Fast Track Game Design
“I think it’d be better with 5 tokens, instead of 4.”
“Okay, let’s try that.”
I can think of three reasons that won’t work, won’t make the game any more or less fun, and why it’ll just prolong a game that doesn’t really lend itself to long-format play. But we’re playtesting, which means that “let’s try that and see” is a good answer to any suggestion the players throw out there.
It’s possible to create a game without playtesting it, but it’s nearly impossible to create a good game without playtesting. I used to work in slot machines, which most gamers will say are non-games, taxes for people bad at math, and so forth. But in truth, the animation and display and playability of the game are what make it fun.
In May, I wrote a game that is something of a non-game. It’s essentially tic-tac-toe with a time limit. If you think about it too long, you realize it’s unwinnable unless one of the other players decides to take pity on you. It’s a fast-paced RPG where you have to tell a story about escaping a self-destructing space station, in 30 seconds or less, while other players try to sabotage you from leaving the station.
It won the 200-word RPG Challenge, and has been translated into Japanese.
It also took less than 24 hours to write, from concept to submission.
I woke up on a Wednesday morning with a bad dream. In the shower, that dream turned into a Gameable Idea. By Wednesday noon, I had the first concepts jotted down. By Wednesday at 5 PM, I had a draft document of rules. It was a perfect storm of making something fast.
As soon as the draft was done, I headed out to a local game store, where I roped one friend and one stranger into playtesting my little game.
So, it is from that perspective that I share with you my ideas about quickly writing games. Naturally, this might not work for you, but in general, it’s a good roadmap for quickly creating a game and getting it into a playable state.
To write a game quickly, you need:
An idea (obviously).
A draft of your rules.
Playtesting experience with the game.
The Gameable Idea
The Gameable Idea is the core concept of what your game is, and what you are trying to do with it. It’s important to have a design goal. In story games, that goal has to do with what story you want the players to tell. In more traditional board games, it may have to do with the arc of fun and conflict that the players will have. Do you want your game to have a specific “feel” to it? Are you aiming to pay homage to another media that you love? Many games try to capture the “feel” of the TV series Firefly, for example; some succeed, and some get close but not quite.
You don’t need a very original idea to write a game. “Hacks” are games that branch off of other games, such as Dungeon World, which uses the Apocalypse World game mechanics, but takes it into a new direction, making its own game. A lot of hacks are “A familiar game system, but with a different setting which demands slightly different mechanics to get the right feel.”
You can also start with the seed of an idea and let it blossom. A lot of game design contests provide constraints-- Game Chef, for example, gives a list of “ingredients” and a theme. Golden Cobra and the 200-word RPG restrict the type of game (freeform and “short”). Oddly, having restrictions often channels your creativity into making a really fun game.
There are a few online “idea generators” that you can use to give yourself a push:
Prototype Materials are optional if you don’t make a game with materials (such as a story game or freeform larp), but it’s really helpful to have on hand a couple of things to quickly make a prototype of your game:
Markers (not just pencils-- markers are easier to read)
A small dry-erase board
Tokens or poker chips
Pencils and scratch paper
Card sleeves (for quickly making shuffle-able cards)
A deck of playing cards
Several dice of different types in different colors
The core “resolution mechanics” from a few games.
For example, D&D rolls a 20-sided die, adds a modifier, and compares it against a target number (AC or some other skill difficulty rating), with no “qualified success” option (where there’s a partial success, usually with a lesser cost to the character), and a “critical success” (for a success that is bigger or more useful than a regular result) for rolling the maximum. Powered by the Apocalypse games use 2d6 plus a modifier, with a set range for success, qualified success, or failure, but not critical success. Fate uses four Fudge dice which average out to 0, plus a modifier, compared against a similar die roll from the opponent, with options for both qualified and critical successes. Three different resolution mechanics provide three very different playing experiences. Keep dice handy for all three types.
At some point, you write down the basic rules for the game, how many people it supports, the objective of the game (the “win condition” or, in the case of RPGs/story games, what kind of story you’re trying to tell in the game), and how to play it. This might be the hardest part for you, or possibly the easiest, depending on how much you like to write. The draft might have a little bit of setting information and “fluff” text, but you’re really trying to get the nuts and bolts down in this phase.
Finally, you need experience playing your game. You have to play games in order to make games. Playtesting generally falls into three main cycles, punctuated by periods of inactivity and changes:
Initial Playtest. This might be called the pre-alpha stage. You have a couple of pages of rules, the core mechanics, and you need to see if the basics do what you want them to do - if the experience at the table is what you were trying to create. Pre-alpha is usually done by yourself or with one or two friends you can trust to give positive, but critical feedback.
This playtest is followed by editing and tweaking the rules to make sure they fit your Gameable Idea.
Alpha Playtest. After you have that pre-alpha stage done, you get a gaming group together, usually people who you know, and you have them play the game. You might run it, or you might hand them the rules and watch them play. In any case, the primary motivation here is to get a broader base of opinions and feedback, and to see how understandable your rules are as written.
This playtest is followed by editing the rules to make sure they are understandable to the players, even if you are not there to teach the game.
Beta Playtest. Finally, you send your rules out to people who do not know you, to play or run the game with players you don’t know, usually with you not present. Public betas are good for this, or you can solicit testers. If you have a Patreon or Kickstarter, you might extend the beta playtest into the funding period, or give your backers playtest access to the game. This is the hardest part of the playtesting, because you are really trying to get the final details hammered out. A typical playtest cycle involves sending out copies of the game (often electronically), along with a feedback form or questionnaire, or simply an email address for players to contact. It’s useful to have some questions in mind that playtesters can answer, because most people can play a game and tell you they liked or didn’t like it, but few players can tell you explicitly why, or how to fix a problem they encountered. Open-ended playtest answers can still be valuable, however, since you’ll see what was most memorable to players, and what their unfiltered views are.
This is followed by the final revision, and then production of the finished product, including art, layout, etc.
When I’m making a quick game, there is little or no art, and the layout is whatever I’ve patched together in Microsoft Word, because I’m not spending a lot of time on production values. I’m spending my time on the playtest cycle and the editing and revisions.
If you are making a game that takes time, one which you want to really refine and “get it right,” then you’ll spend more time on playtesting and revising, perhaps a lot of time working out the setting and that “fluff text” that we all love. But if you’re just banging something together because you’re learning (like I am), or you want to try something and see where it goes, then keep every stage short. Skip over the pre-alpha stage straight to the Alpha playtest, and go from there to Beta as fast as you can. If you’re submitting to a contest with short deadlines, the Beta draft might be what you submit for that contest, with the final round of playtesting and revisions to happen after the contest is over, when you’re preparing to release the game more broadly.
With some determination and a complete absence of fear (after all, it’s just a game), you can leap into making little games quickly, turning them around fast, and releasing them into the world to see where they go!
Stephanie Bryant is a 40-something technical writer, game creator, knitter, and author, living in Las Vegas, Nevada. She's the creator of Escape Pod One Launching, the 200-word RPG challenge winner, and previously wrote Handknit Heroes (a comic book for knitters) and Videoblogging for Dummies. Stephanie maintains a Google calendar for game creators and is the new RPG Coordinator for Double Exposure's Envoy program.