Let me introduce myself – I’m Ray Mazza, a recovering traditional game designer. I’ve been afflicted with a game for more than six years now. This is the story of how I (kind of) published that game, and the words of wisdom I can speak from the experience, with a primary focus on the creative thought process during the earliest stages of design.

The Beginning: A Brief Word on Games

Rewind to the year 1979. I’m only a few months old, lying in a crib, looking up at my mom. She smiles, holding a blanket. And then, just like that, she disappears. Poof! Gone. I look around and don’t see her. Then, suddenly, she’s back. I’m astonished! Holy crap! And then she does it again. I can’t help but giggle when I see her reappear with her wide green eyes and a jubilant smile. “Tada!” she exclaims.

For me, this is my first game. My mom is playing Peek-a-Boo with me by hiding behind a blanket.

On to the year 1986. I’m seven. My mom, dad, sister, and I crowd around a table every Wednesday for family game night, and play Yahtzee, Uno, Sorry, Careers, Fireball Island, Clue, Scrabble, and Rummy, to name just a few. I also sometimes wake up at 5:00 am so that I can sneak some Super Mario Brothers on my Nintendo.

I am now conscious of the fact that games are really fun. Although I probably said I wanted to be a dinosaur when I grew up, I think I subconsciously wanted to make games. Kids do it all the time – they play with toys and engage in make believe and fabricate elaborate scenarios and situations and rule sets for what you can and cannot do when you’re playing: this fallen tree trunk over here is the star-destroyer-battleship and that tire in the sandpit over there is the escape pod, and the escape pod is immune to laser fire but not immune to this stick which is the “magical sword of destroying escape pods.”

Many of you grew up with similar experiences, as games have been part of our lives since the earliest moments of our comprehension. They’re not just a thing we do on occasion for fun – they’re ineffably etched into the way we live our lives.

Why Games are Important

For many people, games are the most natural form of social group interaction. If a party doesn’t have at least one game, I dock it points. Games give an event context. There’s no need to stand around and dig for conversation – a game creates it, and helps you get to know people, or get to know them better – even friends and family.

Games are so social that by the end, you really learn who the other players are on a level that you might not have reached so quickly had you been standing around having conversations like:

Guy: So where are you from?

Girl: Oregon.

Guy: That’s a beautiful state.

Girl: Yeah, the coastline is amazing. I hear you’re an English major, huh? What do you think about Chaucer’s short poems?

Guy: A bit whiny, actually.

Girl: Mmhm. Some people say Chaucer first associated Valentine’s Day with romance.

Guy: Oh yeah? I read that the greeting card industry popularized Valentine’s Day.

This conversation is okay, but you aren’t really learning who the other person is. You aren’t experiencing something with them, and that’s what games do. People lower their barriers and reveal their true personalities when they play games. You find out that Grant giggles like a schoolgirl when someone pantomimes being a banana. You get to experience the terror of Paul when you don’t support his proposed trade embargo. Somehow it comes up that Ira can solve a Rubik’s Cube in 12 seconds, and that Natalie wants nothing more in the entire world than a pair of roller skates, but for some reason she just doesn’t go out and buy a pair.

This is why games are important. Because as adults, we no longer just make them up when we’re standing around. We need these games to help us play, socialize, and experience each other.

Let the Games Begin: Brainstorming

One of the first games I designed was an interesting and informative exercise, as simple as it was, so I’ll share it. At the time, I was enrolled in a Game Design course taught by Jesse Schell at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center graduate program. Assignment number 1? Design a new version of Hopscotch. One should learn to be creative with a small game before attempting something momentous. Whether you’re designing a boardgame, videogame, or a child’s playground game like Hopscotch, many of the same principles apply.

Step 1: Quiet brainstorm time. I find it wildly productive to tie myself to a desk chair and list out as many ideas around the game or topic as possible. For the first sitting, this is all I do, and I do it until I wear myself out.

I noted anything and everything that seemed remotely interesting, different, novel, fun, etc. Thanks to computers (wave of the future) I still have the list. From the mundane to the insane, here’s a snippet:

Use eggs as landmines or obstacles on each square. Combine with losing shoes.

Different height squares

Throw something that moves instead of a stone

Hop on the beats of music

Hopscotch Joust

Build the course as you go. You toss your stone, and where it lands becomes a square.

