So You Want to Design a Game

What makes a game great?

Should it offer a level starting field with all elements visible at all times, like chess? Should it be more random, like Candy Land? Should it have mystery and psychological elements, like Werewolf, Poker, and the venerable Stratego?

I've asked this question of people I've met over the years, and I never get the same answer twice, which seems to say something about either games or the people who play them. To me, what makes a game worth playing is simply how enjoyable it is. No one is going to spend their leisure time in an activity that is not fun, so if you aspire to create a game, bear this in mind. As a wise man once said to me, the value of a game is in the playing. You should also be sure to work at making games only if THAT process is enjoyable to you - it's worth noting that a lot of the big names we all know - like Trivial Pursuit - failed the first time their creators tried to bring them to market. Almost no one gets rich creating games. But if you enjoy thinking about, creating, and playing new game ideas, then it's time well spent no matter what.

The best way to be inspired with an idea for a new game, is to play a lot of games. Play different styles of games and play games often and with different people. Think about what you like about a game that works - what makes it stand out? Conversely, what doesn't measure up in a game that you try and then put back on the shelf because it didn't interest you?

Once you have an idea that excites you, start brainstorming. Maybe you've come up with the name first - you have a clever pun that suggests a funny party game idea. Or maybe there's an aspect of everyday life you think could translate into an enjoyable game. Whatever your muse, write down everything that pops in your head and sort it out. Beware of getting too hung up on ancillary game concepts like the board, any props or parts, and the point scoring system. No matter how cool these things seem to you, no one plays a game for its pieces - they play it for its core play mechanic, the crucial interaction between the human participants and the game itself (and each other.)

Also take care not to over-complicate your game. A great example of a game boiled down to its core essence is the game Curses!, by Brian Tinsman. Very early in his career as a designer, Brian created an elaborate game of exploring Egyptian tombs. His dog, Draco, attacked the game and chewed it to bits, and Brian was faced with the choice of starting over or giving up. As it turned out, the canine critique was a blessing in disguise, as Brian took the opportunity in his second draft to focus on what worked best about the game - the "curses" players could play on each other - and ended up with a simple and very fun party game that became very popular through word of mouth alone. The person who told me about it laughed just thinking about when she'd played. Brian has described the original version as "terrible" and with its added complexity, it probably would not have been nearly as memorable or viral. Anything added to your game that does not make it more enjoyable, is actually subtracting from your game's appeal.

The rules need to be extremely simple too. Have you ever tried to learn a new game from its instructions while you're with a rowdy bunch of gamers? No fun. Keep it short and sweet. (As a game teacher, consider reading up on your new game before your guests come over, too.)

Once you have a game you feel is worth playing, get some trusted friends together and play it. Make sure your friends are not too easy on you. Have them tell you what works about the game and, much more importantly, what DOES NOT work and needs to be improved or removed. Once you've played it a lot with your friends, play it with strangers, play it with anyone you think could be part of the audience for your game. Make sure people are brutally honest and listen to what they say. Take notes or record the audio of the session.

Finally, when you have a well-tested prototype, decide if you are going to market and sell it yourself or send it to an existing game company to see if they want to publish it. The first way will cost you an immense amount of money and time, (you will essentially be starting your own game company) but is the only way you'll get more than a pittance in return, unless you are extremely lucky. Letting another company do all the work will still get your game out there, though, and remember, the fun of a game is in the playing!

So to sum up:

  • Keep your game really simple. Concentrate on fun.
  • Keep the instructions as short and simple as possible. Keep the information in cohesive "chunks" like "Setting up," "How to Play," "How to Win," etc.
  • Don't obsess over your game board and props. Keep everything as streamlined as possible.
  • Don't try and create a smooth, finished product. You are going to be constantly refining and changing things anyway. Don't even send a slick product to the company when you're ready to publish. They will see your prototype and assume you're going to be impossible to work with because of your perfectionism.
  • Test your game many, many times, including with people who don't know you. Test again whenever you make changes. Test your instructions by having someone read them then try to lead the game with no help from you.
  • Have fun.
Good luck in game creation - it's a really fun ride.

A few online resources:

Board Game Designers' Forum

No Fluff Design Method, by Rolf Hendricks

Board Game Design, by Sloperama Productions

This book, by the aforementioned Brian Tinsman is the best I have found for advice on what is needed to create and sell your own game. His site also has great info on chocolate milkshakes in the Seattle area.


  1. Nice article! I'm more of a wise ass than a wise man, but thanks for the compliment. Cheers!

    Designer of Wits & Wagers
    Co-designer of Say Anything

  2. Have you ever tried to learn a new game from its instructions while you're with a rowdy bunch of gamers? No fun. Keep it short and sweet.Good quotation.I like it.
    Game Design


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