirlpool in the Bermuda Triangle. Each round, there's a chance that the whirlpool will pull you back from your goal, and funky Bermuda Triangle physics allow your ship to fade in and out of existence in order to avoid the whirlpool's suction as well as cannonballs that spiral outward. We won "Best Board Game," but since that award was added late, our certificates were appropriately nonexistent.
What I take away from the experience is a newfound respect for playtesting; it's not last-minute polish on a design that's already been much-labored over, it's a long and critical process of iteration and revision in which an essential guiding idea is developed, through play, into a fun and working game.