Proving the Concept
There is a very important, and deeply satisfying milestone in a design, which is determining This Game is Worth Making. This step doesn't mean the problems have been solved, that the game is fun, that it's balanced, or unique. It means you have figured out the core gist, and now it's time to drill down to ensure it is those things. It also means you think you've answered the early questions of your thesis and at least for me, it means all remaining problems are solvable.
All of us have different milestones in our designs. We have different processes, and even different methods of determining what good enough looks like. I recently reached this milestone with Project Gaia, so while it's fresh in my mind, I want to illustrate, at a high level, what I was seeking to prove what I thought I proved, and where to go next. The idea behind this post isn't to present a detailed looked at Gaia -- you do or don't care -- but to discuss process at a high level, leveraging Gaia as a case study.
Firstly, you need to understand what your game is trying to accomplish. I think far too many designers are hyper focused erroneously on mechanism or theme. Noting you wish to make a worker placement game isn't sufficient. This is a well-established formula. A far superior goal would be to focus on a unique worker placement experience, and to hypothesize how that will come about.
- I want to make a worker placement game fueled by the variable properties of dice (Castles of Burgundy).
- I want to fuse an auction with worker placement (The Speicherstadt).
- I want to mix worker placement with area control.
- I want a worker placement experience where every worker is single use, which means I need to balance placement and timing with an economic engine.
Now, coming up with a unique twist, or a new mechanism, is, as the French say, "Le Hard." This part of the process is so integral to the final result and is due your diligence. If your design begins without ambition, or a mere Tweet you toss to the void, the end result will wear a similar layer of clothes.
I personally don't operate well from a mechanism standpoint. It's not how my mind works, and as a result, I don't often begin a design in the manner I've proposed above. As a alternative way to emerge with something special, I focus on the experience and see which ingredients emerge to create a special whole.
Therefore, I suggest two origins:
- Focus on unique means
- Focus on unique ends
Regardless of your choice, be sure to give yourself sufficient time time to make something special. Don't short change the final result by rushing the introduction.
For Gaia, I wanted to make a game about pre-constructed decks that felt satisfying in a limited card pool. I wanted a head to head experience that had a strong spatial component, particularly leaning towards tiles.
I knew what I was trying to accomplish.
Secondly, you need to understand how you'll validate that you're on the right path. As in, you're doing what you said you're going to do. This is why merely chasing an established mechanism, like worker placement, is a false confirmation of progress. You can quickly reach a point where players all have a limited resource, that when spent, grants a reward and denies that reward to opponents, at least temporary. Yes, I took a stab at defining worker placement for this example.
Many years ago, I was trying to make a deckbuilding game. That was my goal. Guess what? I accomplished precisely that, and relatively quickly, too! But, I also realized I had made a lousy version of Ascension.
I think it's useful to leverage what you remember from your junior high science classes covering the scientific method. We aren't moving drugs through the FDA, so we can gloss over the specifics. We just answered what we're trying to prove. Now, we're answering our verification points.
Let's re-examine the Worker Placement ideas I tossed out.
"I want to make a worker placement game fueled by the variable properties of dice (Castles of Burgundy)."
- The dice constrain my choices, but don't force them or make the game play itself.
- There is still tension. I want 4 things, I can do 2 of them, and the order I place matters.
- The feedback of placing my dice is still clear. This is a beautiful element of worker placement -- a direct feedback loop. I place a resource, I get a resource.
- The dice mechanism is not too much more complex than placing a worker. If it is, it obfuscates the strategy.
"I want to fuse an auction with worker placement (The Speicherstadt)."
- Placing workers has clear economic implications, like placing a bid
- Like an auction, placing a worker forces you to ask where you're really willing to spend your money
- I know what I'm bidding on, and why I'm placing a worker. Like point 3 above, the feedback is clear.
"I want to mix worker placement with area control."
I'm making this one up (though I'm sure it's a thing. Everything is always a thing). Verification Points could be...
- There is viable tension between leaving a worker to hold a space, permanently enjoying that space's reward, and deciding when to move.
- There should be trade offs between holding territory that is viable for scoring, and holding territory that provides rewards. Perhaps like Dominion, there is a point where you pivot away from your engine towards dismantling it to score.
- Deploying workers is still smooth and has a good pace.
"I want a worker placement experience where every worker is single use, which means I need to balance placement and timing with an economic engine."
