Advice for the next generation of designers
When I first became interested in board game design back in the late 80’s there was not much of an internet to search. My local library did not have any books on board game design and few people around me thought much about such things. This is not the case today, now a google search for board game design returns “About 40,000,000 results in (0.56 seconds)”.
The situation may have changed a lot for the better over the last 30 years in terms of quantity. However, now the problem has become more about how design is taught and learned. The designers coming out of this current generation are hit with information overload. They don’t know where to start and are frustrated with a never ending, ever changing, flow of information.
To combat this problem well-meaning bloggers and game designers try to simplify their advice into the ever popular format of the list! They grab for attention with buzzwords like TOP 10 and Dos and Don’ts! Many Times this advice is generalized or generic while other times it can even target specific mechanisms within a specific game. While these lists differ greatly from author to author they do mostly share some basic similarities. Is this really how other dynamic art forms are learned or taught?
Note: The vast majority of the articles on the internet written by board game designers are helpful and do point new designers down the path to success. Furthermore, I applaud anyone who tries to help others learn and this is not an outright indictment of anyone’s methods.
So in keeping with this trend, I will also try to format this into a list of sorts. This will be a taste of my advice for designers and also address some of my concerns with the type of advice being given to newcomers. This “list” will be divided into three main parts (Early, Mid, and Late “Game”).
The Early Game – “for new designers”
Start and keep a design “notebook”
The human mind is a funny thing, we all remember things differently the next day and forget some things just moments after they happen. This makes it vital to record your ideas as they come. This is the 21st century and so this design notebook can take whatever form you are most comfortable with. You must decide for yourself what method keeps you the most organized. This might be a good old fashioned pen and paper notebook or it might be a cloud base organizational tool like Evernote dot com. Some authors and designers use MP3 recorders to capture their thoughts as they flow. The point is to get them out of your fragile memory and into something that can be referenced later. Also the sooner you start to build this into a habit the sooner it will become a useful tool. Don’t be discouraged if you look back on the first dozen pages and don’t find your notes all that useful. Just like any tool, you must develop the skills to use it to its full potential.
Keep in mind that this notebook does not need to be purely 100% your thoughts! Just like taking notes in a school class this is also for tips you pick up from other designer and things that just peek your interest. When you that great new game mechanic (or mechanism) record the basics of how it works and how you might use it in other ways. While the format of the notebook is not critical, it needs to work for you and be easy to reference. This just means; “Do it your way”.
Don’t do too much design work in your head. Write it down, draw it out, you don’t need to be an artist or novelist. Your notes can be ugly and short, only you need to know what they mean! Your designs will not be judged by the spelling or artistic quality of your notes. However, your designs will show the level effort you put into your design notes.
Play a lot of games
Notice first, I did not say to only play a lot of board games. Games come in many forms and as a designer, should explore them all. Just remember to keep some of your focus on the design aspects of the games and not on just enjoying them. I also did not say play only games you find fun. You should play many different types of games. This will lead you to discover the fun in games you might never have enjoyed. At a minimum, you need to be able to put in your own words why each game is fun for the intended audience, even if you did not find it fun.
Something that is not stressed enough to new designers is that playing any game only once is near pointless when it comes to the subject of design. When you are exploring a game you need to dive in and see what it has to offer. Far too many games being designed today are fun only once (or only a few times) and you need to understand why that is and learn to avoid these issue when designing your games. The reverse is also true, you many not fully understand why a game has replay value until you experience it for yourself.
Note: While playing games, keep your notebook or recording method near you. You won’t remember that great thing you wanted to after you get back to where you keep it. The note taking part of design is vital.
Start small and simple
Board game design is a progressive art form just like any other, the first thing you do is rarely the best thing you do. As you learn your skills will increase and mature. As your experience grows so will the quality of your designs. Starting small with something simple will both help you to manage the project and ensure you will finish it! Finishing, not just starting, a board game design is by far the most important act you as a board game designer will ever do.
The more things you add to a design the more things you will need to balance and manage. Don’t make things harder on yourself than they already are. Every designer has an epic idea that could change the industry, but if that is the first thing you try to design, you are likely to fail epically and lose the motivation to continue through to the success that waits for persistence. Game design is not all about failure but failure is a part of learning how to design successfully.
