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Published on July 15, 2021. Last Updated on August 6, 2023.

It’s a question I’ve heard more than a few times:

  • ‘I just had this idea for a game… now what?
  • ‘How do I go from this (usually some handwritten rules or cards) to that (pointing to wall of finished games)?’
  • ‘Where do I even start?!’

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This post is part 1 of 4 in a series on making your first board game.

You’ve just signed up for a marathon. Let’s warm up.

A tabletop game will go through many iterations and versions, lots of playtesting, and the usual blood, sweat, and tears — and that’s before it ever gets seen by a publisher or potential Kickstarter backer. How do you get this idea to that wall of published games? It’s a process — a somewhat linear process, to be sure, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

As part of coming up with ideas and becoming a game designer, playing games should be considered a pre-requisite. Play big games. Play small games. Play good games. Play bad games. Play games on your smartphone and your tablet. Play simple games. Play complex games. PLAY EVERYTHING YOU CAN!

Well, that was dramatic… You know how practicing a language helps you build your vocabulary? It’s the same with the language of games — playing games helps you build a vocabulary of themes, mechanics, styles, and ideas to draw from when making your own. Watching gameplay videos is a decent but far-from-perfect substitute, since it’s easy to lose focus on a video and you lack the agency to play as you would while playing.

My hat’s off to Jay Cormier and Jamey Stonemaier, two folks who have written extensively about game design and development. My hope here is to distill a ton of knowledge into a thousand words or so.

As Jamey mentions in ‘You Are Your Own Gatekeeper‘… well, you are your own gatekeeper. Which ideas are worth your time? Today, anyone with an idea can make a game happen, given enough time, energy, and money. An idea by itself, however, is many steps away from a complete game — or even a thing that should be shown. With that said, it all starts with an idea, so let’s acknowledge that and start with that reality.

One commonly-asked question by many game designers: do you design the theme or the mechanics come first? Much like the lyrics and the melody of a song, you can start with one and incorporate the other, or try to make one work with the other. Great games happen either way. Sometimes a game starts from a world you want to build, an emotion or feeling you want players to experience, a limitation on components (or difficulty or game length), or simply a question: ‘What if…?’.

Get what you have on paper (or a new document).

My very first prototype of my very first game was literally some hand-drawn lines on cut-up squares of foam board. It wasn’t pretty looking, but it was functional and tangible. It’s not just an idea in my head any more, and this is how it starts.

These days, I usually start by doing a brain dump into a new Google Doc (if using Chrome, you can type ‘doc.new’ and it’ll spin up a new Google Doc for you). Just get it all down while it’s fresh – don’t worry about editing, formatting, or even spelling and grammar. Just get as much of the idea out of your head as you can.

As part of getting the idea down on paper, I’ll usually type in the core design goal, along with what I think the number of players, the age of players, and the playtime will be. The core design goal might focus on the feelings or experiences I want the players to have. If any story elements have occurred to me, I’ll have those written down as well.

What if the theme I want to use doesn’t work with the mechanics I want to use? This is one of the benefits of working on more than one project at a time. Whichever one doesn’t work shouldn’t be forgotten about or deleted — assume it will be useful in the future and keep it somewhere. I personally have two Google docs to remember these very things: one’s a ‘Themes with no mechanic’ doc and the other one’s a ‘Mechanics with no theme’ doc.

As the idea develops, getting it onto paper so it can be playtesting is THE thing to rush towards. There’s only so much of the design that can be mentally thought about, and actually playtesting the game brings in other players to start getting other opinions. Some folks like to start with hand-written cards and scribbled words or icons; I personally prefer to work out at least a few things in Google Sheets before printing off the first version (that’s v0.0.1 in my world).

Stock up.

You’d be surprised how far you can get with things like some wooden cubes, some dice, and some sleeves. Check the ink in your printer and maybe grab a couple of ink cartridges (or refills).

Stocking up doesn’t need to be expensive – get started for less than $100. Repurpose what you already have, and only buy new stuff when you need it or want it.

Get a new paper notebook for all your game design ideas and/or playtesting notes.

Don’t worry about what you don’t have.

I know what you’re thinking…

  • ‘But I don’t know how the game will end!’
  • ‘But I don’t know how scoring works!’
  • ‘But I don’t know what the board will look like!’

Put that aside for now. A game idea starts small. Sometimes it’s just the way you interact or use two cards, or a few cards and a meeple. We’re starting with the core concept and building from there.

Give it a try.

With whatever prototype you made, try to play a round by yourself. If you need more cards, make more / write more out. All you’re testing at this point is a turn, not the whole game. This is self-playtesting. This can feel silly, like you’re not playing a game… but you are. Cross stuff out, make more cards, give them some color, and try again.

It’s worth remembering that these early playtests are for you and you alone. No one sees the game at this stage. When you have successfully played through a few rounds on your own (or, ambitiously, an entire game), that’s when you can graduate from self-playtesting to playtesting with others.

