Different Approaches to Game Design
I’ve been messing around with half a dozen designs lately and I seem to be stuck on each and every one of them. The only design that is making progress is a co-design with a friend of mine. So I’ve been thinking about mixing it up to try some different approaches to designing game. Today I wanted to present four approaches that you can use as a starting point. I am going to try each of these four approaches over the next month and see if I find inspiration.
One of the most popular ways of starting out a game design is to choose a theme that you think is interesting.
This is a wide open way to design. You could choose to design about paratroopers rescuing chickens stranded on Antarctica. You could design about scuttlefish escaping sea urchins.
Going Theme First allows you to choose whatever you want the game to be about. Once you’ve chosen the theme you can then begin to consider the mechanics that might fit with the theme.
I personally like Theme First design. I like to picture myself immersed in the theme wondering what ways I can bring the theme together and make it feel like a grand experience.
This is probably the other most popular way of designing a game. The designer might come up with a really interesting way to play a game. This could be a new component, a new way of using a component, a new combination of mechanics, or other things that haven’t been done before. Or you could pick a mechanic that has been done before and add a twist.
Once you’ve figured out your main mechanic and made it playable you can try to figure out what type of theme might fit with your mechanic.
This way of designing assures the designer that their game will utilize a gameplay mechanic that they like.
Scoring Condition First
This is a lesser used way of designing games. Some abstract games are designed with the scoring condition as the driver for the design.
This is essentially a specific variant of Mechanic First design, but with the end-game in mind. Designers choose how they want the scoring to work. Then they will fill in the design with the mechanics and slap on a theme if necessary.
This is something that I’ve been wanting to do but have not found a scoring condition that I like enough to build a game around.
This is a tough one to do because most designers don’t design around a “final product” type component. But there are times when a designer may make a game from the components that they have available.
When designing component first you would often choose a component or components that you really want in your game. Then you would choose a theme or mechanic that will work with those components.
This can be pretty awesome if you have a great component in mind. If you want to go with this approach it is probably best to be innovative and use either new components that haven’t been used in games before or to utilize existing components in new ways.
There are, of course, other ways to get started with a game design but I think these four ways are a great starting point to get you thinking about your game designs. If you have other ways that you think are important, please share them in the comments section. Thanks for reading and have a great Thanksgiving (If you are in the US) or a great weekend around the rest of the world.
Design Me: Auction/Bidding
Welcome to another Design Me exercise day on Boards and Barley. As a former competitive athlete I know the importance of practice. As a soccer player it is important to practice with your team so that you can learn how you work together on the field. But it is also important to practice and exercise on your own so you make sure your body is in the best shape possible so that you can be successful when it’s game day!
I feel like exercise and practice are important for the brain as well. That’s why I’ve been writing these Design Me articles. The idea for these articles is to exercise my brain so that I can perform as well as I can when actually designing games with the intent of pitching them some day.
I’ve been using a cool new online tool called Boardgamizer. It is perfect for coming up with a topic for these Design Me articles. The way it works is that it spits out a mechanic or two, a theme, and a victory condition. Then you can take that and see if you can come up with a game design around those things. Here’s the result I got for today:
So today we are going to exercise our brain and come up with a bidding/auction game with a holy theme where the goal is to place all your pieces. Piece of cake!
In The Beginning
The idea behind “In The Beginning” is that you are playing a role in building the earth. There are mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, and other terrain that need to be placed onto the bare Earth. The winner will be the player who can put out all of their pieces first.
The pieces that players must place are sets of different terrain tiles. Each round a set of terrain cards will be available for auctioning. Players will then obtain terrain cards from the auction. These terrain cards can then be played according to a small set of rules, which will then allow that player to place some of the terrain tiles from their supply.
Each player begins with the same number and types of terrain tiles. For example, each player might have 2 desert tiles, 3 forest tiles, 4 river tiles, 5 ocean tiles, and 6 mountain tiles and so on. The desert tiles would be the most difficult to place while the mountain tiles would be the easiest to place.
