Board Gaming, Game Design

Making the Game

Fang den Hut, board game (Ravensburger, 1928),...

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” – George Bernard Shaw

So, one of the reasons I started “Pretty Sneaky, Sis” was to talk about game design. This will mean a number of different things to different people.

Over the next couple of weeks (and I am going to seriously work on getting back to regular updates) I am going to type words on a screen about what it means to me, and hopefully generate some thoughts with myself or candid conversation with my four faithful readers (p.s. I love you guys!)

Today I start with my history in game design, future posts will talk about various concepts related to design, and even some ideas I have bubbling for the future.

I would imagine that everyone who loves games as I do turns their thoughts to making a game of their own at some point. For me, it started as a little kid with a big imagination, a set of colored pencils and some poster-sized sketch pads.

I made a board game with no real point but to get to the end of the board, not much more depth than Chutes and Ladders. There were two paths to take, one was much longer, but with many less hazards.  The other was shorter, but had a trap-filled hall (complete with blood stains and poorly drawn skeletons) that required a lucky roll to get past.

On either path was a key that you had to collect in order to unlock the door at the end of the board which opened to… a second board. I always felt that board games ended too quickly, I guess.

The second board had lots of treasure spots that you could pick up upgrades (written on index cards) to your pawn on. Why would your pawn need upgrades? How else are you going to defeat the dragon on the last space of the board? I am now filled with an urge to swing by an art supply store and return to my childhood holding the hands of the children currently in my life.

It was this or D6 system Star Wars. We made our choice.

My next foray into game creation would happen in the sixth grade. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness” was what was happening with me and my pack of nerds. We never actually conspired to make a role-playing session ever happen.

What we *did* do was spend an inordinate amount of time making characters to fight each other and draw pictures of.

That’s what I remember most about sixth grade. It was the year I had my first girlfriend (Hi Amanda!), and the year that I was creator of a  mutant character for every animal in the core rulebook.

In hindsight, Palladium is a horrible system for quick build characters as disposable as toilet paper, but it’s wonderful in how universal it is.

All of the Palladium system games were more or less interchangeable. In the Palladium universe, you can have a mutant elephant wizard ninja superspy who travels to multiple dimensions in a Veritech Alpha. I never did that myself, but my attention span as a sixth grader was limited to min-maxing my combat stats, drawing pictures, and talking trash with my friends. I do not feel a sudden urge to go looking for an old copy of the TMNT RPG.

Tangentially related, I was recently notified of (another) reboot to the movie franchise, this time taking more after the original Eastman and Laird source material. Darker tone and all that. I liked it way back then, we’ll see what happens. I didn’t think the recent TMNT attempt was unwatchable, but there’s certainly room for growth and improvement.

Nothing even 0.01% as cool as this, I assure you.

The above didn’t really have anything to do with game creation though, just game playing, which eventually inspired us to try to make our own game. Joe, Jason, Matt, Eddie and Chris, otherwise known as JJMEC Games, was going to self-publish Wild Side, the cyberpunk RPG that would put us on the map of the industry we didn’t have a solitary clue about.

Think Shadowrun, if Shadowrun were made by a group of pre-teens. Simply awful. Not to us, of course. We had binders with our hand-drawn logo on it, and were working on what could very loosely be called a sourcebook.

How terrible was it? We had one available character class. One. Our level 1 characters started with 500 hit points. The most devastating weapon in the game, something akin to a supercharged, shoulder-mounted cannon inspired by the Ghostbusters proton pack…did 5D20 damage.

Wildly fluctuating damage range, and at its most deadly, did 20% of the health of a level one nobody.

The above illustrates how easy it is to get lost in the glitz and glamour of your ideas. Given, both times were the ideas of kids, but I was by no means a beautiful unique snowflake.

I’m sure tons of other kids were scribbling down their ideas and millions of games have been lost to the black hole of not following through. Sadly, some of those kids grew out of it. Some of them were discouraged by the plethora of good games presently existing and didn’t feel they had anything to add.

Some of them got into the mathiness of it all and stuck with it until they gave an adult shape to their ball of creative clay. I’m not sure where I fall as a designer. (an upcoming post!)

When you  look deeply into the board gaming world, you realize just how much further down the rabbit hole goes than you imagined. There are games for almost every genre you can think of, using every mechanic you can think of. It can be a bit daunting for someone who wants to jump in that end of the pool. It’s easy to come up with a game idea, scribble on some paper and play with some equally enthusiastic friends.

When you’re taking it to the world, there’s a lot more to be considered. You have to find your audience, you have to know what has come before to appeal to that audience and how your game stacks up against theirs, if it offers anything new or interesting. You have to make sure that your game hasn’t already been designed.

