I'm spending a lot of time learning how to be a games designer. I'd love to think that's because it's early days and that someday soon I'll know all of the things that there are to know, but I suspect this is going to be one of these jobs where I never stop learning. On reflection that's probably a good thing. In seeking the advice of more experienced designers one of the most common things I hear is "Good design is not about finding things to add, it is about finding things to take away."
The more I engage with the process of designing the more this feels like a statement that points me in the right direction rather than being a literal truth. It's very rare for a game, even one in development, to have an entirely superflous element that can simply be removed. I think that what I really need to be hunting for is an opportunity to add something that allows me to take away two other things.
Imagine someone looking at HeroQuest and spotting some problems:
"I like the adventuring thing and you have to get injured, but being killed and having to sit out of the game sucks, I'd like to change that."
"It'd be good to feel more of a sense of tension during the game, there should be some sort of resource that determines victory that you gain and lose over the course of the game so it feels more like the early events matter."
"The characters are clearly different in terms of how easy it is to kill them, but since they all contribute about as much as each other the dungeon master gets uneven rewards for them dying. Something should be done."
This could be resolved by adding a whole bunch of different mechanics. A player might lose a piece of equipment when they die, to solve the first problem. Objectives could have victory counters on them, with a big bonus for the final room and comparing the total to some chart at the end might determine overall victory irrespective of the outcome of the final battle. A rule could be added allowing the dungeon master to place bonus creatures when he kills the harder to kill characters to make it more rewarding for him. I can imagine a protogame trying to improve on the forumla having those things at some stage, even if only in the designers mind.
At this point I think the "add something to let you take other things away" philosophy would step in. A single addition could resolve all three of these problems, essentially removing two elements overall. If only the players had some sort of 'awesome points', that allowed them to reappear when they died, that would solve the first problem. Making it possible to obtain these points in play would solve the second. The third can be solved by making the reappearance cost vary from character to character based on how hard they are to kill.
By now some of you may be feeling that this sounds familiar. That is because I'm describing conquest tokens in Descent. I wouldn't hold that game up as a poster child for having the smallest set of mechanics possible, but I think this aspect in particularly is well executed and the sort of thing I should be aiming for in elegance of design.
On that note I've been looking at the events for Wizard Academy and have made an improvement of this sort that I'm quite proud of. I've made up the cards but haven't tested them yet. If it works out then I'll post about it on Monday and talk about how I applied this principle. If it doesn't work then I'll post about it on Monday and we can try to dissect what went wrong. Learning is fun.