As I mentioned in my previous post, Grant Rodiek is one of the designers whose blog I read on a regular basis. He recently wrote an intriguing post on the idea of purposefully designing joy into games. It got me thinking about my own approach to design — how I go about it, what I focus on, and why I put things together the way I do.
It made me realize that when I’m designing a game, I focus mainly on creating problems for the players to solve, providing them some limited tools to solve the problems, and then forcing some tough decisions on when and how to use the tools available. Usually, those tough decisions work around the player choosing to give something up in order to gain some advantage. This means that while I usually start with a theme and then form mechanics within it, I’m really a mechanics-first designer … since the mechanics play a more important role for me.
This does a few things: It means that I usually am able to get the elements of a design to work together mechanically very quickly, making it easier to test things at a mathematical/physics level. But, more critically, it means that I’m relying quite a bit on the players to convert the theme and what I think may be a nifty combination of mechanics into the “aha” moments of joy that Grant wrote about. And, even more critically, it clarifies for me what causes some players of my games to respond with phrases like “missing that magic spark” or “dry” or (more painfully) “soulless.” I’m not sure what this means for my on-going designs yet, but I think it it will cause me to take a wider view of the design, and focus more on the overall player experience. (I just don’t really know what that means yet … but willing to learn.)
So, as an exercise, I thought I’d walk through some of my more-or-less completed designs and comment on a piece or two that I really like about each of them. Quite likely, these will be related to the game’s mechanics (due to what I wrote above). The first two games I’ll cover are a couple of my earliest — Castle Danger and Keeps & Moats Chess.
Castle Danger: Board Space as a Resource … The initial idea that spawned Castle Danger had to do with trading-in ease of movement with having more ability to do different things. You need to add pieces to the board in order to be able to do more things on your turn (wizards), build up some defense (builders & walls), and have some offensive fire power (cannons). However, adding these pieces (especially the walls) takes away spaces from your side of the board, which wasn’t that spacious to begin with.
I love the tension this creates, and the parking-lot-like spacial reasoning puzzle that fills up each turn. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t loved by everyone, mainly hearing the word “claustrophobic” as a way to describe it. Traditional abstract players seem to grok it though.
Keeps & Moats Chess: Four-player Chess has potential as a “Game System” … Originally, I simply challenged myself to design a 4-player chess variant that would encourage aggressive play. I’m a horrible chess player … way too aggressive and not nearly patient enough. So, what if there was a version of chess that had a built-in defensive layer that would allow players to keep some of their pieces (somewhat) protected inside a Keep while carrying out aggression on a central battlefield. This concept evolved into the battlefield/moats/keeps design for the board.
But then, while working on how to modify the rules of chess to make it work on this new board, it struck me that the board could lend itself to a number of different games … and the idea that this may be more of a “game system” — in addition to the original idea of a chess variant — came into being. The next design I started that used this board is called “Keeps & Moats: Scepter of Power” … and I didn’t get very far with it before back-burnering it for the past handful of years. I think it may be time to dust it off and see what I could do with it.
I’ll cover some things to like in some of my other games over the coming weeks.