I judged about 40 entries for last year’s Gencant/Buttonshy design contest, and noted several trends. I previously talked about some of the things I learned working on a dozen different game ideas with Buttonshy in mind. [Part 1, Part 2] And I thought it would be helpful to revisit how the things I learned came into play during the contest. Specifically, I want to examine some of the trends I saw in judging entries, talk about what factors we were judging on, and how it can help you become a better designer and pitcher for any publisher.
Pick your player count. Speaking generally, a lot of games try to cover a wide range of player counts unsuccessfully. It is certainly possible to design a game that scales well, when it is taken into account. But don’t feel like you have to fit a specific player count just to make it appealing to as many people as possible. There are so many games coming out that players can be choosy about their experiences at any player count. Instead, focus on the player counts where the game is at its best and make that shine, rather than being half as good at a wider range. It takes a lot more work to make sure the game is good at every player count, and designing a solo variant can be almost like designing another game. Specific to the contest, one of our judging criteria was that the game played well at its intended player count, not what the player count was. And if you look at the rest of the catalog, wallet games mostly fall into 3 main classes of games. solo, primarily 2 player, and 3-4 player, with few games doing the whole range, especially in 18 cards. That is a good hint that you can really focus on making the best version of the game for the audience.
More generally, don’t try to do everything. I saw a few titles that included some variants on play. As a designer, I know it feels like you’re adding value to the game by giving players more ways to play. But to someone judging it, that looks like you didn’t know what to do, so you added everything. I think all designers struggle with the urge to add instead of focusing on what improves the game. I know I still struggle with it. Not all of the variants are going to make the game equally good. If the variant isn’t as good as the base game, why include it at all? If it is better than the base game, make that the game instead. Sometimes it is good to add a challenge for veteran players or to make it more accessible for new players, but there should always be a good reason for a variant to exist. Your job as the designer isn’t to simply give players options, it’s to decide what their experience should be.
Fit as much experience as you can. OK, I know I just said don’t try to do everything, so how does that make sense? I mean that the experience should feel complete. Small doesn’t have to mean simple or unfulfilling. There were some games that took elements normally reserved for larger games and fit them into 18 cards. That’s a good start and a good fit for the Buttonshy because it puts a unique experience into a new package. There were some games that looked like they cut off all the complicated parts from a bigger game in order to fit it in a smaller box. These games were functional, but lost all the aspects that made the source games compelling and unique. It’s not about how much you cut away, it’s about how much you were able to keep while cutting out the rest.
It should be obvious, but know the publisher’s games. There were a lot of games that played very similar to games in the Buttonshy catalog already. They weren’t bad, but this meant these games needed to go even farther to stand out. The only way you know if a design is doing that is to be familiar with (if not actually play) the publisher’s other titles. Look at Anthelion, which Buttonshy is bringing to Kickstarter next week. It’s based on Avignon, but remixes some mechanics and adds more, for a new experience. A lot of my little games started with trying to recreate the experience of an existing game in a simpler version. And there were multiple times I walked away from an idea because it was too similar. Especially if you are trying to tie into an existing title in the lineup, think about what you can add to the game, not just what you can take away.
As a corollary to the last item, find what makes your game stand out. I wrote about this last year but it always bears repeating. Plenty of games I saw were functional, but didn’t have an extra spark. That’s a difficult skill for designers (especially new ones) to cultivate. The judging criteria placed a lot of value on having something unique, whether in the theme, the mechanics, or some other aspect. It’s the same thing that players and publishers are always looking for, we just put some numbers behind it for judging.
Graphic design is part of gameplay. It’s not just window dressing (unless it’s a game about curtains or something). It substantially impacts how the players interact with the game. For playtesting, it can be a rougher state. I have told people not to worry about the icons or layout in my own prototypes, because I’m working on solving a specific problem. But more often than not, I discover changes I need to make because it doesn’t work on the table. We didn’t judge art and graphic design, per se. We set up judging criteria to ensure the good ideas shone through. But graphic design influences how easy the game is to learn and play, which we did judge. And it’s clear when you haven’t considered that aspect at all. And if it impacts gameplay, that can hold your game back.
Finally, when making a video, decide what is important to say. We don’t need you to read the rules to us. Show us things that are harder to say in rules. Show us an example turn. Show us the cool parts. I can honestly say we didn’t judge based on production quality. But the content of the video was important. You don’t even need to appear on camera. But your pitch, whether it’s video or in person should demonstrate your excitement. If you don’t get excited, we won’t get excited.
I really enjoyed my experience helping judge last year. I think it made me a better designer just looking at all the great (and not-so-great) games that were submitted. I hope the designers also appreciated the feedback and experience. Most of all, I hope the lessons I learned can be useful in the coming year! Happy New Year!