How to Build a Game #1 Think Big, Start Small 2.0

If this looks familiar, that’s because it is a post I released 3 years ago! Wow, time flies. My new plan is to go through the old blog and see what I said back then, and apply what I have learned in three years. Keep in mind as you read these posts, these are the kinds of things that I have observed or have worked for me over time. I will be sure to reiterate that as the posts roll on but if you catch this series revisit from the start, keep that in mind.

 “The best place to start is with a small mechanic or interaction with the goal of building out a frame or web of a game that starts with  something small and manageable.”

I still believe in this. I think the goal for a designer that doesn’t know how to get the ball really rolling on a project is to build a frame. The frame can be based anything the designer feels strongly about. Theme, mechanic, intended experience…..all are good places to start. If you are able to build a strong framework, you can build out the rest of the game, even if it is only bits at a time.

“So go ahead, start every idea you have rolling around in your head”

While I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think this is practical anymore. I may have also written this as a joke at the time. I think it is a better idea to spend some time thinking about what ten ideas you have floating around are worth going after. Maybe that ten is really only five, but spending some time beforehand thinking about what you feel most strongly and building frameworks to those games is probably a better approach than, “GO NUTS!!!!”

The example game is dead but it still holds

The example in the original post (I will let you scroll down and read that), while it may be a dead idea, the example of how to build a framework still holds. I think this example is a fine showing of how taking a small piece of a concept and “digging”, HEYO!, into the topic allowed me to build a strong frame for the game. When we started adding more parts to the game, did it make sense with the original framework? As the project grows, the framework or original concept of the game can change, and that’s okay, but the framework described in this example was a constant anchor. While the original game idea is dead, the mechanic is still alive and on the list of projects to explore.

Original Post

I have this crazy idea that I can help people build the games they want to build. Coming up with ideas is easy, I think we all have tons of ideas for games we would like to see produced or think of changes to the make to current games we love and changes we would make to garbage games to make them better. House rules would not exist if it were not for the designer in all of us to make changes to games. My goal with this series is to help my fellow designers in the world to see the tools we use to make games and hopefully help make your ideas a reality. Even if that reality is a paper and pencil game you play with just your family and friends, or you are able to publish your game, we want you to at least give it a go because we love the process of design and we want others to experience the joy game creation can be.

Enough preamble, on to the good stuff…

Think Big and Start Small….Where do I start and How do I stay focused?

Over a number of conversations I’ve had with designers, I hear the same think over and over. “I have plenty of ideas but I don’t know where to start and I have too many ideas to focus on one of them.” I feel your pain regarding both of these problems. The best place to start is with a small mechanic or interaction with the goal of building out a frame or web of a game that starts with  something small and manageable. The premise of this approach is by picking something small and completing a basic mechanic, you have started! And that is the point, even if you need to start 10, 20, 40 different game ideas, the point is you have started. So go ahead, start every idea you have rolling around in your head. The hope is that one or two or three will stick and make it to the second step. Maybe you show your friend the game you started and they say, “well I like this idea you have here, tell me more about it?” The next thing you know, you are working on the next piece of this one idea that a friend said looked interesting. By taking this shotgun starting approach, you will see and talk about the ideas that are the most fun to you and your friends and this will help you focus on the ideas that are the best. Depending on the number of ideas you have, finding a final focus point will take an unknown amount of time, but I promise you the cream will rise and the garbage will get chucked.

This completes the lecture portion of our lesson today, now onto our hands on example portion of class.

Think Big

I started with an idea for a space mining game where the asteroids players were mining were falling into a black hole. That was the entire idea.

Start Small

Since I knew players would be mining from an asteroid, I figured I would start there. What makes the most sense? Players will need to find an asteroid they can mine and they will need to set up a mining operation on said asteroids. In order to find asteroids, players will have scout ships and they will be able to upgrade their scout ships to increase their chances of finding a mine-able asteroid. Once players had found a mine-able asteroid, they would need to set up a mining operation. Knowing very little about the mining industry and how it works, I picked two parts of mining I thought made sense and ran with them, Core Samples and Depth of Mining. I figured a mining operation would start with a core sample and based on that core sample, would decide if they wanted to build a mine in that location. The deeper a player mined the higher value minerals would be located, however, mining deeper takes longer and the asteroid is falling into the block hole! Get off this rock!!!!

