From Idea to First Playtest

The first game I designed was actually a co-design, and Louis onboarded me after a few playtests of his own. For a while, I was an active game designer without any idea how to start a design: I had gotten in right after that part. I’d go around and ask established designers at conventions, or on panels and Q&As: Every time, the answer would be something along the lines of “you just do it”, which is… well, not that useful.

I’ve seen a few people around the Twitterverse asking these questions recently. Remembering my own questions from back then, here is MY method for going from an idea to a first prototype.

Disclaimer: This is a method that works for me. If you have a different method, awesome! If this one doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry! This is just meant as an example: you can try it out and see what sticks.

Step 1: Define your core

Whether I’m inspired by a mechanism, a theme, an experience, my first step is always to define what I want the game to be. This takes the form of a pitch, a short, 2 or 3 line paragraph about what I want the game to be. I want it to be snappy and dramatic to begin with (it will get longer as the concept solidifies) because (a) it’s easier to grab attention that way, and (b) it helps me identify what is the core I’m aiming for, and what is just brainstorming around that idea.

Usually, I’ll try and get some feedback on this pitch. I’ll talk about it with friends, other designers, or just in general on social media. This is useful both to gauge interest, but also to help me smooth out any rough edges: in a way, I’m playtesting the pitch!

Step 2: Deconstruct that core

Once I’ve identified this core, I need to figure out how the game will fulfill that promise. Where marketers often try to represent their target audience with an imaginary character, I try to represent my central idea with a target moment that represents the experience I want the game to offer.

From then, I identify what building blocks I need to make that work.

A few examples:

  • For Off the Record, the core was the growing-pile mechanism, exemplified by that decision between a huge, 6-card pile, or that one card you really need. I needed a reason for you to need a specific card, but a way for any card to be useful for you, which led me to turning in Poker hands for points.
  • For Cybertopia, the juice was that free-flowing roster of workers, where you’d get a different group of options every time you’d gather. That means I needed workers which were different enough for that to matter, and a way for them to be grouped in the actions where they were sent. I also needed those “groups” to be unrelated to the workers’ unique traits, so that they wouldn’t all be piled up in the same groups: instead of workers, we started looking at them as multi-use cards, which made a lot more sense design-wise.
  • For SuPR, the pitch is a large thematic thing, but the core is “you have to save the town, but the more dire the situation, the better it looks”. I knew that the central mechanism needed that risk-reward, where you were not completely able to control your actions, nor perfectly plan them ahead of time, or else, there would be no luck for you to push! This made dice drafting feel like such a good idea!
    Then, coop dice drafting suggested the idea of a “love draft”: instead of “what can’t I leave my opponent?”, I loved the idea of “OH! I NEED THAT DICE! PLEASE LEAVE IT FOR ME!”, which meant, like with Off the Record, I needed a way to have something that was just *perfect* for a player, but for every player to be able to use it, leading me to the idea of a dice you used for both the number and colour.
  • For my untitled coop roll-and-write, I wanted to merge that moment at the end of a game of Pandemic or Spirit Island, where you look at the map and go “this is what’s left of the world”, and the permanence of a roll-and-write sheet. Because of that, the gameplay must be centered around a map, which players are building up while the game is doing its best to tear it down.

Step 3: Good artists borrow…

Even with that central idea fleshed out some, you’re still far away from a playable prototype. This is where I follow the famous saying, and outright steal another game’s frame.

Sometimes my inspiration starts from a game in particular: as I mentioned previously, the coop roll-and-write idea came up right after a game of Troyes Dice, and the first prototype was, more or less, a cooperative version of it.

If not, I try to find a game that would fit my building blocks: with SuPR, I started from Pandemic: the Cure, another coop dice game, and added the “scoring” system I wanted; with Cartographia, we started with Blue Moon City, but with players getting bonuses when others would map the same space as they previously did; Cybertopia started from Imhotep, with the worker cards replacing the boats; With a Smile & a Gun started out as Cat Lady, with the dice-drafting rondel to go with it.

I then make my first prototype as close to that game as I can. But…

Step 4: Start with the second prototype

“Your second try is always better than your first.”
“So how do I start with my second one?”

My first prototype never actually touches the table.

The simple act of building a prototype, to me, is a first round of testing: I ask myself how things will interact, I write cards and get cool ideas, I find a cooler way to present a decision, I imagine myself playing a round and cursing my friends out.

You can argue it’s semantics (and you’d be right), but it highlights one of the biggest problems I have with creative endeavours: I can’t start creative without knowing what I’m making, but I need to start making it to figure out what I’ll be making. Therefore, I have to trick myself, and start making something I know I won’t ever be using, just to get the gears in motion.

Sometimes this “first prototype” is writing a bullet-point rulebook, sometimes it’s taking pieces from the seed game and moving them around, sometimes it’s opening up PowerPoint and making cards. The zeitgeist says “get it to the table ASAP”, but you can use a metaphorical table: in a way, a spreadsheet is a table, right?

Step 5: Schedule a playtest

If you are gifted with the ability to solo playtest your game, go ahead and do that.

Otherwise, if you’ve read last week’s post, you know that the best way to finish a prototype is to schedule a playtest and give yourself a deadline.

Oh, it’s not finished? Of course it isn’t: that’s WHY you playtest.

You can keep on changing and tweaking and editing and adding, but a 30-minute playtest will help your design more than another 30 hours of modifying your prototype.

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