Revising Your Design Process

I'm obsessed with my game design process. My mind is my primary tool, but the way in which I exercise it, extract from it, and push it, must be constantly re-examined to ensure I'm doing my best work most of the time. I Tweeted about this earlier this week, but I wanted to write about it in greater detail, provide some context, and some actual examples.

I want to be a great designer. Not a prolific designer, or a best selling designer, or a famous designer, but a great one. At some point, when it happens. Don't get me wrong, I'll take all that other stuff, but first and foremost I want to be really good. I believe the rest typically follows. I think a part of that path is doing things well.

Sometimes these changes emerge organically. There's a lot of that with Hocus and Landfall with Josh. Hell, that all started with an email that said "Uh, I think you're my co-designer?" When you work with someone almost exclusively through text, it changes how you communicate, how you express ideas, and how you work. Some of that can also be brought over to my solo designs.

I'm recently trying something entirely new, with great success, for Sol 3.0. I'll write about this and Sol 3.0, but first, I want to talk about some of the things I've tried.

Most commonly for me was Brainstorm, Write Rules, Build Prototype, Test. I used it for Farmageddon. This works well when an idea crystallizes perfectly in my mind. I'll walk my dog, stop at the park to write a note on my phone, go home, and write it all down. It all makes sense, I have no questions, it just works. The problem is, how often does that happen? So rarely. Maybe once or twice. The rest of the time, that first attempt to write the rules is akin to Pooh Bear trying to squeeze through the hole. I'm trying to force so many ideas against so many uncertainties. As soon as I finish a setup section, I'm trying to figure out how a player will win. Then I ask, but wait, what do they do on their turn. Oh crap! Are there turns? Is it a round? Check Twitter. Oh, I'll mock up a card for a bit. Hmmm...what does this mean?

Suddenly, I'm so lost and stuck and I forgot why I started the design in the first place. There is a graveyard of half-finished rule sets in Google Drive that rivals the banks of the river Styx.

I've also tried a process trademarked as Cheveeing It, by my friend Chevee Dodd. Chevee thinks with his hands. He makes stuff in his wood shop, throws pieces together, and tinkers until something emerges. He'll have a kernel, but as soon as he has that kernel, he busts out a poker deck, his dice, and anything handy. I've used this some, most disastrously with larger games, for many of the same reasons listed above. The larger the game, the more moving parts, the faster I get lost in a morass of things. Only now, instead of a partially finished rules document, I have a partially finished pile of index cards covered in ancient Grantieform.

This process did work very well for me with Hocus. I began the game with a deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, a bag of pennies, and 30 pieces of paper with Spells written on them. I whipped up the game in the morning, a friend came over for breakfast, and we played.

I think this process works in games with simple decisions, few components, and few mechanisms. Cards with numbers style games (Red 7, Abluxxen, Hocus, Modern Art, High Society), simple dice games, or maybe even light abstracts. In a way, you can call it the Agile of tabletop design. Agile can work incredibly well with small teams that produce simpler, low dependency software, but in my experience, works heinously with large, highly complex projects.

Another process, most recent for me, is the Remote Collaborative Chute. This is what Josh and I did for Hocus and if you can find a partner, I highly recommend it. I think, due to being remote, we had to do things differently than if we were in the same room. In the same room, I still think things would have gone well, but we would be doing a two player version of things I mentioned above.

Remotely, most of our important conversations occur in email. One of us will make the long argument for something. I don't mean argue as in disagreement or yelling, but argument as in a pitch with thoughtfulness to back it up. When we're brainstorming, we're spitballing via messenger software, doodling pictures and mailing them, crafting mocks in Google Drawing, or sending pictures of games on BGG. "Like this, but with this."

We review every single line of text together. Every decision. Every tuning pass. It's intensely thorough, but it's required so that we both know what's going on and can discuss it. Many things are just rubber stamped. Josh or I both have our moments when we say "I think X" and the other person grunts and waves their chalice, sloshing cheap wine on the hounds. Then there are the "wait a moments," where the chalice is set aside and we discuss upon the bear rug.

I don't really have any faults for this process, but it requires a good partner. Like finding a good significant other, it's not easy and sometimes it just works.

But, not everything I do is with Josh. Just, a lot of it. So, it's time to revise some of my solo practices. Cheveeing it doesn't always work. Nor does my rules first method. I recently picked Sol Rising back up with the intent to overhaul it entirely. Sol began its life as Blockade, where ships were actual blocks with pegs. This evolved to Sol Rising, with card based ships and a full thematic campaign. Then, Sol Rising 2.5 late last year, where I took some steps to integrate story more thoughtfully. 2.5 gave me some really good ideas. There were some elements I really liked that I thought made the game very unique. I felt like, if I were willing to throw a lot of work away, the end result might be smoother, more exciting, and easier to pitch. That's what I'm doing.

