Have a Vision – and Stick To it!

So you want to make a board game, eh?

Well then – the first thing you should do is make a list of all the things you are NOT going to do.  You’ve got this great idea – and that’s awesome – but you need to be honest with yourself about what you game will not be as much as for what it will be.  Why?  Simply put – because a focused, single subject makes a game far better than a complicated one.

When I first had the idea to create Fealty (my first game) in 2012 – I had a grandiose vision to make a game that would ‘allow players to remake human history.’  It was going to be Civilization but on cardboard.  It had 6 players, 4 types of units (armies, artists, merchants and navies), a 3×5′ map of the world, divided into 1/8″ squares, 6 types of resources, 8 ‘cities of power’ for granting cultural bonuses, 6 terrain types for monetary bonuses, and a unique income / battle trade-off.  All-in-all, it took 1-2hours for everyone to take their first turn.  Yikes!

The most important thing about your game is your vision.

My ideas were passionate, sure – but I was getting mechanics and other fluff  confused with the true vision of my game.  The single most important thing about starting your game is taking the time to think long and hard about your vision.  How do you want your players to think and feel about your game before and while they’re playing it.  What kind of emotional reaction should your game elicit?  A vision is so much more than the mechanics.  Two different people thought up the idea of a card-matching party game – one ended up with Apples to Apples and the other with Cards Against Humanity – this is because they had different visions.

Once you have an idea of your vision – then you must ruthlessly peel away the layers in it.  Try and get it down to the MOST FUNDAMENTAL truth possible.  The simpler and more obvious your vision becomes, the more easily you will be able to build, adapt, tear down and rebuild the rules & mechanics around that vision to make your game (and there will be a lot of rebuilding :)).  It was only when I reimagined Fealty in this way that I was able to make progress.  I realized my vision was really to “make a zone of control game where you feel like an armchair general, but without all the flaws of Risk – long turns, player elimination and narrow-minded strategy.”  This opened up whole new worlds of ideas for me.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Let’s look at 2 games that show the extremes of why a vision is so important:

  • Ticket to Ride – this Spiel des Jahres winner is, in my mind, one of the most elegantly holistic games ever made.  There is not a single mechanic in the game that is not required.  In playing it, you can almost see Alan Moon, the game’s creator, drafting the vision it feels so clear.  In my opinion, the vision is “to make you a 19th century American railway baron.”
  • The Campaign for North Africa – This is the most insane game ever made.  A 10 foot long board, requiring 10 players to operate, and having stat sheets and logs that track the units down to every individual pilot and plane used in the North Africa campaign of WW2.  The vision is likely “to capture the unique nature of desert combat during WW2,” but instead of paring down to that, the author started there and added in LITERALLY everything.  So much so that, if you’re playing as the Italians, you have to ration extra water to your soldiers on the account of they’ll use some of it to boil pasta.  The result – a game with an estimated playtime of 1,200 hours.

So vision is incredibly important.  It might not feel exciting to start with a single line that defines your whole game – and trust me, you’ll be coming back to the vision many times as you design – but every hour spent refining your vision will likely save you 10+ in design, creation and play testing.

What do you think?  Do you have a ‘vision’ you’re working on?  Or if you have a game with a good vision – I’d love to hear about it!


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