A bit about my game design philosophy, part I



People like games for a variety of reasons, from thought-provoking, deep strategy games to games of pure chaos and luck, from 12 hour commitments to fifteen minute fillers, from coldly abstract to dripping with theme. A few things I like to find in games are as follows:



  1. Games that tell a story: Games that have no narrative arc are less compelling to me than ones that do. You don’t need to have a long game to have such a narrative element though. Look at Mayday’s Get Bit. The game’s story is simple. You are a bunch of pirates trying to outswim a shark. It is a simple story that is executed in a comical style. As limbs are lost on your little figure, you feel more and more desperate to flee the shark. The game is chaotic and while the narrative is short, it invests you in the fate of your character and his or her fate. Diplomacy is another game. Its rules are elegantly simple and abstract but the sense of identity one gains from the game is evidenced by the strong emotions it evokes. “England, how could you betray me like that! I demand you leave Brest at once!” has been shouted how many times by offended players of France.

  2. Games with a theme: In the early days of the hobby the criticism that a theme was just “tacked on” was occasionally targeted at certain Euro games. One very famous designer in particular comes to mind. This designer has created many cherished titles and has done more for this hobby then I ever will. My respect and admiration for this designer go without saying. However, I prefer games with theme. Theme can serve as explanation for a quirky rule, foster the immersive aspect of a game narrative and help to tell that narrative. When I design a game it almost always starts with some sort of theme first. Sometimes a game mechanic comes to my mind first but usually it is a theme. Designing “theme first” is how I have intuitively approach games.

  3. Games should get played, not play you: There are games that, for whatever reason, end up removing choice from the player, dictating what actions are possible or must be done in a game. I like games of choice where I can exercise my agency to try what I want.

  4. Games with options: Building on point 3, I like games with multiple paths to victory. There are many excellent games that do not have multiple paths, but are fun. I, however, do like games where I can experiment, find new ways to win, etc.

  5. Games with no runaway winner: we’ve all played a game where one player’s score is about to lap everyone else’s. That isn’t fun (for the losers anyway). If I know who will win on round 2 of play, then why bother with round 3? There are many ways to address this with hidden points, end game scoring, etc.

  6. Games which build: I like games that build something. A game where you build a civilization, a galactic empire, or a town appeal to me. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I look as my little slice of the game world. Granted, not all games have this (certainly my first game to released, Cauldron: Bubble and Boil, doesn’t per se. It does have your recipe book you are building, and garden plots you harvest, but it is otherwise missing.

  7. Games that allow player interaction: Gaming is inherently a social activity. Games that divorce that interaction from the gameplay experience is usually lacking in some way. Players should be able to interact in meaningful ways in the game.

  8. Games with chaos, randomness, luck, and strategy: I like games with any and all of the three. Some folks hate Roborally. It can be maddeningly chaotic where your best laid plans are destroyed by a bump by another player’s robot. I find it great fun. Not “all games should do this” fun, but once in a while fun. Games with some luck are appreciated, but games that are purely luck driven are of little interest to me. I need some sort of strategy. Even if it is a game of constantly shifting strategies. A perfect example of such a game is Race for the Galaxy. You cannot become locked in to one strategy early on. You might decide to play a military planet strategy and never see a military planet card the whole game. Other games offer points of departure from given strategies or the ability to do any and all strategies simultaneously. I like games that mix some (or all) of those elements or randomness, chaos, luck and strategy.

  9. Rules should be clear: If a game requires you to pore over the rules like some sort of Talmudic scholar trying to evince the meaning of a particular passage, then well…that is a problem.  When a whole game grinds to a halt as players debate interpretations of the rules is frustrating to me.

  10. While not critical, it helps to be lovely: Sometimes a game’s aesthetic can make a huge difference in the experience of game play.  Unfortunately just as there are ugly games out there that could use a makeover, worse or those eye-candy games which lack any substance at all.

  11. Print quality does count: How many times have you spent a chunk of change on a game only to open it and see flimsy card stock, warped boards, and the like?  Now a game doesn’t need to be tricked out with the most amazing component quality, but when a publisher does something that feels like scrimping and not paying the extra $0.01 per unit cost for a stouter play board for example, it makes one wonder: What were they thinking?

  12. Games that are fun: Fun. One person’s fun game is another person’s “I will never play this ever, ever again” game. I feel my games are fun because of the previous points outlined above. However, with all games, your mileage may vary…but ultimately we are looking for entertaining games.

In my next post I will discuss some of these elements that are present in Cauldron: Bubble and Boil. My question to you, do you have any pet peeves on things you hate to see in how a game works (how it plays, etc.)? Please feel free to reply, repost, etc.


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