Designing for Sanity’s Sake: Starting at the Beginning

Game design is inherently complicated. It involves the interaction of many widgets and doodads, along with the exciting and often unpredictable human element. This complexity is magnified when the game is multi-player, as the vast majority of board games are. Keeping a handle on the numerous design decisions made throughout the development process can be difficult. If left unchecked, the design will become fragmented and ill-focused.

When I first started to design board games, I couldn’t help but write out every interesting thing imaginable. I was high on possibilities, and that manifested itself in page after page of scribbles and notes. A great brainstorm for sure, but that is where it should have ended. I had nothing holding me back from trying to squish all these ideas together, so I did. I would create patchwork games. I figured that the vision would squirm its way out as I continued to refine my design. I was thinking like a prospector: surely some gold dust will settle out of the muck if I shake the pan long enough. This thinking was wrong. I had no anchor, no stable foundation. I didn’t start at the beginning. The natural question to ask next is this: where is the “beginning” for a game design? Dan Achterman has a great answer to that question, which he finds by splitting design ideas into three types, as follows:

  • Parameters are the values that your game systems use to simulate your game, such as health, movement speed, weight, mana cost, critical hit chance, etc.
  • Rules are the functions and formulas that determine the results of actions and events in your game. Rules include things like how combat damage is calculated, how character statistics change when they level up, and how random loot is determined.
  • Content  is all things in your game, including characters, items, monsters, spells, talents, etc. Each type of content has parameters that define it, like damage for a weapon, or attributes for a character.

Now that we know the types of design ideas, which do we pursue first? If your brainstorms are anything like mine, it’s likely that a lot of content will be produced. This is unequivocally the wrong direction to go in at the beginning. Without clearly defining the properties that are important to your game system and the way that the system interacts with those properties, there is no way to put the content in the context of your game. What does the +1 Magic AwesomeSword do, anyway? Does the business tycoon’s “Buy-Out” move cost money, influence, power, or time? Content comes last. Beyond that, it is up to the designer to come up with a pattern that suits them. Dan in his article recommends the following:

  1. Choose the parameters that your game uses.
  2. Design rules that are no more complex than necessary to implement your game vision.
  3. Define the progressions for how parameters change throughout the game.
  4. Design content types that are as complex and interesting as you can manage.
  5. Add new parameters, systems, and content types in layers as needed.

This is not necessarily the best option for you, but it is a place to start. The bulk of the early design process will involve iterating between steps 1 to 3. It is very important to test each major element of the game individually before moving on to adding a new rule or parameter. If you do not do this, the design could become confusing in a hurry. However important it is to start at the beginning, though, it is equally if not more important to have an end goal. Can you guess what the next post will be on? Come back soon!


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