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New Here, New to Game Design

5 replies [Last post]
Joined: 03/21/2012

*** I apologize in advance for the length of this post. ***
*** Brief Version: I love games. I'm just looking for some help on how to go about it. ***

I'll leave most of why I am here to my blog post "Why Join BGDF?". I would like to say that I am here to begin discussing game design. I've got past the point in my personal life with this pursuit that I have few friends to discuss this with.

I've been obsessed with games for years. Now by games I go far beyond just board games. I'm talking about all manner of games; role playing, computer, card, board, physical sports, dice, gambling and anything else where a human tests themselves against a system of rules. I state human here as I include all manner of solitaire games as well and I think that games do not need really to have a win condition because even just doing something for as long as you can is a win condition in which each successive attempt uses the previous attempts as means for scoring.

I'm getting side tracked here...

Back on point, my obsession with games was at least stuck in the experience mode where I merely wished to enjoy other's creations. I was a consumer.

But something in the last year has changed. I've become obsessed with a few ideas of games I wish I had. Games that I want to play that do not exist. I looked for them and could not find them.

So, I thought "Well, I'll just wait till something comes out similar."

But my mind did not wait. Things began to percolate and bubble. I found myself doodling maps. I was playing something in my own head against myself. I would see in my mind's eyes cards, pieces, shapes that began to crystallize into rules.

I realized I wanted to create a game. I was becoming a producer.

My initial forays were failures. Exciting, enticing, alluring failures of all sorts. Utterly unplayable.

But rather than become dismayed, I was elated. Here at last was the inkling of that which I had imagined. It was the same the first time I tried to make a cake. The thing had too much salt. It was misshapen and lumpy. But still it was cake. Delicious cake that I had made myself using flour, sugar and eggs. I would do better the next time I made that cake.

I take that same attitude now to my designs. Just getting something together that can be played is a success in my mind. No matter how ungainly or fiddly it is to get it to play. The flaws of such are self evident once you start playing. But eventually I'll get something that is a cake. Master chefs don't just wake up knowing how to make cake.

But they do need a master chef to teach them. That is why I'm here. I'm looking to this site as my master chef. A place to look at what others are doing, to ask questions and seek answers.

So what am I pondering right now?

Choice. Namely player choices. How many is too much? Where do you cross the line into inviting analysis paralysis? Should you scale your choices introducing them slowly as the game progresses, something similar to what video games do today?

The second thing I am stuck with is randomness. I enjoy randomness myself, albeit to a modest degree. But again when is a game too random? Can action choices be randomly available or should they be concrete? Does a random setup always add to replay-ability? Should that even be something we should aspire to in our designs?

The third and final thing I think about a lot lately is simplification. That is I am struggling to boil down the essence of some of my designs to their simplest points. What is it that makes them fun? How simple can I make them and retain the depth? Go is the ultimate simple and deep game. You have a few simple rules that create depth in how they interact. Chess also does something similar. But again is that what we should be doing as designers? Always boil our games down to their simplest essence? Every piece and rule should serve a purpose I agree, but when are we moving past the point of clarification to actually simplifying the game? How do I know when to stop simplifying? And by even asking that have I shown that I'm not there yet?

Anyways, just what I wonder as I work on my designs. At this point what I'm designing doesn't mean that much to me as working on my process. I feel more like the new student in home EC (returning to my cake metaphor) where everyone knows I'm making a cake and wants to see my cake, but I'm more concerned with how to crack the eggs and finding this thing called a whisk that people keep talking about. The cake doesn't matter, just the process of creating one.

*** For those that made it all the way through, I applaud your tenacity and apologize for my verbosity. ***

Avianfoo's picture
Joined: 01/31/2012

Welcome to BGDF! Feel free to be as verbose as you like. Someone will read it. And you do pose some interesting questions. I am not saying I have all the answers but I can give it a try:

Decisions: I am a firm believer in interesting decisions. Look here for some general pointers on those. When are decisions too much? Depends on person to person but Agricola plus Farmers of the Moor expansion is a real brain burner for me. Too many decisions.

Randomness: It's a tool in the arsenal of board game designers. I prefer randomness to be mitigated by skill/ player choices. If a random roll cannot be mitigated in some way, the game could have really random outcomes. I dislike it when (in Russia) the game plays you.

