BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Design 101: Eureka!

Game design, like any other form of design, is at its heart a creative enterprise and so relies on an initial spark of creative insight — that ‘Eureka!’ moment — to even get going. But that really is just the beginning; the designer must them apply himself (or herself!) to the business of developing that idea into a fully realised game, a process that (in my experience) always presents a succession of additional ‘Eureka!’ moments, each just as remarkable and surprising as the original one.

What is it that inspires anyone to create anything?

This seems a deeper and more profound question than I am prepared to tackle, but if I were to try I’d start by pointing out the distinction between art and design: namely that the latter is concerned with answering questions, and the former is all about asking them. That may seem (and possibly is) a little too trite to actually be interesting, but when I worked as a professional web designer I was very much aware of how my design efforts needed to be focused on solving commerical problems (that is, answering the business’s questions) and were not primarily an opportunity for me to express and explore my own creative ideals.

Which is not to say that the work was never intellectually or creatively rewarding, but rather to observe that it was principally the product of a financial arrangement and was therefore, at times, mundane. Having said that the commerical imperative was a fantastic discipline: it demanded a constant stream of creative output, delivered to deadlines and against clearly defined functional requirements. The result was never high art; fortunately it didn’t need to be.

The design process is essentially the search for and creation of a solution to a problem, and for ‘good’ design to be classified as such it must at least be ‘fit for purpose’ (it may be high art as well, but that isn't a requirement). The flipside of this statement is the observaton that there are only two reasons for bad design: either you didn’t understand the problem, or you simply weren’t smart enough to solve it.

What is interesting to me about game design is that it is generally a single individual who is responsible for both setting and solving the problem. I say ‘generally’ since it does happen that a game designer is commissioned by another party to create a game for a specific purpose or market, and in those cases the problem is at least in part defined by that other party. However this is not the norm even with professional game designers, and is certainly not the case with the legion of hobbyist designers (like me) who create games in a vacuum, without any received sense of wisdom or direction, and who, though perhaps all the while dreaming of commercial success, do it otherwise and overwhelmingly just for the sheer intellectual delight.

The beginning

So, to return to the beginning and consider again the genesis of a game, I suggest that the game designer must begin not with a moment of clarity about a solution, but with a moment of revelation about a problem. Here are a few examples taken from my personal canon:

  • Can I reuse the cards from a commercial game to create a better, more playable, more intuitive game that preserves the rich theme of the original?
  • What about a card game that makes use of both sides of the cards, so that when the cards are held in the hand by the players, all the information on the front is private, and all the information on the back is public? How would that work? What sort of game would that be?
  • What’s the minimum number of cards with which you can create an interesting game for three players?

These may appear surprisingly specific, and it’s true that these ideas have now inevitably been post-rationalized and so appear far more cogent and well-formed than they did at the time, but each one does articulate the core of a game idea that I have since worked into a playable prototype.

These are all problems that I have set myself, and these ‘Eureka!’ moments, when they came, did so largely unbidden. I didn’t sit down with the express purpose of ‘having an idea’; they simply presented themselves ex nihilo. So if I return to my original question and ask again ‘What is it that inspires anyone to create anything?’ am I any closer to an answer?

No, but I have perhaps now better understood the question. It might be natural to assume that the essential spark of creativity with which the question concerns itself is contained in the act of making, of creating, but I think there is a yet more essential insight, one contained in the far less tangible act of thinking of the act in the first place. The ‘how’ is the answer to this instinctive question of ‘why’. And why would I — why would anyone — ask themselves such curious questions? This is a question I am scarcely capable of understanding, let alone answering, so I shall instead concern myself with a far more workmanlike one: ‘How?’

The middle

How do I design a game? For me this is a process of discovery, beginning with a question and with little else. The act of asking the question may immediately bring forth ideas about what a solution might look like, but these are always initially abstract and generalized. And often what happens is that the process of searching for a solution generates corollaries and clarifications to the original problem. In other words, I find myself amending my original question to better fit my answers.

The classical tenet of design is ‘form follows function’, which is just another way of restating (more efficiently!) my notion that design is about creating a solution (the ‘form’) to a problem (the ‘function’). However, the simplistic implication of the statement is that the intellectual flow is all one way, that function comes wholly after form. To quote Ben Goldacre, rightly respected for debunking many other boldly simplistic arguments (albeit mostly about science, not board games or even design) ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’

To get back to the business of game design, part of what can be exciting about the process is that you never really know what you’re going to get. After you’ve pulled the trigger on a new design idea, the trajectory is uncertain and the target unseen. Ideas that begin as a simple card game, with limited objectives, can uncontrollably balloon into more complex designs, drawing in more ideas and game mechanisms and elements of play. Or, conversely, initially sprawling games can, through a process of seemingly enevitable distillation, resolve themselves to something remarkably simple.

Game design can be seen as the iterative result of constantly asking and answering a single question: ‘What is this game about?’ I don’t mean this in the theatrical sense of a game’s applied narrative or theme (which in any case many games don’t have) nor in the more procedural sense of how a game is actually played (its rules). To me, asking what a game is ‘about’ is the singular modus operandi of its designer, and represents the process of investigating the emergent nature of a game.

Or put the question another way: Given the specifics of a game, given its narrative, components and rules, given all the many deliberate and deliberated upon design decisions, what happens when people actually play it?

The end

What a fearsome and enlightening question that is! The road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions, and it’s an all-too common experience to spend far too long honing the details of a new game only to have the entire edifice crumble as soon as it is played. The game stops being the purely mathematical, abstracted exercise it was in the mind of the game designer, and immediately becomes a social one that has to survive the real-life rigours and randomness of the game player.

Reiner Knizia, a God-amongst-men of so-called ‘eurogame’ designers, does not describes himself as a game designer, but as an ‘entertainer’. His point is well made, and he has surely entertained millions. A stricter interpretation of Dr Knizia’s point might be to suggest that any game that fails to entertain its players isn’t actually a game at all, and that part of a game’s definition must be that it can be enjoyed as a recreation.

Certainly, any game that fails to entertain is a bad game, or at the very least a broken or incomplete one. Creating such a game is clearly not any designer’s intent, but divining what constitutes ‘entertainment’ is hardly straightforward. Individual games will of course only ever appeal to (and hence entertain) a subset of the people who play them.

How, then, do I as a game designer judge the ‘goodness’ of one of my designs? It can’t be done without letting it out to be played in the wild, but neither can any single player's assessment be taken as a final verdict. I believe that any game idea can yield a good game, provided it is pursued for long enough; that a good game is ‘out there’ waiting to be found, regardless of where you started. Part of the trick then is stubborn persistence; the rest is a mixture of learned skills, conceptual luck and simply knowing when to stop.

The process of designing a game is hence revealed as a game all of its own.

When playing a game the goal is to win – but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.’

Reiner Knizia

Wyldeirishman said...

November 22, 2012 8:59 pm

Good thoughts, all. And the good Dr. K is quite correct. If I'm choking on a set of encyclopedic rules and their subsequent sub-sections, sub-paragraphs, and sub-FAQ's...I'm not really having much fun, now, am I? If errata remains, in and of itself, a gaming experience, count me out.

One of the guys that runs Cheapass Games penned a great article about the need to keep things simple. Not brain-dead...just not replete with rule upon rule for each and every imagined sub-set of circumstances that may or ma not occur; it's easy to get lost in those woods and lose sight of the original goal, a game worth playing. :)

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