What’s the Big Idea?

Games are a form of art. Some is made just for fun. Some is made just for profit. And some is made for something great. And the greatest art is always inspired by a Big Idea. What is the big idea?

Dr. Wictz Games wrote a series of posts about the Controlling Idea. They compare games to other forms of art, and state that the Controlling Idea is the experience the designer is trying to create for the players. But the big idea I’m looking for is more than that. I want to extend the idea of the “Controlling Idea” to include both a “Controlling Experience” and a “Controlling Meaning”.

The controlling experience is what I recently talked about in designing a game around an experience. What do I want players to be doing in a game? If I can identify that, I can make a good game. The controlling meaning adds another level to the game, and guides the development in a different way. What do I want players to take away from this game?

New Bedford was inspired by Moby Dick on that level. It is such a complex book with many levels of metaphor, and I wanted New Bedford to feel like great literature in a game form. The player choices are the primary drivers of the experience, but I also needed a “big idea” underlying the experience. In New Bedford, that idea is the complex connection between growing the whaling industry and depleting the whale population to do so–the idea that as whaling became harder, the industry was aware (or at least willfully ignored) of the harm they were causing (to the whales and themselves), but felt like they had no other choice but to keep going. It is up to the players to decide how well the game presents that idea.

Not every game needs to have that second level. One Card Wonder doesn’t have one. It is more like popular fiction than classic literature, and it is a lot of fun and suitable for anyone, without needing a deeper message about history. In my opinion, there are only a few rare boardgames that achieve this second level. But it appears that boardgame design is starting to embrace its literary side, and I think we will see a lot more games that do this in the future. But boardgames as literature is a topic for another day.

  1. Literary Game Design 1: Games as Stories | Oakleaf Games

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