Designing as a Team Sport: Or All About Finding Good Creative Partners to Build Better Games

After a bunch of Kickstarters, Steven returns with another installment of the Indie Jungle exploring partnerships. 

The thought of entering the Indie Jungle can be frightening, even more so if you venture into the wilds alone.

After all, there are a lot of scary things out there that you’ll encounter – the “is my game balanced” creature that lurks around every corner, the “is my game innovative enough” shadow that looms over you, and the “is my game even remotely fun” monster that haunts so many of us.

The truth is, game design is a daunting task…one nobody should take on without a little help from others. While you may not be ready to officially partner up with somebody as a co-designer, the survival of your game depends on other people’s opinions, input and feedback.

I am a huge fan of co-designing. Of all my games that have been signed and/or released, only two solely have my name attached to them as the designer. The rest are co-designs. I have made “Circle the Wagons” with Danny Devine and Paul Kluka, “Groves” with Dan Letzring, Coin & Crown with Janice Baker, Tricky Tides with Naomi Ferrall and Aqualab with Ryan Sanders.

“Aqualab” prototype, a new roll & write game co-designed with Ryan Sanders

While those are the names that go on the front of the box, there are countless others who have contributed to the development of them, including friends, family, playtesters, contest judges, social media contacts, graphic designers, proofreaders and, of course, publishers.

Every person that plays your game has an impact on your game. This in turn shapes your design process as you take into consideration all of the viewpoints.

When you design in a vacuum, it is impossible to step outside of your own brain space. While you can certainly test for different strategies or “player personalities,” you are really only able to mimic these varying personalities, not truly embody them. This will only take your design capabilities so far.

A perfect example of this occurred in my game Coin & Crown. I was tasked with creating a solo variant for the game and I put together a “decision tree” that I then converted to a deck of cards. This deck determined what your A. I. opponent did on their turn. Because it was a solo variant, I did all of the early development by myself with no outside influence. Why not? It’s just me versus the game and nobody knows the game better than myself, right?

Well, that was exactly the problem. I was so close to the game that I created an A.I. deck that was far too complicated for players to follow. It was needlessly complex, had a ton of text and required more time determining the A.I. actions than playing the game itself.

I found this out when I eventually introduced the game to Janice, my co-designer on the multi-player version of the game. She obviously knows the game very well and…let’s just say that she seriously struggled to understand the solo version.

I needed the help of others to make the game work

I quickly realized that just because it was a solo experience that I could fully test and tweak by myself, I needed the help of others to make the game work. As a result of Janice’s input, along with my friend Danny Devine, I completely scrapped that A.I. deck and created a new system that removed all text and made it as simple as flipping two A.I. cards – one to tell the player what type of coin to spend and one to tell the player what market card to buy. With the input and help of others, I’m much happier now with the solo version of “Coin & Crown.”

“Tricky Tides” island card and order card, a co-design with Naomi Ferrall

There are many benefits of “buddying up” for a design. You have another person to bounce ideas off of, you get a different perspective on how to approach design and game play, you avoid burnout, you get more accomplished, you double your social media exposure, you get more playtesting in, and you play to each other’s strengths.

Naomi Ferrall hand-drew the title for “Tricky Tides,” the upcoming co-designed pick-up-and-deliver/trick-taking game.

Perhaps best of all is that you have a friend to share in the amazing experience of creating something. After all, games are about coming together at the table and enjoying an experience together. Co-designing lets you do this on a much deeper level than merely playing a game as a group.

There are some very successful partnerships out there in the gaming world that prove that co-designing can lead to some amazing games. Off the top of my head, a few of the dynamic duos that come to mind include Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle, designers of games like “Fleet” and “Eggs and Empires” and Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier, designers of games like “Belfort” and “Junk Art.”

Sen-Foong Lim has said that designing prototypes with Jay is a process of “failing forward.” I think this is a great description of the process of game design. Only through putting your rough thoughts together and then playing them out on the table can you see where the weaknesses are so you can make the next iteration of your game better, and having a partner to get your through the rough patches will lead you to the promised land that much faster.

I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to have a core group like this that you can go to for testing and feedback.

Although we only have one official co-design, Danny Devine and Paul Kluka are really my ongoing game design “besties.” Pretty much any idea I have gets to the table with them for early feedback and vice versa. I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to have a core group like this that you can go to for testing and feedback. I understand that this can be difficult because you need to find people who are willing to play broken games and provide honest feedback. Generally, fellow designers are more patient and willing to play prototypes than a regular gaming group that just wants to play finished, published games, so seek out other designers to share ideas and possibly partner with.

Large publishing companies have armies of playtesters and demo partners to help test their games and provide feedback. Indie publishers generally don’t have the same network of playtesters, so another great way to “partner up” is to work with indie publishers.

“Groves” co-designed by Steven Aramini and Dan Letzring

I am a playtester for a few of Letiman Games titles, having playtested Gadgeteers by co-designers Dan Letzring and Michael Cofer, as well as Letiman Games’ upcoming game (the name is still under wraps!). In turn, this has opened the door for me to ask Dan, the owner of Letiman Games, to look at a few of my designs. This actually led to the co-design of a game with Dan – Groves, which successfully Kickstarted in June 2017! With today’s technology of Skype, Slack, Dropbox and the like, it’s easier than ever to share files, thoughts and feedback, as Dan and I often do. So even if you don’t have a local design partner, you can establish one long distance. Whatever method works best for you, I encourage you to nurture those relationships and give co-designing a try.

Livingston had Stanley. Lewis had Clark. Indiana Jones had Short Round. Maybe it’s time you found your perfect sidekick, too.

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