Design Tip: Constraints are Good

About 3 years ago I mentioned to Sen that I thought it would be a cool idea if we came up with a super small game that we could include in a letter to publishers as a ‘free’ gift when submitting other games.  For some reason I thought this would be really neat and make us stand out.  I set to work on a tile placement game about trying to have more of your houses in a neighbourhood than your opponent.  I managed to get the game down to 25 tiles.  I made a small little matchbox-like package for it and viola – we had a really cool pocket game! (I’m glossing over the fact that it took more than a few stabs at the game until we got it to its final state).

Hot Property Game Design

Hot Property: our first game using our self-imposed 25 tile limit

Once that was done, I was feeling pretty motivated about how we got a Euro-style game to fit within 25 tiles.  It got me thinking and I remember for one 5 hour flight from Toronto to Vancouver, I brainstormed all the different genres of games and then tried to see if I could come up with a way to make it using only 25 tiles.  At the end of that flight I had ideas for 11 games!

The benefit of reducing an entire game into 25 tiles, is that you’re forced to eliminate anything extraneous which ensures the cleanest and simplest of rules. Some of these games that we made were pretty minor and didn’t have much fun to them, but others had a gem of an idea in it that were not only fun but enabled us to turn them into bigger full-fledged games.

Belfort, our game that is coming out early next year, started as a game that had only 25 tiles.  Hard to believe when you see the final game that it started out as only 25 tiles! Some tiles were used to track how many resources each player had (by rotating the tile so that a specific number was facing up), and the other tiles were buildings that players could build.  The first time I played it with Sen, I was excited to show him how we were able to get a resource management game to fit within 25 tiles!

As soon as Sen finished playing it he said that he really liked it, but that it begged to be a bigger game!  We spent the rest of the weekend turning it into the first prototype of the game that was to eventually be known as Belfort (it was called Castletown back then!).

Other smaller, 25-tile games we have made that we eventually turned into larger games have been Akrotiri – a pick up and deliver game, and Lost for Words – a word search/creation game.  Both of these games are almost ready to be shown to publishers right now.  There’s even a couple more games (EIEIO – a quick reflex party game and This Town Aint Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us – and area majority game) that we’re thinking of converting to bigger games as well.

This was just our way of motivating our creativity, but you could use other constraints as well.  Try making a game using only dice and face cards from a deck of cards; or a game using only a checkerboard and 10 custom cards; or a game using coloured cubes and a piece of paper…you get the idea.  Try to make the most basic game using only a couple basic items and you might find yourself with either some new ideas or a really interesting concept for a bigger game.

-Jay Cormier

I am, by nature, an extremely divergent thinker. This is really just a polite term for “tangential”, or, as my wife would say, “focus-challenged”. Personally, I prefer “free-thinker”. I’m the kind of guy who has what could be only be termed as “chronic creative diarrhea”, constantly coming up with idea after idea after idea. I spend a lot of time coming up with all the cool things that could possibly work together in the game, invariably ending up with a mashed-up monstrosity, and then I have to spend even MORE time cleaning up the mess I’ve made of what had started out as an interesting game.

Enter self-imposed constraints. By placing limits on ourselves, Jay and I can steer clear of thematic traps more easily (i.e. adding something for the sake of making the game fit a specific theme better), minimize cost of fabrication, and reduce the time from it takes to get a game from a “brain fart” to the prototype stage.

This last point is the most important to me, as I am admittedly the kind of designer who would spend eternity tweaking things in my mind before ever committing anything to a physical format if you let me. But by saying “Hey! We’ve reached the 25 cards limit – time to print and cut!”, we can get to the most crucial part of the game design process faster playtesting. While I am good at recognizing strengths and flaws in game systems in my head, I can’t account for everything once the number of variables gets unwieldy and I can’t account for how different personalities will interact with the game. The physical components themselves can also change how a game is played. And to realize that, the game has to be made a reality.

These small games are simple by nature so they the rules are quick to teach and easy to pick up. The set up time is minimal and the games themselves take only minutes to play at the most, so many rounds of play can be racked up in a short timespan. Thus, we can accumulate valuable data on actual playtesting by other playtesters. Jay and I are then in a better position to analyze the game as opposed to doing all of the guess work in our heads. This allows us to prioritize which ideas need to be expanded up immediately, which worked but can sit and wait, and which are never to be heard of again (except, for some reason, on this blog…).

