Oath of Fealty Update: Iconography

It’s been awhile since my last post – but Oath of Fealty is coming along nicely!  Below I’ve included the newly redone game board, along with the first 3 icons I’ll be using as part of the game.

The new gameboard is inspired by 19th century maps of the late middle ages.  These maps were often incredibly complex and used layers of colored inks to denote different political units.  These inks were often not perfectly overlaid, so you ended up with these cool bleeds and heavy edges where they overlapped.

 

Gameboard v8.0

I’m using icons for 2 key reasons:

  1. pictures take up less space than text and allow a game to be translated into other languages much more easily
  2. by using icons – it forces you, as the game designer, to think critically about every mechanic of the game.  Every action, movement, interaction, etc. that can happen in game play needs to be represented in visuals.  You will realize very quickly where your game’s redundant, repetitive or divergent game play mechanics are when you do this!

These images each represent one of the 3 core action types in the game: Civic, Intrigue and Merchant cards.  Each icon is based on a famous medieval painting: The Accolade (Civic), Machiavelli (Intrigue) and The Merchant and His Wife (Merchant).

I’ll be sharing more icons and additional Oath of Fealty Updates in the coming days – stay tuned!

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Why We Should All Make Mini-Games – The Power of Small Batches

Not all game designers (or game design hobbyists) are like me – but if you are, you undoubtedly have a flair for the dramatic.  Dreaming up new games and relishing in how awesome it will be to play them with your friends is exciting, and – much like the children’s classic If You Give a Mouse a Cookie – you are not just satisfied with one unique mechanical nugget to make your game run.  You need more – numerous paths to victory, scoring tokens, chips, pieces, cards, a second deck of cards, a back story for the game, allegorical overtones, a special ‘sudden death’ mechanic for ties… the list goes on.  In an earlier post I talk about the dangers of having a grandiose vision (and how lucky/talented Klaus Teuber got with Catan), and that lesson stands as true then as today.  However, there’s a particular sub-rule to ‘treading cautiously’ around big visions – and it’s about working small.

My first game (Fealty, still in development) took a really long time to get off the ground.  Part of the problem was my vision got too big (I wanted to provide a game allowing players to “recreate the evolution of human civilization to their own liking” and inso doing inspire them to learn history… talk about melodramatic!).  However, even once I got it paired down to a map game involving zone of control mechanics in late-medieval Germany – it still took forever between playtests.  The reason?  I always produced everything at full scale – this meant:

  • A full-sized (3×5′), color map
  • 405 playing cards
  • 280 tokens or chips in 7 colors
  • 7 scoring sheets
  • A 4 page rulebook

Imagine how much faster it would have been when I decided to change the movement mechanic in my game.  Instead of redoing all those materials, I could have printed an 8.5×11″ sub-set of the map, scaled it to 3 players and used a few leftover cards to mimic the activity.  I could have played such a test with two friends after work one night and learned nearly all of what a full-up test would have garnered me at 1/10 the effort and time.

So the next time you want to test something new with you friends (and it’s especially helpful for incremental updates to a game, as you can iterate quickly once the baseline game is established) – follow these steps to see if you can work faster by working smaller:

  • Identify the 1 thing you want to test and try to keep it to 1 – if you test numerous things, you won’t know what worked and what didn’t.  Obviously running a whole test when you change the point value on one minor card by one point might negate the very benefits you’re hoping to reap from this system, but the fewer the changes – the easier the impact is to observe.
  • Think about the simplest, smallest and easiest way you can test this idea – look at all the factors: can you shrink the size of the board?  The number of players?  The number of activities or options?  Sometimes, you can even set up a ‘case study,’ where the game is limited to only one or a few turns that emphasize the change and you can play that snippet over and over.  In fact, if you think about it, Axis & Allies is a ‘case study’ type game – all the pieces are pre-set by the rules.  Imagine how much MORE time would be taken setting up A&A if you got to choose all the pieces starting places (or how many you played with)!
  • Record your results!  This is the hardest part (and I am a major offender!).  The last thin you want to do in the middle of an exciting playtest is step away and jot notes, but it is critical.  Not only will it help you move faster and develop better ideas in the future, but capturing those ideas in-the-moment will allow you to retain them better – which will keep you motivated and excited about working on your game.  There is nothing worse than having a ‘revolutionary’ break-through during a play test, getting caught up in ‘real life’ for a few days afterwards and then realizing with utter despair that the ‘lightning in a bottle’ you felt the day of the test has slipped away.

