Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Most Common Feedback for Board Game Designers

Designing board and card games is harder than it looks.  Just like everything else it life, it gets a lot easier after making a ton of mistakes and learning from them.  Here are some of the most common things you’ll hear from veterans in the industry that we can all easily avoid with a little bit of work.  This is not intended to be a list of rules that can never be broken, but instead a guideline of common occurences in designs that may not be an intentional choice.

Visit BoardGameGeek.com
If you are new to the industry, welcome!  There are some great resources that have been around for many years to assist in your journey.  Yes the site may be a little confusing and difficult to navigate at first, but consider the time spent a cost of entry to the hobby.  It’s worth it! 

No Roll and Move
Unless you have a time machine and are travelling back to the 1980’s to design games before anyone knew better, don’t use a single roll of the die to determine movement in your game.  It’s frustrating to the players and uninspiring design.

No Paper Money
This is simply a component that publishers and players alike just don’t like.  It wears out quickly and is harder to handle than the alternatives.  Don’t use it!

No Collectible Card Games
This is a distribution model that just is not feasible for any new game these days.  If you want to try and make a CCG, you’ll need that time machine again and go back to the 1990’s to get in on the fad when it was cool.  We can’t all be as lucky as Richard Garfield.  Many very large companies have tried and failed, these days a publisher would prefer a static expansion model instead.

Don’t use classic game parts
These are not attractive to publishers or to players.  If your game uses a chess board, or chess pieces, or a standard deck of cards, this is not a marketable game because people already own these items.  A game that combines chess and rummy is not a new game; it’s a variant of existing games.

A game is different from a simulation
The best games almost always use abstract representations to signify events.  It certainly takes more than 1 wood and 1 brick to build a road in real life, but it works just fine in Settlers of Catan.  Don’t bog your game down trying to simulate reality.

Do not create game effects that cause other players to lose their turns (literally or functionally)
This style of design is what I like to call a “negative play experience”.  This isn’t fun for the person that it happens to, it’s only mildly interesting for the person doing it, and the game is never better because it exists. 

Avoid linear dice rolls when possible
If you want to balance a random event to happen a certain percentage of the time, try using two or more dice to force the dice into a bell curved average instead of a linear one.  The sample size of dice in single play of a game is usually not enough to realize the true average of a linear roll.

Perception is just as important as reality
Just because a mechanism or event may be balanced on paper, or “fair” in the long run, doesn’t change the perception of the event when it takes place.  Just think about the old saying of “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Avoid player elimination
In general, you should avoid player elimination from your game.  If it is truly an essential or unavoidable part of your game, ensure that the time between a player being eliminated and the end of the game is not longer than 15 minutes.

Games need to be able to be taught
Hour long explanations are generally not something that anyone looks forward to when trying to learn a new game.  Think about what you can do to assist in teaching the game to new players by lowering the initial number of decisions or complexity, and ramping it up as the game continues.  Games should be interesting or fun to play the first time you play them.

Don’t have players make decisions that will impact the outcome of the game before they play
Trying to add variety to a game with a card draft is cool, but you need to have a way to play the game outside of using a draft as so people can learn it.  Even if it’s just playing with a random set for a few rounds before restarting the game with a draft, make sure this is an option for players, as well as the preferred way to teach your game.

If players start the game taking the same actions every game, start the game from there
If there are obvious first steps in the beginning of the game, build it into the setup.  You should always start the game from the position where players begin to make unique decisions from each other.  The exception to this advice is when it makes the game easier to learn.

Make decisions meaningful / Remove non-decisions
If I can always spend $1 to gain 1 point or I can spend $2 to gain 3 points, I will never spend $1 unless I am forced to.  This is a non-decision, and does not make the game more interesting if the player understands basic math.

Payouts should not always be linear
If you balanced your game in a spreadsheet, it is either going to be cleverly hidden, or transparently obvious.  Be aware about what side of the coin your game is falling into, and make sure that the balance is transparent to everyone who isn’t looking for it.  Keep in mind that a curved payout line is generally more interesting than a straight payout line.

Stealing from another player is twice as effective
Stealing 3 points from another player is better than gaining 5 points from the game.  The first gives a net gain of 6 points whereas the second is a net gain of 5.  Understanding this simple concept will prevent hours of wasted play time to fix simple imbalances.  The increase in your margin may be less with multiple players in the game, but the impact for the two players involved in the theft will be greater.

Edge cases will happen, if they ruin the experience, they need to be fixed
If there is a 1 in 100 chance that one player will get absolutely screwed, or one player will completely dominate the others, then it will happen sometimes.  If it happens sometimes, it’s going to happen to a player playing your game for the first time, and they will have a terrible experience.  You need to fix these issues.

If you need to make an exception to a rule, question the inclusion of the rule
If a player is always able to do something 98% of the time, but 2% of the time they are prevented by an arbitrary rule, this was likely an attempt to balance something.  Make sure that the situation that caused the 2% is really necessary for the game.  Try to avoid special case rules whenever possible.

Sometimes less is more
Games are not always about what you have included into the game, most often the game is about giving the feeling of an event in the simplest way possible.  The best games are the ones that express great complexity through simplicity.  Once you think your game is done, try taking something out.  Study which parts of the game people enjoy most, and which feel more like maintenance.

Graphic design is more important than people like to admit
Players need to be able to process the information in your game to be able to understand it and play it.  Anything you can do visually to assist with that goal is going to make everyone’s life much easier

Know your target audience
You should have an idea about what type of player your game is going to appeal to, and how long you expect your game to take.  This will help you in making decisions between various changes in your game.  If it is supposed to be a light family game, you probably don't want heavy math involved.   If it's supposed to be a tight economic engine game, you probably don't want heavy random swings based on dice.

Consider publication costs in your designs
Everything has a cost.  Games with 900 cards, 50 custom dice, or 400 wooden cubes are going to be expensive to produce.  When designing, think about ways to simplify your designs to remove components that don’t need to be there.

Be able to accept feedback
This should go without saying, but it’s easy to be offended by someone who is giving you feedback about your game.  Make sure that you separate yourself from the situation and look at the comments objectively.  They are trying to help, and they are talking about the game, not about you as a person.

This list was started and discussed on a trip back from Protospiel.org with James Mathe (@MinionGames) and Dustin Oakley (@CrassPip).  This list has been reposted with some additional commentary by James on his site:  http://www.jamesmathe.com/game-design-for-dummies/

1 comment:

  1. 90% of this list is just pet peeves, which have a corresponding game to disprove the dislike. If you were to expand some of these into interesting positions, you'll see which ones are just your irrational hates.