Of course, this design ethic doesn’t work for every game and not every game we make starts off this way. Some games aren’t going to fit within 25 cards straight from conception. “Train of Thought” and “But Wait, There’s More”, both word-based party games, were designed without the 25-card limitation because, really, how fun would a word game be with only 25 different words available to use?

We’re currently designing a trick-taking game called “Lions Share”. We’ve limited ourselves to 55/110 or 60/120 cards in this case. Those limits are actual real-world constraints we’re using to ensure that publishers will look at the game without production reservations. The maximum number of cards that can be made on a single sheet of stock of standard dimensions is 55 by Imperial measurements or 60 by the Metric system. Going over those limits will actually affect the bottom line for the publishers, so having 60 cards in a game can be more appealing to many of them than needing 68 cards, even if the 68-card version is a better game. Using non-standard card sizes is costly as well as a custom die needs to be created. So, whenever possible, stick to 55 or 60 cards in a deck (or multiples thereof).

We’re also trying to solely use cards for “Lions Share”. This constraint was put on in response to the fact that a lot of publishers are requesting card games. As a game design team that is not looking to self-publish, we’ve got to cater to more than just the game players – we need to ensure that the publishers like what they see from a fiscal standpoint as well as the gameplay. So we want to design games that they want to publish. The cheaper a game is to produce, the more likely a publisher is to take a good long look at it.
If, for some reason, we desperately need chits or dice or some other component it’s not a deal breaker as these are self-imposed limits. But we’d like to try to remain true to our limitations as we see a need for a game of this variety in our portfolio.

Working with these constraints for some time now has shown me that there is still complexity in simplicity. Simple games are much more elegant than the bloated systems we sometimes see in some overblown games on the market. The old adage is true, sometimes – less can be more.

It’s an odd fact to try to wrap your mind around but constraints can actually be liberating. Whether it’s trying to keep a theme intact or trying to only use a specific type or number of components, limits allow you to declutter your mind and work only within a space that you’ve defined, free from having to think about anything outside your scope. It seems counter-intuitive to think that limiting creativity is a good thing, but I challenge you to give it a try. Limits can actually force you to be more creative in order to solve problems in very different ways. Having no constraints on your design process can leave you in a position of analysis paralysis where everything seems possible but you are unable to take the game from concept to a playable format. So, if you choose to place constraints upon your game design process, the world may no longer be your oyster. But I’ll bet that you find you come up with some real pearls.

-Sen-Foong Lim

Step 13: To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish

We’re 12 steps into this and we now should be ready to get a game published.  We should have a game that has been playtested and tweaked dozens of times.  We should be happy with where we’re at with the game and have played it a few times in a row without anyone wanting any changes in the game.

Now comes the big question: should we self-publish or submit it to a game publisher?  There are four differences between them:

Creative Control

Creative Control Board Game DesignWith Self-Publishing you have full creative control. If you want something changed, then you can get it changed depending on how much money and time you’re willing to invest.

If a Publisher is making your game then they have full creative control.  If they like your game about camping, but think it would be better if it was about camels caravanning in the desert then you’ll have to change it (this is a true story of what happened with Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert – a great game btw!).

$$$

If you Self-Publish, be prepared to invest a lot of your own money.  Depending on how big of a print run you want to do will be a factor in how much you will need (anywhere from $5000-$50,000).  If you want to do a super small print run then you have to be prepared to either make a lot less per game or even lose money per game – as was the case in the first print run of Trivial Pursuit.  This strategy has paid off for the makers of Trivial Pursuit of course – and for others as well (Alan Moon’s Spiel de Jahres winner, Elfenland had an initial print run of about 100!) – but you just have to be prepared for that kind of cost!  If you can afford a bigger print run then a big benefit you get is ALL the profits!  Of course you might want to use a distributor who will eat into those profits, but you still get all those profits.

If a Publisher is making your game then you need to invest none of your money (except all the money you’ve spent on tools, resources, entry fees for competitions, travelling to conventions, pizza for your playtesters etc…).  They take all the risk, and as you can imagine – they take most of the profits.  As a designer you are left with anywhere from 1%-10% of Distributor Cost (Publisher sells the game to a Distributor, Distributor sells to a Retailer, Retailer sells to a customer).

An example:  If a game is sold in retail for about $40, then the retailer might have bought it from the distributor for about $20.  The Distributor might have bought it from the publisher for $10.  A designer might get 5% of this – or $0.50 for each game sold.  As you can see, it’s hard to get rich as a board game designer.  Hopefully we’re making games because we love making games though!