Each turn you can move remove a line from a square or add one (to join or split squares).

Dodgescotch (your opponent may throw one large kickball at you during your turn).

Put huge, strong fans blowing adjacent to the board. They randomly come on. Wear big flowing clothing and pinwheel hats.

Add a monkey.

High stakes Hopscotch (on the edge of a bridge or tall building... then it could become a great spectator sport).

Football Hopscotch. You have to play on the fifty yard-line during Monday-night football. Whoever has won the most Hopscotch games by the end of the football game wins. Players must pretend they don’t see the football game.

You get to make a rule every time you get two successful points in a row.

Play on ice.

Dizzy-Hopscotch. Add way for opponents to have an opportunity to spin you before you hop.

All players play at the same time on a wide board. It’s a race.

Each player has an apple. If you toss your stone and miss your square, take a bite of the apple. If you finish the apple, you get to advance one square. Get a new apple.

Gambling. Play with quarters instead of a rock. All quarters remain where they lie, i.e. – each toss costs you a quarter. Winner gets to keep the money on the ground/floor.

When hopping, hop to the far end with an empty glass, stand on one foot and fill it from a punch bowl, and hop back. If the turn is successful, your opponent has to drink whatever is left in the glass.

Infinite-Hopscotch. Draw the Hopscotch board in a gigantic loop. Everyone hops around the board at once, spread out, some in the opposite direction. Jumpers have hard hats with a ball Velcroed to the top. Have one or two kids riding bikes around with plastic bats. If they swing and hit the ball off your hat, you’re out.

In the end, I had 61 ideas spread across 3 pages of bullet points. That felt about right for Hopscotch. Larger games could fill far more pages of ideas.

And yes, some of the ideas are unrealistic. It’s important to put everything interesting that comes to mind down on paper, regardless of how insane it may be. Otherwise, you’re cutting your imagination off. Ludicrous ideas can lead to some excellent, perfectly reasonable ones.

Recursive Brainstorming and Lists!

Designing a game is a recursive and iterative process. Once I had a list of ideas, I picked the four most promising ones, and developed them by generating lists of rules and mechanics.

From those, I picked the single idea I liked best, called Burdensome Hopscotch, which came from the brainstorm idea, Make it difficult for your opponent to hop by dressing them up in crazy gear. It appealed to me most because it had the opportunity for players to creatively prepare for the game based on their own personalities, and the gameplay had huge opportunities to be downright hilarious. The varying equipment would also change the physical mechanics from game to game, resulting in a very replayable experience.

Now that I’d chosen Burdensome Hopscotch, I went through its potential rules and mechanics and drilled down again and brainstormed around each one of those.

This process may sound obvious, but a common design pitfall is running with the first feasible idea you think up. Don’t shortchange yourself at any step of the way.

Burdensome Hopscotch

The gist of Burdensome Hopscotch is that before the game, each player rounds up ten items that can be worn or held, and everyone tosses them into a heap. They should be things that would make playing difficult when used. (The items most fun in playtests were: cleats, a backpack of rocks, giant sunglasses, big mittens, snowboarding boots, winter jackets, a staff, and a tennis racket, among other things.)

Each board square has a smaller target inside it. If a player lands their marker on the target, they get to draw a slip of paper from a hat, and put the indicated item on another player. Players must wear the items until the game is over. The game ends when only one person is left. Everyone else is a winner.

The game often breaks down into hilarity as people try to jump around loaded with burdensome gear. Hence the name, Burdensome Hopscotch.

Like any new design, shortcomings came to light as we playtested, and I made adjustments on the spot or between rounds:

The targets were too difficult to hit, so I increased their size.

When you did hit a target, getting to take your turn and put a burdensome item on another player was too much of an advantage. A more balanced mechanic was to end your turn, but let you put a crazy item on an opponent, which was reward enough.

Originally, the winner was the first person to finish, but then you missed out on watching some of the most burdened players duke it out (the best part!).

Any worthwhile playtest will lead to some opportunities for re-design. During playtests, watch players for signs of frustration or boredom. If someone says, “This is fun,” and you didn’t already know that just by watching, then something is off. Your game isn’t as fun as it needs to be. Get a dialog going to figure it out. Reflect on your mechanics and/or balance. It can also be extremely helpful to run a test where players vocalize their thought processes as they’re playing.

