Confessions of a Novice Designer, Chapter 2

About a year and a half ago, I posted Confessions of a Novice Designer, which was about my first real forays into game design, and especially with putting games out there for others to play. Since then, one of the games I talked about (Miseries of the Night) has been published, which was a really cool experience. Since then, I have designed several more games that have similarly been entered into contests over on BGG. No publishing contracts (as of now), but I did want to use this space to talk about them and some of the things I’ve learned from them.

Cardball was designed for the 2020 One Card Contest. The idea of that was to design a game that could fit on one card, and my idea was to make a dexterity game. I decided that CardBall was a sport where the field was also the ball, and so in the game, you’d flick the card around. There were dice lined up at either side of the playing area, and your goal was to hit them so they’d increase their total and score points. The ultimate goal was to increase the totals on the dice in front of your opponent, and hope that the dice in front of you scored less.

This game, to put it lightly, was a disaster.

One problem was that I didn’t get any feedback on it until after I couldn’t make any changes. I did get a comment on the rules, but that was it. The one person who did play it and left me feedback after everything had to be finalized pretty much hated it. Which needed to be said. By the time he said that, I really didn’t like the game much anymore myself. There were a bunch of problems with it. The graphic design was terrible, the rules were not great, game play was kind of dull, and I really shouldn’t have tried to introduce a solo mode. The best thing the game had going for it was the title, which I still really like and wish I had paired with a better game.

I mentioned that the only feedback I got came too late for me to do anything. One of the good things about these BGG contests is that it’s a good chance for designers to play each other’s games and give suggestions. And I didn’t do any of that myself. My printer was pretty much kaput, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time for that kind of thing, so I just didn’t. But sometimes it’s hard to get noticed, especially if you’re fairly new to the scene, unless you go out and at least make some comments. Even if I couldn’t print them out, I could still read the rules and make suggestions there. So, mea culpa. But I don’t know if anything could have saved this game anyway. At this point, I’ve pretty much disowned it and don’t particularly want to do anything else with it. Which is disappointing, but that’s part of life.

Elevator Operator is a game I designed for the 2020 Children’s PNP Game contest. Actually, when I first started working on it, I wasn’t thinking of it as a children’s game. The idea was born from hearing someone talk about an elevator pitch, and I thought it would be funny to pitch a game about an elevator while on an elevator. So I started working on an elevator game.

My initial idea for the game was to have ten floors in an old hotel, with people moving around their elevator cars to deliver passengers to the floor they want to be on. So, there were ten floor cards, 100 passenger tokens, and a d10 for you to randomly assign passengers to different floors between rounds. I made a crude prototype and tried it out. I liked the concept, but the thing that stuck out most to me was that the game was too long in its current form. It had nothing to do with the number of rounds, it was the setup in between rounds. You had to draw ten passenger tokens, roll a die, and then place them (possibly rerolling if the passenger would be placed on its destination floor).

I decided to lop off the top four floors from the hotel, which also meant I could get rid of 40 tokens and use a more common d6 instead of a d10. This was about the time I started thinking of it as a game for kids. The rules were fairly simple, you really only needed to know your numbers, there was some very basic pick-up-and-deliver strategy, and you needed to be able to develop some thinking ahead skills to do well. So I entered it in the children’s game contest just to see.

I also started playtesting with my five-year-old daughter. She enjoyed it, but when I asked her if there was anything she didn’t like, she said it took too long between rounds. Which, as you saw in the previous paragraph, was my thought earlier. Apparently I didn’t fix the issue by shortening the hotel. I identified the problem as the die, and set up a system where you moved up and down the hotel, placing passengers randomly as you went. This was definitely quicker, but the rule was a little convoluted. So I changed it again to just place a passenger on each floor between rounds, which was much easier to grasp.

I did manage to get some feedback on this one, which was helpful for me. One of the big pieces of feedback I got was about graphic design. I’m not a graphic designer, I just basically slapped everything together in Google Slides. Everything was functional, but for a kid’s game, not attractive. A guy named Markus from Austria offered to help me out, and designed some more colorful components, which helped the look of the game. He also inspired me to do my own redesign later to make the floors have colored borders, but I left the insides blank so players could design their own floors.

I did not win the contest, nor did I place in any of the categories. But that’s OK. I still think this was a successful experience for me. I managed to produce a game I like, I got some good feedback, and people generally seemed to enjoy it. And I have a better sense of how graphic design can help a game – function is important, but so are aesthetics. It’s a game I want to keep around and maybe do something more with later.

