• Ian

Ten reasons why I love game design contests (and why you should too)

Although I’ve been designing games for about five years, I’ve only very recently started having a go at design contests. These are much more common than I realised – at any given time there might be up to ten of these happening at once, inviting people to design different kinds of board and card games to various specifications (for example, Print & Play, 18-cards, Roll & Write). Some are run by companies with the prospect of a possible publishing deal for a winner; others have cash prizes; still others are run by the BoardGameGeek community (and other communities), by other designers, just for the fun of designing. Taking part in these has given me a whole new insight into designing. Here’s ten reasons why I love game design contests.

1. Trying new formats for games. I would never have tried to design a roll & write, or a 9-card game, if I hadn’t seen a contest in that particular format. And, as I’d discussed in my previous blog, trying a new game format is a great way to improve your skills and broaden your perspective.

2. Deadlines and focus. Unless you do this for a living, you won’t usually be designing to anything other than a self-imposed deadline. And I’m much more likely to get something done if I know it’s got to be done by a particular time (which is why I end up wrapping all the presents on Christmas Eve). So it’s great to know that you have, say, three weeks to come up with a working, tested, presentable design - it really focusses your mind.

3. Inspiration. Seeing what other designers can do with the brief you’ve all been given is a wonder to behold. Invariably you’ll see some incredible results and end up thinking ‘how on earth did they come up with that?’

4. Competition. Now I don’t actually mean here ‘trying to win’, which makes this quite hard to explain. Given the wealth of talent, effort and skill out there, I wouldn’t ever anticipate entering one of these competitions expecting to win. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love the fact of competition. For me, it’s a bit like running – I like to run, and now and again I do races (10k, half marathon etc). I don’t expect to finish in the first hundred, much less win. I won’t get a personal best in the distance – those were all for years gone by. But the buzz I get from standing on the start line, surrounded by hundreds of other people, all of whom have decided this is a good thing to do, is very similar to the excitement I now get from a design contest.

5. Forcing your hand – making you to share your ideas, including at an earlier stage than you might have been comfortable with. I think many designers are uncomfortable doing this, especially if it’s your first design or an early design, but it’s a great habit to get into, and it leads to…

6. Community – It’s really fun, and useful, to be able to chat about designs in a situation where you’re all in the same boat. How have you each interpreted the rules, how have you tried make the most imaginative use of the restrictions imposed upon you, and what weird and wonderful themes

7. Feedback - getting feedback and giving feedback on yours and others’ designs, usually from people that have a lot more experience than you at doing this, and who have probably played a lot more games than you as well (at least, that’s how it’s been for me). That doesn’t have to mean people do a hatchet job on your game, it can be really constructive advice, and loads of tips on how to make your games even better.

8. Seeing how other people do Graphic Design. This is definitely an area that I thought I could do, until I saw other people doing it well. Even if you don’t plan on doing your own graphic design when it comes to publishing, it’s another great way to pick up tips on how people do it well, which can hugely improve your prototypes in future.

9. Making new ideas happen. By which I mean, contests provide a forcing function to actually come up with new ideas, in a controlled way, rather than just waiting/hoping that they’ll pop into your head. The latter is how it tends to work for me, but the downside to that is that you only get the ideas that correspond with what you see, hear and learn on a daily basis, and there’s a real danger you’ll gravitate towards what you know or what you’re comfortable with. A contest gives you an exam question that you might not have chosen or thought of, but which might end up producing some of your best ideas yet.

10. Tough love - Validation (or destruction) of what you thought was a great idea, when you realise (rightly or wrongly) that everyone else’s entry is just so much better than yours. Sometimes it can work the other way round, and people really like the idea that you were luke-warm about, but either way, it’s a whole new set of perspectives on your designs.

Did I mention the fun? I guess that’s eleven. If you like the sound of this and want to get involved, here’s some places you can do it:

  • Board Game Geek has a Design Contests forum here

  • The Board Game Design Lab has a weekly update on design contests from around the community

  • Button Shy Games have a quarterly themed 18-card game design contest. There’s a couple of days left to enter the current one – design a worker placement game with 18 cards and nothing else!

And finally, don’t forget to check out the websites or Twitter feeds of your favourite game publishers, where you’ll often find contests, some of which might even have a publishing deal at the end of them. Good luck!

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