Posted on September 14, 2011 by Megan
Available at RPGNow.com
In his Foreword, lead author Mike Selinker tells a tale about a rather hot Thai curry, and thus gives an insight into how his mind works. You may or may not like your curry hot, but reading this book will give you an insight into how a whole bunch of successful game designers go about designing games that people will buy and play. If you want to turn inchoate ideas into workable – and saleable – board games, or just want to know a bit more about how your favourite games came to be, and about the underlying concepts that make good games, read on.
The book is made up of four sections, and a mastery of ALL of them is necessary to create a successful game. Some fortunate souls may manage that for themselves, others need to develop the ability to find others who can fill in the gaps. First is actually coming up with a concept, which then has to be designed, developed, and finally presented: first to a publisher and then to the paying gamer public. Each section contains several essays by the people who made some of the games that sit on your shelves and which you enjoy playing.
Part 1: Concepting is all about what sort of games you might want to make, and who is actually going to play them. First, a board and card game designer called James Ernest (think Kill Doctor Lucky) draws the important distinction between a game and its rules. However vital they may be, a game’s rules are just one part of what makes up the whole; and if the whole package isn’t fun, that game won’t get played. Moreover, although you can break down a game into its component parts, and even take its ruleset apart to see how it works, that probably won’t help you design a different game – you need components for the game you are thinking of, and whilst you may well be inspired by something that works well elsewhere, you cannot guarantee that it will be as good with the concept you are kicking around. Right at the beginning you need a child-like imagination of what sort of game you want to play and why… but that needs to be the real reason. Some games make the players feel smart, some make you laugh, others let you imagine that you are something that you are not, some are familiar and comfortable because you don’t need to worry how to play them.
Next, Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering) states that the best way to understand games so as to design your own is to play loads and loads of other games, thinking about what works, and why, as you do so. And don’t just play the sort of game you’d like to make, play any sort you can get your hands on, watch game shows and more. Inspiration can come from the strangest and most unlikely places! (My family complain that I seem to reduce everything to ‘How would this work in a game?’…) Then Jeff Tidball muses on how each game tells a story, and gives guidance on how to develop it, drawing on classical influences. One thing that’s been mentioned is how game design has not been as subject to critical analysis and study as has music or literature. To understand and appreciate game design, you need a measure of such an academic approach. This is followed by Matt Forbeck comparing mechanics and metaphor, showing how both are important; and Mike Selinker discussing game ownership. This may sound woefully dull, the sort of class you might doze through, but it’s not. Each essay is well-written and entertaining as well as informative and thought-provoking.
Part 2: Design moves on from these underpinning but quite general comments to look at the methods of deciding how a given game is actually going to work (and how to determine if it actually does as intended!). It opens with Andrew Looney (Fluxx) describing his own thought processes, how he goes about that strange activity of designing a game. Oddly, it sounds a bit like what goes on in my head, then it turns out that he’s also a software designer which is one of the things I’ve done in real life… Fascinating stuff, though, even if your mind doesn’t work this way. Next up, Rob Daviau talks about intuitive design, how with many of the best games it’s just plain obvious how to play – even if you spend the rest of your life figuring out how to play it really well! Lisa Steenson next contributes a piece about ‘gateway’ games – the ones that sucker people into the hobby of game playing – and how to make them. Mike Selinker is next with a look at some of the all-out show-stopping game mechanics, a fine tour of what’s outstanding in gaming. It’s noticeable that most contributors (except Lisa Steenson) tend to spread their net wide and talk about other people’s games as much as they do about those they’ve written themselves. This is followed by James Ernest again, talking about strategy, skill and luck within your game mechanics; closely followed by a second piece from the same pen about decision-making in gambling games… which are not all to be found in the casino!
In some ways, Part 3: Development, is where it gets tough. Coming up with ideas, working out mechanics and testing them, those are fun activities and because we like them, we are reading this book. But this section looks at the grunt-work that takes something that’s fun and turns it into a robust game that’s ready for the final step to take it to the marketplace, the hard work that turns ‘good’ into ‘great’ and is why most ideas for games stay just that: ideas. Dale Yu kicks off by looking at the development of the game Dominion, for which he was part of the development team, and extrapolating from that to discuss the very essential role of ‘development – the honing of the original design – in the creation of games people will want to buy and play. Fascinating reading, as in the next piece by Paul Peterson about balance – and the creative uses of the lack thereof – in collectable card games. It is these details that make all the difference between something that is fun with your friends and something that can be sold to, and played by, gamers worldwide. Then Dave Howell focusses on the vitally-important point that must not get lost amidst the search for game perfection: it must remain FUN to play! He looks at some of the pitfalls that can spoil the game for at least some of the players. Delving deeper, Mike Selinker writes on the topic of writing precise rules: the sort that make sense at the first reading, and still do after hours of gameplay and a few beers. They don’t only need to be clear, they also have to enable the game to be played with minimal effort – you’re not there to apply rules, you’re there to play a game! Teeuwynn Woodruff finishes this section, with a look at playtesting and how to make sure it’s done to good effect.
Finally, we come to Part 4: Presentation. This is all about converting your fun, playable game into a saleable commodity, and then selling it. It opens with Steve Jackson (of GURPS and Steve Jackson Games fame) on the trials of prototyping. Your prototype is what you tout around publishers in the hope they’ll want to take your game on. Steve goes through some of the awful mistakes he’s seen in a long and profitable career, in the hopes that we’ll avoid them. Next, Dale Yu is back with some of the things that you should do with your prototype. So, with your nice prototype getting potential publishers slavering, read Richard Levy’s piece on pitching and turn the interest into an actual sale. Finally, Michelle Nephew writes on the processes involved in getting your game from proposal to print, all the tough (and expensive) things that it is far better for a game designer to have his publisher do for him. Stick to what you know and are good at, and let others contribute the things that they do well.
Even if you never design a game, you will look at every game that you play in a different light. If you really absorb the wisdom herein and apply it to your killer game idea… your game will be welcome on my review pile!
Review by Megan Robertsen