The Design Bug

In addition to growing mustaches, ostensibly for charity, many folks dedicate November to writing a novel or designing a game. I think it's easy to be all for it, or poo poo it, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I'm fairly live and let live towards the exercise. If it's what gets you to the table? Great. But, using this as a starting point, I wanted to write about getting started in design, particularly through the lens of negating reasons people might not do it.

I started to design because I needed an outlet that I could control entirely. I dedicate most of my waking hours to making games for Electronic Arts and after years of this I desperately needed something that was mine. I already had the design bug, I just didn't know the medium. When I discovered tabletop, I quickly recognized that I was a stack of index cards and a sharpened pencil from making something that was mine. I was off to the races. 

I think a lot of people start playing games and they love it. There are so many amazing games, every experience is new, and it's just delicious. Your first few months in the hobby can be quite wonderful, especially if you have the cash and/or friend's group to try a lot of games. Or, access to conventions like Geekway and BGG that have excellent and diverse libraries. Many people take a step back to examine that joy and think "I need more. I have to do the next level." Typically that means creating the product (as a designer or publisher) or promoting the product as a podcaster or reviewer. I can't speak to the latter. I haven't done it and it doesn't interest me personally.

So, okay, you want to start making stuff. 

I want to make games, but I just don't have time. I don't buy this for a second. Unless you have infant triplets, you probably have time, and let me tell you, you don't need much. When people tell me they don't have time, they're really saying "I haven't prioritized games over my other liesure activity." You can watch less TV. People are shocked I don't have Netflix or HBO (this is literally a daily thing for me). But, I get all that time back. You can play fewer video games. My grand bargain when I chose to design games was that I was willing to almost entirely forego video games. It's tough sometimes, but it was the right trade. 

You can also be less wasteful of your time. Whether it's Twitter, or just flat screwing around, we waste a lot of time as humans. 

Making games can take a lot of time, but it doesn't have to, especially as a new designer. So in addition to arranging your priorities to have time to design, you can also do things in a pinch.

  • Use your iPhone to take notes. When you have ideas, or make cards, stop and write them. Train your brain to think about design all the time which means every 3 minute walk across the building at work can be a short, but useful session. 
  • Drive in silence and think. Have a mega-commute? Dedicate 20 minutes to your thinking. 
  • Design small. Every new designer fails this miserably. They always start big. ALWAYS. Design small. Smaller games have fewer rules to write, require less content, take less time to build and prototype, less time to update when you test, and are easier to wrangle testers. Design small. Make a game with 10 tokens, 5 cards, and a 8.5 by 11 board. 
  • Use components you have. When you're starting out, don't make a card game, or more specifically, a card game that requires you do layout, printing, cutting, and sleeving. Design around a poker deck, or color cards, or standard things. Even better, use cubes, meeples, and standard d6. Go to your collection, shake open 3 games you don't play, and limit yourself to things within those boxes. 
  • Use amazing resources like or an immense library of art from the Met to create prototypes that look good and excite you.
  • Mod a game you like. As a way to get your foot in the door, take a favorite game, or even better, a game you like that is flawed, and mod it. Create a mini-expansion. Create some house rules and variants. Build your muscles by tinkering with someone else's foundation.

You can use a variety of tricks to reduce the time it takes to make games, especially early on when you're willing to give up two hours of video games each week, but not yet four hours of video games. Help yourself breadcrumb into the hobby by making it easier to succeed.

I'm afraid of failure. Good! That's healthy. Here's the thing, and you really need to take this to the bank - do not worry about getting published. It's hard, and it's a long path that requires more than just design skill. Do not worry about succeeding on KS. You're getting ahead of yourself. Focus instead on the failure of your early bad ideas. You're going to have them. I once made a game about driving in traffic. Why? I don't know. I have no clue why I thought this was worthy of pursuit. You will make awful garbage.

But, and here's the amazing thing, your designs will amost always get better with every test. 

You may fix only 1% of your problems, but you will be 1% better. You will then make a huge leap forward. It is immensely satisfying to learn to enter a first test with the knowledge it will be bad. But, you'll come back to see people having more fun. Smiling more. Laughing more. They'll begin experimenting with your systems. 

I love developing games. I love seeing that problem get corrected on the next test. It's like having a great date with the girl (or guy, if that's your preference) you've had a crush on forever. You're just giddy. People obsess over the failure with any creative endeavor, and there is a lot, but they fail to appreciate the dozens of micro-victories you gain from every step. 

Right now I'm working on a deckbuilding game. Some of the victories I'm enjoying are:

  • The core game is fast at about 30 minutes.
  • People like tinkering with their decks, which is good as they are randomly dealt.
  • The card trading mechanism between players is neat. It needs to be stronger, but it's neat.
  • The graphic design is really simple.
  • I have a really neat idea for an illustration style if it gets to that point. I was gathering ref and brainstorming with John.
  • The game seems reasonably balanced and we've had diverse scores every game.
  • I added this follow-mechanism that makes the game more interactive, interesting, and faster.

The game isn't finished. It has problems. It has months of development, and that's only if it keeps progressing. But, I'm enjoying victories and so will you. 

You want to know the most important phrase I've ever heard in my 7+ years of tabletop design? "This game isn't nearly as bad as your last one." That was in regards to the first test of Farmageddon after 8 months of a lousy space game. Respect the failure. But get ready for victories if you put in the work. 

I don't know how to design, though. Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool. Patton Oswalt didn't know how to do stand up comedy. Reiner Knizia was just a math nerd. Barack Obama was just a community organizer. We all start somewhere and thankfully design is one you can do among friends. You don't have to go on stage to bomb in front of strangers or ask random folks to vote for you. Often, you just need one other person to sit down with you and push some cubes around. 

You're going to learn by doing, but thankfully with design, you also learn by playing. The next time you play Pandemic, observe how with just a few ingredients Leacock creates a nice varied puzzle. What happens if you add another epidemic? Or randomly sort all epidemics instead of seeding them equally? When you play High Society, observe how the table responds to the negative item auctions. Then, look at how in No Thanks the game is entirely a negative auction...yet there are times when your friend Matt will be cackling with delight over a 34 being revealed. Try to notice how playing a blind auction is foolish early in Modern Art...but can be decisive in the final round. 

Pay attention to what you're playing. Think about why a designer makes certain choices, and ask how an experience you love came to be. 

When you start making the game, proceed in baby steps. Write a simple rules outline. Answer basic questions, like:

  • How many people can play this game?
  • How does a player win? 
  • What does a player do on their turn?
  • What are ways to work towards victory?
  • When does the game end?

Early on, steal liberally from your predecessors. Do this while learning so you can fully understand why a thing is the way it is. Don't stress yourself figuring out a turn order design. Just find one from an existing game that works. Don't revolutionize auctions. Pick your favorite from Modern Art. 

Amusingly, I realized when I wrote this that I wrote a 12 article series that walks you through step by step how to start designing. So, instead of blathering, I'll just link that. 

Designing games is a bug. It's an obsession. It's a compulsion. If you find yourself blaming a lack of time, maybe you don't have the bug. If you find yourself waiting all year until November to get started, then maybe you don't have the bug. If you find failure being the reason you can't get started, maybe you don't have the bug. But, perhaps you don't have the bug, yet. Or perhaps you do, and you've created too many obstacles. Take a step back, identify what's in your way, and start taking baby steps to get started.

It's immensely rewarding. It's something that's yours. I think you should get started. Hell, grow a mustache while you're at it. This is what November is for, after all.