Designing Games: A Couple's Perspective

This blog chronicles the game designing journey of husband and wife team Will and Sarah. Mostly written by Sarah, this blog is meant to be informative, interesting and fun. Oh, and a historical account so we can come back in the future and laugh at our naive selves. ;-D
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Designer Diary: Sleeping on the Job, or How I Designed Project Dreamscape

Sarah Reed
United States
Rancho Cordova
California
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Written by Will Reed

So my wife asked me to think about how I came up with the idea for Project Dreamscape. To be honest, I was looking at the various games I’ve designed and just wanted to feel the sense of accomplishment. For me, this meant coming up with something small like a regular deck of cards.

A Mechanics First Game
So I thought about what mechanisms I liked or wanted to try. Recently, I’ve played Star Realms that has a five card tableau which you can buy from. This was something I really wanted to play with so I used that as a basic premise.

Next I wanted to make the game random without a lot of different setup or additional steps. So I decided to use the face as one type of action and the back as a different type of action. This meant that when you use one, the other is removed from the game. This in turn has the randomizing effect I was looking for since as you use cards, it means the other side will never be seen in the game.

Now that I had a few bases covered, I wanted to start offering strategic choices. However, I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with a monumental amount. Since I heard that people’s brains start having problems when you get beyond eight options, I limited the number of different actions to eight.

Of course, I couldn’t slam them with all eight at once and I wanted the game to play quickly, so I made it that each face has two different options on every card. Mind you, this was being planned out in my head for several days. I don’t typically write anything down until I have a grasp on all the major points of the game.

This approach gives me a sense of freedom since I don’t get attached to anything since it is not in note form. This means while I’m working on mechanical options like what this action does, I am constantly flipping through what it could all mean thematically.

This game is a bit of a departure from my usual method. Not in how it gets created, but in the fact that I started with game mechanics. Usually I work with theme from the beginning along with mechanics.

Time for Some Flavor!
At any rate, it was about this point in the process where theme reared its head in the game. I looked at what I had and liked it, but it didn’t tell me a story. So I started thinking about themes that really aren’t widely used. Many of which aren’t used because they are either so boring or convoluted that they don’t do anything for a player.

This led me to the idea of trying to figure out what works well as a theme. The conclusion I came to is that it is something they can relate to. For instance, fans of zombie games typically like zombie stories or movies. In other words, they are familiar with the concept therefore they can relate to it.

So if I wasn’t going to go with the traditional aliens, pirates, fantasy, zombies, historical, war, or dozens of other classically known themes, then what was an idea that is relatable to a lot of people. Well, what do people do? Eat, sleep and poop. Since there are plenty of eating games and I wasn’t interested in tackling a game about bodily waste, I chose sleep.

To make a long story short, I have recently learned a little about sleep and how it functions. Basically, there are two types: deep sleep and R.E.M. I was specifically interested in the dreaming portion of R.E.M. This said to me that dreams would represent actions very well. They are open to interpretation and they are often represented by actions.

Marrying Theme and Mechanics
This meant that deep sleep needed a purpose. So I designated the backs of the cards for deep sleep and looked to see what was missing from the game. That is when I realized, you could buy cards from the middle of the table, but you didn’t have any money. So deep sleep became money, since you need an equal amount of deep sleep to match the amount you dream. At least, that is how it works out for someone who sleeps normally.

Now I was facing my toughest challenge. How in the world does this game end? This took a whole day of me puzzling it over before I had the slightest clue. I tried to consider thematic approaches, then mechanical approaches. Finally, while I was thinking of mechanics, I considered set collection. In my newest designs, I often like to test mechanics I haven’t really played around with.

For some reason, I liked the sound of set collection but I didn’t care for how static it can feel some times. Additionally, I didn’t want to make this game a take-that experience so I tried to figure out how to make this process fluid. That’s when I came up with the concept of creating a stack.

As you play the game, you create a stack. This gives you adjacency between cards above and below one another. So, I figured this would be an interesting way to build in a set collection that also represents how you played the game. I polished it off with a bit of creativity on how it fits into the theme and I was ready to write down some notes.

Time to Write it All Down
The notes I wrote had everything you see here. They also contained probably the most complex and uninteresting scoring matrix I ever came up with in a game. It was so bad I told my wife I didn’t like it. Thankfully our play-testers really helped clean this up.

After writing the first outlines, we slapped rules together and put it up in the 2014 Card Game Design Contest not really to win, but to get a few more play-testers involved. As far as designs go, this was done fast and dirty. Thankfully, it has been showing to have some legs and decent replay value.

What’s Next?
The next step for the game is to tighten up the rules and thematic verbiage and finally get some diagrams to make explaining things easier. What is interesting is that we may know an artist that will be perfect for this project. Hopefully she’ll have some time to help.

This has, so far, been a great example of putting into practice all the little things I’ve noticed while playing and designing games. It follows the rule of a clean design where it felt done once I took everything away I possibly could while using components to their maximum ability. It’s really an experiment I’ve really enjoyed.

Voting in the Contest
Sarah here! If you’re interested, the voting for the contest goes until September 30th. Here is where you can look over the entries and vote. Project Dreamscape has been entered into the Large Deck category, but don’t feel you have to vote for us. Though we do appreciate the support.

Print and Play
If you’d like to print out Project Dreamscape and play-test it, we’d love the feedback. Please check out our Work In Progress thread. The files linked there aren’t the most up-to-date. Once the contest is over at the end of September, we’ll upload the revised rules. But there is a lot of discussion in the thread that should help clarify things so please scroll down and read.

Conclusion
Hope you’ve enjoyed this look into how my husband Will designed Project Dreamscape. We’ll definitely be talking about it more in the future as our goal is to get this one up on The Game Crafter eventually. Pleas leave any comments you have below. I’d especially be interest to know whether you enjoyed this kind of entry. If so, I’ll do what I can to prod Will into writing more in the future.
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