WHEN to add variability to your design

Last week, I talked about going from idea to prototype. Today, I want to talk about one of the pitfalls many of us fall into when prototyping.

I’m a huge proponent of variable setups, missions, objectives, factions, and characters. I feel like it’s the one thing all of my games will have in common: “20 different powers, only use 3 each game!”

But variability should be the last step when designing your game. To start, you need to make sure your game structure is solid; then, when your game is strong enough to handle it, you can start adding variables to it.

Believe me, I know all about the temptation of adding that variability early. My first game idea was a game about breeding monsters: I had probably 30 monster cards, and I wanted to have a card for a unique offspring for each of those pairs. And, of course, I wanted to have multiple of each, so you never quite knew, when mixing a dragon and a unicorn, which kind of dragicorn you’d be getting!

Yeah, it was the weirdest idea.

But it never saw the light of day. I worked on it for months, never got close to having it ready for a playtest, and I didn’t want to playtest it without finishing it. I was figuring stuff out, making dozens of cards, making diagrams; I felt like I was making progress. In a way, I was, but in a much truer way… I really wasn’t.

Why is adding variability too soon a bad idea?

There are 3 main reasons why it’s a bad idea to start with your game’s content, rather than its structure.

First, any change in the game’s structure will require changes in the elements built upon that structure. Imagine changing the structure of a game like Dominion. After a few playtests, you decide to remove the limit of actions per turn. Without even entering into the issue of game balance, how many cards suddenly don’t even make sense with the new ruleset? All of the Village cards, or the “cantrip” cards that give +1 Card and +1 Action ⁠— these cards were specifically designed  to overcome that limit, and would no longer have a real purpose.

Picture by iSlaytheDragon

The second reason is that creating content is a time-consuming task which does not really have an end state. Creating content is fun, it’s easy, and it feels like progress, but too much can be a trap. Even if all of your ideas would make it into the final product, you will always have more ideas for new cards, new tiles, new characters, new missions. With a Smile & a Gun is being printed right now, and I still come up with a Shadow card idea every week. If you wait until all of your ideas are in the game before you start testing, you will simply never start testing; each idea you write down will give you another one, and then another.

Finally, content becomes much easier to create after you’ve played the game a few times: you have a better feel for what would be interesting, you can poll your testers for their opinions, and you probably have a pile of mechanisms which did not fit… but maybe could become a card!

But don’t I need content?

Of course! I’m not saying “playtest your card game with blank pieces of cardboard”. Although… if you have a specific mechanism for, say, acquiring or discarding cards, it’s always a good idea to take a standard deck of cards, and try it out.

You can’t playtest your deckbuilder without actually having any cards. Here is a rule of thumb: determine the minimum amount of different elements you need to have to be able to play a single game. If you were making your own version of Dominion, you wouldn’t need to have 25 different action cards designed before you start playtesting; every game only uses 10.

Once you’ve identified that minimum number, make half of it.

No, I’m not kidding. For a first test, you want to have as few variables as you can. If during your test, the game doesn’t click for some reason, you need to be able to identify what causes those issues: it might be the structure itself, or it might be one of the cards that’s throwing the entire game off kilter. Worse yet, it could be an interaction between two cards. Having 5 cards instead of 10 means that not only do you reduce the number of variables which could be affecting the game structure, you’re also reducing the number of possible card interactions from 100 combinations to 25. Sure, 5 is too few for a full game experience, but you’re not aiming for a full game: you are testing whether or not your core idea is fun.

Maybe you can’t actually divide the number by two, but you can just cut down on how different you make these elements. Working on SuPR, a cooperative dice drafting game, I wanted players to roll a pool of dice and determine who would use what. Therefore, I needed players to have different abilities, or else the central conceit would break down. However, for the first playtest, I just changed which action was paired with which: it was very minor asymmetry, and a lot less than what I needed to make the dice selection shine, but at least it made me able to work on the bigger picture.

But I like making content!

Creating content for your game is not only important, it is also fun. It is perfectly okay for you to indulge yourself and create some of that content early. My goal with this article is not to take away your candy, but to make sure you understand that (1) you should not wait for the content to go ahead and playtest; and (2) all the early content you create is unlikely to make it through the game’s development unscathed. 

