Your followers and friends will love this!

handshake 3962172 1280

Co-designing a board game is a wonderful opportunity to bounce ideas around, work with another designer, and of course make something you can be proud of. I’ve worked on almost a dozen games with co-designers as of this post, and I’ve been privileged to tap their creativity and make a game I wouldn’t have been able to make by myself.

For me, being a great co-designer means doing three things, which can be summed in a grand total of seven words:
  • Be picky
  • Set expectations
  • Make consistent progress

Be picky

Everyone’s got 24 hours in a day, the number of projects you can take on (or should be starting, especially when there are lots of ongoing projects you’re already committed to!) is finite. There are more games I’d love to make than I have time to make games.

What this means: even if I’m excited about working with a specific person or on a specific game, there’s a non-zero chance I’ll need to pass on it to ensure time for other commitments. Nothing personal.

Making a game with someone is a pretty serious commitment, just as it would be if you were to self-publish or pitch a publisher. You’ll be working on this game with that publisher (or artist or co-designer) for awhile.

If you have the time and energy for a new co-designed game, awesome! Finding a co-designer might be as simple as sharing part of your idea on one of the Facebook groups, asking the designers that are part of your communities if they’d like to co-design something, or the like.

Set expectations

As part of the first meeting with a co-designer, I’ll typically mention my expectations and what I’m able to offer:
  • I’m here to make games to pitch them, sign them, and get them out to the world.
  • I’m not currently looking to self-publish any co-designed games.
  • I’m not interested in treating this as a casual or hobby project – by this I mean it’s important that we make consistent progress and actually finish what we start.
  • Barring extenuating circumstances, I expect us both to put in a reasonably equal amount of effort. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but my goal is to have the thing ready for our next meeting, or to do what I say I’ll do.
  • I’ll prepare and make time for our meetings, and will typically take notes in a shared Google Doc. As my co-designer has notes on their design process, they’re encouraged to take notes there as well. The goal here is to stay on the same page, but also to track how the game is evolving over time.

The careful reader will note that many of these come down to a basic thing in any sort of partnership: do what you say you will do. If something gets in the way of that, keep the lines of communication open.

I’ll also usually ask my co-designer where their skills lie to see what one of us might have access to, or what one of us might be better at. One co-designer has access to a lot of tools at a Makerspace, so he was able to make some high-quality prototypes. Another co-designer had better access to real-world playtesting communities, so he was better able to get the game playtested in real life. When it comes to pitching, one co-designer is based in the US, meaning it’ll be easier for them to pitch it at the American conventions they’re attending.

Whatever your expectations are, make sure they’re aligned. If they’re not, get on the same page or allow yourself to decline.
puzzle 3155663 1280

Set a goal

Sometimes we’ve already had a promising conversation about the game we’d like to make, and sometimes we’re starting from scratch – either way, I try to set some goalposts to know what we’re hoping to make.

For example, based on our initial brainstorming or conversations, we might have both been intrigued by a certain theme or mechanic… or a ‘What If?’ sort of question. Whatever it is, the idea is to set that as the thing to start with.

Remember SMART goals? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This isn’t quite the structure needed here, especially when it’s early. There’s no need to pigeonhole every last detail here… but now’s a great time to think about where things will end up. How much time do you think you’d need? Is there a convention you could pitch this game at?

One great goal:
In 6 months, I plan to attend [insert name of convention here] and would like to pitch this game to publishers there.
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Rocket science!

What are your roles?

Whether you’ve established a goal or direction (or not), it’s helpful to know how you’ll both contribute to making this game a reality. What do you do well? What do you hope your co-designer can do for the game’s behalf?
Sometimes this comes from a look in the mirror – I have some real-world playtesting opportunities, but my co-designer may have more. In a perfect world, both co-designers will have the opportunity to pitch the game, but one person might just be better at it.
These roles can change, so be prepared to adjust as needed.

Ping-pong

‘Ping-pong’ is my shorthand for one potential method of working together with a co-designer.

Basically, I’ll make a version, then we’ll meet to playtest. They’ll make the next version, then we’ll meet to playtest. This system keeps us working on things pretty equally, but more importantly, it’s a great way of ensuring you’ll have plenty of opportunities to add the elements that you’d like to try out.

When it’s ‘my turn’ to ping-pong, if I want to add a mechanic or tweak the balance of something, this is my chance to do it.

Make consistent progress

The third and final big point is deceptively simple. By ‘consistent’ progress, I mean ‘work on whatever needs doing’. Does it need more playtesting? Get it to the table. Ready to be pitched? Make sure the sell sheet and video are up-to-date. Making consistent progress means keeping the momentum going. Stay excited about the game.
This needs to happen from both co-designers – in a perfect world you’re both able to put in about the same amount of time and effort, but this will wax and wane over the life of the game.

Be prepared to pivot

Pivoting means you’re more excited by a different direction, or that playtesting or pitching isn’t going as planned.
Pivots can be small (more iterations or tweaks), medium-sized (making it a bigger or smaller game), or big (retheming, changing the goalposts).
What matters is to keep the iterative process going.

If things go south

Sometimes you want to go two different directions and can’t resolve the difference. Sometimes one person gets busy and can’t keep up their end of the bargain.
‘Who gets the game?’, believe it or not, is one of those questions I don’t worry about answering until I need an answer to it. I’ve thought about it for this post, and would suggest to my co-designer that the person most likely to get the game to the finish line should be the person to continue developing it. It’s fair to credit the co-designer in the rulebook

Other common questions I’ve heard people ask about co-designing

  • How do you split royalties? 50-50. Have it written that way in the contract when it’s signed.
  • Do you have any sort of formal agreement between you and your co-designers? No contracts, just an understanding. This is why I try to set expectations early. It’s a way of instilling trust with a co-designer that they’re working with someone who can be trusted.
  • How do you handle time zones and meetings with designers on another continent? In Windows, you can set the clock in the upper-right corner to show up to two other time zones. In my notes, one thing I’ll put at the top is how many hours I’m ahead (or behind) so it’s handy. We’ll set the next meeting at the end of a meeting, and I’ll confirm the time zones on both ends.
  • What’s the most difficult part about co-designing?  You have to be willing to give up control in much the same way you might when you work with a publisher. Working with someone else means having to work with (or around) their schedule as well. When the game gets signed, you’re making half of the royalties you would have made… but then again, there’s no guarantee the game would have ever been made or signed without the co-designer…

Over to you

How have you worked with co-designers? Comments are open.

Your followers and friends will love this!