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Subject: 10 Things I've learned while designing games so far: rss

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Gary Boyd
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I hope someone can find some value in this thread. I don't want to just regurgitate what I've read here at BGG, but these are lessons I've really taken to heart while designing. I'm not a famous designer, I don't have anything published, and I don't claim to be an expert. These are just my musings, so take them for what they're worth.

I do feel like I've learned a lot since I started designing games. My first two games have been shelved for the time being to work on my current game, The Castle. The first game is more of a CCG, the second is only in the early development phase but will be a map exploration game, this one is more of a moody board game in line with other moody board games. The first game is pretty strong but needs some finesse, my current game has been more of an organic design and I really like where it's taking me as a designer. So lesson number one is:

1. Don't be afraid to move on. If you're stuck, in a rut, have designer's block–whatever the case may be–don't be afraid to move on to something that's really grabbing your interest. That doesn't mean that you should go from game to game creating hobbled messes that play like the bastard child of monopoly and solitaire, but it does mean that sometimes you have to let something sit before you can really appreciate the work you put into it. Set it free, if it comes back it was meant to... yadda yadda.

2. There is more to learn than you ever will. This one is a no-brainer for anyone not born of a goddess and gifted to the seven continents. You will not know everything and asking for advice is not a weakness.

Your friends and family can act as sounding boards, but unless they are seasoned game designers they can only help so much. These forums have been invaluable to me as a designer. From acting as a lurker to finally posting my first thread, I've been helped along by so many posters here whether they know it or not. Search the threads that are out there. Google until you're blue in the face, do whatever you can to learn as much as you can before you ask questions. Then, ask questions. Above all, make every step a learning experience.

Study your subject matter. I don't care if it's the zombie apocalypse or the medieval manuer market, know your subject matter better than most players ever will. You can only stand by your decisions if you know what the hell you're talking about in the first place.

3. Prototype early and adjust accordingly. This is the easiest way I've found to see if game mechanics work. Your first prototype, as often is espoused here at BGG, can be no more than index cards, pennies, and poster board. This will give you a sense of how the game flows. Unless you're designing with another person, play by yourself playing as many of the player roles as needs be. This will keep outside judgement away during the fragile ego stage of initial development. This brings me to lesson 4.

4. Bring a notebook to the game table every time. There is a great deal of homework involved in game design. You should always have a notebook with you as you play test your game. Write down everything that works well and everything that doesn't.

I can't tell you how many times during an early play test I thought: "Oh, that needs to be fixed, I'll do that some time," and then a week later it still isn't fixed. This really hits home when you have two other players looking perplexed when you say: "Oh, that rule has been changed," or "No, I'm sorry I meant to fix that card text." Write down everything that breaks, or needs tuning during the play test. Wait until you've finished playing the game then go back and fix everything you just wrote down. If it can't be fixed immediately or you need time to think, put it on a second list of long term projects.

4. Watch out for the end game. One of the hardest lessons I learned in my first design was that end games can wreck your design. If the end game is too drawn out it will make the game boring. If the end game is too abrupt it will be jarring. For me, having a well balanced game to begin with helps lead to a strong end game.

5. Look at how you work. In my game design, I tend to bring everything but the kitchen sink to the table. I have 15 different mechanics and I'm forced to pare down. So look at how you work and see whether you tend to be a minimalist who needs to add a spot of complexity, or whether you need an editing eye. This is similar to writing a book. Add or remove according to how you design.

6. Kill your darlings. This one is so cliché that I'm reluctant to include it, but it really is important not to be so attached to a certain mechanic or element of the game that you are unwilling to change it to improve game play. I scrapped 5 different systems for my first game and it was a big lesson in humility, but has also made the game stronger.

7. Design smart. Once you have an initial prototype of the easily tossed variety, start with a spreadsheet and a program like Adobe InDesign where you can import the spreadsheet as a csv file. If you can't afford or access something like InDesign, just print cards from the spreadsheet. Either way, you can edit the spreadsheet and have your new set of cards generated on the fly. This will save TONS of time. Keep things centralized. If you don't know how to do things, learn.

8. Version control and then set goals. My earliest prototype is v.0.1. After that, I come up with a rules summary. Having the rules in your head makes them easily mutable on the fly. This can be a good thing at first, but when you play with others it may seem as if you're coming up with the rules as you go–which in my experience greatly decreases the fun factor. My version control system is my own, and though it may not be the best it keeps me honest.

Once I have a spreadsheet and have generated cards and a board it's v.0.2. By now, I have a fairly good outline of the rule set. Play test the hell out of it. Past that, any major changes up the version. I'm at v.0.4 of The Castle, with 20+ games logged here at the homestead. At v.0.5 I've made the decision to have prototypes printed for send outs.

After v.0.5 I will have a calendar based release schedule. Every release will refine the game, include errata discovered from the previous version and include all necessary changes to the files. I wont print again until v.1.0. I wont send to print for v.0.5 until I have everything ready to go with a more refined rule set. I'm polishing now, I'm excited about the prospect of my cards in print, but I'm also patient.

A nice prototype might help others enjoy the game more, but it also costs money. If you're operating on a tight budget then the later you can make a more professional prototype, the better.

9. Listen to advice but don't always take it. Okay, I didn't really learn this from game design. This is a life lesson, but it holds true in game design. Everyone has an opinion, some are valuable. Know when to stay true to yourself and when taking advice will make your design stronger. If Ajax the Conqueror says your game needs blood and guts and it is a game about having a vegetable garden, you can properly dismiss Ajax (but be wary of his battle axe).

10. Have fun and others might. If you have fun playing your game others probably will too. Not everyone mind you, but some people should enjoy your game. Designing should be fun, even if it is hard work that doesn't pay off financially. If you're not having fun designing your game it's probably not going to be much fun for other people to play.

