Intro to Game Design

By Mike Compton


I've found myself giving many of the same suggestions over and over again to people I've met throughout the years who have begun the journey of trying to design a game. Having walked that journey myself, here are a few suggestions for your consideration.


Get familiar with a variety of game mechanics by visiting your local game store and playing lots of modern games


A game "mechanic" is a piece of the game that makes up part of how the game plays. For example, “player elimination” is a game mechanic for Monopoly and Risk where eliminating players is a basic part of the game. “Roll and move” is a mechanic for games like Monopoly, Life, Candy Land and Trivial Pursuit where you roll dice, spin a wheel, draw a card, etc. and that roll/spin/card dictates movement along some sort of track on the board.


If your experience with board games has primarily been with games obtained through mass-market big box stores such as Walmart or Target (i.e. games like Monopoly, Clue, Risk, Battleship, Stratego, and Uno) it's important to know that such games - despite being iconic in American culture - only represent a small minority of the types of game mechanics that have been designed and included in published games over the years. 


It's very common for new designers who haven't been exposed to a variety of game mechanics to start off with designs very similar to what they know. The classic example of this is a Monopoly "clone" where the game is essentially a "roll and move" game around a board with spaces that cause things to happen when you land on them. Unfortunately, such designs are not nearly as original as they might seem to the uninitiated.


Many of the more modern game designs are to be found in local game and hobby shops and not in mass department stores. Find your local game shop, look around, and join in on a game night to get up to speed with what's being designed out there in today's board game market. 


Visit BoardGameGeek.com


BoardGameGeek.com is essentially the central website for the board gaming community with designers, publishers, artists, playtesters, gamers, and general hobbyists from around the world going there daily to upload content and discuss games. However, the amount of content on that website can be overwhelming to someone visiting the site for the first time. 


One possible place to start is to look at their index of game mechanics, do some reading about what the mechanics are all about, and look at which games are good examples of a given mechanic. Here is a link: http://boardgamegeek.com/browse/boardgamemechanic


Assume that your game design idea has probably already been done in a related way by somebody else (i.e. don't worry about copyrighting it)


Accept that your idea for a game has probably already been done in some way by somebody else - and that it's very likely they did it in a better way. For example, if you have an idea for a railroad game, then do you already know about the Ticket to Ride series, the 18XX games, the "Rails" series, and the various “Steam” games that have been published? If not, then you haven’t done your market research. 


Perhaps the most commonly asked question or fear by new designers when it comes to "risking" a playtest with other people is whether the designer should copyright their design or not. The truth is that it's not really the issue that many people think it is. There have already been millions of ideas for games and game mechanics circulated and the likelihood of someone coming up with something that hasn't been done in a related way is highly unlikely.

If you're thinking about copyrighting your material, you should know what that will and won't accomplish. Click here for info on what copyrighting actually protects and how to get started if you do want to copyright your material.

As far as publishers are concerned, they won't steal your idea because they simply have too much to lose over doing something like that. The Eurogame area of the board game publishing industry is actually relatively small and if one of those companies were to actually steal an idea from a designer, it would have tremendously negative consequences. Most well-known publishers are very honest people who will treat you fairly.


Build a rough prototype for your design as soon as possible


There are two main reasons for this suggestion.


First, it’s common for a new designer to want to think through many of the nuances of their game design before they actually prototype anything. This seems like a smart idea as one thinks it will save lots of time, paper, ink, etc. as one tries to get it “right” the first time. The reality is that a game design is rarely (if ever) anything close to a finished design the first time it's prototyped. In fact, it's more likely that it will offer a very miserable gaming experience. However, it's important to accept this as the norm, to not be discouraged by it, and to not unnecessarily give up on your design idea too quickly. 


Instead, accept that the process is iterative and that the iterative process can't truly begin until you actually put together a prototype. In fact, it can actually be more of a waste of time to invest a lot of thought into too many specifics for a game idea before you have anything prototyped as the process of building a prototype will often reveal that many of those ideas weren’t even tenable in the first place.


The second reason for this suggestion is that nice prototypes can actually be a hindrance to the designer psychologically. What you want are rough prototypes in the early stages - just barely clean enough for people to actually play, but not so nice as to represent a significant time or financial investment. Otherwise, the process of building the nice prototype can have the effect of making a designer more resistant to the feedback being given by the playtesters as that feedback means all of the ink and time spent building the “nice” prototype has to be undone for the next iteration.