Expertise

Expertise Board Game DesignA Publisher is going to have contacts and relationships within the industry for artists and production.  If you decided to self-publish then you’d need to find an artist and figure out where to get it made.  This expertise can be invaluable.  For us, we lucked out with Tasty Minstrel Games as they have hired two of the best artists in the board game community with Josh Cappel and Gavan Brown.  Not only that but they have learned a lot in their short history about production companies and have formed a relationship with Panda – the best place to get a game made.  Finally they have a tight relationship with PSI – the Distributors.  Not only are our games going to be distributed by PSI, but they have already played our game, Train of Thought and mentioned that they think it would be a good game to get into Barnes and Noble.  We wouldn’t have been able to get a contact like that if we Self-Published.

Time

Time Board Game DesignIf you Self-Publish you have an advantage of spending as much time as you can to get your game to market as soon as possible.  The downside is that takes a lot of your time.  A heck of a lot.  I was talking to the designers of Redneck Life and they mentioned that by Self-Publishing they now spend up to 80% of their time marketing their game instead of spending time on designing other board games.  So if that’s something that interests you, then go for it!

The challenge with a Publisher making your game is that they take forever.  From the moment they say they’re interested to it hitting the store shelves will be at least two years.  The game has to go through their development team, where they playtest it even more and make tweaks (hopefully with the designer!).  Then they hire an artist, and send it to China (probably) to get produced.  They get it shipped back to America and get it to the distributors. Then they do the marketing, which includes going to conventions, ads and in store promos.  That’s a lot of time.

So taking all these things into consideration, Sen and I decided that we preferred to have a Publisher make our game.  We were ok with the smaller profit potential because we weren’t in it for the money, and we would rather spend more of our time on making new games!

So for your game, what are you thinking about doing?  Self-publishing or sending it to a publisher?

-Jay Cormier

The only other items I can add to Jay’s excellent post are:

Space

The other part of the continuum when paired with “TIME” (see above), space, like it’s partner, is a limitation we all have to deal with. Neither Jay nor I have the space to safely store 1000 boxes of Belfort and 1000 more of Train of Thought, in a climate controlled/hermetically sealed enviroment. When you are your own publisher, you need to store your product and make sure the mice and water don’t get at your stock. When you have a publisher, they are responsible for all the mundane, yet vitally important things like safe storage of the game.

Many, Many Hands

In the case of games that are pretty much ready to go, you may not want or need much more input. But for some of the more complex games, like Belfort, we had the assistance of a great guy named Seth Jaffee to take it from a 10 to a 10.5! Seth is the developer for Tasty Minstrel. His job is to take a game that may have some minor rough spots and buff them out. He’s like Victor – he’s a cleaner.

Having a publisher usually means more eyes on the little details, more eyes on proofing, more people helping the project move along accordingly. So while we gave up some creative control and had to come to consensus on a few items, we are more than happy with the final products of our union with Seth and Tasty Minstrel Games. Both Train of Thought and Belfort are shaping up as games we are super proud of. Without the input of the publisher, both games would have been slightly different and, in my opinion, slighty worse if we had taken the self-publishing route.

In our case, working with the publisher and developer has been a dream. We’ve heard others tell different tales regarding other publishers. In the end, it’s all about communication and making effective use of collaborative tools to get the job done.

So, from the perspective of Jay and myself, where it’s incredibly difficult to co-ordinate even ourselves due to the geographic distances we have to travel to actually meet face-to-face let alone everything that self-publishing entails, you can see why we have reservations regarding publishing one of our games ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that it’ll never happen – many times (especially after a rejection letter), Jay and I often muse about publishing a game on our own. But then we go over the laundry list of reasons why we shouldn’t and we give ourselves a big old face palm for even thinking of doing something silly like that. But I can see a time in the future where we may want to go that way if we are both in a position to be able to meet the huge demands of self-publication.

For now though, we’re more than happy with our publishers – we’re estatic!

-Sen-Foong Lim

Game Design Tip: Know your Crutches

Game Design CrutchesWhen designing many games it soon becomes obvious that you will develop some crutches, and it would be wise to be aware of them when they happen.

A crutch is something you rely on when you can’t think of a better idea, mostly because it’s easier and seems to solve all your problems.  The biggest challenge with crutches is that since they are usually easy way outs, they’ve probably been done many times before and therefore means you’re not bringing anything new to the table.  It’s also possible that your crutch will merely be a shiny yet temporary coat of paint over your initial challenge you’re having.

