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Subject: How do YOU improve as a designer? rss

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Donald Orr
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Hi everyone,

I'm trying to get more into board game design. It would be great to have my name on a box someday, but I view that as an endgame goal, something that will happen when I've refined the skills of a board game designer to a certain level. But, how does one refine that skill? By playing and creating games, they say, but there are lots of approaches to that and I'm curious about what approaches people use to improve their skills as a designer.

Do you focus on passion projects?
Do you focus on community design contests?
Do you focus on design contests that offer possible publication?
Do you focus on attending conventions, particularly protospiels?
Do you focus on membership in a playtesting group?

What do you think is the comparative value of these, and other activities, for the purpose of improving at game design? Obviously this will vary a lot between individuals, but what works for you?



I've decided this is the year where I get really serious about my game design hobby. My plan for the year is to 1) Participate in every month's 24 Hour Design Contest, 2) Submit something to every contest that offers publication, and 3) Attend every convention and protospiel in my area. There's a biweekly game designers' group in my area, but I already attend two weekly game nights, and I don't want to give them up!
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Todd Zircher
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I focus on news, articles, and tools in order to better educate myself. So, I'm just a happy lurker at this time, but I appreciate all the effort that I find out there.
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Jeff Warrender
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My advice is that you'll grow the most by joining the designers' group.

Playtest cons are fun in their way but will give you a lot of first impressions of your game. The real work on a design is a repetitive slog that can best happen in the context of a semi-stable group. A group of designers will probably have more experience with unfinished designs and will be able to give you the most actionable feedback. But more importantly, you learn a ton by playing and critiquing other in-progress designs.

Similarly, contests are fun and can be a good tool for idea generation, but for most designers coming up with ideas isn't the hard part, it's seeing them through to completion, that and recognizing which ones are good enough to be worth investing time in.

Good luck and have fun!
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Oliver Kiley
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The core competency of a designer is, IMHO, being able to create a playable prototype and facilitate play-testing (solo play, group play, and blind play) to literately refine the design. Successfully doing this hinges entirely on being able to receive (and give) effective criticism on your work.

And so a crucial skill is being able to step back from your design to evaluate its performance objectively with respect to the game's design goals. Not surprisingly, having goals is really, really important - otherwise you're sort of just fumbling around aimlessly in the dark throughout the design process.

In terms of your specific projects - you need to focus on passion first and foremost. There's not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for most designers, and even if there is, it isn't a very big pot. Don't go into game design or force yourself to work on designs that you aren't passionate about and excited to work on.

You'll get burned out working on a given design at some point and need to take a break. It's almost inevitable I'd say. This is where having a number of projects you can work on is helpful. Maybe you work on a quick contest to just get something out where and work under a time constraint. Maybe you work up another design and pitch it at a convention just to get the experience of pitching a game. These are all useful things.

Understand that designing a game, even a mediocre one, is incredibly time consuming. I wouldn't worry about doing every month's contest or submitting on every publication contest. That sounds like insanity to me, and doesn't leave anytime for meaningful development of skills, playtesting, and iteratively refining games.

The one thing in your list that I'd prioritize is attending a bi-weekly game designers group and protospiels. That will build up core competency as a designer (i.e. playtesting and iterative refinement) more than mindlessly churning out ideas in a vacuum.
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Rick Holzgrafe
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Design, design, design. Don't limit yourself to one project at a time; have several in progress at once. Each one is a learning experience.

Play lots of published games. They will fill your head with techniques and potential solutions to your own design issues.

Don't be afraid to drop a project that isn't working out, but do make sure to figure out what isn't working, so you can avoid that problem in the future. As you grow as a designer, you may find that solutions will occur to you much later, and you can go back and revisit and revitalize "failed" projects.

Sometimes I tackle a design project simply as a learning experience. I did that once, with no intention of actually producing a finished game; I wound up selling that design and getting it published. And I learned a lot in the process.
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Pelle Nilsson
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Play games. I almost added "obviously", but many seem to skip this step.

Playtest for others. This is good for learning about the process, and also get to chat to other designers and developers/publishers.

Read all sorts of books (fiction and non-fiction). Chris Crawford on Game Design recommended this and I like to read so I like to think that he is right.

Download PDF rules or/and read detailed reviews of popular games that you do not have the time to play or do not think you would enjoy to play anyway. No one has time to play all games, but being aware of how popular games (and genres) work is very easy right here on bgg.

Participate in bgg design contests. (Although in the last few years I have mostly lurked, but at least tried to play a few games and provided feedback to the designers.)

My personal favorite is to dig up and play very, very old games. OK, it has used up much of my time that would otherwise have been used for designing games in the last ~4 years, but I like to think that I have also learned a lot that I can make use of (i.e. shamelessly steal).
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Corsaire
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Fail faster.