And that is it. I was done with the start. I took a big idea about space mining and black holes and created a small piece of and connected it to the larger theme. Regardless if the mechanic is good, complete, or reasonable; I can come back to the idea days, weeks, years from now but there is a seed of a game that is waiting to be grown and it can be grown small pieces at a time.

I Don’t Know How to Do That

Just because you don’t know how to do something, doesn’t mean that you are not qualified to do it try it. I’m not saying the results of your trying are going to be good but don’t let your lack of knowledge be the reason you don’t do it.

I’ve been trying to thing of some abstract way to make this point but I can’t some up with anything that I feel helps make my point without getting lost in my own thoughts. So I will use myself as the example.

A little over a year ago I had never edited audio of video. Looking at today, I have a rough idea of the basics of audio editing and I am not afraid to sit in front of a video editing program and see what I can do.

There are barriers to doing what you want to do and not knowing how to do them should not be a real barrier. Are there other barriers that can hold you up? Of course, and if you don’t currently have the available time to get over the initial learning curve, fine, come back later. If you have the passion and the time to learn it, learn it, make your thing badly. The pride of creating a thing is a drug. The same way I felt when we finished building a picnic table in High School is the same way I feel when I’m done with a podcast episode.

Letting the lack of knowledge stop you from doing is dangerous. Not knowing how to do something is ok, figure it out if that is what you need to do.

Keep Going

Doing your passion is really difficult. There are a lot of “things” that want to get in the way of your goals. The trouble is, those “things” will win almost all the time when it comes to you doing what you want to do. The challenge is finding a way to give your passions a seat in the front row.

Sometimes, in order to do the work, you have to find ways to be able to do the work.

But that can’t let you stop from doing little bits of work in the mean time. Its almost like a mortgage. For the first several years of the payment plan, you are paying off the interest. Only after you have paid the principle down by little bits are you afforded the chance to spend larger amounts of time doing your passion project(s).

Time is often listed as the enemy, but time should be looked at as your friend. Time should be seen as a resource that can be tapped into whenever it is available. Early on, time will be measure in moments. Whats important is that you don’t view that early on as requiring you to be young. Your passion does not care how old you are. The people who will benefit from your passion do not care how old you are.

Keep going……keep going towards the horizon and travel the roads that need to be traveled in order to succeed. The best part is you get to define what success is. The obstacles, the requirements of the day to day need to be taken care of but the passion will have its moments and those moments will turn into the star of the show.

Keep going because we do the things we have to so we can support the passions that drive us. There are times when we are lost, tired and unsure of what to do next. If we are following our passions, we get to define the path we take and the way to cure that lost feeling is to…

…Keep Going.

An Open Letter to My Fellow Gamers

I want my fellow gamers to feel free to make fun of me, trash talk with me and feel free to have more interesting conversations than the weather and what we all do for a living.

I know that we have, as a species, built some social rules about how we engage with the people around us. There are stages we go through in order to get to know one another and get a comfort level. Over the course of time we get to a point were one of the participants in a “budding friendship” will get brave and attempt to pick on or make fun of the other.

This is always a weird moment because it marks a declaration point in a friendship. You are essentially telling the other person that you are comfortable enough to make fun of them. You are never sure how the other person is going to react and what are you supposed to do when the other person reacts in the way you did not intend? The potential for this situation to go bad are really uncomfortable. Most people would rather take it slow, be really polite, stick to small talk and let time work its magic. Or just avoid the situation all together…

I get this all the time at my meet up game night group. There are some people there that I could easily be friends with outside of games. I don’t know what their other hobbies are but as far as them being decent people that seem to have similar interests as I do, I think I could be friends with them. We get to a point where one of us makes a joke at the other’s expense and the inevitable “I’m Joking” needs to pronounced.

I hate this.

I am writing this open letter to my fellow gamers to tell you all that I want you to make fun of me. I want you to trash talk me when we are playing games and I want you to trash talk me about the games we are going to play in the future. I want you to feel comfortable to have more interesting conversation that is more meaningful than the small talk we all force ourselves through every thanksgiving when we run into the “once a year relative” and we have to be pleasant and talk about work and home and blah blah blah for a few hours until you are released to go back to our regular lives.

