Within Your Reach
If your mother was anything like mine, you may have heard the phrase: "Don't worry about what they are doing. Worry about what you're doing!" We tend to over think and overreach towards the things outside our control instead of focusing on what we CAN control.
That's the silly side of human nature -- chasing what we can't manipulate instead of firmly gripping what we can. In discussing this with a friend, we realized there was a simple blog post to be had. After all, so much of our time as designers is spent fretting over publisher feedback, play tester feedback, reviews, BGG comments/ratings, and more. It'll kill you if you let it.
As a designer, your first and only task is to focus on the things over which you have direct control. Not everyone will like your game, as people have opinions, tastes, and preferences. But, reasonable players, who are the only ones with whom we shall concern ourselves, will appreciate a basic average of quality and craftsmanship. Your goal should be that the worst review you get says "It's a good game, just not for me."
The question then is "What can I as a designer control?" For a moment, let's pretend the publisher won't change every little detail. And for some designers, who use Print-On-Demand and Kickstarter self-publishing methods, this is an accurate assumption as YOU are the publisher.
Things firmly under your control include:
Game Length: One of the first decisions you should make is about the length of game you're targeting. This is a front of box detail that will greatly dictate who buys your game and when it's played. Aside from absurd analysis paralysis folks, this is under your control with the game's end condition, length and complexity of player turns, overall complexity of decision making, and more.
Quality of Rules: The rules are a publisher's, player's, and reviewer's first exposure to your game. It is the foundation of their entire experience. If your rules are poorly written, poorly laid out, and of insufficient quality for explanation, you are unlikely to have happy players. Take the time to proofread, test, and iterate. You control this. If you have confusing elements, fiddly exceptions, or pockets of "whaaa?" step back, refine the mechanic, and try again.
Theme: The quality of your theme is very much within your power as a designer in a few ways. Firstly, the quality of its integration. Does it fit, or did you just tack-on steam punk to make it more marketable? Do the art, text, and components reinforce the premise of your game? Also, is the theme appropriate for your audience? If you're targeting a broad gender neutral market or a younger audience, half-naked females (I hate this cliche) aren't appropriate.
Theme is most assuredly a preference. Some prefer elves to space marines. BUT. How appropriate and well-suited it is executed is in your court.
Number of Supported Players: One of the first questions a designer must answer is "how many people will play this game?" Although it is tempting to expand what you say the number of players is, you need to do what's right for the product and your customers. 2-6 players looks way more marketable on a box label, but if 3-5 is correct, you need to say 3-5.
In addition to your honesty, it's also within your power to do the design work to make your intentions a well-executed reality. Modifying the rules and content to support that extreme player number is a pain, but you never want a review to ding you for bad player numbers.
Art and Layout: As noted above, art is purely suspect. However, there is a quality bar that you can avoid, namely, does it resemble a piece of work made by a child using MS Paint? The layout of your board, cards, and rules is also very controllable. You can prove that it works through testing and iteration. Furthermore, there are best practices like using clean, easy to read typefaces, using a sufficient font size (6 point font is a no), avoiding distracting or aggravating colors, and putting things together in a way that lends itself to how people read and process information.
If all else fails, blatantly lean on the best layout work of some of the well-established publishers. If you know a game has a great card layout, use it. Start from there.
Mental Accounting Required: One of the things most designers overlook, especially on initial prototypes, is that players can only account for so many things. If they are holding 5 cards, each with 6 pieces of information, and must examine a board, and a reference board, and dice, and 6 opponents, their heads will explode. Focus your design such that the key elements towards making decisions are the ones in play. Strip away the rest.
Things firmly outside your control include:
One's appreciation or fondness for your mechanic: Some players hate deckbuilding games. Or dice, or randomness at all for that matter. Take-that can be hugely controversial and some people absolutely despise direct interaction between players. But, for all those examples I listed, there are more people who love them. Hell, there are people who love Monopoly and the original Risk. Do your best to focus on those who might love your game, not those who absolutely won't.
Empire has random turn order. This will probably be noted in every review of the game. But, those who play it find it's not a problem and that it works for the game. So it goes.
Bad Players: You simply cannot count on player skill. If you create a game that has strategy, depth, and at times complex decisions, some people will simply play your game badly. For example, Trajan hurt my skull and I'm not really inclined to play it again. Between the mancala bowl puzzle and the broad range of choices, I couldn't quite make heads or tails of things. The game isn't bad, it just wasn't for me. I was bad at the game.
One of the things that was most difficult to balance for Empire is that some factions are less obvious and straightforward. Skilled players had a fair and balanced experience. Poor players would be trounced by the more straightforward factions. You can deliberately choose to widen or narrow the skill requirement, but at the end of the day, some will simply play poorly...and many will curse you for their mistakes.
A Group of Random Players: If you've attended a board game convention and played with a random assortment of people, you may notice the game experience varies wildly than when you play with close friends. For better or worse, this will affect everyone's opinion of your game and you can't quite control that.
For example, I played a very interactive, take-that game at KublaCon. It was a 6 player game with me and one other solo player, then a boyfriend/girlfriend couple and a father/son duo. The game quickly became tedious and not fun because the two couples played as a team, so I was a solo player versus two combined factions. It wasn't fun or fair and I don't look on the game experience fondly.
On the opposite side, I notice when playing Farmageddon at GenCon that some children ALWAYS pick on their sibling or their parents. They aren't playing "to win" per se, but they are playing for schadenfreude and the poking often accompanied with families. This didn't ruin a parent's experience -- they are used to it! But some siblings grew VERY angry. When asked if they want to play my game again, I would wager many would shout "No!"
Your game simply might falter in a convention demo or at a random game night. It happens.
Did I pick all the right elements? Did I miss something? Do you disagree with me? Let's chat in the comments.