Designer Diary

Good Habits for Game Designing

As designers, we can look beyond analogue board game design for lessons and inspiration. One of the nice side-effects of video game design becoming mainstream enough to be taught at universities is that a lot of lessons from those schools have parallels in the analogue world.

So too can we look to resources designed for artists for good habits!

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Game Designers

Take, for instance, this presentation by Andrew Price on the habits of highly effective artists. Even though this isn’t board game design, there are so many crossovers for how to be an effective board game designer. This video is definitely worth a watch, as Andrew relates his own experiences in how he improved as an artist. I’ve added by own thoughts below in case you are interested, but if you have your own stories I would love to hear them!

#1: Daily Work

Work on your board game(s) every single day. Strangely enough, this is something I’ve heard from many other places. For example, when I was learning to play guitar from YouTube videos, the instructors frequently said things like “spending 20 minutes a day practising is far more effective than playing guitar for 2 hours on a Saturday”. And guess what? It was true!

I also like the idea of booking a meeting with yourself, and of promising to do just a little bit every day (like drawing a single line). Those seem like small things that we can all do. Maybe cut out those components you were working on, or brainstorm a new idea. Even reading over your rules can inspire new ways of thinking about your game.

#2: Volume Not Perfection

This makes a lot of sense, though I think by focusing on the big successes it is easy to lose track of the many failures. Let’s say you churn out 30 designs in a year… you have 30 designs that are (if not fully fleshed out) sitting in the back of your mind, ready to draw from. And you learn a lot more from the broad strokes designs (what works and what doesn’t).

For that matter, keep a notebook of ideas with you. You never know when it will prove useful!

There was a podcast by an author that I listened to a while ago. I think it may have been Writing Excuses, and Brandon Sanderson, but I cannot be sure and if you know please tell me. His advice was to throw away the first idea you have. That when we imagine something new, we think it is original, but what our brain is really doing is like when we are dreaming: it is creating a pastiche of ideas that we have encountered in our lives. Characters we think are original are just rip-offs.

However, when we think about 30 ideas and we let them live in the back of our minds, our brain does something strange: it starts making pastiches of those ideas, combining them in completely new and (mostly) original ways. So perhaps this “volume not perfection” has other benefits in that.

#3: Steal

I guess this follows on from the above. There is a good stealing that builds on what came before, and there is a bad stealing that capitalises on someone else’s hard work. If you take notes of things you like from other games you play (or take pictures and put them up on BoardGameGeek or Instagram) then you will have a notebook of things you like to draw from when you need to!

#4: Conscious Learning

This is such an interesting concept. It is kinda contrary to #2, saying that though volume is good, practice doesn’t always make perfect. There is practice where you consciously go out to learn new things, and there is practice where you waste time and just bang your head against the wall making the same mistakes again.

This reminds me of something we were encouraged to do in university: reflect on what we just did and ask ourselves what worked and what didn’t. At the end of the day, you don’t want to challenge yourself. But that is how you improve. Stop and reflect. Stop and go back to episodes of Ludology or Jamey Stegmaier’s blog, and try to relearn or unlearn bad habits.

On the subject of reflection, that is something we could also be doing as designers. When we get playtesters to test our games, we ask for specific feedback. Did the attack step make sense? How did you feel about the game length? What would you do to improve the end game? We often do this in a very systematic way: feedback forms, specific questions, etc. But when we play the games ourselves, we might not be so systematic. Perhaps there is a place for creating a feedback form for yourself to reflect on your game each time you play it.

#5: Rest

This isn’t about sleeping and getting rest. It’s about taking a break and stepping away from your design. I thought this was interesting, how this is a strategy done by many artists, because this is something that heavily influenced Lucidity. That game started out as a press-your-luck deck-building game. It didn’t work as a deck-builder, no matter what I tried; so I put it on the shelf until my mind sorted through a solution on its own.

The original Lucidity/Darkly Dreaming was very different.

Following Stephen King’s advice to finish a design and then step back for 6 months (or just 2 weeks) results in you returning with a fresh set of eyes, working on it with proper criticism. You give up a bit of ownership over the design and the negative criticism you might have gotten from playtesters is easier to think about. That thing that wasn’t working in its design suddenly presents a solution. Being detached from your design helps you re-evaluate it.

For this reason, I think a lot of designers work simultaneously on multiple designs. Our design group did a mini survey a couple of months ago. Most of the designers in the group responded that they were working on at least 3-4 designs at the same time.

#6: Feedback

The best artists seek feedback more than anyone. I think this applies not only to playtesting, but in feeling okay with sharing your designs and taking feedback from people early in the design. A couple of things on this though: I think you need to target your feedback – don’t just ask “is it good” but ask “is the play order working” or “does it feel too slow”?

