Tips on Board Game Invention

Thu Aug 28 08:44:28 UTC 2008

Check out the brand new book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. In 650 pages the authors attempt nothing less than the first course book for a scientific study of game design, both the computer and tabletop varieties. This is not the usual light read, but an analytical book truly of use to the would-be game inventor, more like a text book in fact. Among the guest designers quoted are Reiner Knizia and Richard Garfield. By Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. Update: Now also also available is their companion volume, The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology which includes thirty-two essays from game inventors, critics, fans and many others discussing the interaction between games and the greater culture, how inventors can create narratives for games, bringing games to market, and, at 954 pages, much, much more.

Find Inspiration
How can you find inspiration? Internally-generated ideas are important, but it's at least as important to look outside. See films. Read books, fiction and non. (Clearly Reiner Knizia studies ancient Egypt.) Attend lectures. Read newspapers. Look about you. (Andrea Meyer made ad acta, a very good game inspired by the Berlin bureaucracy in which she works.) The point is to make yourself open to incoming ideas and to realize that almost anything, especially any process or competition, is a likely topic for a game.

You've cut up the cardboard, procured the bits, typed up the rules and now you have a game, right? No, you have an idea for a game, i.e. something no one wants to see. Now you have to test it yourself for a while, playing all the positions. Doing this will immediately reveal certain problems. Fix them and repeat until it settles down. Now you have something that is ready for your friends to try. If after they've played it and you've refined it several times none of them hate it, try to get others to play it. Test it many times with different kinds of players and more than once in all the different configurations of players. If they're still willing to play again, then find a group that has never played before. Give them the game and remain completely silent during play, watching carefully to see what goes right and wrong. Only after you fix the problems that come up during this session will you have a game worth sending to a publisher, not before. What the publisher is looking for in most cases is a design that's ready to go with all but the tiniest problems flushed out long before not a half-finished project on which they will have to still do a lot of development work. As in anything there are exceptions, but in general keep in mind that good games are made, not born.

Physical Quality Improves With Tests
The cart doesn't drive with the horse behind it. When you're creating a prototype for the first time, try not to spend hours and hours with graphics software, glue and scissors creating a museum-quality piece. Rather, expect one in every twenty ideas or less to someday become games. Given this, spending all that time in early production is stealing from other games you could be inventing. Instead, create the simplest functional prototype you can. Only if that goes over well with your friends do you then improve physical quality somewhat. Then if it survives more tests, it can continue to look nicer.

Instill Guidance
Help players avoid obviously bad decisions, using both designer's notes and by rules discouraging such moves. For example, Settlers of Catan is lucky to be such a good game because someone can choose the wrong starting location and really ruin the game for themselves. How can someone manage to casually ruin their chances in your design? How can you avoid the "play once, HATE it, and never again" phenomenon?

Timing the Exit
Just as Seinfeld talked about how the essence of showmanship is getting off the stage at the right time, so too your game should not overstay its welcome. If, for example, there are a few moves to make to complete laying tiles on a board, but they have little to no effect on the score, end it. Don't be a slave to a fallacious sense of completeness. The measurement to take is "when has the fun has been wrung from it?" and nothing else.

Write Clear Instructions
It's a good idea to study the instruction sets of other games. Figure out what they do well. Then type up your own rules. Immediately after printing them out, proof read and correct. Then put them away for a week or more. Now read them again with red pen in hand. You may be surprised how many ambiguities still need to be fixed. As your game gets tested more, ask some of your testers to review them. Then at a certain point you need to find a group that has never played before. Give them the game and remain completely silent while the play, watching carefully to see what goes right and wrong. Chances are you will find yet more things to fix. Some good examples of clarity are most of the games by Reiner Knizia. In terms of helping the reader, take a look at the games Kosmos produces.

Communicate Clearly
When you send your game into a publisher, be clear with them what you expect and help them to be clear with you. When you submit a game, fill out and enclose along with it two copies (more if there is more than one game) of this form. The publisher can return one copy of the form immediately to acknowledge receipt of the game prototypes and another when the prototypes have been evaluated. These documents are useful to both sides as a record of what has happened as well in case of later dispute over any plagiarism or similar issues.

Resist the Vacuum
It's tempting to just spend all of your time working on your own creations, but unless you have the army of playtesters Reiner Knizia has, you're likely to run into problems. It's important to play a lot of games, especially of the type you're trying to make, just to avoid re-inventing what has gone before. The same goes for theme and setting – be aware of what other work has already been published in the area. In this way you can avoid re-creating the ideas of others, which can make publication considerably more difficult.

Negotiate with Publishers
Once you manage to get the ear of a potential publisher for your game, here are a few things to discuss:

  1. Limit the evaluation period. If your game languishes with a publisher for month after month, there is every chance that someone else will come out with a similar game that makes yours unoriginal and perhaps unpublishable. Moreover, during this time the publisher is preventing you from submitting your game to another firm which might be willing to publish it. The key is to specify in advance how long the evaluation period is to last. Three months ought to be enough time for any company to decide whether they are interested or not. If no decision has been reached after that amount of time, you really owe it to yourself and to your design to demand that either the evaluation is over or that the publisher owes you an option contract, in effect that they will begin to pay you for their continued holding of the game. If all of us inventors hold firm on this issue, chances are that publishers will begin to behave better in this regard.
  2. Once the publisher decided that they definitely intend to publish, it's a very good idea to also get a "kill clause" which releases rights after N months if the game is not produced or after production ceases.
  3. Another good idea is some specification of the number of copies the publisher has the right to produce. If you somehow manage to get an enormous hit, no doubt the contract should be re-negotiated at more favorable rates.
  4. Retaining copyright. The right to produce your game idea normally should remain with you, so don't be afraid to ask for it. The publisher licenses the idea from you in return for payment, but after a specified period these rights should revert to the inventor.
  5. Finally, find out which markets the game will be distributed in. Publishers frequently request worldwide rights even though they have no intention of publishing anywhere but in a single geography and language. If the game turns out to be a hit, they may then turn around and sub-license it to other firms in other countries, thus usurping what should be, by rights, the inventor's purview. If a publisher has no immediate intention to publish outside its usual marketing area – usually you can discern this by their past publishing practices – you should request that the contract reserve these rights for yourself.
Escaping a Rut
What should you do with your design(s) if you've thought of everything, tried everything and feel like you're at the end of your rope. How do you get out of the rut?

First of all, make sure you really are in a rut. It's not a rut if you can't decide between A and B for your game. It's not a rut if some parts are working and some are not. But it is a rut if it's just not working at all and you can't think of any other ideas either and you're at your wit's end. What to do?

First, don't panic! Relax and realize it happens to everyone from time to time. Second, realize you're probably very tired or stressed or both. Try to go to bed early and get a good night's sleep. In fact, if you can, take a week or two off from all design matters. Then come back to your project or start a new one, but come to with a slightly different approach. Try to do a game in a style entirely different than any you've done before. If you're used to starting from theme, start from mechanism for a change, or vice-versa. If you're returning to an existing project, try adding subsystems to make it bigger and from that higher level you may get a whole new perspective on the whole thing.

Answering these questions carefully may give you ideas how you might look at your idea in other ways. Maybe there is a way you can radically reduce the number of materials. Maybe your idea would work better as a computer or web game. Etc. After time you will find the ability to apply this filter at the outset and save some time and trouble.

Happy inventing!