For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on some new board game designs. It’s been a while since I’ve focused on tabletop games, but it’s like riding a bike: awkward and dangerous if you haven’t done it for a while, so you’d best wear a helmet.
To help ease my way over this awkward stage, I dug through my my mental file of design tips. After blowing off the mental dust and getting a mental papercut, it occurred to me that it might be worth sharing these tips with others.
Now, just because these tricks work for me doesn’t mean they’ll do much for you. Game design is neither art nor science, but a geektastic fusion of the two. It’s a craft, and no two craftsmen create their wares in exactly the same way. That said, check out the tips below and let me know how they work for you.
Tip: Doodle Like the Wind!
While some game design problems can only be solved by furiously plugging fistfuls of numbers into a spreadsheet like a geeky stock analyst, I’ve found that others prefer to be ignored.
Rather than beat my head against those problems, I stop thinking about them and start doodling instead. I’ll doodle stick men, smiley faces, even abstract shapes that probably aren’t used in Cthulhu-summoning rituals. The doodles don’t matter so much as the act of doodling itself. By engaging the old right brain in some free-form creativity, I free up my Spock-like left brain to utilize the full power of the subconscious… or something.
Okay, it might not be a left-brain/right-brain thing at all. Despite what it says on my business card, I’m not a neuro-psychologist. I don’t know exactly what crazy mind-magic is churning away in my noggin. But I do know that it works more often than it doesn’t. And if doodling works for me, it might work for you too.
Tip: Draw a Blank
I like to use blank cards to get a feel for how the game I’m working on will actually play. (Regular cards work too; just use the card backs and don’t look at the faces.) Working in the abstract like this, I can figure out the basic shape and flow of the game turn without worrying about the actual numbers or words (or shapes, colors, or smells) that show up on the final cards.
If you need to assume or make up game effects to test something, it’s simple to do so if the cards are blank (“Let’s say this card is a six, and that one you played is a walrus.”). It’s a matter of going through the motions. If the motions themselves are fun, creating cards becomes a matter of maintaining that fun with the rest of the card mechanics attached.
What’s that? You don’t have cards in your game? That’s cool. You can still use this technique with any tokens or other playing pieces.
Tip: Take ALL the Notes
When I’m working on a game, I write everything down. Every crazy, half-formed idea, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched, gets jotted down quick before the next one comes along and I lose it.
This is important because once I get into the zone, the ideas tumble and flow like barrels down a waterfall. No, they’re not all good ideas. And some are cool, but not useful for the game in question (yes, a resource-allocation system using different-sided dice is neat, but not really what I need for a trading card game). Still, I write it down. You never know which note will hold the key to the game design — or spark the mechanic that fuels a whole new game. Besides, once the game’s shape is fixed, it’s handy to have the notes for when you find yourself asking, “Now WHY did I think I needed a Walrus card?”
These are just a handful of tips off the top of my head. If you’ve got your own techniques, I’d love to hear what works for you. Add ‘em in the comments, and we’ll all be that much wiser.