I understand that not everyone likes to communicate in a way that includes banter, trash talk or arguing for fun, I get it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the books we are reading, the games we want to play, why we want to play that game, game design….etc. The great thing about games is that there is a TON of built in conversational material around the games we play.

I also understand that there is a natural amount of time required for people to get comfortable with one another and people need to build a natural cadence when it comes to talking to one another. Think about the first time you try and get off the phone with a new friend or friend to be vs when you get off the phone with your spouse or parent or high school friend. There is a flow and a pattern to getting off the phone with the people you know. There is a weird “how do we get off the phone” when talking to someone new.

I am not foolish enough to think that I, or anyone else, could force people to be friends or make people banter with each other.

What I do believe, is that I can facilitate the process by telling all of you, my gaming friends, that I want to get to know you as quickly and openly as possible. I want you to feel free to make fun….I will take it as a joke. If making fun is not your thing, don’t be afraid to ask me whatever abnormal or philosophical question. We may or may not have the same likes and dislikes, but I want to remove the walls before we have to go through the social dance of getting around them.

I don’t expect to be best friends with everyone I meet in the board game world, but I want to have the chance to engage on a level where we know information can flow freely and without the worry that the attempt of sharing a laugh at my expense will be the cause of any hard feelings.


Is There a Designer in Every Gamer?

In episode 13 of the Whose Turn is it Podcast, the hosts were asking the question “is there was a designer in every gamer?” The hosts were of the mind that there is a designer in every gamer, but the guest, Ignacy Trzewiczek, went so far as to say that most gamers are not qualified to design games and should not design games. I will let you listen to the episode to hear what exactly everyone had to say about the subject. I am here to offer my counter to the idea that gamers should not bother designing games at all.

The main reasons I took away from the podcast as to why gamers shouldn’t design games is that designing a game is very difficult and most gamers are not “qualified.”  I have written previously about how hard it is to make a game. I have no issue with the idea that making a game is incredibly difficult. Designing a game is easy, but making that game into a physical product with finished art and getting that game to market and then have it be a commercial success….tough, double tough. Does this mean that gamers should not bother to design a game in the first place? No. I take issue with the idea that rather than set the level of expectation to where it should be, the words of wisdom are “don’t bother.”

If you want to design a game, you need to have an idea of where you want to go with your idea. If you want to make a game for your friends and family, make it, take your time and enjoy the process. If you want to shoot for the stars and make a game with the intent of commercial “success” (measure how you see fit) you better know the time and persistence required to make a game happen. Your ideas might be bad, but there are so many designers out there and designer resources (BGDF, BGG designer forums, Facebook forums, designer blogs, etc) where designers can go and talk about their ideas. Test your ideas and other designers will tell you if there is a game worth pursuing. If the community tells you that the idea isn’t that strong, make it better or start working on another idea, look for another designer to bounce ideas off of, read the good ideas of others and learn what it takes to make a game go from basic concept and turn it into a great game. There is an avenue for designers to travel where they can improve their skills and meet the people and develop the team required to make games. Very few people have all the required skills the make a game happen, but there is an established forum of designs who are on the web looking and willing to help one another.

Which brings up to qualifications;if you have played a designer game, or a mass market game, and you have a basic understanding of interesting mechanics, you are qualified to start building a game. If you are willing to build your skill set or work with people who can help you make a full game, you are qualified to make a game. The barrier to entry for making a game is minuscule. There are no qualification requirements when it comes to making a game other than the willingness to work hard.

What bothers me the most is this, it is hard enough to design a game without established industry folks like Ignacy telling aspiring designs “don’t.” How many potential designers will listen to the podcast, hear an established publisher say they are not qualified and those potential designers are shot down before they even began? I believe it is the responsibility of people within this industry to spread the word about our games and the people who design them. Telling potential designers that shouldn’t because it is hard and they are not qualified is just bad stewardship and hurts our industry. If one wanted to tell potential designers that getting a game from the idea conception phase to the published in your hands phase is very difficult, I am right there with them. Recently on twitter there was a discussion about people not wanting to design game because of the work involved, and I totally get it. That is a choice some people make and that is awesome, please keep playing and enjoying the games you love. For the aspiring designers out there, you better have a good understanding of what you are getting yourself into. That being said, it is A LOT of fun and you will meet a lot of great people. If I stopped designing games now, I can say that I have made friends, met some great people and learned a lot about how games work.