Like the one above, I'm making this up again. Verification points could be...
- There is an optimal path to gathering new workers.
- Players can get out of a rough spot -- you aren't stuck when your workers die.
- There can be a viable strategy to hindering the supply of workers. The economics of squeezing the worker supply, versus using the workers to gain things.
For Gaia, I needed to slowly verify the following elements:
- A limited card pool can support a variety of play styles.
- The spatial element is integral to the experience.
- There is sufficient complexity to provide legs, but not so much that people cannot dig through the pieces.
- The victory condition drives interaction.
- As a player's deck is limited (9 cards), how you play your cards is compelling.
These verification points in every case really come down to experience. Each of them is driving towards answering the question of "what good looks like?" Whether it's a worker placement, or a game about deckbuilding, there are tons of examples for what good looks like. Lean on those! It's wrong to ignore thousands of data points. If you know why people love Agricola, or Caylus, don't ignore those facts.
However, if you're doing something new, you cannot simply rely on the past. You'll need to hypothesize what good looks like for you, leaning on context clues of your similar foregames. Imagine games with wigs. Naturally, you'll need to evolve these verification points when you find your first efforts, like your design, are complete junk.
Thirdly, you need to put your hopes to the test. This is, I hope, absurdly obvious. You'll need to watch and see others independently confirm these points. When you find that they don't, you need to tweak the design or re-assess your goals. You find the spatial element is too confusing. Do you simplify it? Decide it should be more complex? Or lose it entirely?
You find having finite workers is too restrictive and punishing. People cannot figure out how to refresh them without hosing themselves. Do you making the strategy there more obvious? Do you give everyone some permanent workers, so that gaining more finite workers enhances your strategic reach?
As you move forward and evolve your verification points, you need to not cut your game short. Don't take a single positive indicator as proof of it being solved. Your goals are about identifying moments that'll make your players smile. Testing is about finding out when they actually smile. And development is about making those smiles occur regularly.
It took us a year to find something special in Hocus, and it's been several months (4 or 5?) to reach a more stable plateau in Gaia.
- A great deal of UX work has gone in to ensure players understand how to play cards.
- A great deal of iteration has gone into the complexity involved in the tiles. Landmarks, no Landmarks, some deserts, some special tiles.
- A great deal of iteration has gone into the keywords, particularly, how to manipulate the planet.
- A great deal of iteration has gone into scoring. I've gone from chin scratchy planning to fast and loose "ooh shiny" to slightly less fast and loose achievement.
- I've already edited every card probably 30 times.
My goals have changed during this. I had to figure out how to make creatures more potent. I overreached at first with a very complex engine mechanism, but have shifted to a more intuitive and thrilling combat focus. In a sense, it's like Summoner Wars in a phone booth. So, combat is upped.
I tried to bake in back pressures and restrictions, because CCGs have resources and currencies. But, this game isn't really about that. This slowed the game, added more complication, and actually reduced your choices on which cards to play. I've stripped this back and it now is a better expression of my goal that how you play your cards is a very compelling choice.
Testing alone wasn't sufficient. I needed to build decks and experiment privately to see if it was fun to do that. I also mailed copies to testers to gauge their interest. You'd be surprised how informative it can be to read how folks write about your game. Remember previously when I talked about finding those smiles? They things people mention are the smiles, or the frowns. If you have multiple groups, and all of them tend to say the same things, that's a trend you can take to the bank*.
*There are no banks in board gaming. This is a hobby bereft of profits.
You reach a good point when folks independently confirm that your goals are good goals. You reach a good point when folks confirm that your game tends to present more good experiences than ones that seem deeply frustrating. You need a positive balance in smiles versus frowns. You need to solve the core, fundamental problems that keep people from enjoying the game. Not every problem. And certainly not things like balance, layout, art, and flavor. These things are important, but they are more critical in a later stage.
If you cannot get past these major stumbling blocks, you need to keep returning to the beginning of this flow. After enough iterations, you may need to move past the idea entirely.
It's tough, but true.
- What is your design trying to accomplish?
- Is it unique?
- Why is it fun?
- How will you prove you're on the path to accomplishing it?
- Test and tweak until other people confirm the things in step 2.
There's no time frame on all of this, but generally, good things take time. At every step, give yourself time and space to think, process, analyze, and arrive at the right destination.
Once you know you have something valid, well, then you know it's worth your time to really dig in and peel back every layer.