The Top 10 Things I Learned About Game Design in 2013

29 December 2013

I’ve been designing board games since I was 7 or 8 years old. I discovered Euro-style games in 2004, which opened me up to a whole new world of game design. Since then I’ve designed two games from start to finish (Viticulture and Euphoria), and I’ve also played a ton of games, especially in the last few years.

Despite that history, I’ve learned more about game design in 2013 than all other years combined. This is not to say I’m a good designer, but rather that I’m more aware of game design than in the past. Thus I’d like to share with you the top 10 things I’ve learned about game design this year. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

10a. Play lots of different types of games. I get excited about big, complicated, meaty games. So sometimes it’s tough for me to get lighter games to the table. But I’ve learned SO much from those games that make me think outside of the box that I often keep myself in.

My niece, the grande worker.
My niece, the grande worker.

10. Minimize frustration as often as possible. This might seem obvious–of course you don’t want players to feel frustrated. You’ll never design something to purposely frustrate players. But it’s all too easy to overlook frustration when you’re testing the game with other players. For example, in Viticulture (and many worker placement games), a big part of the game is the constraint that if other players choose an action, you may not be able to take that action. That’s fine, and for a player who really enjoys a puzzly experience, they won’t mind being blocked. But the problem in Viticulture is that order of operations really matters for the winemaking process, so getting blocked a few times can ruin your plans. So we fixed it with grande worker.

9. The first game matters. This is a lesson I’m still learning. I used to think that the first time any player plays any game, it’s going to be clunky and long. The thing is, the first game matters. It impacts a player’s experience with that game. It’s like reading the first chapter of a book–if it makes no sense and drags on forever, you may not finish it or even read chapter 2, even if chapter 2 is awesome. So keep this in mind for your games. This might mean that you include instructions for a “light” version for the first game to help players acclimate, or you might simplify the entire game and leave complexity for expansions. Regardless of how you approach it, I’d highly recommend keeping it in mind throughout the game design process.

8. The value of short-term goals. The first time I played Lords of Waterdeep, I thought it was one of the most boring games I’ve ever played. Place a worker, acquire some cubes, then eventually pay those cubes to get points. Bo-ring. But then I got it on my iPad, and I’ve come to realize that it’s a great game, and those core mechanics are exactly why the game works. From turn one, you have something specific to do (the quests) and an attainable way to do them. You don’t have to set up some complex machine to make them possible. They’re right within your reach. This is SO important. Giving players short-term goals to focus on while they develop their strategy is good for getting new gamers into a game and for giving experienced gamers concrete tasks to complete while the other half of their brains are working on their master plans.

Not balanced.
Not balanced.

7. Balance your cards. Cards are a great way to create controlled variability in a game. However, if some are simply better than others or are useless at different times in the games, players will feel unlucky the majority of the time when they draw cards. The key is to always make a player feel lucky when they draw a card.

6. Create a connection between mechanics and theme. You can go on BGG to read extensive debates and long forums on this topic for pretty much every game. Here’s the point I want to make: If the theme matches the mechanics, the game will be easier to learn and easier to remember. Thus the more you can connect the mechanics to the theme, the better.

5. Blind playtesting is king. Blind playtesting is when strangers learn a game from written rules and play it in the absence of the designer. DO IT. You will learn so much from people who don’t care about your feelings (strangers) and don’t have you there to explain the game–this is really the only way to find holes in your rules. If you struggle to find blind playtesters, look on boardgamegeek.com, bgdf.com, and meetup.org for playtest groups, and volunteer to playtest games for other people more than you ask other people to playtest for you.

4. Writing rules is an art form. A few points here: First, pay attention to rules that are difficult to explain, and then change the mechanics so they’re easier to explain. If it’s hard for you (the designer) to explain a rule to someone in person, imagine how hard it’s going to be for 1,000 customers to explain that rule to their friends on game night. Second, get rid of all exceptions. Exceptions to rules–no matter how thematic they are–will overwhelm players and often be overlooked or forgotten. Third, the key to an effective rulebook is not just to be able to explain the game, but also to help players reference specific rules while they’re playing the game. Keep both of those in mind when writing the rules and consider including a one-page quick guide for reference. Fourth, examples and illustrations go a long way, even in the earliest stages of the rules.

