Saturday, April 6, 2013

Are all ideas born equal?

By Kabelleger / David Gubler (

After a meeting with fellow designer Brett Gilbert last week in which we playtested yet another version of Trinity (and no, we are not out of the alpha stage yet!), Brett remarked that I was very good at coming up with new designs and making prototypes, but perhaps wasn't so good at iterating and working at a single design while simultaneously resisting the urge to throw everything out and start again.

I've heard many designers remark that the least of their worries is coming up with new ideas or mechanics, and I would echo their words here - the untold scraps of paper and half-filled notebooks littering my room are testament to that. While this is obviously a great place to start from as a designer, it can become a bit of a crutch too. It's very easy to find fault in current designs and go straight to employing a completely different set of mechanics in an attempt to find the right mix for the game, rather than struggling through the current flawed parts to find the gold hiding there.

A counterpoint to this is the uncertainty you always feel regarding the core identity of a design, and whether it is a game you actually want to design or that would be suitable for a given market. Thinking back on some of my completed designs that I am happy with has made me realise that often the core experience or feature of the game that I know like was there from the start, regardless of the number of iterations. In other words, no matter how much I worked on these games, I don't think they would have been successful if the core idea wasn't intrinsically interesting or fun. When I apply this thinking to my current designs in their infancy, I'm much harder on them to justify why I should keep working on them, why their core mechanic or idea is so special.

Is the core of a game special or interesting intrinsically, or does it gain this quality only when it is viewed through the lens of a finished and polished product? To put it another way - do all ideas (or at least those who make it through the initial screening in your head to become prototypes) have the potential to be the foundation for great games, or are not all ideas born equal?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

March reflections

By böhringer friedrich (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I haven't written here for a while, and I'm starting to see the difficulties of trying to balance writing and actually designing while you have a full time job! But just like the times I have to kick myself into gear and do some designing, now I'm trying to kick myself into writing this new post. I thought I would reflect on my progress towards my goal of having four games ready for pitching come October, and see how far I've gone.

The Empire Engine

This game is a co-design with Chris Marling, a regular at our Cambridge weekly designer meetups. It's an 18 card microgame (yes, we are jumping on that wagon), that hopefully will be under the Good Little Games banner once it launches in the near future. Chris had the initial idea involving personal rondels, and a few brief months later, I'm happy to say that we have a really fun little game, that is undergoing its last few tweaks. As Chris would say, he can see it in the faces of those who play the game that there are some truly agonising decisions, which is what we want! So, while the game might not be suitable to pitch to publishers (although, who knows?), this will definitely be finished in time.

Verdict: Late Beta stage - close to completion.

Before Ragnarok

This is the Viking inspired game that included the heptagonal player boards that I showed in a previous post. The first playtest went well, and I am happy with the central mechanism. Unfortunately, I am still not so happy with the actual meat of the game, and am still trying to sort out what the players are actually doing, and the sort of goals that should be present in the game. I've left it on the backburner for a few weeks, as inspiration really hasn't hit me for this one. But I am slowly working at bits and pieces, and hope to have the next prototype ready by the end of the month.

Verdict: Alpha stage - solid mechanism, but lots of work to do on the content.


This is an older design, which I was working on with the hopes of fitting into the AEG Tempest line during 2012. Its a quick light card game about simultaneous action selection and reading your opponents, and while the game functioned moderately well, there was always something bothering me about it. Again, I was very happy with the mechanism, but the scoring and goals felt a little bit uninspired to me, and I wanted to make something where the whole game felt like...well, a whole. So I shelved it for a number of months, and now I've just recently thought about it again, and had some fresh inspiration. I've made up a new prototype, and should be testing it next week.

Verdict: Beta stage - if the recent changes are in right direction, this one should be pretty close to finished.


Trinitas is what Trinity has evolved into, a collaboration with Brett Gilbert. The game has completely changed from its original premise, with the only element surviving the carnage being the dice that we had made for the original prototype. A much more Euro-style game has risen from the ashes, which we have tentatively set in the Roman Empire, and went through its first playtest about a week ago. The results were very promising, with again the mechanism working really well, but just a bit more needs to be done on the texture of the game (I see a bit of a pattern developing here...). The second prototype is almost finished and should be tested this coming week.