Understand how to effectively recruit quality playtesters

Finding quality playtesters is a challenge. Usually new designers start off by appealing to family and/or close friends for early testing. However, one needs to keep in mind that such people usually have a desire to be "supportive" and may or may not have the gaming experience needed to provide the rigor of feedback that's required to help a designer see the important areas where a game needs to improve

Even if one has access to experienced gamers in the form of a consistent gaming group of some kind, it's not common for gamers at group meetups to be very receptive to playtesting solicitations. Usually gamers attend game nights because they want to play finished games, not works in progress. Even if one is successful in prevailing on other gamers to playtest, those gamers may be reluctant to give really honest feedback because they don't want to hurt someone's feelings. It's also not as common for those same gamers to be receptive to repeated playtest solicitations as one develops necessary iterations of a design.

If you have access to a group of dedicated playtesters on the other hand - many of whom are also working on game designs and actively trying to solve design problems of their own - this creates a situation where one is more likely to receive the rigorous, honest feedback needed to help a game design improve because everyone is working under a more common understanding. This is further enhanced when such a group agrees to meet on a semi-consistent basis for playtesting sessions as it helps accelerate the rate of improvement.


Be prepared for lots of feedback about flaws or deficiencies in your game - and don’t take it personally


Many new designers say they are open to feedback - but what most really want deep down in soliciting a playtest is to generally be praised for their genius while perhaps receiving suggestions for a few "tweaks". The reality is that most aren't prepared for the amount, type, and depth of feedback that they will receive from experienced playtesters. 


The key in receiving this feedback is to understand that such feedback is what every designer goes through in designing games and that it's not unique to you. Don’t make the mistake of tying negative feedback about your game design back to some grander estimation of your capacity as a designer. Some might argue that most quality game designs are born much more out of stubbornly sticking to the iterative process over a long period of time rather than because of having an amazing design from the beginning. This leads to the next suggestion.


Give your playtesters the benefit of the doubt


It's really important to accept that you as the designer suffer from the “curse of knowledge”. You know all of the internal dialogue you had that lead to a design decision being implemented in a certain way.This means you’re too close to the design. You know it too well. This can actually blind you as the designer to the necessary observations and insights that one needs to have in order to improve a game. 


Don't let your behind-the-scenes knowledge lead you to adopt a dismissive attitude towards your playtesters simply because "you know better". Give your playtesters the benefit of the doubt in that they are giving you valuable insight that you simply can’t get any other way.


It’s especially important to not get defensive with your playtesters. It’s okay to genuinely disagree on something, but don’t argue with them about it. Otherwise, they will be less likely to play future iterations of your game and you will lose out on the knowledge you might have gained.


Take notes at your playtest sessions


It’s been said that the dimmest ink is sharper than the best memory. Don’t kid yourself by believing that you’ll be able to remember everything your playtesters told you. Especially take notes if it’s feedback you don’t want to hear.


One published designer went so far as to take notes from his playtesters directly on the printed game board or on the cards of his prototypes. This not only helped him remember the specifics of the feedback - it also helped reinforce the correct notion that a prototype should be seen as a disposable means to an end.


Evaluate your game design as a "product" - not just a game


If you're serious about making a publishable quality game, then it’s not enough for a game to simply be not-broken. It’s not even enough for a game to be a lot of fun. What you need to figure out is what your game would do or offer as a product that isn’t already offered by the other competing products in the same space within the board game market. 


Continuing with a train game as an example, does your game offer something distinct enough from other existing train games such that a gamer would consider it a valuable addition to their collection even if they already owned those other train games? If not, then why would a game store manager want to stock your game in addition to those other games if those other games have a proven sales history and/or the benefit of name recognition? And if there aren't legit answers to these questions, then why would a publisher make the time and financial commitment to publish a game they're unsure will yield a return on investment? 


Even if your game is unique in some way, that doesn't mean that there is automatically a market out there for it that is robust enough to support a publication. For example, I once playtested a game for someone where the game had decent mechanics, a very well interwoven theme, and was fun to play. However, the type of theme being utilized narrowed the target audience down significantly - such that it would probably have to go through a different distribution network aimed at that audience rather than through typical hobby or game shop channels. On top of that, the game's complexity was not genuinely suitable for members of the target audience and the component count would have necessitated a price point that probably would have been too high for most target audience members. In short, the theme needed to change in order to make the game viable - but the theme was the whole reason the designer had designed the game in the first place - which leads to my next point.


Be willing to "cut your favorite scene"


This borrows from a movie making analogy in that there are times when a director, in the service of making the movie the best it can be, must cut his or her "favorite" scene. Likewise, if your goal is to make a good game, and you just found out that your favorite aspect of the game is actually the very thing that now needs to be changed or discarded in order to make that happen, then be willing to make the change. This leads to my next point.