Hopscotch Graduate

One of the most important takeaways for me was that much of designing a good game comes from establishing a solid thought process for brainstorming and reflecting on features. What follows is an exploration into my experience designing a card game called The Greatest Gift, which delves further into this process.

Defining Goals

A great starting point is to define goals so you don’t lose sight of what’s important to you. For The Greatest Gift, they were:

Keep everyone as happy as possible at all times.

Keep everyone as involved as possible at all times.

The game should be socially meaningful.

Include humor or opportunities for humor.

The game should have lasting replay value.

The game should be very fun.

Let’s look at each of these goals individually and why I chose them.

Keep everyone as happy as possible at all times.

Many games have a tendency to punish players. Go to jail! Lose a turn! Pay each player 3 resources! Lose the game and sit sulking in the corner while you watch everyone else have fun for the next half hour! Those may be fun mechanics for everyone else, but they are lousy for at least one player. They’re often used to insert randomness into the game to even out chances for those less skilled, but that can be accomplished with positive events instead. Rather than lose a turn, try gain a turn. Instead of pay each player, try collect from each player. The happier everyone is, the less likely they’ll never want to play again.

Keep everyone as involved as possible at all times.

I can’t tell you how many times I sit down to “play” a game with four or five people, only to spend 80% of the time waiting for my turn. Maybe that’s okay for a cerebral game where you need 10 minutes of super-cranial brainpower to compute the optimal next move, but how many of those players will finish the game and say it was an incredible experience? (Hint: often just two – the ones duking it out at the end.) The less downtime players have, the less time they have to think about what else they’d rather be doing. If players are getting up to go to the bathroom or get drinks (and they’re not jogging), or if they’re futzing with their phone, there’s too much down time. (If you want to make a game with downtime, consider making a fully asynchronous game.)

The game should be socially meaningful.

If you can craft a game that affects people’s lives through their interactions, then it creates an emotional bond. Here’s an example: you’re playing Mafia (also known as Werewolf) and people are dying left and right; it’s not until too late that you realize Jen – who’s quiet and unassuming in everyday life – is Mafia, and she’s been telling bold-faced lies and ruthlessly killing the entire time. A great, memorable moment like this forges such a bond, which can be a powerful force in word-of-mouth promotion, and will instill a desire to play again or make a purchase. Some questions to ask yourself about your design:
Will people learn things they didn’t know about each other? Will they form connections they didn’t have before? Can they learn to work together? Can they experience something memorable while playing?

Include humor or opportunities for humor.

I personally have the most fun in games where I realize I’m laughing a lot. Whether it’s from scenarios created in the game, the content, or conversations, the more laughter, the better.

The game should have lasting replay value.

The more replayable a game is, the greater value it has to its players. And because it’s being played more often, there are more chances for players to decide they’d like to go and pick up their own copy. On the minimal level, a game will remain fun and interesting over a long period of time (e.g. – Apples to Apples). On the higher level, a player’s perception of the game and its strategies will actually evolve in such a way that it may even feel like a different game (e.g. – Chess).

The game should be very fun.

Well, at least it’s easy to declare. If only it were as easy to deliver on. Entire books have been written about what ‘fun’ is.29 It isn’t a single rule or play style or theme… it’s all aspects of a game combined in an elegant way. You can’t just sit down, decide to make something fun, and do it. So what is one to do? From playing loads of games and reflecting on fun experiences, you have both a wealth of examples of things that are fun and an arsenal of ideas you want to try. You can break these down, build upon them, use them as inspiration – and with imagination – mold them into something unique that fits together.

Starting with a Mechanic

There are plenty of ways to begin. One approach is to brainstorm game mechanics, hoping to find one that you really like. Some games are built entirely around a single mechanic that works very well, and it’s a great approach to developing a game.

Hungry Hungry Hippos – the key mechanic is eat marbles. Simple. Nailed it. Kids love it. Pictionary – the key mechanic is your partner has to guess what you’re quickly drawing. Another simple concept constructed into a wildly successful game. Trivial Pursuit – the mechanic: guess the answers to insignificant questions. The pies and the board could have been designed a hundred different functional ways, and it would barely matter because the central mechanic of answering trivia questions is such a strong focus. Magic: The Gathering – the mechanic: construct a deck from spells you find, by chance, in booster packs, then face off with other players. The game has many details, but the overarching mechanic has rendered it one of the most successful games of all time.