For Sen and I, one of our crutches to solve a problem we might have with a game is to introduce a new deck of cards into the game.  Often this comes in the form of an Event Deck.  Early on in its design, Akrotiri (previously known as Santorini) was having some challenges with interaction.  So we immediately went to our crutch and made an event deck.  Now players were forced to draw an event card and this would cause interaction to happen!  Huzzah!  Success right?  Well, no.

In this example, our crutch merely painted over the challenge we were having.  Underneath the Event Deck – there was still minimal interaction in the game. Even though the Event cards made people interact, they still had to play the game with the same mechanics – and those mechanics still lacked interaction.

After more playtesting we tweaked the mechanics and some of the rules (i.e. how many boats can be at the same dock or how other players can affect the market), and we were able to remove the Event Deck entirely (and save it for an expansion 🙂 )

I think in at least half our games we get the idea to add another deck of cards to solve a problem.  By now it’s become an in-joke between us and we use it as a way to brainstorm through the problem but rarely actually make another deck of cards!  Not one of our current games has an event deck.  I’m not against event decks really, but they should only be used once the main mechanics are already solid, and not to cover up a problem.

Another crutch we have is to give our cards multiple uses.  This usually comes from a challenge when we think players aren’t given enough choices in the game.  OK, then let’s give them cards that have two options on them – either use it for this power or that one.  It’s not a bad idea and has been used successfully in some games, but too often we think of this as our solution for improving strategy.

It’s good that we are aware of our crutches so that we can be more objective in understanding if it truly is the best solution to a game design challenge.  For other game designers reading, what are some of your crutches?

-Jay Cormier

When I read the title to this post, I was surprised (pleasantly) that Jay wasn’t regaling you of tales of lawn-chair wrestling. Ah, university days…

Yes. Back on topic – on the subject of these so-called crutches, these are our go-to’s, our fall-backs, if you will, that we use when we can’t figure a way out of a problem. 9 times out of 10, using a crutch is the direct result of not putting in the time to think of a better way, a more efficient way, a cleaner way of getting the desired effect. How do I know this? Because 9 times out of 10, we eliminate the crutch entirely later in the design process as we have figured out a much more elegant and minimal method of achieving the same results.

When examining your crutches, also be aware of the potential downside to anything you build into your game from a publisher’s point of view. 1 more deck of 60 more cards may not seem like much, but you can bet your bottom dollar (both literally and figuratively) that any publisher would choose Game A over Game B if they were the exact same except Game A had less components. Less components = less cost = more margin = more profit. And, really, more profit is better not only for the publisher, but for you as the designer. In speaking to publishers at conventions, Jay and I got a good idea of how many cards can be made per page of stock at European or US dimensions. So we try to keep our card decks equal to or less than what will fit on stock sheets. This not only gives us a working limit, it shows publishers that we know the business somewhat and respect their needs.

Often times, crutches not only add to the cost, but to the complexity of the game, and needlessly so most of the time. This makes the game take more time in total, expands the downtime between turns, and makes the rules take longer to read and harder to understand. From a playtesting perpective, adding more to the game system invariably makes playtesting more difficult as there are that many more variables to account for. This has happened to us in Akrotiri. We added these flags that you could drop on islands, claiming them for your own. Then it took us a while to figure out what those flags did, how they scored, how much it cost, etc. The scoring was a bit more complex than warranted and they really took a lot of time away from the focus of the game. So, in the current version, they’re out.

And the worst offense of all, in my opinion, is that many crutches feel “tacked on” – like they were put there to pay lip service to some singular need and not really merged with the entire ethos of the game. Many experienced playtesters can sense these and if they can, the game playing public at large will be able to. This just makes for a “Frankenstein” of a game – a lumbering hulk of a play experience instead of a sleek, stripped down version where every component, every phase of game play seems necessary to get the full effect. For us, this came into play with Belfort, where we had a Dragon stomping on people’s buildings. It was messy, made us have to make up new rules about warriors and playing defensively instead of flowing the cash to build things (i.e. the main thrust of the game). The game played better, smoother and faster without the Dragon and very few other rules changes had to be made by eliminating the firebreathing beastie. Because of this fact that it could be taken out and nothing really changed to the negative, we knew that it was more tacked on than not. So it was taken out of the final version. Now, that’s not to say that a more well-thought out dragon couldn’t appear, harassing the citizens of Belfort in the future…

