Designing Games? Play, Play Again!

wile-e-coyote-blown-upEven for the most practiced game designers, no initial set of rules is going to work the first time out of the box. Indeed, the most common experience in designing any kind of game is that the designer puts together the rules, layout and components of a game with his ‘best guess.’ It looks pretty solid to the game designer and, with confidence, he presents his next genius creation to a set of players anxious to kick the tires, turn over the engine and take if for a gamer’s spin.

Which should remind you greatly of Wile E. Coyote.

This, almost always, is the moment when that beautifully crafted and carefully considered design crashes into a flaming heap on the ground, its pieces barely recognizable as its wreckage lies before the game designer in a horrible mangled mess.

In the military, they like to say that the first casualty of any engagement is the plan — that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. What this means is that despite everything we think we know about our beautiful, brilliant game design, reality has a way of showing us how our Swiss-movement clockwork plans just don’t actually ticktock as smoothly as we thought they would.

This is why it is critical for any game design to be play-tested. You sit down with your nearly completed game and actually PLAY it. Most likely, the result will put the game’s designer in the same roll as our old coyote friend.

Laura and I have created what we think is a really wonderful new storytelling board game. It is designed both with families and gamer’s in mind and does some pretty amazing things — at least, that was the theory when we drew it up on the drafting table in our secret lair and sent out for parts from Acme.

Not unlike Wile E., I believed my first design was pure genius and would encounter absolutely no problems whatsoever when played. Everything made sense in my mind, the rules were elegant and well sequenced. The players would pick me up on their shoulders and carry me in triumph from the game in appreciation.

Unsuspecting initial playtesters.

Unsuspecting initial playtesters.

To be truthful, things worked out a great deal better for me at that first play-test. We actually got through an entire game which was remarkable in itself. But it did not take me long as the game designer actually PLAYING my own game to realize that is was clunking along like a Rube Goldberg machine invention. We didn’t want this game to just work, we wanted it to be magical and so we knew we had some work to do.

Back to that drawing board. I took the game apart. Which parts worked? Which parts did the player’s seem to really like? Which parts bored them to tears? How could I make it better, faster, stronger? I rolled up my sleeves, reached in with both hands and started ripping pieces out of the design.

The game rules became much more streamlines and, remarkably, the board didn’t really need to change nor, for that matter, did the cards. The underlying machine had to be engineered, the rules rewritten and the story book took did most of the bleeding.  Then what?

One of the primary rules of game design might be ‘if at first you don’t succeed — play, play again!’ So we took the game down to play it with my son and his wife. Clank! Shudder! Wheeze! They both gave excellent suggestions. Back to the design board. Maybe this time? We invited over some friends to try it again. Creak! Rattle! Gasp! Better but still clanking awkwardly along. Laura and I went back to the drawing boards together. This time, Laura started asking me questions about the parts that didn’t work for her. I was shocked at her suggestions. Didn’t she understand the beauty, the elegance, the Swiss-watch perfection of the rules which … oh, bother! She was right about all of it. I grabbed a rules wrench and once again started stripping off all the unnecessary complication I had boated the game with in my first few sets of rules.

Note that I said sets of rules.

And a wondrous thing happened. It often happens for me during this play-test period. I call it watching the rules ‘collapse.’ By that, I mean that there comes a critical point when the rules literally collapse down to their simplest form and suddenly start working. It doesn’t happen all at once but when it starts happening you know you’re on the right track.

So, what do you do when you have rewritten the rules? Why you play, play again! So we invited more unsuspecting friends to come over to our house to play the game. We set up the game and started it up.

Lynn Lonsdale, Gordon Lonsdale, Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman (L-R)

Lynn Lonsdale, Gordon Lonsdale, Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman (L-R)

And it STILL wasn’t right. We had a good time and a lot of fun that night but remember, we weren’t out to create just a game that worked or even a game that was mearly fun — we wanted MAGIC!

So, Laura and I sat down AGAIN. Took the game apart AGAIN. And it turns out that my wife is something of a savaant when it comes to game design and made me tear out more rules in our hunt for a game that was more than fun … that was magic. And I think this time we are actually VERY close.

The most difficult step is still ahead of us. This is called the Blind Play-test. This is where you take your beautiful baby board game and hand it over to heathens — players who have to play the game without you holding their hand or even watching them as they do everything they can to destroy your brainchild. Their notes on that test can tell you if you really have something that goes beyond just function but into the realm of art.

But, for now, we are excited to test our latest and, perhaps, greatest set of new rules on our nearly finished game. We just need to find some friends to come over to our house and play, play again…


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