Fight or Flight in Game Design: Or All About Knowing When to Grapple With a Design and When to Run From It

Steven returns from the Indie Jungle to answer the perennial question: do I stay or do I go. Steven hopes to help guide you in figuring out which design or ideas to stick with or to leave behind. His current design Sprawlopolis, mentioned in the post, is killing it on Kickstarter.

When it comes to game design, the Indie Jungle is fraught with difficult decisions. Do I take this design path or that? Do I tackle a daunting new project or ease into that old familiar one? Will I find inspiration around that next corner or an insurmountable wall?

Sometimes it can be tough to know whether you’re on the road to discovering an amazing new breakthrough in your game or you’re marching into no man’s land.

While game design can be a fun and enjoyable experience, there is also a certain level of anxiety that comes with it. One way that I’ve learned to cope with the stress of game design is by getting better at identifying when I should stick to a design and when I should abandon it. But how do I tell when it’s worth the effort to try to make a broken game…un-broken? The biggest key for me is bringing objectivity to my game design. It’s hard to emotionally detach myself from a game when I’ve poured so much time, effort and thinking into it.

Ask Yourself If the Core Idea Works

Typically, early playtesting will help identify if a game is working on any level or not. If the game has major issues, I try to identify what is not working. In some case, it is a matter of simplifying mechanics, balancing game play or rethinking rules to make the experience better. Flow, fun factor and mechanics can be tweaked ‘til the cows come home, but at the end of the day I try to ask myself if the game has a unique hook that IS working. Is the core idea clever? Can I identify the game’s “special sauce” and is it making my game stand out?

Often times, this is the deciding factor in my “fight or flight” approach. Even though a playtest may go horribly awry, if the one clever hook still has potential then I will fight to save that idea. Oh sure, it may mean a complete do-over in terms of the actual design, but at least I now know what NOT to do.

Consider a New Theme

Prototype of 2018 Cardboard Edison winner “Animal Kingdoms”

Sometimes a new theme will breathe new life into your core idea. One of my prototypes recently went through a series of re-themes to arrive at where it is today. The game is called “Animal Kingdoms” and combines rummy-style play with area control. It is set in a fantasy world of kingdoms and conquerors with a dash of anthropomorphism, as animal leaders battle for dominance in each kingdom by playing cards to claim territories. Once I embraced this theme, the mechanics all seemed to click for me. I even ended up writing a short story, which helped guide me during the design process.

The theme started as a deep sea fishing game, as players fished the different seas and sold them in the market. I even dabbled with the idea of players assuming the roles of travel agents sending tourists through space or time. Ultimately these versions lacked a feeling of dominating your opponent. The area control aspect was buried in the mechanics and didn’t shine through. When I added a physical map with territories – kingdoms for conquering – it became less abstract and much easier for players to grasp what they needed to do to win.

I don’t know the fate of “Animal Kingdoms” as of this posting. I recently entered it in the Cardboard Edison Award – a contest dedicated to identifying great unpublished games – hoping to become a finalist so I could get some valuable feedback from the judges, who are comprised of industry pros, designers and publishers. Luckily enough, I not only was a finalist but I won the contest! I have since received incredible feedback from the judges and also interest from several publishers…but as of yet no offer. We’ll see what happens with it, but regardless of its fate I’m glad I fought for the design to get it to its current state.

Look to Others for Help

“Sprawlopolis” is a city-building co-op game designed by myself, Danny Devine and Paul Kluka, the same team that worked on “Circle the Wagons,” which was published in 2017 by Button Shy Games. We often describe “Sprawlopolis” as a spiritual successor to “Circle the Wagons” – not really a sequel because the setting is modern city versus old west, but it does use a few key mechanisms in the same way, specifically the card laying and overlapping and the use of three card backs randomly revealed each game to create a unique trio of scoring conditions.

Sprawlopolis by Button Shy Games

This game began as a vague idea I had for a pyramid-building competitive game. Danny and Paul are great at helping bring out the best parts of a game, so I approached them with this as a potential spinoff of “Circle the Wagons.” Together we made sweeping changes to the game and it transformed into a cooperative modern city builder. This game would never have been realized had I not turned to Danny and Paul for help. I am fortunate enough to have good friends, playtesters and gaming group buddies that I trust to share ideas that I know may be broken, but with a little from my friends can be transformed into something great.

Strip It For Parts

Sometimes one part of a failed game can be a shiny new addition to a successful game. I recently repurposed an idea that was part of a roman-themed game that never went anywhere: essentially it was a “council” of eight Roman senators surrounding four hex tiles. Depending on which senator you sought for council (by removing that card from your hand), you could choose either of the two hexes that aligned with that senator. It was a great, simple puzzle that led to some interesting hand management decisions. The problem was, the rest of the game was a bit of mess.

Prototype of “Groves” spinoff showing the council

I shelved that Roman game, but decided to strip that one part and apply it to a new game that is currently with Letiman Games for evaluation – a spinoff of “Groves” – where it works much better. It’s like I had the right part but was trying to force it into the wrong engine. Taking that one working piece and applying it to a new game gave it new life.

It’s no coincidence that renowned designer Uwe Rosenberg continues to repurpose his polyomino tiles idea for different games, from “Patchwork” to “Cottage Garden” to “A Feast for Odin” to “Indian Summer.” He has discovered a game aspect with evergreen properties that are fun no matter what theme is attached to it, be it stitching a quilt or planting a garden. So, keep in mind that even if you have a good mechanism that you’ve already applied to a design, that doesn’t mean you can’t work it into a new design, as well.

Fail Quickly

While there are a lot of ways to help you fight for your design, sometimes fleeing is indeed the best option. There are usually two reasons why I will turn tail and run away from a design: it doesn’t have a core idea worth fighting for or things are not gelling to a point where I’m feeling frustrated and burdened by the game.

Some game ideas just don’t work. It’s a sad fact but one that every designer faces. The sooner you can realize this, the better off you’ll be. Failing quickly doesn’t mean giving up at the first sign of adversity, but it does mean learning to tune in to your “spider sense” to recognize when a game is not worth the mental anguish to get it to a point of being a project with promise. Playtesting certainly helps identify if a game is cracked or broken beyond repair, but ultimately it’s your intuition that you must trust and ask yourself if its healthier on your psyche to keep fighting or to shift your energy to a new idea.

Remember, ideas are never dead. They may be shelved, abandoned or stamped as “failed experiments,” but just know that every concept, whether successful or not, is developing YOU as a game designer.



Your turn. Share your thoughts: