As I mentioned in a recent blog, though we still love and create for Star Wars Epic Duels, Geektopia is evolving into a creator of original games. I’ve shared my process for making epic decks, now I’m going to share my process for making epic games. Unlike my decks for Star Wars Epic Duels, I have yet to receive any validation that my original games are truly epic, but that’s just a matter of time.
The key principles of building a deck, covered in Part 1 of that series, apply to creating new games.
Start with why: Before making a new game, ask, why does this game need to exist? Is there an old game that already covers it? Instead of creating something from scratch, can the old game just be tweaked enough to be something new?
The feeling: Every game review, I start with “overall feeling”. When I play a game, I want to get a feeling for something beyond just a game on a table. I especially like games that can transport me to another world, or make me feel like I’m a different person. Epic Duels, to me, really feels like a duel. I feel like I’m involved in seeing my favorite characters fight it out, using their unique tricks. Agricola makes me feel like I’m building my very own farm. Terraforming Mars makes me feel like I’m on Mars, and transforming the planet to support human life.
Something unique: In terms of mechanics and game play, there must be something unique and different about your game. It can’t just be another game with a new skin. In my opinion, it can’t even be another game with a new skin and a couple of tweaks. I’m a big believer that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and can use mechanics from other games pretty much throughout, but your game must have something it does differently than other games. Scythe’s combat system, 2-part turn, and factory are all pretty unique things. The resource gathering and paying for stuff is pretty straightforward. In Orléans, the bag of workers essentially functions like a deck of cards, but that bag makes the game unique and different. Everything else about the game, while well done, is stuff you’ve seen from other games.
Epic Duels: I’ve been creating my own Star Wars Epic Duels decks since 2003 or 2004 or so. It started when I personally met Rich Pizor (aka Tovarich Pizann). Together, we created the first draft of Luminara & Barriss using Rich’s .PSD templates. Using an exacto knife, glue, cheap modeling clay, and paint, Rich showed me how to modify figures. We turned Queen’s Gambit Padme into Luminara, and Zam Wessell into Barriss.
Sometime around 2015, after a painful breakup with my then-fiancee, a close friend said, “Stop making Epic Duels decks and start doing something original.”
Then it began…
Santa Fe: Why make another train game, when there are already so many? Because I, and many others I knew, owned model train sets as kids. A model train goes around a track in a circle or oval. If you really get into your train set, you might have a smaller oval within the larger oval and a switch track, but that tends to be about all. None of the train games capture the model train experience. Not Ticket to Ride, probably the most popular train board game and one of the most popular board games ever, not Empire Builder, not Steamrollers, none. My vision was to make a game that you could actually play with a model train, if desired.
I got as far as to create a prototype that 2 of my friends played. There were a couple of large-ish problems. For one, you sort of just do your thing in your corner, with minimal interaction with the other players. It’s not the end of the world but it’s only so much fun. There’s another problem where, if Player 2 is “downstream” or down the track from Player 1, Player 2 can benefit from what Player 1 is doing but meanwhile, if Player 4 is going with a completely different strategy, Player 1 might not benefit at all in the same way that Player 2 does.
I think all of this can be worked out, and perhaps someday I will. For now though, another train, resource-gathering, Eurostyle game isn’t really what the gaming market needs.
Convoy: Then I made a futuristic car racing/combat game in the vein of Mad Max. Most games I make have been too complicated and need less going on, but this is one that is actually a tad too simple and needs a little more. Mad Max Fury Road was such a success that I’m sure we’ll see more in that genre, maybe I’ll dust this off then and complete it. It has some good things going for it, for sure.
I figure, I needed to get a bad game or two out of the way. Besides, I figured out my process, which is so super valuable going forward:
1. Figure our your why, your feeling, and your unique mechanic.
2. Get something printed and down on the table that you can start playing.
– There’s tons of images online for whatever you need
– Leveraging my experience from printing Star Wars Epic Duels decks, I print everything onto 110 lb. cardstock. These are workable cards, “chits”, game board – whatever you need. I don’t see why anyone would need to invest in a 3D printer when you can just use cardstock and free online images. Plain paper doesn’t hold up well enough, in my experience.
