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Do you remember how excited you felt with that initial idea of: “Hey! I should make my own board game!” What would you say to yourself now that you have gone down the path? Would you caution yourself, give a word of warning, or encourage yourself forward? We here at MakeBoardGame wanted to know, and we are sure that you do too. So we asked game designers from all over the place one simple question: What’s one thing you wish you had known before starting as a game designer? We gathered all types of advice from those who are fresh in game design to those who have some published games under their belt. This is exactly the type of information we here at MakeBoardGame hope to continue to offer in our journey to be the BEST resource for game design and publication! We hope this advice helps you!

On Being Passionate about Game Design

Daniel Fremgen (Dobey Games) Maker of Bear Trap!, Dustbowl, and More

If you want it to be published, it will take a lot of time and work. There will be no guarantees and the experience and networking required to make a final product will probably take a few years. That said, make sure you have fun doing it and make games you and your friends will enjoy, that way you’ll be happier along the way!

Klaus Teuber Maker of Settlers of Catan and More

When I started to develop games I started a wonderful journey to undiscovered worlds of phantasy. If I would have known things that happened later and I would have got the chance to change something in the beginning it would not have been this wonderful trip. Developing games was a hobby I was passionate about. It relaxed me and gave me joy and satisfaction. During the first few years, I didn’t even know that one can make money developing board games.

From my point of view, wanting to become a game designer mainly for the sake of making a lot of money is the wrong approach. You must feel called to design games, just as you must feel called to paint, write, or sculpt. Game designers must develop their games with passion, and they need to muster a lot of patience, which you can only do if you love your work. Each game designer must find out for themselves how best to proceed when developing their game; it is a very individual process that can’t be generalized.

I would strongly advise all my young colleagues not to quit their bread-and-butter jobs until they are successful enough at designing games to make a living. Developing games while in financial difficulties and under pressure has little prospect of success.


Advice on Playtesting

Matt Leacock Maker of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, & More

I’ve found it’s much more important to observe playtesters carefully – looking for what confuses them, what terms they use to describe things, when they appear to be engaged (leaning forward) or not (checking their phone) and whether they appear to be having a good time – as opposed to asking players “what do you think?” at the end of a session. Self-report is notoriously inaccurate and asking players (who are not game designers themselves) what they’d change, doesn’t generally yield fruitful results. Your time is better spent on careful observation.

Jamey Stegmaier (Stonemaier Games) Maker of Scythe, Viticulture & More

The #1 thing I wish I’d known before designing my first game for publication is the importance of blind playtesting. I was familiar with the concept of having complete strangers learn and play a game in my absence, but I just didn’t realize the potential impact it can have on the design and the rules. While it’s helpful for me to playtest our games with friends and colleagues, the feedback is never quite as blunt and honest as when I send the game to a playtester hundreds of miles away for them to say whatever they want. And without me there to clarify and remind them about rules, all of the inadequacies in the rules quickly rise to the surface. I’m fortunate that people volunteered to blind playtest Viticulture during the original Kickstarter campaign, and ever since then it has become a huge part of my game design process.

Keng Leong Yeo (Starting Player) Maker of Three Kingdoms Redux

As we progressed to first impressions playtesting, we receive much more varied opinions. We quickly realized that we can’t please everyone. Indeed, some of the opinions were at complete odds with one another. We just had to make the decisions based on our judgment of what is best for the game and go with it.

Nonetheless, we thank all playtesters who gave up their precious time and for their opinions. All of them, whether implemented or not, are important to us.

Lesson learnt: We cannot please everyone

Words about the Process

Gil Hova (Formal Ferret Games) Maker of Battle Merchants, Wordsy & More

Game design is not about interesting mechanisms or weird themes. It’s about incentivizing interesting behavior. It’s about leading players into the experience you want them to feel. Game design is creative incentivization.
So whenever I get stuck, I no longer start by thinking about what mechanisms I can change. Instead, I consider the experience that I want the player to feel, and I look for opportunities to give them decisions that would push their behavior and decisions towards feeling that experience.

Kelly Adams Maker of Chibi Quest!

