Four Tips for Goal-Oriented Game Design

Hey Readers!  I must apologize.  To be honest, I’ve completely forgotten about the blog the past couple weeks and haven’t written a post in awhile.  I am now planning to only write one post every two weeks, but hopefully the extra time will help make the content better.  Anyways, on to the post…

We all have our reasons why we design games.  Maybe it’s how you make a living.  Maybe years ago you made a variant to your favorite game and continue to make variants to play with friends.  Maybe you and your kids make games for fun and for the occasional game night.  If you are like me and are just starting out, maybe you design games as a creative outlet and hope to make a fun (and hopefully self-sustaining) hobby out of it.

Whatever the reason, designing games is not easy; it’s hard work.  Whether you wish to become the next Milton Bradley, wish to make a modest living, enjoy it as a hobby, or just design games for fun with low ambitions, creating games that are cohesive and fun will take time, energy, and effort.  And just as any other endeavors in life that require work, your best chances for success are to have a plan.  

So here are four tips that I hope will help you layout the groundwork for a game design plan:

  1. Define your overall goal.
    Do you eventually want your game sold to the public, or are you only playing your game privately with friends and family?  If you want your game sold to the public, do you plan to publish the game yourself or pitch it to an existing game publisher?  Do you want to release it as a free print-and-play?

    Knowing your endgame is crucial to the game design process.  Otherwise, you may find yourself spending hours, weeks, or even years designing a game aimlessly.  Simply having and knowing your goal gives you an opportunity to succeed.  Without a goal, there’s nothing to accomplish.

  2. Determine what has to be completed to meet your goal.
    You have your goal!  Now you are ready to conquer it.  The only thing is, how do you do that?  Unfortunately, creating the goal is the easy part.  

    The first step to accomplishing your goal is to understand what it takes to make that goal a reality.  If you only wish to design a game to play with friends, simple graphics from Microsoft or Google will probably do.  (I’ve known hardcore players who are happy just playing games with black and white text… no graphics.)  If you want your game out there in the market, a higher degree of polish will be necessary.  If self-publishing, you will be in charge of playtesting, refining, illustrations, graphic design, marketing, distribution, and all other steps required to get the game in players’ hands and on the store shelves.  

    Every goal is going to have its own standards.  Once you set your goal, research what is required to make that goal happen.  Create a list and layout the groundwork.

  3. Knock out the first couple tasks and build some momentum.
    You know Newton’s First Law, the law of inertia?  Guess what, it applies to board game design, too.  A person who designs games tends to continue designing games unless acted upon by an outside force.  Really… momentum is everything.

    So after setting your goal and having a basic understanding of the steps to reach your goal, it’s just a matter of doing.  And once you complete a couple steps, you will start to see your efforts coalesce into a work-in-progress.  Maybe your first two steps are to write down the game’s core rules (Objective, Setup, and Gameplay) and make an initial list of game components.  Or maybe you already have rules written and a rough prototype developed, so your next steps are to playtest with a friend and record some feedback so you can hammer out some of the kinks.  In both of these cases, after taking the first two steps you immediately see the game progress into something more than it was before.

    While game design takes a tremendous amount of effort, with a little research and planning, you quickly get to see the game take shape.  And this will only inspire and motivate you to continue working on the game.  See?  Momentum.|

  4. Be open-minded and flexible.
    In my opinion, this is the most difficult element of game design, but it’s also the THEE most important.  We all create an image of our game in our heads during the design process.  Honestly, it’s half the fun of designing.  I love to imagine the game being played among my friends, or having a booth in a large convention hall.  These are great motivators, but it’s critical to understand that the game will require revisions… and generally many of them… so don’t be disappointed when you find changes will need made.

    I can’t say this with certainty, but I’m willing to bet every board game has gone through some degree of playtesting, feedback, and refinement.  No one creates something perfect the first time around.  So it’s important to know beforehand that once you finally put together your first prototype, gather a group of friends (hopefully with beer and pizza), and sit down for the first (or hundredth) playtest, don’t be disheartened if there are some rough patches; in fact, you should expect them.

