Post by: Grant Rodiek
One thing new designers (or really, all designers) have issues with are being focused enough to move forward with their ideas. Many new, undisciplined creative people say “I have an idea!” and are then crippled with indecision about where to go next. Or, they go somewhere next, then somewhere else, and ultimately create a wasteful spiderweb of inane thought.
I just returned from a weekend trip to Texas and I’m about to jump on a plane to visit Thailand and Vietnam. That means I won’t have my computer to work on Mars Rising, As a result, I busted out my legal pad and began working on my next design. I noticed at the end of the weekend that I had 6 fleshed out pages, arranged in a way that was very methodical and useful. I fleshed out many details and answered many questions.
I’m not going to share my notes — it’s a bit premature for that. But, I thought it might be useful for some if I shared the outline of my notes, the order I did things, and why. By sharing processes that work well for me, I hope you might learn something. Then, you can share your successes and we all improve!
1.) The Introductory Paragraph: At the top of the first page I wrote a purely fictional introduction. My goal was to define:
- The role of the players.
- The conflict.
- How the players win.
- The fictional trappings of it all (fantasy, kingdom in danger)
Now, at this phase I didn’t know how players won. I had an idea, but I wasn’t sure. I left that section blank and circled it very noticeably.
2.) Built a components list: This section was revised more than any other, but as I was creating an outline, knowing what tools I had to work with was really important. This included:
- Tentative name of deck and my gut check for the number of cards, so things like “Location (12)” and “Travel (50).”
- General token types, such as coins or good and evil.
- Character pawns.
By listing this out, I know what I need to use and what tools I have at my disposal. Writing things down reinforces its existence in your mind. If you force yourself to remember everything, you’ll tap out your brain and begin forgetting and overlooking things. Once I had this in my notebook, I was able to constantly re-reference it.
3.) Loosely Define Setup: I wanted to get my head around the notion of what my players would see when they sat at the table. I wanted to think about the spatial arrangement of the components and think about the amount of information new players need to procees.
This is very high level and loose, but I wanted to generally think about:
- The number of players.
- How many decks they need to shuffle and arrange.
- The pieces they get to choose.
- How many “choices” they need to make during setup, such as characters and things.
Even at this early stage, you can identify what might be overwhelming for players.
<Quick Aside> Just a quick note. As I’m writing all of this, when I thought of something I didn’t want to forget, I’d quickly jot it down in the margins and box it in so that it was easy to find. For example, my travel mechanic is based on a value on the sides of the location cards. I quickly noted that in a box. I also thought about how you might sell loot back to the game, so I made a note of that.
4.) Define Card Types: My game is very card driven. From step number 2 I generally know how many decks I think I need to satisfy the game. Now, I need to go another level deeper to think about the types of cards within it.
Some of these types have a single mechanic, such as cards with Traveler functionality that move through the world. There are also events, that must be played. Then there are states, which permanently affect a location, at least until removed.
When I think of Loot, a simple bulleted list helps me identify the need for gold, weapons, spells, and gear. Continuing with the note from the Quick Aside above, I jot down that there may be cards with a “when resolved” type note to further modify the world. Or, tie ins to the my dice mechanic.
5.) Define a Basic Turn: In a big box in the center of the page, I wrote down the three steps of a player’s turn. Sometimes this comes early in a process, sometimes later. I think it’s one of the most crucial questions you must answer (and re-answer as you develop).
At this point, return to step 2 and examine the components you have. If a player does A, then B, then C, do you have sufficient cards to provide sufficient variety and strategy? If you know what a player will do every turn, are there new components or features the design might need to be a fully fleshed out loop?
6.) Define Locations: Locations are the core spatial element of the game. They are essentially the board or the map. Before I could define my other content, I needed to know, generally, the parameters of my world. I filled a page with a dozen locations, each with little notes on art and presentation, potential bonuses and mechanics, and so forth. This entire page is very very loose and will all change, but I needed to know the ground on which my players would be standing, so to speak.
7.) Draw Cards: I filled a page with 7 high quality, hand-drawn sketches of cards. I tried to draw one of every card type and define synergies between cards. For example, in one place I had a goblin scout who had a connection with the goblin lords. I made sure to mock this up so that I could see what it would look like if I indeed implemented this functionality.
Over time I began to list icons that would be needed and I began to understand even more how players will hold and play cards. For example, players can equip a hero with a single weapon. This is splayed to the left of the hero. They can also have a single piece of gear, which is splayed to the bottom. I kept the information needed to play the card in the top left (so you can read with a hand of cards), but designed the permanent info of the card based on how it would be played to the table.
This was also useful in that it gave me an idea of how much information I was expecting players to process at every step of the game. On a turn, players will choose a single card to play. That decision concerns the 1-3 pieces of information in the top left corner. Later in the turn, players may need to use information at the bottom of the card. It is key, to prevent players from being overwhelmed and general AP, to understand the parameters I’ll be putting before players.
Doodling helps this.
8.) Define Characters: This exercise is similar to Step 6. Like Locations, I have a small number of characters, one per player. These exist in every game and will be primary drivers of decisions and content, so I decided to list and jot down the general ideas for each character.
I’m taking a very systematic approach with the characters to keep them simple and make the introductory experience a good one. Therefore, defining these 8 characters was quick and painless. I’m also not naming them, because I want players to fill in the blanks themselves. Therefore, I simply defined what it meant to be a character and punched out 8 quickly. Is this final? No, but it’s another layer that helps guide the rest of my process.
9.) Big Deck Break Down: I have a few larger decks of approximately 50-60 cards. That’s the number I feel is necessary to prototype the game. It may be more, may be fewer. For each of these decks, I did rough numbers of the distribution for card type, using the information from Step 4. For example, the Travel Deck (50 cards) might have:
- 6 Travelers
- 3 Merchants
- 25 Enemies
- 6 Events
- 10 Shortcuts/Location Bonuses
This helps me know the importance of every card type. I can also break this down further to think about the distribution within the sorts. For example, if half the deck are enemies, how many of those enemies should be easy? How many difficult? At this stage I’m largely driven by a gut feeling and push for excitement, so it’s easy to define these things based on years of playing games. How right I am is yet to be seen (I wager I’m quite wrong), but I need to start somewhere.
Next Steps: Now, it’s time to build the actual cards. I have my checklist of the number and type of every card. My preferred process is to cut out that many index cards (I split blank cards in half) and then label them. For example, Travel – Event, or Loot – Weapon. I then stack them up and flip through them with a pencil. When I have an idea, I create the card. When I’m stuck, I put them back in my backpack.
Then, we play.
Was this useful? Were any new ideas for your own processes found? Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below!