I have been doing a lot of design work recently, both on my own games and helping others. I often find myself asking the same questions. Let’s take a look at what those questions are and why I ask them.
Does it ever happen?
I regularly hear people say, “It can happen, but it doesn’t happen often,” and they use that reasoning to ignore a problem or not refine an interaction. Let’s assume an event occurs in 1% of players. If you were to play the game, the likelihood of it happening would be extremely low. However, I estimate that a million players have played The Isle of Cats to date, which means a 1% occurrence would affect 10,000 people. If you are aware that something non-desirable can happen, it should not be ignored due to infrequency.
Does it punish players?
Rightly or wrongly, I believe that for a long time, the majority of humanity has followed a simple principle: If you do something good, you get rewarded; if you do something bad, you get punished. Designers often bring this thinking into their games, with good decisions rewarding a player and bad decisions punishing them. The problem is that games are meant to be fun, and having something taken away from you is never an enjoyable experience. For example, if you do well and gain 1 fish, but I do badly and lose 1 fish, the difference is now 2 fish. Instead of this, I recommend always rewarding players but changing the size of the reward. For example, if you do well and gain 2 fish, but I do badly and gain 1 fish, the difference is now 1 fish. In this second example, I am still behind you for making a bad decision, but the difference is smaller and, most importantly, I don’t feel like I’ve been punished.
Are all the options interesting?
Giving players choices is an important part of designing a game, but too many choices can cause long turns while ultimately being unsatisfying. I prefer to put the focus on creating interesting decisions rather than too many decisions. Having 2 great options that I need to choose between is often better than having 5 options where most of them don’t really matter.
Am I optimizing thinking time?
Perhaps the worst part of playing a board game is when each player takes a very long time to play their turn, and you sit there for 10 minutes between each action, especially in games with limited player interaction. To help reduce this time, I recommend you focus on when you reveal new information to a player. For example, you have 5 cards in your hand, and each turn you play 1 card to the table. If you start your turn with “Draw 1 card to your hand,” you are immediately having to read the card and start evaluating your options at the start of your turn. If you end your turn with “Draw 1 card to your hand,” you now have time read the card and start evaluating your options during the next player’s turn. These types of optimizations can drastically reduce playtime while increasing fun.
Does that situation need to occur?
I often consider edge cases a curse on game design because they can be the result of imperfect design. When playtesting and writing rules for your game, it’s important to question the underlying cause of edge cases and refine the rules or adjust how something works to eliminate them. For instance, in a recent 4-player game I played, two players occupied the same space and fought, resulting in the loser losing a number of units equal to the size difference between the two armies. However, in a rare occurrence where three players occupied the same space, an edge case was created as there were more than two armies. Instead of writing a rule to address this specific case, we chose to rewrite the original rule to apply to any number of players: when you lose a fight, you lose a number of units equal to the size difference between your army and the winner’s. This approach eliminates the need for edge cases and simplifies the core rules. While developing game designs, I often ask myself: How can I simplify the rules without sacrificing gameplay depth? How can I make the game intuitive for players to understand?
Do you have any questions you find yourself asking yourself when developing game designs?