Oath of Fealty – A new asymmetrical zone of control game

I’ve been hinting at it for months, so here it is – the official unveiling of my new game: Oath of Fealty!

Oath of Fealty is a 3-7 player game set in Medieval Germany, also known as the “Holy Roman Empire.”  The unique thing about the Holy Roman Empire was that it did not have an official, hereditary King or Emperor – 7 noteworthy princes and bishops would vote for a new ruler whenever one Emperor died.  In Oath of Fealty – you play the role of one of those princes or bishops – and it’s your goal to change the rules so your family can rule forever as hereditary rulers of the Holy Roman Empire!

HRE Board v8.0_1-31-15

Oath of Fealty  is inspired by other ‘zone of control’ games, such as Risk, Axis & Allies or Diplomacy – but with several very unique twists:

  • Player elimination is not required to win the game.  In Risk, part of winning the game is being the ‘last player standing.’  This is great if it’s you, but far less fun for the other 4-5 players you eliminated along the way.  In fact, typically half of those playing will be knocked out within the first 1-2 turns – meaning half the players who set out to play the game end up not having a very fun time.  In Oath of Fealty – there are 2 distinct ways to achieve victory: territorial expansion AND gaining enough nobles (think of them like victory points).  One player may go for a big land grab, only to be outdone by another who hunkered down and started recruiting nobles quickly!
  • Rewards & benefits are not a ‘zero sum game,’ all players have the opportunity to balance one another based only on their own decisions.  In Risk, the bonuses of the game are “zero sum.”  This means that if you get a bonus, your opponent does not – for example, if you conquer all of North America, you get +5 armies/turn.  As you gain more and more bonuses, your opponent(s) de facto have less, meaning Risk games are often decided several turns before they actually end. cards In Oath of Fealty – there is a unique ‘action card’ system that allows each player complete control over their ability to wage war or make peace.  Players draft cards from communal piles throughout the game and build personal ‘decks’ of cards.  Each turn, they use their hand of cards to perform actions on the game board and draw a new hand.  In this way – players with more territories have no bigger advantage at fighting battles than players with only 1 territory – it’s entirely dependent on which cards a player drafted.
  • The game incorporates a dynamic, ‘asymmetrical’ power structure among the players.  In several games, all players are given the same benefits and objectives to maintain balance.  This is fair, but can lead to stagnation of play as well as players going after individualistic strategies without interacting much with their competitors (this is a common weakness of several Eurogames).  In Oath of Fealty – players vote at the end of each round for one player to become “Emperor/ess” for the next round.  The Emperor gets special advanced benefits (ability to take control of special territories for free, access to more cards and nobles) but also has limitations (cannot fight other players, nor can they attack the Emperor).  This creates unique opportunities for interaction, alliances and power dynamics to play out in how players vote for emperor each round.
  • The game allows for grand strategy but at a quick pace.  Unlike Risk, where players have no turn limit, or Diplomacy – where all turns must be submitted simultaneously (drawing out the game) – Oath of Fealty’s unique card system allows turns to have a predefined limit that doesn’t limit strategy.  With a hand of only 9 cards, players have to make tough choices and trade-offs as to where they take their actions.  Additionally – you’re always itching to take your next turn so you can keep playing cards!

Net – Oath of Fealty is my attempt to bring together my two passions: the Ameritrash player-eliminations games I loved so much as a kid with the intricately well-designed and interactive games I’ve fallen for as an adult.

Look for Oath of Fealty on Kickstarter later this year!  Follow this blog or join our mailing list for regular updates!

Don’t hate the player(s) – hate the game

When it comes to game design – your players shouldn’t have to “will” themselves to suspend their own disbelief – they should do so willingly and without realizing it.

So you like board games and want to design one.  I have an idea for you – it’s a super popular game, I mean – really popular.  I think thousands – no, millions of people will  love it.  Oh – and there’s a few specifics:  (1) the rules fill an entire book, which is hard to find and you have to buy, (2) most of the people who play have no control over whether or not their team wins or loses, and (3) over 95% of those who play lose each time it’s played.