Simplification: The best advice I heard for this is "Make it simple and no simpler". Or I might be misquoting. But the point is if you boil down a mechanic to its basic form you might find you are sitting with an abstract game. Ingenious as an example which is a boiled down version of winning by getting the highest lowest value. Ok more a way of scoring/winning than a mechanic but point remains. You can't make a cake by boiling it down to scrambled eggs with flour and sugar sprinkled on top.

In conclusion: Welcome, I hope you learn much more (and post your learnings) as you go on, just as I am still learning.

P.S. Play loads of games.

Crensh3000ad's picture
Joined: 03/06/2012
Hello conan, thank for your

Hello conan,

thank for your first post, I like it a lot. Despite being a BGDF rookie greenhorn, I believe, that it basically represents everything most of us feel when they commence the creative process of game design. We struggle with the ideas in our head and try to form them into something material that makes sense.

For your questions, all I can offer are some basic notions and the (presumably obsolete) reminder, that in most cases, you shall have to find it out the hard way by play-testing it until you get satisfied with the result.

Player Choices:

Just avoid the idea that the game plays you by giving you a single obvious (even worse : random) choice, as Avianfoo said. I believe that 2-3 choices are fine, anything from 5-7 can cripple a game completely, because most people cannot come to terms with that many possibilities.


for me, a board / card game has to offer some chance of randomness. If it is too computable, like chess or go (which I do not play, because I horribly suck at them) then, a person who will do the math better than its opponent always will prevail. Like Mr.Spock mentions it in "The Corbomite Maneuver": "If in a game of chess, one person is superior, the result can only be a checkmate in his favor" (or sth like that :-) ). I like to believe that a game offers me a tiny chance even when I play against a much stronger opponent. Like Jesse Shell wrote it : "I would always lose against a world-class chess champion, but chances are, that I can win a single round of Texas Hold'Em poker against ANYBODY".

On the other hand, rolling a single die gives you extreme randomness. I do not like to see my Fellowship of the Ring being crippled by the first Moria orc just because the orc had some good rolls and the company failed all of theirs.
That said, in my game, I would not roll a single die, but rather several dice, so they at least give me some kind of predictability for the outcome. An extreme failure or success is still possible, but less probable.


I admire games which go the classic way of "easy to learn, difficult to master". This, for example, is my major problem with most FFG games, because they offer to little for the huge amount of rules one has to learn before actually playing the game (Twilight Imperium, Arkham Horror, etc.). My problem is, that these games are still based on somewhat simple mechanics of bluffing or rock-paper-scissors - then why is there that huge amount of tokens, figures, special 13-sided dice, card decks, thick rulebooks, giant boards, etc. ? At the end, the game essence of space combat or pulp adventures is simulated, but at a price of time which I do not want to spend.

Avianfoo is so right - you must get more and more into gaming by actually playing other games, the more, the better.
This gives inspiration, and keeps you juggling with ideas and seeing things from new points of view. And yes, it is an extremely hard job to do. I started tinkering with some ideas half a year ago and I still could not manage even a short write-up of my games' Alpha rules :-( ...but playing more games and trying out new stuff keeps you in a kind of mood that definitely helps you on your long journey.

Welcome aboard !

Matthew Rodgers
Matthew Rodgers's picture
Joined: 03/01/2012

To take on just one issue for the moment, I think that the randomness is best when it serves to give players choices: e.g. in a card game you may have random card draws, but you must choose what actions to take with those cards. I agree that in a perfect information game with no randomness, it does completely come down to skill. Some players appreciate that, there are plenty of chess tournaments. But I play with two regular groups and with my family... games where "Joe always wins." are not very interesting to us, so randomness helps alleviate those issues.

Non-perfect information games don't necessarily need randomness in the game engine. One of my backburner projects is an asymmetrical programmed movement space battle game. The meta-game aspects of that create tension without randomness ("if he moves there, I can turn my ship and fire, but he'd expect that, so he'd turn there to broadside me, and Australia is peopled entirely by criminals...")

Sounds like you've got a good handle on things, game design is an iterative process and you seem to have the right mindset for it.

Joined: 01/17/2009
Quick answers, and homework

Matthew is dead on about randomness. In the games I prefer, randomness never dictates the events of the game, players do. Randomness provides the framework in which players must execute their strategies. Examples of this are the random setup of Catan, random card sets in Dominion, the random Occupations and Minor Events of Agricola, and the random cube distribution in (Age of) Steam. I'd even argue that Steam is a more elegant design to AoS because the distribution is fixed at setup, and thereafter driven by player choices. YMMV.