Make your games, please, please, please…make your games.

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The Potential Bubble of Board Games? – Long Form Version

Chaz Marler of Pair of Dice Paradise recently ran an interesting series on Board Game Breakfast (episodes 47-50) about the similarities in the comic book industry and the the board game industry and wheather or not the board game industry was facing a comic book style bubble. I will let you track down the details but I will provide a general summary of what Chaz was seeing in his town that made him think about the similarity of the 90’s comic book industry and the current growth in the board game industry.

Starting with the number of board game stores that have been cropping up in the area. Can the local market support that many stores in one town? What about the vast number of games that are being released onto the market? How can the number of gamers support the number of games that are being produced? What about the gimmicks used by the comic book industry that are now being employed by the board game industry? The examples being multiple covers for the same game, Crossover characters and recycled content e.g. anniversary editions. Are board games a cultural fad because they are being showcased on current TV shows like Jimmy Fallon or The Big Bang Theory? And a final summation with the potential of the number of title overwhelming the market and the domino effect down the line through stores, distributor and publishers reducing the number of available titles to the hobby gamer side of the industry. I will let you watch the shows to get the details of what Chaz was saying, and I highly recommend you watch them because it is a really good thought experiment to have.

Beyond the Board Game Breakfast series, Chaz also went on the Rolling Dice and Taking Names podcast where they brought up another really interesting aspect of the potential board game bubble. The secondary market where people are buying and selling comics or baseball cards as a potential investment for the future. The hosts talk about the baseball card industry and I remember well when baseball cards were the hot thing and going to the card store to pick up the pricing magazine every month I would go home and total up the value of my best cards. I remember then the Death of Superman comic was release. One of the students in my class brought in his copy and the comic was read in class.

As a disclaimer, Chaz never claims to be an expert, just in interested party who is making observations of what he is seeing in the board game industry compared to what he saw in the comic book industry of the 90’s. If you listen to the podcast (number 52) he will explain that in the 90’s he was a small time publisher of comic books so he does have a solid perspective when it comes to both the comic book world and the board game world. Let me use this disclaimer space to give my own disclaimer before I get to my thoughts on this matter. I am no expert myself, I work in the world of securities analysis and that basically means that I read about strong and weak industries for my day job. I lived through the housing bubble as an analyst and while that is nowhere near an Apples to Apples comparison, party game HEYO!!, I feel like I can recognize and industry that has a rocky road to travel with the possibility of survival or identify and industry that needs to go through a contraction of its content providers in order to survive some rough waters ahead. But mostly, I spend a lot of time thinking about the board game industry and think about the benefits of board games and what board games have to offer to the people who play them.

So without further ado, here are the results of my own thought experiments.

Connection to People

Board games have an advantage because they generally need more than one person to be played. Since we humans are a social being, we will always want to be part of a social crowd because games can bring fun to a gathering of friends and family that is difficult to achieve with

Social Interaction of Games

Board games are all about social interaction. There are some games that are meant to be played on your own, but for all intents and purposes, games are bought so they can be played with one or more of your friends or family. Comic books and baseball cards are a hobby that can be “done” completely on your own. Over the course of time, individuals could end up losing interest in comic books, maybe they grew up and out of the hobby. Maybe they found interest in a different hobby and they let comics fall off their radar. The point is that there is no connection to another person to say “Hey, lets read some old comics.” With board games, if one friend in a group of four losses interest for a few months, there will be one or two other friends in the group that might say, “Hey, lets play Pandemic.” How many times have we heard people say they were really into gaming when they were in Junior High and High School, only to lose track when going to college and finding the hobby again after they had settled down and found a group of friends to play games with again where ever they now lived.

Games Can Cover a Wide Age Range

Lets say that someone moves to an area where they don’t have a group of people to play their games with. Games cover a wide age range of play-ability. When gamers start families, they have a potential built in audience to play games. The children of gamers might want to play games with their friends and the parents might want to get together and play some heavier games while the kids play some lighter games. I don’t see comic books having that wide of an appeal. There was a definite time in my life where I felt like I had out grown comic books. I go to the comic/game store where I live and as much as I want to get back into comics, the draw to playing a game with others  and feeling “too old” for comics, the draw just isn’t there anymore.