- 1 Board showing a bare earth covered in a hex grid
- 27 Bidding tokens in each player color numbered 1 to 27
- 1 Blank bidding token in each player color
- Deck of terrain cards – 20 of each terrain type
- Hexagonal Terrain Tiles – 20 per player
- Guide sheets for terrain interactions
How To Play:
In each round there will be a number of piles equal to the number of players plus 2 placed next to the board. The number of cards in the piles will vary as the game goes on. During the first three rounds the piles will each have 2 cards. During rounds 4-6 the piles will have three cards. And during rounds 7-9 the piles will have 4 cards.
Players will be bidding on these piles of cards simultaneously by using bidding tokens. Each player has a set of bidding tokens numbered 1 to 27. They may place only one token at each pile face down. Players MUST bid on at least one pile. Players may bid a total of 35 bidding points in any given round. For example, a player may bid on one pile with their “27” token. Then they would only have 8 bidding points left. They could place any combination of bidding tokens totaling 8 points onto remaining bidding piles. All players will place their bids face down. Players may “bluff” by placing their blank token at a bidding pile.
Once all bids are placed they are flipped face up. Whichever player has the highest bid at a pile wins those cards. Their bidding token is then discarded for the rest of the game. If a player loses an auction by less than 5 bidding points they can draw a card from the deck. Their bidding tokens are also discarded. If a player loses an auction by more than 5 bidding points they will keep their bidding token but do not get to draw a card.
So in the example image above here are the results:
- Pile #1: Yellow wins, discards their bidding token and takes the cards. Red loses, but is only 5 away from the winning bid, so Red discards their bidding token and draws a card from the deck. Blue is not within 5 of the winning bid so they keep their bidding token but do not get a card.
- Pile #2: Red wins, discards their bidding token and takes the cards.
- Pile #3: Blue wins, discards their bidding token and takes the cards. Yellow loses, but is within 5 away from the winning bid, so Yellow discards their bidding token and draws a card from the deck.
- Pile #4: Red wins, discards their bidding token and takes the cards. Blue loses, and is not within 5 of the winning bid, so Blue keeps their bidding token but does not draw a card.
- Pile #5: Blue wins, discards their bidding token and takes the cards.
These bidding piles are important because of the cards that they are offering. Because placement of tiles is what wins the game players will be looking to make combinations of cards that allow them to place as many tiles on each turn as possible. So once players obtain cards they can turn them in, in player order, to place their terrain tiles on the board.
Placing terrain tiles follows a logical order. For example, you wouldn’t put a desert next to a forest. Well, you could, but it would cost you an extra card. At the start of the game one mountain tile is placed as a starting tile on the board. Any other tile can be placed next to Mountain. But after that there are a series of logical rules for placing the other terrain types.
These rules are things like, if you place X terrain by Y terrain then it costs one extra card, or 1 fewer card, or “you must place three”. So there would be a series of these types of rules. So players will want to build the right combinations of sets of cards in their hand so that they can play more terrain tiles than their opponents.
This exercise could turn into a full game design if I put in the effort to create the terrain placement ruleset, which I just might do.
Your Designer Perspective:
So what are your thoughts about this game design? Are there any glaring holes in the design? Is anything obviously broken?
What would you have come up with for the design based on the Boardgamizer criteria? I imagine there are an infinite number of ways to go with those criteria. So make sure you are exercising your game designer mind! And have a great weekend!
Game Concept: Conclave
So there I was, working on Trading Post, watching the Dan Brown movie Angels & Demons when all of a sudden a new game design hit me. I thought to myself wouldn’t a game about electing a pope be kind of fun? So I changed course and laid the groundwork for a game design I am calling Conclave. (It could also be called Preferiti, Triregnum, Habemus Papem – which is already used for a game, or Fumata Bianca).
That was back in 2011. I had the idea for the game and a sheet of paper with a few details, but, like so many other game concepts, it sat on my shelf for nearly two years.
While again working on Trading Post a few weeks ago, and yes, while watching Angels & Demons (I guess I have a liking for that movie) I again was drawn to the idea of a game about electing a pope. So this time, since Trading Post is my white whale, I diverted my attention to actually conceptualizing Conclave.
Papal Conclave: What is it?
