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Subject: Best Advice - Game Design & Design Process Principles rss

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Sam Mercer
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A list of some of the best advice for anyone creating a game in any form. This was originally written by your friends over at Board Game Designers Forum (http://www.bgdf.com, all original credit will go to them) and we think people would do very well to follow these few "Best Practice" rules closely. Please add any additions to the thread about your own personal experiences and best practice principles so that we can build an industry wide important resource together for both budding and professional Game Designers.


Game Design Principles

Do not add a rule to take care of an unusual situation. In almost every case, the game can be subtly changed to prevent the situation from occurring. Each added rule, no matter how uncommonly it's required, adds complexity that makes your game harder to learn and, potentially, to play.

Your scoring design is your game design (J. Degann) Although designers tend to emphasize creation of innovative or clever mechanics, the true motivator of player decisions will ultimately be the game's scoring system rewards. The interesting decisions that the mechanics promote will only be interesting to the player if the scoring system encourages them to be.

Avoid false strategy(S. Appelcline) Avoid situations wherein players are required to make decisions that have no significant impact on the outcome of the game. Players will generally assume that games only present choices that are consequential and worth contemplating carefully, so present only decisions that matter. This principle will help shorten a game's playtime while simultaneously helping to keep players more engaged for the duration.

Balance with incentives and costs, not with restrictions It's common during playtesting to find several imbalances in a game. Perhaps when a certain situation comes up, a player is unduly rewarded or punished, or perhaps a player finds one particular strategic path that is considerably more successful than alternatives. It is possible to add rules that prevent unbalanced situations from arising. It is, however, much more satisfying to encourage players to behave in the way you want by modifying the rewards that you dangle in front of them, and by modifying the costs (both resource and opportunity costs) of the things you want to enable or prevent. A classic example is the "hand limit." Many games restrict the number of cards that players are allowed to hold, presumably because having too many cards gives players some overwhelming benefit. But a game's rules can discourage large hands in other ways — by driving up costs to acquire more and more cards, or providing some reward for a small hand. At the level of rules simplicity, stating "you can't have more than X cards" may be simpler and more effective in the long run, but as a principle, more interesting gameplay results from encouraging the "right" behavior organically (through so-called "natural limits" of your incentive and cost structures) rather than forcing that behavior by explicit rule.

Pay attention to the rules people forget Introduce some new people to the game, but don't give them the instructions. Instead, explain the game and start playing. Is there a rule that they frequently forget? Do you find yourself saying "no, you can't do that because of this..." or "don't forget about..." If so, consider either eliminating that rule or re-framing it so that players don't forget it. This is a particularly important principle if you plan on ever giving a demo at a trade show. Nothing will send a buyer walking away like saying "no, you can't do that because of this rule you didn't remember."

Simplify When you want to add rules, refrain from doing so. Even if it's so clever you just can't stand it. Often, a later design will prove to be a happy home for that neat idea you thought you couldn't live without in your current design.

Removal is OK One of the hardest tasks for a game designer (and me particularly) is knowing when to remove parts of a game design. Not because I do not notice the need to remove, but the issue of wanting to keep my rules/mechanics unchanged. BUT REALLY, removing things from a design is OK! You can always add it back later, if needed.

Theme and art are very important All else being equal, a game with an appealing theme and art will sell better and get played more. If the theme and art don't engender interest, your game will have a much harder time finding and retaining an audience. (eg: "I don't like space games")

Understand how mathematics and probabilities affect game play Spend some time learning and refining how your game reacts to probabilities: linear, bell curves and other probability distributions. You need to know the difference between a mechanism that could come up '1' twenty times in a row (die) and one that cannot (deck). Rolling a d20 is different from 2d10, or 2d8+2, or drawing from a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 20, or players simply "choosing a number". Each method offers different results and therefore different game play.

