I spend a fair amount of my idle time reading/listening to the design philosophy of Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic: The Gathering. One topic he expounds on frequently is the concept of design space: How many viable cards* can be made using a certain mechanic or theme. For a long time, I thought this was one of those things that really only applies to a CCG model, where components are made constantly with no foreseeable end.
Then, several months ago, I began working on a board game with Cosmic Encounter-style powers and realized that if I wanted to be able to make as many powers as I want to, I had to think about how much design space I was creating using my core rules. It’s a surprisingly useful topic, but one that isn’t discussed by most tabletop designers, so I thought it appropriate to write about it here.
* Design space in Magic can also refer to things like card names, expansion symbol designs, and border colors, but I didn’t want to unnecessarily complicate things.
Creating design space in your game is, in a sense, the opposite of the principles of elegance and minimalism that have benefited a lot of modern board games. Having a lot of options to alter the core rules of your game must be preceded by having a lot of core rules to alter, and rules bloat is something to watch out for. However, there are three types of game that do nothing but benefit from having more design space:
- Games with a lot of cards/tiles. Games like Race For The Galaxy hide much of their complexity within the components. Cards and tiles can have special powers – meaning they don’t have to be taught up front – or otherwise provide you some kind of benefit.
- Games with a large number of asymmetric player powers. Fighting game simulators like Yomi and BattleCON are obvious examples.
- Party games. As I mentioned in The Arty of Party, one of the most important parts of designing a party game is having hundreds of prompts so players can play many games without encountering repeats.
So how do you ensure you have enough design space in your game to make it successful?
Clearing Some Space
After deciding to make a game with a lot of exception cases, as mentioned above, you will do a lot of good simply by thinking hard about your game. Look at each rule and say, “If this were replaced or enhanced by something else, but the rest of the rules remained intact, would the game be pretty much the same experience?” If a rule is so crucial that it can’t be altered in any way, it means there’s no design space available for it. The fewer of these present in your game, the more room you have to explore.
The previous paragraph is a little abstract, so to use an analogy, it’s like that tired meme about what counts as a sandwich. If you take the top slice of bread off a sandwich, it’s still arguably a sandwich (albeit an open-face one); take off both slices of bread and spread the contents on a bed of lettuce, now it’s a salad. Similarly, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how much you can alter your core game and have it give the same experience, but rather you have to keep iterating to see what keeps you comfortable. You’ll get better at it the more you keep designing for the game.
Finding design space for a party game is more about keeping your prompts diverse. While developing Stand Back, Citizen!, my superheroic pitch game, I found that if I wasn’t careful, I was including too many Noun cards about food and animals. While both food and animals are hilarious, because I wanted to retain a reasonable balance of cards I had to cut down to the funniest of them. In this way, even though I hadn’t technically run out of ideas, the demands of the game at large lowered my design space in these categories.
Expanding Your Mind
You’ll notice that one topic I haven’t touched on is clearing space for an expansion for your game. This is primarily because I don’t believe in designing anything under the assumption that it’ll do so well that it gets an expansion. With Kickstarter stretch goal content becoming more and more popular, it seems tempting, but creating a game that operates well if a player buys all the content is essentially creating half a game.
The other reason I didn’t talk about space for expansions is that most games can find something to add, no matter how rigid the design space. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar literally has no space on the board to put additional content, yet CGE managed to later release the expansion Tribes and Prophecies, which to my understanding was received fairly well. Design space is more important when you’re designing your core game.
Your main benefit over current Magic: The Gathering designers is that you don’t need to work in the design space boundaries set by someone else in 1993. You can now apply modern design sensibilities to actively create enough design space for your components to fit in comfortably. By looking ahead and responsibly adjusting the amount of space you have to work with, you’re going to save yourself a lot of hassle later.