The DNA of Game Design – Writing the Rules from Day One

by Rob Stone

Many game designers I talk to have the most difficult time writing the rulebook for their game once the game design is complete. They pour over copious notes, playtest reports & feedback; for hours, days and weeks.  And if they co-designed the game with one or more designers, this process is compounded by opinions, points-of-view, and often times, arguments with their co-designers on what should and shouldn’t be in the rulebook. I look at them in amazement and ask “Why weren’t you writing the rulebook from the moment you started designing the game?”

If you haven’t guessed, many of these game designers are new to the business. With Print-On-Demand (POD) making print runs non-existent and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter making it possible for anyone with a “great idea” to fund the printing of a game, the market is filled with dreamers chasing that dream. And it’s fantastic!

Sure, for every really great idea there may be a hundred not-so-great ideas that are funded. And some of those POD printed books and decks of cards will probably never see as many tabletops as the games the pros produce every year. But the fact that any aspiring game designer, with nothing but a dream in hand, can make that dream a reality is miraculous to me. And I absolutely love it!

With that said, and because they are green game designers freshly sprouted from the soil of creativity, certain problems can arise as they labor the toils of taking that freshly funded game from prototype to that shiny shrink-wrapped box of bits and pieces. They may have played games for 30 years. They might even be experts at certain styles of games. Some of them may know game mechanics better than some seasoned game designers. But what they are lacking is what I am calling The DNA of Game Design, well at least for the purposes of this series of articles that will follow.

Most people know what DNA is. Deoxyribonucleic acid. It’s a molecule that “encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and many viruses.”  But you probably already knew it was a set of instructions. Because most game designers, even aspiring ones, are intelligent folks. Or they may at the least be resourceful folks who can pull DNA up on Wikipedia for that fancy definition, like I did.

So with that in mind, you can easily get right to the point of understanding what The DNA of Game Design might be: instructions used in the development of a game! You are partially correct. I know, you thought you were one step ahead of me, and you were pretty close, so pat yourself on the back anyway. The DNA of Game Design, to me, is the game instructions or rulebook. Without it, your game may not be the game you dreamed it would be. Without it, you really don’t have any sort of framework, map, or guide to get you from concept to the finished product. You can still get there without starting with it, but you need it before you can get to the finished product anyway, so why not begin using it from day one? I can’t tell you how much easier it is to trim, edit, and refine a 100 page tome of rules, that you have been working on since day one, down to a dozen or so pages of rules than it is to write a dozen or so pages of rules from scratch. I know it doesn’t sound that way, but if you will humor me over the next few weeks as we present a series of articles on the topic, I promise that the time you spend reading will not be wasted.

Next time, we will dig right in and get started. So be prepared to be prepared.



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