Games Can Teach

Games have the ability to teach social skills, education skills and general knowledge. This may not fall strongly in the category of social interaction but games are a way to teach people how to be good winners and losers. Games can teach people about what really matters when playing a game. I know over time, I care very little for who wins the game. Sure in the moment of the final score being revealed and I missed the win by one point, I will drop some mild language, have a laugh and that is the end of it. Good game, that was fun and move on to the next game. There are some games the offer historical or cultural lessons regarding their theme. I have heard of games the teach languages. Games have a versatility that comics and baseball cards don’t have.

Secondary Market/Games as an Investment

Part of what created a bubble in the card and comic market was the frenzy created by the secondary market. As people see the value of certain pieces in the card and comic space, there are lot of people brought into the hobby that probably don’t belong there. People that are willing to leave the market just as quick as the market formed. The values of different pieces are not real because the pol of buyers dries up as more and more sellers are in the market looking to off-load their expensive pieces.

Games Replace Each Other Over Time

If there was a market out there that was collection games so they could hang onto them while their value increased, so they could sell them later on, that market would run into a problem. As the game industry progresses, there are new titles that “replace” older titles. New games improve upon old mechanics. Old themes with new mechanics applied could draw the interest of potential buyers, especially when sellers are trying to sell their games for a higher price on the secondary market. If a gamer is looking for a specific game and they see it offered for three times above retail, that gamer will probably look for another similar game before they will pull the trigger on the original, more expensive game. Comic books and baseball cards don’t really offer this “feature”. With comics and cards, there is a value to “do you have the 19xx version of issue number huzeva” or “do you have player Z’s rookie card?” There is a built in time feature that board games don’t really have because the themes and mechanics are present in all games are an ever changing puzzle of different tools and subjects.

Not Easy to Ship Between Buyers and Seller

Being that cards and comics, in my experience, were traded at school or at the card/comic shop; there was a fluidity to the card and comic secondary market that is not as easy to attain with board games. Board games are difficult to move, be it shipping a game or taking your games to conventions to trade with other people. Since shipping is expensive, any potential investors for future board game value will be turned away by the lost value of shipping product. If an investor wanted to take high value games to conventions and trade there, all those games would have to be shipped and there would have to be a buyer at the con willing to buy the game when there are tons of games in shiny new packaging to compete with. Cards and comics can be easily transported and traded in bulk. The makers of comics and cards will make pieces more rare in order to increase the value of said piece. This in turn will create a frenzied secondary market which lends itself to a bubble.

Games Need to be Learned to be Useful

I am going to pull from my finance experience and compare cards and comics to oil. In the oil market, anyone (including you or I) could buy a tanker full of oil sailing across the Atlantic ocean. Two days later, we could sell the tanker to someone who was willing to buy our oil and we make our profit or loss on the oil and that is the end of the transaction. Did we care about the oil? No. Did we have any intention of taking delivery of that oil? No. Cards and comics suffer from the same problem. Investors in the card and comic secondary market could very possible be buying pieces in order to hold them. Cards and comics are susceptible to being treated like a commodity. Board games on the other hand, need to be played to be useful. Games need to be learned and researched in order for people to buy them. Because of this, games do not lend very well to becoming a commodity and therefore have an antidote to this aspect of secondary markets.

Talking to the Game Store

We went to an UnPub event in San Diego and I asked the store owner if they were seeing an increase in foot traffic.

Games do Better in Recession

What really surprised me and really shouldn’t have been a shock, was that board games do better during a recession. He explained to me that people view board games as a one time cost for multiple times of entertainment. One of the common comparisons we gamers like to make regarding the cost of a game is the cost of a trip to the movies. Where a movie is a one time thing, games are a multiple play (hopefully) experience. Over the course of time the value of spending $40-60 on a board game increases with a families ability to spend some now and have numerous chances for entertainment later.