For now, just remember that game design is a combination of many things, and we’ll get to building those in time. The core loop (e.g. what you do on your turn) and the core ideas (how you interact with the pieces) are important to play with and be happy with.

Iterating is going to become your new favorite word.

Every time you test a game out is a chance to try something different. Change the ground rules, the number of resources you get, the most resources you can store / have, the number of players that are playing… You get the idea. The more variety in your playtesting, the better you can simulate what will happen when your game is released to the world.

Playtesting may feel like a trudge in the mud for some, but just like iterating, it’s a huge part in how your game grows over time. Have a notebook handy, and try to change up how you explain things to see if certain wordings / phrasings are better understood (or not). Your goal while explaining the game (beyond the obvious ‘teaching them the rules’) is to find the best way to explain stuff. The best explanation can usually be tweaked to fit the rulebook or be usable in the summary / story part of the rules.

Want some help with your idea?

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Don’t worry about art.

Lots of prototypes start as hand-drawn cards, or roughly-made printed cards made on the computer. What matters right now is function – so long as you can read and understand your own cards / pieces, you’re good.

Early on, you’ll want to focus on three things:

  • The game’s core loop
  • The game’s mechanics
  • The experience you want players to have

When it’s time for art, read up on plenty of places to get art for free over here.

Vision time!

Now that you’ve tried a few things, you might be feeling a little frustrated. This didn’t work, that didn’t work…

It’s time to picture in your head how your game will look.

How players will feel (and what they’ll feel) while playing.

What people do on their turn.

Maybe even, if you’re feeling ambitious, where you might play it or what size the box is.

To be sure, this vision is just the starting place, but elements of this vision can (and should) stay with you as the game grows.

It’s OK if the vision isn’t perfectly clear at this point, but being able to say ‘this game has a board where we…’ or ‘I want players to pretend they’re dragons’ is a good start.

Create some goalposts

In this context, goalposts are the specific things you’re aiming to keep throughout all the various prototypes and versions. A designer’s goalposts for a game might be:

  • Game length: I want my game to last 30 minutes.
  • Number of players: I want my game to be for 2-6 players.
  • Age of players: I want my game to be for players 8 and up.
  • Theme: I want my game to be about pirates.
  • Mechanics: I want my game to be a worker-placement, or a set collection game.
  • Hook: In this game, you’re a granny that becomes a pirate.

You don’t need all of these, of course – one or two of them is enough.

This kind of hooks into the vision we were just talking about – and it sets you up for having answers to a lot of questions. Now it’s time to begin making that thing – as you’re designing, you might discover that it’s no longer playable in 30 minutes. We then have to make the choice: do we keep the stuff that makes it a longer game (changing our goalpost), or do we change the game to fit our goalpost? This might involve removing rounds or complexity to keep to that length.

This is all part of the balancing act, and after awhile it becomes second nature.

Check your attitude at the door.

Whatever you’ve created is your baby. When someone says this thing isn’t working, or they broke your game, it’s really easy to get defensive and protect your creation.

You should be thanking them instead.

This one’s tough to wrap your head around for some folks. As designers, we need to hear what doesn’t work from our playtesters – it’s your job as the designer to figure out the best fixes for your game. Playtesters can (and will) make suggestions for fixes, but it’s your job to decide which fixes you like the best, and which direction your game takes.

One piece of advice that’s stood the test of time: ‘kill your darlings’. Stephen King mentioned it in his book On Writing, and William Faulkner used the phrase as well. Though the ‘darlings’ are different in writing and game design, the idea is the same: a ‘darling’ is something in the game you may personally like, but that doesn’t add to the game’s experience.

It might be:

  • A theme that doesn’t connect with the mechanics, or a theme that introduces a lot of cognitive dissonance
  • A mechanic that adds complexity or confusion
  • An interesting or cool piece used that would be difficult, expensive, or impossible to make at scale
  • An element of the story that doesn’t fit with the rest of the game.

Killing your darlings simply means removing those pieces to let the rest of the systems / elements have their chance to shine. It’s not fun, but it’s often a necessary step to making the game the best it can be.

Connect with the communities – offline or online.

There’s a bunch of amazing groups on Facebook and Discord that you can connect with anytime you’re able.

On Facebook:

On Discord, there’s a ton of online playtesting groups that meet every day of the week. Cardboard Edison has a great list of them all, but I’m partial to:

Keep going.

Resilience is the key here. Your first game will probably not be the best, and even for experienced game designers, first playtests with other designers are almost always rough. There are going to be a lot of iterations, a lot of versions, some printing to do… it’s all part of the journey. The first version is just that — and there’s plenty of room for it to grow as you do.

Want some help with your idea?

Book a slot and let’s take an hour to go over your idea:

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Onward to part 2!

Part 2: Building the first prototype

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