So, last weekend I drove to Ann Arbor, MI with Matt Loomis and Dustin Oakley where we attended Protospiel.org. We helped a lot of designers with their games. On the way home we complained a bit about how at this and other events and in our Facebook forums we seem to repeatedly have to point out some very basic design no-no’s. So, instead of just complaining we decided to use the 6 hour drive back to at least jot down some notes to make a post. Now most of this applies specifically (and some only) to our hobby game industry. Matt was kind enough to write up the original draft and he has this also posted at his blog at his site: http://themetagame.blogspot.com/. I have added some more of my personal opinions below in italics…
Designing board and card games is harder than it looks. Just like everything else it life, it gets a lot easier after making a ton of mistakes and learning from them. Here are some of the most common things you’ll fear from veterans in the industry that we can all easily avoid with a little bit of work.
If you are new to the industry, welcome! There are some great resources that have been around for many years to assist in your journey. Yes the site may be a little confusing and difficult to navigate at first, but consider the time spent a cost of entry to the hobby. It’s worth it! They have a great designer forum.
No Roll and Move
Unless you have a time machine and are travelling back to the 1980’s to design games before anyone knew better, don’t use a single roll of the die to determine movement in your game. It’s frustrating to the players and uninspiring design. More importantly most people in the hobby game industry market will not buy your game if they see this.
No Paper Money
This is simply a component that publishers and players alike just don’t like. Don’t use it! Paper wears out quickly and to do a good design you must spend a LOT of time on the art. Much better if you just use cardboard chips.
No Collectible Card Games
This is a distribution model that just is not feasible for any new game these days. If you want to try and make a CCG, you’ll need that time machine again and go back to the 1990’s to get in on the fad when it was cool. We can’t all be as lucky as Richard Garfield. Many larger companies have tried and failed, so use the method of releasing static expansions instead.
Don’t use classic game parts
These are not attractive to publishers or to players. If your game uses a chess board, or chess pieces, or a standard deck of cards, this is not a marketable game because people already own these items. A game that combines chess and rummy is not a new game; it’s a variant of existing games. It’s also a big red flag to a publisher that you are not a well versed designer.
A game is different from a simulation
The best games almost always use abstract representations to signify events. It certainly takes more than 1 wood and 1 brick to build a road in real life, but it works just fine in Settlers of Catan. Don’t bog your game down trying to simulate reality.
Do not create game effects that cause other players to lose their turns (literally or functionally)
This style of design is what I like to call a “negative play experience”. This isn’t fun for the person that it happens to, it’s only mildly interesting for the person doing it, and the game is never better because it exists.
Avoid linear dice rolls when possible
If you want to balance a random event to happen a certain percentage of the time, try using two or more dice to force the dice into a bell curved average instead of a linear one. The sample size of dice in single play of a game is usually not enough to realize the true average of a linear roll. Also don’t allow the dice to determine critical game swinging effects. No one (not even the Ameritrash crowd) likes a game’s outcome on the last turn to be decided by a die roll.
Perception is just as important as reality.
Just because a mechanism or event may be balanced on paper, or “fair” in the long run, doesn’t change the perception of the event when it takes place. Just think about the old saying of “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” A little imbalance is OK!
Avoid player elimination
In general, you should avoid player elimination from your game. If it is truly an essential or unavoidable part of your game, ensure that the time between a player being eliminated and the end of the game is not longer than 15 minutes.
Games need to be able to be taught
Hour long explanations are generally not something that anyone looks forward to when trying to learn a new game. Think about what you can do to assist in teaching the game to new players by lowering the initial number of decisions or complexity, and ramping it up as the game continues.
Don’t have players make decisions that will impact the outcome of the game before they play.
Trying to add variety to a game with a card draft is cool, but you need to have a way to play the game outside of using a draft as so people can learn it. Even if it’s just playing with a random set for a few rounds before restarting the game with a draft, make sure this is an option for players, as well as the preferred way to teach your game. One way to know this is a problem with your game is if the game play or player’s play style radically changes on the second or third play through.
If players start the game taking the same actions every game, start the game from there.
Unless this is a requirement for the learning curve, you should always start the game from the position where players begin to make unique decisions from each other. Many times a player will see that there are obvious strategic first steps to take in the beginning of the game. So why make them all go through the motions. Start the game with those steps already taken.