Games Have Access to Entertainment Budgets in Tough Times

What this also tells me is that board games have access to people entertainment budgets in the best and worst of times. I think cards and comics, while inexpensive, fall into the luxury purchase line item for peoples budget. But with board games doing well in the entertainment line of a family budget, board games will not be the first thing to fall off the monthly spending list when times are not as good.

The Internet and Other

When cards and comics were all the rage in the 90’s, the internet was still growing. Card and comics fans really only had the local friends and card shop hang outs to trade with and talk about their hobby. Board games have the internet on their side.

Games Have the Internet on Their Side

I have more board gaming friends on the internet than I do in my local gaming group. I play more Star Realms games (ChrisTGIK, selfish plug) online than I do at the game store. In fact, I have never played Star Realms with a physical copy. I talk about the games we are playing and the games we are designing. The ease with which information can be shared about the games we love, and find others who love them, makes lowering the barrier to entry for new players. Potential new players can come across conversations about the games they enjoy and engage in the conversation. Cards and comics may have had the early internet, they have a high barrier to entry. I think cards and comics fall into the love em or don’t care about em category. Games have such a diversity paired with the internet’s ability to find potential fans, this is a major advantage.

Celebrity Endorsements

Another tick to the positive for games are the celebrities that are playing hobby games. During the filming of The Hunger Games movies, some of the cast and crew played Settlers of Catan. Board games are featured on TV. Shows like the Big Bang Theory and Jimmy Fallon have board games featured in one way or another. Wil Wheaton and Table Top are a great showcase for games. Board games have some big names in their corner and in the celebrity obsessed culture we live in, the exposure gained by board games because of the famous people who play them gives board games a leg up in growing its market share.

Ease of Teaching Games

Thanks  to You Tube, there are easy ways for people to learn different games. Content producers like Rodney from Watch it Played take the time to walk a player through the rules of the game. This significantly lowers the barrier to getting into games. I can’t tell you the number of time I have heard family members walk up to a game and say “that looks complicated.” There are lots of people out there who don’t want to take the time to learn a rule book and get into a new game. And I get it, I hate rule books myself. I can learn a game faster in two rounds of play, rather than take the time to learn the rules on my own. But with people like Rodney out there making the learning of games easier, there are people that will now be more willing to try a game out if they can learn through a visual medium.


While there are lots of positives going to the board game industry compared to the card and comic industries, there is a responsibility to the people within the industry, both gamers and producers, to do their part to expand the reach of our games. I love it when I watch a OneTar review and she talks about trying to get people in Target to try some of the “deeper” games that are on the shelves.

Can the Industry Market Itself to the General Public

The industry has a responsibility to market itself to the general market and not just the hobby gamer market. I have no idea what other companies do to reach out the the larger market. To be honest, we are trying to figure out how we are going to go about doing the same. What I know is true is that the game makers in our industry can not hope to survive long term if we only market to hobby gamers. Gamers also have a responsibility to try and spread their passion for the games we play. The more people we are able to bring into the hobby, the stronger our hobby will be so we can make interesting games for all kinds of players.

Will Big Stores Embrace Hobby Games

Every time I go into Barnes & Noble I swear the game section gets bigger. While this is awesome to see designer games in big box stores, how much will these stores embrace designer games. Books stores have author readings of their books, will these stores host demos for different games? It is great that the games we enjoy are in the shelves, but the same barriers exist for the random customer walking by the games section. They may not know what they are looking at and where do they go to get more information about these games? If stores hosted demos of games and people walked by a group of gamers having a great time laughing and talking to each other about the fun they are having, people will start asking questions. My favorite example of this at our game night, located in a local restaurant, is when we play Avalon. When we all close our eyes and we are showing thumbs up and looking around trying to find out who is who, I wonder what it must look like to the other people in the restaurant.

People want to engage with fun things and games are fun. There is a wide variety of games out there for whatever skill level and thematic interest. Board games could very well be forming a bubble, but there are a lot of think in the favor of board games and their continued growth. Are we going to sit by and just enjoy this time in the growth of our industry. or are we going to actively engage with the growth of our industry?

Thank you for stinking around to the end. I will break this into pieces and post them to make for quicker reading. If you want to add to the conversation or think I am wrong, let me know and we can keep talking about this. I love this topic because it is fascinating to me on many levels.

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