Verdict: Alpha stage - a promising start for what really is a very new design.

Then there are the various ideas that haven't made it to prototype stage yet, mainly because I'm trying to force myself to work on iterations of current designs (of which I have plenty to keep myself busy with!).

So, with roughly 7 months to go, it has been a good start to the year so far. Hopefully in the next month I can really push those designs in their infancy to the Beta stage, and keep tweaking the ones that are closer to finished. It's a lot to do, but I am actually quite excited to have so many pots on the stove at once - watch this space!

Monday, March 4, 2013

How hot does the playtesting furnace need to be?

By Staff Sgt. Craig Cisek, U.S. Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During my daily catch up with game design articles and threads, I was alerted via Twitter to a thread on Boardgamegeek entitled '10 Playtest Principles - Advice on how to be a good playtester'. The title certainly piqued my interest and the thread itself was filled with some excellent ideas and advice to potential playtesters about what they can do to be the most use to a game designer. It is something that is rarely discussed, but extremely important in how effective a playtest can be in furthering a design.

I'm not going to summarise all the thoughts raised in the thread, but there is one point in particular that struck a chord in me. This is the question of a playtester's gaming preferences, and how this relates to their suitability as a playtester. One post in the thread went so far as to recommend that prospective playtesters inform the designer of which gaming genres they prefer (and those that they don't) before the playtest, and if their interests didn't line up with the type of game being tested they were better off not playing the game.

I actually think that one of the most valuable experiences that you can have as a game designer is having your game be played by people whom you would not consider to be in its target audience. Generally, players who are familiar with the sort of game you are making are more predisposed to be forgiving of rough features or suboptimal design choices simply because the experience is vaguely familiar to games they know and like, and as a result their feedback is not as critical or as attentive to the nuances that are present in your design. You will be able to tell whether the game 'works' with members of your target audience, but it might be difficult to use the results to further refine your game or to innovate from the expected norm.

On the other hand, players who have little experience with the kind of game that you are making can be incredibly valuable at different stages of a game's development. Early on, they can quickly debunk the inherent assumptions you make in the way you expect players to understand the game, and force you to adjust your own views. Later on in a game's development, they can offer radically different suggestions as to how to improve the game - and while many of these may be unsuitable for a variety of reasons - you might only need one good idea to help you escape from an iteration rut (where subsequent iterations of a game fail to address core problems with the design) and really push the game towards completion.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The scenic route

By Stefan Krause, Germany (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
Game design, like many creative pursuits, often involves working towards a goal that is hard to quantify or describe. That being said, I've certainly had times where I've thought I had an excellent idea for a mechanism or theme, and I was able to sketch out most of the concepts before I even started making the first prototype. I knew exactly what I wanted the game to be, the experience the players would have, and the sorts of decisions they would encounter along the way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is sometimes the games we think that we completely understand that end up being our most unexpected creations. Take for example the game that I mentioned in my last post, which was merely a mechanism at the time. I thought that it would be a fairly standard Eurostyle game, where any theme would suffice as a backdrop for its mechanical underpinnings. A game that would make Stefan Feld proud (well, we can all hope!).

One week, prototype and playtest later, the game has completely changed. But not in the sense that it had a bad playtest, or that the mechanism I had envisioned completely missed the mark. In fact, the playtest went fairly well as first playtests go, and certainly the high point for me was the fact that the machine I had placed in the game did give the players some agonising and interesting moments (even if there were other problems). It was rather that I now view the game in a different light, and have some similarly differing goals for it.

Whereas previously theme had taken a backseat in my design choices, some random thread of thought I had while making the first prototype simply read 'Vikings'. Don't ask me why or how, but within a few hours of this thought, I had a complete prototype, replete with Viking pieces scavenged from Walhalla and a heptagonal player board:

From a game that previously revolved about the crucial decision as to where to make your next bid for an action, I now see a game that tells a whole story for the players, as they lead the members of their clan to glorious battle in this world and the next, attempting the appease their gods so they might live for eternity in the Hall of the Gods, Valhalla. It even has got to the point where today I made a trip to the local library to devour more details to include in the game. Previously generic temples are now rune-covered stones, and your 'meeples' have become mighty Viking warriors and wise priests.

