OK, I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s a terrible secret. I’ve been lying to you. Well, I’ve been lying to you if you’re one of my play testers.
So yeah, maybe if you’re one of my play testers you should look away now.
When I say “this is the first time the game has hit the table.” I’m just being dishonest. (I got tired of the word lying.) The truth is, as many game designers will tell you, the game has hit the table plenty of times before you’ve ever seen it, or possibly even heard of it. The process I’m about to describe isn’t a revolution in design, and each designer will have his own spin on it, but it’s a critical step in the game design process, and one that I’ve seen some designer skip.
I can’t stress this enough. Do not skip these steps, or the steps like them when designing a game.
The first step is to play the game in your head before you even finish writing your initial notes about it. Walk through the rules in your head, as best you can, and play out a turn from top to bottom. Focus on each detail of the process, and what the player will be doing on his turn. Imagine the mechanics at first, and then later when you run things through your head, after you’ve written down the rules, imagine his experience. Is he making a choice that is interesting? Or is the game just sort of playing itself? Are there steps that are slowing him down, getting in the way, confusing to describe? Find those weak points in the player’s experience, tweak the rules, and replay them in your head again.
That first step hasn’t made me dishonest just yet. The game doesn’t even have pieces at this stage.
At some point after you’ve done this you’re on to actually prototyping some pieces. My advice is to have as few pieces made as needed to play a quick version of the game. There are tons of guides out there on prototyping, and I’ll talk about it more in greater detail in later articles. The thing to remember now is make the prototype as quickly as you can justify making it. Cut all corners you can cut while still making a playable prototype. That is to say if you can play a sample round or two with 20 cards, don’t make 50. You might find that the game needs heavy tweaking after you test it, and you’ve just wasted a lot of time, and energy if you made more than you need.
Once you have the prototype ready setup the game where you are the only player. This means you are taking on the function of player 1, player 2, and maybe 3 and 4 depending on the game’s requirements. Now start playing rounds of the game. This is easier said than done depending on the game’s nature, and mechanics. A hidden Identity game will be very tricky to test in this way, but with a bit of effort you can still get a sense of play by yourself. Meanwhile with a game like Addictive Alchemy it’s really easy to test all of the roles as one person. You can’t account for individual behavior by yourself, but you can see a lot. Whatever the game type is test as much of it as you can by yourself with actual pieces before putting in front of other people. Like I said before I’ve seen designers bring games to people, and they haven’t tested things, and it’s rarely pretty.
OK, that was it. That’s how I’ve been lying to you. I have a good reason though. I don’t want you to suffer with a game that might not even work right from the first round. I need it to be something that has a chance of functioning correctly when I’ve asked you to give your time to test it. I need it to be something that won’t waste either of our time.
So the next time I tell you this lie, just look the other way, and pretend like you don’t know, because really it’s the first time that it has hit the table and mattered.