It’s probably a bit harder for us designers starting out to seek feedback from some of the greats, like Kanye West did, but you can certainly get feedback from other designers. There are a bunch of Facebook groups run by James Mathe for publishers, artists and graphic designers for board games. But the most useful one for designers is this one. If you are designing a game, you should be a part of that group! You should also seek criticism from the forums on BoardGameGeek. A well-criticised game is a well-designed game if the feedback is listened to.

#7: Create What You Love

I guess this makes sense, though I think the time investment it takes to design a board game means we don’t tend to work on things we don’t love. We aren’t going to spend long on a heavy Euro worker placement game if we aren’t really interested in games named after medieval European cities that nobody can pronounce.

That said, I think this is applicable when it comes to the games loved by the biggest influencers in our lives. If your brother loves Venice (Is that a game? Surely it’s a game.) then his feedback might be along the lines of “You should add worker placement”. If you don’t like worker placement, and you’ve tried it and don’t like it, then don’t feel you have to follow that advice, no matter how hot it might be right now!

Creating based on trends also seems really hard. If you are creating a Legacy game because you played Pandemic Legacy or Risk Legacy and it sparked something inside of you, that’s one thing. If you are creating a Legacy game because it’s popular and will sell well, consider that the development cycle on many games can be 3-5 years and ask yourself whether your game will still sell so well in 3-5 years, and how many other Legacy games might appear then.

101 Things – Video Game Design

Going now beyond habits of artists, I’ve also found a lot of inspiration from this wonderful slideshow by Kaye Elling at the University of Bradford. Because it is on video game design, perhaps the parallels are a lot simpler to take from it.

The slideshow is a bit preachy at times – coming from a teacher’s perspective – and some of these hints are thus a little patronising as a result, but there are still good lessons to distil.

Know the terms of your industry: Know what worker placement is and what a meeple is. Podcasts like Ludology or The Snakescast are amazing for understanding this sort of thing.

You may love to play board games, but that does not make you a designer: Later, on page 79, Elling continues this thread: play games like a designer. Find the good games, or the ones you like, and think: why do I like this? What works and what doesn’t? What works about the art direction? What problems might the designer have encountered and how did they overcome them? If something doesn’t work, how would you fix it? Try implementing house rules.

Another thing to look out for is how women are dressed in your game. Do they wear less armour than men, for the same benefit? Why then? Do they have ‘boob armour’? That used to be okay, but now it just looks like you didn’t do your research.

Be inclusive in your design: Don’t be the one who makes a game that makes someone ask, “Why are there no female characters?” Likewise, tokenism has no place in inclusivity. Just because you put a non-white character in your game doesn’t mean you can get lazy with that character’s personality or design. Recently, on the board game designers Facebook group, someone asked how you include an African character in a game about wizards without falling into the “Magical Negro” stereotype. The best answer I saw was literally “give them a reason to do what they do”. In games, stereotypes are the easiest things in the world to avoid. We even have a term for it: NPC or PC. Make a “token” character a PC and suddenly you need to come up with a backstory, a character, a reason to exist and do what they do.

Get targeted user feedback: If there is something you want to test, get playtest feedback on that aspect. Don’t just test the whole game over and over again. This was also suggested to me once by a friend, who does app design. Again, it seems to be a programming lesson that we could learn in analogue design. If you want to test the combat phase, ask people to play the combat phase. Set it up and get people to play it. Then set it up exactly the same and get people to play the variation. Don’t ask people to play the whole game just to test one phase.

Expand your horizons: Don’t just consume board games; look to books, museums and art. In particular, I’ve found it useful to occasionally take a step away and consider what the current theme of gaming is, and why that might be the case. Rarely do seven board games appear out of nowhere based on the same theme, without being inspired by some cultural or historical event. And Elling comes back to this on page 96.

Get sleep: Haha, we’re all victims of this one. Impulsive creative personalities tend to forgo sleep in favour of cutting out the latest prototype.

Listen to the feedback you receive and try it: It might not work – you might know it won’t work – but maybe it will and by getting into a routine of ignoring feedback you might be missing important opportunities in your design. I will be forever grateful to one of my playtesters who kept suggestion options for giving players more choice in Lucidity. His feedback, though I didn’t think it at the time, would be an invaluable final change to the game.

I’ll quote this from Elling because this is so well said: “There is only about 1 degree of separation between pretty much all game developers, world wide. Don’t badmouth anyone. It will come back to bite you.” It’s a small industry, and everyone knows everyone. You might hate Gloomhaven with a passion (though I can’t in all honesty understand why you would), but you never know when you might be sitting opposite Isaac Childres on a panel.