    We are all human; no one creates a perfect game their first try.  Just use the experience to note what works well, what needs improved, and only make a couple revisions at a time before the next playtest.  While this can be disheartening for some designers, many times it actually gets me more excited; I immediately start to design the revisions in my head and am amped to make them and get back to the table to try them out.

To recap, game design is work.  Don’t expect to do it in a week and while watching tv or doing homework.  It demands mental energy, requires research, and will challenge your adaptability.

For your best shot at being a successful game designer (no matter your goal or how you define success):

  1. Set an initial goal for your game.  (This is not set in stone and can change.)
  2. Research what you need to execute to reach your goal.  (This will make the goal seem more achieveable.)
  3. Build momentum by knocking out the first 1-2 tasks.  (This will create drive that makes the rest more approachable.)
  4. Know your game will be made better through playtesting and revisions.

Best of luck to you gamers, designers, and game designers.  Let me know what tips you have that help keep you on track.

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3 Questions When Designing a New Game

At WashingCon 2, I attended a game design workshop that included a 15-minute game design challenge.  Everyone had 15 minutes to design a board game, and the catch was the game had to be about attending a con.

To be honest, I spent the first ten minutes frantically gathering my thoughts about what constitutes a game.  But from there, it was much simpler to come up with a game’s skeleton.  If you are designing a new game or only have scribbled down a few rough ideas, you should start by answering these questions.  Hopefully they will help you brainstorm a cohesive concept:

  1. What is the game’s premise?
  2. What are the player’s objective?
  3. How will the players achieve the goal?

What is the game’s premise?

For my 15-minute game design, I decided my game would place each player as the role of an attendee at a board game convention.

This was one of the easier questions to answer, since the general theme was predetermined; the game had to be about attending a con.  (For a little self-disparagement, I had one of the lesser creative ideas.  One person’s pitch involved managing a Mad Scientist Convention, and another person’s was a party game where players have to create puns using “con” and other words.)

In my limited experience, new or aspiring game designers generally have their game’s theme or premise conceived before they begin working on rules or game mechanics.  This definitely was the case for me and The King’s Legion.  I’d guess that’s because they draw inspiration from something else they enjoy, maybe not even game related. Once game designers become more experienced and thus knowledgeable about the in’s and out’s of game design and game composition, new ideas may stem from the inter-workings of a game.

What are the player’s objective?

Once a game’s premise is considered, you need to decide on the objective.  Every game has an objective that the players are reaching for.  If you are designing a sci-fi wargame, maybe it’s to infiltrate the enemy starship or to terraform more planets than your opponents.  If you are designing a party game that involves story-telling, maybe your goal is to get the most players to laugh by telling a one-sentence story.

What do I enjoy most about attending board game conventions?  Playing games.  More specifically, playing new games.  So I decided players in my game would be going around the convention center trying to win the most games.

How will the players achieve the goal?

Up to this point, you can start to see some framework around your new game.  You know the game’s premise and what the players are trying to achieve.  But now you need to start putting some game mechanics or shape behind the framework.

So for my con game, players want to travel around a convention center and win as many games as possible in a set amount of time.  All I could think about was GenCon; the massive Exhibitor’s Hall with tons and tons of publisher booths trying to get attendees to demo their game.  So my game models that.  It’s a modular game on a 5×5 grid with tiles that are shuffled and placed at the start of the game (so each game can have a different layout).  Each tile represents a publisher’s booth; the front of the tile just has the fake publisher’s name, and on the back are the rules of the mini-game.  On a player’s turn, they flip the card over, play the mini game, and if they win, they get a point.  Each player can only play each game once, forcing players to move around the convention center checking out new games to play.

And that’s the game.  All in 15 minutes.  Now the actual game content wasn’t designed and official rules weren’t written, but it’s definitely a solid foundation.  And who knows… maybe I’ll follow up and get a fun game out of it…

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My messy notes during the Game Design Challenge

To summarize, by answering three important questions, you can come up with the basis of a new game:

  1. What is the game’s premise?
  2. What are the player’s objective?
  3. How will the players achieve the goal?

Have you considered these questions when starting a new game design?  What questions do you think are crucial to ask yourself when designing a new game?  

