54 Game Design Tips!

Over the past two months, I shared a game design tip each day on Twitter and Facebook! A few people asked me to compile them, so I thought I’d share them with you here. Even if you have no interest in designing, you might enjoy a little peek into the process!

1. Most of game design is giving people systems which they can use to have fun. The rest is removing systems which they will use to avoid having fun.

2. Any card that causes players to skip a turn, undoes their last move, or prevents them from being able to take cool actions may as well just read “Have less fun.” Avoid. You never need it.

3. It doesn’t matter if another, popular game does it – your game is going to be competing against current and future games. The standards are higher. Cut your mechanics which are causing negative experiences.

4. If you’re a new designer, design an 18-card game. Then design a worker placement. Then a social deduction game. Then a 4X, or drafting, or party game. Develop them until they either have no major flaws or you throw them out. Then you’re ready to start designing your REAL games.

5. Give a lot of (solicited) feedback, and note the responses that bug you. This will lead to you being better at giving feedback.

6. Before you spend hours and hours writing content for a prototype, playtest the core, core mechanic of your game. If that isn’t at least a little fun before any content is added, it’s not worth making.

7. Subscribe to Cardboard Edison, and read at least one game design article each week. There’s a lot of good, free advice out there.

8. If you can cut a rule and the game still functions, cut it. You’ll notice when there’s stuff missing; recognizing when there’s unnecessary clutter in your game is MUCH harder.

9. On a similar note to 8: Err on the side of making your economy too tight. Players will notice and complain when they don’t have enough stuff; it’s much harder to notice when you have too much.

10. Structure: anything that’s in the rulebook, or never ever changes. Content: stuff that’s in the cards, and is variable from game to game. Work out the difference; it’s much easier to tweak and adjust content than it is structure.

(Examples: The tiles and buildings in Catan are structure, the advancement cards are content. The coin and VP cards in Dominion are structure, the rest is content. The original strategy cards in Twilight Imperium were structure, but the expansion made them content. TI3 is about 90% content.)

11. Make sure that every currency in your game can be spent on at least 2 different things.

12. If you can make your game truly fun at a broader player count, it’s going to sell better. (Stonemaier Games ONLY accepts pitches for games that play 2-6.)

13. Remember the tactile. People play board games because they like touching things and moving them around. Reward this behaviour.

14. Remember the tactile. People play board games because they like making interesting decisions; they don’t want to spend all their time managing bits.

15. Work out a general “rules structure” that you like, so when you go to write game rules, you can focus on the content (instead of the form). Here’s mine, with a bunch of little #gamedesign tips sprinkled throughout.

16. The fewer components your game needs, the easier it is to publish.

17. Once you have a stable core game, don’t change too much between playtests.

18. Find people who delight in breaking games and have them break your prototype. Repeat until your game cannot be broken.

19. Is your game fun? Is it consistently working? If yes, make sure it has some personality. Stop watching the game, start watching people playing it. Are they smiling? Groaning? Emotionally invested? This is a great time to add unique and fun theming to your mechanics.

20. If you can learn to play your game in your head, you’ll pre-emptively solve a lot of problems. (Often too many.)

21. Here are the questions I try to ask after every playtest: Would you play again? Would you buy it? If you could change one thing about the game, no matter how small, what would it be? (Sen Foong-Lim put me onto that last one)

22. Every game has two parts: what you’re trying to achieve, and how you’re going about it. Make the first fun and the second engaging.

23. The fewer rules that people have to remember, the more time they can spend enjoying your game.

24. Don’t make a game that can be ruined by one person being terrible. “Don’t play with terrible people” – sure, but sometimes people are thrown together at conventions or board game events. Don’t create something which allows those people to have an awful time.

25. Work out what you’re good at, and double down on that. I’m good at games that require you to read other people, cute little mechanics, and working out what people want to buy. That’s where I focus my time and energies.

26. Build up to your big games. Start with games you can actually make at your current skill level. Make them as well as you can. If you can’t make an 18-card game, you can’t make a 6-hour epic.

27. People want long-term goals, short-term goals, and feedback to let them know that they’re achieving their goals. Your game should provide all three.

