Lessons from a Nano Design Challenge

Last week at UNPUB 5, I was invited to take part in a quick one week design challenge. The challenge was to design a game using a set of components that included: 2 clear green plastic discs, 3 pink 10mm crystals, a black and white meeple, and a card folded in half. While driving home, I put together a basic idea, using the card as a screen, and a Zen-inspired theme. I was only able to fit in a few tests, but I ended up with Kōan.

The file contains front and back of one card, with rules and reference. You need only a black and white meeple and the 2 green discs to play. The general idea is that one player arranges pieces behind the screen, and the other player tries to duplicate it simply by making statements about the pieces, to which the first player responds with only yes or no. Everything is stated using a specified vocabulary which makes the statements sound like a Zen kōan.

A design challenge (especially with a microgame) is a great opportunity to practice game design. The game I ended up with isn’t particularly great, but I gained a lot by trying.

I’ve got some good graphic resources when I want to use them later. I found a good method for creating a “bingo chip” effect, which will be easy to replicate in other colors, if I ever want to use them. I have 3D meeple figures in black and white. These may be less useful, but I learned some good tricks for doing shadows and edges. I also have a decent crystal effect, which should be easy to change to different colors.

I learned a good lesson about the design process. It was easy to find a solution to the problem, but in retrospect, it’s a fairly obvious solution. Now, with a very limited set of components, the number of completely independent designs is going to be limited, but I had a second idea for a soccer game that I now wish I had investigated further. The lesson is not to immediately take the first solution to a problem.

While I was still full of excitement and ambition from UNPUB, I remembered quickly that I don’t have a ton of time to test games. This means I can’t rely on a playtest cycle to improve my games. I need to take the time and really think through consequences. The one week deadline to create a game makes that really tough, so I need to remember to give myself more time when I’m trying to design larger games.

I think the game I came up with would actually be better with twice the number of components. My single playtest showed that the initial rules were much too complex, and I ended up removing the pink crystals. But I think the game could be much better if both players had a pair of meeples and discs, so you get more interesting statements using “any”, “both”, or other qualifiers. The other game concept I had could also be a much neater game with more pieces, allowing for more complex interaction.

All in all, it was a fun and rewarding experience, starting a game from scratch, working within the constraints of the pieces, and being able to walk away after a week. Many thanks to Kevin Kulp for inviting me to take part, and Brad Smoley for picking out the pieces.

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