Ten major time sucks when designing a board game

Dave Berlin Process 2 Comments

Ten major time sucks when you start designing a board game

If there are only five things you must do during the game design process, there are at least twice as many things that can distract you from completing a game design. So if you catch yourself doing any of these things, ask whether it’s the most important thing to move your game design toward getting published.

  1. Art and graphic design: We often worry too much about the aesthetic of a game. You don’t need art or fancy graphic design to determine whether your game is fun. Much of the early art will be replaced later as you change cards, components, or themes. And publishers will often have their own ideas about design and art. Try to catch yourself before you spend a day in Photoshop or looking through hundreds of stock photos (or worse, paying for art before you really need it). This is such a big one, we wrote a whole blog post about it!
  2. Just the right bits: Here’s an example: “These wooden cubes are nice, but if I had orange translucent cubes it would feel more like magical essence.” Ugh…I wish I had spent all those hours obsessing over cubes on something else entirely, like whether my game was fun or if the mechanics worked correctly. I do this all the time: just the right dice, just the right meeples, all color-coordinated and matching perfectly.
  3. Video: So you’re going to launch a Kickstarter soon and make a quarter million dollars off your game…idea. Well, yeah, it’s just an idea now, but it’s going to be an amazing game and then I’m going to need this video. So I might as well start now! No. Put down the GoPro and make the game first. Don’t write out your script line by line (“product shot followed by witty banter”). The video you make for the idea is not the same video you need for the finished game, anyway. Don’t waste time here. And speaking of Kickstarter…
  4. Crowdfunding: “I’m going to have nine classes of wizards.” “Why nine?” “Ah, well, you see, the tenth class will be my fourth Kickstarter stretch goal.” You should see the face I’m making right now. There is nothing more distracting than daydreaming about your eventual success. But you’ll never get there if you don’t buckle down and do the hard work of creating an amazing game experience by iterating over prototypes and playtests. Stop writing down your stretch goals, figuring out if T-shirts should be a $30 or $27 pledge, and contacting reviewers to do a review of your board game (idea).
  5. Pricing out components: a publisher might ask you to make your game cheaper so that it can fit into the right segment they’re trying to fill. They’ll have ideas about what price it has to be and what size box to use, and which components you can or can’t use. But in the beginning, you don’t want to restrain your imagination by saying, “We can’t possibly have 36 dice in a game” or waste time researching whether wooden or plastic cubes are cheaper. Use your imagination, shoot for the moon, do anything you can to get that feeling you’re going for. Who cares if your prototype cost $60 to make? You can always switch out cheaper components later. You can find a way to cut down on the number of dice. But when you’re starting out you need the freedom to consider every possibility.
  6. Researching other games: I guarantee this will kill your game idea before it ever takes flight. There are 82,804 board games on Board Game Geek right now. Those will cover every imaginable human feeling, theme, and mechanic. Remember: there are no new ideas, only better execution. So if your first instinct is to check whether there’s already another wizard game out there, or if anyone has ever used the Mancala mechanic (free idea: a board game not about wizards that doesn’t use the Mancala mechanic), you’ll find what you’re looking for, and there will be no point in continuing. You need to give your design some room to breathe, to learn to walk on its own, and find its niche. Don’t worry so much about whether it’s been done before. Know that it has, and persist anyway.
  7. Balancing: I get sort of obsessed by this, especially for co-operative games and asymmetrical games. But also, things like: does the first player have a statistical advantage over the other players? Are there cards/powers that are too powerful and can tip the balance of the game? Here’s my advice: these things will fall out in playtesting. You’ll get data, you’ll see the problems, and your playtesters will report them anyway. After ten or twenty or even five playtests, you’ll know exactly what the problems are and can brainstorm how to fix them.
  8. Getting to perfection: Here’s a thought: your game probably won’t be perfect even when it’s on store shelves or in the homes of thousands (ha! Millions!) of gamers around the world. No game is perfect. In fact, playtesting has more value the worse your game is. Think about it: making a perfect game is like one of Zeno’s paradoxes. Assume that going from notes on paper to a first prototype gets you halfway to perfect. The second prototype gets you another quarter of the way, and the next an eighth, and so on. Each iteration has less and less benefit, but gets you closer to your goal. Therefore, the greatest value you receive is creating that first prototype (getting started is always the hardest part!), and then the next most benefit is making the next prototype. So every time you do a playtest, find a problem, and fix it, you are doing the most good and moving closer and closer to that goal you will never quite reach. Don’t wait until your game is perfect. Embrace what you have and test it.
  9. The next game: Let’s go back to our Zeno metaphor. Even though each step toward the perfect, finished game only gets you half as far as the last step, it’s twice as hard to take that step. Why is this? Well, it’s pretty easy to throw together that first prototype. But toward the end of the game design process, you see the game clearly as it is, and have a harder time imagining it to be something different. You also grow tired of working on the game. You get bored with it. And so you get inspired by a new theme or a new mechanic and start over. That’s the easy path. The hard path is to finish something, to complete a design, sell it to a publisher, succeed. There are certainly times to move on from a game. But if you’ve got a good thing going, you’re getting good feedback, and it’s starting to feel like a solid game, write down those new ideas somewhere, come back to them later, and finish the one you’re working on. Give it your best shot!
  10. Fear: We all have to deal with fear, sometimes on a daily basis. Fear pervades everything we do as humans. And most of it is useless. We fear failure. We fear success. We fear doing and not doing. Most of all, we fear rejection. Game design is no different, except in this respect: the people in this industry are by far the most accepting, friendly, and helpful group of people I’ve ever encountered. Yes, there is some nasty stuff in this industry too, but for the most part we’ve been amazed by the kindness of gamers. Nobody’s going to laugh at you if your game sucks. Even if it’s the worst game they’ve ever played, they’ll probably calmly explain to you what the problems are and suggest fixes. That’s the way gamers are. We pitched Micromanage to 26 publishers at Gen Con last year, and as of this writing we haven’t gotten an offer to publish it (for various reasons I won’t go into in this post). But you know what? Not a single one of those publishers laughed at us, was rude to us in any way, or made us feel like idiots (okay, maybe one publisher made us feel like idiots, but they still weren’t rude). There are a thousand permutations of this idea, but it’s just as applicable here:

We regret the things we didn’t do, the chances we didn’t take, the experiences we didn’t have. So why not go for it? Put your game out there and see what happens!

Have you fallen prey to any of these traps? What do you find yourself doing when you know you should be working on the theme, mechanics, or rules of your new game? Tell me in the comments what trips you up, and why you continue to do it.

Comments 2

  1. Like so many things, the magic is in finding the balance. A bit of art is good, some thought on cost is good. Too much is a distraction.

    It comes down to the last point: fear. Getting sucked into unimportant details is so much less scary than making the big moves…

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