Five Tips for Prototyping

One of the most important pieces of advice anyone can give an aspiring game designer is to playtest early and often.  Playtesting is the basis in which a game is tested for balance, functionality, and refinement.  But to playtest, the game designer must first make a  prototype of their game.

A prototype is defined as an early model of something from which later models are developed.  In terms of board game design, a prototype is simply an early, unfinished version of the game that is used to playtest and refine the game.

So here are five tips for prototyping your board game concept:

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid!  (KISS)  Whether your board game is a complex wargame or a light card game, simplicity will make playtesting easier and help you spot areas of the game that need improved.

  2. Use free or cheap components.  Don’t burn a hole in your wallet over a prototype that will likely change.  Here are some examples of free or cheap game components:
    1. Paper and pencil
    2. Construction paper (large sheets cost under $1 at the Dollar Tree, Walmart, Target, craft stores, etc)
    3. Foam board (the Dollar Tree sells foam board.  Other stores will cost $3 or more.)
    4. Box of Colored Centimeter Cubes (honestly, this is one of the most useful and versatile prototype components… they can be resources, enemies, heroes, counters, tokens, etc)
    5. Colored Chips/Tokens
    6. Blank playing cards (with box)
    7. Card sleeves (they fit the above blank playing cards perfectly).  
    8. Bag o’ Dice
    9. Use components from games you already have.

  3. Don’t spend time on art or graphic design.  I’ve spent tens of hours polishing early prototypes with fancy graphics or pictures downloaded from Google.  The thing is, your game will change and all that time spent was wasted (worst case scenario) or at least could have been better used playtesting or designing the game (best case scenario).  Unless pictures and illustrations are critical to the game play itself, don’t worry about it for your prototype.  There’s nothing wrong with a prototype that looks like it was made by a seven year-old.

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    My latest prototype of The King’s Legion.

  4. Write down the rules, but be clear and concise.  When you eventually playtest your game, you want to have the “official” rules on hand.  (This is especially important when playtesting with other people.)  But don’t fall into the trap of spending hours writing detailed rules that cover every possible game state or scenario.  Write down the game objective, game setup, and gameplay directions, and keep them short and sweet.

  5. It WILL change.  Just like the game design itself, don’t be married to your prototype.  Since you know the design will change between playtests, so will the prototype.  Pieces will be lost, torn, thrown away, etc.  This is why you shouldn’t spend time on illustrations and graphic design, or why you shouldn’t spend much money on expensive components.

I have learned these tips the hard way and have spent significant time on prototypes that were eventually thrown away.  So after going through 4-5 vastly different iterations of TKL prototypes, these are five tips I have for prototyping.  

What have you done for your game prototypes?  Do you have any advice to share?

Useful Resources for Game Designers

  • Need a graphic designer?  There are websites for that.  
  • Want advice on how to build a Kickstarter campaign?  There are websites for that.  
  • How do you build a game prototype?  There are websites for that.

In a sea of information, it’s easy to lose track of where information can be found.  So I will consolidate what resources I know.  My disclaimer is that, as an aspiring game designer, there is a wealth of knowledge and resources out there that I don’t know.  I welcome, and even ask, that you share any resources you know so I can update my page and have a growing pool of information for readers.

In addition to this blog post, I’ve created another Main Page for the blog entitled “Designer Resources” that can be easily accessed at the top of the website, no matter what page you are reading.

The Designer’s Resources List:  This BGG thread contains a thorough list of resources such as: artists & graphic designers for hire, game design tips, manufacturing, and distributors/fulfillment.

Game Design and Copyright, Trademarks, and Patents (US Law):  This BGG thread provides insight into US law and how it applies (or doesn’t) to board games.

Game Design & Self-Publishing:  This BGG thread provides insight into what it takes to get a product (ie board game) out into the market.

Crash Course on Game Design:  This BGG thread provides insight into game design basics, such as early prototypes, internal and external playtesting, and the road to publication.

Tips on Soliciting an Artist, Designer, or Sculptor:  This BGG threads gives advice on what information you should have ready when contacting artists and sculptors.

