If you have ever wondered how a game goes from an electric signal in the brain to a playable game, this post is for you. We will share the general method we use to create and build our games. I say general method because an idea can come from anything. Our Robin Hood game stared from rolling a couple d10 at the kitchen table over and over for no other reason than I was waiting for my wife to get ready for a BBQ. Other game ideas come from watching and playing other games. For the purposes of this post I will start with my design book and work our way through the design of a game.
This first ideas for a game can come from anywhere, when they do, they are written down in one of two books. If I am not at home, potential ideas are written in a small book that lives in my pocket. If I am at home, ideas are kept in a larger notebook. As the general idea lists grow, I will have my favorites that interest me the most. When a favorite has been identified, a framework will be started.
Frameworks for us, are designed to create a general flow for what a game is supposed to do. As the high level game overview forms, there might be some mechanics added to fit in with certain game situations. At this stage, there is a lot of pacing and thought experiment going into the framework. I will constantly ask myself, “what makes sense.” I should probably video tape myself going through this process one of these days just to see what it looks like. We strive to make the games have roots as close to reality as possible. Even if the theme of the game is not rooted in reality, we like to have the mechanics of a game function in a manner that makes logical sense. A framework will help determine what kind of board or card set up we will use when we produce the rough prototype. There are some games where the set up is almost automatic, but at this point, it is not a good idea to get stuck on one type of board or set up. For our Robin Hood project, I made the board first because I found a hex grid printable paper online and was so excited to create a board I did not think about what a board of it’s size and geography would do for the mechanics of the game. Now that we are a few more steps down the road with Robin Hood, the board I spent 3-4 hours creating might already be obsolete and we have not used it yet! Oh well lesson learned. I know I am at the end of the framework phase when a list of components/pieces appears detailing what needs to be produced to make the rough prototype. What I really like about framing a game is the natural timeline a framework creates. The framework tells me when the game is ready to be built and with the list of things to make, I am ready to move onto the prototype phase.
Before I get to the prototyping phase, I should mention the white board.
The white board is a great tool for designing games. The white board can be used during any and all parts of the entire design process. During the framework phase, I can use the white board to help visualize my thought experiments and make quick changes when need be. The white board is great for layouts of boards and cards before we take the time to make them. The versatility and ability to make quick changes, the white board helps get me though situations where I am blocked and really just need to try things out without having to commit other resources. The white board makes for a quick and easy place to jot down notes. I have 50 or 60 photos on my phone of notes I have written on the white board. I take pictures since I will be erasing the board several times during the design process.
After framing is complete, I will make the parts to build a rough but playable prototype. The playable prototype serves two purposes. First, show and explain the game to Aidan Short, my co-designer and have a copy of the game we can use with our buddies who are willing to play test with our handwritten index cards and poster board game boards.
Now that the game is in front of both Aidan and me, we get to the last pure design phase. Up to this point I have not played with many numbers. The basics have been applied but Aidan is the math guy in this thing we call TGIK. I will offer my initial pitch regarding numbers and mechanics and Aidan will confirm, make adjustments and add his own ideas. I should say, this part is a it nerve racking for me because I tend to think my mechanical ideas are “pure genius” and when I am delivering my pitch, Aidan will think before he replies, and a good reply from him will range from a simple “OK” to the top shelf reply of “I like that”. On a rare occasion I will get a “that will be a lot of fun!” I am sure we remember this part of the design process differently but I will leave that to him to provide more detail. We generally stick to the theme as it stands, but we are not “married” to any particular mechanic. The additions Aidan has are added to the game so they can be tried out with our first round of play testing. That testing might be just the two of us, but we have a habit of making games that play best with a minimum of three players.
In our group of friends we have 5 or 6 that are willing to give our hand written games a go. We get their feedback and we make changes as we go along. I won’t get deep into the weeds about play testing because that is a beast all its own.
Now that we are at the testing phase, we will test a few times and determine if we will continue on to refine our games. If we continue, we will make design changes during and after test sessions. What makes the design process so much fun is the control we have over the universe that is the game we are working on. Is something not working? Change it! And the options we have available to make that change are only limited to what we can dream up.
I hope you have enjoyed this look into how we design and I hope it inspires you to try designing a game of your own.