Choices are the game, and it's the designer's job to shepherd those choices. This is a round table with Luke Crane (Burning Wheel) entitled "Game Design is Mind Control" (which includes lots of silliness and a bit of language, but a good analysis of Candyland, FYI), where he defines a game as a ruleset that influences a player to do something they otherwise wouldn't do. His first example is a race. Why would two people run in the same direction at the same time from a defined start to a defined finish unless there's food or money or something else they're willing to fight for at the end? Because it's a race, duh. But without the start and the finish and "Go!" and whatever, there is no race. Nobody runs. So game design is giving players choices that they have no real life motivation to make, in order to work towards a goal (winning) that is meaningless in the absence of those choices. Elegant game design gives a minimum number of exactly the right choices to force the player to have the desired experience.

How does a designer achieve that goal? First thing to do is carefully define the experience. My current design is a fast-playing, low downtime, highly interactive civilization builder. I want players to feel like they're building something they care about, under constant pressure from other players, but without feeling like failures will back them into a deadend. Those considerations underlie all my design decisions for the game. When in doubt I always ask myself, Will this design decision drive players towards my experience goal? Without a careful definition of the desired experience, elegant design will not happen.

What if I'm faced with multiple decisions that all would support my experience goal? Personally, I always err on the side of thematic gameplay. And thus we segue into simplicity. A simple game design is elegant, and vice versa. However, themes are not simple. Civilizations are not simple, neither is railroad engineering or farming. As a game designer, you should always pursue simplicity. Maybe "look for" is a better term. Simplicity is always present, but it hides under theme and must be sought. Occasionally it's worth digging for simplicity, but this means destroying the landscape, destroying theme. Personally, I have found it advantageous to build games entirely on theme -- make the biggest, most elaborate landscape possible -- then pare down for simplicity. To belabor the metaphor a bit, if you chisel a mountain, you'll still have a mountain left when you're done. If you chisel a boulder, there's a chance you'll have nothing but a few smooth stones. Mountains are cool. Smooth stones are dull.

If faced with a decision between experience and theme, go experience. If two decisions both support experience, choose the most thematic. If faced with a choice between theme and simplicity, look for the maximal choice, the one that gives you most simplicity for least compromise of theme, and vice versa.

So, the homework portion. If you haven't done so already, study the game designs of:

Martin Wallace
Vlaada Chvátil
Reiner Knizia
Uwe Rosenberg
Bruno Faidutti
Lewis Pulsipher

There are plenty of others I have studied and could mention, but the top four are, IMO, the most prolific, understandable, consistent, and successful designers active today. Faidutti is not as successful, but excels in the other categories. Pulsipher is a leading brain in our field, and I love his philosophy of likes and dislikes in gaming, even when I don't agree. Go learn to spot their rules without knowing the name of the game or anything outside of setup and victory conditions.

Joined: 03/15/2012
Don't think too much

Let me preface by saying that I love this forum, and that I often do look up prolific designers and check out some of the philosophy behind why they do what they do. But don't let yourself get overwhelmed by it. Nobody here is a philosopher who sat down one day and decided that the greatest contribution that he would give to the world was a 2000-print run of a boardgame about inebriated lawn gnomes trying to keep rabbits out of the garden.

We're in the business of fun. There's not much difference between us, a clown, or a standup comedian. Yes, there is an art to game design, but that's nothing without a love for gaming, and a genuine desire to bring people together so that they can enjoy your contribution to their lives. Nobody is going to sit down to play and analyze your decisions as a designer, nobody is going to walk away with your game with some newfound understanding of life's deepest secrets. If they're anything like me, they're going to sit down with a handle of rum and a couple of like-minded friends, get annihilated, misread half the rules, and spill a half-bottle of coke on your gameboard. But they'll be enjoying themselves, and they'll remember that night. Maybe not your game, but certainly the fun that they had.

Make a game that you want to play. Test it with your friends, and keep working at it until you feel that it's fair, balanced, and most of all - as enjoyable to play as you can make it. Then field it to the world. Accept the fact that only a fraction of games make it to the big-league, and that it's as much a matter of being in the right place at the right time, as it is to crafting a well honed game. Of those few games that make it big, only a handful of *those* are going to provide the basis of a livelihood for their designers. So what you're engaging in is a hobby, based on sharing your love of gaming with other individuals, that has the potential to make you some money if you roll that delightful natural 20.

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