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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Game enthusiasm vs. game design

Reflections on the strangely exclusive and competitive relationship between game enthusiasm and game design

Derek Turner

In my three years of designing board games, I have discovered an unexpected quirk in the constituency of the game design end of the hobby: there are not nearly as many board game enthusiasts as I had expected to see here. In fact, it seems almost as if a majority of designers actually do not play board games regularly (at least in my limited experience) – or if they do, it might be a small number of games with high repetition of plays.

I suppose it makes some sense that the two aspects of gaming – enthusiasm and design – might functionally be somewhat mutually exclusive. Designing, after all, is an intensive largely individual pursuit, and it demands a different kind of attention; it requires high detail, repetition, perseverance, dedication, time, and an at times masochistic drive for analysis, critical reflection, and feedback. It requires a high investment of time and energy for what might appear to be a small return (a small change in the rules or a minor alteration in appearance, for example), and it mandates a narrowing of focus into an increasingly smaller target.

Being a board game enthusiast, however, requires a different kind of brain space. For one, many enthusiasts play many different games and are constantly learning new rules and researching new games to play, rather than focusing on one design. Their pursuit is inherently social, whereas design is very singular – even in the play testing phase – as much of the effort on the part of the designer is to attempt to get what is in their heads out into a playable form and there can sometimes be very little information that is open for others to access.

Although the desire to try new things is part of both sides of the hobby, designers (necessarily) channel that energy into a limited scope related to a small number of projects (or changes within those projects), whereas board games spread out that energy amongst learning new games. There might be a similar quantitative investiture of time and energy as there is in game design, but playing many games is qualitatively different enough from an intense focus on one game that it does not necessarily feel like it’s the same level of input required for both enthusiasm and design.

Perhaps the relationship between board games and game design is somewhat analogous to how some actors and/or writers do not watch many movies or television shows, since they’re so busy making them. Or like the difference between being a creator and a critic – or a consumer, for that matter: when your hobby becomes “work” (so to speak), your relationship to it is necessarily different.

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Lessons learned from Link’s latest Legend

AKA: “What I learned about tabletop game design from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Derek Turner

I have been a fan of The Legend of Zelda since its first inception thirty years ago. I fondly remember exploring 8-bit Hyrule with my dad when I was in my early years of grade school, burning every bush and bombing every pixelated square on every screen in our attempt to find and map out every secret we could find. So to say that I was excited to play Breath of the Wild is a bit of an understatement; in fact, I would posit that I have been more excited about this Zelda game than about any since the series expanded into the third dimension with Ocarina of Time almost twenty years ago.

I am around sixty hours in to Breath of the Wild, and I have completed over half of the narrative of the game (or so I figure from what I know at this point). I have been spending a lot of time on side quests and exploring the map of Hyrule, and I know that I have a lot of game left to play, but I would easily rank it as one of the best games in the series and possibly of all-time despite how much of the game I have left to discover. I cannot ever remember a game that was so immersive and in which it was so easy to lose myself for hours at a time.

Despite the fact that I have come nowhere near to completing the game, I feel like I already have experienced so much and that, even were I to stop playing it now, that I would rank it as one of my favourite games ever. In addition, I have realized that I have learned a lot from the game that I can connect to the world of game design, particularly in regard to board games. Here, then, are the five (spoiler-free) lessons I have learned about board game design from Breath of the Wild.

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