What Makes Your Game the Best?

The Jones’ Theory is a system used to cull a board game collection. The basic idea is that you only need one of each type of game in your collection. So you choose the best of that type and get rid of the rest. This could be interpreted in different ways depending on how granular you want to be with your types. You could use deck builders as a single type or differentiate deck builders that start with stacks of cards like Dominion from deck builders that shuffle and have a buy row like Ascension. So the theory can be quite flexible.

When designing games a question that comes up is, “does anyone want another ______ game?” This question ties in perfectly with the Jones’ Theory. Except instead of asking if a game is good enough in its type to keep or buy, you are asking if it is good enough to make.

I think this is an important question to ask yourself at the beginning of a design. What about the design justifies the time, effort, and money you will need to invest to create the game?

Just like with culling a collection with the Jones’ Theory you can have a lot of flexibility on how you define a type. Are you designing a worker placement game that you are comparing to every worker placement game, or are you designing a family weight worker placement game which would only be compared to other lighter worker placement games? So it’s important to define your audience to make this decision.

You could compare on genre, theme, price, anything really. But once you decide on your criteria you have to prove why your idea will be the absolute best thing in that type. If it isn’t going to be the best, then it isn’t worth making.

You can certainly get specific enough with your criteria that any game is the best, and that’s fine. But if your goal is to publish the game and sell it, your criteria should be something that a large enough group of people agree with.

What makes your design the best?

Brevity

I like to keep things brief. Only use as much time as you need. Don’t over explain or repeat things unnecessarily.

I try to use this in my game design. I want the game to play as quickly as possible without feeling that the experience was rushed or cut short.

I try to use it in my rules writing. Because of this, I often avoid stating things that happen as a result of following the rules I did write. This can cause confusion though.

When you are writing rules you are trying to explain a system that is very obvious to you, because you invented it, to a person that likely has none of the assumptions that you take for granted. You may even disagree on the definition of the words you are using. This makes it necessary to state what you think is obvious, because it almost always isn’t obvious to the reader.

This leads me to another trick I’ve started to use when writing my rules. If I find myself using a lot of words to describe a mechanism, I cut it from the game or drastically simplify it. If I don’t have the patience to write it out, I can’t expect a player to have the patience to learn it.

Be clear, but be brief.

Deadlines

I don’t like deadlines. They stress me out. But they are also the only way I get anything done.

When I started designing games I would follow an idea for as long as I was interested, and then get distracted by a new idea. I didn’t get very far with most designs because of this. My computer is full of half finished ideas and unprinted prototypes. I never had a clear goal while working on those designs. I didn’t have a deadline. They would never be late, so they never had to be finished.

Then I started entering design contests. Design contests have deadlines. So I had to finish the design or it would be late. And if a design I made specifically for a contest was late for the contest, that was a lot of wasted effort.

Contests were a great help in getting me to stick with a design, focus, and get it to a finished enough state to submit. I wouldn’t say that these where complete to the point of publishing, but they were usually a solid 80% of a game.

But I went too far with the contests. I kept having ideas for every design contest I saw. So as soon as I submitted my game to one, I would move on to another, and another, and another.

So, while this was better than my collection of unrealized ideas, a collection of 80% finished games wasn’t really what I wanted either. So I decided to stop entering contests and start finishing games.

Without the external deadlines of a contest I needed something else to keep me focused. I’m part of two board game design groups. Between them, I have 3 design meet ups a month. That’s three deadlines every month. Three targets that keep me focused.

For a while I was working solely on Plutocracy, which itself originated from a contest. But I’ve since been trying to work on a few different games so I don’t get burned out. It’s been going well. Just this week I finished rules for two games because I’ll have a chance to play them soon.

Board game design is an iterative process so I work best with smaller goals. With three meet ups and three games that means each game has a monthly deadline. So every month I finish three games. But since it isn’t a contest, the next month I finish those same games again.

So far none of them are done. But neither are they abandoned. And that constant, steady progress is reassuring. A more measured success than sudden bursts of creativity followed by months of inactivity.

As you may know, in addition to game design I also produce a podcast and write this blog you are currently reading. For these endeavors deadlines are even more important. While a game design can get to it’s final product in many ways, a podcast and blog must build an audience. And to do that they must be consistent.

I published the first episode of my podcast in January. I committed myself to produce one episode a month and, importantly, always on the 15th. With a deadline of the 15th I could be consistent. I might have stayed up very late on the 14th of each of those months, but I met my deadline.  After a few episodes I started to record episodes much faster than I was releasing them so I adjusted my deadline and started publishing an episode every other week and then weekly.

Since then I changed the podcast to a longer format and went back to biweekly releases. While I changed my deadlines, I always did it intentionally and never allowed myself to miss a deadline.

