Find your Smeech

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had a very creative few months and in them, I think I’ve done some of my best creative work. By creative, I specifically mean idea generation and the more conceptual side of design. This is the aspect of design with which I struggle the most, as I’m a stronger developer by nature. It has been a fun few months. I think we can all agree it feels good to improve in an area where you are weakest.

A great deal of my efforts have been spent on Draftaria (the development side of my brain is busy with Mars Rising), which is an idea that entered my consciousness as Drafty Dungeon and has evolved constantly. I just passed the stage during which I create my goals for the game. This is one of the most important milestones for each of my designs.

When I decide upon the goals for a game, they aren’t set in stone, but  I tend to stick to them. My goals focus on a mechanic I want to use, an experience I want to provide, or a demographic to whom I wish to appeal. For Farmageddon, my goals were to make a highly interactive and short farming game that was better than Farmville. For Battle for York, my goals were to make a war game that didn’t use dice, played in approximately an hour, and played with more than 2 players.

For Draftaria, the first goal I decided was that I wanted to have a strong focus on drafting. It’s a mechanic I love and one I’ve long wanted to use. Drafting is so beautifully simple; pick a card and pass. It really pairs nicely with my current obsession to create simpler games. I very much want to grow this hobby and one way in which I can contribute to that is to craft more accessible games.

Another goal is that I wanted to design a game with a strong sense of adventure. Originally, this was a dungeon crawler. Then, a sprawling, Skyrim style epic. Now, it’s a little bit of Zelda, a little bit of Harry Potter, and a dose of goofy, wandering fantasy. It should present you with a sense of discovery and magic and a world a little outside your control.

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I realized I wanted something lighter, sillier (but not a joke), and more colorful. I’d rather have the world of Pandora from Avatar than the cover of a heavy metal album.

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The third goal, and the topic of this post (at long last, the crowd rejoices!), is the third goal. Lately, I’ve been completely focused on creating more thematic, story-driven experiences. This is not a “design theme first” argument, I’m merely noting that it’s more and more important, to me, that the end result of my designs is a strong theme. I also want players to enjoy a story together. No, it isn’t a story-telling game, but I want the mechanics to drive exciting, memorable moments.

I think we can all agree that the preceding paragraph is a pile of cliches. Yes, it’s true. But, nonetheless, it’s a goal. I’m willing to decrease the strategy required to play and encourage players more to do things that seem cool, or exciting, or interesting. I want to reward a little risk and exploration. Calculation be damned. Those are conscious philosophical decisions I’m making.

I really cemented this decision recently when I was in the shower, a place of great creativity for me. Ladies. Without really thinking about it too deeply, I found myself carrying on a conversation between two characters aloud. One character stood out, and I began conceiving mechanical and thematic ideas from him. His name is Headmaster Smeech, and he will be players’ first experience in the game.

I realized that I wanted Smeech to teach the game to my players, which means I needed to violate a rule I hold most dear; don’t mix flavor and instruction.

If you’ve ever received rules feedback from me, there’s a strong chance I left a comment about unnecessary flavor text within your rules. Because, as I probably noted, rules are meant to concisely instruct. I still agree with this, but I challenged myself to craft a rule set that is fun, compelling, and instructive. It’s an El Dorado, for sure, but one should challenge himself for every new design, yes?

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Can my rules begin your story? Can they teach you how to play the game and introduce you to the world? Can they set the tone and put your hearts and minds in the right place?

Obviously, the rules are just the initial experience, but I’ve found writing them as Smeech (and his assistants) to be incredibly instructive for my design efforts.

I’m deep in the midst of that uncomfortable, prickly, sun bleached creative gulch where I have about 3 out of 5 big questions for the game mostly answered (sort of). But, the last questions are really difficult and were they multiple choice I would have probably just answered “C” at this point. Plus, even though the answer to Question 2 was “Cards,” I still have to make all of those cards. Really, question 2 is about 100 small questions.

I tire of this metaphor. The summary is that I’m almost there and I’m resolving my difficulties with the help of Smeech, a crusty old wizard who resides in my head.

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As I write the rules in the character of Headmaster Smeech and explore his character and his world, I find it informing mechanical direction. I wasn’t expecting that, nor for it to be fruitful. Ideas are plentiful, but it’s finding good ones that’s key. I find Smeech helping me design cards, be it their names, function, or types of magic. He knows the ancient arts well.

I find Smeech guiding the level of complexity I want to put before my players. There are times when I find it difficult to explain a rule within framework of the world, so I take a step back and think about it further. How can I make it more intuitive? How can I make it interesting without being complicated? Smeech is, after all, a headmaster, and is used to teaching headstrong young wizards their craft. Right?

The results have been very surprising. One of my two primary mechanics emerged as a result. It should be a nice, refreshing twist on a few established mechanics. The visuals of the mechanic also paint a very clear picture and support the fiction of your role as a player in the world.