All that being said, other people might think your game sucks. This can be a big let down if you thought you had the next Magic the Gathering or Settlers of Catan. Your first game is unlikely to be a smashing success, so is your second, so is your third. It is unlikely that any game you make hasn't been done to death already. It is unlikely that any game you make will ever be yanked from store shelves by rabid board gamers world wide. It is unlikely that your game will be played by more than a hundred people. If all of this is too discouraging then you're setting yourself up for a much bigger disappointment when your game is just that... a game.

Thank you for reading, or skimming, or taking the time to stop in and say "Oh God, not another n00b telling us what's what and where." I appreciate any feedback. There's so much more that I've learned through this community, but I don't want to occupy too much of the time you should spend on design reading endless rants on BGG (which happens to me more often than I care to admit).

Regards,
Gary
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Casey Willett
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Great post Gary and welcome! You were spot on with your points and I agree that game design should be approached from the viewpoint of the love of the game. If a tad of money happens to come with it then bonus! If not, well you still had an amazing journey, met some incredible people, and designed and hopefully published a game! I mean how cool is that!?!
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Dr. UDO
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Thanks for your insights Gary! As a hobbyist designer I know I've learned a lot and it mostly teaches me more that I don't know.
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Jiří Petruželka
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Great tips! I apply #5 easily in webdesign, but in game design ... it feels tricky as on the other hand some people have a hard time finishing things ... Well I'm glad it didn't turn out that way for The Castle
I also like #4 a lot, to leave a sweet not sour aftertaste
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Clayton B
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Quote:
]If Ajax the Conqueror says your game needs blood and guts and it is a game about having a vegetable garden, you can properly dismiss Ajax (but be wary of his battle axe).


Best advice here. Ajax is dangerous man.

I kid. This whole article is great. I seem to follow most of it so far (just starting out in Game Design for board games)
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Gary Boyd
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NoxArt wrote:
Great tips! I apply #5 easily in webdesign, but in game design ... it feels tricky as on the other hand some people have a hard time finishing things ... Well I'm glad it didn't turn out that way for The Castle
I also like #4 a lot, to leave a sweet not sour aftertaste


Number 5 is difficult for me as well. The Castle does need some editing and simplification in certain aspects of the game. I'm really working on that now, but I don't want to take so much away that the game becomes a beer and pretzel game. Not that there's anything wrong with beer and pretzels, (hell, I love beer and pretzels) but it's just not that kind of game.
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Chad Mestdagh
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Stomphoof wrote:
Quote:
]If Ajax the Conqueror says your game needs blood and guts and it is a game about having a vegetable garden, you can properly dismiss Ajax (but be wary of his battle axe).


Best advice here. Ajax is dangerous man.

I kid. This whole article is great. I seem to follow most of it so far (just starting out in Game Design for board games)


I really do think that Ajax the Conqueror needs his own game! I may have to create one for him.
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Gary Boyd
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I would be flattered.

Ajax would be mildly amused. He wouldn't show it outwardly of course, except for a slightly less stern crossing of his arms.
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Derek H
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Great article!

Re #7 Design Smart it is also worth investing some time to learn the free nanDeck program for card creation (and re-creation and re-re-creation...). The designer is active here on BGG, answers questions, provides guidance, and continues to improve it. You spend less time worrying about fiddling with Paint or GIMP and more time on the creative side!
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Rocco Privetera
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Great article!

I just finished an article for Ninja Dice describing its design process, and it's fun to see how many things are the same and how many are different. It's a parallel experience but we observe different things, right?

I have to agree especially on two points: "version control/taking notes at playtests" is killer. Killer. Whenever I play one of game designs - even for fun - I put a note into Evernote. These become crucial later, especially when working with a publisher. I've had a bunch of these conversations:

Publisher: Have you tried adding X mechanic? We think that might be a way to fix that one issue with the game. We want to test it.

Rock: Don't bother. Back in version 5 and 6 I was using that. In the playtests for those versions (playtests 55 through 82) 90% of the people said they didn't like it.

Publisher: Sweet, question answered!


"kill your darlings" is the second also key thing. I can't tell you how many times I was working on something and somebody said "can you cut X"? and my gut response is "NO - it simply CANNOT BE DONE THAT WAY" and they say "well, just as an exercise, try cutting it and let's see." And then you cut it and everybody says "oh much better". And then a few gameplays later you say yourself, begrudgingly, "yeah... it is better".

When it comes to cutting, and design, and playtesting, offer the designer is simply too involved - too "forest for the trees". The best collaboration a good designer can find is someone to fill the role of an "Editor".





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David Brain
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Although you do have to be careful when you presume that because X mechanic didn't work back in versions 5 and 6 it isn't an ideal fit now (in version 11.) That's happened to me an alarming number of times...

The real prize in designing is finding good "developers" - the guys who aren't trying to change the game into their game, but in sorting out the issues with yours. Sure, sometimes that entails you going back to the drawing board, but often you end up too close to the game to see what's wrong and - surprisingly often - the absurdly easy fix.
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Derek H
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Scurra wrote:
The real prize in designing is finding good "developers" - the guys who aren't trying to change the game into their game, but in sorting out the issues with yours. Sure, sometimes that entails you going back to the drawing board, but often you end up too close to the game to see what's wrong and - surprisingly often - the absurdly easy fix.

Interesting. There seems to be lots of game players (especially on the 'geek!) who are aspiring game designers, and lots of online resource for such people, but how many amateur/aspiring developers are there? Almost all the responses I have seem in threads where people refer to taking that role, are in the context of doing it professionally.
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