This article was written following discussions on the topic with members of the London Friday Daytime Playtest UK group. I’ve chosen the prototypes in the images/videos, because they are games in which players seem to have experienced delight during playtests.

I’m often deflated after playtests. The game functions well enough – players understand what they’re trying to do, there’s a clear end-game and the mechanics are solid – but it lacks flair. There’s a missing ingredient. 

This missing element is hard to pinpoint. It can be elusive. Some games-in-development will stay on the shelf, gathering dust, because you just can’t see how to improve it. But sometimes inspiration will strike and perhaps one small tweak will transform and elevate the game. 

These tweaks will look very different in different games. You could have adapted the way one mechanic plays off another; maybe you’ve altered the theme a bit and leaned into the player roles; or perhaps you’ve added an element of simultaneous play, where there was none before. But I suspect that there’s one thing all these tweaks have in common… delight.

Bez Shariari (finally) mastering the coin roll mechanism in one of my prototypes 

Think about your favourite games. Why do you love them? What is it about the gameplay or the experience that sings? I bet these are games that give you moments of real delight.  Joy and happiness are not really the same thing as delight. For my discussion here, delight appears in an instant and passes quickly – though it could certainly turn into joy.

Doruk and Ian testing one of my (very silly) games that you play while running round a table

Publishers on the hunt for their next big game often say, “It’s hard to define exactly what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it”. They’re looking for moments of delight. Moments of delight make a game memorable and shareable. Games that bring delight get people talking. Players want to share their experiences. They want you to feel the way they did. David Brain refers to this as “The anecdotal aspect of gaming. It’s the idea that a game needs to have some element that helps it to stick in the mind afterwards, which then encourages one to play again.”

Not every game will bring delight to every person, of course. Nor does it have to. But it’s helpful if your game sparks delight in some people. Otherwise, maybe it’s just another game. 

So, when we design games, how do we optimise for delight? Here are some top tips:

1. In playtests, look for the moments where players spontaneously grin, where their faces light up or they make exclamations of excitement or joy. (Note: This may happen before you start playing, as you’re explaining the game). Players are feeling delight in those moments. Make sure you know what it is that made them feel like that and lean into it; making sure that the gameplay supports and showcases these moments. Alan Wallat says, “When creating delight in my games, I look for cues, body language and explosive reactions like these: Laughter, eye rolling, “Oh my gawd I can’t believe you’ve done that”, players talking more about their actions than how many points they can get, role-playing by putting on funny voices… “

The sizzle reel for my reversing glasses game – Flip or Flop

2. Delight needs space to flourish. It can easily be dampened or drowned. So clear away the weeds and give the good stuff room to breathe. Note: This may mean throwing out your original inspiration for the game. So what? Now you have something better. Paul Mansfield says, “That probably means having a game that is more open-ended and not too strictly mechanical. I suspect that if you try too hard to “design in” such moments, it may backfire and fall flat.”

3. Delight doesn’t have to be loud or overt. Absorbing problem-solving can be utterly delightful, but is usually quiet. It’s sometimes hard to observe how delightful players are finding a game. So be sure to ask your players what, if anything, they found delightful.

The Star Wars pacing curve

4. Find ways to build tension. Both the build up and the dispersion of tension can create moments of delight. Many video games and movies follow a similar tension/time graph. There’s often a peak of tension early on, with subsequent peaks starting low and then building up to a grand finale. This formula gets players hooked and then keeps them engaged. Doruk Kicikoglu says, “In my experience, [the peaks] are harder to start your design with, but rather easier to carve out when you’re finding the fun during playtests.”

5. Find ways to allow players to improve or become more powerful. Achieving things within a game that felt out of reach at the start can provoke delight. A game that Rob Beer finds delightful is Quacks of Quedlinburg. He says, “No matter how you’re doing compared to other players, your bag is always improving, so each round you’re almost always doing better than you were before.”

6. Think about how players interact with your game physically. Some of the most delightful game experiences are when players get to do something unexpected with components.  Jeremy Norton says, “I think, in a world of smooth flat glass interaction, the tactile aspect of boardgames is absolutely fundamental. I think the surface has barely been scratched for this.” And to use Rob’s expression, don’t underestimate the “power of tactile experiences”.

An early prototype of my ‘roll & cut’ game

7. Embrace the element of surprise. There’s a reason we often use the adjective ‘unexpected’ to describe delight. It’s often the very fact that a thing is unexpected that causes delight. As Doruk puts it, delight occurs when there is a “shocking revelation of information, or when someone does or says something really silly but wins the round with it.” Bez Shariari’s view is that delight is “a moment of ambiguity that crystallises in sudden realisation”. John Power puts it like this: “Delight = happiness + surprise”. Surprise could be built into the narrative of a game, but as designers we should perhaps also think about how we give players the space and tools with which to create surprise for themselves. As Josh Ewart says, “Delight comes when someone makes a move that makes you sit back and see the whole game with a new look.”

It’s worth noting that it’s not just the game design that influences delight. The group you are playing a game with can completely change the experience, and the amount of delight you derive from it.  Alan Wallat says, “The most important aspect I find is trust in the group. If I make a move that is clearly a backstab, I [need to] 100% trust that they know it’s all in good fun… The lower the trust between players, the higher chances of losing delight.”

I’m really keen to know what moments within games have caused you the most delight. If you are a game designer, is delight something you think about when working on games? Let me know in the comments below.

With thanks to the members of the Playtest UK group.