How early do you usually add this variability to your designs? Have you gotten caught in this pit before? If so, how did you get out of it?

I just beat designer’s block

I ran my first Kickstarter campaign in July to publish Subsurface’s first release, With a Smile & a Gun. It’s been an extremely rewarding experience, but it’s also been draining, especially during a worldwide pandemic. Since then, between said pandemic, the lack of a regular game night, and the remaining amount of work related to producing and shipping a game, I have not worked on any of my designs. Actually, I’ve only run two non-WaS&aG playtests in the last 12 months.

Truth is, inertia is a pretty major hurdle to jump. After focusing on the business side of games, I’ve lost my design momentum, and in these circumstances, it’s been really hard to get back.

I’m sure I’m not alone.

Before I dig into how I got back into it, let me say that it’s okay if you can’t get yourself to work on your projects. If it’s doing more harm than good, don’t. Don’t beat yourself up: these are difficult times. It’s okay if you’re not being productive. You’re not less than because you’re struggling.

However, if you feel like a creative endeavour would improve your quality of life, but you’re not sure how to get back on the horse, then here’s what’s worked for me:

Play some games

When I was younger, I’d read a lot of YA books, and I’d keep on wanting to write my own books. Then I read webcomics, and tried to learn to draw. Then it was movies, and standup comedy, and short stories.

For me, consuming any form of art makes me want to produce my own. I’ve been told it was hubris, thinking that I could make better versions of these things —and to a certain extent, it is–, but to me, it’s less a question of “better” than “more to *my* tastes”.

It stands to reason that this dry spell of design coincides with an equivalent dry spell of playing. No game night means that, slowly but surely, gaming is less common. Sure, we used to play over BoardGameArena and Tabletopia, but it sort of fizzled out over time.

Then I got back into it. I started my weekly online game of Arkham Horror LCG again; then a friend bought roll-and-writes and offered to play them over Zoom; then I started playing games with my daughter after she comes back from school.

Inertia is a thing, but so is momentum. A little push puts stuff in motion. After a game of AHLCG, all I can think about is levelling my deck, which makes me think about how cool this card combo could be, and oh, I haven’t played Underwater Cities in forever…

Be it games over Zoom or BGA, with friends or strangers, or even in person with your partner or roommate or kid, or even solo or on an app: starting to enjoy the hobby again might give you the spark.

Get excited!

That friend who bought all of those roll-and-write games? He said “you know, if you were working on a roll-and-write, we could have a weekly playtest night!”

After every new game we’d play, we’d talk about the design, and eventually, we played both Aeon’s End and Troyes Dice back-to-back. “Wouldn’t the Troyes system be a great skeleton for a coop roll-and-write?”, he asked, and, well, we talked about it for an hour and a half.

I find that while playing games brings those sparks, talking about those sparks with others is the kindling that starts the fire. It’s what turns idle ruminating into forward progress, and gets that rolling stone moss-free.

Procrastinate about something else

Even with a good idea that excited me, making that first prototype is such a big hill: without super-momentum, you roll back down all Sisyphus-like.

LPT: If you just cannot seem to get Sisyphus to offer his quest to buy his  freedom -- make sure you actually talked to Bouldy. : HadesTheGame

Then, November arrived, and for the first time in forever, I thought about NaNoWriMo in late October: finally, I could try this writing challenge, use social media for added accountability, and…

Well, having this other, much more daunting task made making the prototype look like the easy way out: isn’t that interesting?

I’m not sure you can reproduce this feeling, but when I had to write 1700 words of a novel, for which I only had a two-line description to go from, I managed to trick my brain into making that prototype and thinking it was procrastination.

Again, this is what worked for me! Please don’t use this blog post as an excuse to not finish a work assignment or a school project!

Schedule a playtest

Here’s a veteran tip:
The best time to prepare a prototype is an hour before the playtest starts.

If you wait for your prototype to be ready before you set a date, it will never happen. If you schedule other people, magically, your prototype will be ready.

livememe.com - 60% Of The Time, It Works Every Time

Momentum might be a thing, but a deadline is another.