A Design Theory Question

Over the last couple of years I’ve expounded on the theme of game design theory a number of times. Several people have been kind enough to say that these posts have been helpful to them in their own design work, which is very good to hear. I wrote them with the intention that they form a sort of reference for people who were interested, and always intended to return to write more. As always, these will be my own opinion rather than any granite carved gospel – the aim is to inspire and kickstart some thinking rather than to preach. Mostly 😉

What topics though?

Well, you tell me.

There are some obvious topics yet to cover, such as playtesting. However, what I think you may want to know isn’t necessarily the same as what you actually find tricky. It’s clearly better to cover topics that are genuinely helpful rather than being simply whatever happens to have flitted across my brain that morning…

So what elements of design theory intrigue you, or would help in your own designs? Let me know and I’ll see what I can do 🙂

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14 Responses to A Design Theory Question

  1. Willem-Jan (Hephesto) says:

    Purely an observer and not a designer, but definitely intrigued by the entire process. So not sure if these would be interesting topic to write about or others to read, but might as well throw two ideas out.

    1. Designing for the future.

    This could be a very genre and production specific one, but it does seem like a potential huge factor. If we take the Dreadball stuff for example there was time for a waved test and release of rules, but from the get go (end of the Kickstarter campaign anyway) things were basically clear that the entire game would be done in a single swoop providing a complete game and product line.

    If on the other hand we look at a publisher like FFG and their various Cthulhu-based games I much more get a feeling that certain mechanisms are intentionally left out to both leave content for future releases and create a cleaner, starting experience. While monolithic GW seems to work on a patchwork/scifi ducktape approach for trying to keep new releases and rules workable with the older stuff and hoping it won’t completely wreck the game. These are quite extreme opposite of either planning for a structured meta or hoping the organic meta driven by the community won’t break your game.

    With skirmish and hybrid boardgames being such oddballs in the general gaming community I was wondering just how big an impact leaving space for the future of the product/rules has on the design process. I can see huge benefit and disadvantages to both a planned or more organic approach.

    2. Pinning down your target audience and game experience.

    With the recent rise of skirmish, rpg and board gaming hybrids we’re seeing more and more games that try to provide a narrative experience that also gives the participants a sense of agency (Myth, Xia, Dungeon Saga. ShadowSea/DeepWars etc.). These are tough games to design and quite often don’t lead to the type of experience people picking up the games were hoping for by either being quite complex or too far away from the players’ comfort zone (Myth seems to be a prime example here with board gamers not being able to handle gray areas in the rules and tabletop gamers having almost the opposite experience by resolving issues with a simple die role much more willingly).

    A lot of this seems to come down to how difficult it can be to properly communicate just what kind of an experience you’re trying to build. Oddly enough this is something we even see on Kickstarter for fairly basic board games, where the enthusiasm of the designer often seems to (quite understandably) outweigh their communication skills. Which in and of itself can be infectious enough to draw in a lot of interested consumers, but in the long term doesn’t do the specific game and the industry in general any good.

    Just how important would you say defining the experience your rules/game are trying to provide would be? And how big a role does the potential audience that might pick up the game have on the design process? It seems to be quite logical to me that the audience would be an integral part of the design and presentation process but we see a lot of games out there that seem to rely more on the shiny factor than actual game design.

  2. Smud says:

    Personally I’m most interested in the balancing process of a game. It sounds like an awful task to get a good balancing. What is your procedure to achieve that?

  3. Dustcrusher says:

    I’d like some insight as to how one determines whether or not an idea is good enough to go past the drawing board stage. Do you look at the market and see if your idea is a little-used or non-existent niche? Do you just move forward until you reach a point of “this project is coming together” vs. “this project doesn’t really offer anything new or improved and ____ already does this”?

  4. Rob Saunders says:

    I think maybe advice on what to do once you have finished your game maybe? how to get it out there, that sort of thing. I am not sure if you have covered that before or not. Maybe advice on how the more cinematic elements of your games come about, if that makes sense, designing a rule set to a theme as well as having a fun and balenced game. One of my favourite things about Deadzone is that it is full of really cool cinematic moments, pretty much every game I’ve played there has been at least one stand out moment.

  5. Rob says:

    I’m curious how much thought goes into the amount of time it takes to play a game, the time it takes to setup a game, and the amount of time it takes to learn (the basic rules of) a game. I feel like short, easy to setup, quick to learn is the sweet spot for casual gamers. Being able to accomplish this while also creating a complex, immersive experience has got to be the biggest challenge of making a game that appeals to this group.

  6. Pingback: Did You Miss This? |

  7. mattadlard says:

    Would really like to see you taking one of your concepts/games from theory to broken, to release and your thinking behind it.

  8. I generally enjoy reading about the methods, one that I am interested in is hiw to manage expansions, making new rules work with old rules, and new options be viable alternatives to existing ones without ending up with power creep, where the new items (be they models or options or entire setups) that use new rules are much better (or worse) than the existing ones and by extension become always or never played.

  9. I’d be interested to know when you feel a game is “finished.” When do you determine that rules are polished enough for publication? Are rules ever finished?
    On one hand; errata, FAQs, and revisions seemingly go hand-in-hand with games of any complexity. On the other, I wonder if these addendums are necessary.

  10. tornquistd says:

    My current focus on game design is how to keep play simple while providing a lot of tactical depth. You have spoiled me and I am no longer impressed if a game comes with a thousand pages of rules and numerous charts.

  11. Ian James says:

    Hiya Jake. Add me to the folks who’d be interested in hearing how you go about balancing different teams / forces in games. I’d be most keen on some discussion around Deadzone, but would be really interested to hear about Dreadball too.

    Another thing I believe folks would find appealing is hearing about games or rules that you worked on that never saw the light of day. Abandonned games often come up for discussion on the various wargaming forums. Would like to hear if you worked on anything that for whatever reason didn’t make it

  12. davekay says:

    Hi Jake,

    not only did I miss this first time, I almost missed it second time too!

    Some design subject worth mentioning are:
    – choosing mechanics and how this can affect the way your game plays (even something as simple as a turn limit over objective based play will fundamentally affect how players approach a game)
    – the process from idea to distribution – something that has been picked up by Life and Times of a Board Game (http://scentofagamer.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/the-life-and-times-of-a-board-game/) but there’s more to be said
    – the importance of playtesting, and how to go about it
    – a focus on individual mechanics that layers might choose – there was an article on Boing Boing recently about rethinking dice that caught my eye: http://scentofagamer.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/looking-anew-at-dice/
    – some ‘war stories’ of designing, playtesting, everything really!
    – your experience of Crowdfunding and how you think others could approach it intelligently

    As for balance, is some ways I have found that to be a fool’s errand. Blood Bowl remains one of my favourite miniatures games 20+ years after the release of Version 3, and the current rules are basically that with expanded league play rules. Blood Bowl isn’t balanced. Some teams are simply stronger and better than others. In Blood Bowl this becomes part of the game’s strength rather than a weakness. If you want to challenge yourself as a player, have a go with a Vampire, Halfling, or Ogre team. When you are just starting out, Dwarf, Orc, Human and Elf teams give you plenty of experience playing the game in different ways. Lack of balance works in favour of that game (IMO).

  13. locksleyu says:

    One of my concerns is how to balance your own preferences (Wow, this game seems cool to me) with those of the populace (Candy Crush is popular and this game is similar, so therefore it might be popular).

    I prefer the first but feel that nowadays one has to do a lot of market research to make a game that sells…

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