A couple of weeks ago I posted a poll on BGG. This was to help with a game design dilemma I was having – basically a card game I’m working on has player elimination as a feature; that is, you’re trying to defeat your opponents by destroying their kingdom. As I know a lot of people are put off by player elimination, I thought I would ask the great BGG community what they thought, and almost 200 of them replied. Here’s what they thought:

Basically, one-fifth like elimination, one-fifth don’t and three fifth say it doesn’t matter if the game is short and the elimination is near the end of the game. The majority of the 30+ comments on the thread were expressing the view that elimination is fine as long as the game is short and you’re eliminated towards the end of the game.

This turns out to be the key point, and leads me to conclude a number of things:

1. People don’t always answer the question you asked, and sometimes the question you ask is not actually the one you want the answer to. In the above example, what I really needed to know was ‘how short does a game have to be for player elimination to be okay?’ because I was never going to take the elimination aspect out altogether (although I was toying with a resurrection mechanism so you’re never really out). But if I hadn't explained that the game was a short one, I'd have got a completely different set of answers which could have taken teh design down a completely different path.

2. Data is really important, as long as you know what it’s telling you. I knew before I asked that a lot of people don’t like player elimination. I wouldn’t have been able to guess though whether that was 10% or 90% of people, nor that just as many positively like elimination as dislike it.

It’s really important to understand who you think your audience is. If 20% say yes to something, 20% say no and the rest are unmoved, it’s tempted to think that you’ve not learnt anything from the experience, because there’s no clear majority. But if, for example, all of those that like your proposal are a particular type of gamer (maybe they all like filler games, or medieval-themed gamed, or family games, or battle games), then you’re starting to get some information you can really use.

“50% of people that go to see the Cure actually end up watching Placebo,

and enjoy it just as much” - Gary Delaney

Similarly, if everyone who doesn’t like your chosen feature is a particular kind of gamer (maybe they all like 6 hour wargames but don’t like the look of your game) then that might actually be helpful to you. If you understand what your game is and who it’s for, it’s much easier to own that, treat its characteristics as genuine features, and to be able then to market it to the right people.

3. Polling is like a very short form of playtesting. You can get a wide range of general views on a specific point in a far easier and quicker way than by getting all of them to play the game. And then you can save the playtesting for where it really matters, like how your game feels, what people do that you weren’t expecting them to, and so on.

4. If you're going to change something about your game, make sure you know what the knock-on effects are of that change. Your game is an ecosystem (that sounded better in my head) and you need to treat the whole thing holistically. If I'd just dropped the player elimination, there would have been as many players disappointed as pleased. So what's the net benefit of the change you're considering? And make sure you re-test your game once you've made any change, to check whether there's a consequence you hadn't thought of.

5. Most importantly, you can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to. Mothing appeals to everyone. Monopoly has sold millions, but everyone on BGG seems to hate it. I don’t like party games that involve drawing or shouting. My Mum doesn't like Marvel films. If you ask a question, and you get an answer you weren’t expecting, that’s twice as valuable because it’s shown you a blind spot you had, that might otherwise only have become apparent once it was too late. But it's important not to be defensive – if you’ve asked for opinions, you’ll get them. The first responder to my poll told me that it must be a bad game design. It’s tempting to jump in and explain why they’re wrong, but just let the discussion play out and you’ll learn far more!

  • Ian

Every game starts with an idea. But where do they come from, and how can you make that happen more often, or in a more constructive way? How can you be more creative?

Ideas on their own are only worth so much - it's what you do with the ideas that counts, as expressed so eloquently in this 2016 blog from Jamey Stegmaier.

I've always had a lot of ideas. Mostly terrible ones, but ideas nonetheless. My first idea for a game was bouncing around in the back of my head, on and off for about 15 years before I did anything with it. Then once I’d eventually got that first playable prototype, I found I was getting more ideas. Generally, they just pop into my head, seemingly by themselves. Once I started having ideas for games, I found they would appear at really inopportune moments, and I’d need to push them to the back of my mind until I had the time and space to get them written down

Then after about an hour it stops and I can park that idea until I want to make a first prototype or whatever. My mind has been purged and I can go back to what I was doing. I was trying to explain this to a friend, who said they had never had an idea in their life. And sometimes, even if you naturally have ideas, you might want to engineer that process, and to be able to quickly come up with ideas, solutions and options at will.

Now of course, creativity is about more than ideas - and it isn’t just about art or design. Creativity is your ability to generate something new and real. Sure, you’ll need an idea, and there may well be elements of art and design, but it’s more than that. It's how you see new opportunities, how you can make subtle improvements, how you can spot mistakes and fix them. It's even the way in which you approach problems and obstacles. So here’s 15 ways in which you can help that to happen, even if you don't think you're an 'ideas person':

  1. Get out and about (if you're able to in the current climate). Go places, listen, watch, look for inspiration everywhere you go. Keep a notebook. Like writers do - write ideas down, even if they’re just scraps - you never know what might come in useful at a later date.