I think learning how to take criticism is important and knowing when to refactor ideas when they are not working.

Johannes Maker of Habeamus

You will not be able to play games like other people any more.

Instead of just playing the game you’ll look at all aspects of the game. How is the box made, what stock did they use, how does the cover art align with the theme and the contents, how many cards are there, how are the rules written, how does this rule interact with this rule, what card could you add or delete to make it even better, what are flaws, is there downtime for players, could you improve on that, OMG they have custom-made dice that are great, how much did it cost to produce those wooden figures…

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I tremendously enjoy thinking about game mechanics while playing other games. But it does change the way you play games.

Don’t be beholden to the concept you have in your head. Iterate, cut things out, listen to the game & what it needs.

Michael Aldridge (Infinite Dreams Gaming) Maker of Warehouse 13

It always takes longer than you think it’s gonna take.

Corey Young Maker of Gravwell

Players prefer decisions over random stuff. Also, publishers prefer new ways of playing over familiar stuff with a new skin.

Grant Rodiek (Hyperbole Games) Maker of Farmageddon, Druids & More

Be sure that what you’re making is actually good enough.  Is it going to be unique and special? Is it something the market needs? Also, is it something YOU LOVE? Really understand a design before you dive in. Don’t just make something “just because” and don’t accept “good enough.” Make something great that you love from day one.

Sen-Foong Lim (Bamboozle Brothers) Maker of Belfort, Train of Thought & More

One thing we wished we knew before starting is that striving to make the perfect games hinders progress.  Overthinking a game (ie trying to make it perfect in your headspace) is counterproductive.  Getting the game out of your head and onto the table as soon as you can will truly test it.  You will learn more from playing the game than you will from months and months of thinking about the game.

Thoughts on Prototypes

Adam Rehberg (Adam’s Apple Games) Maker of Brewin’ USA

Prototypes don’t need to look good, but they probably should if you want more people to agree to play them.

Playtest with a lot of different groups. Playing with the same group can become rote and leave you trying add more depth and flavor than you need to get them engaged. This leads to over-complicating things that should have been left simpler and more new player friendly.

Be Part of the Gaming Community

Travis Hancock (Facade Games) Maker of Salem

I wish I’d known more about the how supportive the board game community is. People are so willing to help playtest, brainstorm ideas, provide feedback and design, etc. I think since board gaming isn’t really a competitive industry (in other words, if you get someone to buy a game it doesn’t really decrease their chances of buying another game – in many ways it increases those chances), people are just really great about sharing everything. Knowing that before making our first game would have really sped up the process.

Jeff Warrender Maker of The Sands of Time, Lost Adventures, and More

I guess something like “how incredibly dependent you will be on other people for the game to go anywhere.”

And by this I don’t mean going anywhere in the sense of making money off the game — that’s so many miles down the road it’s not even worth talking about when you are working on your first game idea. The reality is that nothing can come of your game idea unless you have people who are willing to indulge this new creative outlet of yours. Such people are harder to come by than one might think, and those with the patience and wherewithal to stick through even after many many reps are a rarer commodity still.

It’s a fun ride but you will need help — make sure your pizza slush fund is flush with money!

On Packaging, Rule Books, and Manufacturing

PJ Dennehy Maker of Yazoky

When creating my new game I never gave any thought to packaging and focused my attention solely on ‘gameplay’ during design. My reasoning was that even the most exquisite packaging cannot compensate for a badly designed game. For outside playtesters I simply used loosely made up postal boxes.

Only when game development was completed and I turned my attention to making a prototype I encountered many difficulties with packaging. While the game was small it was heavy relative to it’s size. Only then I realised the consequences for shipping costs, especially from my location. Most of the components are plastic rather than cardboard and it was difficult to source smaller and lightweight pieces to reduce the weight. Coins, which are integral part of the game, needed to be useful diameter size and their internal storage was hard to figure out. I had to accept that the coins determined the dimensions of the game box. In effect, this meant I now had to re-configure the other components to fit in the remaining space. This took a lot of time in trial and error. The box itself is very small in comparison to most board games which means it has little space for cover artwork. Had to abandon fancy graphics and replace with a logo image. As a self-publisher my fist order for boxes had to be a very small order. It was unbelievably difficult to find ANY manufacturer that was willing to make small quantity of high quality boxes.