Try to make your mechanics reflect the theme What are players doing in the game? Driving a herd of cattle? Tending to mayoral duties? Commanding an army? Mechanics should reflect and be associated with the game's theme. There isn't a lot of this out there in the gaming world, but when it happens, it makes designers proud and gamers happy. When you can incorporate a mechanic that reflects something you would actually be doing if you were the actual person/thing you are portraying in a game, by all means do so. As a corollary, use the theme to suggest interesting or novel mechanics; base the mechanic on the kind of decisions a person in that situation might face, and interesting choices may suggest themselves to you.


Design Process Principles

Never assume players will make smart decisions. While you need not ensure that a player who makes poor decisions has a chance to win, you do need to make certain that your game doesn't break down when one or more players is playing badly. It's fair to assume that players will play to try to win (as otherwise, most any game ends up "broken," in a sense), but don't assume they'll be good at it.

Failures are successes too No matter how horrible a game design might be, chance are, you have learned something new! So learn from those bad or horrible designs! Dont kick yourself for it, use it to make the next design better!

Half of building should be breaking Games are unique structures that are subject to unusual stresses when used. Before releasing a game into the wild, try to break the current system by finding a systematic exploitation of the rules that assures either a guaranteed win, or that the victory conditions never arrive. This is game breaking, and a game must be able to be unbreakable by any one player. Playtesting with people who are "rules lawyers" or are expert at exploiting loopholes in the rules can especially help with this process.

Include a "fair" setup Many games feature a player-controlled setup phase (e.g. Settlers of Catan), which can be a good way to introduce variability into each playing as well as to promote strategic development of a player's position, and differentiation of the players' strategies. However, asking players to make setup decisions before the game starts also adds a learning curve to the game. First-time players just want to get a feel for how the different mechanics of the game work; they will not yet have a basis for knowing what a "good" and "bad" initial setup strategy will be. It is a good idea to include a "fair" setup, one that has been tested and that gives each player position equal opportunity to do well in the game.

Graphics are meaningful When working on the graphics for a game (even for the earliest of the prototypes), remember that in addition to adding flavor to the game, and reinforcing the game theme, graphics can really make or break a game. If used intelligently, icons, colors, etc. will help the players understand how the game works, and make it more fun, allowing the players to focus on playing the game. Using graphics just as an adornment will most likely result in a harder to play game.

Know for whom you're designing the game If designing for a family audience, you may want your theme to cater to a "lowest common denominator" within such a group. Gamers tend to have more specified interests and tastes amd ss such, the more unique themes will tend to appeal to more specialised niches of established Gamers.
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Rich Shipley
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Very nice list. I've bookmarked it so I can send a link it to aspiring designers.

Except for abstracts and simple pasted on theme type games, I think games work best when the theme suggests the mechanics and the mechanics evoke the theme. You cover that pretty well.

You "fair" setup principle is also very good. For example, the auctions at the beginning of some 18xx games are hostile to new players. They should all include starting setups for first timers.

The weakest part of the list is probably "Understand how your mechanics model your metaphysical game-world". This will be obvious to some and won't explain much to the rest. I'm not sure how to make it more general, and to add more specifics wouldn't really fit with the rest of the list. Perhaps "Removal is OK" might be in order.
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Sam Mercer
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Thanks for the compliments and advice, I do see your point Rich about the metaphysical section. I would like to keep some kind of thing in that helps people understand that to go down the "dice" route or the "card" route, or the "random placement" route - would all lead to different costs / game styles / game progression. But I also do see that looked upon with fresh eyes it's just a load of complicated word with no real meaning, would there be any other way of getting it across that you would go for? To try and include what I said about the different current models of the same mechanic, or you reckon it's best just to rip it out?
 
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Kevin B. Smith
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Maybe that section would be better without the word "metaphysical". Simply: "Know about probabilities, and how they work in your game." Game designers simply have to know the difference between linear probabilities and a bell curve. They probably need to know the difference between a mechanism that could come up '1' twenty times in a row (die) and one that cannot (deck).

