Game design for the young designer

HASBRO's U-Build Mousetrap

My friend and game designer Garry Shirts once told me: “the person who learns the most from a game is the one who designed it.” Now that LEGO has come out with its line of “make/play/change games” and Hasbro its U-Build series, many young board game players will at last have just that opportunity.

If they need help starting, you might suggest some challenges, like:

  • Make the game playable by more or fewer people (3, 4, maybe even 12, or as a solitaire).
  • Make the game something you can play with older people (your father)  younger people (your younger sister), a family, someone who has poor vision or hearing, or poor motor control, or very little patience.
  • Make it into a game that everybody wins or loses.
  • Make it into a funny game or a party game or both.

LEGO's Lava Dragon

When they have a specific audience in mind, here are some strategies you might suggest to them as they go about developing their new variation:

  • Don’t start with your target audience. That’s the end point. First test the game with friends and fellow designers.
  • A first step would be to test the game with yourself – playing all sides according to your new variations, making sure to play your best on both sides. See if the game stays challenging, surprising, interesting, fun.
  • Once you feel pretty good about the game, try it out with a friend. Remember, you’re the designer, so if your friend has any suggestions of how to change the game further, politely note them, but keep the focus on the game as you’ve designed it. Focus the conversation on what was the most fun, note how long it took you to explain the game, how quickly it was understood.
  • Don’t involve the same person in more than one version of the game. If you’re not happy with the results of your test, try it out with someone else. If you’re still not happy, go back to the original version of the game (or the version that you’ve already tested and found fun), and change something else. And then, once again, try it out on yourself before you involve anyone else.
  • If you and your friend both had fun, and really liked the new variation you created, write up the rules as carefully as you can. Now you’re ready to try it with your target audience, or to test it one more time with friends and other designers (preferably those who haven’t played any of the previous versions before). The important thing to remember is that during this round of testing you don’t want to be playing or explaining anything. You want to observe, to watch people play, to find out how easy it is for people to understand the game, how long it takes them to start playing, how long they continue to play the game. If they want to play the game again, you know you have a winner. If they laughed, or were very focused, these are also good signs that you’re on your way to a game worthy of you and your target audience.
  • Your final test is to do the same thing with the people you’re designing for. Again, you’re watching them play, not commenting or explaining, noticing how much fun they seem to have, how long they play, and if they want to play it again.
  • If this is a game that involves you because you’re designing it for you and someone else, it’s a little more challenging, but you need to go through a similar process. Let the other player read the rules (or if they’re too young, read the rules to them). Let them have the first move. Observe how much fun it seems to be for them and for you. And then make it more fun.

1 Comment

  1. Colleen McCarthy-Evans on July 23, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    This is great stuff Bernie! I agree with *almost* every bit! The one piece I might offer as an alternative point of view, is regarding how much the inventor may say or explain or offer in the process of playtesting…
    I find early on, when I am learning about the game I’m creating, there is definitely more explaining, helping, figuring it out, as it ‘gels’. Once I feel confident that I know what the game is, I do less participating. That being said, I almost always still explain the rules, even way down the line of development, because I think it is often too much to ask of a test group to figure out the rules and also give good feedback at the end of the game. I find there are very few people who ‘enjoy’ reading and explaining rules, especially at the end of a long word day or week… and I like to keep my playtesters happy! (I also offer a variety of non-greasy snacks…but that’s a whole different subject!) But back to how much to offer playtesters in terms of rules/guidance…I tend to think, in the ‘real world’ someone owns a game or has played a game and teaches it to others because they loved playing it…so I use that as my model. It’s as if I have a new game I discovered that I like that I want to share with others…I think some inventors/game co.’s might disagree with this method and insist that the ‘hands off ‘ approach is more neutral, and better for analyzing how the game works objectively. I know of at least one inventor who also subscribes to my method for the same reasons I do, but I haven’t solicited many other opinions on that. Perhaps both methods are valid! On the other hand, I think a separate experiment, having someone simply read the rules to determine if they are clear and complete, is another valuable exercise, especially when an inventor is new to the inventing ‘game’ and rules-writing. I’d be very interested to hear others’ opinions! Cheers!

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