Designer Steve Aramini starts his feature series, The Indie Jungle, by taking a look at how he found his way into the jungle in the first place and what he’s done to get his bearings.
The Indie Jungle. I’d only heard rumors of this legendary realm where small-yet-feisty designers armed with big-and-bold ideas were free to plumb the depths of creativity, break the conventional rules of thinking and defy all odds to bring their games to life.
From the outside looking in, the mere thought of entering such a place was daunting, to say the least. After all, there were literally thousands of designers more experienced than me fighting for attention for their ideas. I had no contacts in the industry, no clue how to truly design a game, and no publishers that might give my brainchild a sideways glance. How could I possibly make it in this wild and woolly land of game design?
While my design skills were rough at best, I had one thing going for me – an unbridled passion for games.
I began my first steps into the Indie Jungle in 2013. I was altogether new to tabletop gaming and, through a local gaming group, was introduced to the hobby. I was immediately hooked and began playing as many games as I could. Being a Creative Director in the real world, my mind naturally swayed toward the “creation” aspect of games, so right away I became enamored with the thought of designing my own.
My father-in-law, who worked on the rail yard in Portland, Oregon, got to talking about his job one day and the idea struck me that it would be cool to make a game focused on loading a train in the rail yard. I convinced my friend, a very talented graphic artist named Dan Thompson, to help me with this silly little idea I had hatched. I called it “Payload” and it involved players racing to load their train first with cargo like livestock, timber, coal and oil. Thanks to another friend, I was encouraged to enter a contest he’d known about called the “Ion Award”, which took place annually at a nearby convention, SaltCon. Many sheets of paper and more than a few ink cartridges later, I had worked up a physical copy of the game and sent it off to the judges to be poked, prodded and, if it was deemed worthy, played.
As luck would have it, it not only got played but the judges actually liked it! I won the contest in 2014 for the “Light” Game Category and was approached by a handful of publishers, eventually signing with Crash Games. Within a few months the game, retitled “Yardmaster”, had successfully Kickstarted!
With this small taste of triumph, the veil of intimidation magically lifted and I somehow felt free to explore the Indie Jungle without fear of getting devoured by it. Once-foreign concepts like prototyping, playtesting, sell sheets and elevator pitches suddenly began to feel like familiar friends.
Along the way, I’ve learned SO MUCH. I continue to learn every day and while I’m still a babe in the game design woods, I look back at the path I’ve taken to this point and realize that my expedition has already taken me further than I ever thought possible. Since the release of Yardmaster, I have been fortunate enough to sign three new games with indie publishers, self-publish my own game on The Game Crafter, and become a guest blogger on The Indie Game Report (my greatest achievement yet, wouldn’t you agree?!?)
While I’m certainly beaming with pride at these milestones, I must point out that “success” in the Indie Jungle is a relative thing. I believe every step forward should be looked at as a success, no matter how small or insignificant. I even view my failures as successes. For example, I entered Dice Hate Me’s “Dexterity Challenge” last year with my game “Pike Place.” I got 3rd. While I didn’t win and that game is currently banished to the Land of Unpublished Games, I did gain valuable design experience, got solid feedback and made a connection with Dice Hate Me Games. See, success!
However you define success, feed off of it. It will give you the motivation to spend countless hours creating, testing, breaking and repeating.
So, with all that said, if you are new to game design and truly want to take your first steps into the Indie Jungle, what exactly do you do? (Ask 100 designers this and you’ll likely get 100 answers.) For me, I have chosen to focus on the following basic game design tips that continue to help me turn ideas into fully realized game designs:
- I Play Lots of Games – I have found that the more games I play, the more inspiration I gain toward new ideas. I look at every new game experience as a way to broaden my knowledge of the hobby. In today’s gaming world, there are so many innovative mechanisms and themes that I owe it to myself as a new designer to discover as many as I can.