With the blog, I set myself weekly Friday deadlines. This has been the toughest to keep up with. Probably because writing is something that I can do at the last minute. With the podcast I need to setup guests, record for an hour and spend a few hours editing and publishing so I’m forced to do things ahead of time. But with the blog I can sit down at 10pm Friday night and probably get something posted in time. I took a bit longer posting my Plutocracy look back and missed the deadline by half an hour, but other than that I’ve managed to stick with it.

There are two steps to succeeding at something. First you must start, then you must continue. Deadlines help me with the second step. So if you want or need to do something, set a deadline and meet it. No matter how rushed, problematic, buggy, or broken, meet the deadline. Then set a new deadline to improve it.

BFIG 2017 Recap

So back in September I attended the Boston Festival of Indie Games. BFIG is a unique event. It is a showcase for independent digital and tabletop games. I focused on the tabletop section. As the showcase description implies the event is primarily about showing off indie games.

The games being shown range from prototypes looking for feedback to already published games that you can buy at the show. Regardless of the polish of the game BFIG is about playing. Depending on the game, you might play the whole thing or just a small section.

I’ve been going to BFIG for the past 4 years and the show draws a decent crowd. This year was no exception. Every table was almost constantly filled with players. Which is great  if your goal is to show your game to as many people as possible. It’s a bit inconvenient if, like me, you are a podcaster trying to get interviews with designers. I was able to catch people when they had a free minute or two and managed to get 39 interviews during the event.

It was so many interviews that it will be two episodes. You can listen to episode 22 and 23 at www.theboardgameworkshop.com. Episode 22 should have gone up on October 4th but due to some ongoing server issues it has been delayed. Hopefully everything is working by the time you read this. Episode 23 will be out October 18th.

While my day was mostly spent walking around and getting interviews I did have the chance to play 3 games. Shiki, VISITOR in Blackwood Grove, and You’ve Been Poisoned.

Shiki is a card drafting game where you make haikus. Each round you have a standard pick and pass draft then you use your drafted cards to make a line of your haiku. Each card has a single word on it and one of the four seasons or no season. At the end of the game you will score points for having the most cards in your haiku of a certain season and also for how closely you matched the 5/7/5 syllable style of a haiku. This is where the game gets tough. For  the first and second round you don’t have to use all of the cards you drafted, but they stay in your supply and you must use them all by round 3. So getting 5 syllables in the third line takes some planning. Focusing on a season to get the bonus is pretty simple though.

The one downside to this game is that your actual haiku doesn’t matter. No points for style. But, for me, making a haiku was the best part. You could maximize points by drafting the right sized and seasoned words with no regard for the poem’s content. But I’d rather lose the game and make a lovely haiku like the one I made in the demo game.

the summer tadpole glisten firefly valley its this shade so frog death
the summer tadpole
glisten firefly valley
its this shade so frog death

VISITOR in Blackwood Grove is a rule making game for a minimum of 3 players. One player is the alien, one is the kid, and the rest are different government agencies. The alien and the kid are on a team against the government agencies. The game has a deck of cards with pictures of every day items like a car, a whale, a pie, a smart phone, etc.

At the start of the game the alien player makes up a rule. During the game the kid and the agencies will attempt to get cards through the alien’s forcefield. If the item on the card follows the alien’s rule, the card gets through. If not, it doesn’t. Some of these cards will be public knowledge for all players and some will only be visible to the player that tried them.  The goal of the kid and the agencies is to figure out the rule. They then have to prove it by drawing 4 cards and correctly determining which ones will make it through the forcefield. If the agencies win the alien and kid lose but if the kid wins the alien also wins. So the alien must make a rule that the agencies will not figure out but the kid can.

It’s very light on rules and allows for a lot of creativity and trying to read other players which is what I enjoy in a rule making game. The designer wrote an interesting article about it on their website. http://resonym.com/the-unique-mechanics-of-visitor/

I really enjoy rule making games like Mastermind, and VISITOR in Blackwood Grove offers more freedom in rule creation and more players. I’m not surprised it won the audience choice award at the show. Definitely worth checking out.

You’ve Been Poisoned is an escape room style series of puzzles shrunk down to fit on a table and last only 10 minutes. This was an interesting thing. It occupies a space between a full on escape room and the various escape room at home games. Though it’s quicker than both. The quality of the setup is more like a traditional escape room and with it’s relatively small footprint I could see this being popular at conventions.

Overall BFIG was a lot of fun and very exhausting. If you are a designer it’s a great place to show off your game to a lot of people. If you’re in the area it’s definitely worth checking out.

https://www.bostonfig.com