Is that all you were trying to say, or was there something more that would be lost if you just talk about the mechanisms and their effects?
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Rich Shipley
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How about something like "Understand how the math behind your mechanics affects game play" for a title? The die rolling/card deck probability comparison would be an example.
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Sam Mercer
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I have summed it up between what you guys (Rich and Kevin) both have said, is that better? I think it reads a lot nicer now.
 
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Rich Shipley
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That is more informative.
 
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Russ Williams
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Quote:
Understand how mathematics and probabilities affects game play Spend some time learning and refining how your game reacts to probabilities: linear, bell curves and stndardised returns. You need to know the difference between a mechanism that could come up '1' twenty times in a row (die) and one that cannot (deck). The generatation of random and weighted prbabilities can be game changing: Rolling a d20 is different from summing 2d10 which is vastly different from 2d8+2 which is totally different from drawing from a deck of 20 numbered cards or players simply "choosing a number". Each method offers a different results and therfore different gameplay.
Seems much better now. But there are many typos, and it seems way too verbose in the contrasting d20, 2d10 etc examples. Also I'm not sure what is meant by "standardised returns". I suggest:
Quote:
Understand how mathematics and probabilities affect game play Spend some time learning and refining how your game reacts to probabilities: linear, bell curves and other probability distributions. You need to know the difference between a mechanism that could come up '1' twenty times in a row (die) and one that cannot (deck). Rolling a d20 is different from 2d10, or 2d8+2, or drawing from a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 20, or players simply "choosing a number". Each method offers different results and therefore different game play.

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Steven Metzger
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Cogentesque wrote:
Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics
Try to make your mechanics reflect the theme
Graphics are not just eye candy
Disagree, disagree, and disagree until you start looking for a publisher.

A fantastic game with amazing mechanics and no art WILL get picked up by a publisher. Then they will add a theme.

A pretty game with terrible mechanics but amazing art and theme WON'T get picked up. Then they will throw it in the trash.

EDIT: The other suggestions are pretty solid though.
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Rich Shipley
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metzgerism wrote:
Cogentesque wrote:
Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics
Try to make your mechanics reflect the theme
Graphics are not just eye candy
Disagree, disagree, and disagree until you start looking for a publisher.

A fantastic game with amazing mechanics and no art WILL get picked up by a publisher. Then they will add a theme.


The list does not get into designer-publisher relations. The comments about graphics were obviously related to why an average customer would pick up a game.

Games with easily replacable themes are less engaging. You can argue that any game can be stripped of theme, but one whose theme and mechanics are entertwined will have an advantage.

It would be impossible to create a list like that that everyone would agree with, but the advice here would help many would-be game designers. Listing exceptions for diffrent types of games and getting into business relationships would clutter it up.
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Matt Lee
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I think the problem is that the bolded parts in the OP "Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics" and "Graphics are not just eye candy" can make people believe they need to waste money and time on great art/graphics from the beginning when the meat of the comment is really about clarity of the icons and functional layout. I'd agree that should be made more clear so that people don't end up wasting precious time and energy (and money) on temporary artwork at the early prototype stage.
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Clive Lovett
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Great advice and mirrors the advice many established gamers have given on this post.
http://boardgamegeek.com/article/7378332#7378332

I have bookmarked this information!!

Thanks!
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Sam Mercer
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klz_fc wrote:
I think the problem is that the bolded parts in the OP "Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics" and "Graphics are not just eye candy" can make people believe they need to waste money and time on great art/graphics from the beginning when the meat of the comment is really about clarity of the icons and functional layout. I'd agree that should be made more clear so that people don't end up wasting precious time and energy (and money) on temporary artwork at the early prototype stage.


Changed it slightly to allow for your ideas Matt - is it better now?
 
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Sam Mercer
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russ wrote:
I suggest:Understand how mathematics and probabilities affect game play Spend some time learning and refining how your game reacts to probabilities: linear, bell curves and other probability distributions. You need to know the difference between a mechanism that could come up '1' twenty times in a row (die) and one that cannot (deck). Rolling a d20 is different from 2d10, or 2d8+2, or drawing from a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 20, or players simply "choosing a number". Each method offers different results and therefore different game play.