In the Catholic Church the pope is the person elected to succeed the line of Saint Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Since the dawn of Christianity there has been a leader of the Christian Church. And the Catholic Church has referred to that leader as the Supreme Pontiff, or more simply, the Pope.
Conclave is all about electing a new pope. The word Conclave is a conjunction of two Latin words, cum (“with”), and clave (“the key”). The interpretation of the word conclave is “sealed with a key.” In 1274, due to several elections taking years to decide the next pope, it was decreed by Pope Gregory X that the elections should take place inside a sealed room. This way the college of cardinals would have to elect a pope while basically being sequestered and given small rations of food and water.
Since 1846 all conclaves have taken place in the Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican City.
During conclave the cardinals of the Catholic church are locked in the Sistine chapel. They will cast their first vote in the afternoon of the first day. To elect a pope requires a 2/3rds majority for any single candidate not including that candidate’s vote. If the vote does not result in a newly elected pope, the ballots will be burned with chemicals that result in black smoke emanating from the Sistine Chapel smoke stack. Each subsequent day the cardinals will take a vote in the morning and another vote in the afternoon. Black smoke will be displayed each vote until a pope is elected. Once a pope is elected then the smoke will be white, thus informing the world that a new leader of the Catholic church has been elected.
While this Scrutinium method (secret ballot) of electing the pope is a standard method there are three others: Compromissum, Accessus, and Quasi-Inspiratio. This game design is focused on Scrutinium.
How does the Game Work?
During a game of Conclave you represent one of the Preferiti, the preferred cardinals for the papacy. It is your objective throughout the game to manipulate the college of cardinals such that you earn their votes and get elected as the next pope.
This game is all about area influence. The game will be played using cards that represent each of the players. Each player will have their own deck of cards. Half of the cards are your own player color. The other half match the colors of the other players.
The first portion of the game represents the first afternoon vote on the first day of Conclave. During this portion of the game players take turns playing cards onto each cardinal to set their initial vote. Once all the votes are in, assuming no player has a 2/3rds majority (which is physically impossible in the first round with how I’ve designed the game), then the second phase of the game begins.
The second phase is the manipulation portion of the game. One your turn you can perform one of several types of miracles/charities, each basically giving you a specific action. These are listed here:
- Miracle of Feeding: Flip the cards of any one cardinal.
- Miracle of Healing: Swap the top cards of any two cardinals.
- Acts of Service: Lock any one cardinals vote.
- Acts of Mercy: Examine the bottom card of up to three cardinals.
So I’ve mentioned cards and tables. Let’s explain. During the first phase of the game (the first afternoon vote) players will take turns placing cards on each of the cardinals. They will place one card face down, and one card face up. The face up card is the only one that matters when counting the votes. The bottom card represents the bias that the cardinal has toward another Preferiti. So when players choose Miracle of Feeding they will flip any one cardinal’s vote over to the other card.
When players choose the Miracle of Healing they will take the top cards from any two cardinals at any tables and swap them.
Acts of Service allows for any one cardinal’s vote to be locked in for the rest of the game. This cardinal can no longer be swayed. But beware, each player has only so many “locking cubes” that they can use to lock cardinals.
And Acts of Mercy allows a player to look at the bottom cards of up to three different cardinals to see which way they might be leaning. This will help players know when it might be beneficial to choose the Miracle of Feeding (flip cards) action.
How do you win?
The game board basically represents the locked down Sistine Chapel. Your objective is not to earn a straight up 2/3rds vote as that would be boring for a game. Rather, you are trying to win different tables within the Sistine Chapel. It’s an electoral college of sorts. There are tables of 3, 5, and 7 cardinals. If you possess the majority of votes at any table, then you receive a number of votes equal to the number of cardinals at that table.
So if a table of 3 cardinals has two green votes and one blue vote, the green player would currently have 3 votes. It is an all-or-nothing system.
Players play to a certain number of votes depending on how many players are playing. Once a player has successfully manipulated their way to the right number of votes then they are elected as the new pope and the game is over.