Sounds like a crappy game?  Maybe – but it also describes almost any one of the 4 major professional sports (or either of the major collegiate sports: football & basketball) in the US.  Millions of people ‘play’ these games – no, not just the pro’s who perform on the field.  They are the literal competitors, but the thousands in the stands and the millions watching at home are playing as well.  They know the rules, follow the games, spend money and time on apparel, tickets and consuming news, video and other media about their teams.  These fans are playing a game just as much as someone who bought a copy of Settlers of Catan or Monopoly (or, likely, a whole lot more – especially if they participate in fantasy sports).

Despite this dedication – the vast majority of these sports fans will not experience a championship this season, and a good many of them won’t even experience anything remotely close to a ‘winning’ season.  In fact, many sports fans endure losing seasons year after year.  For many teams – including many of those competing currently in the 2015 NCAA Mens & Women’s Basketball tournaments – they play (or cheer) for small schools without the talent or resources to ever expect to compete with the larger schools.   Their biggest opportunity is to get luck and get a 16 seed in the tournament, where they will inevitably lose to a major basketball powerhouse like Kentucky, Duke or Kansas.

Yet – despite all these factors that would clearly make for a horrid ‘eurogame,’ fans of sports are rabid, loyal and keep coming back… why?

The answer is simple – sports teams are incredibly good at getting fans invested; at making them feel ownership in the team.  Sports franchises has strong, geographic ties to specific cities – some even create mascots to tie to the city’s history or industry (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Boston Celtics come to mind).  Some (collegiate programs) are associated with a specific university and alumni/student base.  Teams have fight songs, colors, chants & cheers, paraphrenelia, honor rolls of famous players, a rich lore of great plays and big games across history.

In other words – sports franchises create an incredibly rich and inviting story for fans (players) to immerse themselves in.  Being invested in a powerful story means you do not need to convince yourself to care – you don’t make a judgement call about whether your team might win this year or this weekend.  You’re emotionally bought in – you want to believe, to be part of something bigger than yourself.

When designing games – capturing and nurturing an emotional story that welcomes your players in is critical to your game’s design.

The beauty of the eurogame revolution is the focus on exceptional gameplay.  Eurogames ensure all players survive from beginning to end (there is no player elimination), the game has a shallow ‘slippery slope’ (everyone has a chance to win until the very end) and there’s no kingmaker situations (where one player who has been eliminated from contention can enable another player to win).  Yet – one of pitfalls of this relentless, almost mathematical, focus on balance and competitive play is creating is a game that feels sterile and mechanical – a game you don’t feel a connection to.

Well crafted & original artwork, a well-written manual and a unique proposition for your game aren’t just ‘window dressing,’ they help build a rich story and emotional reaction for your players.  That connection makes your players want to care, to compete, to stick it out and learn more about your game.  Writers talk about “willing suspension of disbelief” – getting readers to accept the story being presented without consciously thinking about and questioning it.  A well-crafted game shouldn’t have to ‘will’ players to suspend disbelief, it should be so compelling players suspend their disbelief without even thinking about it – they jump right into the game, the character they’re playing and the world the game is set in.

How do you get players invested?’

  • Let your passion show through!  – whatever you find really interesting, unique or fascinating should be the focus of your game.  Others may question if such a niche topic might be able to attract a broad audience – but let me tell you: a niche themed game with a compelling story will attract a much broader audience than a broadly appealing theme.  Think about it – there are way too many world-war 2 themed board games already!
  • Work on telling a great story – don’t let the theme & backstory of your game fall to the background of your design process.  Put time & effort into making everything about your game purposeful.  The artwork should say something and add to the theme: a game about a gritty detective might go to the next level with some unique, film noir style artwork… but a cartoony & cheeky artwork might clash and make it harder for your players to dig into the game.
  • TAKE YOURSELF SERIOUSLY!  Have you ever seen someone go on stage to perform something who wasn’t confident in themselves?  It’s painfully obvious – the way the hedge all their lines – they look uncomfortable, like the want to sink through the floor.  Such people are struggling from stage freight – they’re afraid of looking silly.  What they don’t realize is they look much worse being timid & uncomfortable than they could ever look by just being themselves – no matter how silly/zany they think they might be.  Designing is the same way – if you do not have confidence in your ideas, it will show through immediately in the game design & playtest.  Your ideas aren’t silly, or dorky or nerdy or anything like that.  They’re good ideas – be proud of them!

So what’s your story?  What adventure are you taking your players on?

Marketing & Business #1: “Greed is… good” for designing your game

Should you try and make money off of designing games?