The game market is saturated with mechanics, and it’s only getting more saturated over time. Games aren’t un-inventing themselves. Because of this, many are merely old mechanics mixed in a new way or with a new theme slapped on them. Such games can certainly be fun and successful, but will have a harder time of it. So if you can come up with a mechanic that is both fun and novel, you should strongly consider developing it. That is one of the surest ways to create a unique game that has a chance of standing out amongst the crowd. It’s one of the holy grails of game design.

Starting with Theme

Another point to start from is to brainstorm themes. Lost in the desert. The revolutionary war. Space travel. Prom night. Cliff jumping. Baking. Quitting work. Antarctic excavation of lost civilizations. Bedwetting. Espionage and explosives. Et cetera, et cetera.

Then choose one that appeals enough. Say you picked Antarctic excavation of lost civilizations. Now it’s time to go nuts and brainstorm a list of possible mechanics and other game elements. You’ll find they come a lot easier in the context of a theme:

“Chunks” of ice on the board that stack. Chunks start randomly distributed around the board with various depths. Turns might consist of getting to move (dig) a random number of chunks to an adjacent square to find pieces of alien technology underneath. Stacks can be pushed and collapse on players.

Can fall through thin ice.

Can we have a frosty board surface and technology items scattered underneath, so lights can be activated by your character to illuminate under the ice a bit?

Cooperative game? A way players can help each other when spread out? Goal: find the weak spots in the ice shelf and all activate explosives at once to unearth the technology before it destroys Earth?

Possibly have characters connect circuits that light up areas between them.

Find breaks in the surface (“dive spots”) and can dive under the board. Shortcuts to other dive spots on the board. Maybe the board is raised so your character can actually go under it, and stick to it with magnets.

And so on, for a few pages or more. You’ll know you have enough when you’re feeling a mixture of satisfaction, excitement, and exhaustion.

Starting with Play Style

A third way to begin (and the last I’ll discuss, though there are more) is with appealing play styles and game elements. This was my starting point for The Greatest Gift.

I had been inspired by Apples to Apples because it keeps everyone engaged at all moments, involves an element of self-expression, and has no punishing mechanics. Based on my goals and this inspiration, I made some structural decisions to start the game off:

It will be a card game. At the time, I had just made a boardgame, and wanted to try something different. The elegance and expandability of card-centric games were alluring.

Every player will make a “play” of some sort each turn. I believe in the power of this so strongly that I will attempt to include it in any tabletop game I ever design. It can practically eliminate downtime.

The outcome of a round will be determined by the opinion of the player whose turn it is. I admired this aspect of Apples to Apples because it makes people’s personalities an aspect of gameplay, and makes the game vastly diverse with different players.

Now, you may be thinking, Wait a minute! That’s a lot of “inspiration” to take from another game. True. But that’s fine. So many masterpieces in this world are inspired by other great creations. Don’t hesitate to build off portions of other designs that work! But when you do, make sure to find what it is that makes your game unique and fun and gives it its own voice. Look for that holy grail.

The Drawing Board: Going Back to It.

I had a few false starts when I moved on to brainstorming mechanics. I’d even gotten on to the point of playtesting a battle-themed version, and it failed miserably. It happens – make sure to recognize it. I returned to the drawing board with my goals and three ground rules, and decided to brainstorm themes to see where that might get me.

Now, I didn’t just sit down and start listing things. I gave myself direction with a single question: I need to come up with a theme… Well, what kinds of things do people like? This is notable for two reasons.

It became the concept of my game, though I didn’t know it yet, and

it demonstrates a very powerful design technique that I use relentlessly: asking yourself questions.

The Power of Asking Questions

Any time you find yourself stuck on a game design problem or needing fresh ideas, start asking yourself related questions. Try and answer them. That may require asking further and deeper, more specific questions that demand their own answers. The more questions you can raise, the more you will end up exploring the problem space and the more likely you’ll find something you’re happy with.

Doing this will feel like a recursive conversation with yourself. Humans inherently think this way30, but you can harness its strength by making it an explicit exercise.

Here’s an example from a fictional board game where the designer finds the pawns tedious:

Pawns not working (Why not?)

Not satisfying to move the pawn around (How so?)

