The Basics of Good Game Design

In addition to designing games, I also run the Chicago Game Designers Meetup for Chicago Game Lovers as a way to keep in touch with my fellow Designers and, hopefully, to build a robust Game Design community in Chicago. In the course of running this Meetup I’ve come up with a basic guide to put new Designers on a right track before they really get into the weeds of designing a game.

To make things easier, I’ve formatted the guide as a series of questions that any potential designer should answer before they even start fiddling with rules, let alone running playtests.

* * *

(1) What kind of game are you making?

By and large, any game you can think of is similar to a game currently in existence. Even if it isn’t, it should still be able to fit within some sort of broad category of games — whether it’s “rules light RPGs” or “worker placement boardgames.” I always ask this question first because it helps the potential designer get a grip on the project ahead: it can be easy to waste a lot of time with your first game by trying to make it “all things to all people” (“it’s a free-form RPG with board game elements and miniatures!”) or simply by putting the cart before the horse (“I’m going to make a game. Don’t know what, but it’ll be something”).

This is the easiest question. While very few people fail to have an answer, enough have that I like to use it as a screening question.


(2) What makes your game fun?

To my surprise, a shockingly large number of would-be Designers were unable to even start to answer this question. In part it’s because many Designers just love the act of designing things and get so caught up in it that they never stop to think about the Players — until they have a prototype nobody wants to play.

Any Designer should be able to answer this question even if they haven’t run a single playtest because, whatever their answer is, is the core of the game. Once you’ve settled on why people should want to play your game, you also have a touchstone for making any future design decisions: will this mechanic enhance whatever makes this game fun? If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t use it!


(3) What makes your game different from similar games on the market?

For anyone hoping to sell their game, this must be a prime concern. Back in 2002, Ron Edwards coined the term “Fantasy Heartbreaker” to refer to RPGs that were basically marginal improvements of existing ones. While they always had worthwhile ideas, so much of the games were simply retreads of RPGs already on the market (usually Dungeons & Dragons — D&D) that you were better off just home-ruling a game of D&D with the nice ideas instead of paying $40 for the Fantasy Heartbreaker. You see a lot of “Heartbreakers” in the forums of BoardGameGeek and elsewhere which are made by aspiring Designers who played a game, liked it, and want to sell a tweaked version of it. This is a chancy position even for established Game Publishers; new Designers are unlikely to even get a foot in the door.

Using one of my games as an example, Gold & Glory is explicitly a competitor to D&D but I’ve made a concerted effort to distinguish it. Unlike the Heartbreakers that Ron Edwards talked about, Gold & Glory not only understands it has competition on the market, but explicitly works to carve a space for itself: while most D&D-style RPGs have a lot to say about how you kill goblins and get personally stronger, few make even an attempt to contemplate the sort of fame and fortune that Heroes can accumulate and use outside of dungeons. By keeping this concept close to the heart of Gold & Glory I’ve not only made it unlikely that someone could patch D&D to take advantage of my approach but I also have a compelling argument for why you might want to have more than one “Fantasy Kitchen Sink” RPG on your shelf at a time.

* * *

That’s it — just three questions. If you can answer those questions about your project, you are already well ahead of the countless would-be designers.


One comment

  1. […] strike me like a bolt from the blue – powerful and unexpected – typically with at least the 3 basic questions answered, but sometimes with entire outlines of the game as well. That doesn’t mean the game […]

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