10,000 Feet to Publishing a Board Game:  This article is a must read!  It gives an outline of what is required to produce a hobby board game, including estimated costs for production elements, such as art, graphic design, printing, delivery, warehouse, etc.  

Steve Cole’s Running a Game Publishing Company:  This book is written by an experienced game publisher and is a good read for those looking to publish games.

Kickstarter Lesson:  The Funding Goal:  If you plan to Kickstart your game (like me), this article discusses developing a realistic funding goal for your board game.

Kickstarter Lessons, by Stonemaier Games:  These folks share their insight into the world of Kickstarter and will help you succeed with your own.  Again, if you plan to Kickstart your game, you should check out these articles, which are conveniently categorized.

Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons:  Mark Rosewater shares 20 game design lessons from his 20 years designing and developing Magic the Gathering.  I’ve listened to his presentation at least 5-6 times, and he gives spectacular advice focused around designing your game for the players.

The Game Crafter:  They do a lot:  sell game components for your prototypes, print-on-demand game manufacturing, publish and sell your game through their website, purchase games published through TGC.  (I bought a huge bag of meeples cheap for TKL prototype.)

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Game Manufacturer’s:  A searchable list and review of game manufacturers.

Folding Board Tutorial:  If you want to make your own folding board for a prototype, use this tutorial.  (They look and feel almost as if professionally manufactured and are cheap to make.  I’m using this to make a bunch of prototypes for my playtesters.)

Do you have any resources that should be included in the list above?  Either send me an email or leave a comment.

I will update this list as I find new resources useful for the aspiring board game designer, and hope you find something useful here.

Inspiration & The King’s Legion

Tapping into your inspirations throughout the design and development process is critical.  Your inspirations influence the games we design, they are sources for new ideas, and they serve to motivate us when the work seems slow, tedious, or endless.  When you lack direction or motivation, go back to what inspires you.

Like many kids, my childhood was spent playing all kinds of games with my friends.  Dungeons & Dragons, Super Mario Kart, Megaman, Final Fantasy, Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, etc etc etc.  These games have shaped me not only as a gamer, but also as a designer and even how I like to spend my time.  To this day, nothing excites me more than to get together with my friends and play games.  Similarly, playing these games motivate me to work on my own game.

After getting into board games after college and playing them for a few years, my mind built this ideal board game experience that I just had to fulfill; my Holy Grail.  It would be fantasy, somewhat reminiscent of D&D… have a deep narrative… be cooperative.  (Now before you point me to the D&D Adventure Board Games, let me say while I love and own those games, they still miss the deep narrative I was seeking, among other differences.)  After reading numerous game reviews, watching gameplay videos, and scouring the internet for my ideal board game, nothing seemed to meet my overly-specific needs.  It didn’t take long before I realized no game ever would my dream.  So why not design it?  Three years ago, The King’s Legion concept board game was born.

I’d like to share a little about The King’s Legion, so you can see how my inspirations are seen in my game.

  • TKL is a story-driven, adventure board game where each player assumes the role of a new recruit in The King’s Legion.  The King’s Legion is an elite task force under the king’s direction that performs small-unit military operations.  
  • The game tells a story, and my friend Ray Heikens is the story’s author.  The story will be 8-10 chapters long, and every game session players will read and play through a single chapter.  This is meant to give it the campaign-style, immersive story experience.
  • The game includes a Story Book, which not only contains the story’s narrative, but also gameplay setup, objectives, and rules specific to that chapter.
    • The game starts out with new recruits investigating an undead uprising at the small village of Goldsliver.
    • You can read Chapter One of the Story Book here: TKL Story Book – Chapter 1
Copy of TKL Chapter 1 Board

An early iteration of Goldsliver

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m designing the ideal board game; I’m not.  I’m not even designing the ideal fantasy, adventure board game.  I’m simply designing a board game that brings a unique experience that would be fun to me.  My theory, though, is that since I’m only one of millions of board gamers (don’t quote me on that), if I would find it an exciting board game, so would a handful of other gamers.

Our inspirations are meant to be a tool for us game designers to use.  We go through ebbs and flows of work ethic, creativity, and productivity.  These qualities are necessary for game design, and so when we lack one (or all) of these qualities, we can often revisit our inspirations to give us a little push.  If I’m bored or struggling to be productive, sometimes putting on headphones and cranking up my favorite band DragonForce pumps me up and inspires me to be productive.  

