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


The Unfinished Designer

I have a problem: I’m not very good at finishing things; which I suppose wouldn’t be much of a problem if I wasn’t any good at starting them. I’m a thinker not a doer; an ideas man who is little too idealistic. And if success if 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, then I’m definitely a 10% kinda guy.

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.

Mark Twain

A long time ago I posted a list of some of my game designs, a list I optimistically called ‘Part 1’. (See what I mean? I didn’t even finish that!) The hope was that by talking about them I might be more inclined to develop them, not least because I had reached the point where I’d started to forget about a few. My tendency is to flit from design to design, periodically enthused and then disinterested in each one. There are benefits to this, since returning sporadically to a design can trigger new ideas and new solutions, but it is an unstructured and unfocused process which makes it all too easy to move on to something else when things get tricky and, by definition, before they get finished.

Fortunately nothing is wasted, since I have recorded most of my rambling thought processes in notebooks, a practice I advocated previously, and which I can only forcefully and enthusiastically commend once again! Without these notebooks I would simply have lost many of my best ideas, and indeed, might never have had them in the first place. In this way the notebooks allow for an ongoing exploration and record of my (for want of a better word) design ‘journey’.

History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.

Kurt Vonnegut

Yesterday I made a new list of my game design ideas, each of which represents either an existing physical prototype or a concept captured in my notebooks. For a few of those concepts I have written descriptions of the gameplay, or even detailed prototypical written rulesets — something I know may seem ridiculous where there is no actual prototype! — but I am only including those ideas that have meaningful amounts of flesh on their bones, and of which I already have a clear picture in my head of what I would like the game to become.

To say that only some of these game designs are unfinished is to state not only the obvious, but the absurd. They are, of course, all unfinished.

And with that thought in mind, I think I shall finish this post tomorrow.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

So... where's the new list of game designs?

You're up early, Seth! (And I am working on that list, promise.)

I have to say, I can relate to the problem of having a long list of 10% designs. A few years ago, I resolved to pick one idea and spend all my energy developing it, to the exclusion of all else. The topic was a 3- to 6-player game of the Wars of the Successors (Diadochi), a setting I consider perfect for a multi-player wargame. I got to a complete, playable prototype, playtested it a few times, and even demonstrated it. I couldn't sell it, but at least it got me that far through the process.

I'm well into my second complete design, a family game based on traveling around the continent, which is now in full development.

I have to admit, it has been hard not to get distracted by the half-dozen other ideas I have baking in the back of my brain, but I keep thinking, "focus, focus." Once I finish this one, I can start the next one in earnest.

We'll see how successful that strategy is.

I read on some tweet from someone, apologies for not being able to give credit, "Discipline is remembering what you want". I really like that quote, not least because I've spent the last 18 months exploring the role of desire in decision making....anyway, maybe you don't really want to finish things? Maybe you just enjoy the process and don't have a great desire to see it born? Or maybe you do but keep getting sabotaged by subconscious avoidance/distraction tactics? Maybe finishing a project is something that makes a part of you uncomfortable??? Fascinating stuff! xxxxxx

Another interesting post! Have you seen a TED talk by Derek Sivers in which he demonstrates "telling someone your goals makes them less likely to happen". Perhaps by making a(nother) list you're tricking your brain into thinking you've moved the project forward further than you have?

Easier said (or not said) than done, I know.

@Paul: It seems we share each other's pain. Also, I have added your blog to my RSS reader so will be keeping tabs on your progress ;-)

@Irith: It seems the Doctor is in! (Nice to hear from you, and I love the quote.) Also, why are you not blogging yourself about 'the role of desire in decision making' - sounds like a great topic.

@Karl: Ouch! (But good point, well made.)

Oh, man. I think it must be a creative or game designer thing. I too can relate as I always seem to have a long list of games and projects that although so clear in the mind, never seems to make it into physical form. I am also challenged in that my game design partner is even worse than I am. We're both idea people.

Now if only we could find a horde of minions to actually do all the work stuff, We'd take the world by storm with our inventions!

I thought the whole idea with creative stuff was that it was never "finished", just "released".

And that in a craft, you have to pass through the stages of Apprentice and Journeyman before you can properly claim to have understood your craft (or, more commonly, to realise just how much you don't understand!)

Also, part of the problem is that game design looks a lot more accessible than, say, painting a great picture. It's very easy to knock something together that "works", and may even be borderline "fun", but that's very different from having something "worthwhile" (we've been here before, I think!)

(I enjoyed reading your list of games. Some of them sound very interesting. But then again, so do the summaries of lots of films, and all too often they turn out to be terrible. :-) Mind you, I'm looking forward to seeing how you've fixed that Pirates game...)

-- David

@Scurra: I like your 'giveth and taketh away' analysis ;-) ... but I think your skepticism about my designs and the rarity of genuinely successful, worthwhile ones is spot on. I feel the same doubts, and indeed, as you suggest, have felt them more intensely the longer I've been at it. As for the Pirates game - the maddening chaos at the end is gone, not that that stopped you winning last time, I recall!

P.S. Many, many congrats on Key Market - I was so thrilled to see the pictures of the production model on BGG! You must be delighted.

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