It a seemingly simple question – but with some deep roots if you let it take hold.  There’s a lot of writing and common knowledge on this issue when you approach it from a dollars-and-cents stance:

  • Yes, it does on average take ~10,000 hours to become an expert in something and you need to give it your all to make it work.
  • No, don’t quit your day job because success takes a long time and a lot of hard work.
  • Yes, fail early and fail often – and go all-in on it to make it work.
  • No, corporations are evil and you’re not doing this to become the next game house, pumping out mindless sequels to drive their share price.

But all of this is irrelevant.  Dollars-and-cents only make sense when you’ve actually sold something, and we haven’t.  There’s a different question you have to answer first:

Do you want to make the best game you can, or not?

If the answer is no – and that’s absolutely OK – then do whatever you want to.  If game design is a hobby, an interest or just something you do for your own betterment, do whatever makes sense; whatever is fun.  I dabble in the game of golf – it’s challenging and teaches me a lot about patience and forgetting your mistakes – but I never take lessons.  The time investment just isn’t worth it for me because I don’t need to be good at golf to get out what I need from the hobby.  Game design could be the same way.

But – if you answered yes – then you MUST try and make money off of your game.  No, this isn’t  Ayn Rand political commentary or the outing of me as a Gordon Gecko disciple (despite the photo).  I’m simply saying you should always think like you’re trying to build a board game empire when you design, because it will make your games better.

  • It will make you more determined.  If you’re trying to build a career out of your games, you won’t be satisfied with an OK game, you’ll keep pushing until it’s phenomenal – and that’s a great think for you AND your players.
  • It will make you more practical.  Great games are typically exceedingly elegant and simple.  If you’re thinking about cost – it’ll force you to second guess and reconsider every piece and each mechanic.  Sure, it might be a financial exercise, but it will lead to powerful design-based insights about how your game might be more elegant.
  • It will mean more people will hear about and buy your game.  If you want to make a great game then I would guess you are like me in that you also want people to enjoy playing your game.  It stands to reason that if more people enjoyed it, that would be even better.  If you’re truly focused on trying to make money on your game – you’ll pay more attention to how you can market your game to get it into the hands of more potential players.  This isn’t just great for soothing your own ego about ‘making other people happy,’ a great game could also influence and embolden them to take on their own vision of game designing (or something else) and bring that to life.  Good games beget more games!
  • It will make you design a better product.  This might seem counter-intuitive.  I know you’re thinking “if you only care about the money, you’ll make a cheap, cruddy game and sell it for a huge mark-up!”  It’s easy to think that, but remember something I’ve learned from working in marketing: consumers (players) aren’t nearly as stupid as you would like to think they are.  If you make a crappy game and try and price it up to make a quick buck, you will fall flat on your face and won’t earn anything.  In this way, trying to make money will give you the drive (see first bullet above) and the fear (of falling on your face) to make a great game.  Thought about differently – if you weren’t trying to make money, you might release an only so/so game and decide “well, if it flops, that’s OK – I wasn’t trying to make money anyway.”
  • It will make you commit.  If you’re trying to get focused and actually finish your game – taking a small financial stake in it could put your over the edge in terms of focus.  As I’ve been gearing up for Oath of Fealty’s launch (Kickstarter est. late 2015), I had to apply for an LLC.  It’s not cheap (~$125 in Ohio), but certainly not a life-changing decision like quitting your job to design games, or maxing the credit cards to finish a print run.  Despite the relative minute size of this decision – it was terrifying because it suddenly made my game design hobby real.  Before this, everything was in my head or in a file.  I hadn’t actually committed; I hadn’t opened myself up to the possibility I might fail.  But by establishing that LLC, I made a vested interest in my board game dream – and in so doing admitted to myself that my dream might fail.  It was scary, but once done – incredibly liberating.

So what do you think?  Is “greed” good for game design?  Or am I off my rocker?

Improv Lesson #2: Let’s Get Physical, Physical

‘Break a leg!’  Not literally – but give it a convincing try!

In improv comedy – one of the critical elements of a good scene is ‘physicality,’ the ability of the players to use gestures, body language and pantomiming to communicate more about the context of the scene – where they are, who they are and how they feel (in general & about each other).