Too little choice

Resulting movement doesn’t matter much in the short-term

Turns are long because of the pawn movement (How can I fix it?)

Can we make pawns faster?

Possibly remove pawns altogether? (What could satisfy their purpose instead?)

Need a way to determine a player’s allowed play during a turn that has both an element of randomness and choice. (What are the possibilities?)

Use a die roll plus the castle types player has to determine allowed plays (rather than the space the pawn lands on).

Or players build up a set of cards as a personal toolkit of possible plays, and draw one from here each turn?

Quite often my thinking, brainstorming, and questioning all ends up in tiered, bulleted-list form. This is exactly what I did when brainstorming themes for The Greatest Gift: What sort of theme do I want? Well, what kinds of things do people like? Let’s see… Wealth. Fame. Romance. Being smart or skilled. Superpowers.

My list of potential themes looked something like this:

Wealth

Diamonds

Pirate’s Booty

Winning the lotto

Owning an Island

No debt

(etc…)

Fame

Rock Star

Famous Athlete

Part of the Mob

On TV

(etc…)

Romance

Smarts/Skills

Superpowers

(etc…)

Once I had a large list, I looked it over trying to decide if any of the themes would lend themselves to a game with fun mechanics and ample humor. Then, I had an epiphany that I attribute to the exercise of listing out ideas exhaustively – All these themes are fun… why don’t I make a game about all of them? And thus, The Greatest Gift was born. Each potential theme became a card in the game.

The Greatest Gift

I went through eight iterations of various rule sets and mechanics. Here’s the basic idea for the final version:

There are hundreds of cards, each with a unique skill, item, or other desirable thing pictured and described on it.

Each player gets a hand of 7 cards which they refill each round.

Each round, it’s one player’s turn to receive gifts. The other players pick something from their hands they think this person would like most in real life, and put it face-down in a pile.

The gift receiver flips over these gifts and decides which one he or she likes best, and keeps it in a personal collection of loot on the table (these are points).

The player that gave the best gift gets rewarded from a central collection of stuff for their own loot collection, thus also scoring a point for a gift-well-given.

Based on mechanics, playtests, and feedback, let’s look at how it stacked up against my original goals.

Keep everyone as happy as possible at all times.

The game has no punishing mechanics and the theme is about kindness, life aspirations, and getting wonderful things. In practice, players never appear upset or frustrated.

Keep everyone as involved as possible at all times.

This goal is satisfied by the play style of having everyone make a move and provide input on every turn, and turns being quick.

Try to make the game socially meaningful.

As predicted, basing the outcome of each turn on a player’s opinion means you learn about that player. As players choose gifts, you’re learning what they want and value in life, and you’re also finding out what other players think you want and value in life – times when these don’t align are often the most exciting. (One of the most memorable turns for me was when a girl named Natalie was playing, and narrowed her gift choice down to Own your own Island and a pair of Roller Skates. Natalie chose roller skates, and meant it; an impassioned explosion of conversation ensued.)

In an effort to cater to this goal, I developed cards that would create morally difficult choices when compared to cards grounded in materialism. These include Cure Cancer, End World Hunger, and Save a Life. One card, Avoid Apocalypse, describes a scenario where the world will be obliterated in 263 years – long after you’re dead – but you have the power to stop it. So do you choose that, or one of the other gifts that someone has offered you, like being Fluent in All Languages? For some players, these are difficult decisions, and everyone can go home with new insight into the personalities of their friends and family.

Include humor or opportunities for humor.

I included a small number of cards that catered to both silly and sarcastic players (too much and the game starts losing social significance because it can’t be taken seriously) and I took care to make the text entertaining when possible. For example, gifts like Tofu or A Girlfriend let players rag on each other, while some class-clown types are drawn to presents like Really Big Hands because they can rationalize what would be awesome about having hands the size of large frying pans.

The game should have lasting replay value.

I believe this is the game’s weakness. The Greatest Gift does well in that it feels fresh each time you play it with a new grouping of people, and that each combination of gifts feels different than the last. But once everybody knows the cards, the game loses some of its novelty. If I were convinced the game needed it, a fix would be to add a mechanic that randomly changes a player’s mind set each game. For example, this could be accomplished by having each player draw a “personality card” which would affect their decisions. Bob could draw Evil CEO of a Mega Corporation, and for that game, Bob would choose his gifts as if he imagined himself to have turned into that character – which is interesting because different players would take on those characters uniquely. Another way to increase shelf-life is to release expansions, which is appealing because the game is so easily extendable.