Current State of the Game…
Currently the game is in the prototype phase. I basically have it ready for solo playtesting. Right now it is a pretty simple concept and is easy to prototype. But I’m exploring a few things that could make it both more interesting from a gameplay perspective and more difficult to prototype at the same time. So for now I’ll keep it simple. My goal is to solo it this weekend and get a better idea about how to move forward with the concept.
I’ll post more about Conclave in the future, but until then check out this awesome infographic from image-illustration.net: (click to embiggen)
Bonus Trading Post Post
Over the past four weeks I’ve been writing about a new game redesign of mine by the name of Trading Post. Since there has been a decent level of interest in the game concept I thought I’d write one more article about the game. So far I’ve covered the following:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
- BONUS Today 6-13-13: More on Trading Post
Today I’m giving you some bonus material on where the game is at, how to make it better, and some other tasty morsels. But let’s start with how good I am at focusing on things other than actually designing this game!
I’m Good at Wasting Time (and Effort!)
One of my downfalls in life is my desire for perfection. Perhaps perfection is the wrong word. That paints me as someone with OCD, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Perhaps a better word would be aesthetics. I desire for things to look good.
At the end of May an article was posted on Example of Play called, “The Benefits of Crappy prototypes.” I will provide a rebuttal for that article next week, but I wanted to mention it today because I am not a believer in crappy prototypes. And this may be my downfall.
I love a good looking prototype. I love good game art. If you’ve read my board game reviews you’ll see that artwork is consistently mentioned as either a like or a dislike. I approach game design as though I’m reading a story. I like to be enveloped in a different world and escape this one for an hour or so. Artwork is a key way to get that experience across to the players.
What this means is that I spend way, WAY too much time in Inkscape making prototype artwork. The upside is this:
The downside is that I have four logos (as seen above) for a game that no one has yet even played! I just can’t help myself.
So I had a think about what this all really means. I was a little disappointed in myself for the artwork side of things when the game design part of it seemed lagging. But then I remembered the whole purpose:
Games, and game design, are supposed to be fun! Why else design games or play them?
So I’ve realized that though the artwork doesn’t specifically help a game design move forward, I’m having a lot of fun working on the artwork. Thus, I shall continue.
Solo “Playtest” #1
Last week I showed the picture of the game setup. I’m repeating the image here for easy reference:
Since this is an insight into the inner workings of my mind I am sharing the thoughts I wrote down while attempting to play the game for the first time.
First, some rules. On your turn you can take up to 3 actions. These can all be the same, or they can all be different. That’s up to you. The actions you can take are determined by the number of action points you have for each action. For example, if you had three points in the EXPLORE action track, then you could use all three actions on your turn to EXPLORE. After you have taken your 1, 2, or 3 actions, you must then move other action’s track cubes up in value. This is what I am calling a “Zero-Sum Action Point Allowance System.” (I would go with the acronym ZSAPAS, but I’m not going to use the term again in today’s article). Basically, for every action you take there is an equal an opposite reaction.
Here is a little game design nugget that you might enjoy:
During testing, if it seems like the first turn for all players is dictated, SKIP that first turn and make the result the new starting condition in the game.
What that means is that if all players have no choice (or only one beneficial choice) for what their first turn should be, fix it! Ever wonder why players start with 4 train cards in Ticket to Ride???
During the first solo playtest I made it 6 turns before I realized I wasn’t happy with the design. Here is the list of my chosen actions on this six turns:
- Explore/Harvest/Explore – Increased Fulfill/Trade/Trade
- Harvest – Increased Explore/Explore/Trade (I suppose you can always move up three action cubes – so much for “equal and opposite”)
- Explore/Explore/Trade – Increased Harvest/Harvest/Harvest
- Harvest/Harvest/Build (Stable) – Increased Explore/Explore/Explore
- Explore/Explore – Increased Harvest/Harvest/Harvest
- Harvest/Explore Quit.
After 6 turns I had been unable to fulfill any orders and I was only able to purchase one building. In Scoville players only have a total of about 7-10 turns. So after these 6 turns I realized that I have basically done nothing. At least nothing very fun. I need to adjust it so players feel a sense of accomplishment on each turn, or at least feel like they are setting themselves up for accomplishment soon.