But, when building a new game on top of a 2+ year old foundation, it doesn't make sense to do what I normally do. I have a lot of good ideas I'm bringing with me. Things that are incredibly well tested. I also know what isn't good enough, and I have high level ideas for what I want to accomplish. I felt like, in a way, I needed to pitch myself.

First, I opened a word document and listed about 12 high level things, from the experience perspective, that I wanted this game to have. Some are entirely new, others directly lifted from Sol, and others still a partial version of what Sol contained. I bolded the key point, then typed out a few sentences to provide a gist for what I'm looking for.

I wrote my goal, first. 

"Play an epic space opera with 2-4 players. Enjoy a persistent narrative campaign with friends in which your characters grow, get promoted, and die, and experience a smooth and dynamic combat game."

I started listing ideas. Here is one that is a modification of my guns/missiles combat mechanism, which has always existed in every version of the game in some form.

"Advantage Rock Paper Scissor: Stealing from D&D, to emphasize the weapon systems Rock Paper Scissor I really like from the current game, I'm going to have situations where you're at advantage and this gives you bonus dice to roll or situations. For example, Interceptors are at advantage against Bombers. Bombers, when close in with heavy capital ships, are at advantage. Battlecruisers against destroyers are at advantage. All will be on the card, and advantage will mean the same thing across the board. This will reward you, but not devastate you, for having the right ships for the right problem."

Here's one that's almost a direct lift from the current game.

"System Failures: One of my favorite systems from the existing game. I want to make this system more robust and compelling, not just something that ticks away stats."

Here's something new.

"Custom Dice Combat: Custom dice that are rolled in combat. Different ships and Commanders will have different uses for the same die faces. This way, you don’t need to memorize rules, just chuck the dice and see what that ship does. The goal is that different ship types and commanders feel unique, results are varied. Commanders and ships can have faults that lead to interesting problems."

So I have my guiding principles. I can sit in a meeting full of marketing executives, wave my hands about, and watch them nod as I list off high level ideals. I've been in those meetings, I know what's going on. But, now I'm at the point of conflict that I typically find myself in for the first two methods. How do I explain everything? What do I do when I get stuck?

The thing about a prototype as mature as Sol Rising is that I just know it. I can live it and breath it. I can picture it in my head, even the new version. One of my first goals was to remake the map entirely. I hadn't done that in almost 2 years. It was a weakness of the game. This is an entirely visual exercise, so I made a simple mock.

MapMock

Then I thought, where are the Units? How are the players represented. So, I added those. They're the numbered diamonds above. I then thought, how are they controlled? Who runs them? I made play boards and tried to create a point of view for what that would look like.

PlayerBoardMock

You'll notice at the bottom I have a hand of cards. I didn't bother mocking those up...I wasn't there yet. And when this was made, I just put in slots for things. I thought a character card might be cool, but I left it blank. I thought multiple squadrons and orders might be cool. I didn't know how they would work, so I made a slot, and left them blank. I knew there would be phases to the round. But...I didn't know what. So, I left it blank. I began creating a to-do list of things to fill out.

I made a mock for all 6 sides of the custom die. Then I realized I knew what I wanted my characters to do. That helped inform the dice further as well as the round order. Knowing the round order informed what the ships needed to contain.

ShipMock

I even made token mocks and cards for damage and such. Leave no stone un-turned, and no opportunity to make a lousy mock safe.

Tokens

None of these icons are final. I used the basic shapes provided in Google Drawing. And, if you're reading he text above and going "But Grant...?" just ignore it. I needed to create basic examples just to get a feel for how the systems work.

So, after a week of chipping away at it, I've storyboarded my entire game. Like Pixar with a movie, or George Miller with Fury Road, I know how every step can and should play out. Now, I'm going to draft rules based on this framework. Now I'm going to write the dialog and the story. Once I have that, I can flesh out all the first pass content that I can test. Then, I can strap the story and scenarios I've been crafting for years and update them for the new system.

I'm really excited, both by the future of this game, but also using storyboards and mocks to craft the game and take it out of the cave of my mind.

What is your process? How have you evolved it? What do you do to remain sharp and improve? Share your thoughts on my article or answer these questions in the comments below.