- I Nurture Ideas – If I think I’ve got a unique approach to a new game, I develop it. My idea is a big lump of clay. I need to mold it into several different directions before it begins to take a shape I like. I keep a game journal where I can doodle stuff, work on rough layouts, “math it out”, and visualize how the game may play.
- I Research – I want to make sure my idea is unique. That doesn’t mean I can’t explore a theme that has been done before (trading in the Mediterranean, anyone?) or a familiar mechanism (Yahtzee, anyone?), but it has to have a unique hook. I ask my gaming friends about the idea. I go on BoardGameGeek.com and hunt around for similar games. I follow other designers on Twitter. Whatever it takes to make sure I’m blazing new territory in some way.
I Build Lots of Prototypes – Start rough and sloppy. This is just for self-playtesting. I need to make sure it’s even an idea worth pursuing. I self-playtest A LOT. It’s the easiest way to work out major kinks and wrap my head around it. If I think I’ve got an idea that has legs, then I take the time to create a prototype that’s functional enough for friends to play, including text and iconography, but little in terms of artwork (unless it is necessary to enhance the game play, in which case I use placeholder images).
- I Playtest within a Comfort Zone First – I play with my good friends. I play with my wife. Yes, I even play with my Mom. Early on, I like to start with those closest to me. While I know they are a biased group and will almost certainly be “too kind,” my true objective when playing with them is to test the basic functionality of the game. Does it play as I intended? Does it have tension and difficult decisions? Is it fun? It’s much easier to present a half-baked game to those I know than strangers or people in my game groups.
- I’m Not Afraid to Trash my Design – I don’t treat my game like a Faberge egg. I beat it up, rework it, scribble on my cards, toss out ideas and introduce new ones. Now is the stage to be honest with myself about what works and what doesn’t. Many experienced designers talk about finding the “essence” or “core” of the game. This is the stage when I need to uncover what that is and strip out elements that don’t support or build off that core.
- I Branch Out for Feedback – When I feel my game is ready, I step out of my comfort zone and introduce it to new players. I lean heavily on those in my gaming groups (I’m involved in several). While I could approach this group earlier in the game design process, I generally don’t until I feel I’ve got a pretty solid game. To me this is out of respect to their time. They’ve come to game night to enjoy a good game, not a sloppy mess of a game with a germ of an idea. For this reason, I approach them only after several rounds of prototyping and testing. Even then, I’ve found that experienced gamers will suss out major flaws or red flags that hadn’t emerged in the earlier stages. Yet they will almost always appreciate that there has been obvious care taken to create a game with some thought and effort behind it.
- I Write Solid Rules – I generally don’t write rules until pretty late in the game design process. While I take copious notes and know the rules in my head, the number of changes that occurs from prototype version to version is significant enough that I just don’t bother. I may be in the minority here. I believe a lot of designers write rules in the earliest stages and then rework them over and over again. It’s really all about whatever works for you. But eventually writing clear, concise rules with plenty of visual examples is a must to move forward. This is a really painstaking process for me, but I spend a lot of time on getting my rules as tight as possible.
- I Try to Be Part of the Gaming Community – Testing with my gaming group is awesome, but I really try to lean on the greater gaming community to evolve my game design. Whether it is testing my game at a Protospiel event or getting involved on Twitter to post my game and ask for feedback, I’m always surprised at how receptive and helpful the gaming community can be.
- I Share My Work – I find that Twitter has been my best friend in terms of getting great feedback on my designs in progress. If others express interest, I do everything I can to get the game in their hands for more feedback. You’ll find that the more you reach out, the more contacts you will gain and the better your game will get!
To me these basic steps are the most important in game design…and the most fun. There’s something truly satisfying about turning a blank page into a big idea, introducing it to friends and other gamers, and bringing a unique world – one that I created out of thin air – to life on my tabletop. I encourage you to do the same.
So take a deep breath, put your best foot forward, and let your expedition begin.
Steven Aramini is a board game designer. His The Indie Jungle will be a regular feature on The Indie Game Report. You can follow him on Twitter.