Mount Dilympus is currently entered in the 2021 Two-Player PNP contest, so it’s not in its final form yet. This one was born from me playing with some dice with my daughter. We were building towers of dice, then trying to knock them over with other dice. I built a pyramid, and my daughter started trying to hit certain numbers on her side. This got me thinking that the numbers she saw were not the numbers I was seeing on the other side. This got me thinking about a dice drafting game where you’re taking dice off a pyramid and using the value you could see.

Initially, this was going to be a card game with an Egyptian mythology theme. I wasn’t terribly inspired by that, not really being into Egyptian mythology. When I was a kid, however, I was really into Greek mythology, so it was an easy sidestep into that. The pyramid became a mountain, and I started working on how I wanted to build the game itself. I started working on cards, where you needed to make certain patterns with the dice numbers you took to claim them. But I started drifting to more of an area control game, where you complete different objectives and try to claim the favor of the different deities. I tried to fit this into a card game, but decided it would be better as more of a board game, with all deities consolidated into one sheet.

And that’s the form the game is currently in. You build the mountain at the beginning of each round, you draft dice, you try to win the favor of Zeus and company. There are 13 deities in play, and you have to win the favor of 7 to win, needing three wins on each to gain their favor. So far, it seems to be working well. I’ve had some feedback on graphic design and some gameplay ideas so far. The biggest thing right now seems to be about clarifying where the dice go. Right now, I just am telling people to put the dice on their side of the deity in question so you know whose is whose. I’ve gotten some suggestions – right now, I’m thinking about going to a card system where the deities are basically different locations, a la Smash Up or Balloon Cup. I like having the board, but I’d have to think hard about how to do the redesign there.

Parallel is a also currently entered in the 2021 Two-Player PNP contest (I can enter two games, so I did). This is a game that has been in my head for years. I don’t remember exactly when I had the idea, but I’ve wanted to design a game that exists in parallel dimensions, and moves on one board happen exactly the same way on the other board. There have been a bunch of false starts on the system, most eventually abandoned because I was trying to make everything perfectly symmetrical. There were some other bad ideas that I had that I can’t remember.

My latest attempt came with an idea of a movement drafting mechanism based on Small World, where you take the move at the start of the line or pay coins to move past it to another. That turned out to be another very bad idea, but it led me to making the game only for two players racing to opposite ends of their respective boards. I thought about changing the movement drafting to simply paying for a move and later passing to take all money on a direction, but I quickly decided it was all just a distraction that wasn’t needed. The game was more interesting if players could move where they wanted. I started designing maps divided into three sets – A (10×6), B (12×8), and C (14×10). Currently, I have six in each set, but I’d like to get that up to ten. And I’m also working on an idea for D sets, but that’s probably beyond this contest.

The rules are very simple. On your turn, move both your pieces as far as you can in the same direction, stopping at any walls or your opponent’s piece. If one piece can’t move in a chosen direction, that’s fine – as long as the other piece can move, it’s legal. That piece walking into the wall can just be considered a n00b. Once one piece makes it to the exit, the other piece can keep running until it makes it out. You win if both your pieces come off first.

That’s it. It’s a simple abstract game, though I would like to eventually bring in more of a theme. I’m thinking that the maps should have some sort of theme to them based on the set. So, maybe ancient Rome for A, the Old West for B, the future for C. Something like that. But that’s not my concern right now. Right now, I just want to make sure the maps are functional. Based on feedback I’ve gotten, I’m thinking about adding in some faint gridlines to help people with movement, but I’m not completely sold on the concept yet (partially because of how much more work that will be for me).

So, overall, I’m continuing to enjoy design. I’m learning more about it, and the big thing that stands out to me is how important aesthetics are to people. I’m gaining a whole new appreciation for graphic designers who can make stuff look attractive and still functional. I’m learning more about the importance of feedback, and how offering it helps me to get it. I’m learning about how rules need to be structured so people can easily grasp what’s going on, and I’m learning about my own limitations with the process. At some point, I hope to be able to get another game out there on the market. I don’t know if it will be one of these, but I do know it won’t be CardBall. But I’m enjoying the journey, and I thank you for joining me in what can only be described as a self-indulgent post today. Stay safe out there, and thanks for reading!

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