The Birth of a Game System

Card game designer, Behrooz Shahriari talks a little bit about designing a game system (in his case Wibbell++).

Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. This time we have designer of In a Bind, Behrooz Shahriari (Bez for short) as our writer. Bez currently, has a game system (which is a game that you can create a whole bunch of games with – think a poker deck of cards or dominoes for example) on Kickstarter called Wibbell++.  He has written a little bit about his experience in designing a game system. If you like to see more of Bez’s writings, you can find his Board Game Geek blog, by clicking on this link.

The Birth of a Game System –

My Method and Some Tips

by Behrooz Shahriari

I didn’t set out to create a game system.

The birth of dice and playing cards is somewhat lost to history, but they were surely created for a single game, not because the inventor wanted to set themselves the challenge of creating multiple games for a single set of components.

Angus Looney made 100 sets of the Looney Pyramids in 1990. It was 1995 before Angus and Kristin understood its potential as a game system.

Back around the start of 2015, I was unemployed and essentially working full-time as a game inventor, whilst focusing on the art and print files for my first game – In A Bind.

I started a BGG blog where I wrote about a new game concept every day. A few of them seemed to have enough potential that I turned them into prototypes and playtested them with fellow designers. Wibbell was one such game.

Wibbell++ Prototype

It lasted only 5 minutes or so and as a result I was able to test it many times with 14 others over the following month. The components required were pairs of letters on cards. Rules were changing and components changing to suit.

I realised within the first few weeks that some of my other ideas could be prototyped with the same components, and I then started using the components as inspiration for some of my daily game concepts.

By the time UK Games Expo 2015 came around, I had turned Wibbell into a longer game, worked out some letter pairs that could work, and chose 3 different games playable with this deck to be my main focus at the public playtest zone. One attendee – upon seeing the deck – invented a new game on the spot. The fun we had with that cemented the notion in my head that this deck had the flexibility to become a game system.

At this point, I’ve playtested many tens of rulesets (perhaps hundreds) and have just 7 that I’d be happy to physically print rules for tomorrow. The game system is still in its infancy so I remind you that I am no expert – just a practitioner. I’ve been lucky enough to chance upon a new idea – none of the word game systems on BGG have PAIRS of letters – and I am confident at this point that Wibbell will be a worthwhile addition to the other game systems in existence.

Success is not likely

This applies to game systems as much as it does to board games in general. Of the 171 game systems on BGG, 29 (17%) are ranked. For comparison, 14.5% of games are currently ranked.

Having 30 votes (the criteria for being ranked) doesn’t denote success, but the opposite is certainly true. Of those that are ranked, only a fraction will be remembered in 10 years by any number of people. Only a fraction will actually be played by any quantity of people. Whatever metric you want to use, creating a game system is more work than creating a single game and that extra work doesn’t translate into increased chances of success.

Make sure you have one good game

Before worrying about making tens or hundreds of games, it’s important to ensure that there is at least one game you can be confident in, that is comparable in quality to other games you’d choose to play for pleasure.

To get real interest and engagement, you need at least one ‘killer app’.

You will be making most of the games, at least to start with

It would be ideal to have other designers rush to invent games for your components. Why should they? Every designer has hundreds of game ideas that they could be working on.

Simplify the components

There is a reason that the standard 52-card deck fares better than the Tarot deck. Part of that is Bridge, Poker and a few other ‘killer apps’ that the deck now supports. Why are these games possible? The deck’s construction is simple enough that people are able to understand it. 13×4 is a lot simpler to hold in your head than 14×4+22 and so there’s less of a barrier to playing the games.

Standardise the components (to an extent)

At some point, a clear definition of the components needs to be laid out. If people are creating games around the system, the components must be known. Having said that, even 200 years ago, the number of cards in a suit was still uncertain. Only recently was the inclusion of 2 jokers made standard.

Be willing to change and adapt

If there is a reason to change the components, then do so. I agree with David Sirlin in principle – if a game can be improved, it’s almost bloody-minded to not do so, simply to maintain compatibility with earlier editions.

Even after printing, new games and players could inform improvements to your system, whether that’s aesthetic changes or mechanically-relevant changes.

Let the games inform the components and let the components inform the games

Like most design, the process is a cycle of iteration. The components should inform some initial rulesets. Keep developing those rulesets (or at least the best ones) but also feel free to change the components, to better suit the initial rulesets.

If those initial games are generally improved by the changes to the system, then that’s what you should do. View those initial games as early examples of what might come later.

Engage with potential designers

I ran a competition on BGG. Took the games around and showed them off. Many folk couldn’t help but suggest ideas for other potential games. A few are still being worked upon. If you want to make an open system, let folk know and invite them to take part in the process.

Whatever you want to do is cool

Ultimately, your creation should be whatever you want it to be.

Some game systems are elaborate wargames with a host of scenarios. Some are a set of abstract components with just 2 or 3 games by a single designer. Some are a closed system, which a team of designers are invited to design around. Many are a deck of cards with some mathematical idiosyncrasies.

How many games will you have? What types of games? Who will make them?

Like all game design, the only goals are those you set for yourself. And even those can change, if you find your system is not quite what you expected. Maybe you’ll make all the games yourself. Maybe you’ll have a few friends doing that. Maybe it’ll run away out of your control.

Whatever happens, enjoy the journey of creation and have fun!

If you like to check out Bez’s game system, you can find the current Kickstarter for Wibbell++ , by clicking on this link.


Your turn. Share your thoughts: