A Beginner’s Guide to designing a game

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So you’ve come up with the next big thing? Great, I want to hear all about it! Pretty much every gamer will have dabbled with the idea of making a game: from adding houserules to a published title, homebrewing scenarios or alternate rules, right through to creating their own world – their IP(intellectual property), and creating a game to fit within it, but a lot of these ideas never see the light of day. You could argue that with crowdfunding platforms such as kickstarter it has never been more attainable yet still many don’t take the plunge. This blog is not about running a kickstarter for the first time, that will come later – this is about the creative process and how to tackle it. I’m here to tell you it’s not as scary as you’d think so let’s dive right in, and let me tell you – the water is nice and warm. Welcome to the beginner’s guide to designing a game.

An idea is worthless

In the most general sense this is very true – an idea in your head will never be anything more until you make it so. My ideas always start with a theme: a setting, a world that the game is set in, a story that I want to see played out. Some people start with a mechanic idea and hey there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not me though. Whatever end you start with, the first step is always the same:

Step 1: write it down!

The only way you’ll ever finish anything is to start it. I start with a very broad overview to begin with – the story, the aim, perhaps some of the actions can do in their turn: this can always change as you go on but this is a good reference that you can go back to and check on your progress. I like writing fluff too so I would maybe write a story or 2 set in the game world to paint a picture of what I want to achieve, this may not be relevant to you though so only do this if you want – don’t stare at a blank page trying to create something for the sake of it. This overview should flow from you pretty easily once you start and serves a second important part of the process: you’ll get excited about what you’re doing! Games are passion projects, so never lose that passion.

Step 2: write your rules

Every game needs rules to govern what players can and can’t do. Your rules will change as your game evolves but it’s important to create a first draft so that the game can be playtested, an important part that will be covered later. Your rules should cover how to set up the game, what players do in their turn, how to score, and how to win. I would suggest writing a full end-to-end process, then later on you can break the game down into different phases to hone each. Lay it out in steps so they can be easily changed or extras added in at later points. These should still be pretty basic ie draw cards up to hand limit: you can make them fancy once they’re solid.

Step 3: make a prototype

DO NOT SPEND MONEY AT THIS STAGE! The aim at this stage is not to have it looking pretty, it’s to check funtionality so don’t be commissioning art or running to a local printer just yet – this is literally cutting up pieces of paper to use as your board, tokens and cards. By all means use any spare parts you have lying about from other games or buy in packs of resources – I like to keep a pile of coins and blank cubes ‘just in case’. You can pick up packs of blank cards from the likes of ebay and Amazon for around £10-£15 for 1000. Whether you write on these blank cards or want to print some yourself I would always recommend sleeving them so you can change the front without changing the back if you decide to print a design for the backs – I printed a few iterations of my cards double-sided before I cottoned on to this so save yourself the time and ink. There is plenty of free software available to make cards if you want, such as gimp – I haven’t used it but you can check it out here.

Step 4: the first playthrough

Your game won’t be perfect the first time you play it no matter how much you think you’ve nailed it. Play it at its lowest player count with someone you know – a friend, or family. Explain the rules and have a notepad handy for any questions you are asked or any points the rules don’t cover. If anything that comes up as you’re playing and you haven’t made a rule for it, make one up on the spot so you can continue playing – this can always be changed later so just take advantage of the time you have. For the first game always try to play it properly – this may sound silly but everyone’s automatic response is to try to break it: save this for the second game. You may not need to finish a full game before you decide to stop, but when you do finish be sure to talk about what worked and what didn’t, and amend your rules accordingly.

Step 5: test number 2

Ideally if you can play again straight after the first game with the same player(s) you can see the direct impact of those changes. People ARE GOING TO TRY AND BREAK YOUR GAME, so I always try and break it myself first: game 2 is a good time to try ‘well what if I did this’ or ‘what if this happened’. Continue taking your notes and making changes as you go to fill in any holes.

You’ll want to make the rules as tight as possible before the next step so play as much as you can with your close group, trying different player counts, strategies, even giving them a specific focus ie ‘you’re not trying to win, just try and stop everyone else‘ before moving onto the next step.

Step 6: playtesting

This is without doubt the most important stage of the process – playing with people you may not know. Playing with family is fine, but you may not always get honest feedback from them as they may not want to hurt your feelings: people who do not know you will be brutally honest as they are not invested in you, or your game, in the same way. You’re going to need to be able to accept criticism, so this step will be the hardest first time round.

If you haven’t already done so make sure to get involved with the community as much as possible – I joined local clubs and regularly attended to play games long before I mentioned I was making a game or asked anyone to look at it. Some people are happy to play a prototype whereas others won’t waste their time as there can be the misconception that the game will be broke/unbalanced/not finished, and to be honest it can be any/all of these. Plus they maybe don’t get much time to play games so want to play something already fully formed. Respect the club, and ask if they mind first.

Also check to see if there is a local playtest group in your area, being able to bounce off other designers is invaluable. Don’t take advantage of this resource though, if done well there should be some kind of rota in place so that everyone’s design gets played – you should be playing other games more than your own.

You can play your entire game each time, or you can concentrate on a specific section – sometimes this is all you need, especially if you’ve been making changes to a certain element. Just remember that one seemingly tiny difference can affect other parts of your game too – you can never playtest too much. It’s good to have a feedback form for testers to fill out to back up your notes as there’s bound to be parts you’ll miss/forget. Also watch people’s reactions whilst playing – I’ve changed a design because another player, not even the one taking their turn, pulled a face because the result didn’t make sense even though the player themself just accepted it as the rules.

This stage will repeat over and over, making changes as necessary until the changes you need to make, if any, are minimal. Don’t be afraid if the game changes from the original vision, sometimes cool ideas just don’t work out. Don’t be too precious with the design, let it go where it needs to go – you’ll make a better game this way. If your feedback starts coming down to personal preferences at this stage and there are no common issues coming up then you might just be ready for the next stage.

A quick note on feedback

Your game is your baby, I get that – you’ve spent countless hours working on it, so when someone criticizes it your gut reaction is to go on the defensive – try not to do this: these people are taking their time to try and help YOU make the best version of your game. There’s nothing wrong with asking further questions but you shouldn’t be justifying your choices. You don’t have to act on what they say, but you do have to listen to it – think about why they said it and under what situation before discounting any suggestions. Always remember to thank them for their time and their input even if you don’t use it.

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Step 7: blind playtesting

Up to this point you’ve ran every game yourself, explaining the rules as the game goes on and correcting anyone getting it wrong. You’ve listened to their feedback and amended the game til it practically runs itself, but what happens when you’re not there? You can update FAQs, run erratas, but you can’t be in every box – blind playtesting is checking the rules can be played as intended without your input. This can be done in a number of ways – some designers will hand over the game and watch what happens, taking notes as they go. Some leave it with someone else and record the play session. There are even people who offer their services to run this for you – at a cost of course. If you’ve done your playtesting correctly anything picked up at this point should hopefully just be better wording of the rules as opposed to changing them – any rules changes should be run through playtesting again though to make sure everything still works together. If the game can be played without a hitch – this does not mean players don’t have to refer back to the rulebook – then your job is done! Now all you have to do is sort the look of it now…

Easy, right?

It can be a long and frustrating process, but as long as you keep your passion, listen to the feedback and make the changes then you’ll get there. I had no design experience of any kind, and if I can do it then I’m sure you can too! Let’s see what you can come up with!

What are your design experiences? What ideas do you have?

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