3. Downtime is a killer, and the solution is engagement when it’s not your turn. Obviously downtime is bad for games. I’ve known this for a while, and I’ve counteracted it by breaking down turns in my games to micro-decisions. That’s a good start. The problem is that if a player doesn’t think about their micro-turn in advance, it makes the game feel like it’s dragging on for every other player at the table. You can’t prevent it, but there is a way around it: Make sure players are engaged even when it’s not their turn. Give them a reason to pay attention on every turn and they’ll never feel like it’s not their turn. A great example is the gateway game Setters of Catan. No matter whose turn it is, you pay attention to that die roll and maybe are engaged in trading. It works.

final 32. Forward momentum from the first turn is key. Terra Mystica is the king of forward momentum and positive feedback. You always feel like you’re building towards something, always advancing, even from your first turn. Contrast that with Viticulture. You’re always building towards something, but it’s not uncommon to look at a Viticulture scoring track 4 turns into the game and see no player with more than 2 victory points. That can be discouraging. It simply takes a while for players to accumulate points. The game still works, but you want players to feel good about what they’re doing, even early in the game. Give them outlets for points and forward momentum from the first turn.

black and white1. Everything must be FUN. I don’t mean this in the generic sense. This isn’t a cliche. This is the number one most important thing about game design: every aspect of the game should maximize fun. “Is this fun?” Ask yourself that for every decision you make about the game. Every mechanic, every card, every roll of the die should make the game more fun. This is something I really learned during the design for Euphoria. At one point the game evolved to the point that rolling dice became a nonchalant gesture that no one paid attention to. They might as well not have been dice. I realized: “Wait a minute. Dice rolling should be fun. How is this not fun? How can it be more fun?” That’s when I came up with the idea of rolling doubles leading to double turns. Sure, it meant I had to find ways to mitigate the luck factor involved, but right away the idea clicked. The act of rolling dice was exciting and fun–not just for the player rolling, but other players paid attention as well. I’ll continue to ask myself the fun question for future games, and I hope you do too. That’s why we play games, right?

What have you learned about game design by playing and/or designing games this year?

42 Comments on “The Top 10 Things I Learned About Game Design in 2013

    1. John–I would agree with you on #7 if the cards affect everyone. With Viticulture, you’re drawing cards that only benefit you, so if one is too strong or completely useless, it just doesn’t work.

      Well said about #11. You can’t make a game that appeals to everyone, and if you try, you’ll end up appealing to no one.

  1. Great observations and advice as always, Jamey. Having just completed the first draft of the rules for a game I am currently developing, #4 is particularly timely and spot on.

    I’ll quibble a little with #7 (or maybe just the way you have phrased it). Some cards are intended to be “unlucky”; hazards, too big a boss at the wrong time, etc.As long as the card is balanced, fair, fits, and fun (doesn’t get in the way of your #1), A card that is troubling can be good for the game and the playing experience as long as it is not insurmountable or devastating. The positive feedback is in overcoming or escaping the obstacle. Usually the other players get some enjoyment out of your drawing a card like that anyway and there are more of them than there are of you, so it is a net positive.

    I’ll also add a #11 that I am in the process of learning. Or is it #10b? (BTW: Nice way to sneak in 11 points on a 10 point list).
    11. Know your gamers. As a writer must know her/his readers, a game designer must know her/his gamers. The trick is to provide an experience they may reasonably expect without being predictable and game play (mechanics and rules) that they can reasonably learn/absorb/follow without being mundane or torturous. Your game must be interesting and fun to them, your target group, not just to you. It is possible to be just a little too clever, too eccentric, too niche, too broad, too etc. IMHO

    Thanks for the list. I think I need to post it on my wall until it all sinks in.

    1. I think John is right on here with 11 – knowing your audience, and I’d extend it to writing a set of design goals that come from an understanding of the games likely target audiences and the theme and mechanics you are trying to mesh into a satisfying game for those audiences. I think that is so key. So many design decisions can be made easier when you have that design framework. So many times i see game design bloggers extolling the ‘simplicity’ paradigm and I generally agree with it but simplicity / elegance in design should also be relative to your design goals and audience desires. The Arkham / Eldritch horror example elsewhere here is a great example of this done right, it still feels like a epic world scale game rich with detail and theme but its mechanics have been smoothed significantly.

      Things I’ve detailed in design goals are;

      1 Short description of game / player objectives
      2 Audiences
      3 Theme
      4 Mechanics (including whats new and interesting not just recombined)
      5 interactions between 2 and 3 to achieve thematic logic
      6 player numbers
      7 total game time
      8 approx player actions per game / time unit / turn / round
      9 key engagement factors
      10 types and numbers of components
      11 setup time

      Once you have design goals sorted out I’d also do some market research to see where your game fits in the broader product space of similar games to ensure you have enough differentiation, You may need to tune some design goals based on that too.

      I’d also add another reality check ‘thing’ to your list – consider components; types of pieces / cards, their number, size, art required etc. They can have a dramatic impact on your games viability to produce. You managed to pack in an inordinate amount of pieces into Euphoria via kickstarter which was well supported by your viticulture success, this blog and your other promotional efforts, but I assume its less likely for a publisher to go with a new designers game with such high production costs.

      1. Two more design goal:

        Narrative arc – this joins the dots between the games short term goals & objectives ie your ‘forward momentum’ and victory goals.