Jay listed a few of our big crutches, but one he left for me was the joyful “Secret Goal” card crutch. This one is a bit of a double edged sword, because we use them a lot in our games in order to make the game sneaky/shifty fun. But only in games where that is the original intent and flavour. We sometimes have the bright idea to stuff Secret Goal cards into games to see if that’ll up the fun factor. it’s really hit and miss. For some games, the Goal being secret means that everyone is off playing their own game doing their own thing. For others, it means that no one is willing to act because there’s not enough information on the table. So, Secret Goal cards are both a boon and a bane. If it fits from the beginning – i.e. if your initial game design concept is based around having goals, like spy games, and (for some reason) Jam Slam, then you should be safe. But if you’re looking for adding that certain je ne sais quoi to spice up your game and are thinking “Oooh! I know…let’s give each player a secret goal!”… you may find yourself removing them sooner than later because you have just used a crutch.

-Sen-Foong Lim

A Teeny Bit More Art for Belfort

Just got this update in from Josh Cappel.  It’s the back of the Guild tiles.  B is Basic; I is Interactive and R is Resource.  The rules have suggestions on how many of each you should use in your game, but once you get familiar with them all you could play with whichever ones you wanted.  I like how it looks like a book on the back!  Nice.

Belfort Guild Tiles with back

Train of Thought played on BoardgameGeek!

This week Tasty Minstrel (the company publishing our first game, Train of Thought) had a novel idea: play Train of Thought via a forum on the popular board game website: www.boardgamegeek.com.

It seemed to go over really well.  The developer of the game, Seth, would post a start word and his 3 word clue, then anyone visiting the forum would post a one word guess to his clue.  After some time passed, Seth would check the responses and then use one of the guesses in his new 3 word clue.  He would continue doing this until the destination word was guess and that player would get a point.

Then he continued to play until 6 words were guessed.  It generated a bit of traffic and buzz for the game and he plans on repeating it.  What a cool idea!

Check it out here!

More Art for Belfort!

This week we got to see the art that Josh Cappel created for the Guild Cards for our upcoming game, Belfort.  So for those keeping track at home, we’ve seen a segment of the board, the building cards, the logo and now the Guilds.

For those that have never played Belfort (and that would be the majority of you I assume!), each game you choose which 5 Guilds you want to play with.  This allows for a lot of replay-ability as it keeps the game fresh every time you play it (and also allows for some expansions!).

I’ve posted our original prototype and Josh’s art below.  When I say original prototype – I mean this was our 23rd actual prototype of the game that we made.  Belfort has gone through more playtests and tweaks than any other game that we’ve made.  It’s probably because it’s our most gamery game – meaning it has layers of strategy that have to be finely balanced.

Looking at both the prototype art that we used when playtesting and Josh’s art, it’s interesting to see some of the differences.

1) This biggest difference (besides great art vs. only serviceable art) is the crest on each of Josh’s designs.  This adds more theme to the game and creates more character for the game.  Great idea.

2) The Worker Placement spot has been removed as it was added to the actual board instead (see here)!  Saved a ton of room on the tile.

3) The names of some of the guilds were changed – and the reason for this was because visually it’s nicer to look at when the font is the same size on all Guilds – and we couldn’t do that with some of the longer names – so Josh came up with new names!  Great idea!

4) Some of the grammar has changed – and that came from some feedback from the group once we saw the final art (as this is the third version we’ve seen this week of these guilds!).

All in all, another fantastic piece of work from Mr. Cappel.  I’m ridiculously excited to see such amazing quality for this game.  I think this game has a big chance to make quite the impression in the board game world…but maybe I’m biased a bit! 🙂

Belfort Art for Guild tiles

Belfort guild tile art Josh Cappel

Recent Playtests

Spent this past week playtesting a bunch of our games.

Played RuneMasters: our 2 player card combat game.  This is quite the different game for us as it’s not even the kind of game we usually like to play, but we have a pretty cool idea for it and we are trying to see if we can make it happen.

The playtest was OK but there were some issues with not having enough cards, some slowdown in casting creatures and confusion around order of events.

Overall there’s still something very interesting about this game as was evident in a couple of the individual battles.

Played Akrotiri (previously named Santorini until I learned another game is coming out next year with the same name): This is our Tile-laying, Pick up and Deliver, Find Hidden Objects game.  I forgot a couple things I was meaning to playtest and so had the same issues I had the previous time I playtested it.  There was little tension, which would have been increased if I remembered the 2-3 things I was supposed to remember to include in this playtest.  Oh well.  Overall – it wasn’t the best time I’ve had with the game, but it was still fun and interesting.  The 2-3 minor tweaks should help out a lot.