The game should be very fun.

I’ll let anyone who plays make up their own mind about this!

Promise Cards

One interested publisher tried the game, and sent it back with a note saying, We like it, though it needs something else, but we’re not sure what.

Deep down, I agreed. I realized I wanted The Greatest Gift to be more surprising, and for it to more strongly affect people’s lives. That’s asking a lot, but I began to think about games I consider very memorable and surprising.

Two that came to mind were Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle. What fascinating games! Merely by making something a “rule” of the game, human beings will take actions that are normally far outside their realm of comfort. Now I have to kiss Evelyn? Okay, if that’s the rule… Or, What? You’re daring me to eat this crate of jalapeños and then call my boss and quit? Well… okay, but only because it’s my turn. I wouldn’t normally do this!

These games contain powerful moments that people remember their whole lives. That’s the essence I wanted to design into The Greatest Gift. So I asked the drastic question, How could I make players kiss? And how can I do it such that it fits with the game rather than overpowering it?

It felt natural as a gift, like any other card. A Kiss – except this gift was different because if you offered it to someone and they chose it, they got a real kiss from you rather than an imaginary thing. And it was surprising, because the person choosing amongst the gifts could only speculate who had offered it! It was a totally new type of gift, dubbed a Promise Card. This felt like the missing element, so I added more: A Hug, A Dollar, A Free Meal, A Massage, A Date, Servant for a Day, Snacks, and so on.

In testing, promise cards proved to be a success and created some potent moments. They were a hit even when they weren’t picked above other offerings. Merely their presence in the set of gifts upped the stakes and caused more chatter and excitement than usual.

Know Your Audience

Some playtesters wanted more strategy, and I tried a few versions with additional cards that would change rules, augment a player’s abilities, or thwart others (counter to one of my goals, it’s worth noting; a moment of weakness on my part). In all cases, the changes only made gameplay more choppy, complicated the rules, and diluted the essence of The Greatest Gift.

It took me a while to realize a game doesn’t have to satisfy everyone, it just has to be an amazing game to the audience you’re targeting. Know your audience. I couldn’t please the entire Settlers of Catan contingent because they look for distinctly different characteristics from the games they play.

Once I was able to step back and realize this, I became as satisfied with The Greatest Gift as I expected I could get. The audience I was after was the casual mass market audience of families, friends, and party gamers looking for a short and social experience; as long as they enjoyed the game, then it was what it needed to be, and the rest would be icing. (Though the best designers are never truly satisfied; it’s what pushes them to constantly evolve new and better concepts.)

The World of Publication

Now, it’s one thing to design a game you’re satisfied with, and it’s an entirely different world to try to publish it. There are different approaches, and the first question you have to ask yourself is, Do I want to self-publish, or try to license to a publisher? One informing factor should be how much time you are willing to spend working for your game. Self-publication can become a full-time job. It also has higher monetary risks, but higher rewards, too.

For deep insight into how publishing works and deciding which path to take, I highly recommend reading The Game Inventor’s Guidebook,31 written by a selection of industry leaders. It proved vastly informative for me, and helped me decide that I didn’t have the time nor the money to self-publish.

Publishing and My Next Six Years

I can quickly sum up the six years following my decision to find a publisher. I found an agent that wanted to represent me, and had plenty of industry contacts. My agent found an interested publisher and we sent off a prototype for the publisher to work from. What a wonderful feeling! Then, years of waiting – with large publishers, you cannot count on anything. Sometimes they are black holes where games go to die. Other times, the publisher can have a game out in multiple continents within the year and promote it like it’s the best thing to happen to gaming since dice.

My publisher tweaked gameplay, added hundreds more cards, and named it The Perfect Present (I’ve been referring to it in this piece as The Greatest Gift… if you read on, you’ll see why). In 2007 it finally showed up on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, though I was waiting for the day when I could stroll down an aisle and see it on store shelves. More waiting and delays. Then scads of toys manufactured in China went through recalls, and the publisher developed major financial issues and needed to make cutbacks. Somewhere in there, I was told, they shut down their games division.

