Make the Experience, Scrap the Rest
Although not conceived as such, I realized this blog post is more or less a continuation of a previous post, Foundationing. By that, I mean being able to do the thing I state at the end is much simpler if the core of your experience is solid.
Earlier today, I tweeted the following (re-arranged here to be read top down):
I've always designed with my experience goals in mind first and foremost. All designers come at the point of creation somewhat differently, but you can more or less boil things down to one of the two primary approaches:
- I have a cool mechanic and I want to make a game with it.
- I really love this theme and want to make a game with it.
Experience first, to me at least, has some of the fluffiness of the thematic approach, with a few of the nuts and bolts of the mechanical. Let's use Blockade's experience for an example.
- Players are put in the role of a sci-fi fleet commander.
- 45 minutes or less. That reigns in complexity.
- Lots of dice - This means dice based mechanics, but also the inclusion of luck that, for my tastes at least, needs to be balanced with non-luck decisions.
- Can I do something neat with formations?
- There is a balance between capital ships and fighters, both present.
That was the start of the game. To this day, it continues to be the heartbeat that drives my design and decision making. Hold onto this thought while I briefly segue.
"Be willing to kill your darlings" is a common design saying that more or less means: be willing to let go of things in your design, no matter how much you love them, that detract from the quality of the game.
I've always boldly thumped my chest about being really good at this. Honestly, I am, but only for a part of it. There are a few kinds of darlings:
- Scope Creep: Additional features that can be added or lopped off without compromising the game. Example: In York I always wanted to add naval elements or commander Units. I resisted and held them at bay.
- Means to an End: You may have a really clever mechanic that does what you need it to do. It may not be perfect (few are from the start). But, you tweak, and twist, and massage, and tweak, and try to make it the thing you want it to be. This is where I fail.
This second bullet is a real bugger and it's something with which I've had a massive realization lately. Be it York or Blockade, I've desperately clung to some legitimately good ideas by refining them for months (and in the case of York, years), instead of returning to the experience and asking myself: Is this the best, most fun, simplest, and most unique way to do this?
Put another way: Sure, this is good. But is it good enough?
For Blockade, I have a few of these mechanical darlings that I'm killing in favor of ideas that are already better and simpler. For example:
- My color-based d6 mechanic to convey weapon strength was neat, but it was obtuse for new people, increased the number of components needed, and required additional reference material to explain.
- I was forcing a lot of awkward, fiddly behaviors into my formation mechanic. There's a much similar way to get to the same experience.
- And others...
I always stated that really interesting battles were the focus of York, yet I never fundamentally revised the battle mechanic. I tweaked it, patched it, and added new layers, such as defensive abilities, factions, and unique content. But I never stepped back to ask: Is this the coolest, most fun, simplest battle mechanic for York?
It's a question I should have asked a long time ago.
The Crucial Bits
At the outset of your design, whether you want it to be about space-ships or have an innovative worker placement mechanic involving yo-yos, think of the experience you wish to deliver.
What is the vibe you wish your game to convey? What is the one thing you hope players will leave the table thinking after a play of <your game>? Who is the game intended to please? Your goals may vary, and there's definitely a bit more nuance involved, but these are some nice high level morsels to use as a launch point.
If you can answer these questions at the beginning and middle of the project, your end may result in something you actually want to play and, fingers crossed, somebody else wants to publish.
But, be willing to kill your darlings. This means cutting things your design doesn't need, but also, replacing a mechanic with another one that arrives at the same destination, but better.
If a mechanic just works, don't settle. Your mechanic should thrive and if a few tests don't show great promise, scrap it for something different. Most of your ideas are going to be Cs and Bs. If and when you hit the ceiling, be ready to acknowledge that and explore new ways to fill that hole.
Push yourself and your game. Be willing to experiment, especially when your experience is a special one.