It is commonly said that no new game is truly new. Almost all new games just take pieces of old games and put them together in a new way. Designers use mechanics from other games all the time – they are building blocks from which we create something different.

Board game publishers often say they are looking for games that are innovative. They want to see something that they’ve never seen before. But this isn’t exactly true. They really want to see games where one element is new and surprising… but this one element is housed in a structure of things that are familiar and intuitive. If you create an entirely new game that has no reference points in current ones, publishers won’t know how to market it, and they’ll worry that players won’t know how to play it.

Mora from Pentagames

The L Game from Brain Games

So as game designers we’re really looking to find new and surprising ways to present familiar ideas… or looking for new ideas to present in a familiar way. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love creating new game mechanics. I’m also a great proponent of looking outside the world of gaming for design inspiration. But existing games are another good starting point.

I play lots of hobby games, so I have a good understanding of modern mechanics. While I have a modern gaming frame of reference, and I may well get some exciting design ideas when playing hobby games, I prefer to focus on traditional games for deliberate inspiration for new ideas.

By traditional games I mean card games, traditional party or parlour games, ‘pen and paper’ games, ‘board and counter’ games, simple dexterity games and dice games; but not vintage board games. These games provide such rich fodder because they almost always focus on one simple idea or mechanic – and they’re usually abstract.

I start by playing the traditional game a number of times – finding the fun, delving into the strategy (if there is any) and identifying my frustrations with it. Then I ask myself the following questions:

  • What would make this game more fun?
  • What would make this game more interesting?
  • What would make this game less frustrating?
  • What would get people excited about playing this game?

The Octopus Handshake from Mind Benders: Games of Chance

David Brain, a friend (and designer of Key Market and Simplicity) talks about the fact that there are two distinct ways to approach board game design – as a sculptor or as a painter. When sculpting, you start with everything – loads of ideas, complex systems – and gradually you chip away at it, taking things out and smoothing the game until it is a work of art. Whereas, when painting, you start with nothing – a blank canvas – and add ideas one by one, building up carefully until you’ve created your masterpiece. For this strategy of starting with a simple traditional game and building on it, you are most definitely a painter.

Earlier this month I was in Barter Books in Alnwick, as part of a long weekend in Northumberland. I made a beeline for the games section. I managed to pick up three books: Brain Games by David Pritchard (1982), Pentagames (1993) and Mind Benders: Games of Chance by Ivan Moscovich (1986) – which upon closer inspection is full of strategic puzzles (so no games and no chance!) 

In these books there are such delights as: The L Game – a strategic game where each player’s piece is an L-shaped tile; Mora – a mostly lucky game where players signal using their hand while calling out a number; and The Octopus Handshake – a solo puzzle with a very groovy board of rotating octagons. My mind is already buzzing with the possibilities.

My haul from Barter Books

You don’t have to create an entirely new game to dip your toe into game design. Start by adding a couple of house rules to a traditional game, and see what you’ve got. If you want to go a bit further, then find a thematic setting for the game. From there, you can lean into the theme a bit more, adding or adapting mechanics to suit the setting. You can find plenty of traditional games (and one’s I’ve adapted) on this blog.

Have you ever created a new game using a traditional one as inspiration? I’d love to hear about your designs.