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Designer Diary: Designing Backwards by a MegaGame Designer

Shaun McMillan

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I've heard it said that the easy way to start designing a game is to begin with a good base mechanism. The horrendous alternative approach that I most often follow is to start with a theme, then try to find the mechanisms that make that theme work.

The logic of starting with a simple mechanism sounds reasonable. It's something you can quickly make into a prototype and start testing. The sooner you can test your game, the sooner you'll get feedback from others and the sooner you'll know whether you have a marketable game. If strangers enjoy playing a game that is hand-written on a few index cards, uses a modified poker deck, or features a large geometric board with a few dice or shuffling thrown in, then surely thousands of Kickstarter enthusiasts will pay for the opportunity to play the same game with art, theme, and a little hype, right? It's a simple, straightforward, ideal route to success. Sounds awesome — why not start now?

The problem, in reality, is that a game with only one mechanism will not hold someone's attention for more than three rounds. It quickly becomes predictable, so you need a second mechanism to make the game a little more dynamic — but even with two mechanisms, you still have a game in which the choices you should make are pretty obvious. You really need three mechanisms all interacting with each so that unexpected layers of meta-gameplay emerge that players could not have predicted simply by knowing the base rules.

Ideally two of these mechanisms will be familiar to players or similar to other popular games, and one would be truly innovative or unique. This way the game is an easy sell. It would then have enough familiarity for it to find its true audience (those who like other popular games with these mechanisms would be drawn in by hearing a new game has the same mechanism), and your one new innovative mechanism would be the hook that leaves a little mystery to pique their curiosity. This is why most new games are a modified improvement of some other game from its genre.

Introducing too many new innovations too quickly can be overwhelming to players. As a megagame designer, I am speaking from experience. Many board game enthusiasts know what designer board games are, but are familiar with megagames. My audience is mostly high school and college students. Many of them don't even know what a designer board game is, so introducing them to a political science simulation that combines designer board game mechanisms with tabletop RPG mechanisms and LARP style theatrical roleplaying is completely overwhelming. For a little literature on this, you might find the books The Creative Curve and The Blue Ocean Strategy good to read. Both of them make the argument that when innovating and trying to be successful in a market, you want to be a little ahead of the curve on a rising trend, but not so far out that you are ahead of your time.

Okay, so let's start with a dynamic set of at least three mechanisms, two of which are familiar. Still sounds pretty reasonable right?

My Achievements to Date

After designing ALLIANCE: The Ultimate World Leader Political Science MegaGame, a game for 8-72 players that takes at least two hours to play, with my game design class of high school students, I decided to try something a little smaller, so I then successfully Kickstarted, then designed — yes, in this order as I prefer to do things backwards — from 2015-2016. Great Boy: The Game, which was based on the rules from T.I.M.E Stories, taught students how to understand a specific story from the Bible. Most of my games are educational because I am first and foremost a teacher. I became a game designer only because I saw that students learn better from simulations than they do from lectures.

But even my Bible Study simulation game took two to three hours of gameplay if you played the full version that included the optional social deduction mechanisms. My audience complained that the game was too long, and the rules too overwhelming to learn. (Most of them knew only Monopoly and Poker card games.)

Then I made a microgame slightly more complicated than Love Letter but just as short. This game simulated David hiding from King Saul.

Since then I have made another strategy card game called Conspiracy for 2-9 players in which you can choose who you want to ally with, and who you want to conspire against or betray. Many can win together, but one must die. It was my first non-educational game, but it's a lot of fun. I also created a sequel to my original megagame called ALLIANCE Last Days in which up to one hundred players are given four hours to bring the world back from the abyss of the Apocalypse.

Obligatory Shameless Self-Promotion

Starting May 19, 2019, I will be selling eighty tickets for a game of ALLIANCE Last Days that will take place at Gen Con 2019. You can see more about this game and my other ones on this website.

Okay, now that credibility has been established and all business aside, let's get back to avoiding the straightforward easy paths when designing games.

My Least Efficient Tried-and-True Fun Technique for Making a Game that Works: Take The Scenic Route, Not the Short Cut

So after designing four-hour megagames that can fit one hundred players as well as short fast strategy card games what have I learned? What actually works when designing a game? Here are a couple of the tips I've learned:

Play games. Admire their mechanisms and admire their systems, but keep in mind that what we really love about games is the emotional experiences that emerge from those mechanisms. Designing games is a lot of work, and very few of us are really making any money from it, so it should be fun — not work.

Designing experiences is fun, so start by dreaming about the epic experience that you want to emerge from your mechanisms, not the mechanisms themselves. I like and want to make games in which players have to build trust between each other, then feel the tension of not wanting to betray that trust, but having such an overwhelming sense of desire to reach a morally justifiable achievement that they find themselves choosing to betray that trust. Or maybe you want a game in which no matter how much of a lead the winning player has they still feel fear that the losing player's big gamble could result in their own very personal humiliation at losing that huge lead at the very last second. These emotional experiences are what we remember and live to tell others about after the game. This is what sells games. This is what motivates us to make games. Start with the emotions.

