In my side job of game design, I’ve learned a lot about how games are made. Games can have a strong mathematical component to them, and you can apply game theory to any interaction. But when designing a game to be played, the process is highly iterative and experimental. In tabletop games, there’s usually an underlying mechanic, like “roll a d6 and move that many spaces” for a roll-and-move game like Monopoly, and a theme, which is what the game looks and feels like– “building a real estate empire” for Monopoly, for example. Zombies was a hot theme a few years ago, and cats seems to be the theme-of-the-year for 2017.
When I design a game, I start with some idea of what I think would be fun. I’m a “theme first” designer, so I start with “this game is…. (escaping from a space station, or fighting monsters in space, or being a walking, talking toy). I usually keep going, and play a solo improv game of “yes, and/no, but.” That’s where I may discard the first idea so that I come up with something more interesting, or I add to the starter idea (” a walking, talking toy” had “in a post-apocalyptic, broken world” added to make a much more interesting theme and therefore game).
Side note: Other designers are “mechanics first,” where they design a clever or new way to play a game, and then put a theme over it. You can usually identify these designers because they have clever mechanics but either very little theme, or no theme at all (abstract games). An abstract game is something like Go, where there is almost no theme at all, but there’s deep strategy involved in where one places the stones.
After I’ve played this game of “yes and,” in which I run through a lot of different ways to explore an idea or theme, then I start thinking about mechanics. If I were building a backlog of “make a game,” I’d have the following items in it:
- Decide on a theme.
- Flesh out the theme– make it more interesting!
- Pick a game mechanic.
- Flesh out the game mechanic– give it a twist!
- Write the first draft of the rules.
- Get some components and players and Playtest.
- Revise the rules.
- Repeat from step 6 until it’s either ready to ship or you run out of time, money, or patience.
- Release the game.
The repetitions between 6 and 7 are, of course, where the bulk of the work comes in; they are the inspect-and-adapt portions of creating a good game.
I’ve written several games, sometimes using this method, sometimes with less playtesting, and I can honestly say that iterative playtesting is the cornerstone of good game design. I even playtested my Improve Drawing Game before posting it.