The theme now not only interests me, but is inspiring me in the direction I take the game's mechanics, crafting an arc that I couldn't have imagined before. This in turn helps me better define who the players are in the game and why they are doing what they are doing (something I had been having problems with prior to this revelation). I'm not going to argue that this as a whole is a particularly novel experience, but I am glad to have had it all the same. I actually think it will change the way I approach the early stages of game design in the future - having a strong theme from the beginning can offer so much inertia to a design to really help you push through those first few major iterations while maintaining a clear vision of what the game is actually about.

I never cease to be amazed by the crazy journeys that you take with your creations. No matter how exciting or strange your starting vision is, you simply have no idea where you'll end up. A scenic route indeed.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The difference between mechanisms and texture

I'm beginning the work on a new design of mine (so new that it doesn't have much of an identity yet, let alone a name), and as is increasingly customary for my design process, it has begun with an idea for an interesting mechanic.

The main concept is one where players will bid a certain number of workers towards a number of available actions, which each turn are supplemented by two bonuses (the bonuses themselves rotate around the actions after every turn). Players get to carry out all actions that they bid for, with the strength or quality of that action determined by the number of workers they bid. In addition, winning a particular action (by having bid the most workers) allows you first choice of one of the bonuses, with the player in second getting the other.

No matter how novel or interesting this mechanic turns out to be, I am becoming increasingly more interested in how the texture of a game is designed, rather than its engine. You see, I am a very mechanical type of designer (it is not surprise that I am so drawn to Stefan Feld's games), but I tend to struggle in designing the texture of the game that is to surround the many mechanics that I come up with.

I might be using words a little freely here, but for me the texture of a game refers to what the players are actually doing, rather than the choices that lead them to do these things (or in fact, the way by which the players make these choices). It's all very well to present players with a gripping mechanism that constrains what choices they can make on a turn, but it is for nought if the 'what' of the game cannot live up to the 'how'.

Both mechanics and texture are central parts of any gaming experience, and in my opinion far too much emphasis and critique is placed on the former. For example, many laud Feld's Castles of Burgundy for its innovative dice mechanism, but I am more and more impressed with the feel of playing the game - the variety of the little tiles that you use to create you own dominion throughout the game, and how this looks as it proceeds.

The take away message for me is that each part of a design must hold up on its own to contribute to a truly great game. A designer needs to be mindful both of the details and the whole, and they require different skills in their creation. Let's see if I can follow my own advice as this fledgling game develops!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The importance of a 'bad' playtest

This past weekend saw me traipsing down to London for the monthly meetup group Playtest. Organised by the ever capable Rob Harris, this is a group of local (and this month, international) board and card game designers who get together at a pub to playtest each others games and provide ever-valuable feedback.

Being able to attend groups such as these can be as terrifying as it is rewarding, as getting relative strangers (although after attending this group for over a year, the other members are far from this now!) to playtest and offer critique of your games allows you to get feedback that you could never get from your close circle of friends and regular playtesters, but that feedback is also hard to anticipate or expect.

This particular month I brought along the first prototype of a game, Trinity, that is a new collaboration between Brett Gilbert and myself. Trying to follow my own advice (see the last post) we had spent the last month exploring what the game should be, what our goals were for the game, and the particular mechanics that we could use. Brett and I think about games in quite different ways, and having discussions like these before we even make the first prototype can be a productive way to explore the design space available to us.

In the end, we made the prototype in parts - Brett took care of the dice and board (as his talent for graphic design far exceeds mine), and I created the content for the many cards that were part of this prototype. The game is a sort of choose your own adventure, exploring, questing kind of game - a genre that is actually fairly foreign to both of us (and this aspect of designing games outside your comfort zone may well be the topic of a future post).

Needless to say, we finally got it to the table, and had three other willing playtesters to help us discover whether there was trash or treasure within the game. After an hour and a half of playing, with some laughter, a lot of reading and some confusion, we had found some small specks of gold, but they seemed to be lost in a morass of the gaming equivalent of sludge.