For that matter, it’s a small industry: You should make an effort to go to BoardGameGeek and learn 1-2 games from every designer on the Designer Hotness chart, or at least the top 10. If you don’t know who James Mathe or Jamey Stegmaier are you should immediately click on those links. If you have ever listened to Board Games Insider, you’ll recognise Ignacy Trzewiczek (though you might have thought it was spelled Chevechek or something similar). Eric Lang is very big at the moment due to Rising Sun and Blood Rage as well as being director of game design for CMON now (I also recently found out he was part of the design team for my second-favourite card game, Warhammer 40,000: Conquest). Rob Daviau is on the list for basically creating the Legacy game-type. The hotness list is a good starting place, because new designers like Isaac Childres (Gloomhaven) share it with designers who have been monumental in the industry, like Donald X Vaccarino (Dominion) and Richard Garfield (Magic, among so many others). The list also has people like Tom Vasel, who make huge impacts on the industry. If you listen to podcasts, you’ll hear every name on that list at least once, and names like Bruno Cathala, Reiner Knizia, Stefan Feld, Martin Wallace and Uwe Rosenberg come up consistently for particular “styles” or “feels” of games they make.

Sharing is caring: I made this mistake at the beginning. Share your designs early, and get feedback from everyone (and remember to listen to that feedback and show them you implemented it or at least tried it out). Nobody is going to steal your designs. Remember, it’s a small industry. On that topic, this is something that Jamey Stegmaier espouses in his own philosophy. Engage your fans and work to share and expand the industry. Don’t be a taker – be a giver. Who knows, people might give back.

Mathematics is useful for game designers: If this is something you are interested in, there’s a great podcast by Ludology on the subject.

My own lessons

And last of all these are the 5 biggest lessons I’ve learned in the 4 years since making a serious effort at game design:

#1: Don’t buy art until the end

You will invest time and money into a concept, and that will make it very hard for you to put that concept away for 6 months, or even toss it in the bin if it isn’t working. Publishers might not like you having commissioned art for your game either. I definitely got too much art for Tempest too early, and not only has it tied me to the game, but it has tied me to specific cards in a reimagined version. I have enjoyed working with artists on the game, but I do regret buying so much so early.

As a designer, you can basically make do with MS Word and images stolen from Google Images. As long as you aren’t selling them or using them to promote your game, you should be okay. Check out my other post on resources for prototyping if that is of interest to you.

#2: Don’t make a TCG

TCG (trading card game, eg Magic) is a distribution system, not a game. You need tournament support to make it work and massive support on the side of local gaming stores. Secondly, card games with 100+ unique cards require massive amounts of art – this isn’t cost effective.

I’ve also noticed that the TCG/LCG/ECG/CCG models are not as successful on Kickstarter of late than stand-alone games. I think this is for a few reasons. For TCGs, James Mathe has a good write-up on the topic. For LCGs though, I think players are moving on to new games so rapidly these days that the time and money investment in a core set that may not be supported in future is a big turn off for them. Fantasy Flight Games and Plaid Hat Games both have a solid hold over the LCG/ECG industry. Instead, plan a core set that is fun in and self-contained of itself. Don’t mention the word “expansion”, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep one in mind.

#3: “Engage your core audience”

Something I heard recently on the Board Game Business Podcast was in relation to matching art to your game. They said, you have to match the art you get to your target audience. I think the same thing applies at the design stage. You need to figure out exactly who your target audience is, and make sure they are engaged in your game. Design your game so that they will buy it.

In a Social Media workshop I went to that was run by Laurel Papworth (she searches her own name constantly to control her online image, so… Hello Laurel!), we were told that it can be helpful to personify your target market. Give your market a name, a history, a personality, likes, dislikes, quirks.

Don’t design your game for just a market. It’s for Sam from New Jersey who loves Terraforming Mars because she liked The Martian. Who will watch anything with Neil Degrasse Tyson in it, but can’t play for long because she works early and takes a long bus ride to work.

#4: Listen to playtesters

I’ve talked a lot about this above. Sometimes it takes some time for their feedback to bypass your defences, but it’s always good to hear what they are saying, and note to yourself why and when they are saying it.

#5: Don’t listen to playtesters

They don’t know everything and, at the end of the day, it’s your game. Playtesters can only tell you what they like, and if you listen to every playtester you will never get your game off the ground. That old adage that “too many cooks spoil the broth” is true here. And sometimes, playtesters don’t know what’s good for them. Going back to Destiny (not the dice games) for a second, when the developers gave players exactly what they wanted in that game (in this case, the ability to “reroll” weapon values), it was a huge mistake that they struggled to deal with for years after.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts on the matter. I would love to hear yours! There are a ton of resources out there on the topic. What lessons have you learned from game design? And what other resources have you seen on the topic?


Edit (19 May 2017): Further Notes

I can’t believe I forgot about this one, but if you are keen to see how another designer reflects on other media (and our own medium) for inspiration, Jamey Stegmaier puts out a regular video analysing his favourite aspect from other published games. Recently, he put out this one below, on Quentin Tarantino movies (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, etc). Reflecting on other media like this is a really good way of broadening horizons, I think!