[/q]

Brilliant - copy & pasted thanks for spelling and simplifying Russ
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metzgerism wrote:
Cogentesque wrote:
Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics
Try to make your mechanics reflect the theme
Graphics are not just eye candy
Disagree, disagree, and disagree until you start looking for a publisher.

A fantastic game with amazing mechanics and no art WILL get picked up by a publisher. Then they will add a theme.

A pretty game with terrible mechanics but amazing art and theme WON'T get picked up. Then they will throw it in the trash.

EDIT: The other suggestions are pretty solid though.



Many of the game designs I have been testing on my own printed cards or on gamecrafter are much easier/fun to play once I have iconized things. For example an attack value on a card should probably be in red and have a sword next to it. Once the cards are simple enough to understand at a glance, I can focus on making quicker game decisions while playing and having fun.
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Matt Lee
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Cogentesque wrote:
klz_fc wrote:
I think the problem is that the bolded parts in the OP "Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics" and "Graphics are not just eye candy" can make people believe they need to waste money and time on great art/graphics from the beginning when the meat of the comment is really about clarity of the icons and functional layout. I'd agree that should be made more clear so that people don't end up wasting precious time and energy (and money) on temporary artwork at the early prototype stage.


Changed it slightly to allow for your ideas Matt - is it better now?


I think it's definitely clearer. It's more work that perhaps you don't have the time to put into it, but I do think a few examples can help to clarify a lot of these ideas. Pretty solid job all around. Hope at least a few people are helped by this!
 
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Cogentesque wrote:

Do not add a rule to take care of an unusual situation. In almost every case, the game can be subtly changed to prevent the situation from occurring. Each added rule, no matter how uncommonly it's required, adds complexity that makes your game harder to learn and, potentially, to play.


I think there's an important and neglected corollary to this rule in that while one should try to minimize corner cases, a rule should be created to cover each one that cannot be eliminated. A game without rules to cover all circumstances is like an animal without skin to cover all its body surface. In short order it ends up a bloody mess.
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Russ Williams
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Kiraboshi wrote:
Cogentesque wrote:

Do not add a rule to take care of an unusual situation. In almost every case, the game can be subtly changed to prevent the situation from occurring. Each added rule, no matter how uncommonly it's required, adds complexity that makes your game harder to learn and, potentially, to play.


I think there's an important and neglected corollary to this rule in that while one should try to minimize corner cases, a rule should be created to cover each one that cannot be eliminated. A game without rules to cover all circumstances is like an animal without skin to cover all its body surface. In short order it ends up a bloody mess.

Certainly rules should be unambiguous.

I (perhaps erroneously) interpreted the principle to be, rather, that you shouldn't (motivated by "realism", for example) add a special case rule to try to make some unusual case work differently from the general rule. Let the general rule handle it, even if the specific case gives an "unrealistic" outcome. (This is a common dilemma in wargames: simple playable elegance vs complex bloated realism and fine distinctions.)
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I love your analogy Kiraboshi, all be it rather visceral!

Russ, you are completely correct that rules should most definately be unambiguous and any inkling of unambiguosity (?) should be removed straight away.

Have you any ideas or corrections that we could change the rule with? As long as we get across the point that "If there is an odd situation in your otherwise functioning game, do not simply keep on adding magic rules that resolve these problems that are otherwise not in keeping with the game as a whole"
 
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Russ Williams
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Cogentesque wrote:
I love your analogy Kiraboshi, all be it rather visceral!

Russ, you are completely correct that rules should most definately be unambiguous and any inkling of unambiguosity (?) should be removed straight away.

Have you any ideas or corrections that we could change the rule with? As long as we get across the point that "If there is an odd situation in your otherwise functioning game, do not simply keep on adding magic rules that resolve these problems that are otherwise not in keeping with the game as a whole"

To me, the problem (the ambiguity in fact) is that you say "odd situation" without defining what that means. And so some people are supposing it means "ambiguous undefined situation" (i.e. the rules don't tell you what to do in this odd situation) and some people are supposing it means "undesired/unrealistic/unfun effect" (i.e. the rules tell you what to do, but they tell you to do something counter-intuitive or odd that feels wrong).