True story: I was once excited about a fantasy novel idea that I told a friend about, who informed me that I had more or less described the entire storyline of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Once you overcome these considerable hurdles, there’s still a ton of work to be done. Extensive playtesting to make sure that your game isn’t immediately broken by an oversight. Weighing trying to self-publish versus approaching publishers.

When I met Tim Fowers running demos of Wok Star, I was impressed with his game and his attitude about making it happen, but it wasn’t until much later that the scope of what he was doing dawned on me.

This said, we also live in the age of Kickstarter, which has to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my lifetime, and really makes the publishing question a lot more difficult to answer.

Next time I’ll talk more about the games that are, the games that aren’t, and the games that should be. If you’re a game designer, or an aspiring one, or just someone who wants to join the conversation, feel free to comment.

ALSO: Someone told me that due to my blog, they bought a game I talked about. That’s another first, and totally bad-ass. So, go me or something. 😀


4 thoughts on “Making the Game

  1. Joe:

    I really enjoy your perspective and message, which you deliver with the same sense of humor you pull off in person. Well done on the web page. Keep it up.

    I’ve been quietly monitoring your missives and musings, and wanted to finally chime in on a topic which is near and dear to me as well. I too have been a lifetime game player who thought he ought to be able to pull off one of his own as a “designer.” Easier dreamed than done. I agree that all the intentions and tall-talk in the world do not make up for some good ‘ol fashioned American follow-through (or, uh, Canadian maybe?), which I lack primarily because of 1,000 other excuses I have for not just knuckling down and doing something: work, kids, more work, etc.

    The other fear-factor is the incredibly intimidating perception that, “well, if I spend all this time on it, no one will even give it a second look anyway, so screw it, I am just gonna go work, kids, more work, etc.”

    At least at some point not all that long ago there were not 10 different card/board/computer games for every genre you could imagine. Or mechanic. Now, in addition to the follow through problem, I am plagued with the “every time I turn around some other sonnaovab- has ‘created’ the VERY doggone game I was going to come up with, I mean EXACTLY!” Toss that into the pot, and consider that there are people out there who are following through, and that tells you why, at 43, I have done nothing about it but consume others’ intellectual properties. (Which I don’t mind, and frankly is another reason I have not come up with anything of my own, because I get distracted by all the other actual games out there to play…)

    At least I have been reading up on game design, and trying to keep designer notes on the few projects that are lingering in my head. Maybe some day I will do something. Maybe not. I know this: at some point in my life, I at least want to be able to say I gave it a shot. Instead of buying a one way ticket to Palookaville.

    Anyway, cheers on the follow through on the site. Bravo. Keep it going. You are doing that, which is a lot. I will be watching.


    1. Bill,

      Thank you for the wonderful compliments and your readership. It helps keep my drive knowing that there is an audience out there. Game Design is a complex machine. The design I’ve been kicking around shows much promise. It has a relatively untapped audience, it has things I have not seen in other games (alternately one could argue that it is a Frankenstein’s Monster of other games). My biggest problem right now? Assembling what I need to really really playtest. Namely, layout. I’m an idea man, and my creative side manifests best in written word and concepts. I am not much of an artist, and the art is vitally important to a game like the one in my head.

      Reading design blogs is a good start to help things go, I’ve found some good ideas in a few I’ve read. Not design ideas, but things to keep in mind in the process. That, and rather than be flustered by someone else beating you to the punch (believe me, there have been a number of scares with my game) keep pushing forward, get your game to where it can be played, then if you feel it necessary, make changes to get some difference between it and what you perceive it to be derivative from. After all, the existence of Dominion makes Thunderstone no less playable.

      In my next posts, I’ll be talking about some games that do exist (and maybe shouldn’t) some games that don’t exist (and probably should) and some general brainstorming about where to go next. I’m not quite ready to go prime time with my project, but after I work out a few more kinks, I definitely will. Thanks again, Bill!

      1. I have taken a minimalist approach to play test grade materials, but agree with you that the layout of the end product must be top-notch to even get a second look. Consumers of such things place a lot of import on the “coolness factor” of your components, and the game player aficionados will only respect you if there is good functionality and meaningful, purposeful icons, symbols and do-hick-amagiggies on them.

        Keep pressing on. I have found a good link for “playtest materials” here:

        (Not that you need pointers from me, an abject failure at the medium…)

        And if you recall our ‘ol buddy Jon, he could maybe give you some thoughts on art and layout, it is, after all, his profession. Drop me a line and I can get you two hooked up for reals.


  2. It’s a little sad that as much as I love Jon, I had exactly zero idea what he did. That’s awesome. Point out the blog or something to him, or have him hit me up on FB. We can rise to meteoric fame together. 🙂

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