Not every game you make will be brilliant. But as designers, we are very invested in our own work and often find it hard to be objective. After pouring time and energy into a game design, it’s hard to say goodbye. So when is the right time to permanently abandon a game?
This article assumes that you are designing games with the aim of (someone) publishing them. It is, of course, not the only reason to design games. You may be designing a game as a passion project – to play with friends and family – a perfectly wonderful thing to do. In this case, take what I say with a pinch of salt as it won’t all be relevant.
An abandoned game where you’re acting as a virus trying to spread
An early version of Throw Down Your Cloaks. A game I nearly abandoned after a particularly brutal playtest, but went on to become a finalist in the Cardboard Edison design contest after a significant re-design.
When it’s not the right time to abandon
Perhaps counter-intuitively, let’s start by looking at a couple of key moments where designers often abandon a game, but they shouldn’t. Harsh feedback can be difficult to take. Sometimes after a particularly crushing playtest, it’s tempting to stow your dice, hang up your meeples and hide under the duvet. But a bad playtest is not always a negative thing. Often playtesting shines a light on issues you knew were there all along but have been trying to ignore. If there’s something new and interesting about your game, it’s worth pursuing it – even if that means a significant rethink (and even if you don’t do this immediately).
Some designers may abandon games because they struggle to get a first prototype together. This could be because they can’t see how all the elements will work together yet, or because they know there are problems but don’t know how to fix them. If you’re in this position, I urge you to just test what you can. You don’t need a full ruleset and full component count to do a first playtest. You just need something that’s playable – a single mechanic, a vague structure. If you’re not sure how the game starts – start from half way. If you don’t know what the victory conditions are, don’t worry – just play and see what happens.
Trash this card
This list is not exhaustive, but this is when I think it’s right to abandon a game.
Another game exists that is too similar. Most designers have unknowingly designed a game that already exists at some point. Often, the published game has solved the problems that you’re currently facing in the most elegant way and doing it differently would just compromise the design. Just be happy that you’re thinking like Reiner Knizia and move on to something more original.
Everyone is bored – including you. Perhaps the decisions in the game are trivial, maybe there’s too much luck, or possibly there’s a lot of upkeep and not much actual playing. Whatever the reason, if people are yawning and clock-watching – even after several playtests, it might be time to put the game to bed.
A game about pupils smuggling items into a boarding school. Whilst the cards were fun and the idea interesting the gameplay was very dull – trivial decisions and too much downtime.
In Rainbow Throw Pro I made a very cool component into a very average game.
The game is a bit ‘meh’. Not everyone has to like your games. In fact, some of the most successful games are complete marmite – avid fans and complete haters. But if your game is mechanically sound, but nobody’s that interested in it, it’s going to be very hard to find anyone to publish it.
Most of my abandoned games fall into this category. The games are… fine. But fine isn’t enough.
Your game is terminally clunky. Clunkiness is the opposite of elegance. When a game is elegant the gameplay is intuitive, even if it is complex. Clunky games are frustrating to play. If you have to keep checking the rules to make sure you’re executing actions in the correct order, your game is clunky.
Terminal clunkiness means that your game depends on these complex systems to work and there’s no way around them.
A terminally clunky bag building game
Above: 4-player Mob Rule – a very fun area control game. Below: My failed attempt to make a 3 player map – not a very fun area control game.
It’s too expensive for the target audience. People don’t want to pay £100 for a 10 minute game. A quick game should have a smallish box and cheapish components. If you’ve created an outlier, publishers won’t be able to sell it. Even if they love the game, they’ll reject it based on the commercial argument.
It only works with 4 players. You’ve designed an amazing game. It’s super fun. Everyone loves it – but it has to be played with exactly 4 people. You’ve tried to create different modes for different player counts, but they really don’t work. It only sings at four.
If this happens, make a nice prototype and keep it to play with friends. Publishers won’t want it. The same is not true of solo games or 2 player games. There may even be a case for 3 player games, but 4+ at a single player count will never sell.
The target audience is tiny. If your game is designed to appeal to a certain type of person, make sure there are enough of these people to make the game viable.
Sports games are notoriously hard to sell, for example. If you have a snooker game, you’re really selling to the cross section of the board-game buyers and snooker-enthusiasts venn diagram.
A game about fractions, anyone?
Flycatcher: My first abandoned game and the hardest to say goodbye to
How to get better at abandoning games
An abandoned game is not a failure. Game design is a process – we get better at it through practice. Instead of shoving them at the back of the cupboard, put your abandoned games somewhere you will notice them frequently. They may spark new ideas. If nothing else, they are a measure of your progress.
It’s easier to abandon a game when you’ve not invested too much time and energy in it. So make sure you iterate games as rapidly as you can. Test early and try not to spend too much money or effort on prototyping. (Have a look at this blog on Making Board Game Prototypes for some tips).
Design more games! Instead of focusing on making one game perfect, see what happens when you aim to design a simple game each week. Or come up with a new idea every day. You can progress the ones that are interesting. If you work on idea creation – there’ll always be a new game to get excited about.
When there’s a stream of new concepts, you’ll have to abandon many. How brilliant. (Have a look at this blog on How to Get Ideas for some tips.)
A chaotic and terrible trading game. Abandoned after a disastrous early playtest that left two children and one adult crying.
Worm Attack: A problematic and very clunky card game about a man-eating worm (inspired by the legend of the Lambton Worm). This later morphed into a much better children’s game.
Sometimes a game just needs to rest for a while… to sit in a corner and think about what it’s done. When you become frustrated with a game and can’t see a solution to a problem, just shelve it. Your brain will probably subconsciously try to solve the problem. Take it out at a later date and look at it again. The emotions will have dissipated and your objectivity will have returned. Then you can make a judgement about whether to keep working on it or abandon it altogether.
Sometimes the idea that got you excited about making the game in the first place is still a good idea. Goodbye isn’t always goodbye forever.