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December 08, 2013

How To Design A Game In 3 Easy Steps

December 08, 2013

Making something completely new is really hard. Really, really hard. Heck, building something using directions from Ikea is really, really hard. So making an entirely new thing, with no road map, and no one else’s insights, that’s almost impossible.

But I knew that going in.

In 2013, I made a board game.

That’s a bit of an overstatement. Let me clarify. During calendar year 2013, with a couple of months during 2012, help from three friends, and a lot of support from numerous others, I have managed to get a board game to the point where it is nearly ready to publish.

The first statement is easier to understand, but the second almost approaches the truth and complexity of the situation. Just like anything else, making a game is seriously difficult and time intensive. But you too can make your own game by following these three, simple steps.

Step One: Inspiration

Making a new board game is really hard, in part because there are already so many out there, polluting the brain-space of those who might be trying to invent something new. All of those well-designed, nifty games can’t be erased from my mind. So coming up with something new meant taking my first fifty ideas and throwing them in the trash because they were too similar to something that someone else has already done.

It's hard to tell yourself “no” that many times. It makes you think twice about the definition of the word “failure.”

Eventually, we had an idea that was worth pursuing; something that no one else is doing (as far as we know). That was the moment that I felt like we might actually be able to pull this off, that moment when I knew that there was a potential marketable product. That was exciting! It gave me a taste of what it must feel like to be one of those talented artist/designer/developer types who get inspired to make great things all the time.

Step Two: Iteration

So we had a good idea. And as hard as it was to come up with, the real work was just about to begin. Ahead of us were several months of developing and polishing the details. Unfortunately, that means spending a lot of time writing rules, tweaking text, balancing numbers, and other such mundane tasks. There is very little “design,” in the most common sense of the word, in the beginning phases of designing a game. In fact, more than a year into the work, we have yet to make or find any artwork.

Before one can publish a game, one must play-test it, a lot. It is like user-testing, over and over and over again. In order to test the game’s mechanics, we had to build a prototype. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, until we realized that we would need to build a new prototype every time we made a change. And there was a lot of changing to do.

The answer? Rapid prototyping.

The tools? Spreadsheets, business card stock, plastic card sleeves, player pawns, plenty of ink, poker chips, mail-merge and more spreadsheets.

Did I mention spreadsheets?

Our particular game is card-based. So every time we need to change the cards, we update one of several spreadsheets containing hundreds of cells of text and numbers. The spreadsheet is then run through Microsoft’s mail-merge voodoo to be formatted to fit on a business card printing template. We then print to the business cards, separate them, put them into card sleeves, and get ready to rumble again.

It is very boring. Not like a game at all. More like work. Boring work.

But then we get to play it and start the whole process over again! By my calculations, we’re on iteration 296 (hyperbole).

Step Three: Infiltration

That sounds much shadier than it is.

Essentially, if you want to get a game published, you really ought to get to know someone who already knows how to get a game published. That means getting to know some designers that have met with success. Luckily, there are a lot of games out there, those same games that made it so hard to come up with a unique idea, which means that there are a lot of successful game designers as well!

The answer? Conventions.

You need to get out there and meet people, and the easiest place is at conventions like Protospiel, GenCon or BGG Con. The folks at these events are passionate about their own games, but also pretty darned helpful when it comes to understanding the ins and outs of the game design industry.

Most designers are excited about the ideas of others, and in seeing great games get to market, so they can be a great resource despite also being your competition. Without the insights and feedback of the amazing people in the gaming scene, we’d have gotten nowhere.

So, get out there and rub elbows. Don’t be afraid to show them yours, and they’ll show you theirs.

The moral of the story? Even the hardest projects can become manageable with a little help from some friends.

Have you ever written a book, designed a game or tried to get some other creative endeavor to market? Tell us about your process for getting one of your projects published.

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: What did you make this year? Whether something personal, like a song or some art, or a work project, share your process and the end result of your creation.

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