Lost for WordsPlayed Lost for Words: This is our quick party word search/creation game.  It used to be part of our Games on the Go series, but we had thoughts on turning it into a larger complete game – and so I did!  There was a lot of fun to be had as we shouted out words.  The brainstorming session at the end lead to an even better scoring mechanic that I can’t wait to playtest soon.

I also playtested my friend, Matt’s game called Bordeaux: a game about gathering grapes from the Bordeaux region in order to make specific wines.  We played it a few times over the past couple days and each time it got a lot better.  The last time I played it was tense and interesting and very Euro-y.  It has a few more tweaks to balance out the goal cards, but it’s almost a publisher-ready game!  Good job Matt!

-Jay Cormier

One of the things Jay and I will invariably do when we’re stuck on a game is ask ourselves a few questions:

The first one is a two-parter:

a) What do we absolutely LOVE about this game and b) how can we make the rest of this game feel like that section?

We tend to focus on the positive as opposed to the negative – that way, we don’t try to fix things by…err…fixing things, if that makes sense. We fix things by highlighting the positive aspects of the game so much so that the downside seems less onerous, takes less total game time, and (in some cases) gets elimintated entirely.

In making most of our games, we have a common habit of adding on little mechanics here and there to the main game as we develop towards a final product. Usually, what happens is that the game becomes cool, but cumbersome and we have to ask ourselves the above questions. From there, it’s a process of separating the wheat from the chaff. This doesn’t mean that the so-called chaff is bad or filler or redundant. It usually means that it feels “tacked-on” and doesn’t really add anything to the game as a whole. But those sections often provide us with inspiration for possible future expansions if not whole other games. And many times, what seemed cool at one point in the design process becomes more cumbersome or limiting that it is worth. We have to prioritize what stays and what goes, but not necessarily by focusing on just the negative – by fixing only the negatives, you may end up with a working game of boring mechanics, but by highlighting the best parts of the game, you are more likely to end up with a game that not only works but shines in it’s playability.

So, for Rune Masters we asked ourselves the question above. And what the answer was is that we want the battles to be fast, furious and fun, not cumbersome, plodding, and boring. Jay and Matt had a few really exciting battles where spells were flying, stones were used to power their heroes and creatures, and the tide of battle swayed too and fro. What made it fun? The possibility of high levels of back and forth action. What is not so fun? The building up phases (the arms race, so to speak) are technical and slow, though interesting.

We therefore want to keep what see-saw battles we have and create the opportunity for more. In fact, we’d love it if every battle ran “hot” like the ones that Jay and Matt found really exciting. That’s Goal 1.

The next question we ask is:

How do we make this game go faster / run smoother?

These are some things we want out of all games

– less downtime when you’re not the active player / less analysis when you are the active player
– engagement during everyone’s turns, whether it be that you have to watch what other people are doing in order to play most effectively or that you are an active participant on another player’s turn

There’s a fine balancing point in many games where the designer must choose whether to be simple or complex. Is it a die roll or a complex algorhythm with a appendixed look up table cross? Is the player playing the game or is the game playing the player?

We try to subscribe to a Japanese term “shibumi”, which means “simple, yet complex”. We want the strategic application of a mechanic to be the crux of the decision as opposed to mechanic itself. We want enough variables in play that there are decisions to be made, that there are options to choose, that there are different paths to take, different ways to victory. There should be some “best decisions” at each point, but there should be as few “no brainers” as possible – and the “best decisions” should be based on cards in hand, the state of the gameboard at the time, etc., that the decision a player made was the best for him at that time based on the information he possessed.

Goal 2 for Rune Masters is to find a way to simplify the relatively complex mechanic we’ve created to cast spells. It’s a very unique and intriguing mechanic, but it needs to be simplified in some way to decrease the brain drain and increase the speed. And to further answer this question, Goal 3 is to maintain a flow in the game. We found in the last few playtests that players had to pass an awful lot just to get cards to play and/or clean up their workspace for casting spells. We’re hoping that a few simple fixes will increase the cycling of cards and make the casting of spells smoother.