So what are your inspirations?  Why did you initially want to design a board game?

Your inspirations may not be a specific game or a nostalgic experience.  Maybe you are inspired by a game designer you look up to.  Maybe you are inspired by your favorite book.  Maybe playing games with your children inspires you.  Whatever your inspirations, keep them close and use them to your advantage.

So be aware of your inspirations!  They may inspire new ideas for your game, or they may give you energy when you otherwise lack it.

Happy gaming!

Six Tips for Playtesting

Every game designer has their favorite and least favorite phase of developing a board game.  My favorite is playtesting, probably because I’m constantly brainstorming game ideas or musing over playing with a group of friends enjoying a cold pint.  So when I finally get to sit down and play The King’s Legion (no matter what phase of development it’s in), I get to see the game in action.  

Even though you are staring at a bunch of black and white pieces of paper, tokens with handwritten notes, and colored, detail-less cubes, it’s satisfying to see there’s something to show for the time you have already spent.

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Solo playtesting The King’s Legion since GenCon

The reason we playtest is to refine our games.  You’ve spent hours typing up rules and cutting out pieces.  Now you have to put them all together and see if the game is fun.

So here are six tips for playtesting.  I hope they help:

    1. Do it early.
      We all conjure in our minds a fantasy of playing our board game with our friends.  We’re sitting around a large table, enthralled by the clever game mechanics we’ve put into it and having a blast.  Everyone’s happy.  Chances are, though, that won’t happen the first, second, or even third time you playtest the game.  Expect turbulence.  Maybe the game setup is confusing.  Maybe, after a couple rounds, the winning condition doesn’t make sense.  Or maybe the game is just boring because players aren’t presented with any interesting or fun decisions.
      It’s likely some, if not all, of these scenarios will happen.  So my first tip is to playtest your game as soon as you have rules developed and pieces to play with.  Don’t spend much time typing up formal rules, proofreading for grammar, and making your game pieces look nice.  The sooner you playtest your game, the sooner you can spot major issues it has, and the sooner you start making the game more and more fun.  This leads me to my second tip…

    2. Take notes.
      If playtesting with other people, be mindful to not disrupt the flow of the game (which can immediately turn players off and give them a sour experience).  However, while playtesting, you will notice multiple possible changes that might improve the game.  Or you may come up with new ideas for the game.  These thoughts may quickly be forgotten, so jot them down while they are fresh.  So keep a pen and pad of paper nearby while playtesting.

    3. Start playtesting by yourself.
      Theoretically, the biggest flaws and most sweeping changes to the game will be in the earliest phase of development and playtesting.  This is another reason you want to playtest early.  It is also the reason you should initially playtest your game by yourself.  This early in development, the game will have the most bumpy roads and navigating other players through a rocky experience can be disheartening.  Instead of having to defend your game or feeling the judgement of those playing your game in its infancy, solo playtesting will help you stay focused completely on the game experience and allow you to stay in a game designer’s frame of mind.  Whether your game is cooperative or competitive, play every role.  Focus on finding the major imbalances and take notes as to possible changes.

    4. Get feedback
      Whether playtesting solo, with others, or blind playtesting (when you aren’t playing the game), constructive feedback is the singularly most important element of playtesting.  Without feedback, you have no direction on how to refine your game.  Before playtesting (and on your own time), have questions ready for playtesters.  This will guide feedback and be easier on the playtesters.  Here are a few general questions you can use as a start:

      1. Are the decisions players have to make interesting?
      2. Is there adequate player interaction?
      3. What are the game’s strengths?
      4. Where does the game need the most improvement?

    5. Minimize revisions between playtests
      Especially early on in playtesting, you are going to have a million changes you want to make.  However, the bigger the changes are, the fewer number of changes you should between playtests.  The reason why is so you can track the impact of the changes.  Make too many revisions, and the next playtest will feel like a completely different game.  While they MAY cumulatively improve the game, it’s more difficult to track how each revision impacted the game experience.  And as a game designer, we want to know how each rule and each mechanic contributes to the overall game experience.

