Saturday, March 12, 2011

What’s important in board and card game design

. I was asked to write something for the blog of Buffalo Games, a smallish mass-market game company that, I confess, I had not heard of. They have since abandoned the blog, and posted it on their Facebook page.

They also published a "Q&A" with me.



Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Don’t think that the idea is important. What makes a marketable game is the execution, the creation of a complete game, not the idea. Some ideas are better than others, true, but there are hardly any original ideas–if you’ve thought of it, probably a hundred others have as well. Virtually no publisher pays for an idea, publishers pay for completed games (though they may then change them...). So be prepared to work!

The second most important thing to remember about ideas is, you need to work at getting lots of them: maybe a few will work out well.

Ideas come from everywhere, from all kinds of associations: you must actively seek to get ideas, don’t wait for them to come floating by.

Lots of people have game ideas, fewer make a prototype, fewer still actually play the game. You don’t really have a game until you have a prototype that can be played. It needn’t be pretty, but it must be functional. If people enjoy playing a merely functional version of the game, they’ll enjoy the pretty published version even more. Maybe when you submit the completed game to a publisher you’ll make a pretty version.

You don’t have to have a full set of rules to start with, you just need to know how to play. Writing nearly-perfect rules is the hardest part of designing a game. Trying to write perfect rules when the game is new may be a waste of time, as the game IS going to change. In the end, though, if the rules are inadequate, the game won’t be played correctly, which is usually a disaster, and you can’t leave rules writing until the very end because the rules must be tested just as the game must be tested.

“Playtesting is sovereign”. Play your prototype, probably solo at first to work out the worst kinks, then have others play. And play. And play. Virtually no game prototype is good at first. The key to a good game is to playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, and so forth until the gameplay is polished to a gleam. Change is the norm.

You will probably get sick of the game before it’s “done!” As Reiner Knizia says, it’s easy to get a game to an 80% completion state, hard to get it to 100%. And you may think it’s “done” only to find that something MUST be changed.

Getting your game playtested is an invitation to say it sucks! Your playtesters must be in your target audience (you ALWAYS have a target audience), and you need a lot of them. Your family is not sufficient! You need people who are willing to tell you the truth.

If you just want to design one game at a time, go for it. If you want to be a game designer, you need to be designing a lot of games at the same time.

Unless you are very very lucky, you aren’t going to get rich designing games. Do it because you love it, and perhaps you’ll make some money along the way.

1 comment:

Paul D. Owen said...

I truly appreciate your advice in this area. I have to admit to inadequate playtesting on pretty much all my designs. That's perhaps the most consistent recommendation I read anywhere. My next big idea is going to need a lot of playtesting to get right.

I do tend to prefer to write out the rules before I try to playtest with other people. Often I find that the act of spelling out rules exposes flaws without even having to play the game. Perhaps it's because I'm an engineer and think in terms of "requirements" and "specifications." Something written out requires logical consistency, so that's what works for me.

I am also grateful for advice from someone else to remember that some game ideas turn out to be bad ideas and are worth abandoning when playtesting demonstrates some grave flaw inherent to the fundamental concept of the game. It's helpful to be able to let go and move on.