  2. Be curious – question everything you do and everything you are assuming. Why does my game work this way? How could it be better? Where have I seen this (mechanism, theme, rule) done better? Encourage others to do this to you as well – this can be exhausting and demoralising if you do this too much (if everyone seems to picking holes in everything you do), but you can get some amazing, unique insights from those questions.

  3. Check your perception: If you don’t see or think of yourself as creative, that can itself be a blocker. If you don’t feel like you’re creative, work and collaborate with people that are. Find out what they do and how they do it.

  4. Be positive. Creative people (whatever they are) approach a creative situation with optimism, and allow themselves the time and space to create. This might be as simple as taking a 30 second pause and asking yourself ‘could there be a better way of doing this?’ If you can make this a regular habit, you’re far more likely to be able to create and problem-solve successfully. The founder of Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono, called this a ‘Creative pause’.

  5. Understand what your ideal environment is for creativity – for some people it’s being surrounded by company, noise, stimuli – for others it’s a dark room or the daily commute. Mine is walking; and sometimes, just as I'm dropping off to sleep. What works for you?

  6. One key aspect of creativity is problem-solving, and to be able to see a problem as an opportunity to improve, rather than as a roadblock. In game design, nothing is insurmountable, and nothing is necessarily the death-knell for your game. It’s just a problem you need to solve, which will make your game better. And every time you do, your game will be better than it was before – that should be incentive enough.

  7. Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve, and don’t necessarily accept the first possible solution that comes along (but try it, test it, and move on to the next). If you can do this in collaboration with someone else, so much the better – everyone will have their own individual ideas, and people can spark off each other and build upon each other’s thoughts.

  8. Immerse yourself in problems that arise. Break problems down into smaller ones, and tackle each part one at a time until you can make progress.

  9. Park & revisit - If you really get stuck, focus on that problem, park it and move on to something else. Chances are the next time you think about it (or possibly when you wake up the next morning) you’ll have a solution, or a different way of thinking about it. But make sure you do come back to the problem rather than parking it indefinitely – even a day later, you’ll be surprised at how your perspective might have changed.

  10. Go with the flow – if your activities seem to be taking you down a path you hadn’t initially intended, go with it and see where it goes. You can always bank what you find and retrace your steps, and maybe you’ll end up with two great ideas instead of one?

  11. Collaborate – share, discuss, ask questions. Forums are an amazing place for advice. Share your ideas and your problems – your current thoughts could be the thing that solves someone else’s problem, and vice versa.

  12. Read - other people’s blogs, design diaries and newsletters. Game designers tend to share what they do and how they do it, so learn from them where you can.

  13. Empathise - Put yourself in the mind of the people you want to be playing your game – what would they want? What would you want if you were them? If your game isn't providing that – why not? If you can empathise with your players (ie your customers), you’ll be in a much better position to design the best possible version of your game.

  14. If you’re not a wordy person, and don’t much like the idea of writing things down, try a 'mood board' - used by fashion designers and interior designers, you can use it for anything. You can do this using something like Pinterest, or the old-fashioned way by cutting stuff out and sticking it together. This will also come in handy if you end up getting to the stage where you want to employ an artist or graphic designer. Or try a flowchart, or a brainstorm, or a wordcloud, or just talk into a recorder app

  15. Practise - all of this, whenever you can. Writers will tell you to write every day – write something, it doesn’t matter what. Same applies to design – get in the habit of designing. It doesn’t matter if your ideas are rubbish (remember, an idea is as good as the way in which you develop it), but your brain will get better at all of this if you make the time to think in that way.

Ultimately, creativity is a learnable, practisable skill. And ultimately, anyone can be creative. Yes, especially you. Try it, fail fast, fail again, get back up and have fun :-)

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  • Ian

One of my current projects is a short puzzle-based card game called Ukiyo. So far nine months in the making, I thought this would be a good time to blog about the experience of coming up with a game, from start to (nearly) finish. This was the first game where I tried to engineer the ‘having an idea’ process rather than just waiting for something to pop into my head (blog post next week about how to have ideas). I started from the point of view that I wanted to design an abstract 18-card game that could work both as a solo puzzle game and as a very quick multi-player game. To an extent this felt like cheating – I’ve always been lucky enough to have ideas pop into my head on a regular basis, seemingly without any involvement from me, so trying to force the creative process felt odd, but turned out to be really useful – more on that next week.

The start points therefore were having cards with different combinations of four different symbols – I went for six symbols on a card to roughly match the dimensions of a poker card. I wanted there to be a range of specific challenges to work towards rather than a single win condition. So I knocked up the usual Powerpoint & cardboard first version and cut the cards out with scissors:

So only about three hours work to get from initial idea to something playable. The basic game was in place very quickly and the game today is quite similar to the first version – the main changes, as a result of the playtesting, has been about subtle changes to the frequencies and arrangements of the symbols, and particularly getting the sixteen tasks into a genuine order of difficulty (a key point of the game is that harder tasks are more valuable, so I needed to get this right)

Solo games are much easier to playtest, as are quick games. Consequently I was able to move through several hundred playtests before exposing the game to the wider world. This isn’t necessarily practical for ‘big box’ or longer games but works well with smaller, simpler ideas. They’re also much easier to get into virtual format. If you've got a bigger, more complicated game, it's worth considering whether you can break off a part of it, and test that separately, to try and speed things up a bit.

