- Get off your butt and put it on the table
- Make a prototype as soon as possible
- Your game will crash and burn
- Cherish the journey — have fun!
People sometimes ask me how I started designing my first game, Icon. I told them I came up with the idea late on a Wednesday night. The next day I pondered it in my head and wrote some notes on a little piece of paper. By that Friday, I recruited a couple of my nieces to help me make the playing cards with colored markers. Ten minutes later, Icon was born.
Yup! I jumped in head first! When it comes to creating board games, I feel that is the absolute best way to start. An idea you have for a game could be the most awesome thing the world has ever seen, but it has to hit the table. And your head has to hit the table repeatedly as you watch it crash and burn, especially in the beginning. But you have to start, and my opinion is you should make your prototype as soon as possible after the inception of your idea. There’s no point in hammering out details like point balance and keywords if you find out months down the road that the basic mechanics of your game aren’t going to work out. The prototype won’t, and probably can’t, be perfect. It may not even be very legible, especially after the first playtest is over.
I was lucky. Icon did well for the first two playtests that night. However, over the next hour, I watched in disbelief (and glee) as my 8- and 10-year-old niece broke the bidding system mechanic. I learned little things, like little hands can’t hide poker chips well. However, I also learned one of the most important lessons of all that night. My family and friends were laughing and having fun as we played — I was on to something fun.
Many wonder how you should start. That really is up to you, the creator. You can start with a theme for your game, or start with a mechanic you like. It’s much like songwriting in that regard. You can start with the melody, the lyrics, or even the base chord structures and rhythms. What matters is that you start, period. And you keep refining from that moment on. There really is no right or wrong way.
My wife and I once attended a board game creation workshop where we learned a great way to get your creative juices flowing. We were instructed to take the classic game, Connect Four, and make at least one change to the game. For example, make it Connect Five instead. Each person was given a grid on paper, a pen, access to about 1,000 colored cubes that would fit inside the squares on the grid, and 30 minutes. Everyone in the room came up with a different variation. My wife and I teamed up to come up with a variant where you pick your color first, then draw one cube out of the bag blindly each turn. So you can either be playing your own color or your opponent’s color during your turn. There were much more creative ideas that others came up with — multiple colors, grid sizes, and even 3d configurations of the board. Of course, I wouldn’t advise you straight copy an idea. Not only is that not fun, it’s just wrong.
There are many things you shouldn’t jump into when you first start out — the stock market, firefighting, love (just kidding, kinda). Creating board games is not one of them. When you have your first successful playtest you may feel like you’ve sprinted out of the gate on the way to winning the 100-meter dash. I know I felt that way! Then come the hurdles. Balancing. Components. Writing rules. All the little what-if situations. Playtesting. It’s like there’s this giant rubber band around your waist with the other end attached to the starting line. The closer you get to the end-product, the slower and more difficult the run becomes. Just remember, each step you take makes you stronger thanks to those hurdles. Each step brings you that much closer to the finish line, if only by millimeters (and you will literally be dealing with millimeters if you plan on working with your graphic designer on the specifications of your components). Hopefully by the time you finish, you will look back at the process and cherish the entire journey, not just the end result.