Still on the question of smoothing out the kinks in games, Jay and I love tile laying games and that is a really fun part of Akrotiri. In the past, we’ve had feedback about the tiles in this game and how sometimes it is nearly impossible to place the single tile you get access to in a way that is beneficial to you. This is based on how the tiles connect via trade routes. We’ve redesigned the tiles now such that any tile can connect to anyother tile, but the routes may still not lead where you want. The playtesters who have tried this game in multiple iterations have told us that they like this incarnation of the tiles the best so far as there is less analysis. While it sounds like there may be more as all tiles fit together, there is actually less as, before, players would spend time trying to make things fit by rotating the tile around to see if there was a way. In accentuating the positives, we hope to make a better game!

For Lost For Words, the question always has been one that’s a bit different that the ones above:

How do we add more strategic decision making to this game?

There is a difference between a game and a puzzle. And there is a difference between a good game and a poor game. A poor game is purely mechanical without input from the player. Conversely, we want to make games where the players are making decisions as much as possible – some easy, some difficult, but constant decision making is really what gaming is all about. It’s about making decisions, executing them, and seeing how those decisions affect the outcome. Add in as much interaction with the other players to force you to decide in different ways and you’ve got the start of a good game.

Lost for Words was originally simply a race to see who could spot words within an ever-growing array of tiles. We’re trying to “gamify” it a bit, as the decisions you make are minimal, at best – the most you will have to decide is if you want to score less for a short word, but score quickly or try to find a longer word for more points risking that someone may score on the tile before you. Jay and I have wanted to add a type of score tracker to the game to try to add some other strategic elements. But Matt and Jay have thought up an even better idea that Jay and I will refine further to ensure that players aren’t always going for the quickest word using a score tracker and some goal tokens. That will help take this from a puzzle race to more of a true strategy game. We’ll have to see whether that, in fact, makes it more fun when all is said and done!

Last point – For Akrotiri, the first thing we should have done after the last playtest was written a note to ourselves on the box itself of the things we wanted to change the next time around. A simple “To Do” list could have made the playtesting much more productive! That’s a habit we need to get into!

-Sen-Foong Lim

Step 12: Honest Feedback? Honestly?

So you’re playtesting your game and at the end everyone showers you with praise and makes you believe that you have the next big hit.  Wow!  Maybe you should give up your day job and spend your life savings on publishing this game yourself.  Um…maybe not.

For most people the playtesters you’re going to have the most access to are going to be your friends and family.  While this is great, the obvious challenge is that they are going to be biased and also don’t want to offend you.  We’ve found three ways around this.

  1. Be the first to criticize the game. After getting some general feedback if I feel like I’m not getting enough honest input then I’ll offer up something that’s bugging me about the game.  The speed to which your friends agree with your criticism will tell you how big of an issue it really is.  If they blurt out “oh yeah, I didn’t like that either” immediately after you say it, then you know it’s a problem that needs resolving.
  2. Make a lot of games. If you only ever make one board game, then you’re going to get biased feedback from your friends and family, but if you make a dozen board games then you’ll be able to discern which ones your playtesters are anxious to play again.  By making a lot of games it’s easier for friends and family to criticize a game, knowing that they can still provide praise on another one.  This aligns with my MVP methodology that I outlined in my first few posts on this blog.  I love playing at least two prototypes in one session and then asking which they preferred.  That’s a huge indicator for which one is more publisher-ready.  It’s important to note that not all gamers are the same so this feedback might differ from one group to the next, but if the feedback is consistent then you know which one you should focus efforts on getting to a publisher and which you should focus on getting back to the drawing board.   Now that my friends have played dozens of our designs, they know I’m serious about game designing and that I am humble when listening to feedback on our games.  I’ll often ask them if this is a game I should invest $25,000 and self-publish.  Usually their love for me not going broke and becoming homeless overrides their need to be nice to their friend!
  3. Play with strangers. This one should be obvious, but in order to not get biased feedback, play with strangers!  Now this doesn’t solve all your problems because a lot of people still want to be nice to people and some find it hard to criticize others, even if they’re strangers.  One way to mitigate this is to provide your playtesters with a form to fill out anonymously at the end.  This is something Sen and I don’t do enough of but we should because it’s exactly what publishers do when they playtest games to help them determine which ones to accept.

The most honest form of feedback though is not at the end of the game, but during the game itself.  If you can, let other people playtest while you sit on the outside observing.  See if people are engaged throughout the entire game.  Are there tough challenges and decisions?  Do they get distracted or bored easily?  Are they trying to break the rules because they’re bored and just want to see what happens when the gather the most gold? (note: this type of playtesting is important but only if you set it up by asking them to break the game – more on this later!).  Bottom line is that you have to see through the love and find the honesty in whatever way you can.