‘Physicality’ is critically important but often hard to teach.  It’s important because without it – the audience has far less to go on; those watching the scene get something far less rich (and typically far less funny).  Two people standing still talking at one another isn’t funny – but if one of them is a cantankerous old man trying to get a naive young idealist to see his point of view, all while they wait in line at the post office… there’s something far more to dig into.  It’s hard to teach (or do) because we fill in the gaps when we think about creating such a scene.  We think of the words we want to say, but don’t “concieve” of the body language, physicality or other elements because those are things we remember subconsciously.  Think of someone famous with a very distinctive accent or gait – you probably recognize it instantaneously – but can you pull off a good impression?

By being incredibly physical – we ‘force’ ourselves to explore all the elements of a scene – we don’t gloss over things unconsciously by ‘filling in the gaps’ with our brain.

Design & Creativity are the same way – we need to ‘go through the motions’ to ensure our brain isn’t filling in gaps in our design.

When you brainstorm a new game design or some other creative venture – it can be exciting to think up all the elements, rules, etc.  Our brains can run very, very fast – jumping from one idea to the next and exploring far faster than we can keep up with.  This is great, but if we simply think a lot, when we go to actually turn our ideas into reality they always fall short.  This is because – in jumping around with ideas – our brains “filled in the gaps.”  We gloss over uncomfortable gaps or flaws in our ideas because they are not fun to think about.  Much physicality in improv brings more realism to a scene, the way you overcome gaps/flaws in your creative thinking is by getting “physical” in the concrete sense.  In other words – do!

I’ve mentioned the importance of hard work and never giving up by working iteratively on something, but physicality offers another unique aspect to creativity.  It forces your ideas to be stronger. When you prep things or simply do them – it forces your imperfections to come to the surface, to become real.  Then you can learn from them, get better and have stronger ideas.

There’s a common ‘urban legend’ that traverses the internet dealing with this subject- about a pottery teacher who conducted an experiment with his class:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

A lot of blogs use this as an example of the whole ‘quantity’ over ‘quality’ argument to developing expertise – and that’s not a bad lesson.  However, there’s an even more important lesson: it’s not just quantity – it’s proper quantity.  In other words, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.  The quality pottery students could have written 100 page long dissertations and it wouldn’t have mattered.  The reason the quantity students did better was because they spent time physically creating the work they needed to improve.

If you’re a board game designer – spend time making games.  If you’re a painter – paint.  If you’re an improv comedian – get ‘physical.’

Find your sacred cows… and make burgers!

There will come a point in your game design where you will question everything and wonder if it’s worth finishing.

Your confidence will be at its lowest, you’ll be worried you are trying the patience of your friends who continue to show up for play test after play test, and you’ll feel like you haven’t made any progress in months.  Well, maybe you won’t feel this way – but I did and I don’t think I’m all THAT terrible as a game designer – so if you ever felt like you were in a rut – this post is for you.

When you feel like this – don’t give up!  It’s always darkest  before dawn.  You may feel like you’re not making progress, but this is a point you’ll reach in every game – and you’ll get through it.  You feel like you’re stuck because – simply put – you are.

Its not that your game is lost, without hope – its just that you’ve painted yourself into a corner and you didn’t realize it.  You see – when we design things, we make assumptions without even realizing it.  Our brain ‘glosses over’ certain things and we take them for fact so readily we don’t even realize we made a decision.

I call these subconscious assumptions ‘sacred cows.’  Finding them – and turning them on their head (or, into ‘burgers’) is key to progressing in your design.

It’s tricky to do – because you’re so close to your game that the sacred cows are often staring you in the face, but it’s a huge enabler to making creative progress.

My first game, Fealty, had one of the most painful – and inspiring – sacred cow moments I’ve ever experienced.

When I first thought up Fealty, my vision for the game was to make something that felt like being an ‘arm-chair general,’ where you push your armies around the board and try and achieve world domination.  I wanted to make Risk, only better.  However, the design was shoddy.  The game played LONG (over 7 hours).  It was incredibly complex.  It was a grinding experience.  I kept trying to simplify it but never really made any progress.  I didn’t know what else I could do.  And then, I realized I had a huge ‘sacred cow’ – I had made the assumption I needed a huge, complicated game board.  Tons of games I’d played didn’t have boards – and they were amazing.  Risk did, of course – which is what inspired me – and I’d always started designing with the idea of a big board at the middle – I never even stopped to consider why I wanted a big board, I simply assumed it without realizing it.  However, when I started thinking of how a smaller board might impact gameplay – it opened up a whole new way of thinking about my game and sped up gameplay by 4-6 hours!

My original game board was quite… ambitious – each of those grid squares was 0.25 inches sq!

