The Art of Co-Design - Post written by Michael Cofer
I think collaboration in board game design is inevitable. If you playtest your game and genuinely care about the feedback you get, you are already designing collaboratively.
I honestly think that – apart from a few pragmatic considerations – the traits that make you a successful collaborator are necessary for all designers. So, before diving into those pragmatics, let’s talk about the traits that make collaboration work.
I’m gonna start with this one. It’s tricky. Humility isn’t forfeiting your ideas whenever they are challenged. Humility isn’t maintaining a low opinion of your skills, your work, or yourself.
But it is the belief that other’s ideas are worth as much consideration as your own. It’s being able to separate your self from your work. When something isn’t working, it isn’t a reflection on you as a person. When people don’t like parts of your game (or the whole thing!) that doesn’t mean you aren’t good.
I’m saying this even though you probably already know this is true. But when you find yourself either a) wounded by criticism or b) disregarding a criticism as invalid you are probably doing so to defend your pride. Take a step back, breathe, and put the criticism in perspective. Mine it for value.
Your design partner is going to need you to be able to mercilessly slay the ideas you put forth that don’t work. They also depend on you to be able to help them do the same. Which brings us to…
When more than one person tries to solve a problem, they will often come up with different approaches. That’s great, because it gives you a wider range of things to try, evaluate, and choose. With Gadgeteers, each “edition” we pushed during preproduction usually had 2 or 3 variations to test.
That said, sometimes the solutions you come up with are wildly different. If that’s the case, chances are you are tackling different problems, even if you don’t realize it. This can be a major frustration if you don’t identify it. Now, don’t miss this next bit…
When you identify that you’re solving different problems, don’t spend much energy trying to decide which problem is the right one. If it isn’t obvious which problem is the right one to address, then probably you should be looking at both. You might try to apply each solution independently to see if it fixes both, but in the end both perceived problems will need to be addressed.
It’s important to recognize your strengths, to spend your time and energy where they give the best returns, and to share the other responsibilities with those better suited to handle them.
In the case of Gadgeteers, Dan and I brainstormed together a lot. We shared the conceptual design tasks pretty evenly. But when it came time to get it in front of playtesters, recording their feedback, and distilling it into actionable items, Dan took the lead at that. He’s better at it, more resourced, and I think it’s fair to say that that part of the process energizes him.
Conversely, when it came to making printables, spreadsheets, and some of the “under the hood” work, I took the lead.
Again, this is an area where separating the game from your ego is essential. You aren’t in competition with your collaborators. Celebrate their strengths – both with them personally and with others. Raise their profile in the community and it will reflect well on both of you.
A Few Pragmatics
Firstly, build rapport. This will make everything you do so much easier and more efficient.
Find the communication media that work well for the both of you. Early in the process, Dan and I talked a lot in The Game Crafter’s chat room. These days we do much more by Facebook messenger and over the phone. Email is good for things that need documentation (like to-do lists, iterations of the rules, etc.), but is a bit sluggish for a lot of the general communication we need.
Google Docs. I can’t tell you how much it helps to have a space where you can work in realtime, mark up with notes non-destructively, and share with folks outside the design team. Google docs is free, has lots of tools including in-window chat.
Skype. No kidding. Dan and I have played prototypes over Skype. Granted, if you are making a dexterity game, this might not work. But if your game lends itself – even if inconvenient – Skype plays are quite helpful. Tabletop Simulator/Tabletopia/etc. can be helpful too, but that requires setting up the game in that format, and it is one more step removed from the intended final product.
Your Mileage May Vary
Having a good partner can help you stay fired-up, can give wonderful insights you may never have on your own, and can free you to do the parts of the process that you excel at.
That said, you should be discerning with whom you partner; game design is a labor of love and can take a lot out of you.
I’ve been very fortunate in the co-design situations I’ve been in. I knew the designers beforehand. They are all very talented, professional, and decent people. I don’t know if my experiences are typical, but I feel very grateful for them and can easily envision doing more co-designs.
Here is a designer diary for Gadgeteers. This game was co-designed by myself and Michael Cofer. Michael will be doing the majority of the writing of these posts and I will be posting them here. Enjoy!
12 Aug 2016
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03 Aug 2016
The Evolution of Mechanics - Post written by Michael Cofer
Some folks believe – and I am one of them – that what makes a great board game is giving the player meaningful choices. As it turns out, the history of a game from initial concept to final product is the story of the meaningful choices made by the designers.
From the very beginning, Gadgeteers included the “remove your tokens to used this node” mechanism. The idea of a “worker placement” or “area control” game where control of the nodes swings back and forth easily was the initial concept the whole game was built around. While I won’t say that this was a non-negotiable, it was the core that all of the other mechanics would find their place around.
The first iteration of the game was fairly solid. Players took turns placing cubes on nodes. If they controlled the nodes, they could use its power. If they controlled the right nodes in combination, they could claim a victory point card.
In this initial draft the game had literally no hidden information, and very little uncertainty (the only exception being the shuffled victory point card deck). I like games like that a lot. I really enjoy games like Go and Chess. But games like that heavily favor the more experienced, mature, and clever players. In reality, a 10 or 12 year-old had almost no chance of winning against an adult board gamer. And games like Go and Chess are known (and even appreciated) for how they lend themselves to long analysis between moves.
Furthermore, the game felt good. Solid. But not great. It lacked… something.
One of the first things we tried was offloading the powers from the nodes to something else. We liked the idea of having to choose between pursuing control of nodes and investing in special powers.
We tried setting up those powers as nodes of their own. It worked okay, but playtesting showed many players weren’t inclined to use them. While my own playtests showed they were powerful and could really help in winning – many testers felt that they were better off not using them.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about the “arc” of our game. Was there a ramp up in tension? Did decision trees get simpler or more complex as the game progressed?