To the other game designers out there that are reading, how do you ensure you get honest feedback from your playtesters?

-Jay Cormier

When not making games, my job is as a therapist. I work with kids with various disabilities, their families, teachers, and support staff. And, really, the only way I can do my job properly is by getting feedback from everyone involved in the car of the child. It’s only through listening to honest feedback that I can really meet my clients’ needs in a way that makes sense to all parties involved.

The same theory (that a person’s honest feedback is one of the most important factors in making a positive change) luckily applies to my “jobby” of game design (N.B. A “jobby” is a hobby that sometimes makes me some money, and one that I’d love to do full time if the fates allowed). We are planning on making some more formalized pen and paper tools to collect feedback and I hope to use some of my professional training in soliciting feedback to help design these forms for Jay and I to use.

I follow a school of thought in therapy called “Solution Focused Interviewing” which focuses on the positives of situations instead of the negatives to try to help patients work towards a change for the better. Here are a couple of techniques that I use from this type of interviewing that I think could be very useful in getting good, honest feedback:

SCALING

Have people rate things on a scale. Most people can easily rate things on a scale from 1-10 (Personally, I prefer a 7-point likert scale, but I digress). You, as the person asking for feedback, should anchor the scale at both ends. For example, 1 could mean “Not clear at all” and 10 could mean “Very clear”. But the secret to scaling isn’t in collecting the first number or even analyzing why they chose that number – that’s actually not that important – it’s in asking this magic question: “So what could we change to make it even just ½ point better?” This is so critical because in asking this one simple question, we make the respondent part of the solution to the problem, we focus on positive change (not on the problem itself), and we agree that the concern is valid (we don’t dismiss or diminish the feedback). I think this kind of technique could have enormous repercussions on the quality of feedback and suggestions our playtesters give us.

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS

This is an interesting technique in which people are asked to see the issue from another person’s perspective. For example, “ If your son was playing this game, what would he say about it?” – it’s very useful in helping people put themselves in other people’s shoes to help broaden the scope of their feedback. I suspect we could use this particular technique with children’s games or in very genre-specific games where you may not like the game no matter how good it is if you don’t like the theme. This type of question, however, would probably be more of the type of question we’d have to ask in response to a specific response as opposed to being used on a standard form…

IN THE MOMENT

…which brings me to my next point – one that Jay’s brought up. Some of the best feedback happens during actual game play. The difficulty in getting feedback in the moment is that you will immediately want to change the game. Now, there’s definitely some times where you’ll want to stop the game and immediately make changes if something’s broken, and there are sometimes where you won’t because the change is minor. There are sometimes where you can proceed from where you are without missing a beat (“Ok, all mines now give 2 gold instead of just 1”).

The other issue is that we’re often playing the game with our playtesters, so we’re not picking up on some critical things to look at:

– How long does it take to explain the rules?
– How long is the game / a single turn / a single round?
– How many times are people engaged in side chat?
– How many people leave the table, only to come back to play without needing to be there for other player’s turns?
– How much time is spent in analyzing options?
– How long did the game take to get to a state where it was in “full swing”? I liken a good game to a novel with an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution where we want more rising action than anything else.
– What is the body language of the playtesters during the game?
– Was the game actually over before the rules say it should be? i.e. should it be ended sooner. Or vice versa, could it be extended in length if warranted?
– What was the overall mood of the game?

Basically, I think one of us needs to be out of the game more often so we can concentrate on some of these other things that are sometimes more subtle. We’ve talked about video taping our playtesting sessions before. Maybe it’d be a good idea!

TAKE TIME

Still from Solution Focused Interviewing, is the concept of allowing the playtesters time to formulate their feedback. Give them time and space to think about the game without bombarding them with questions or rushing them. The glaringly obvious is really easy to point out, but really specific feedback about mechanics or subtle nuances that just aren’t working right can take more time and effort to pin down. Allow playtesters time to think without you interjecting. Allow the question to “breathe”, like a fine wine. Because, like a well-aged wine, good feedback is worth the wait.

AND THEN…

Last one from the Solution Focused school of though is always asking for more, never assuming that someone is done, even though they themselves may think they are done. You’d be surprised what people will say when you ask them “What else?” Don’t close any doors – always be open to accepting feedback and you will find your games changed for the better. Why? Because they don’t exist in a vacuum – they exist to be played by people with different ideas and sensibilities than you. So, in being receptive to the feedback of others, you will most likely make a game that others will like to play.

-Sen-Foong Lim