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


Game Design Sketchbook: Rumba

Game design sketchbook: Rumba

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, ever to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Alice, after reading ‘Jabberwocky’, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

A few week ago I mentioned my prototype Rumba, and during April I got a chance to playtest it at one of the regular game designer get-togethers organised by Charlie and Alan Paull of Surprised Stare Games. The value of being able to get prototypes played and discussed by other game designers is incalculable: their insight is a notch above; their honesty never less than brutal!

I took my reimagined prototype (well, most of it at least, my printer ink ran out before I could print a new board) and quickly discovered that where I had claimed to have “‘designed out’ the imbalances” I had also failed to notice that I had so far failed to ‘design in’ enough meat, and the experience did fall a little flat, both for me and my compatriots: nice bread, shame about the filling.

Overall the game has a nice shape to it, and people liked the board and the simple core mechanisms. But, as Charlie opined: “I want more choices.”

Good point, well made. The game is all about controlling the positions of pawns on the circular track through card play. The trouble for Charlie was that individual cards were essentially too specific: each card represents one or more pawns plus a fixed movement, but if the few cards in your hand don’t link to your goals, what positive choices can you make?

This key observation got me thinking about ways in which the number of possible choices could be upped without sacrificing the game’s relative simplicity. (Note, complexity fans, that I am not anti-complexity in general, I just don’t want to add needless complexity to a game that can otherwise survive without it.)

I don’t know how the brains of other game designers work, but when I explore new ideas I do so visually in my trusty sketchbook, and it occurred to me, dear readers, that you might enjoy seeing what this process looked like!

Game design sketchbook: Rumba

I find it hard to think about game design completely in the abstract; I want to able to see how the game looks as a result of possible design choices I might make. But I don’t mean ‘see’ in an entirely literal sense, although I am exploring elements of the graphic language of the game on the page above, I mean ‘see’ in a broader, more holistic sense, encompassing not only the physicality of the game components but the conceptual shape of the game itself.

Now, you can’t necessarily see the latter on the page, but my sketchbook helps me to visualize and play with it, trying out and rejecting ideas, forming and reforming the whole as I go along. The process is not linear — I tend to start at the top of the page but then jump around, eventually returning to fill gaps and overlay new ideas on top of earlier ones — and nor does it occurs in discrete, precisely iterative steps.

I consider my sketchbook a mechanism for accessing those crucial revelatory leaps of understanding that might otherwise never be given an opportunity to emerge. The experience is one of discovery, not creativity. It seems as though all the really good ideas already exist, and are just waiting to be found — to be seen, at last, from the corner of the eye.

My sketchbook, then, is my looking glass. What’s yours?

That is fantastic! I love my yellow legal pads I use for game design more than anything material in this world. Thanks for a peek inside your brain!!

Wow, fascinating approach. Strangely, I seldom draw anything out with paper and pencil. I tend to "noodle" things out in my head until I feel I can put something down in a Word document or a spreadsheet, then hack and edit until I've got enough material for a playable prototype to print.

One exception is a game I'm working on now called "Gold on Mars" (until I come up with a better title). I'm having the hardest time figuring out the best way to model the relative motion of the planets and how to allow players to move among them. I've sketched out a notional "map" of the solar system and some ideas about what will and won't work, but I'm still kind of stymied as to a playable model.

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