I’m often asked where my ideas for new games come from. The truth is that they come from all over the place: random things I hear, patterns I spot, components from other games, strange game-playing dreams and discussions I have with other designers, amongst other things. Very rarely does a complete idea for a whole game pop into mind though. Almost always there’s a fragment, one element of a game that comes to mind, then through experimentation and refinement the rest of the game reveals itself.
So, let’s take a closer look at these fragments, these starting points from which a whole game emerges.
Fixed ideas about the world in which the game is set is probably the most common starting point for designers. The theme will then influence all the other decisions about the game.
For example, you might decide you wish to create a space exploration game in which fuel is limited and has to be carefully managed… Or perhaps the expansion and industry within an ant farm is more up your street?
Collectively a board game’s mechanics are the way the game works. There are standard mechanics that appear in multiple games – like tile placement and network building, but the treatment of the mechanics within the game or the way they work together will (hopefully) offer something new.
For example, the starting point for game design may be a push-your-luck bidding game in which if you’re the last player standing in a round you win all of the hidden bids on the table as long as the bid isn’t over a certain amount… Or perhaps a card-drafting game in which you build your hand then have a rock-paper-scissors battle with the weapons on the cards you’ve selected.
The format of a game concerns the box size and the components within it. You may be aiming for a particular price point or retail placement.
For example, your aim could be to create a card game with a deck of 54 cards (that’s the standard deck size so is much cheaper to print) and a flip top box… Or you may wish to create a game on a poster (like the brilliant MicroMacro: Crime City), which can be displayed on the wall and played standing up.
The inspiration for your game may come from a single component. When you start designing, you’re experimenting with this component, putting it into different situations and building the game around it.
For example, you may have devised some interlocking bricks from which you could form a strategic tower-building game… Or maybe you’ve found an old medical replica of a set of teeth in an antique shop and you want to use this as inspiration for a speed dentistry game in which players must operate on as many sets of teeth as possible within the given time.
You may be compelled to create a game that’s going to make players feel a certain way. Having the starting point of ‘what kind of game do I want to make’ can be a really good way to create the experience.
For example, you may want your game to provoke squeals of delight or tummy-clutching hilarity that sparks in-jokes to be revisited for many years… Or possibly you want players to have an epic experience of total character immersion that makes them escape from their real lives for a while.
Board game publishers tend to specialise in producing games for a specific audience. Researching the publisher and their catalogue will usually tell you what sort of games they might be interested in publishing. The audience is a great starting point for game design and affects player count and game complexity. Publishers will sometimes also provide briefs to let designers know what sorts of games they’re on the lookout for.
For example, you may wish to create a children’s game for a family of six that would fit well into Haba’s line… Or you may wish to create a head-to-head strategy game that appeals to wargamers.
In my own designs, I usually start with a mechanic. This must be something to do with how my brain works. I think of the mechanic first, then find the theme that fits and build it out from there. Most, though not all of my games are for a family audience, so I try to find themes that will appeal.
The other starting point for me is format. I create ranges of games all in the same format. For example, the coaster games are each a game on a single coaster. I have one set of six coaster games already available and a second set coming in 2022. I have a range of notepad games and my tin games and bigger box games are all in standard box sizes. I also have some standard wooden components that I use in many games.
Contrary to what you may think, restrictions and limitations provide inspiration for design. If you don’t know how to get started with a new game, pick a combination of two board game mechanics at random …or a component and a theme… and let me know what you come up with!