GameboardMap3

But so long as I was “stuck” thinking about a massive, world-map template – ever iteration of the game failed to solve the chronic issues: long game play, player dis-engagement and bogged down turns:

WorkingGameboardMap v5.1

Then, I made a pivot and realized, I don’t need to have a massive, world-map.  If I want to make a historical ‘zone of control’ game, I can do that in a smaller space and make the game more intimate and engaging.  Because of this, I ended up with a scaled in map of central Europe and a faster & more engaging game about the medieval Holy Roman Empire.  You may argue that this is a totally different game.  Technically speaking – it is.  Yet, as I mention in previous posts about the importance of having a vision – my vision was the same.  That feeling of arm chair general and having control was still the over-arching feeling I wanted the game to imbue in its players, and for that reason – this was still part of the same design, even if the bones look different:

HRE Board v8.0_1-31-15

So – how do you ‘find your sacred cows?’  There’s no easy way, but I have some thoughts:

  1. Go to your rule book and literally try playing the game through a few turns after removing one or two key rules.  Sometimes, taking something out reveals how important it is to your design (or not at all, in some cases).  For me, I realized at some point that having movement grids or circles to control piece on the board was totally unnecessary.  A few simple rules about movement and interactivity between players allowed me to simplify to territories and remove the movement grid/circles all together.
  2. Try and play you game with swapped mechanics, but to do the same thing.  What I mean by this is, if you have a deck-building card game – try and find a way to play it without cards.  Maybe you try it with tile drafting, or with a unique game board and dice, or whatever – but try and find ways to use different mechanics to accomplish the same thing.  This won’t lead to amazing revelations, but it might help you better understand how the mechanics you’re using are impacting the vision you have for the game, and whether they have any inherent draw-backs which are limiting the game’s potential.  For me, I had made a sacred cow assumption about my need for currency within my game.  I thought I needed a way for players to store value from one turn to the next and save up in case of conflict.  However, I then experimented and found that deck-building provided a much more flexible and easier system to enable players to interact.  It also dramatically sped up the game and flattened my slippery slope – so I stuck with it.
  3. Ask yourself “how does this mechanic/rule relate to the game’s vision and the game’s objective?”  If you can’t answer that question in 1 or 2 short, concise sentences… maybe it’s not necessary.

So – what are your sacred cows?  How have you dealt with the issue of feeling ‘trapped’ in your current assumptions?

The Parking Lot – The Saving Grace for a Creative Mind

Ever feel like you have a ton of ideas and no way of organizing them all?  How can you do everything at once!?

The simple answer is – don’t.  You can’t be everything and do everything.  I’ve said several times – having a focused, driven idea (a vision) is critical when designing something.  But, that being said – ideas aren’t bad- they’re awesome and exciting, you just have to deal with them properly.

Ideas are cheap.

Deny it at your own peril, but ideas are cheap.  In fact, this is so universally known that most venture capital firms – you know, those guys who give seed money to Silicon Valley start-ups – don’t care a whole lot about your idea.  It doesn’t matter if you think you’ve invented ‘the next facebook,’ they are far more concerned with the team you’ve built to go turn that idea into a reality.  The idea won’t make any money until it’s a business – and building the business will take tons of work, lots of failures and probably a few radical tweaks to your idea itself (what they call a “pivot” in the start-up world).  In fact, one of the most amazing stories of a start-up is a company in Germany that copy-cats all the major tech start-up successes from Silicon valley and launches knock-offs around the world. It’s frustrating, sure – but its completely legal.  What’s more noteworthy than their copy-cat business model is that they’re the only ones with that model.  You’d think if ideas were really all that powerful on their own, we’d have a bunch of copy-cat’ers- but we don’t.  That’s because execution is really, really hard.

And yet – ideas are not worthless.  They’re cheap – but they can have amazing potential.  Ideas are like acorns.

Ideas aren’t expensive because we dream them up all the time, and humans – by and large – are fairly creative creatures.  Thus – the supply of ideas is large, making them cheap.  However, each of those ideas, if nurtured properly and protected, can grow into an amazing company, project, piece of art or whatever it was destined to be.  In this way, ideas are like acorns.  Acorns are practically free.  You can find them littering the ground in most parks and yards anywhere in America where Oak trees grow.  Yet – with time and care – they grow into massive, majectic trees that are certainly valuable.  Just ask the University of Auburn – which paid $900,000 to replace two oaks at the iconic Toomer’s Corner on its campus this past year, after the originals were tragically poisoned.

