Over the past several days I've been searching for something to write about. I'm making up prototypes for my game design to send to some friends for beta testing, so game design is on my mind. It lead to me to think, "what goes in to designing a game?" I'm by no means an expert, but I thought I'd share my thoughts.
The first thing is the idea.
Maybe it's a theme, a mechanic, a twist on an existing game, or something else. All game designs start with some idea. Now here's where you say something like "well duh, of course there's an idea." So let me elaborate. Ideas come in many forms, but there's always some form of inspiration. Maybe it's a TV show, maybe a mundane task like house chores, or something completely random. All those things serve as a basis for ideas. Maybe you're playing a game like Dominion, and you love the deckbuilding aspect, but you want to do something totally different with it. Great, go for it. Or maybe it's something even more simple than all of that. Maybe you want a game you can play with your friends, so you figure out a fun theme, some neat mechanics, and you go for it. With any of those things, an idea happened. Something sparked and an idea was born.
Now, ideas are plentiful and cheap. So the next step is developing gameplay.
In order for a game to be fun, it has to be playable. Now, I'm not saying that a game is going to be great out of the gate, but it does need a basic structure. I like to start with how the game is won. This gives me a framework to follow. All player choices should be geared towards accomplishing the winning conditions. If the condition is earning the most points, then player actions should be things that get them points directly, or lead to points being scored in the future. Designers should be careful to avoid the optimal route. If there are things that players must do in order to win, the game is less enjoyable. Sure, there may be things players have to do in order to actually win the game, but there should be multiple ways to win the game. Let me use Catan as an example. In order to win a game of Catan, players have to build things. Additional settlements and cities are good things to have, but players can also go after development cards, largest army, longest road, etc. There are multiple ways to score points in Catan, and players can use any or all of those ways to win games. There is no single "right" way to win a game.
Limiting player options.
This is the unintuitive step at first for any designer. Thoughts along the lines of "wouldn't it be great if players could do whatever they want" sound good in theory, but they make for terrible games. Good games thrive on players having important choices to make. Usually this is accomplished by having several good things that a player can do, but only allowing them to do a few of them. Not being able to do certain things prevents some of the runaway leader problems. Even if players are faced with a variety of bad options, they have to try to figure out which option hurts them the least, or which might help them in the future.
Some people will disagree with me here, but I feel that a hallmark to good games is how well the theme fits in. How much theme immersion exists depends on the theme as well as the players. If you have a mystery game, players should feel like their solving a puzzle, searching for clues, etc. If you have a sports game, the game should play at a fast pace and have a tense feel to it.
Play and Talk
Many times, things sound great in your head, but they don't quite work in an actual game. This can happen for a number of reasons, so many that it just is prudent to go in to all of them. This is why you have to play the game. The more you play, the more you see what works and what doesn't work. The second part of playtesting is talking about it. I find that it's good to spend 5-20 minutes talking about the game afterwards. Find out what people liked, what they didn't like, what strategies they were trying, did they feel like they could win throughout the game, do they think they'd do better if they played it again, etc. It might help to have some of these questions written down so you can talk about them. Also open it up to the players, see what they have to say. Most people have something to say about a game after they play it, so listen to what they have to say.
After you've played, go back and tweak things. Most of the time there are only small changes that need to be made. Maybe it's something in the presentation, maybe an area of the board being unclear or too cluttered, maybe it's the distribution of cards in a deck. Whatever it is, monkey around with it for a bit and then play again. Don't be afraid of the major revisions. My design has already been through a complete overhaul, and a major map modification. There are always ways to improve a design, so try and see how it works.
What is in a design? Ideas, solid gameplay, theme incorporation, a lot of playtesting, and a lot of trial and error. The creative process isn't an easy one, and often takes months or even years. Don't get discouraged if your first N ideas fail. It might just be the (N+1) idea that works really well.