This emotional experience you are designing for will not emerge from mechanisms that don't exist, so now I have to research like crazy, playing every game that I think might have the mechanisms I need to create this experience. Maybe I can combine some of the mechanisms from Dead of Winter with the mechanisms of Pandemic, and possibly even a little bit from the Fallout video game. This is how I designed ALLIANCE Last Days.

Now I'm working on a standalone expansion to ALLIANCE Last Days in which five different factions are all investigating Ground Zero. It borrows some decksploration mechanisms from T.I.M.E. Stories, a deck-building mechanism from Shadowrun: Crossfire, and a little from The Grizzled. This is how I work. I am so excited to create that overwhelmingly emotional experience that it gives me the motivation to do the research required. It's not the easy fast way to make games. It's the long scenic route, but it works for me.

I took the short easy path once, starting with a couple of simple mechanisms when I designed Conspiracy. The basic idea was that it would be a simple cloak-and-dagger strategy game like Coup (excluding the bluffing mechanism, which is really what makes that game fun), but with the simple twist that you always have the option to give away your secret role card at the end of your turn. This meant the odds were only 50/50 that a player still had their secret role card after they used it to stab you.

This was the fastest I ever designed a game, but I knew that this mechanism combined with secret alliance mechanisms would create the kind of emotional experience that I love about social deduction games. I got very lucky that the base mechanisms worked from right out of the gate. The only real issue was making those mechanisms tighter and not so clunky. This leads me to one of the biggest lessons I've learned from making games:

Begin with the excitement of designing the game you want it to be, but finish with the game that the game wants to be

2. Player Experience = Emotions

The player experience can best be described with emotion words or feelings. I want one player to feel betrayed. I want the players to feel the immense pressure of having to make difficult choices with horrible tradeoffs. I want them to feel morally calloused. I want my players to feel drunk on power. This player will be blinded by their ambition and shocked when a weak player humiliates them. They will feel a sense of mystery as they each have only partial information and feel pressured because they have to make critical choices in a timely manner based on faulty information. They will project a sense of false confidence by bluffing.

1. Mechanisms = Actions

Mechanisms, on the other hand, can best be described with action words. In order to introduce an element of randomness, players will shuffle cards or roll dice. They will have to choose which bonus they want. They will have to discard the card after they use it as their action.

This is backwards in the sense that emotional depth emerges from simple mechanisms, so to start with emotions and make them a priority I have to use what I call the shotgun approach with mechanisms. Try tens or hundreds of mechanical ideas until the experience you're designing for emerges from the mix. You are like Edison trying hundreds of different metal filaments until you find exactly the right one that will efficiently turn electricity into artificial light. This method is neither fast nor efficient, but it is the only way I really enjoy the process.

3. Adjust Your Dials: Information and Power Values

The third thing you need is to dole out information and to hold information back. But this is simply a dial you will crank up or turn down to facilitate balance between the other parts of the game. It's like the purchase cost of any card or its power value. You don't start with these values; at first you throw in somewhat arbitrary numbers, then you keep modifying them until they seem to create some asymmetric balance (at least in the kind of games I design).

You will have only a wild notion of what you think could make for a playable game. It might work with the initial mechanisms and values you first throw together, but more likely it will be wildly broken or uninteresting — and often both.

But that's okay because as long as some part of it seems interesting, then you can throw in or take out mechanisms randomly or try different modifications of the rules until the game becomes the game that it was meant to be. You have to let the game mature and sacrifice many of the initial groundbreaking ideas you thought would form the identity of the game. It's like raising a child. Raise it according to its own individuality once you give birth to your game. Converse with the game through playtesting. Find what works for the game. Ultimately, it should create one novel emotionally thematic experience.

For me, the emotionally thematic experience takes priority over clever mechanisms. If it comes down to it, I must sacrifice clever mechanisms for the greater emotional experience. Maybe you thought your son would grow up to become a great pitcher, but as it turns out he wants to play soccer. If he has the potential to be a good soccer player or have a lot of fun trying, then celebrate because your game loves sports.

This could also be said for theme, but anyone reading this article will already be familiar with the "theme should match mechanisms" message.

There is yet one more method I have used to make games. As you might have noticed earlier, I like to start with my favorite games as a template and turn them into the games I wanted to make.

My Painfully Backwards Four-Step Technique for Turning Your Favorite Game Into an Entirely New Game

I love Dead of Winter. I like the weight of the box created by the overwhelming number of counters. I like the stupid simplicity with which the mechanisms simulate a personal dramatic narrative. I like the severity of the meanest twelve-sided dice I have ever rolled in any game I have ever played. I even like the art. (I am a rare species of game designer who actually draws, paints, and designs all of my own graphics. I don't care for maybe 80% of the board games I've played, and I like the art of even fewer of those games.)

