Has it really been over 4 years?
I showed my first design in late 2016 to some gamers in Florida… and man that feels like forever ago…
A big shoutout to the Board Game Design Lab community on Facebook for starting this conversation. Some of these items come from that conversation, while others are from my own experience.
Back everything up somewhere safe.
Google Drive, Dropbox, or other cloud storage solutions all work, as does keeping a USB stick of your designs. The last thing you want is to lose a brilliant idea because of a technical glitch.
Paper notebooks? Take a digital photo of each page. Nothing fancy. Be sure to organize these photos in some way – say one folder per notebook.
Writing rules is tricky, but very important.
Unguided playtesting tests the rules, and that’s what everyone else will learn the game from. Do an exchange with another designer – you read their rules, they read yours, or participate in any of the rules exchanges that happen across the internet.
The first few versions can be hand-drawn or have very simple graphics.
Tons will change across the first few versions, so there’s no need to assemble a lot of graphics / art. Be more concerned about making a game that plays like a game instead of making it look like a game.
Take notes while playtesting.
There’s lots of ways to do this, but what matters is that you have a record of what worked, what didn’t work, etc. Write down the problems and suggestions playtesters make, but don’t feel obligated to take all of their advice. A playtest can be a firehose of ideas and suggestions. By writing them all down (as best as you can, of course), you can refer back to them later.
Also: who playtested your game? Write their name down to give them credit in the rulebook once it’s ready to be printed / published.
Take notes while designing.
At some point, you’re going to change something, and at some later point in time, you’re going to want to remember why you changed it. Was it because of someone’s feedback, to fix a balancing issue, to try and reduce the component count, or something else?
Find your game’s hook ASAP.
What makes this game different / interesting / unique / awesome? This can come from the theme, the mechanics, or a bunch of other things, but it’s going to be one of the first things mentioned about the game as you playtest it or pitch it.
You won’t necessarily know this during the first few versions of the game, but this is one thing to be listening for from playtesters. Whatever distinctive thing they’re enjoying is probably something to continue developing.
Let your design go where it wants.
The game might not fit in the box (literally or figuratively) you want to put it in. You’ll have to decide which is more important: letting the design be what it wants to be vs. forcing it into some specific (or arbitrary) size / component limitation. The best version of the game might have 108 cards instead of 70 cards, for example.
Kill your darlings.
Stephen King got it right – there can come a time when something needs cutting, even if it’s an element of your game you really love. It needs to be what’s best for your game, for your players, or for manufacturing costs. Keep notes on the elements cut – you never know when they’ll find their way into another game.
Ask yourself how to make something simpler.
It’s almost always easier to add complexity, but most games don’t need more complexity.
Remember your game is never as simple as you think it is.
Your built-in assumptions and concepts will of course seem simple to you.
After you’re done, don’t clean up too fast.
In order to show off an idea during feedback, or to make something clear, I’m going to need the cards, the dice, the boards, etc. Let the game sit as it ended for a little while to let people make their points. When most of the feedback is wrapped up and you’re asking for final thoughts, that’s the right time to being packing up.
Work on a few different projects at the same time.
You never know how working on one will inspire you on another. It doesn’t literally need to be three, of course – just having some different irons in the fire can keep things moving. It’s also not a contest – just because someone else can juggle five games at once doesn’t mean you have to.
Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Being great at graphic design means your games will look great. Knowing you’re weaker at, say, creating interesting player interaction, means this becomes a question you make a point to ask about during feedback.
Criticism of your game ≠ criticism of you personally.
Hopefully the person giving you feedback is making this clear, but the focus is (or should) always on the game. Bring the focus back to the game if it wanders.
Not everyone’s great at giving feedback.
I’m far from the first to stumble over my words while trying to form a coherent sentence. Be patient with people. Offer up your e-mail address to people better at typing than speaking.
Focus on what’s said rather than how it’s said.
It’s very easy to dismiss someone’s opinion just because it’s not said in a manner you don’t like. It’s also very easy to miss the one suggestion that’ll dramatically change your game for the better because you didn’t like the way they said something.
During feedback, specifically ask the quieter people by name for their thoughts.
It’s too easy to forget the quieter players that are less comfortable speaking over or interrupting people.
Designing the game is just the tip of the iceberg.
There’s so much more to the story – pitching, developing, working with the publisher, helping with marketing or appearing at events, designing expansions… Yes, it’s an important step, but it’s far from the final one.
Pitching to a publisher or self-publishing / crowd-funding are both options, and there are pros and cons to each.
I’m not going to go into all of them, but pitching to a publisher means you give up some control and potential for profit in exchange for someone handling a lot more of the legwork to get it printed. Self-publishing / crowd-funding means you’re in control and have a greater potential for profit, but have to put up your own time / energy / money to see it through. You also end up wearing a lot more hats as you go – designing the game is just one part of getting it to a printed game on someone’s shelf.
Know when to outsource work and when to do it yourself.
The more important it is to get it done right, and the further it is from your strengths, the more important it is to outsource well.
Playtesting helps to reveal flaws – could be fundamental, game-breaking issues, could be rules-based, could be flow-based. Games can fall flat for any number of reasons, and it happens to the best of us.
Sometimes the best thing to do with a game is shelve it and work on something else for awhile.
Feel empowered to step back, unplug, and recharge whichever of your proverbial batteries are draining because of game design. Reconnect with your family, friends, and other loved ones, or your other hobbies. It’s way too easy to spend almost every available hour on something, and very easy to burn out along the way.
However you do it, keep creating.
Maybe you discover a passion for the business side of game design, or the artistic side. Plenty of niches to be found in the industry, and plenty of those niches can turn into paid gigs or even careers doing something you love.