I first started designing board games in late 2014 after graduating from college that summer. I was already pretty hardcore about tabletop games, especially RPGs, but the thought that I could design one wasn’t in my head. After discovering print-on-demand sites and realizing that I probably wasn’t going to get anywhere as a playwright, I started Phantom Knight Games in March 2015 and begun kicking things into gear.
Most of 2015 was me launching myself into the deep end and attempting to learn how to swim. As a result, I would come up with an idea for a game, announce it on my Web site, and then immediately find out through playtesting that it had major issues. I will never regret this time, as it resulted in two pretty decent games, but it didn’t leave a lot of room for me to figure out what kind of games I truly wanted to be making.
In December, I printed a bunch of games and brought them to GaymerX. There were a lot more video game developers that year than I expected, and I was one of two or three people there with tabletop games to sell. Despite this (or maybe because of it), I managed to sell a good amount of stock and meet a ton of people.
This convention, combined with a reflection on my past and the games that truly meant a lot to me, made me come to a realization about the kind of games I want to make.
Game design is a mixture between math and psychology. Every good game has a mixture of both, but the ratio can be incredibly different.
I have a reasonable understanding of probability and arithmetic, but I’m not a mathematician or a programmer. Constructing complex, beautiful systems is something I could only do at a decent level, at best. I want the games I make to be ones that I can make truly great, and that means games where the other players are more important than the twelve mechanics running simultaneously on the board.
This doesn’t mean every game has to be social deduction, but I want to be primarily focused on psychology. Bluffing, mind games, communication, and occasionally just laughter or wild screaming.
Any artist’s output is going to suffer if they only draw inspiration from their own medium. It results in movies about movies, plays about plays, and games that are invented after a game designer plays games with other game designers.
I want to make strange games. Games that employ mechanics nobody’s seen before, or one that combines mechanics that were previously thought unmixable (not just “deckbuilding meets drafting”). Themes that cause people to turn their heads. Inspiration drawn from everything that could possibly be fit onto some cards and a board.
Someday, God willing, I will design a good game. And until then, I will probably design bad games. But if I’m going to make a bad game, I want it to be a really weird bad game.
Also, given that my next game is a superhero-themed party game, it’s going to take some time for me to live up to this expectation, but one day I hope to be there.
(A lot of this sentiment was created after reading Richard Garfield’s essay in The Kobold Guide to Game Design, which I highly recommend.)
Games That Make People’s Day
This is a hard category to define. Let me try.
There are a lot of games out there, even extremely good ones, which I can get up from and forget that I played. Typically, these are more cerebral with less player interactivity, but it applies to plenty of non-mathy games as well. They don’t really affect me one way or the other, they’re just a fun way to pass the time.
Then there are the games that make my day.
Co-op winning in Cosmic Encounter by the narrowest margin. Revealing six brutes in Libertalia. Saying “Goku 3” in Codenames and having the field agents guess all three words* correctly. When I play one of these games, I get up from the table, smiling, with a story to tell the next day. I really want people to know about what an awesome time I had.
I still have yet to truly define what really categorizes these games. They’re typically interactive, funny, and have room for lateral thinking, but beyond that there’s a pretty significant variety. But I know that this is the kind of game I want to design.
*”Orange”, “Monkey”, “Time”. Also it was my friend who did this, not me, but I couldn’t resist adding my favorite Codenames anecdote into this post.
I’m writing this as someone still very new to both designing games and interacting with the larger community. It’s more likely than not that I’ll look back on this in five years and scoff at what an idiot I was. But having a philosophy like this feels like having a torch thrust into my hand after stumbling around in the dark. I have some guidance, at least for now, and hope that it brings me to something triumphant.