Be more committed to the process than to the specific design (embrace the "zen")


One has to be patient enough to embrace a contradiction I call the "zen" of design. You have to be committed enough to designing a good game such that you're willing to put in hours and hours and hours of designing, prototyping, iterating, and refining while at the same time you must be disconnected enough to be willing to listen to incisive critiques that might reveal you need to throw away aspects of the design on which you spent large amounts time. In order to do this, one has to be committed to the process of designing rather than specifically to the design you're working on. Said differently, the initial game idea should not necessarily be seen so much as a revelation or glimpse of the potential end of your design journey as it is simply one particular way of manifesting the beginning of a long design journey - the conclusion of which is an unknown. 


Be patient - don't drop out


In order to properly embrace the process, it's important to be realistic about how much time and effort will probably be required to get a game design from initial concept and first prototype to a publishable quality level of refinement over the many iterations that will come. If one is thinking in terms of days or weeks, that's highly unlikely. It's more likely a matter of months or years. The important thing is to accept that this is the norm and to not get discouraged.


I've observed that too many new designers give up once they first get real feedback from competent playtesters who give them honest feedback. In past playtesting sessions I've participated in that happened on a consistent basis, if I had to put numbers to it, I would say maybe 2-out-of-3 of the designers who get real feedback from competent playtesters for the first time just give up (either that, or they press forward with making their game completely dismissing the playtest feedback). Of the 1/3 who do come back for a second playtest, 2-out-of-3 of those potential designers just give up after the second playtest. In other words, 1/3 of 1/3 of potential new designers actually try to stick the design process out in good faith beyond two real playtests. This fierce attrition rate can especially be a challenge for groups who try to get consistent playtesting in place. 


Understand what kind of prototype is and isn't needed to submit to a publisher


Your prototype doesn't have to look like an already-published game with professional artwork before it's ready to submit to a publisher. Simple clipart is fine so long as the layout of the game is efficient, clear, and allows the game to play easily. Doing things like hiring an artist or professionally printing a prototype is usually overkill.

You'll want to make sure your rule book is thorough and clear. Often, you'll be sending your prototype off to people who have to rely solely on your rule book for instructions on how to play the game. If your rule book isn't clear, they might never actually play your game (or they might not play the game you intended).

Accept that everything about the submission and publication process will take longer than you might think

One rule of thumb that I've jokingly used in the past that's turned out to actually be more true than not when working with publishers is to take the amount of time you think something significant will take, then double it and add 6 months. The new total is probably going to be accurate. For example, if you just sent a prototype to a publisher and you think that process would reasonably take about a month for them to play it and get back to you, then double that estimation and add 6 months for an 8 month total and you'll probably be right. I've submitted prototypes to Eagle-Gryphon games and to ZMan games and it has always taken months for them to get back to me. This is not a dig on them. It's simply the norm for publishers because publishers are busy.


This idea of things taking a long time still applies even after a publisher decides to publish your game. As a personal example, in July of 2008 I pitched my game in person to Jay Tummelson with Rio Grande Games and he decided to pick my game up for publication. I thought the process might take maybe a year to finally see it in publication. If you double that and add 6 months for a total of 2.5 years, it was still short of the actual amount of time needed as my game wasn't finally published and in stores until April of 2011. 


Know how to communicate with a publisher


One easy mistake to make when trying to communicate with a publisher is to let impatience get the best of you in the form of sending lots of emails when you don't get immediate responses. Publishers are busy. Their inboxes get stuffed everyday with all sorts of communication pertaining to their business. They have orders to fulfill, artists to contact, distributors to work with, invoices to create, and lots of emails to answer. Though your game submission is obviously very important to you, it's just one small blip on the radar out of a bazillion other things to a publisher. 


If you're going to email a publisher to follow up about your game (whether it's being considered for publication or has already been picked up), here are some specific suggestions:


1. Try not to email them more than once a month.


2. When you do have to send an email, have a subject line that is informative.


3. Try to limit the body of the email to two sentences max.


4. Make your last sentence a single closed-ended question that only requires a simple Yes/No response.


I found when emailing Jay after he had picked up my game that if I sent a three paragraph email with a number of qualitative questions and a subject line along the lines of "Some questions" I simply wouldn't get responses. This wasn't Jay being rude. This was Jay being a busy publisher who doesn't have time to read a huge email or write up lengthy responses. However, when I started abiding by my suggestions above, I began getting responses. Many of them very short - but they were responses nonetheless. 


An easy rule of thumb when writing an email to a publisher about anything is to ask yourself the following questions "Can the publisher read this email in under 5 seconds and can they likewise type up a response to it in about 5 seconds without having to step away from their computer to find the answer to the question?". 


Conclusion


The design process is a long and arduous road. Good luck to you in your journey. Be patient, and keep on designing.