Game Design: Challenge Yourself

As I mentioned on Monday, I’m swapping out Project Shuriken for the moment while I polish my drawing skills a bit more. The replacement is a tabletop SF skirmish game called Blast ’Em! This is the first outing of what I call my Old Skool Skirmish (OSS) system, and the genesis of that is what I’d like to talk about today.

One of the things that I often do for my own amusement is to set myself design challenges. These vary enormously in specifics, but all share the same core aims: to entertain me, and to make me a better designer while it does so.

OSS began life as a design exercise. I’d been picking up miniatures that I liked for ages without having anything to play with them. For me, gaming is the point of miniatures, so I knew I was buying them with a view to getting them on the table at some point, but with what I didn’t know. For personal preference and practicality, I knew it would be a skirmish game, and I’d start out with an SF setting because that’s what I was acquiring at the time. However, I didn’t really fancy using the games I already had.

At the same time, I was seeing a lot of stuff online about Oldhammer, and was pondering how you would go about being deliberately old fashioned. The combination seemed like an interesting one to play with, so I did.

It was easy enough to design old fashioned stuff back in old fashioned times, when you hadn’t encountered anything outside that. For me this meant that I could simply pick through my old notes and pull something out from back then (I’ve designed at least a dozen skirmish systems over the years). That wasn’t a challenge though. A proper puzzle was forgetting all the anachronistic ways I knew of doing things and using only period mechanics. Mind you, even that really just requires research and discipline. What would make it a real challenge would be to make it a fun game for a modern audience too. That, in turn, may require adding a sprinkle of modern details. The core would have to be distinctly old fashioned though for it to be a success (in my eyes), but I would allow a little leeway when it came to some of the details. In essence, this design challenge was about making something that had the right vibe.

Now if you know your obscure indie games, you’ll realise that there are already a bunch of different options out there which fit this bill. That’s not the point of a challenge though. Making my own would be much more fun.

The first stage was to define what I was trying to do. Challenges need rules so you can tell if you’ve actually completed them or not. For me, this idea had several requirements. The game needed to be an SF skirmish game that:

  • Captured the feeling of early 80s SF gaming. I’m thinking games like Laserburn, Combat 3000, and early Traveller.
  • Used no more than a dozen figures per side. Preferably playable with 4-6 minis each.
  • Encouraged RPG-like storytelling and strong characterisation of the individual warriors on each side. I want coherent reasons to fight and not (always) just “kill the enemy because they’re the enemy”. Some progression between fights would be nice too so that you could tell the ongoing stories of your heroes and villains.
  • Would allow any SF miniature I liked the look of to be statted up for play and included.

Now I’m ancient enough to have played Laserburn and whatnot at the time, and still have copies lying about. My research was more like trying to remember how they worked and rummaging through some old files. Nostalgia was part of the puzzle and it’s a funny thing. Importantly, it was my nostalgia, so would be different for everyone else. Like all nostalgia, it relies on the sloppiness of human memory and so is not entirely related to what actually happened. Essentially this meant that I’d know it when I felt it.

I won’t go into the details of the rules just yet as I’d like to get back to the idea of design challenges. Suffice to say that I’ve played some games and the core of Blast ’Em! works nicely and has the right feel. More another day.

Back to design challenges. Having done this for decades, I’ve settled on a couple of guiding principles when I set out on a new one. They might help you too.

Firstly, make it a formal thing. Write it down. This helps you to take it seriously and also helps to clarify it in your mind. At the end of the day it is a sort of contract with yourself. It’s not about pleasing other people. The aim is to enjoy yourself as you learn. If you happen to get a useful product out at the end, then that’s a lovely bonus. If not, then what I’ve found is that elements of old challenges have a habit of cropping up in future projects. They certainly help to inform future work.

Secondly, focus down on one element. While your challenge should involve making a whole game, the aim should be to investigate all the possible answers you can think of to a specific question. More specific is better. You can use stock mechanics and elements you understand well to fill in the rest if you like.

Your focus could be on a particular game element or rule. For example, things like:

  • How do I make a game play faster? The challenge I set myself on this ended up many years later as the basis for DreadBall.
  • How do I balance majorly asymmetric player powers/experiences?
  • How do I do catch up mechanics without alienating the leader?
  • How can I make an interesting game with just X? I’m thinking both physical components or a limit on the mechanics. Could be only roll and move, or only a deck of cards.
  • How do I get events to respond to player actions rather than feeling tacked on?
  • How can I reduce the amount of resource components without messing up the way it plays? This is a real-world requirement you may get from publishers. Use an existing game (either yours or someone else’s) as a starting point.

And so on.

Then there are two big categories that supply quite a lot of my own challenges:

  • How do I invoke X theme? Usually a combination of a time period and location like the Victorian sensibilities of the staff in a stately home, or the desperation of a besieged medieval city. You may want to dig down into this to define more detailed aspects of this overall theme that you want to invoke.
  • How do I invoke X feeling? Could be horror, rising paranoia, time pressure or another intangible. Very touchy-feely and tricky to nail down. Powerful if you can pull it off though.

You get the idea.

Now you can give yourself a time limit or a component limit (both worth exploring). You don’t need to do either, though you’ll know whether you need a deadline to maintain focus or not.

At the end of the day, you’re trying to build your skill. When you’ve finished, have a ponder and think about what you have learned. Maybe write yourself some notes. I find that a formal sort of debriefing (just with and for myself) helps clarify things here too.

Often, when designing games, you are drawing from a library of known mechanics and approaches. That’s fine. Everyone does. What will make your games sing is being able to stock that library with fresh ideas – maybe even things that you’ve never seen before.

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4 Responses to Game Design: Challenge Yourself

  1. tomsonn says:

    It seems every man & his dog is creating sci-fi skirmish games inspired by the 80s nowadays. I wonder how yours will distinguish itself in an already overcrowded field filled with formulaic knockoffs and paint-by-the numbers borefests. Especially since the source material wasn’t all that great to begin with.

  2. Pingback: Illustration: Blasted Art |

  3. Pingback: Game Design: Challenge Yourself — | Scent of a Gamer

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