GE agrees about the power – and fragility – of ideas:

So what does this have to do with a ‘parking lot?’  Simple – you need a parking lot (or, perhaps a nursery, in GE’s vision) to hold & incubate all your ideas until you get to them.

Ideas are cheap and have lots of potential, but they can also slip through your fingers – and with them, the spark of inspiration for the project behind the idea.  When it comes to maintaining and preserving ideas – always have a place to jot them down, to be available for your to come back to later.

  • As I mentioned in a previous posthave a notebook to jot ideas in, anywhere you go.  This will allow you to track inspiration, wherever it strikes!
  • Figure out what gets your creative juices flowing and plan your thinking/development time around those activities.  I love boardgames and I love designing them.  I always make sure to jot down new ideas after I play a new game.  Invariably, the new mechanics, theming and rule-sets of the game will inspire new ways of thinking for me.  After playing a game of Suburbia for the first time last night, I had two ideas on my way home – one for a Julius Ceasar card game where you go on ‘campaigns’ against the Gaul, Carthagians, etc. for the glory of Rome, and another where you’re a producer on Broadway trying to press your luck making a few extra bucks with the best acting troupe & production you can pull together.
  • Pay attention when you’re incredibly absorbed with something very different from your creative pursuits.  For me – it’s work.  I work long hours and when things get crazy, I’m oftentimes holding on for dear life to keep my head above water… but when I’m focusing that clearly on work, sometimes I’ll come back to my game design and have a ton of new ideas.  It’s as if going 10 levels deep into my day job gives me some new perspective and POV on the game, since I mentally ‘get away from it’ for awhile.

So how about you?  What’s in your “parking lot?”

Play-testing – Do it now, screw it up and do it again – immediately!

So you got an idea for a game – why haven’t you tested it yet?

SO – you’ve got an idea for a board game you want to make (or some other creative pursuit).  The first thing you need to do is get a clear vision on what your game should be.  The second thing you need to do is work on it (don’t just think about it)!  But what does it mean to ‘get on’ with something?

Your first instinct will probably be to start drawing and coloring a map, or picking design theme options (maybe it’s steampunk, or high fantasy, ooh that’d be cool), or the font for your game manual.  Whatever it is – STOP.  None of this stuff matters.

You need to launch your game.  Tomorrow.  Or today, today is better.

I’m going to recommend 2 books: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  In both books, the authors (all successful entrepreneurs) all hit on one major flaw in developing a new product (board-game or otherwise): we (the creators) spend WAY TOO MUCH TIME building the product we think we need, and not nearly enough time understanding what our consumer wants (our eventual players).  Their recommendation is to create something today (a MVP, or “minimum viable product”) and test it with consumers to learn what works as fast as possible, vs. spending weeks, months or even years making a ‘perfect prototype,’ only to realize no one likes it.  For a tech start-up – that might mean mocking up a website to sell shoes before you even have the shoes to sell (the actual history of Zappos).

For us, as game designers – it means making play-test versions of our game as cheaply and quickly as possible, and testing (and refining them) with players, just as fast.

So – you have your challenge – go mock-up a ‘minimum viable product’ version of your game, today, and test it with friends tomorrow.  Below are some ideas on quick & cheap ways to mock-up game components to enable cheap & fast testing.

  1. Playing Cards – to make cheap & fast cards, use excel to create a template.  Orient the page as a ‘landscape’ and set your cells to 2.66″ tall by 2.62″ wide (that’s 1 card).  At this framework, you should be able to fit exactly 12 cards (4 across x 3 down) on a sheet.  use basic fonts (no need for pictures yet!) to design your cards and print them on basic cardstock – you can get a pack of ~200 sheets from a craft store for a few bucks.  if you need different types/decks of cards – buy a multicolored pack of cardstock and print the cards in different colors.

