Board Game Design Diary: The Fun Heart of the Game

Was conversing with my buddy Jackson Pope on Twitter recently about what game design is all about.  This topic is what I think about these days.  When you make a game, it’s all about the fun heart of the game, about finding it and elevating it and building a game around it.  Everything else is in service to the fun heart of the game.

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One of the more recent games I’ve played with an obvious example is Dinosaur Island.  There’s some interesting action drafting in this game, as well as some engine building and resource deployment.  However, I’ve seen plenty of games with action drafting, engine building and resource deployment.  The fun heart of the game for Dinosaur Island is creating dinosaurs.  That’s what it’s all about.  If that sounds like fun to you, there’s already a good chance you’d like Dinosaur Island.  If that sounds like fun, and you don’t mind a heavier game of action and resource management and engine building, then I can almost guarantee you’ll like Dinosaur Island.  On the other hand, if the idea of growing dinosaurs, on its own, isn’t enough for you, then I’m not sure if you’ll like the game or not.  I think it has several other things to offer but… so do a lot of other games.  The fun heart of the game is the reason the game exists.  If it doesn’t have one of these, don’t buy it.

I don’t have a picture of my hand drawing workers from a bag, but these are the workers anyways.

Another one I really like is Orleans.  It’s worker placement, a mechanism which already has a bunch of great games, and the theme isn’t anything terribly original.  However, every turn you look at what you need to get, then you reach into your bag and pull out the workers, and that’s the fun heart of that game.  It’s just so fun every turn to pull out your workers and hope you get the right combination of monks and knights to do what you wanted to do this turn.  It’s fun even when you don’t get them, because you got another set of workers you can  use.

Star Wars Epic Duels was a fast and cheap mass game, but the fun heart of the game is the 2-action, attack and defend process and they’re keeping that for Unmatched.  It’s simple enough to understand, with all the drama, luck + strategy dynamics of a poker game.  The result of this simplicity is that it lets the characters and their asymmetry really shine through, making it feel like a duel between your favorite characters from Star Wars or eventually, other universes.  That’s what it’s all about.  If you like that idea, you’ll like the game.  If that idea, alone, isn’t enough for you, then you’ll only like SWED if you’re into quick tactical combat games and a chess type grid doesn’t bother you.  So, you might still like it, but it’s hard to say.

When designing Epic Duels decks, I have always strove for each new deck to have a fun heart of the deck, though I don’t always succeed, and I have long said that every deck has to do something.  It has to have a reason for being.  I talk about this example often, but I had the idea for a Cin Drallig deck, with 7 different lightstaber forms, for years.  That wasn’t enough of a fun heart to make a deck.

Then it came together with his ability to teach it to his Padawans, and letting his Padawans use his cards because he “teaches” them is the fun heart of the Cin Drallig deck.  In another example, I wanted to make a Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan deck, but He Doesn’t Like You – I Don’t Like You Either combo wasn’t enough of a fun heart to sustain its own deck.  But, then when I combined with Greedo, who has his own fun heart with Going Somewhere? and I’ve Been Looking Forward to This for a Long Time along with Desperate Shot, ok, that is a fun heart of a deck worth making.

As a game designer, the job is to make sure that A) The Game (or deck) has a fun heart worth building a game around  B) Identifying that heart and C) Elevating it and stripping everything else away that doesn’t elevate it.

If there’s one thing I did wrong with Cage Match, it’s that I wasn’t quick enough to figure out the fun heart of the game, and then strip away everything else. The fun heart of the game is the reveal of actions and knowing which way the turn went for you.  Therefore, it needs to be quick and easy to understand what happens after each reveal, or the fun heart gets diluted if you have to wait to learn the outcome.  Therefore, rolling dice more than once in a while, or fumbling with components to read them, are hindrances to the fun heart.  This is also why this particular MMA game doesn’t really work with rounds and scoring and that sort of thing.  You want to see it, record it, and move on to the next move, and anything else just gets in the way.  Good news is, it’s a lean, mean game now.  There are only 6 outcomes and only 2 of them involve dice rolls, and it makes sense when they do.  It’s easy to memorize the rock-paper-scissors combat system and get an exciting outcome with nearly every reveal.  It’s simple enough that like Epic Duels, it lets the characters stand out more.

I’ll be working on Watering Hole soon, and I’m pursuing this game because I know there’s a fun heart worth pursuing.  There’s card drafting, there’s engine building, there’s balancing that with staff and space, but you’ll see that in a lot of games.  It comes down to the part of the turn where the patrons choose which bar they’ll go to.  The patron selection process is the fun heart of the game.  You look forward to it every turn.  Seeing what the patrons choose — especially when they’re undesirable, or they do something unexpected — is just really fun.  It’s worth building a game around that and as long as you like the bar theme, it’s worth buying.

So the lesson from Cage Match to apply to Watering Hole is to focus the game on that fun heart of the game, and elevate it if I can.  The card drafting and engine building are part of setting that whole part of the turn up, but I should consider if there are any other ways to streamline things.  Should fights really break out?  It pays off the “undesirables” thing, but I think I’ll have players roll for it less frequently, if nothing else.

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