Here are the notes I took at this point:
- Should the “Orders” be stacked? (What I meant here is that should the low level orders come out first, then the better ones, then the best, a la Power Grid Power Plants?)
- Should the highest valued Order card be replaced each turn that an order is not fulfilled?
- Should players always get to move their pawn 1 spot per turn without taking an action to do so? (Using the Explore action seemed critical and it was thus used very often. Then it had to be refreshed, so there were turns where I couldn’t move anywhere.)
- It takes too long to build even the basic buildings, which means it takes too long to get the man-made resources. How can this be sped up?
- Should players be able to complete a trade even if their pawn is not on a spot with another player or in the Trading Post (a la Settlers of Catan)?
- How do I make TRADING the focus?
That last point is a big one. Let’s talk about that…
Put the “Trading” in Trading Post!
Thus far in the design the trading aspect of the game has, for some lame reason or another, been the lesser focus of the design. I have always been more interested in the land exploration and development side of things. Why?
I don’t know. So I am going to switch over the focus of the game to actually put TRADING at the forefront. Sometimes I wonder how I get this far without realizing something so critical to the design. Which leads me to another game design nugget:
Designers should step back from their design every once in a while and pick apart every aspect. Ask yourself specific questions about each design decision and try to think if there is a better way!
One big example is when a level 1 friend pointed out that the black and white peppers in Scoville should cross-breed to silver/platinum/other grey color rather than gold. Color-wise it made sense. But since my original design was that they made gold I had simply stayed with it because I had never gone back and questioned why I did it that way. And I never asked myself if there was something better.
So the new thrust of the design for Trading Post is to bring trading to the forefront. Now I think that on every turn you will complete a trade at the start of your turn. This could then aid you when you choose your three actions for your turn. I’m imagining a “Trade Route” of trading cards on the table, which would still represent things the Trading Post needs. They could be set up like the races in Small World or the foraging trail in Morels or the buildings track in The Manhattan Project. In each of those games players can choose the first option(s) for free or pay to take one further done the path. This mechanic would work very well for the “Trade Route.” Or I could use a rondel for increased Euro-y awesomeness!
Another way that trading would become more integral, and increase player interaction at the same time, is to allow trading with other players no matter where you are located. Sometimes it’s easy to let thematic correctness run the show. But this is game design and we can fudge things now and then. Settlers of Catan is a very popular game that allows player to trade resources with other players no matter what. Now, explain thematically how that makes sense. What if your settlements and their settlements aren’t anywhere near each other on Catan? Well, if it’s good enough for Catan, then it’s good enough for this game!
The bottom line is that trading needs to be what makes this game special. If you want a game where exploration is the focus, then find some 18XX game.
How to Reboot…
So I am going to jump back a little and try to re-figure out how to play this game. Admittedly it wasn’t ever really set to begin with. But to make trading the focus will take some effort. I really think this can be a fun theme/game and so I will continue to work on it.
So it’s time to take some of the blank cards I ordered and put them to use. I’m excited to work on the Trade Route/Rondel idea and see how it changes the focus on the game.
Another thing I’ll probably change is that players should draw all their land from their set of ten land tiles as part of their setup. What this would do is drastically lower the exploration aspect of the game. Players would also be able to plan their moves more deeply and more intentionally. I like the sound of that.
Once I nail down how I want the trade route to work then I can put the pieces back together for how the rest of your turn would work. This should be pretty interesting and I’m going to take an open-source approach to this design. That means I’ll be posting about it for all of you to read. I hope to provide you with a designer’s perspective on making appropriate choices within the design process, and how to keep things simple. Trading Post posts likely won’t be weekly from here on out, but they will definitely pop up now and then as I work through stuff.
Thanks for reading and joining me on this ride!
Trading Post Part 1: Origin
I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the first of 4 articles about it. Today, and the next three Thursdays, I’ll be writing about the game from it’s creation to the present state. Here’s the four articles I’ll be writing:
- TODAY 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Prototyping Early Versions
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
So let’s jump back to 2010 when I was first diving into game design and take a look at how Trading Post became a thing…
Here you are, explorer extraordinaire! You have been selected from an elite group of explorers to develop a new Trading Post. You role, should you choose to accept it, is to utilize the resources found on your section of their territory, and contribute the most to the Trading Post. Contributions include constructing new buildings for the Trading Post, successfully exploring all of your allotted territory, and completing trades that are beneficial for the Trading Post.
