So You Want to Build a Board Game? – Episode 2 – Game Design

Grumpy Cat

So welcome to the second of my articles on building and self launching a board game. As I mentioned in my previous article I’m in the process of creating an publishing a board game called Creature College through my new games company called Happy Otter Games. I thought it would be interesting to share what I’ve learnt so far. In doing so I realise that I’m in a group of very talented and experienced game designers who I’m certain have infinitely more experience than me but I hope that these articles may encourage first time game designers who are looking to self publish and wanting to read about other people’s experiences.

I still remember a fateful gaming evening some time last July when I was sat around a table with a group of friends a little bit worse for ware mostly due to an excellent bottle of something that should have come with a health warning. The discussion some how came around to designing games and one friend said “Orhan, you’ve been playing games for years, why don’t you design one.” I suppose it’s the way life works that often a whole set of circumstances come together to drive you down a certain path. I’d always steered away from game design largely due to the costs of publishing but had recently been backing a lot of projects on Kickstarter and it occurred to me that here might be a new way to make my game design dreams a reality.

Anyway, to cut a long story short the next morning i found myself sat at my computer staring at a Power Point slide waiting for an idea to pop largely unbidden into my somewhat hungover head. I’d worked at a video games company for a while and had read a lot about video game design (I can recommend “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Koster and “Flow” by Csikszentmihalyi) so I knew enough to know that I needed a plan. I wanted to make a game with that was:

  • Fun to play – I’d seen games get horribly bogged down in clever mechanics, very smart games but you played them with gritted teeth. I wanted my game to be fun for a wide player segment.
  • Quick – I wanted you to be able to play the game in 45 minutes
  • Bidding Mechanic – I’d always liked games with bidding mechanics. I like the “Aw! You didn’t just bump me!” factor
  • Easy to learn – I wanted the game to be simple but have depth of play
  • Balanced – We’ve all played those games where you rapidly find that there’s one strategy that’s very hard to beat. I wanted my game to have several strategies that were all equally effective at positioning you for a victory
  • Theme – A very strong and fun theme with artwork that made people smile

So with a starry eyed gaze I started to put pen to paper. 24 hours later after much coffee and many disapproving stares from my wife, I had my first prototype! A creature themed game inspired by movies like Monsters Inc. and Despicable Me. The idea was fairly straight forward, you bid for creatures to collect sets which earned you points for the creatures and the sets. You could then battle with the creatures to win victory points. Sounded simple enough, all I needed now were some willing victims on which to inflict the brilliance of my creation! Fortunately, depending on who’s point of view you were taking, we had friends staying over the weekend who were up for a game (they needed somewhere to sleep and knew which side their bread was buttered on!). 🙂

So we leaped straight into Creature College…It was dreadful…the game play was slow and laborious, the combat was stilted, the special ability cards regularly imbalanced play and there were at least two ways that you could be cul-de-sacced into a position where you could never recover. My game was a stinker.

Despite a discouraging start I made a couple of adjustments and tried again with my board games group. Worse…one of my group nearly died of internal hemorrhaging and another threatened to lock me in a room for a month with a complete set of Justin Bieber’s singles. These early set backs forced me to step back and take a good long look at what I was doing and I discovered two things – My game was far too complicated and it was too arbitrary. Antoine de Saint Exupery, a 20th century poet and writer said “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Taking this maxim to heart I successively removed complexity from my game. Creature cost went, victory points on the creatures went, creature money generation went, special cards went. This process took about six months with play test after play test but slowly my play-testers helped my drag my limp and listless disaster of a board game into a sleek and fun roarer of a game. Play was brought down to my 45 minutes, battles were quick and had the gotcha element that I was looking for and the bidding produced some great “I hope you die in an unfortunate yachting accident!” moments. The introduction of the mission system where each player had a secret target of creatures to collect also gave the game an added feeling of purpose.

The other thing that I did is I successively cut down on the randomness of game events. The game still has enough randomness in it to make it fun and unpredictable but not so much that you feel you can’t plan effectively.

So what have I learnt so far?

Keep it simple – Always ask yourself whether core game mechanics can be made simpler…if they can, do it providing it doesn’t significantly take away from a players fun.

Listen to other people – My play testers had some of the best ideas in the game. Their help was invaluable in getting the game right.

Don’t reinvent the wheel – there are a lot of tried and tested game mechanics out there that work really well. Novelty is great but not at the expense of playablity and fun.

Keep fun at the center of what you do – if it isn’t fun…don’t do it!

Control – put the control of the game in your players hands, make them feel that a clever strategy will deliver them victory and that they’re not cast on the winds of fate!

I think the Creature College is a pretty good game now. I’m just about to start sharing it beyond my group of 20 or so alpha testers and I’ll let you know how I get on. You can follow the progress of our project at http://www.happyottergames.com/.

As always I look forward to your comments and feedback.

You rock Board Game Geek Community!

Orhan.

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