Those are two quite different "odd situations".

I'd make the distinction clear and treat them as 2 separate issues (albeit related issues, since they both propose a sort of minimalism in the rules).

E.g. (I'm not proposing the following exact wording, just brainstorming and trying to clarify what I mean):

Avoid all ambiguity. Players should always know how to resolve a game situation. In achieving this, try to minimize special case rules: try to word the general rules in such a way that they logically cover all cases. E.g. if you have a rule about "A player puts 1 or more of his unbuilt ships into selected cities" and then you realize "Hmm, what if the player has no unbuilt ships? The rules don't deal with that!", do you unthinkingly add a second rule to cover this "separate case", like "If the player has no unbuilt ships, he places none", or can you make the general rule say "A player puts 0 or more of his unbuilt ships into selected cities" and deal with the "positive" and "0" cases in a single rule?

Minimize special case exceptional rules. If the rules cause occasional "strange results" that don't feel "realistic" or "fun" or "intuitive", consider whether the cost of adding a special case exception rule is worth it. If the specific undesirable result happens very infrequently in practice, perhaps it is not worth making more rules the players must learn. If your combat system is such that by rolling 72 on 12d6 an unarmed soldier can destroy a city, and you think that's unacceptably crazy, maybe it's nonetheless not worth making some special case requiring players to reroll if 72 is rolled since this will only happen once in 6**12 = 2176782336 such attacks.
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Charles F.
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Cogentesque wrote:

Theme and art sell the game, not mechanics


I'd argue this wholesale statement is positively wrong.

A lot of game purchases are based on recommendations, be it in the shape of say an SdJ award, mouth-to-mouth, BGG rankings and the like.

Some games with perfectly unremarkable themes and artwork are huge hobby favourites.
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charlesf wrote:
[q="Cogentesque"]
A lot of game purchases are based on recommendations, be it in the shape of say an SdJ award, mouth-to-mouth, BGG rankings and the like.

Some games with perfectly unremarkable themes and artwork are huge hobby favourites.


Now this is true to an extent, obviously the best advice in this post would be "Win a Spiel De Jahr award, or a BGG award and be a classic hobbygame to sell your game best" But that is essentially like saying "Make the best game to have the best sales" This is true, but I defintately would not say the entire statement was wrong. You qualify that "a lot of games [sell based on things other than theme and art]" and you are right, a lot do. Not all. Mr "normal" Human at the game shop will probably buy something they like the cover and idea of: mechanic phrases like "Hand management" and "tile placement" will probably have little bearing on them. And likewise Mr "pro boardgamer" will probably have a skew to game themes he likes: "I love fantasy so I bought this game. I love Euros, so bought this game. I hate x,y,z theme so I didnt buy these games".
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Russ Williams
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Cogentesque wrote:
And likewise Mr "pro boardgamer" will probably have a skew to game themes he likes: "I love fantasy so I bought this game. I love Euros, so bought this game. I hate x,y,z theme so I didnt buy these games".

Curious: to me, the nebulous label "euro" has more to do with "mechanics" than with "theme". E.g. there are euros with a fantasy theme, and euros with a science fiction theme, and euros with a historical theme, etc.
 
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Charles F.
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Games that win the SdJ sell a boatload of copies. It's the main driver of boardgame sales over here.

Why? Because people trust the SdJ brand.

And how does the SdJ jury pick a winner? Largely on gameplay/mechanics. Hardly on theme/artwork.

So, by extension, the MANY people who buy a game because of the SdJ logo buy the game largely because its gameplay/mechanics.

Simple causality chain.
 
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Sam Mercer
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charlesf wrote:
Games that win the SdJ sell a boatload of copies. It's the
Simple causality chain.


I cannot lie, that indeed is some straight-up, no messing logic and I am hearing you there brother.

But still not removing it though
 
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