Game design for the young designer

by Bernard De Koven on July 22, 2010

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.

A Playful Path photoA playful path is the shortest road to happiness.
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