I also really like Coup. I like short cloak-and-dagger strategy games, social deduction games, and deep, long narrative games, and almost nothing in-between. I like learning games and admiring their systems, but I don't care for just playing them.

I also really like — and don't worry as I am getting somewhere with this — T.I.M.E Stories. Well, I like how they turned a linear narrative into a playable game, but I hate their narratives. Their mechanisms are also quite shallow, but at least their choices and exploration are really good. Basically after reading six books on scriptwriting and storytelling, I believe I can do better. And who knows? Maybe I can even add in some social deduction between the players. This idea was what inspired me to create Great Boy: The Game.

It's also the process by which I am currently working on a standalone expansion to my megagame ALLIANCE Last Days. The idea for this game is that I want to make a T.I.M.E Stories-like "choose your own adventure" narrative game that explores moral ambiguities like a great sci-fi novel. I also want it to have deeper mechanisms that actually serve the story. Pixar says "Story Is King", and they design all of their characters, write every line of dialogue, and compose every storyboard to serve the purpose of that story.

Also, if possible, I would like to make it into a game that can be played by as few as two players, but as many as twelve, so that it can be played through at least five different times five different ways or at least be completely replayable and have far deeper mechanisms.

My ambitions are big, and according to the method I described above, it's time to shotgun some mechanisms until the above mentioned features emerge. Where to start? My suspicion is that I could use deck-building (old familiar mechanism) to allow each player to fulfill conflicting objectives (old familiar mechanism) while exploring a set of locations with a linear narrative in the guise of five different factions from five different corners/starting points, each with 2-3 players/characters (a somewhat new mix of relatively new trending mechanisms).

To make this game I:

1. Researched all of the games I thought might have useful mechanisms, including three adventure deck builders, Fallout the board game, T.I.M.E Stories, and countless others. I created a word document that explained all of the mechanisms as abstractly as possible and looked for both the similarities and differences between all of these games.

I also created an elaborate list of possible mechanisms I could throw in to suit my game's theme or create the emotional experience I hope my players will have.

2. I created a hand-written copy of Shadowrun: Crossfire on index cards and played it with friends to hear what they thought of it, then played it by myself on TableTop Simulator.

3. I then built a spreadsheet of all the cards in Shadowrun: Crossfire and re-themed them, changing all of the key vocabulary to match the themes in my game.

4. I then removed many of the decks that complicate the game and replaced them with mechanisms/decks borrowed from other games. For example, I added some T.I.M.E Stories-styled mechanisms through tarot-sized narrative card location decks to go along with the newly themed deck-builder. I also threw in a secret objective deck.

Now I'm slowly but surely modifying and replacing every rule and every card to match the themes and facilitate the ugly trade-off between players working together or against each other that I love from Dead of Winter.

I'm also fine-tuning the game by doling out information asymmetrically to each player and withholding information. I also need to play the game enough to see whether the power values of each card are balanced or not, but this will easily get sorted as I playtest with more and more players.

The game will begin to break as you begin replacing the original mechanisms with mechanisms from other favorite games, but at least it will be dynamic. When starting from scratch, it's hard to get the bare minimum number of mechanisms interacting with each to make the game interesting enough for game testing.

My Technical Process

I use a combination of Photoshop, InDesign, and Spreadsheets to crank out large numbers of cards quickly. I do all the graphic design myself, and these days I do full graphics for even the earliest version of my prototype for two reasons, neither of which justify you following my example:

A) I love to do the graphics. Don't take my fun away from me.
B) I'm a snob, and I demand the aesthetic appeal of playing a game that looks good.

These days I'm playtesting my games on Tabletop Simulator, which is a great cheap way to play both by yourself and with others remotely through the internet. If you are interested in playing any of my games, hit me up on my Discord server.

In Defense of My Own Backwardsness

I do have one major piece of advice I'd like to give, and not just to justify what I have already deemed as a backwards method: Take your project from the first phase all the way to the final phase as quickly as possible as many times as possible. Don't get stuck in any one phase. Don't spend an absurd amount of time obsessing over some minor mechanism as a form of procrastination to stave off the real fear of putting a real prototype in front of real players with real opinions. Print out an unfinished copy of the game and see what it looks like on the table being played. Deal with the real problems instead of avoiding or delaying them. Face them like a champ. Be astonishingly disappointed by aspects you didn't expect early on instead of later on. Find out that there is not nearly enough contrast to be able to read the text.

Is there some phase of this process that strikes you with terror simply because you've never done it before? Then focus on dealing with that fear more than any other aspect, especially more than on the aspects of the process that you are familiar and comfortable with. This is, of course, useful advice only for those of you who want to bring a game to market. If that's not you, that's okay. Then my advice is to enjoy your hobby and don't worry so much about your achievements compared to anyone else's. Know what your end goal is, whether that is to bring a game to market, or to enjoy playtesting your own creations only with trusted friends, and start with the end in mind as your top priority.

Shaun D. McMillan
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