Standing out from the sea of board games can be a challenge, especially nowadays when every game you find at your FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) or even Target has stunning artwork.
We have found that the artwork is definitely important to draw individuals towards your game, but what makes them stay at the game table? What makes them pull the trigger to buy your game?
Well for that, I think you as a gamer can answer that question. What makes you pull the trigger to buy a new game? I am sure that good game mechanics are at the top of your list, especially if you have a sizable collection as I do.
No matter your starting point of game creation, most creators are usually dissatisfied to some level with their experience with a certain genre or game mechanic. They may really enjoy a game style or mechanic type, but there is something they wished it did differently. That is a great place to start when it comes to making unique designs.
Even if your starting point is different than that, make sure your start with what you are passionate about. It will be much easier to pursue a solution in the end. For me, I wanted to make a tactical game that didn’t take several hours to complete. I wanted a game that players could make quick decisions and had a game with a finite end so it couldn’t drag out as many war games do. That’s where Gnomes and Wizards spawned from.
Next, I started looking at mechanics that I really enjoyed that supported the style of gameplay that I wanted. King of Tokyo was a big inspiration when it came to drafting dice results. It’s so simple and clever and many games use this same strategy so I knew I needed to put my own twist on it if I was going to use it.
The problem I have with most dice games is that they result in too much chance. It works when you have a light game such as King of Tokyo or a game that thrives on the result of either outcome like a tabletop RPG, but how can you make it work in a mid-weight strategy game?
Well, many say, just don’t use dice. Use something more predictable like cards, after all, there is much more predictability with cards because you can set the number of each type of card in the deck. You are the game designer after all. Even if you pull a bunch of bad cards towards the beginning, it’ll balance out, with better cards later in the game.
Dice results are always subject to randomness. But to us, there is something nostalgic and exciting about rolling dice so we decided we wanted to tackle this challenge by creating a high amount of strategy while still including dice.
Now you might not be trying to include dice in your game, you likely are tackling different challenges, but this idea can be brought to many other situations. If there is something important that you want to include in a game, don’t get discouraged because others have said that it doesn’t work. After all, limitations encourage creativity.
Limitations Encourage Creativity
One of the most important things that I have learned from being a designer is the above statement: limitations encourage creativity.
What I mean by this is when you put boundaries on yourself when coming up with new mechanics or even when you are pursuing any form of creation, you are paring down from infinite possibilities to a more limited selection. This makes the decision-making process less overwhelming and forces you to think about things differently.
For me, that was using dice in a strategy-driven game. For you, it’s going to be something else, but whatever it is, make sure you make decisions that restrict your infinant playground. Making decisions and sticking with them is the name of the game. If you aren’t a good decision-maker, do decision-making exercises and flex that muscle so that you can improve in that area. Without the ability to make decisions, it’s going to be hard to progress on making new unique mechanics.
When thinking about limitations for yourself, don’t just stick to whatever first comes to mind. Think of ways that you can slightly twist something that already exists in a new exciting way. If you use an existing mechanic, your players will have something to relate it to. That’s why we have so many deck builders on the market. Everyone has their own spin on it.
One of my personal favorites of the deck-building genre is Mystic Vale, designed by John D. Clair. He took the basic premise of deck-building and create this entirely unique aspect of card crafting that pairs nicely with the core mechanic. Clair didn’t reinvent the wheel, he jazzed it up. I have played many deck-builders but his creation revitalized the genre for me because he created a unique mechanic.
“With great power comes great responsibility”
As game designers, we have a lot of control over the games we make. Obviously, you have less control once you sign with a publisher but if you’re planning to self-publish or even in the initial steps of traditional game creation, you are ultimately making the final decisions of what goes and what stays. The looming threat for every designer is to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.
Ideas build on other ideas and before your know it, your game has 14 “unique mechanics” and takes two and a half hours just to learn after the hour of setup. Let’s be honest, the market for those types of games is small. If you want to sell your games, they need to be streamlined, easy to learn, fun, and engaging.
I learned this with Gnomes and Wizards. There were all of these situational rules and they made sense in my head because “this is how real live warfare would play out so we must have rules for all of these niche situations”.
If your game is already in that boat, don’t get too down on yourself. Hope is not lost for your game. Once I realized that I was trying to pack too much into Gnomes and Wizards, I was able to take a step back and look at the game more objectively.
Look at what are the key definers of your game. Mine was that it was a short, battle-royal style board game. Take that core concept and find the mechanics that already exist that support that core idea. For my game, that was the dice rolling and assigning dice results because it was quick and streamlined the decision-making process without subjecting the players to too much chance.
Now that you have your core concept and mechanic(s) evaluate the other rules included in your game and determine if they are crucially supporting your main concept, or if they are just rabbit trails that made it to the rule book.
There were many ideas that I wanted to bring to Gnomes and Wizards but I already had a solid game underneath some extra bloated rules. Once I cleared the debris, I saw just how streamlined and enjoyable my game could be.
If there is another big idea that you want to include in your design, consider making it an expansion later down the line. Even if it never comes to life, it allows you to put the idea to rest because you know that there is always a possibility to add it in the future. For me, that was a cooperative mode that allowed gnomes and wizards to fight hordes of AI-driven creatures side-by-side and a boss that would awaken at some point in the game.
I wanted to add this to the game because it would add value to the player’s experience and make for an easy solo mode option. If you have ever played Gnomes and Wizards, you know that it is quite different from the core concept and it would have added many additional components and rules.
Consider all aspects of your game that might not be necessary for the original design, even things that add cost to your game.
With Gnomes and Wizards, I had originally planned to include 6 factions so that it would play up to 6 players right out of the gate. The problem was that it made the game pretty expensive, meaning I was limiting my potential audience.
I decided to set aside my preference and split up the factions so that the core game would be a reasonable price for people to buy and then those who were really interested in having all of the content, could spend the extra money to get the additional 2 factions.
As you can see from this example, cutting content from your game is not always tied to the game being too bloated, it can also be a price issue. If you are designing your first game and it costs people close to $100 to get it, you are going to have your work cut out for you when it comes to finding potential buyers. I have found this to be true even creating a mid-level game as my first design. Start small but if you already have a bigger game, look at what important for the integrity of the game and streamline it by setting aside what doesn’t need to be there.
Remember that limitations will actually help you in the decision-making process and that it’s important to give the players familiarity so they can relate to your game. If your game is too different than anything they played, it will make it harder to learn and less people will connect with it. Think about size and costs right from the beginning. And above all, keep playtesting. You can’t know if people will like your creation if you don’t show it off.