Do small games whether contests, or mods to good games, improvements to old games, exploring a single mechanic, exploring a type of experience. Read articles, watch videos about the area you are exploring.

Play games. Read the review and rule forums of those games. Have conversations about games you've played.

Though the beams haven't quite crossed; board game design is a type of design. Design has had university degree programs for decades. Look at the coursework and syllabi for an industrial design major.

Read books about user interface, cognitive psychology, operations research, technical writing. Take a free small business class. Meet artists.
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Laura Creighton
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Corsaire wrote:
Fail faster.


In the interest of this, take up kayaking. I get more new cool ideas paddling than doing anything else. Note -- it is rare to consciously have those ideas while paddling. While paddling you sort of put the front of your mind to sleep, so the thinking gets done by the part where the creativity lives. Unsupervised by you. After a while you get so that you can feel that a new creative idea, or a new solution to a problem you already know about is about to pop. And, in a few hours or a few days, pop, you will think of something. And it will make it ever so much easier to give up on a design that is a dog. You know there are plenty more where that came from.

(... and sometimes what pops is 'a better way to store goods in a kayak for a week long paddling trip', but heck, you cannot make your subconscious work to order. All you really can do is make space for it to be able to generate things faster.)

A friend of mine gets the same sort of result cross country skiing. You want repetitive physical activity combined with really nice scenery to look at while you don't think about your problems consciously, but just let your subconscious bubble away ....
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Jorge Zhang

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For me, it is extremely important to write down notes. One of my playtesters joked that I only ever seem to make a change he suggests if I write it down (it's true). It may seem obvious, but bringing a notebook to every playtest made me gain so much more out of every session. It's also a really nice place to put emails and names. So, invest in a notebook!
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Liberty Kifer
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The most important thing for my first design was just being extremely open to constructive criticism and suggestions. My game grew so much so quickly because I didn't have an ego about it, and I learned a TON just from the iteration process.

The most important thing for my second game was that I did it for a contest and it was another awesome learning experience, and I got to know so many people here better because of it. Those people have been invaluable.

As for the most important thing for the third game I'm working on, I don't know yet-- but I have a feeling it will being totally new challenges that will teach me totally new things. Maybe by failing. Lol...

In short.... staying open, sharing, getting out there in the community, just interacting...that's definitely what's gotten me this far
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Ryan James
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I am in no way a designer yet. I have about four or five designs I'm working on currently, one much, much further along in development than the others, but all of this advice previously mentioned is great.

I will say that basically with everything in life, if your heart isn't in it, then it won't work, at least not the way you want it to. That said, my design 'itch' seems to come in waves. I ride the wave when it's here as long as I possibly can.

The best advice my good buddy, who is also a designer, told me, was to just get your idea down into a VERY crude, but workable prototype. Play it. It doesn't matter how much it sucks - and it WILL suck - just play it. You'll very quickly realize what does and does not work, which will lead you to getting further along.

In the game that's furthest along in development, I tried to narrow down one thing that didn't seem to work, and only refine that. I guess what I'm saying is don't do too much at a time. Playtest as much as you possibly can. That's the trickiest part for me, is finding people to playtest. Most people - even friends and family - just don't want to play a crappy prototype, so finding people to actually play and give you constructive feedback is very challenging.

The game I'm working on right now has been in development for around three years or so, and I'm JUST starting to feel like I've got something real.

So my main points of advice (for what it's worth, as I'm just a nobody) is to get your idea down onto something playable, and play it. You'll see what works and more importantly, what doesn't.

Also, don't hold onto something you once thought would be awesome, if in practice it just isn't. That can be hard to come to terms with, but if that amazing mechanic that inspired the design is just too fiddly and cumbersome, cut it. What works in your head doesn't always work IRL. All the more reason to PLAY, PLAY, PLAY!
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Creaking Shelves
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As others have said, have multiple designs on the go at once. You need to get good at creating prototypes from scratch, and changing them between playtests. Having multiple designs helps get practice in these areas.

Having multiple designs also helps stop you getting too emotionally invested in one in particular. You also need to get good at taking and listening to feedback. Especially when it seems wrong and/or unfair. It's probably not.

Starting with smaller game designs makes it much quicker to get designs to a playable stage. I've particularly struggled with the demands of prototyping larger games, never quite managing to get them in a playable state yet. But I've been much more successful with games in the realm of 50 odd cards. One day I'll get those big games designed too!

I've found game design contests to be extremely effective for motivating concentrated design effort. I've even found them effective if I don't end up submitting the game, for whatever reason. I'll still have gained a significant amount more playtesting and development time than I probably would have prioritised had I not aimed for the contest.

Learn how to solo test (I still struggle with this one) to sanity check your designs before wasting other peoples time.