In terms of time wasting and costs, Packaging is the one thing I wish I had known more about before creating the game.

Antoine Bauza Maker of 7 Wonders Duel, Tokaido, and More

I guess my biggest surprise was to realize how difficult it is to write down rules. I spend so much time on that now than the days istarted ! So you should know that designing game is hard but writing board games rules is even harder!

Benny Sperling Maker of Yakitori, ArchiWrecks & More

Being aware of manufacturing costs. Learning to do more with fewer bits

And last, but not least, thoughts on creativity! 

Larry Harris (Harris Game Design) Maker of Axis & Allies, Lionheart & More

Short Answer: What I know now!
I know now that it takes passion and creativity to be a game designer. I had both these qualities when I started.  They served me well over the years. Passion means love for what it is you’re doing.  Think about it all the time. Go and live in the details. Always look for better ways to do each individual game mechanic but never lose track of the big picture or the scope of the game in general. Constantly tell yourself that there’s something that needs improving or could be done better. Creativity is something you either have or you don’t.  If you have it but don’t find ways to tap into it you should be lined up against a wall and shot. I will say this. I don’t have more passion today than I did when I got into this business, but I do think I am more creative than I’ve ever been. That gives me great pleasure.  I also present the question – How does that happen?  Maybe along with passion and creativity a good dose of “experience” comes in handy.

Are you a game designer? What’s one thing you wish you had known prior to starting game design?

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Definitely bookmarking this one. Great tips all around!

  • Chris says:

    What game is at the top of the page?

  • Pelle Nyrén says:

    I’m a hobby game designer and I’m yet to have anything published. Given that I started designing games when I was about five years old, clearly there are things I wish I knew then that I know now… More seriously though, the big thing I see new designers miss over and over is learning how to fail fast. Make a quick mockup with just enough ugly components to play a few rounds of your game against yourself. That will typically save loads of time you would otherwise spend thinking about ideas that when put to the test won’t work without big changes. This is not because they are a bad game designer, but because games are typically made to be a system to analyse and predict while playing it. If your game is so simple that you can analyse it even without having played a single game of it, it will probably be a boring game.

    But more likely you’ve made a very complex system that has some parts that makes it very unbalanced. That’s the other advantage of the quick mockup: You just make the bare bones. Often designers feel their games should have bells and whistles and cool ways to change the game rules or special abilities. But what they should test first should be the base game without that. It’s ok if the game feels lacking in cool things the players can do, but if the base mechanics of the game do not work or are wildly unbalanced in some way that is much easier to notice without a bunch of rule changing effects in play that obscure the issue but also being unbalanced.

    The power of an iterative process is not to be underestimated. Don’t spend time on making the game pretty too early since it’s harder to throw away bad designs that look good (and that you’ve wasted time on). Experience helps with having an idealized image in your head about how the components *should* look later on and seeing potential of card games that just some pieces of scribbled on scrap paper in card sleeves. It doesn’t help with getting playtesters for ugly prototypes though, but once you’ve designed some good things you hopefully have some friends who have faith in your new projects so you can get those early playtests in.

    My last and somewhat obvious advice would be to play more games of all sorts and analyse their game mechanics and what makes them tick. But I’d like to think I was already doing this when I was five.

    • Tyler Smith says:

      Pelle, thanks for the great advice.

      I can’t agree more that it is so important to just build a quick-ugly prototype and start playing. A game can play so well in your mind, but once it’s on the table you’ll see it’s strengths and weaknesses very quickly!

  • Blunt says:

    So right, i’m creating a tabletop game about surfing and everything you wrote is really true !
    and now when you have finish everything the last but no the least is to promote the game !
    but it is so nice to have done something you shoudn’t imagine possible.
    If you want to have a look on my surfing game : http://www.surfandbizz.com

    If you have advise on promoting game, i’m lacking of inspiration .

    Thank you for this post very helpfull

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