Design, Part Two (or Just What Am I Trying to Do Here?)

I've sat on this board game idea for nearly five years now, for two reasons. First, inspiration had struck when I was mulling over what I wanted to see in a board game using an IP (which shall remain nameless, at least for now). I started with a theme and a specific game mechanic, and built a supportive, although rickety, framework of other gameplay elements and goals. But I don't want to design an IP-first board game for obvious reasons, and it isn't until recently that I considered stripping out the main mechanics and seeing if I could make them work on their own as a coherent game. It's the opposite of what I usually look for in board game designs, but there is an alternative, more-generic theme that I believe could work just as well. Cart, horse, etc. Game first.

Secondly, one of the mechanics I felt was essential for this board game turned out not to be as innovative as I thought when I played Twilight Struggle for the first time five years after its release--the push/pull fight for influence over regions and countries mirrored what I wanted to do in my game. In fact, some pieces of Twilight Struggle were so similar to what I envisioned I had to double-check to verify I hadn't played the game before. And finding out that your game idea is similar to the top-rated board game of all time* is an extremely effective way of shutting down future development. I certainly didn't think I could design a game half as good as that one. Throw in the towel.

So what's changed? The first is that I've made a conscious choice to take the IP out of the design and look at the game from strictly a mechanical perspective. I probably should have done such a thing some time ago, but I've also desired to write again--frequently and publicly--and having a design diary is an easy way to achieve both of my goals at the same time. I also no longer feel limited by the presence of Twilight Struggle; I'm aiming for something broader, and area influence is only a part of the game--a significant part, to be sure, but I also have no idea where I'll end up. As with most game designs, the finish line is a long distance from the idea.

One of the most important elements of a good rulebook is describing a player's goals and victory conditions as the very first step in learning the game. This provides a framework for the rules to follow, and allows players to mentally assemble a decision tree: how do the choices I make affect my ultimate outcome? Trying to piece together mechanics and decisions without knowing the destination unnecessarily taxes players and inhibits learning comprehension. The same goes for the design process: without a firm (yet flexible) set of goals I'll end up with an unholy hodgepodge of ideas that fit together as well as a Chrysler 200. Here are ten that I want to focus on:

  1. Information ambiguity as a primary source of tension

  2. Bounded rationality in short-term decision making

  3. Imperfect information driving Pareto inefficiency

  4. Player choices subject to non-zero-sum options

  5. Push/pull political maneuvering

  6. No victory points

  7. Unique, defined objectives for each player

  8. Success and failure without dice

  9. Board-based bonuses and conditions

  10. Increasing marginal costs of control

You'll notice that the last five are mechanically descriptive, while the first five are broader principles I want to highlight in this game. There's some overlap in these but I think they're a good starting point. I'll spend some time going through my reasons for each and what I hope to accomplish in future posts.

*As determined by rankings on BoardGameGeek; the usual caveats apply.