Time Stories

The zero-sum game of finding and making time for game design

By Derek Turner

After I wrote my recent Design Journal about the process of beginning to recognize the emotional aspects that have affected my game design process, I had a thought that it might be interesting to see if there were any other contributing factors in my current difficulties in managing designing process. The one that came to mind most readily: the zero-sum game of dividing the time I spend on board gaming in total.

Here’s the problem as I see it: if I assume that my total time spent on board games is finite, then my game design time is even more limited as a function of the zero-sum game of managing my time spent on the hobby as a whole: I have to take away from one to accommodate the other.

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Arrested development

In my last design journal, I spent some time pontificating about why I had managed to be so successful in my limited experiences of running initial playtests of my two designs. Both times I have designed games they have (mostly) worked on the first playthrough, and I wondered why – but maybe I wrote too soon, as I discovered shortly thereafter.

I playtested my new game a week after its initial playtest without doing any work on the design in the interim. I made a couple of minor tweaks to set-up and to gameplay – the kind of changes that are necessary to make between plays to try to even out some of the rough edges – but otherwise, I wanted to see how a subsequent playtest with essentially the same game – and fortunately, one of the same players – would go.

I wanted to determine whether some of the issues that had been raised in my initial playtest were due to the circumstances of the game (ie. the particular players and their interpretation of the rules), or whether there were some deeper, more insidious issues that needed to be fixed. Well, I got my answer, and the result of that second playtest is that I am now “officially” back “in development”.

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Playtesting is hard work

by Derek Turner

Playtesting is one of the most crucial points in the design process.  It is where a design is truly tested and refined and the hard work of fixing problems bubbles to the surface. You would think I would be prepared for the intensity of the process, but it often catches me by surprise, as I always seem to forget just how exhausting playtesting really is until I’m in the midst of it.

I ran a blind playtest for a fellow designer’s game earlier this week. and I was bushed by the end of it. Then again, including an hour of reviewing the rules, setting up the game, playing the game, and evaluating it during and afterward, it was a fairly intensive four-hour process from start to finish, which I suppose I should have expected.

It did get me thinking, however, about the nature of playtesting as part of the design process and just why it is so tiring. Sure, it is hard work, but I wondered if there was something more to why it is so intense. Here’s what I came up with.

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Designer genes?

Evaluating the possible reasons for the success of my initial playtests

Derek Turner

I wrote recently of my trepidation about running my first playtest of my second design, a strategic game based on the Canadian electoral system. It turns out that my anxiety was almost completely unfounded, as the game worked very well, especially considering that I had no guarantee that my basic idea would actually result in a playable game.

The game – tentatively entitled First Past the Post, after our method of electing representatives to government – had a great flow and feel; all players were fully strategically engaged, and there was only one or two pieces that seemed to be in need of revision before playing again (at least one of which was already on my shortlist of things to fix). In short, the game went way better than I ever could have expected it to, and I am really excited to start making some of the changes that need to be made before the next playtest.

But even with as excited as I am about my successful initial playtest, I find myself in a weird place thinking about my personal design style, and I am wondering when the metaphorical shoe might drop. This is the second game I have designed, and it is the second one that has essentially worked from the get-go, which seems very surreal to me. It feels like I should have had a lot more failure in my game design efforts thus far, especially since I am still relatively new at the practice.

Everything I have read about game design includes tidbits of advice like “don’t be afraid to fail” and “don’t worry if your first few prototypes don’t work” and “don’t be afraid to throw something out when it doesn’t work”. The general expectation is that 90-95% of what you do will not work, so just focus on the 5-10% that does work and build on that. But my (limited) experience has been almost completely opposite, with most of the core mechanics of my games working straight away and not seeming to need significant alteration, which is why I’m a little weirded out and wondering why this might be the case.

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The calm before the storm

Reflections on the period between prototype and playtest

Derek Turner

There’s a strange sort of calm resting over my design process right now, as I am in the period between having a functional prototype and its first playtest. I completed the prototype of my second game – First Past the Post, a game based on the Canadian Electoral System – last week, but it will have been a week and a half from when I finished assembling it until when I have a chance to play it, and I find myself in an interesting emotional state in the tension of the intervening time.

I understand, at least conceptually, that this period may be foreign to some game designers. I have heard stories of designers for whom this time is almost non-existent, as they make very early and very rough prototypes and are constantly trying new things. But it seems like my style is a little different, as both of my designs have had extended periods of idea incubation and design manipulation before they have been put out to others to playtest.

I had the idea for this particular game in May 2015, but it was not for another year that I started actually doing the work of designing it. I have worked intermittently on this game over the past year, so its gestation period to get to this point is much longer than the actual time it took to develop it this far.

So, perhaps as a result of my process on this game and perhaps because of my relative newness in the field of game design, I have a number of emotions that I am experiencing in this transitional time, and I thought I would take the time to explore some of those thoughts as part of the (my) design process.

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