Don’t fear a thief! (Don’t hide your ideas)
Ideas are cheap and easy to come by. Many people have the same great ideas, and just don’t act on them. The truth about ideas is that they are all worthless as ideas. Even the worst ideas can be worth something when converted by work into a product that can be sold. The key is not to protect the idea from being stolen, indeed the key is to work on the idea actively and talk about it openly! When and if some hypothetical court battle happens the fact that you did not hide the idea will help prove you had it first. Not that there has ever been a court battle over the idea, but indeed it is always about the end product! You can’t prove someone else is in illegitimate competition to your product if you don’t’ have one.
Get to a prototype fast
Your first step after writing down your idea is to find a way to test it in play! Don’t try and make it look nice or be presentable to others. No one else in the world needs to understand what that crazy mess you call your first prototype is, only you do. Tear up pieces of a napkin if you have to, just find a way to physically test the idea.
It helps to keep bits and pieces of games around in a box for when you need to test ideas. Take old games and just dump the parts into one place and when the ideas are flowing, grab what you need and get to testing as fast as you can. Don’t forget to record the results of the tests and ideas for better components in your design notebook!
Abandon ideas that don’t work?
This is advice that I take a little issue with. After testing a new idea, if you find that it is not fun or it does not work all that well. Keep it in your notes and just move on. This comes from maturity because quitting it not what I mean here. But the core of a game needs to generate fun and work as a system. If testing shows you that one of these is missing and you don’t see a way to fix the problems, it might be time to put it back on the idea shelf. You are investing time into your ideas so make sure you are spending your time wisely on ideas that have a future you can see. If you are at the limit of your current level of creativity or ingenuity, come back to that idea once you have developed more of both. The more you work in design the more tools you will have to tackle design issues. From time to time look back through your design notes, you might have gained the wisdom to do something with your older failed ideas.
Be a game design hoarder – In failure, keep everything
As they say; “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Just because an idea did not work the way you thought it would, does not make it useless or make you a failure. The only parts of failure that are important in design are what you do with it and what you take away from it. Don’t internalize failure, and try to do better next time. Again, game design is as much an art form that must be practiced as it is a science that must be learned. Keep things even if it is just a fragment so that later you can use it in something else. If you throw it all out you may never remember what it was.
Don’t do this thing or use this mechanic!
I hear this type of advice to new game designers all the time. Don’t use the roll & move mechanic or don’t make a 3-hour game. Player Elimination is also another “bad” thing in board game design according to many sources. Mechanics and play methods are not good or bad in and of themselves. I can think of reasons to include all of the above in games… even the same game.
This type of very targeted advice needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. Most of the time those who give this type of advice mean well but are creating a design bias for things that might only be issues in one game or when used a specific way. As a new designer, I encourage you to set constraints for your own designs but don’t overlook anything just because it did not work in someone else’s game.
Used the wrong way anything in design might not work very well, and some things work well for one target audience that another audience hates. Understand your limits and the limits of your target audience and test things out for yourself. When you hear that something is bad and you should stay away from it, take out your design notebook and record that bad thing. At the same time write down your ideas on how that bad thing might work well if use another way, or how it might work better when combined with something else.
Note: This is not to say that industry best practices are to be outright ignored, but innovation comes more from thinking outside the box.
The Mid Game – “Make the best game you can”
Playtest your game a lot
This means you need your ugly prototype ready. There are several types of playtesting that you should do, and each has a type of prototype that you will need. You “yourself” should test how the mechanics interact and try to figure out what components will be needed. This is done in a very rough and fast way, no art, no 3D modeling, and no real theming. This is not to say that you won’t have a theme in mind, just that you can keep that part in your imagination for now.
After you have made sure things work from a mechanical standpoint, it is time to make a better prototype. Still, don’t focus on art or theme, but try to make the components understandable and functional with as little explanation needed for how they work as possible. This version can be shared with family, friends, and co-workers if that is appropriate. You will be there as the game is played so take note of anything that you need to explain or that you need to explain more than once. Try to get as many people to play as you can but don’t start making changes to the game unless it is obvious that the change is needed for clarity. Friends and family don’t always give the best design advice, having them play the game is more for helping you to understand how you need to write the rules and helps you to gauge how the mechanics are working.
