The Root of my Game Design
Last week, I covered the roots of my writing. This week I’d like to take a look at the roots of my board game design. This story runs along side of the first story but delves in quite a bit deeper to my experience in video and board games.
There’s nothing special about my love of video games – or rather, former love of video games feels more accurate. I’m a guy in my 30’s who’s played every video game console since the Atari 2600 while they were still popular. I liked Mario and Zelda and eventually Halo and Splinter Cell.
When I first fell in love with programming as a kid, drawing pictures to the screen (1 pixel at a time) and creating trivia games were 2 of my go to options in the limited time I had with it. When I got into college to be a programmer, my initial plan wasn’t to study video game programming, but when the opportunity came up (when DeVry finally launched the Game and Simulation Programming degree a year later), I jumped at it.
My early love of board games, though not exceptionally different than what appears to be normal had one outstanding element when looking back on it now as an adult, a game designer. Sure I loved Chess and the first 30 minutes of Monopoly, but I also really liked what is considered by many to be one of the worst roll-and-move games out there, Sorry! There are 2 main reasons I like this game. The first is the take-that element. The second is that you had more than one piece to move and had to choose how to allocate your rolls.
Looking back at some of the standout games from my childhood favorites (also including Parcheesi, Trouble and Backgammon), this element is quite consistent. In a world of roll-and-move, do whatever luck tells you to do, they were oases of choice.
Of course, they were still not much more than minor diversions, and roll-and-move eventually gave way to trivia and parlor games as I grew older and desired something with a bit more challenge. As an adult, video games could provide me with the needed strategic challenge, were easier to get others to play than Chess, and could be played by myself.
One thing that persisted almost from the beginning of my video game designing was the need to create something that didn’t already exist. I never wanted to create another also-ran. I took genres I liked and attempted to turn them on their heads. Of course, none of my designs in those days really amounted to anything.
When I finally did get to a point where I could design something that would actually be playable, I chose a different direction. I chose to approach this from the perspective of “fixing” genres I don’t like. I created a bullet-hell shooter on Xbox (that I never released), a pong game that had paddles on all 4 sides of the screen and could be played by one to 4 players, and a Doodle Jump-style game that was published on Windows Phone.
I made a few bucks, but designing games by myself meant spending a small amount of time doing what I loved (programming) and a LARGE amount of time doing stuff I didn’t (like artwork).
Fast forward a few years to a career programmer, long past giving up on video game creation but still playing video games by myself and the occasional parlor game with my wife and some friends. Sitting in an office, building healthcare software, I was invited into the war room for my first taste of a very unexpected gaming experience, Coup. The communication was like that of a parlor game, but instead of trying to figure out what people were trying to communicate, I had to figure out what they are trying to hide. This lead to game nights of Werewolf and various other games, getting a bit more of a taste of what there was available in this modern age of hobby board games but not knowing how little of a taste it really was.
A few more years and I would finally dip my toes in that ocean again and fall face-first into its depths.
Walking down the aisles of Target, likely perusing for that obligatory toy that would keep my child from dying of boredom, 2 games I had heard of somewhere piqued my curiosity – Pandemic and Catan.
Biting the bullet of a $40 price tag for board game, Catan wound up being a revelation to us, but it was nothing compared to what was to come when, after realizing that a 3-player minimum wasn’t going to work for satisfying that itch when we were so often only 2, we went back to get Pandemic.
We played obsessively for weeks, pushing to beet every difficulty and buying an expansion to add even more to it. We found Barnes & Noble’s game library, bought a membership and started expanding very quickly, and I, being the person that I am, had already begun spinning my wheels on how I could.
It all began with 2 ideas, spun off of games that I felt presented and inspired interesting ideas while not being all that great themselves. One would be an early lesson in shooting too big too early. The other would be a game I continued to underestimate and deprioritize for games that I felt were flashier and more appealing. That is, until that one game changed the course of my hobby, taking me from someone who plays around with game design to someone who was travelling to conventions to run playtests with strangers and ultimately a (soon-to-be) published board game designer.
I have learned a lot from my failures and my varying levels of success. The early days included numerous games that were often bigger in scope then I could handle with my limited experience. Recent development has been more focused and I have solidified more fully what I want to get out of this – mainly, offering experiences that feel fresh, games that don’t leave people with giant collections asking “Which one of these 2 games that offer essentially the same thing do I want to keep?”
I want to offer new themes, new mechanics, new twists on old gameplay that offer something that feels fresh and unlike what’s out there. I want to take ideas I love and genres I don’t and turn them on their head in meaningful ways that can broaden the audience. Finally, I want to bring these experiences to as many people as possible, create games that are inclusive, bring gameplay ideas that have been often confined to the relatively small crowd of hardcore gamers to the masses of people who don’t realize how many amazing ideas there really are in this hobby (all while not alienating those hardcore gamers). That’s my goal, and whether or not I have what it takes to reach it, I will continue to press on as though I do.