3. Start playing. Some game designers write their rules first. For me, I just try to figure out what I want to see happening on the table, start playing by myself, then I start making the rules around that. Eventually I have to “pull the rules together” into a single document – sometimes just a single piece of paper with them written out. It is at this point that I can stop playing by myself, and start including others. We may have to add or adjust rules along the way, but that’s fine.
4. Adjust, adjust, adjust. Adjust for feeling. Adjust for balance. Adjust based on feedback from others.
Adjust for fun: This is most important. You want to make sure your game flows well, and has fun moments. If you have to remove elements you consider important in the name of fun, you do it. I mention “remove elements” because I’m more often having to simplify things as opposed to building upon them, but every game is different.
Adjust for feeling: Put on your writer hat here. Research your genre and find varying worlds and elements that will help someone get the feel for it. Terraforming Mars is steeped in science. Food Chain Magnate has a flying 1950s feel. A Feast for Odin gives you a feeling of Vikings, raiding and pillaging and exploring new lands.
Adjust based on feedback: I really do think you can get pretty far just playing your game on your own, but at some point, you won’t be able to go any further without involving others. The first time you involve someone else, you will realize how a bunch of things need to change, especially in relation to the rules. It’s good if you have a partner or group where you play test each other’s stuff, there’s are a couple of meetup groups in Chicago for that. That will be your main source of testing, other than your spouse, if you have one. Finally, though, find a way to get advice from strangers. Don’t tell them it’s your game, say you’re testing it for a game company, and you’ll take whatever feedback. I’ve been able to do this at some of the local gaming stores, and expose my games to different groups of people than I normally might.
Adjust for balance: I put this last because it’s the part I do last. How many finished, published games have you played with some balance issues? My guess is: Quite a lot. Star Wars Epic Duels has overpowered (Obi-Wan) and underpowered (Jango) characters. In Colt Express, Belle is just so much better than the others, while Tuco really gets the short end. In Agricola, some occupations like the Wet Nurse and Chamberlain can really imbalance the game.
So, you’re probably never going to get balance exactly right, and that’s ok. I use spreadsheets and math behind the things I do, but even then, it’s more to keep an eye on things than to rigorously balance them. My spreadsheets make sure things don’t get too far off but the feel of the game is more important than balance, in my opinion, and sometimes that feel requires some imbalances.
5. Keep at it. By this I mean: Either keep adjusting your game until you have something you’re proud of, or, put the game down and start something new. I have found that you need to test your game a minimum of 20 times, though a 100 is really better. I saw a certain negative play experience the first time I had 2 new people play Cage Match. I didn’t see it again for the next 15 or so play tests, but then saw it again 2 of the 3 next play tests. So after 15 tests, I had this one NPE, and didn’t think much of it. After 20 tests, I had 3 NPEs and realized I had to do something about that, made an adjustment, and greatly improved the game.
I’ve played Cage Match hundreds of times and I still occasionally see things I didn’t expect. It’s actually a joy when someone else plays your game in a way that you didn’t think of.
So I’ve stayed the course on Cage Match, but there’s no shame in putting your game down and coming back to it later, or even abandoning it altogether. Just apply what you’ve learned as you move forward. The process I discovered in making Santa Fe is one that I’ve used again and again.
Part of the challenge, for me, is figuring out which game to pursue and which to put on the shelf for now. I think more in terms of what the gamer market needs, but it’s also about which game gets the furthest, the fastest. I’ve had this Space Pirates idea forever, but it just hasn’t come together yet.
What has come together are two really, really good games in Cage Match and Watering Hole, all following the exact steps I listed above. From here, it’s about getting those games into the hands and homes of gamers. How that is done, I will start getting into in the next part, not that I’ve figured it all out yet.
To summarize, though, it really comes down to this: If you want to make games, then make games. They won’t all be good. Santa Fe isn’t (yet). As Rob Daviau puts it:
“I have a ton of games that were passed on, rejected. You’re always going to make games that you like that but that people are passing on. It’s always going to be a sales business. For every game I get to market, I probably have two that don’t get to market because no one wants it or it wasn’t a good idea. So, it’s not easy, and don’t get discouraged. You know, if you’re like “Wow, no one bought this.” It’s like, yeah, no one bought it. Yeah, that happens.”