When I was a kid, my friends and I used to up mash the components of different board games. It didn’t really work. But it should’ve worked, we thought. Sub Search was cool, and Tank Battle was also cool, so if you played them together, they should be double cool. What we ended up with (of course) was a guy with a submarine, and a guy with a tank. So we had to call it a draw.
The first thing I do when designing a board game - still - is think: what would be cool? What kind of game do I want to play? Or even: what looks like a cool? What would I want to see? I look for clever mechanics, interesting themes. I am never not looking for those things.
The first game I ever invented, Thunder Road, was about post-apocalyptic raiders racing cars though the wilderness, because post- apocalyptic raiders were cool. I had them going around and around a circular track at first, but decided that was lame. This was supposed to be a desert wasteland. It shouldn’t look like Candyland. I wanted my movers to race down a straight endless road right into the sunset, and how was I supposed to do that in a board game... Oh. Right.
I came up with a system involving two connecting, flipping boards – which incidentally provided most of the Thunder Road gameplay mechanics.
Once you’ve got something that seems cool (and if it’s your first time, spend a while here. A lot of people get too attached to their first idea. Be especially careful with any idea that sounds like “It’s chess, but with four players.”)
Once you’ve got that idea, physically make it. Make it out of stickers and cardboard. If you’re not sure how many cards it needs, or if you should include a timer, or what exactly the turn order should be, guess. Once you’ve made it, play it. (A buddy comes in handy here. I’ve always thought it was much easier to design games as one half of a pair.) Play it until it breaks – until the games becomes endless, or too short, too easy, too impossible, too complicated, too frustrating or (the kicker) just sort of ... not fun. Then make a few changes, write down the new instructions, and try again. For me, balancing a game is all about adjusting existing directions. It’s easy to add on fix-it rules, but then you can end up with a game stuffed with auxiliary rules that your players will forget.
And remember, you’re designing an experience. Games have beginnings, middles, and ends. I always like to include come-from-behind rules, because it’s no fun to be a third of the way into a game and feel like you have no way to win. You want your players to feel like they’ve got choices on their turn, but not infinite choices. I’m happy when games can be complex without being complicated: a couple of core rules, infinite possible strategies.
The second you think you’ve got the mechanics of the game mostly working, bring in some family and friends to play it. And watch what they do. What do they want to do, what do they think they should be doing? Do they keep making the same mistake, or the same assumption? Or do they keep getting confused by the same rule, that’s important too. And when you’ve played the game all the way though, and nothing goes wrong, and your people want to play again... then you’re on to something.
(Don’t listen too hard to what they actually say, though. All they know they’re having fun, or not having fun. Knowing how to fix the game, that’s up to you.)
That’s the part that I was missing as kid. You can’t just combine games. It’s not enough just to be cool and interesting. Games take patience, and they take development, and they take a lot of cardboard and glue, and kind of understanding friends.
By Jim Keifer, Principal at Keifer Art Inc.