Concept: The Map
Normally when I start a new game design I start with a theme. Trading Post is an unusual case in that it started with both a theme and a map mechanic to be used in that theme. For some reason I thought that a square grid with spots on the corners for putting cubes would be a good idea. And it would seemingly work very well with the Trading Post concept.
Here’s a look at one player’s section of territory in very alpha artwork, if you can refer to lines as artwork:
The idea of the map is that you can explore the land and add buildings to the octagons. Then each building can produce something that you can place into the diamonds. The resources would be represented by cubes, which would fit very nicely into the diamonds. The really sweet part of this map design is that you have to try and move your goods into the diamonds that adjoin to your territorial neighbors so that you can trade with them without having to use the Trading post as a middle man.
Concept: Game Play
With a theme and map mechanic in place it was time to figure out how the game would actually be played. I had found a really nice article online about what makes a game good. It included things like Tension, Replayability/Variability, No Runaway Winner, No Kingmaker, No Player Elimination and more. If anyone know of the article can you share the link? I can’t ever find it. So after working through some of those things in my head I came up with a ladder type design where you would become more capable of doing more things on your turn.
The idea of this was that you would start as just a person in the Trading Post. You would thus be able to move one spot per action, and you could only explore up to two rows into your territory. Since exploring all of your land is part of the game it would be important to build up the capability. So the first step would be to purchase a horse via trade with the Trading Post.
Once you traded for a horse you would be able to move two spots per action. You would also be able to explore the next row. In the game design the tiles that would be available in this “Horse Region” were better than those available in the “Person Region” (first two rows). This would allow you to do more stuff, make better trades, and work toward the wagon.
The Wagon was the last “upgrade” you could do. To build the wagon you would have to make a series of trades to procure the necessary components: wheels, axles, canopy, box. Once you’ve upgraded to the wagon you can then move three spaces per action and explore the furthermost regions of your territory. This is vital as the most valuable resources are only available in the “Wagon Region.”
Concept: Time and Action Points
During the game each action would cost a certain amount of time. The game would be played over 7 years with each action costing a certain number of months. So moving would cost 1 month. That’s why it would be important to upgrade to a horse or wagon as early as possible to be able to move more spots with the same action. Basically with the game being 7 years of 12 months each player would have 84 action points to work with.
Because I made “time” part of the game I was able to also have the seasons play a role. Each year had a new “Event” card come up that affected something for the year. This could be seasonally dependent as well.
So I came up with a series of event cards to add several things to the game design:
- Replayability: Each game would be different since the draw of event cards is random.
- Variability: Specific scenarios of event cards could be established to promote specific game play.
- More details: Having event cards made the game deeper, in my opinion.
I found early on that having a time mechanic like this made things difficult to design. Since players weren’t always taking the same number of actions on a turn I had to incorporate a “last player gets a turn” mechanic similar to that in Glen More. By doing this I would never have to worry about how player order worked.
The other downside of having 84 actions points (84 months) in the game was that every single turn players would have to advance their “months” token and potentially their “years” token if they entered a new year. Fiddly.
I thought I really had something with this game design. I was gung ho about putting together a prototype and making this into the most awesomest game ever. With 8 different resources, 84 action points per player, upgrades to a horse and then wagon, land development, trading, exploration, etc. I knew this would be awesome. Perhaps I was being a little too optimistic.
In my mind I thought this game had a lot of potential. I put a lot of time into it early on only to realize that it was ridiculously complicated. Next week I’ll cover my initial prototyping efforts and the lessons I learned during that phase. In two weeks I’ll share with you the current re-designed version, which is night-and-day better, potentially even being a playable and fun game. And three weeks from now I’ll discuss my path forward with the game as we approach GenCon.
If you have any questions or comments about the game over the next three weeks, just let me know!