Designing Under Constraints

People start designing games for many reasons, but a big one is freedom. You see all sorts of games, but notice a striking omission, and think you could make it yourself!

owl_bear_frontThroughout the tabletop hobby there’s a view that a new game is a totally blank slate and that game design is a liberating creative outlet. But this is far from the truth. In reality designers must deal with countless constraints when creating games, both externally imposed and self imposed, sometimes subconsciously.

That might sound like a bad thing. After all, freedom is usually seen as a positive, while we avoid restrictions whenever possible. But constraints can actually be very helpful. They can give you guidance, they solve many problems you probably didn’t even realize were problems in the first place, and they can lead to creative new ideas by forcing you to approach a problem from a new perspective.

Today I’m going to discuss constraints in game design. I’ll start by looking at the many types of constraints all designers have to deal with, then discuss how constraints can be helpful, going over the ways constraints helped shape a design I recently worked on: the Owl Bear for Birds of a Feather.

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Board Game Design Basics: Playtesting! Part III

Almost three years ago I wrote a two part article on playtesting. (Read Part I and Part II.) Today I turn the series into a trilogy.

Why? Well, one of my patrons asked about playtesting. But when it comes to playtesting, there’s a lot to talk about. As a game designer, playtesting is how you spend most of your time. After three years, I have a few more insights on the art and science that is playtesting.

The Ideal

Playtesting is a tool for gathering data, like a telescope. Image from Universe Today.

Playtesting is a tool for gathering data, like a telescope. Image from Universe Today.

Ideally, a game designer uses playtesting as a tool to explore game space, much like an astronomer uses a telescope to explore outer space. A game designer approaches a playtest like an experiment, coming in with something to focus on and a hypothesis; keeping an objective, open mind about results; and taking careful notes with as much quantitative data as possible. Playtests allow a designer to explore what a game can be and illuminate areas that are weak or need work. Ideally, playtesting will provide a designer with the empirical evidence necessary to say with confidence that the game is as good as it can be, or a direction on how to improve it.

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Robot Invasion

Birds of a Feather is one of the few games that make use of a supplemental app. Image from Board Game Geek.

Birds of a Feather is one of the few games that make use of a supplemental app. Image from Board Game Geek.

It will be a surprise to absolutely no one that technology is slowly creeping into the world of tabletop games, just as it has in every other facet of life. What might actually be surprising is how slowly the creep is. Especially considering the wild success of mobile games and the ubiquity of smart phones, you might expect more tabletop games supplemented with apps. Why are tabletop games lagging behind so many other areas where technology is embraced without looking back?

Today I’m going to discuss how digital technology fits into tabletop games. I’ll look at what’s currently holding it back and where I expect it will go once the flood gates finally do open.

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Component Considerations

How do publishers decide which components to use for a game? These days, the possibilities are almost limitless, with many factories having a huge range of in-house products and the ability to outsource for unusual components when necessary. With such an enormous blank slate, how do you even start deciding which components will work for your game?

This beautiful shot of Lanterns, arranged by Andrew Brooks, shows how important components are to many gamers.

Components are very important to many gamers. This beautiful shot of Lanterns was arranged by Andrew Brooks.

This side of publishing has been a slow learning process for me. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a rules and play experience guy. I don’t really care about components. But getting more involved in the industry, I’ve learned that components really matter to a lot of people. Plus, they have have a significant impact on play experience.

Today I’ll discuss some of the considerations that go into making decisions about components. This article goes out to all the new publishers out there.

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Kickstarter Videos

To those of us who follow Kickstarter, it’s no surprise that having a good game does not guarantee funding. Bad games get funded all the time, and more significantly, good games often do not reach their goals. There are many reasons this can happen, but it often boils down to potential players not being able to experience the game before deciding whether to pledge or not. For this reason, looking good has more of an impact on funding than being good.

How do you make your game look good? You make your Kickstarter page look professional and attractive, plaster the page with beautiful art from your game, and make sure reviewers take a look to reassure everyone that yes, this game exists and is playable.

