Note: When not writing for Another Dungeon Ben maintains a personal blog – versumus; we roll. We really liked this article so, with his permission, we ripped it, threw in some images, and posted it here for your reading pleasure. If you like it be sure to check out his other articles here or at Versumus.
There is a very old and very wise saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This sounds like good advice: if your chair works, then don’t go fiddling around with it. Your meddling might break it to begin with, but either way you’ll be wasting time. This piece of advice is, of course, terrible for a game designer – simply terrible.
When it comes to game design, I am a little bit Derridean – that is, I believe that pretty much every idea has already been done before at some point in time, and attempting to come up with something 100% original is pointless and impossible. Everything we think is based on our experience, so it isn’t possible to think of something that isn’t in some way referential to something that has come before.
This must therefore also apply to mechanics, story, and every facet of every genre of game design. So where does the creativity come in? By smashing those old, tired, and generic ideas together. Not only that, but by constantly questioning the choices that we make ourselves.
Now, let me be clear, this doesn’t mean reinvent the wheel – another very old and very wise saying. However, take those wheels, pull them off the monster truck, and jam them onto the tricycle.
Let me give you an example: Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a great, classic Euro board game which is enjoyed by people worldwide. It has a sleek elegant design which makes it a quick game to learn, to play, and to enjoy. It is very fun-efficient, suitable for all ages, and has a nice combination of luck and strategy that make it a near-flow game. However, Carcassonne isn’t perfect. No game ever is.
So I decided to change that. Now I’m not pretending I was the first person to do this – I have never seen it before, but it is such a simple change that I am certain someone else has done it before – but I decided to change the random draw of tiles at the beginning of a round of Carcassonne with a random hand of three drawn at the beginning of a round, which is replenished after each tile is played individually.
Simple change. I didn’t invent anything whilst doing it. I didn’t invent Carcassonne. I didn’t invent the concept of hands in a game. But I did cram one invention into another. But doing so does not a designer make. Game design isn’t about posturing. It is about playtesting. No idea is ever good until you play it and have fun – better yet, no idea is ever good until you play it and have more fun than you had before the idea.
So we gave Franken-Carcassonne a spin, and it turned out great! The addition of a hand allows for higher strategy, and faster gameplay. It removes the shambling randomness and incomplete feelings that some games of Carcassonne can create when the deck is shuffled particularly badly. It also allows for some rather spectacular back-stabbing and fiero moments when you execute an amazing play over a few turns.
The variant doesn’t unbalance the game, because all players have the same ‘advantage’, and are equally able to plan ahead. Yes, each players’ hands can still come out badly, but the hand size is big enough to allow for forethought and clever planning, whilst not big enough for a single player to monopolise all of a single tile-type.
This is just one example. And not a very good example. The change was small, and not very original. But it worked! It made for a different experience, if not certainly a better one (though I prefer it, personally), and got everyone at the table thinking about the game in a different way.
If you need any more proof that constant iteration on games is a great thing, just look at the amount of mods Skyrim has. That should convince you.
So the next time you pick up a board game, card game, or video game, consider the rules you are playing, ask yourself why those rules are in place, and then ask what you could do to change them. Yeah, some of the changes will suck. But some will be awesome. You won’t know until you try them out, and before you’ve realised it you’re a game designer.