I took to Twitter a few times in the past weeks to seek some advice from current game designers. After all, now that I’ve been bitten by the design bug, I want to try and avoid some of the same pitfalls that others may have encountered along the way. I wanted to soak in their wisdom, as much as possible in the character limit that Twitter restricts (although some completely ignored Twitter, such as the wonderful and prolific Tom Russell from Hollandspiele). But rather than hoard their advice for myself, I thought it would be a fun thing to pass it back to the community as a whole.
Also, at the end, I am sharing the game I’m currently working on along with the other game ideas that have come my way. The massive project in there will be a slow undertaking, which is why there are some smaller and a mid-range design in there to keep things progressing.
So here is the advice that I was given for a new designer, courtesy of these great designers:
Everyone’s process is different, sometimes radically so, so good advice is of necessity going to be idiosyncratic & might not apply to your “friend”. (Bad advice, like “find the fun!” abounds and you don’t need my help finding it.) That said…
I don’t tend to start serious work on a project until I have a reasonably clear picture in my head of what I want the game to be and to feel like. Then I start working on it, and I keep working on it until it looks and feels like that picture.
I design wargames, which depend on historical research. The best advice I can give about that is to avoid going into the research phase looking for mechanisms or things to jot down. Too often you end up distorting further research to fit those things…
… it’s better to let it simmer for awhile, so that when it’s time to start putting together mechanisms, you’ve already got a good grounding in the topic and can now go deeper as needed. And that being said, only go as deep as you need to at that point;
if each turn represents a year, you don’t need to track what was happening week-to-week. A big problem with first time wargame design in particular is that the designer tries to cover details that aren’t appropriate for the game’s scale.
IMHO, strong game design has a focus and a point of view, looking at its topic through a particular lens (e.g., in the case of one of my games, looking at the American Revolution thru the lens of supplies/logistics).
Two final pieces of advice, the first of which sounds goofy and useless: design the game that only you can design.
The second piece of advice is either very, very good or very, very bad, and that is not to be afraid to be weird, idiosyncratic, even off-putting. It’s very, very good in that it made me a full-time game designer. Very, very bad in that it probably doesn’t work for most others!
Don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work or isn’t great to start out with. Don’t focus too much on how things look, things will most likely change a lot as you iterate. If you keep at it, your game will be great, but it could take a lot of time!
Try to make a prototype as soon as possible, rather than pondering on the idea too much. It is so valuable to be able to play with the game bits and it will make the progress rate increase by so much!
And if the game is big, playtest small chunks on their own. That way, when it breaks down, you know if it’s Chunk A, Chunk B, or the interaction between the two.
Build a roadmap to make sure you remember what the original concept, vision, and desired play experience is. It’s often easy to get lost in mechanics and forget what experience you were trying to create once you get into prototyping.
Don’t worry about starting off too complex. In fact, go for it. Make it as complex as you possibly can, then whittle away at that mass of complexity until you find the sculpture in the marble.
Get your idea into prototype form as quickly as possible so you can get it on the table in front of others. A LOT of time can be wasted between initial design and this step.
There is no one process for designing a game. What works for others may not work for you. What works for one game may not work for another. Even the best advice from amazing designers will need to be ignored or flipped around at some point.
I am the only game designer I know who does big upfront design. All of the others tend to iterate quickly.
Designing a game is similar to writing a novel/novella for me. Most of the same ideas apply. I imagine it might also be similar to a making a painting or a sculpture. Two ideas come together in my head, and they propagate more ideas. I create space for them and feed them energy.
Then I get to work developing them.
Make the game you love! It may lead to / spin off into something else, it may not be marketable, it may be a sprawling mess, but something pushed you to get into design, and you gotta roll with that thing.
Write things down and save older iterations. You never know when yoy want to revisit an idea. Also bring in friends to playtest as soon as you get a prototype working. Even if it’s not for the whole game.
Prototype it a soon as you can. Ideas that are great in your head can be awful on the table!
And now for my design concepts. These are all in the pre-prototype phase with code names in quotations to represent initial concept titles. Hopefully at least one of them sounds interesting to you. Let me know which one(s) you’d be most interested in. Would you be interested in design updates as blog posts?
1. Monster Hunters – (1-4 players) A deckbuilder game with a worker placement mechanic. You are one of the hunters working to defend a town from monster attacks. Each “level”, so to speak, would have three monsters to face, each having their own small deck of cards they play from at the end of the round (think Sentinels of the Multiverse), except only one starts in play and more get added over time. There are progress markers for both players and the monsters, representing the successes of the hunters/the growing threat of the monsters. If the monster threat grows too fast, the players could be facing 2-3 monsters at once instead of the one. Players move from area to area, doing actions to improve the cards in their deck by recruiting allies, finding equipment, or gaining events (discarded cards can be placed in any order, the deck isn’t shuffled much like Aeon’s End). Players win by killing all three monsters, at which point they can thin down their deck to a preset number and advance to the next “level” (three total in the game). Monsters win if all hunters are dead, if the town is too damaged, or if the threat grows too far once the third monster appears.
2. “Out of Gas” – (1 Player) Tentative name stemming from the Firefly episode that inspired the theme. Solo sci-fi game where you are injured and regain consciousness in your ship to find that you’re locked in the back part and all life support systems here have been shut off. There is a limited supply of oxygen, you’re bleeding out, you need to find a way to regain heat before you freeze, and there are some goons you’ve got to get even with who have commandeered your ship. This will combine the excellent deckbuilding design of Friday and add several levels of resource management, movement throughout the ship, tough decisions to make, and all leading up to one big battle.
3. “The Battle of Hattin” – (1 player) A historical wargame recreating the historical Battle of Hattin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hattin). It would be fun to dive into the history of this, and challenge myself to come up with a solo wargame that can be played using either 9 or 18 cards (see the microgame contests that are held annually. I missed the official timeframe for the 9-card contest, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying this out!
4. “Viking Raiders” – (1 player) A semi-historical game representing Vikings landing on the shore and raiding into the countryside/towns. You have multi-use cards to let you move/interact as you raid in deeper onto the map. It would borrow an element from Clank in having plunder on spaces of the board to try and gain, and the further you go in the higher the value but also the greater the risk in making it back to your ship. There will be “guards” patrolling the paths whose movements are dictated through a very small deck of multi-tiered cards that increase in threat as the deck gets reshuffled and serves as the timer. I’m thinking something like an 18-card microgame here, or another candidate for a Mint Tin design as this could conceptually be done with a few cards and some cubes.
5. “Wreck-It Ralph” – (1-2 players) Not going with this as a name, but as a placeholder name for the poll. A twist on your typical dungeon crawl game – instead of being heroes fighting monsters to level up, you are monsters invading towns and fighting heroes to level up. Beyond this initial twist, I haven’t given any thought to the design or system, but it could be fun to do in a small format (mint tin design, perhaps?)