In this version, icons were downloaded from Noun Project, still arranged in Powerpoint. I had a vague idea from the start that this could be Japanese-themed, and with one eye on the Tokyo Olympics (which should have happened in July 2020, I thought this might be a good time to make that happen. It was at this point that I started to find a conflict between what worked as a solo game and as multiplayer – some of the card tasks were mutually exclusive tasks, others were easy in solo but much more difficult in multiplayer, so I spent quite a lot of time trying to work through this.

Next was version 3, now about 3 months in. By now I was ready to get some prototypes on proper card stock from TGC, using free stock art from Adobe, which I got through a trial subscription, and icons again from Noun Project. I assembled and coloured the card images using Pixlr Editor, which is a nice free utility. I’ve since moved on to AI, which has been worth every penny, but Pixlr is still a great free option - see below.

The original intention with solo mode was to be able to draw any three cards at random and try and complete them, with your score being the total of the three task numbers (higher being harder). I hoped to then be able to have clear difficulty levels, eg under 25 total = easy, 26-32 = medium etc. Two problems – some combinations didn’t work at all, and changing the tasks would unbalance the multiplayer game; and secondly, the difficulty of combining tasks was more about the specific combinations, rather than just how difficult they were individually. The solution was to curate and test specific combinations of tasks into puzzles, and organise those into difficulty levels.

Version 4 (above) was ready in June, and as much as anything this was a chance to practise on Adobe Illustrator, and to get a better idea of what I would want an artist to do. Getting a real illustrator involved is one of my favourite parts of game design, when you start to see your ideas and cardboard really come to life. I’ve worked with a number of great illustrators and every time, they’ve managed to get my vague descriptions into something better than I could possibly have imagined myself. Worth every penny. The artwork below was done by Janette at Imaginaires, and I'm sure you'll agree it's a huge step up from what I'd done previously:

One caveat - it's probably best not to engage an illustrator until you’re sure you are planning to publish your game in some form; you don’t need artwork for prototypes and there are loads of great free resources that can get you to an advanced prototype. Especially don’t pay for artwork if you’re intending to pitch to a publisher rather than crowdfund, as it won’t get used. Publishers don’t need professional artwork to work out whether your game is viable or not, and you can get a 'good enough' version using stock art and creative commons licensed resources. But if you're going to, say, Kickstarter, proper art is essential.

And then – horror – this very weekend, just after sending out a newsletter confirming a Kickstarter in November, I found a game that looked an awful lot like mine, only much better - the wonderful Philosophia: Floating World. (Ukiyo means Floating World). I got in touch with the creators, Joe and Maddie, to let them know my plans - thankfully (as so often in boardgaming) they were absolutely lovely about it, and wished me well. Do check out their project - it's a work of art.

Next came more playtesting, via Virtually Expo and Tabletop Simulator. Playtesting increasingly indicated that the solo version was better than the multiplayer version, which was odd as the solo bit was something of an afterthought. But I've made a few minor changes to balance this up, and still have a lot of work to do to smarten the TTS version up, but it's coming along nicely:

Final prototypes are currently on the way from Gamecrafter and MakePlayingCards.com; then I'll get some more formal reviews done, and carry on getting ready for Kickstarter.

So what did I learn from all of this?

  • You can make yourself come up with ideas rather than just waiting for them to happen: more on this next week

  • Designing a solo game is not the same as a multiplayer game. I got into a bit of a rut here by trying to reconcile two sets of conflicting demands. Sometimes, you need to go back to first principles and redesign the game from scratch to work with a different player count.

  • Prototype quickly, test and fail fast. A hundred other bloggers and designers have said this before but that’s because it’s good advice.

  • There’s a lot to be said for making smaller, simpler games. They’re quicker to prototype, much quicker to test, cheaper to make and far easier to get playtested (Ukiyo takes about 5 minutes to play, so even the grumpiest playtester will usually be prepared to give it a go). If you’re getting stuck with a complex game, can you extract one element or one mechanic from it and test it in a standalone way?

  • Simpler games are also much easier to get into Tabletop Simulator (TTS) or Tabletopia format, which increasingly is an essential step in getting your game playtested in these strange times. If you’ve not already done this, try these tutorials here and here and Gabe Barratt's podcast on TTS from last week.

  • Designing a game that’s different from your usual preferred ‘type’ can be a really good mental exercise and can broaden your design perspective.

  • Initial feedback on this from playtesters was underwhelming, but I persevered because this is a game I actually enjoy playing myself. And this is a great principle for designing games – listen to what people are telling you, but ultimately, do what you enjoy and see where it takes you.

  • I found a lot of great design resources – Adobe Stock, Noun Project, Pixabay, Pixlr Editor. But don’t forget humble Powerpoint – for me, this is still the fastest way to get that first prototype into a playable state.

That's it for this week. If you'd like to know more about what we're up to, drop your details in at the ‘Subscribe’ tab above.


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