        Strategic pathways – how many pathways to victory are there and how do you ensure player interaction between those on different pathways?

      2. Kim–It sounds like you listen to the Ludology podcast too! Those are great ideas to keep in mind. Setup time…that’s definitely something to keep in mind.

        1. I do when I can Jamey – its good value. But i think i did most of this before I found that. Its the control freak project manager in me wrestling with the creator in me ;)

  2. Great summary! Points 7 and 3 have been something I’ve struggled with and tried to think of creative ways to implement. I feel like the games I enjoy the most are those that I must stay focused through the entirety of the game. It also becomes a little diffusing when other players are distracted or multitasking while playing a game, so I can appreciate this even more on a personal level. About point 7, I feel like I’ve designed games with cards that were so balanced that it didn’t even matter what card was drawn. In this way, it almost felt like a resource token or some other counter or unit that never changes and became sort of boring. Any advice on how to keep the deck balanced yet still add variety to the deck? Thanks Jamey!

    1. John: That’s a good question about balancing cards, particularly cards that give you a wide variety of abilities and bonuses. One small thing that can help is to have a metric for the cards to use as a guide. Otherwise, I would suggest starting out with every card idea you can think of and then playtest the hell out of them. Over time they’ll become more and more balanced.

      1. Sounds like #7 is a bit of stickler. Other John made a good point. There’s a difference between games where cards act as mainly a randomness generator and when they need to function as part of a more complex economy (cards must always be balanced in deckbuilders for example). I’ve been struggling with this a bit lately and I’ve come around to thinking that all cards should have roughly equal utility. Settlers of Catan is a nice big example of an economy game getting things right. Most of the development deck are knights and you can always use a knight, but the more rare cards are even juicier. You’re not disappointed when you get a knight, but you’re elated when you get a better card. Munchkin’s a game with a huge amount of unbalance and power swing, but all cards have a good amount of utility. You might not be able to use them but you can sell them or trade them to someone who could. Obviously cards shouldn’t be over or underpowered and fit on some sort of power scale. Perhaps the key is allowing enough differentiation to allow your players to feel lucky some of the time ;)

        1. kotzuryang: I would agree for the most part. I think that when you have an economy-type deck, the key is that you always feel lucky when you draw a card. You should always feel like you got something special. That something special might come at a cost–costs are a great way to balance cards.

  3. I would add in one that I read from Jervis Johnson (of all designers…), coming through the realm of writing fiction: “murder your darlings”. That is, pare and whittle down. Create a small, elegant set of rules rather than a large, cumbersome set. And find out how a game plays without that rule you’re so attached to. (I will admit, though, sometimes a specific rule is the point – Euphoria’s knowledge roll sort of defines it in its genre) … and I’ve heard it best stated as “everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

    I can actually point to a great example of this: compare Eldritch Horror with Arkham Horror. Sure, nothing can really come close to AH for its pervasiveness of theme, but mechanics-wise, it’s clunky, with a lot of things the players have to remember, for no overall good reason. Each procedure is complex (just adding monsters to the board can be cumbersome!). Eldritch Horror, by contrast, removes some of the details and makes a cleaner game. Monsters don’t move – that’s one less thing to worry about. Skills are set at values, rather than having sliding scales. You have two actions when it’s your time to go, no more, no less, and nothing really impedes movement either (so you don’t have to remember “oh, I stop here and fight now”). In the encounters phase, you choose a card from the decks you have access to, and you follow its instructions.

    Not to say Eldritch Horror is a light game – it’s not; it’s the successor to Arkham Horror, it’s by FFG, it’s in the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s trying to be a storytelling game … none of those lead to light. But it removed a lot of what may otherwise seem to be “key” to the Arkham Horror experience, and came up with a game that’s almost as thematic, but a lot shorter, easier, and more fun to play.

    EH also appears to have hit on all of your points in the list, but the key thing to me comparing the experience of both games is that EH is simpler, because they removed. Now, they also did something I rather liked and would love to see more of in other games: they have a “rulebook” and “reference book”. It’s a little like Magic: the Gathering’s split, as well. The rulebook is for learning the game, and the basic procedures. “How do I get from here to there?” should be a paragraph, not a chapter. In the Reference Guide, or complete rules, or tournament rules, or whatever you call it, in there you can put how all these rules interact. (M:tG has /thousands/ of pages in the complete guide, for instance)

    … I wrote such a long post about removing and eliminating. Ah well.

    1. Mike: That’s a fantastic comment about simplification and quick guides. Some of the simplest games provide amazing game experiences because there aren’t a ton of rules to get in the way of players doing what their instincts tell them to do. I’ve learned to watch players during playtesting to see what is intuitive to them and to follow their lead for certain mechanisms.