Scythe featured amazing art prominently displayed in its video, helping it to reach more than 17,500 backers.

Scythe featured amazing art prominently displayed in its video, helping it to reach more than 17,500 backers.

But for many Kickstarter backers, a page starts and ends with its video. It offers a potential backer a fast way to learn about the project and creator with minimal hassle. For this reason, your Kickstarter video is possibly the most important part of your page, and it’s worth working hard to make it as good as possible.

After running three Kickstarters I’ve learned a lot about videos, and today I’m going to offer some advice on what to include in your video and what to avoid. I hope this helps you dodge some of the mistakes I’ve made.

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Graphic Design in Tabletop Games

The responsibility of the graphic designer is highlighted in this card from Shadow Throne.

The responsibility of the graphic designer is highlighted in this card from Shadow Throne.

Today I’m going to discuss an often misunderstood topic, graphic design. I’ll get into more details below, but very quickly:

Graphic design is the conveying of information visually.

Given that tabletop games are almost completely visual, it shouldn’t be surprising that graphic design is essential to a successful game. But graphic design is a subtle art, and there’s a lot to discuss about it.

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Broken Mechanics

Today I’d like to address an issue brought up by one of my patrons: what do you do when a mechanic doesn’t work out? Do you have to scrap the whole project, or are there measures you can take to salvage some of it?

In design, dead end paths don't have warning signs, but you have to explore them anyway. Image from Brian Gaynor Photography.

In design, dead end paths don’t have warning signs. You have to explore to find out they’re dead ends. Image from Brian Gaynor Photography.

All designers are familiar with this topic, often with sad associations. Because as a designer, you need to expect “failures” like mechanics that don’t work. Why? Because we’re explorers! And explorers sometimes encounter dead ends. You need to take risks when you’re making games (or making anything, really), and sometimes those risks won’t work out as well as you hoped they would.

When that happens, it’s important to be able to identify the problem and move forward, learning from the experience rather than dwelling on the past. Remember, a good designer isn’t someone who never has bad ideas; a good designer is someone who knows how to recognize and move on from bad ideas.

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To Publish or Not to Publish

Nothing Sacred Games: design studio or publisher?

Nothing Sacred Games: design studio or publisher?

Those who have followed Nothing Sacred Games for its nearly four year existence know it’s been in the murky world between design studio and publisher that many small game companies find themselves in. With crowdfunding money alleviating risk, more accessible manufacturers willing to work on small projects, and a plethora of useful information to help guide you through the whole process, it’s never been easier to sidestep the slow and often painful process of pitching to established publishers and just publish your own games.

But like many growing board game companies, I now find myself at a crossroads. I’ve successfully released two games, Corporate America and Shadow Throne, and a third, Birds of a Feather, is right around the corner. But changing circumstances and shifting priorities are making me question the status quo (something I love to do here at Nothing Sacred Games) and rethink self-publishing for the near future.

So today I thought I’d discuss the pros and cons of self-publishing versus finding a publisher. At the end I’ll spend a little time discussing my particular circumstances and what my plans are for my next couple of games.

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The Tabletop Golden Age

We've come a long way since this was state of the art. Image from Board Game Geek.

We’ve come a long way since this was state of the art. Image from Board Game Geek.

One of my patrons recently asked about the board game golden age we’re currently going through. Things certainly seem rosy at the moment. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of new games released every year, and perhaps even more importantly, the quality of games has gone up immensely since the days of Monopoly and The Game of Life.

But many questions remain. Why is a golden age occurring now? When did it start, and how long will it last?

Today I’m going to speculate on some of these questions, which I hope will offer some insights into the hobby and industry, and may even offer a glimpse into where we’re headed next.

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The Strange Story of Second Age

second_age_coverToday I thought I’d share a little bit about one of my main current projects, The Second Age of Sorcery. It has quite the meandering story, and still might take me places I’ve never been. So pull up a chair and get ready for story time!

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