    6. Don’t be disheartened
      Designing a game is a lot of work, and as stated previously, playtesting won’t ALWAYS provide the exciting experience we’ve hyped up in our minds.  However, that does not mean you don’t have a solid foundation for a fun game.  Don’t lose motivation if your playtest doesn’t go as expected.  Instead, use your energy to determine what was fun and what can make your game more fun.  

Hopefully I didn’t paint playtesting as a bleak, miserable experience.  It wouldn’t be my favorite part of game development if it was.  Playtesting is rewarding and, if not fun, is at least motivating.

Are there any hurdles you have with playtesting?  Are you getting constructive feedback afterwards?

Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts or questions.

Top 3 GenCon Demos & Games I Bought

I have a tendency to hype up something I’m excited for but have never done; GenCon was no exception.  Walking into the Exhibit Hall was like walking into a small city full of your favorite people, toys, stores, gadgets, d20’s, etc.  Needless to say, I felt like a little kid at the grand opening of a brand new toy store.

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Super-sized King of Tokyo!  I’d buy a copy if shipping weren’t so expensive.

As an amateur game designer, the sheer volume of games, people, and events is too much to take in all at once.  So as long as the Exhibit Hall was open, when I wasn’t volunteering with Z-Man Games (which was a blast and totally worth it), I was walking through with eyes wide and demoing game after game.  All said, I played almost 20 different games while at GenCon.  While most of them were demos, a handful of them I played many many times.

Jesse and Heisenberg passing out blue rock.

After my experience, my first piece of advice for any aspiring game designer is to go to your nearest convention (or game store), talk to other designers/gamers, and play their games.  Nothing motivates me more than to play a ton of games, talk to other people about their favorite games, and maybe share a little about my game as well.

While I didn’t attend that many panels or events, I made it a point to play as many games as I had time for.  I won’t discuss them all, but here are the three games I enjoyed demoing the most (not in any particular order):

  1. Summoner Wars:  As a fellow doug that has listened to over 200 Plaid Hat podcasts but has never played their flagship game Summoner Wars, it was a treat to finally sit down and play a full game.  The game combines the deep strategy of a tactical, turn-based game with the excitement of a rich, theme-filled card game.
  2. Secret Hitler:  Possibly the most fun hidden-role games I’ve played to date.  By combining hidden roles with the roles the rotating presidency and elected chancellor, players must sort through the chaos and determine who is a fascist and who is a liberal.
  3. Rumors of Chaos:  I met the designer on BGDF.com, who is in a similar boat as me.  He’s designing a game that he wants to self-publish, has it prototyped, and is looking for playtesters.  His game is a cooperative, strategy game where players protect the kingdom from a growing threat of enemies and natural catastrophes.

Although my wife would be happy keeping my board game collection as-is (or better yet, smaller), I did not oblige.  Here are the three games I played at GenCon that our shelves had to make room for:

  1. Junk Art:  Since I’ve gotten into hobby board games the past 5-6 years, Junk Art is the first dexterity game I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.  Players construct towers using objects of many shapes and sizes, and depending on the selected scenario, there are specific ruquirements, rules, or opportunities to topple your opponent’s towers.

    A super-sized Junk Art demo.  I was sold immediately.

  2. Saboteur:  In this game, dwarfs are trying to find the hidden gold at the other side of the cave while the saboteurs secretly stop them.  The game combines strategic card play and hidden roles; not to mention it’s cheap and plays quickly.
  3. NHL FastTrack:  There were only 30 minutes left Sunday afternoon before the GenCon Exhibit Hall closed until 2017.  My friend Ray and I were walking through one final time and he told me I HAD to play this game.  A little skeptical because it looks fairly basic, I played against the booth operator.  Needless to say, it was a thrilling 3-minute game.  He almost won twice, but I ended up winning after getting eight-straight shots in a row.  It’s fun, quick, intense, and cheap.  You should get it.

Since this blog is meant to be a motivator and insightful source of tips for aspiring game designers, next week WILL be about game design.  Until then, maybe you found an interesting game from my post.

I would be interested in hearing any comments you have!  See you next week…