    2. Nothing wrong with detail when its needed Mike. All good points I think.

      Anyone got any other examples of the intro rulebook / simple guide vs reference book / full rules split you mentioned? specially for big card games?

        1. Cool – i think Settlers did too, and perhaps some Queen games if i recall correctly. I’m sure there could be a whole thread on rules structure (plenty in BGG). But I think some kind of overview / quickplay guide is usually welcomed by players despite the fact it probably increases the total number of words that need reading.

  4. Numbers 9, 8, 4, and 2 resonate the most with me. My biggest challenge, especially when playing with non-gamers, is that first read of the rules (along with the first game). The Euphoria rules were a major improvement to the Viticulture rules. It’s understandable that you can’t always explain everything in the rules without eluding to something that comes a page or two later, but minimizing that is very helpful. One of the best examples of first-game playthrough instructions I’ve seen is the ‘Professor Easy’ rulebook that came with Starship Catan.

    If I were to suggest an addition to the list, it would be to pay special attention to 2 player mechanics. As a gamer who rarely, if ever, has more than 1 opponent, it’s vital that the 2 player game isn’t too unengaging. Again, Euphoria did a good job of this. Maybe the market isn’t there for it, but I’d love to see a Stonemaier game that is 2 player only. Twilight Struggle is defintely one of my favorite games of all time.

    1. Nathan: I like the idea of a “Professor Easy” rulebook. And that’s an interesting point about 2-player mechanics and games. I’ll think about it. :)

    2. Ditto on the 2-player version, Nathan. It is rare that I’ll buy a game that doesn’t work well for 2 players. I assume there are others out there like me, so I plan to make every game that I design at least fun (though, not necessarily optimal) for 2 players.

  5. “Exceptions to rules–no matter how thematic they are–will overwhelm players and often be overlooked or forgotten.”

    I think that you can make an exception to that rule about no exceptions to the rules :-) If you can cards with text on them, then the cards can have exceptions to the rules without much risk of the player forgetting the exceptions because they’re right there on the cards they’re playing.

    Many of the visitor cards in Viticulture can be seen as exception cards.

    1. Morten–That’s a good point. Individual cards are a great place to create exceptions to rules. It’s moreso the exceptions within the rules that can be difficult for players to grasp and remember.

  6. Great list! I’m working on a blog post about one method of achieving (or trying to achieve) balance in cards (such as the Recruits in Euphoria for example). When I’m done it’ll be posted here: http://sedjtroll.blogspot.com – hopefully it’ll help aspiring designers in some way.

    Small correction, Board Game Deisigners Forum is at bgdf.com, not bgdf.org! Thanks for the mention :)

  7. Great Blog Jamey.

    As mentioned, the simplification of the interacting mechanics within a game impacts many aspects of the design and play experience. I’ve learned that the discovery of that simplification and the distilling of variants to game play takes a lot of time and effort… and willing playtesters.

    Also, I’ve learned to keep reminding myself of something others have said before… “Make something,… release it”…. “Nothing goes to press perfect”… “it’s so liberating”.

    Although, I have found it quite challenging to ignore the contradictory advice of “Make the best game you can make.”

    Daniel Solis said in reply “Not so contradictory when you accept that the best game you can make will not be perfect. :)”

    Cheers in the New Year….

    1. Tom–Thanks for your comment. I agree that it sometimes takes a while to “discover” the simplest way to do something. You really have to pay attention during those playtests to see what people intuitively want to do and what gets in the way of them doing it.

      I think I agree with Daniel here. I think it’s very, very difficult to make a perfect game. Euphoria will always have some recruits that are better or worse than others. I don’t think it’s possible to perfectly balance 40+ cards. I think the best you can do is test, test, test, test, and deliver the best game possible to backers/customers.

  8. Great post! I absolutely agree with everything on your list, and it is nice to be reminded. Number 7 on balance was particularly troublesome in my Last Starfleet design. I ended up using checks and pivot tables to balance all my card decks in Excel. Lots of mind numbing number crunching but I saw an immediate leveling in game time and difficulty. A few prototypes were too hard or too short in duration, but it was true of all the play tests of that prototype. So throttling up or down the card content effected the entire next prototype.

    1. Thanks Sam! I agree that #7 is really, really tough, especially since–as you say–changing the cards (or changing anything in the game) then changes all of the other card values.

  9. I’m in the process of designing 3 different games and what has worked best for me so far is to start with the mechanics- figure out what kind of interplay dynamic is interesting and fun, then build around that. Only after that should one consider an appropriate theme for further inspiration. The theme can actually restrict one’s creativity during the initial genesis of a game design.

  10. Thanks for posting this. There’s some really great points, especially the blind playtesting and the interaction between turns. I don’t have data to back me up, but in my opinion that’s the reason Catan is able to draw in so many non-gamers.
    I’ve recently started designing a game, and I definitely want to incorporate these elements. Thanks again!

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