excel template

  1. Creating a board/map – if you’re skilled in photoshop/illustrator or a similar program (paint.net, GIMP) – you can mock up a quick board.  To print, don’t waste money on a plotter – just cut the image using either the rectangular lasso (photoshop) or using a crop tool in Microsoft picture viewer.  Print out each section on regular 8.5×11″ pages and trim the edges, then tape together.  If you can’t swing the design program – just draw it on a piece of paper!
  2. Making chips/counters – if you need some kind of chip/counter – order some bingo chips from amazon or google – you can get hundreds, in assorted colors, all for <$5.00.  Next – get a ~1/2″ circular craft punch either online or from a local craft store (e..g Michaels) – typically ~$10.  Create a template for 1/2″ circles in excel and add clip art logos or words into the circles.  Print out, punch out and glue to the chips.
  3. Pieces/meeples/etc. – there are two options.  First – the fantastic guys at the Oil & Rope game blog point out the power of googling “learning resource cubes” – opens up a whole world of cheap, plastic blocks you can use for resources, counters, units, etc.  Second – if you’re looking for other shapes, another option is to buy “plastic craft beads” – you can find circles, squares, letters, small animals and all in a variety of colors; hundreds of them for a few bucks.  I used some star shaped pieces to represent castles in my initial play-tests of my first game Fealty.

So – enough reading, get to it and make your first testable version!  Once you’ve had a go, let me know if you have any other ideas for cheap prototyping!

Improv Lesson #1: Creativity – The Definition of Insanity, literally!

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Einstein was a pretty smart dude.  Woe be it for me to disagree with him; so I won’t.  We’ll just have to simply accept that creativity is – by definition, if not in actuality – insanity.

Then again – if you do get different results… is it still insane?

One of the most important things I’ve learned about creating is the power of iterative design.  Refining something over and over again, constantly probing at different interpretations and perspectives, until you end up with something truly powerful (or ‘refined,’ as I might put it).  Then again, it’s one thing to say you’ll keep rethinking something to make it great, and another thing entirely to actually do it.  For me, the best lesson on how to think iteratively came from one of my other hobbies: improv Comedy

To unlock amazing ideas, you need to let your give your first reactions breathing room to grow; and there’s no better way to learn that skill than improv.

In improv – there is no script.  Due to this, neither player can anticipate the other, so the only way to develop a scene is to unilaterally accept the ideas put forth by one another.  It’s a concept called “Yes, And!”  It means you take whatever your partner gave you, accept it as real and offer something new that builds upon it.  It’s the backbone of amazing improvised comedy and, not surprisingly – an amazing creative tool in its own right.

If you treat your first-blush ideas the same way you would a partner in improv – you will surprise yourself with how fast they grow into great ideas.

It seems so counter-intuitive at first, but trust me on this one.  Give it a shot and you may surprise yourself with how quickly you’ll dig down a few levels and find some real gems.

If you want to bring ‘improv’ to your creative sessions – here’s some ideas:

  • Ditch the computer, brainstorm with pen & paper – I’m not anti-technology (in fact, I love my laptop), but sometimes the speed at which you can type (and, more importantly, the speed at which you can press DEL) can arrest your creative juices.  When you write things out, you force your ideas to develop fully at the speed of a pen.  Then they stand, permanently, on the page.  You can’t delete them, you can only re-write them.  It allows you to build on ideas, vs. re-typing them and risking going in circles.
  • Try “Bad-storming” instead of brainstorming – this is something I learned through improv.  If you find yourself shooting down your own ideas too quickly to let them develop, don’t try to find good ones.  Sit back and instead try to think up all the bad ideas you can, rapid fire.  It sounds easy, but after the first few, you’ll start finding flaws in your ‘bad ideas,’ things that actually preclude them from being all that bad.  Do this long enough, you’ll start finding patterns in the ‘flaws,’ which will lead you new opportunities with your game or creative enterprise.
  • Try “7 things” to generate new ideas – in Improv, there is a warm-up game called “7 Things.”  It’s very simple, one player turns to the next and asks “can you tell me the 7 x, y, z things” – where x, y, z can be literally anything, real or nonsensical.  The next player lists of seven things as quickly and proudly as possible, whether they  make sense or not.  The remaining players cheer him/her on proudly with each answer.  Try this with your creative work.  When you hit a snag – try listing seven different ideas, no matter how trivial, as quickly as possible.  The first 2-3 will be tropes, worn out ideas or unoriginal, but as you stretch yourself – you’ll start grasping.  Sometimes you’ll just end up repeating things, but more frequently or not – you’ll surprise yourself with something out of nowhere.

So, in the end – I guess Einstein and I can call it a truce: iterative design never yields the same thing, but then again – when you truly take an improv mindset, you don’t really know what you’ll do, or think of next – so you can’t really say you’re doing the same thing, any time 🙂

So how do you stimulate new thinking?  What’s your “yes, and!?”