28. You know you’re getting close when people end your game and immediately start discussing strategy and what they wish they’d done differently, not just what’s broken or unfun. You know you’re there when people insist on playing again. Not agree to play again – insist.

29. If you don’t want to play your game 100 times, no one else will want to play it 10 times.

30. Whenever possible, utilise the gaming knowledge that players already have. Catanbecame Catan because each of your turns starts with a familiar mechanic: you roll two dice.

31. Don’t use dice to track numbers. Dice should be rolled. I don’t care how many MTG players do it, it’s annoying and unintuitive.

32. You are not Uwe Rosenberg. He is able to break all the rules because he knows them inside out. (NOTE: Does not apply to Uwe Rosenberg.)

33. Work out how much information you want your players to have. Giving them less reduces analysis paralysis, but giving them more makes them feel informed and powerful. It’s a tricky balance.

34. Larger games are the combination of multiple different intersecting mechanisms, all of which need to be fun, engaging, or both. Note that “new” is not on that list.

35. Turns are getting shorter and shorter. If they’re not simultaneous, they should be quick. The best new games have minutes, if not seconds, between interesting decisions.

36. Good playtesters are worth their weight in dice. A good developer is worth their weight in minis. Without Tom Lang, every Jellybean Game would be substantially worse.

37. People are worse at understanding games than you expect. If your playtesters are able to comprehend the game in prototype form, that bodes well for customers understanding the final version.

38. It’s not inherently a problem if your game involving doing the same thing each turn. It’s only a problem if it doesn’t feel different as the game progresses. You can accomplish this in a few ways; the two most common are escalation and a changing game state.

39. People like solving puzzles, tricking people, reading people, collecting stuff, building stuff, blowing stuff up, making a plan and following it through, adapting to new information, mastering systems, being creative, increasing efficiency, working together, and feeling smart. Your game should let them.

40. Sit down and work out why your favourite game is fun. See how different a game you can make while still being fun in a similar way.

41. Sit down and work out why people like a game that you hate. Try to make a game that taps into that reason, but solves your problems with the game.

42. A fistful of dice are statistically more likely to yield an average result, but the opposite feels true. Don’t ignore that. Feelings are what most players are going to take away from your game.

43. Come up with 100 game design ideas. Prototype 10. Continue working on 1.

44. Games made entirely out of cards are the easiest games to prototype.

45. Games that can be played with 1-2 people are the easiest games to playtest.

46. Games that take less than 10 minutes are by far the easiest to get to the table.

47. My stages of #gamedesign:

  • 1: Idea. I write brief notes in Workflowy.
  • 2: Concept-test. I build and play the MVP (minimum viable prototype)
  • 3: Prototyping: If 2 is fun, I flesh out a proper prototype and play that.
  • 4: Problem-solving. 10-30 plays to remove issues and fix the game.
  • 5: Development. Tom Langlooks at it and tells me what’s wrong. Back to 4. Repeat as necessary.
  • 6: Blind playtesting. 20-50 blind plays to make sure the game won’t break. Loop back to 4-5 a few more times.
  • 7: Publication.

48. If you’re unpleasant to work with, I won’t sign your game – even if it’s the best thing I’ve ever played. I am far from alone in this regard.

49. You will be one game better at #gamedesign after each game you design. Don’t feel like your early darlings are the best you’ll do. Move on and design better games.

50. If you’re having trouble getting the sentence to work, or you can’t figure out how to represent it with icons, or you can’t fit the text on the card: cut the ability. No one but you will ever miss it…and you probably won’t either.

51. Until you’ve blind playtested it at least a dozen times without issue, your game isn’t finished.

52. Don’t make players spend (resources, currency, actions) to buy from a deck they have no context for. Give them at least SOME idea of what’s in there – provide a market, or give everyone a card from that deck at the start of the game.

53. I have 5 published designs, 4 of which I published myself. Take everything you read here (or from any designer at my level) with a grain of salt, and find out what works the hard way: by playtesting, playtesting, playtesting.

54. Make the games you want to see in the world. #gamedesign