The process is fascinating for me. New game, new methods.

A great deal of what I’ve said is vague and bereft of specific examples. I’m hesitant to reveal too much as too many details are still in flux. They may also turn out to be simply dreadful. Plus, that’s not the purpose of this post. The point I’m trying to make is that if you find yourself creatively stuck against a wall or in need of a jolt to your process, consider the following:

  • Place yourself in the world you are crafting and answer the classic questions of a journalist: who, what, where, when, and why. Be it Agricola or Arkham Horror, you can recognize the needs of your setting.
  • Take yourself out of your comfort zone, either by focusing on mechanics or theme first. Either way, try a path unique to yourself.
  • Think about ways you can excite and entice players from the beginning.
  • Consider ways to craft a simple, intuitive experience from the ground floor.
  • Ask how a character in your game would do the things you tell your players to do.
  • Find your game’s Smeech.

Who is your game’s Smeech? Have you tried any new processes lately? Leave notes in the comments below!

Designer To-Do List

The article is another one that may be of questionable value to you, dear reader. I just know that I think about these things all the time and one of the purposes of a blog is to catalog thoughts. Also, as with all posts, perhaps it’ll generate a conversation? What are your goals?  

Post by: Grant Rodiek

When setting out to do things, grand things, things of great import, I find it useful to set goals. Goals focus the mind, ease the self-acknowledgement of priorities, and guide decisions that need to be made.

Goals should be sensible, but there should also be a few ridiculous ones. A few months ago I thought it would be ridiculous to have a game published, and yet Farmageddon is being manufactured in the thousands right now. It’s good to check off the single (baseball metaphor) with some frequency, but also to achieve the grand slam on rare occasions.

Here are some of my goals for the board game design realm. Note that I didn’t set a time limit as I’m in no hurry. One more thing to note! If you’re curious how you can meet your own personal design goals, be sure to read Corey Young’s outstanding article about pitching to publishers. It all starts with a great pitch…

Reasonable Goals: These are in no particular order. I define reasonable as possible through determination and time.

  • Have a game on the shelf at Barnes and Noble and Target. I’m obsessed with accessibility and reaching the mass market. With the board game audience growing and retailers showing more interest, now is the time.
  • Receive an invite to the Gathering of Friends. Attending this invitation-only annual event begun by Alan Moon would be amazing. Play games with the greats? Who see me as a peer? Yes, please.
  • Design published games within several genres. Vlaada Chvátil is known for creating games in a huge variety of genres. He has a co-op game that uses a CD Rom. He has an Ameritrash/Euro game about managing a dungeon. He has an epic adventure RPG like game driven by deckbuilding mechanics. He also has a game about building space trucks in real time. Over the course of time, I want to be known for great variety. Stefan Feld is also ridiculously innovative.
  • Win some Awards! My friend Cole Medeiros’s game GUBS has received several and seems to receive new nominations with startling frequency. I want some shiny stickers for the box cover of a game I design. This also means competing in competitions. I’m currently contemplating submitting Field Marshals to the 2012 Premio Archimede, though the timeline is a bit rushed.
  • Have a game published by a large, traditional publisher. I enjoy competition. Submitting a game to a huge, traditional publisher who may only publish a handful of games every year is quite competitive. I’d love to design a game published by Days of Wonder, Gamewright, or Academy Games (three of my favorites).
  • Have a game translated. I love to joke that the German version of Farmageddon is Färmündgötten, but the truth is I wish it were really localized for the European markets. With success will come andere sprache, ja?
  • Sell games from my site. I don’t mean I’ll be a full on publisher (though that might be neat). But, if I created something fantastic that also fell within a price point that I could spend the money to manufacture it and sell it, I’d like to do so. Perhaps a simple dice game or a hand-crafted, boutique style board game? Doing this requires trust and a name that people respect, so succeeding here requires time and long-term diligence.

Ridiculous Goals: These are in no particular order. I define ridiculous as possible with a spark of brilliance and a little luck.

  • Design a unique mechanic. I will always try to come up with nifty mechanics. Currently I feel my game Field Marshals does a few unique things. But, nothing I’ve done so far, or perhaps will ever do, will be as genre defining as Donald X. Vaccarino with Dominion. But, it’s the Holy Grail of Game Design, as Ray Mazza noted. I shall seek it.
  • Design a game that makes a fellow designer say aloud “I wish I would have thought of that.” I say this all the time. I want somebody to say it about a game I made.
  • Earn a spot on a Top Ten list. Games with Two, a blog, has been updating their Top 10 list over the past few days. I’m not going to lie — even though I KNOW I’m not on the list with Farmageddon, I really want to be there. Tom Vasel also has a Top 100 video. To have somebody say “something you designed is one of my 10 favorites” is a huge honor.

What drives you? What are your goals?