Practical Game Design and the Art of Great Games

TC Petty tweeted the other day apologizing for his “practical” game advice.

I went back and looked at this advice, which garnered several retweets and favorites.


It sounded like pretty run-of-the-mill advice, which doesn’t sound like TC at all. But there is a hidden message here about how game design is presented in the community.

There’s nothing wrong with designing a game through this lens of develop and test, test, test. In fact, I’m sure I’ve given that advice on at least one occasion. But the advice is usually presented that you can’t design a great game without going through this cycle a number of times. There is a growing trend that this is not the only way to correctly design the game.

New designers (and, all designers, really) wear “my game is awesome” glasses. And they need to, as far as this relates to my discussion of ego, because you really do have to think your work is worth doing. And sometimes, when the first game is actually as good as you think it is, it can be seen almost as a lucky accident. We are frequently surprised when a great game comes from “a first time designer”. And in this context, the “practical” approach is seen as the right way ‘round. But I think that’s a narrow view.

Great authors don’t always sit down and write a bunch of books just in preparation for their major literary work. They sometimes struggle with an idea and refine it bit by bit. They sometimes get a flash of inspiration. And sometimes, they write a bunch of popular books in quick succession, which gives them experience to write the great book. Sometimes they come from academia and apply their literary education to their work, but they also come from all walks of life and use experience to guide their pen. We should expect the same from game designers.

I think the real message is that game designers should practice their craft, which I wholeheartedly agree with. This can mean designing and testing a number of games. But game design isn’t limited to just that definition. That’s just a hands-on approach. I started “designing” long before I created my first full game.

I started with simply talking about games I played. What I did right, how the mechanics worked for me and against me and my opponents, and what I would change in the game. Not just “I wish it was shorter with more interaction”, but specific mechanics I would get rid of or add. And when I wasn’t talking about it, I was still thinking about it. That led me to designing fan expansions. I’ll talk about this in more detail in a future post, but it requires you to become very familiar with the mechanics and thematic elements of a game just like your own design, but you have an established system to fall back on.

From looking up rules and strategy questions on BoardGameGeek, I started reading a lot of articles about game design. Reading designer diaries, interviews with designers, and general discussions of game design topics. I found that I needed my own blank slate, because I couldn’t find or modify a game into what I wanted. So I started writing my ideas down. I took some of the ideas, wrote down basic rules, cut out tiles, and painted some wooden pieces. And those pieces and rules eventually turned into…

Nothing. It was an incomplete attempt that was never playable. [Maybe the reader would consider that my true first game, but I get to choose the narrative right now.] But a few of the other ideas slowly coalesced into New Bedford. But I still spent months refining the ruleset before I printed out the first version and played. That’s one advantage of a game over some other forms of art. When you go back and adjust a few rules the entire rest of the game changes along with it. And you can do that as much as you want.

The painter might see an entire painting before the brush hits the canvas. The composer might hear an entire symphony before a note is played. So, too, the game designer might play a thousand turns before cardboard touches a table.

Although it seems like I’ve gone on a tangent, the point is that practice is more than the games you design. My practice wasn’t simply the half game I designed before New Bedford, it was every time I thought about games before then. The tools of game design aren’t the wooden bits and cardboard, nor the graphics software and word processor. The tools are strategy and experience, rules and theme. As with any tool, you gain proficiency with them by using them over and over again, whether you create a game from them or not. So let us encourage thought and discussion as a valid path toward game design in addition to the repetition and testing.

  1. #1 by funeral0polis on February 6, 2015 - 3:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Board Game Strategies.

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