Assessing the game at this sort of mid-point in its development, there wasn’t a good “arc.” All of the choices were presented to the players from the very beginning. Each round presented players with the essentially the same question.
As a personal design ethic, I always shoot for simple and deep. So in seeking solutions for the issues we’d identified, we worked at finding ways to improve the game without adding too much. We needed solutions that would address several issues at once.
The injection of hidden information did some really nice things to giving the game both a little more “bite” and a little more “wiggle room.” Because tokens are weighted and bidding is blind, the game has gained elements of bluffing, misdirection, and “mind games.” And while those elements are there, the game works fine for kids who aren’t able to assess at that level. In this way, the weight of the game self-scales with the abilities of the players.
The hidden Bonus cards make for a nice nudge away from the fatalism that open-information games are sometimes prone to. I think games are the most fun all the way to the end if no one is certain who won until the last move is made.
Arc and Decision Trees
In the mid-development version of Gadgeteers, players won by set collection: 3 of a kind of 1 of each kind. This sort of victory condition meant that as you approach the end game, the kinds of gadgets you want to collect narrow until there is one specific type you need to win.
In terms of providing a “catch up” mechanism, this worked pretty well. But it also meant that your tactical options started at their broadest and gradually narrowed to almost nothing. So the decision tree was wide at the beginning and narrow at the end. That may work for some games, but it felt wrong for this one… I wanted to have a ramp up in options as you progress.
Reverting back to a victory point system meant that your choice in which gadgets you should make doesn’t narrow towards the end. After making just that change, didn’t have a ramping down of decisions… but we wanted a ramp up.
Which leads to another significant change: offloading effects onto inventions you have built, and the inclusion of 0-weighted “Power Tokens” used to activate them. That means the first round of play, power tokens can almost be ignored. The game begins with simple blind-bidding for majority control. But as players start building, new options open for them to play and use Power Tokens.
The effect is a growing pool of options and an increasing level of complexity in the mid and late game. By reducing the options early in the game, it allows first time players to ease into the mechanics and also creates a more dramatic and dynamic experience by the end – the ramp up in choices as the game progresses.
While there are a ton of other meaningful choices that I could share, I thought these few would provide a nice overview into the process. But before I draw this post to a close, I feel compelled to share one last thing with you.
Much of what’s great about Gadgeteers as it is today came from the wisdom, insight, and wild hares of the people beyond Dan and I who played the game. I cannot overstate how much we owe to the other designers and avid gamers who have shared their experiences playing the game and offered their thoughts on how it can improve.
It takes a concerted effort of will not to argue back or explain away negative experiences that people have when playing your game. But those experiences are real. And it’s important to realize that if problems arose from them getting rules wrong, then your rules probably aren’t as clear as they need to be.
If they are playing it correctly and still have issues, it isn’t a problem with the player. Instead, you have to do the hard work of figuring out if there is a real problem to be fixed or if your game just isn’t for that kind of player. Having a clear vision of who your game is for and what the experience playing it should be like is the only way to make productive use of the feedback you get.
And I am immensely grateful to the dozens of people who have offered their encouragement, critiques, and crazy ideas leading up to Gadgeteers as it is today.
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29 Jul 2016
The Evolution of Theme - Post written by Michael Cofer
The question of theme-first or mechanics-first is, I suspect, only rarely applicable. Usually the two grow and evolve together, and Gadgeteers was no exception to that.
About a year ago, my friend Dan Letzring asked me if I wanted to co-design a game. He had some early concepts of what he wanted it to be, but it was still very loose at this stage. His pitch started with, “So, I’ve been thinking about making a game about birds perching on pumpkins in a pumpkin patch.”
And that, my friends, is how I started working on Gadgeteers – a game with neither birds nor pumpkins.
In the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a game that used majority control of nodes, and had some thoughts about how the various nodes might grant special abilities. If the nodes had different functions, it seemed to me that a diverse garden (rather than a pumpkin patch) would be a better setting… and each unique node could be a different type of “veggie.”
We had a cool, central mechanic and a vague theme. But it wasn’t a game yet; we needed an objective. Pushing and pulling the concept around in conversation, we landed on the idea that maybe you needed certain combinations of nodes to win.
This was enough to get us to our earliest prototype: a dozen veggies, each with a unique power, and a collection of “combo” cards. Combo cards were prescribed sets of veggies with a point value attached.
It wasn’t the strongest thematic link, but it was serviceable. In retrospect, had we called them like, “salad” cards, it would have been slightly more thematic – but still weak.
After a few months of playing “the veggie game,” Dan and I started thinking more seriously toward marketability. Dan felt that there had been enough food and garden themed games recently and that retheming would be a good idea.
We both wanted the game to have kid-appeal (without being a “kids’ game”). And there was still this problem of “combos” needing to be more thematically tied in. These three things guided our theme selection:
What theme suits a game about combining elements into a new thing?
What is appealing to kids?
What isn’t overly saturated in the market?
In the end, we both felt a strong draw toward “inventions” as a theme. It’s an imaginative space, with some STEM flavor, and was a very tight fit with the core mechanics of the game.
This theming later showed itself mechanically as well, specifically in moving the “powers” off of the “Parts” and on to the “Gadgets.” There were several mechanical reasons that this was a profound and positive change, but at its core it grew out of the feeling that you should be able to use the cool things you build.
Jesse Labbe and Alisha Volkman knocked it out of the park in terms of conveying the tone of the game and grabbing a hold of the theme in a captivating way. It’s amazing to feel the difference in thematic engagement that good quality art will bring to the game.
And that, I suppose, is a huge take-away from this process: hold on to everything loosely early on. We are a million miles away from where we began, both thematically and mechanically – but the game today is infinitely better than the one we began with.
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