This is why I say I “kind of” published it. There are ten thousand copies floating around out there, but there aren’t likely to be more until the game finds a new publisher.

Today

This leaves me back where I sat before finding my agent and publisher. I can’t use any of the changes the publisher made to the game after receiving it because I don’t have the intellectual rights. Luckily, I was only attached to the name they came up with – The Perfect Present – and not much else. I’ve already renamed it to The Greatest Gift.

On the brighter side, I’m a free agent now. I have not begun to send The Greatest Gift around to publishers again, but when I do, the process will be easier with the advent of print-on-demand gaming resources. One such website is called The Game Crafter (thegamecrafter.com). It makes prototyping easy by providing plenty of options for game pieces, and I’ve found the cost in printing to be less expensive than going to a printing service. There are currently tradeoffs in print quality, but I’m pleased with the ease and convenience. (The Greatest Gift is available there if you want to check it out.)

Some Advice about Agents and Publishers

It was wildly exciting to go through the process of finding an agent and licensing The Greatest Gift to a publisher. It felt like a honeymoon phase. In retrospect, I can say in actuality I made some poor decisions with respect to both parties, partly due to my naiveté and general lack of communication.

I’d like to share some lessons with you so hopefully you won’t get tripped up in the same way I did.

Namely, if you do find an agent, make sure you know how much they are willing to support you and what level of input and communication you’ll have with potential publishers. See if you can be included in the development process to give feedback a couple times along the way, since you, the designer, will have valuable insight. Where my relationship broke down with my agent was that they only served to insulate the publisher from me, when they should have been supporting me and the game. I should have raised this as something that was important to me when settling on terms for representation.

Later, when I finally had the published version of the game in hand, I noticed problems that could have been avoided had there been any communication allowed. Here were the worst offenders:

The text was too small. Older players would not be able to read it. (You must always consider readability! Use legible fonts and sizes.)

The category name was too prominent at the top of the card, which some players thought was the name of the gift (the real gift name ran along the left side of the card). This was a problem that I’d found in playtests and fixed before sending to the publisher. The best arrangement had the name of the gift both along the left side and at the top of the card, with the category occupying a smaller space in the corner relative to its lesser significance.

The Promise card category had disappeared, and those gifts were mixed into another category such that their function was obscured and lost.

So make sure you know what your Agent-Publisher-Designer relationship will be before signing any contracts. And you don’t necessarily need an agent. Many smaller publishers have instructions on their websites for submitting games directly.

In the case where you do get a publisher but they aren’t willing to work with you directly, the hardest thing about getting your game published is letting go of control. You’d expect it would be one of the happiest days of your life when you receive a freshly-boxed copy of your very own game. Opening the packaging and looking at the pieces and setting it up should be a momentous occasion. Hopefully it will be! But it’s no guarantee. For me, it was the opposite. It’s extremely difficult to see what someone has done to your idea. A creative director once told me: “One of the hardest things about becoming a creative director is having to watch people less talented than you implement designs that you could do better.” Sometimes you just have to let go.

Now What? Tips!

Okay, you’ve heard my story. Now, I have a few final tips to pass on before I release you back into the wild of game design.

Keep a Game Journal

This is relevant no matter your choice of creative medium: experience as much diversity in it as possible, and keep a journal with your salient thoughts about those experiences. For games, this translates to: play as many different games as possible, and write your thoughts on them!

I make sure I have my journal with me when I play a new game, because I know I won’t remember half my revelations and feelings afterwards. I have to jot notes as I’m playing.

I write anywhere from 2-15 bullet points per game (total), even if I play often. The sorts of things to write down are…

Moments that surprised you, and why.

Mechanics that work well. Maybe you can build on them.

Ideas for ways to improve an aspect of the game. Any time you don’t like something, don’t just complain about it, ask yourself how you’d improve it! If you ever make a similar game, wouldn’t it be great to already have notes on how to do better?

Amazing game moments. Did something make everyone laugh? Argue light-heartedly? Gasp in surprise? Write it down. These are moments to strive for in your own games, and dissecting them can help you understand how to potentially work them into your designs.

Here are some examples:

Cosmic Encounter – The alien power card you choose at the start of the game gives you unique powers and makes it different each time you play. Wonderful mechanic; always feel like you have something special nobody else does.

