Designing Great Games

by Rob Stone

When you sit down with your gaming friends to play your favorite game, do you ever ask the question: “What is it about this game that makes it great?” As a game designer, you should. Just as a filmmaker studies the art of filmmaking by watching the great works of cinema, a game designer should study the great works of game designers.  I almost used the example of a great painter, which is a good example mind you, but a filmmaker is much closer to the point I’m trying to make. The technical aspects of a film: cinematography, lighting, and sound are not unlike the technical aspects of a game’s mechanics. They aren’t the story or the theme of the film (or game), but without them the story wouldn’t be as marvelous.

So what makes a game great? Well, it isn’t always the theme. I’ve played a lot of games based on really great themes that were, for lack of a better world, horrible. And, it isn’t always the story that makes the game great either. I’ve played games with a great story and found the story better than the game. A great game is also a fun game. Otherwise we wouldn’t be playing it over and over again. These are the elements that make a game great:

Give the Players Multiple Paths to Victory

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ernest Hemingway

If there is only one path to victory, then the player who doesn’t take that path or who is unable to take that path can’t win. Great games allow for multiple paths to victory. The experience (or journey) can be different for each player and it can be different every time they play. That’s replay value. And replay value sells games.

Provide new things to build and discover

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

If a player begins the game and ends the game with the same “stuff” he or she started with, what have you as the game designer really accomplished? Not much. Whether it’s leveling up a character, purchasing new combat units, or building new castles or cities, gamers like to build. So let them build. There also needs to be “goodies” in your game. That could be treasure, artifacts, or even characters they can add to their party. Things to build and goodies to discover are essential to a great game.

Keep it simple

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Have you ever sat down with a new game and after struggling to read through the rules, you boxed it up and never played it? You don’t want your game to be that game. There are some exceptions when it comes to hardcore war games, but as a general rule your game’s mechanics should not be that difficult to learn and the mechanics should only be in place to enhance the experience. The same could be said for your rulebook. The best board game rulebooks get right to the point and many are half a dozen pages or less.  Some of the best games expand off the rulebook with rules on the cards or on the board. This allows the players to read the rulebook and start playing the game in a short amount of time and learn new rules as the game progresses. This lends itself to the Build and Discover philosophy we previously discussed. Simple rules are the foundation of every great game.

Make Your Players Feel Empowered

“Difficulties increase the nearer we approach the goal.” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

During the first few turns of the game a player should never be forced into a situation that makes them feel powerless. This doesn’t mean that your game shouldn’t be challenging rather it should become more challenging as the game progresses through the turns. They should never face the “big boss” on turn one. Not only are they not prepared, but your biggest challenge for them will be revealed and they have nothing to strive for. Had Frodo and his crew faced the Balrog as soon as they set foot out of Bag End, not only would they have been dead, but the story would have been over. A great story doesn’t end at the beginning of act one and neither should your game end on turn one. Great games have an arc of difficulty.

Know your target audience

“I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys but strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy. That immensely enlarges the audience.” – Mark Twain

Ask yourself this question: “Who is my target audience?” If you don’t know the answer to this question, you need to figure it out before you get any farther along in the design process. I would suggest knowing your target audience when you are outlining the structure of your game. There are exceptions to this too. You may have a concept for a game that centers on the game’s mechanics and may not even have a theme or story yet.  But you should still know basic things like: is this an adult game or is it a children’s game. Knowing your target audience will help to guide you in the right direction.



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