As you may or may not have garnered from a recent post, I am working on designing my very own board game. I started this project in high school, and even got it to a point where I submitted a proposal to Mayfair games. Apparently the proposal was well-written, because I received a response requesting to see my rules. Unfortunately (as is very clear to me now) those rules were sloppy, overcomplicated, and just not very fun.
I took a break from the project for several years, but I recently rediscovered the rules and have been thinking about them for a while in the back of my mind. Then, just a few weeks ago, I had an epiphone and figured out a completely new mechanic for the game that was significantly simpler and more-fun-sounding. So, my work on the project restarted, and i’ve made loads of progress since then.
In working on this project and attempting to sort out all my old poorly-formed rules, and rewrite them completely, I realized how much I’ve learned about gaming. As I’ve struggled with ironing out the remaining kinks in gameplay, I’ve been able to figure out several key items to get good rulesets. If you’re thinking on designing a game of your own, this post is for you.
What I’ve learned:
1. Don’t overcomplicate things.
My original ruleset involved units with populations and attack values and upgrades that would involve adding up multiple 3-digit numbers (like 451 + 244+ 550) and multiplying dice rolls and comparing results and subtracting… I’m boring myself just thinking about it. Though I wanted to make an epic feel, I ended up making boring and essentially unplayable combat mechanics. My newer mechanics are much simpler, however as I work on the rest of the rules I have to keep checking myself with ‘special conditions.’ If every rule has an exception, that exception better be clarified on a card or something like that in gameplay, because its too much to remember every special case. And then you have to ask yourself, does this special case really enhance the game, or is it just an idea that i’m throwing in for kicks?
In my original design, you had to purchase cards, and obviously the more powerful cards were more expensive. But I essentially just estimated values for cost after assigning attack, defense, and special ability values. While easier to do, it would almost certainly have created Units that were far too cheap or expensive. I now have an algorithm i developed to calculate the cost of each card specifically based on its properties.
3. Player interaction
Looking back at my previous rules, I realized that there wasn’t much to encourage the players from just sitting in defensable positions waiting for the other players to come and attack them. The game could essentially grind to a halt if no one wanted to sacrifice their position just to push the game forward. There were just too many resources and cards and space available. Games should force players to step on each others toes. Even in Dominion, which involves less direct player interaction than most many games, still forces the players together since they all draw from the same resources and action cards. Every action or point or treasure card a player picks up prevents another player from picking up that same card, and it also moves everything closer to the endgame. In settlers, the map has space for everyone, but limits it so that no matter what you, you will run into other player’s territory and be forced to deal with that. Many games allow trading, forcing you to deal with other player’s own desires and whims.
Something I didn’t even realize before I really got into this current project is the importance of consistent Terminology. If, in the rules, I sometimes use the word Cities, and sometimes Fortresses, but referring to the same thing, that causes confusion even before the game starts. Having clear, defined terminology also allows you to condense your rules, as you don’t have to clarify what you mean every time you say something. I once had an argument with Bryan about a card he was trying to play in Cosmic Encounter. The card said he could use it as “Offense Only” but he was an Offensive Ally. Bryan argued that as an Offensive Ally, he should be considered on the Offense. Fortunately, the rulebook was clear that Offense referred to the Main Player that was attacking, which is different than Offensive Ally.
Similarly, Dominion uses keywords Action, Card, Gain, Trash, and Buy to greatly reduce the need for complex descriptions on their cards.
5. Victory conditions
In my original rulebook, you had to destroy all the other players before they destroyed you. Looking back, I realize that this could not only create pointlessly long, drawn-out games, but it also can eliminate players long before the game is actually finished. This is a key element of Monopoly and Risk that I very much dislike.
Games need clear victory conditions that stretch the players, but without dragging the length of the gameplay into boredom. These conditions should also encourage players to utilize all aspects of the game to get there. One of the great things about Catan’s Victory Point shindig is that you truly have to stretch your resources and diversify your efforts to reach the required 10 points. (I have an upcoming blog post entirely about Catan, so I’ll go into more detail.) You generally shouldn’t be able to win a game simply by sitting back and watching things happen, or ignoring a significant aspect of the game.
6. A good ‘hook’
Many games share similar mechanics. So why should anyone play your game if its exactly the same as another? Give us a fun story, or a twist to the gameplay that spices things up a little. This hook can also be used to take really simple mechanics and make them interesting. If your game involves rolling dice and moving that many squares forward, and then you get money or something bad happens based on the square you land on, that’s kind of boring. Take Candyland.. you draw a card, you move forward. Sometimes you have move back but you really have no control over that. It’s a great game for 4-year-olds but not for adults. However… “Run for your Life Candyman” takes the same mechanics of drawing a colorful card that tells you where to move, however it adds the ‘hook’ that you can attack (and rip apart) the other players gingerbread men. Part of the hook is that each player has a sheet with a picture of their gingerbread person on it, and if you destroy a limb, you get to literally tear it off. It’s great fun.
Any of you out there thought about designing your own game? Got some great ideas for modifications to other games? Other ideas on things that are important when working on a game’s rules? Let me know.
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