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

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Game Design Secret Sauce

Last weekend I had the very great pleasure of being able to play some of my and other people’s prototypes, not just with some keen gamers, but with a cheery band of actual game designers, courtesy of the good folks of Surprised Stare Games. This was, as perhaps might be expected, a whole lot of fun. It was also incredibly inspiring and educational.

One topic of good-natured debate was what exactly makes a good game (of which there many) into a great one (of which there are deservedly few). What precisely are the ingredients of this elusive, alchemical, magical elixir? What exactly goes into that game design secret sauce?

Sadly, I cannot tell you. Not because I am bound by some arcane code of ludological honour, but because, rather more prosaically, none of us actually knew. And my guess is that not even the designers of great games know for sure. It seems the game design universe has its own breed of dark matter, which I doubt even the Large Hadron Collider, busy sabotaging itself from its own doomed future, has much chance of discovering, assuming anyone ever turns it on, that is.

However, just as physicists can prescribe the properties of the Higg’s boson without ever having caught a glimpse of it, we can perhaps begin to piece together the likely nature of the secret sauce, element by element, if we are prepared to consider the ‘special something’ that makes a great game great.

I shall save a fuller discussion of this topic for some later date (when I have had a proper chance to think about it), but by way of example I can say that the experience of playing one particular prototype at the weekend has stuck with me more than all the others. Without revealing any intimate details, I can say that while it had many characteristics of a ‘classic’ Eurogame in terms of its historical theme and episodic, card-driven mechanics it played a very clever trick by only appearing (to the casual observer) to be about those things, while all the while actually being about something else. Its ‘special something’ was an entirely natural, unscripted and wholly emergent sense of story-telling, and it was that which made the game truly memorable and fun in a quite unexpected and delightful way.

And that’s the sort of thing, if you could bottle it, that could make you a fortune.

Maybe you can't bottle good game design, but if you could bottle a reasonably good hot sauce and slap that label on it, while you wouldn't make a fortune, you could make a reasonable amount of cash. I'd buy it to put on hot wings during game nights. :)

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