There were many things wrong with the game, and many of the points raised by the other playtesters resonated with my own fears and concerns for the game, that our aim of trying to take a narrative, thematic experience and to pair this with strong, clear and interactive mechanics, might be trying to fulfil diametrically opposed goals.

Suffice to say, I came away from this seemingly 'bad' playtest experience feeling a bit despondant, and almost wanting to shelve the project for some time. Thankfully, Brett was there to rescue me from my despair, and on the train journey back to Cambridge we proceeded to pick apart the game and see what we could make of it.

The surprising thing was, as a result of this conversation, we had even more inspiration for the game, and a good shot of enthusiasm to take it in a new direction for our next prototype. The very next day we met over lunch, and we now have the makings of a new game that has risen from the ashes of the previous one, combining the best parts of the former with some new elements.

Designers sometimes say that a playtest where everything goes wrong is valuable because it clearly shows you what works and what doesn't work in your game, much more than when everything is going smoothly. I would agree with this. But I want to add something more. A seemingly 'bad' playtest can be even more important at the very beginning of game design, because it truly allows you to shake off the shackles of the parts of the design that were weighing you down because you thought they were necessary or central to the experience you were trying to create. A bad playtest frees you to open yourself up to making a truly new and creative game, and to not be constrained by your initial ideas.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

To prototype or not to prototype

A common piece of advice given to new designers is that of 'prototype early, prototype often'. The reasoning behind such advice is that the best way to test new ideas, to separate the wheat from the chaff, is to actually turn these ideas into physical form and play them. The harsh light of reality is shed onto these ideas that have been in your head for weeks, and only the best ones make it through. More over, prototyping as soon as possible allows a designer to judge quickly which ideas are worth spending more time on, and which ones simply do not work.

As a relatively new designer, I must say that I'm lucky in that I've never had too much of a problem with following this advice. In fact, at our weekly playtesting sessions I became somewhat known for appearing every week with a new prototype, some new and some iterations of an existing design. The best example of this I can think of was with a design I was working on last year for AEG's new Tempest setting.

I was desperately trying to make a game that I imagined fitted the different operations of the world's guilds - with the different actions in the different parts of the city reflecting the characters and aims of these organisations. To tie everything together, I was trying to find a way to have players use family members to complete these tasks, and to have these different agents gain experience and skills in line with they way they interacted with the world around them.

Looking back, it was an ambitious design, although at the time I don't think I appreciated this. I wasn't short of ideas, and I made numerous prototypes. These were duly taken along to our weekly playtesting session, where they always fell short in one way or another. Unfortunately, they seemed to fail (at least to me) not in ways that made subsequent iterations obvious, and so I would head back to the drawing board and overhaul the game. The next week I would show up with another, seemingly brand new prototype, and the cycle would continue. After two months of this, I was throughly sick of making prototypes that kept failing, and I haven't touched the game since.

Trying to understand what might have gone wrong in this whole process, I realised that I might have actually been doing myself a disservice in the way I went about this design. I'm not saying that this applies to everyone (or even a majority of designers) but what I think I needed to do was actually prototype less.

I'm come to think that spending an extra one or two weeks thinking about a game, the entire system that you are designing and how the different elements interact with each other, can be truly invaluable when it comes to producing a new prototype and playtesting it. Often, I would rush the prototyping process, telling myself that it was more important that I had a new prototype rather than making sure I had completely thought about every aspect of the game. Of course, a balance has to be struck between these two aims (and sometimes understanding everything about a design is impossible before a prototype is made!), but I certainly was on the extreme end of the scale.

My day job is as a chemist, and now I try to apply the values of experimentation to my process of designing games. Playtesting has much in common with experimenting, and prototyping with that of designing the experiment in the first place. The value of the experiment, and the conclusions that can be reached as a result, depend on making sure you design the experiment to ask the right questions. As it is with game design: the more time you spend thinking about what you want to get out of playtesting, the more valuable it will be. Far better than blindly making prototype after prototype without even knowing what questions you are asking of your players.