Find a regular designer meetup to attend to learn from them and to have somewhere that you can hopefully guarantee some regular playtest feedback. You'll need to do a lot of playtesting!
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Eric Francis
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For me, belonging to a playtesting group (Boston Game Makers Guild) for about the past 18 months has made a huge difference for me as a designer. It's not only having my games playtested and getting good feedback, but doing the same for other designers and seeing how they change their games after feedback. Plus, the group is just a great resource with lots of knowledge about gaming, designing, playtesting, conventions, pitching, etc.

Another thing I did for the first time last year was enter a contest sponsored by The Board Game Workshop podcast, which I actually won. Seeing what other games the judges picked to advance along with mine was really interesting, and there was a lot of feedback from the judges and the organizer. I have volunteered to judge this year's contest, which is open for entries April 14-21, and I'd encourage everyone to enter. You can find the submission info here.
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Eric Francis
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lacreighton wrote:
Corsaire wrote:
Fail faster.


In the interest of this, take up kayaking.


And get a good personal flotation device (PFD) so you get back to shore with those idea seeds in your head!

Also, I would strongly recommend the Cardboard Edison 2019 Best Practices handbook -- lots of great advice from designers in there. It's a free download on this page, just below the CE Award announcement.
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Carl Nyberg
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I play my games in my head and try to imagine what could go wrong and what could be improved.
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Carel Teijgeler
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squirrelhenge wrote:
Also, I would strongly recommend the Cardboard Edison 2019 Best Practices handbook -- lots of great advice from designers in there.

Downloaded this, but the questions to ask play testers in one of the articles are not the ones I wou;d ask. I prefer more technical questions, which require analytical skills.
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That monthly "24 hour design contest" sounds like a great idea.

Some more ideas & thoughts:

* Read books Not just "board game design" but "game design" or even "video game design". One good pretty recent one is by Michael Sellers, a book called 'Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach"

* Read a book about "systems", not just "game design". E.g. book by Donella Meadows 'Thinking in Systems: A Primer' It's not really about "game design" but it can possibly, maybe help expand how to think about games design. Ideas in this book possibly overlaps ideas presented in that Michael's book, so I would get that other book first.

* Prototype early. From idea to prototype in 2-3 weeks is better than 2-3 months. (Which is still better than 2-3 years).

* Keep project scope manageable.

* Consider "cards only" game. If you have just one type of element (cards instead of 7 million pieces) you have more restrictions and need to think inside that sandbox. It's also helps make print'n'play version, easy to create prototype (sleeve bunch of papers)

* This is probably an obvious one, but throwing it here: After "only cards" game, buy blank dice. It's amazing what you can do with them. Buy stickers & pen to draw on those stickers.

* One thing that has not been mentioned yet: design a print'n'play game & try get feedback on that. (This might help you must think of how to get geek players to try your game, forces you to write clear rules)
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Also: go through everything here https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1664574/couple-things-about... laugh
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Arjan van Houwelingen
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Having a core group that likes to meet regularly and playtest critically has been a key factor in becoming better as a designer and making better designs.

Setting up a playtesting & design guild has helped with attracting more diverse players for testing AND getting to see more types of prototypes to playtest. Getting a feel for a game quickly, what works, what not, certainly has been tuned by playtesting many games.

Besides that, listening to a LOT of podcasts, reading books on design and game design. Not everything I remember all of that content literally, but I feel like a lot is there implicitly and guides my intuition.

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Caroline Berg
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I'm pretty much always working on multiple games at a time...

I enter a lot of contests. I use the deadlines as a way to force me to get something done, instead of having a game project draw on forever. It's a nice way to combat perfectionism.

The 24 hour contests are great not just for extreme time management, but for getting coherent rules written quickly and concisely, getting to the heart of what makes the game fun, rapid iteration, letting go of perfection, keeping a game in scope, and importantly - knowing when to call a game done. Give it time, the more you do, the faster you'll be able to get working prototypes ready to play!

I like entering all kinds of contests and not just through BGG: Game Chef RPG design, one-page contest, 9-card card, Solitaire, Two-Player, interactive fiction contest, video game jams. Designing types of game I didn't initially think I'd like (two-player, party games, push-your-luck) has broadened the types of mechanics I can put into the types of games I do like to design. Sometimes it can be a pleasant surprise moving out of your comfort zone.

I read a lot of design books - game design, graphic design, narrative design, and a lot of books on writing. Lately I've been looking into how different rules are laid out, as I want to improve the overall look of my rule books. There are always areas of improvement!

I play games of all types. But more importantly I take notes on those games. I note what I like, what I dislike, why I like or don't like those things. I make sure to note the mechanics I enjoy, and unique combinations of mechanics that I think really work.

I also love interacting with designers through the design forums. Helping other designers, playing games, acting as another set of eyes on rules. I look at all the game threads, even though I don't always reply.
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