Magic, The Gathering – Buying and opening a pack is like gambling. (Will I get good cards? Will I get that rare I need? If I buy enough I’m sure to get it…) No wonder this game is so addictive.

Magic, The Gathering – The number of possibilities when creating combos with cards is staggering. And almost all cards feel useful in certain occasions and against specific decks. I could sit here and build a deck forever.

Shadows over Camelot – Still can’t decide whether the grail quest is worthwhile without Arthur, since it’s difficult to get enough grail cards in there in time and it wastes turns to go and come back. (Later I made a firm conclusion, but it’s a sign of good game balance that I wasn’t sure if our time was better spent on this quest or others. It prodded us to try various strategies.)

Why keep a journal? Two reasons. First, you’ll find that you’re thinking more critically about the game as you play it, and you’ll make observations your conscious mind may otherwise miss. It will help you think more insightfully about your own games as well.

Second, it’s brain fuel. When you need a boost in creativity, flip to a random page in your journal and start reading. Since you’re poring over all the most interesting moments and salient aspects from all the games you’ve played, it jumpstarts your brain to thinking about what truly makes a game good or bad, and the variety of your notes will help energize your creativity.

A Resource – Stock Photography

Now, a tip about a great prototyping resource. When I designed The Greatest Gift, it had roughly 200 cards, each different. I love art, and I knew that if each card had unique imagery, it would not only make them more interesting to look at, but would often enhance the meaning of the card. Images can be suggestive, they can be humorous, and they can also set a mood for your game.

There was no way I could afford to pay an artist to produce the needed imagery – that would cost tens of thousands of dollars. The solution lied in stock photography. I used a website (istockphoto.com) that had a huge database of photography (and some art) and only cost a couple dollars per download.

Ask Drastic Questions

Here’s a tip for when you’re thinking about your game on a high level or realize there’s a problem around a central aspect of your game: Sometimes it helps to not only ask yourself questions around your design, but also to ask drastic questions – questions that address the very nature of your design and could cause you to rethink it, even in its entirety.

For example: Would a different kind of die better suit my game? Do I need a game board? What would happen if the players didn’t have pawns? Often, the answers to these questions are what you’d expect – of course my players need pawns! But, on occasion, they lead to an epiphany.

Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself about your game designs. There are a multitude for you to come up with on your own, but this should get you started:

What would happen if I removed mechanic x from the game? Was it necessary? What would I replace it with?

How can I make people laugh? Cry? Get excited? Be eager for their turn?

How can I make players think about the game a day or a week after playing?

Is there anything in my design that has never been seen in a game before? How would I add that?

What if this were cooperative and not competitive?

What aspect of this game will make someone excited to buy it when they’re reading the back of the box? (What’s the hook?)

How can I get players to learn about each other?

How will this game be fun while playing the 100th time?

What if gameplay had to be half as long as it is now? What would that look like?

What if there couldn’t be any dice? Pawns? Board? Cards?

If you want a ton of great questions to ask about your game to get your creativity flowing, check out Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses32 – a deck of cards full of such questions.

What’s Next? You.

Now it’s time for you. There’s a reason you’re reading this book: you have a deep desire to do great things in the world of gaming. You can, and you will. All you need to do is get out there and make a game, or finish up and polish the one you’re working on. Coalesce those ideas that have been swimming around in your head. Whether you make it for yourself, your family, your friends, or for the world, a game is more than just a piece of entertainment. Games may only appear to be a few plastic pieces and a board, but they’re much more than that. With your ingenuity, those items can become an elegant unification of mechanics and theme that can help us learn about each other and really spend our time together in a meaningful way.

Define evocative goals, then stick to them, and let them guide you. Find a starting point that works for you – from theme, mechanic, play style, or another angle. Brainstorm the hell out of all aspects of your design. Ask yourself questions to explore your work, and build on your observations from other great games. Make sure your game finds its own unique voice. And establish a thorough thought process and use it each step of the way. If you do these things, great designs will be within your reach.

So go out there, and make this world a more fun, interesting, and connected place. Help us get to know ourselves, our families, and each other.

It’s important.

29 Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design (Paraglyph Press)

30 John Allen Paulos, “Human Consciousness, Its Fractal Nature,” in Beyond Numeracy (New York: Vintage

Books, 1992) p. 107

31 Brian Tinsman, The Game Inventor’s Guidebook (KP Books)

32 Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses (Schell Games)