Make decisions meaningful / Remove non-decisions
If I can always spend $1 to gain 1 point or I can spend $2 to gain 3 points, I will never spend $1 unless I am forced to. This is a non-decision, and does not make the game more interesting if the player understands basic math. Though with an increased number of players this discrepancy is decreased.
Balance is not always linear
If you balanced your game in a spreadsheet, it is either going to be cleverly hidden, or transparently obvious. Be aware about what side of the coin your game is falling into, and make sure that the balance is transparent to everyone who isn’t looking for it. Also keep in mind that a curved balance line is generally more interesting than a straight balance line. Spend 1 to gain 1, Spend 2 to gain 2, Spend 3 to gain 3 is linear balance. Spend 1 to gain 1, Spend 2 to gain 3, Spend 3 to gain 5 is a curved balance.
Stealing from another player is twice as effective
Stealing 3 from another player is better than gaining 5 from the game. The first gives a net gain of 6 whereas the second is a net gain of 5. Understanding this simple concept will prevent hours of wasted play time to fix simple imbalances.
Edge cases will happen, if they ruin the experience, they need to be fixed
If there is a 1 in 100 chance that one player will get absolutely screwed, or one player will completely dominate the others, then it will happen sometimes. If it happens sometimes, it’s going to happen to a player playing your game for the first time, and they will have a terrible experience. You need to fix these issues.
If you need to make an exception to a rule, question the inclusion of the rule
If a player is always able to do something 98% of the time, but 2% of the time they are prevented by an arbitrary rule, this was likely an attempt to balance something. Make sure that the situation that caused the 2% is really necessary for the game. Try never to add a special case rule at all. Make things work logically and intuitively, otherwise people will be wasting time in the manual.
Sometimes less is more
Games are not always about what you have included into the game, most often the game is about giving the feeling of an event in the simplest way possible. The best games are the ones that express great complexity through simplicity. Once you think you have your game working, try to trim the fat more. Study which parts of the game people are enjoying and which parts seem to be just maintenance.
Graphic design is more important than people like to admit
Players need to be able to process the information in your game to be able to understand it and play it. Anything you can do visually to assist with that goal is going to make everyone’s life much easier. Still do not spend money on it as that’s the publishers duty.
Consider publication costs in your designs
Everything has a cost. Games with 900 cards, 50 custom dice, or 400 wooden cubes are going to be expensive to produce. When designing, think about ways to simplify your designs to remove components that don’t need to be there. Typical games in our industry have typical expected prices and value points: $10-15 for a deck of cards, $20-30 for a party game, $25-35 for a family game, $45-55 for a meaty gamers game. $75 for a game with custom plastic bits/minis, and $95-100 for a mega game with tons of cool miniatures.
Be able to accept feedback
This should go without saying, but it’s easy to be offended (or get defensive about your baby) by someone who is giving you feedback about your game. Make sure that you separate yourself from the situation and look at the comments objectively. They are trying to help, and they are talking about the game, not about you as a person. Sure if you hear something once you that you don’t agree with you can file it away, but if you hear something more then once you best take it seriously.
Get outside feedback
Your playtest group or your family are fine for early version of your game. But you should be putting your game in front of strangers. People down at the game store. People at conventions. You should try to help them as little as possible and find out where the rough spots are. Your family and friends will never give you honest input. You should also consider having input and ranking of the game done on paper as people tend to be more honest when filling out a form after game play.
Know your audience
Games are not designed for everyone to love. Do not try to please everyone and make fixes based on every playtesters comments. Know the audience you are trying to please and target them. Don’t try to make a game for everyone.
As a side note specific to our hobby game industry, the publishers and the players are not interested in games that have as their selling point being “educational”. Publishers are not interested in games that use a specific intellectual property (IP). Many (but not all) are not seeking abstract or word games, so they will be much harder to find a publisher for. Limiting your game to only 2 players or not handling 4 players will also greatly reduce your chances.
If you’re looking for a publisher your game has to be something special, it has to have a spark, it needs a catch, it needs to be fun. Too many people make a game and it works and it’s just another game. We don’t need more mediocre games in our industry, we need greatness. Sadly, these days most games are played only 1-3 times before they get shelved forever.
We hope this document helps you design smart and not waste your time.
– James Mathe, Matt Loomis and Dustin Oakley
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Board Game Terms: Explained