The rules document
Write rules in active second person, I am not an English major, but this basically means talk directly to the player as if you were actively there with them. Don’t talk about the game, the components or what might be going on in the game in the past tense. The rules should to include some basic things like:
- An inventory of what is in the game box
- The object or summary of the game
- How to set up the game
- How the game is played (not how to play the game)
- How to score and win the game
Some needed “Extras” for better games
- Make a quick start guide
- Player aids
- Reference sheets
- Tutorial or walk-through of a few turns
After you have a good solid copy of the game rules and you feel confident that someone could play your game just by reading them, it is time for the best prototype you can make or have made for you on a budget. Pro game art is still not the most important factor here depending on how you want to move forward but the quality of the components needs to be as good as possible. This is the copy you will use for blind playtesting and maybe even to send to a publisher if they ask for a prototype. You are also at the stage where a print-and-play version of this prototype might be a good idea so that it will be easier to share.
Some important study areas
Learning at least something about mathematical game theory and general game design theory is important but not mandatory at this point in the game. However, trying to understand them will be very helpful. The Mid Game is all about learning as you design. Some concepts are not given enough attention and learning more about them and the design theory behind them is a good idea. Concepts like power and control, complexity vs. depth, giving players meaningful choices, and how to develop a story. These are not light reading and should be taken in small chunks whenever you have time.
Try diving into some subjects that might seem less related to board game design (but are), such as historical military tactics, mathematical statistics, human psychology, anthropology, and economics. Each of these will help add tools to your tool belt. But if you don’t get to them all just remember that life can be your greatest teacher, use what you know, work hard and do your best.
The Late Game – “After your first design”
Don’t quit your day job
Congratulations on finishing your first game design! Now you are off into the world of trying to sell yourself and the game to a publisher or transitioning into becoming a business person for the self-publishing route. Even if you are able to get it published or self-published it, don’t kick that 9 to 5 just yet. Unless you are in the rare few, you will need to keep working your normal job, so don’t burn any bridges just yet. You don’t need to go pro, many designers are hobbyists, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Hone your organizational skills
Even if you don’t change from game designer into a business person, you should still become more organized. This is a great time to revisit how you record notes and begin formulating your method for game design. Designing one game is easy when compared with having 6 – 10 ideas all taking up space in your life and notebooks. Each of these ideas will progress at different rates and fall at levels of development.
Version control becomes important as you begin to discard older prototypes and update rules documents. If you are not careful these things will begin to overwhelm you very quickly. Remember that just because it is an old idea don’t just sweep it all into the trash.
Study – ancient and modern games (and the designers)
Notice I did not say just play these games, though that is also a great idea. By study I mean analyze every aspect of the designs and seek to understand the design choices behind the why of the game’s mechanics. As it is, many ancient games don’t have rules that are known, so trying to figure out what might have been the reasons behind the list of known components is a wonderful design exercise.
In your more advanced studies, see how much you can learn from the talks and writings of the designers who have made great games. You can’t and should not try to copy their success but you should try to follow in their footsteps.
You should go back and review the design concepts touched on in the Mid Game and study them in more detail so that you can begin to master them for use in your own designs.
Network and Share
There is a lot to be said for the way we needed each other. The more you connect with other designers the more you will gain insight into the pro designer’s world and see how they have achieved what they have. The more you show you are willing to help and be a part of what they are doing, the more likely they are to respond in kind. The world of board game design is getting larger all the time, the sooner you jump in the sooner the shock of the cold water will wear off.
There is also something to be said for bringing your A game as you enter this level of commitment and for many hobbyists, it is not a world they are ready to commit too. You need to understand where you are in life and what you are willing to commit. There is no indictment on your character for staying more of a hobbyist! People like that founded the very industry we are talking about.
Remember to share what you have learned with the community, it will help someone and also garner you brownie points along the way. You will also learn a lot from trying to express what you have learned in words. Ideas will form around concepts that you did not fully understand and many times you will gain just as much from helping someone else as you do from someone else helping you.
This is not intended as a full step-by-step guide to everything you need to know to be a game designer. The main thing you should take away from this is; design is just as much art as it is science, you really need to do things like practice and fail a few times in order to benefit from the information. So get to it and make a few simple games to get your feet wet. Even if your first few are no good, how is that any different from someone’s first few paintings? This is just my thoughts on some of the advice I have heard over the years.
Note: I will try to edit this more when I have time, for now, it is presented “as is”. I don’t write for a living, I am just a hobbyist board game designer trying to help.
This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.
“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”
“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”