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.

Possible reasons for my early success

At first, I wondered if I just was not seeing problems that were there, but my quantitative and qualitative observations and feedback from playtesters have led me to believe that that is not really the case. I do have a few theories that might explain my relatively successful experience in initial playtests thus far in some combination, in what I would consider to be descending order of applicability to my situation.

1. Elapsed time. I have spent a lot of time – both in chronological time of idea gestation and in actual time spent on the design – developing my games before initiating playtests. In both cases, my games have spent two years in mental development time and at least twenty hours of intentional effort into rules before I generated a prototype, so maybe I have internally worked out a lot of the problems before they ever hit the table.

2. Clear vision and control over the game. My style so far has been to develop a clear sense of what I think the game is not only in terms of mechanics and theme, but also in regard to factors like style, play time, and experience, so I have had very clear ideas of what my game is and should be by the time I start playtesting it.

3. Experience playing board games. I have logged almost 1,700 plays on over 400 unique games in the time that I have recorded my information on BGG since January 2011, so I have played a lot of games and many different types of games. As I wrote recently, it seems as though some designers do not play as many games, so maybe my broad experience in playing all of those games has helped me avoid some of the pitfalls that might be present in others’ early designs.

4. Innate ability. Maybe I have some innate ability to design games that allows me to avoid some of those initial problems. I am, after all, a highly intelligent and intellectual person (humble, too!) with a strong sense of logic, sequential processing, and critical thinking and problem solving, so maybe that has contributed to my success so far.

5. Small sample set and/or sheer dumb luck. Two games is not a very large sample size, so it might be the case that the relative lack of data input means that my crushing failures are yet to come.  Or maybe the odds have just been in my favour and I have managed to just luck out with my first two designs.

My Conclusion

I tend to think that,  like the games I like to play (and hopefully also the games I design), much of my success so far as a designer is due to the fact that I like to pursue a clear strategy, eliminate randomness, and think through things logically and sequentially as I am designing the games. My experience playing a lot of games definitely helps, and I think that I have been able to eliminate a lot of the issues that my games might face before they ever hit the table, making them much more playable from the onset.

The drawback, of course, is that my games do tend to take longer to design than it seems it takes other designers; I am curious to see whether I can reduce that time before playtesting while still maintaining a level of success in my initial designs. I don’t think I have any innate ability to design other than the fact that I have developed a skill set from a lot of time put in not only to playing games, but also to similar skills.

I suppose I will have some opportunities to put these theories and ponderings – not to mention my “batting average” and the possibility of the small sample size and the possible luck factor – to the (play)test in the near future, as I have two more concrete ideas for games that I would like to develop. I have had the ideas for each game percolating for awhile (just under a year), but I hope that I can intensify the intentional time spent on design and see if I can create prototypes sooner rather than later, even if that means that I might end up facing more issues with my initial playtests.

Then again, maybe I should not worry about speeding up or changing my process; after all,  my design process so far has a 100% success rate, and I can see that there are several reasons that might have contributed to my early success as a designer. But I am curious to see what might happen if I did try a different style of early development; maybe, like designing games, this just requires some trial and error.

How about you? Do you have any thoughts or reflections on your early designs and early playtests? Have you had unexpected success, or did your attempts end in abject failure? Share your initial playtest stories!

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