Game Design Project

So far:

  • You made a race-to-the-end game on the first day of this unit. It took you all of 15 minutes. It probably wasn’t very good and, based on what we have covered in class so far, you probably have some ideas as to why.
  • You are working on a couple other games - 
    • the challenge game and 
    • the tile game I gave you.

At this point, you have an idea about how to make a game.  So, let’s get started on making a GOOD game. This Game Design Project is your Term 3 Major assignment and will be due for presentation in the first week of June (exact day TBA).


The purpose of the Game Design Project is to gain some experience in taking a game through the entire process from concept to completion. As such, you may not start with an existing design (such as an earlier game you created).  Think of this assignment as a "Portfolio Project" – a game that may ultimately go into your game design portfolio as a way of showing your skill at game design.

The Process

The process we will follow is going to go something like this:

  • First, generate some core ideas for games. These do not have to be fleshed out in any meaningful way, they are just “seeds” that can serve as starting points. You will choose one to serve as the basis for your Design Project.
  • Next, you will create the core mechanics of the game. The game does not yet have to be complete with all details fleshed out, but it does have to be at the point where you can start playing it with yourself (even if you have to make up a lot of the rules as you go along). You’ll play your own game in private, working on it until the point where you have a complete set of rules.
  • After that you will bring in some classmates, close friends, or family. Share your project with them, play the game with them, and get feedback. The key here is to figure out if the core of the game is fun at all (if it is not, you can start over with one of your other ideas or else modify your current one and try again). If it doesn’t start out feeling like there is some magical fun quality to the play, that feeling is unlikely to materialize later – it is far better to abandon an idea early and try again than to waste a large amount of time on something that is just not going to work. Ideas are cheap, implementation is expensive; act accordingly.
  • When you have the core of the game working and it is meeting its design goals, it will be time to get into the details. Make sure the game can be played to completion, without the designer being present to answer questions or make on-the-fly rulings. Get to the point where the game has a complete set of rules, with no dead-ends or holes that cause the game to stop when the players can’t figure out what happens next. You’ll playtest with new players who have not seen the game before, and observe them from a distance to see what they do.
  • Once you are confident that your game is solid, you’ll explore “blindtesting” – a playtest where you are not present at all. You’ll give your game to some other people who will agree to test it and provide feedback. This most closely simulates actual market conditions, where a person buying a game does not have direct contact with the game’s designer, and they must figure out how to play it for themselves.
  • After all of the details are complete in your game, it is time to tweak the small things. Make sure the game is balanced – that is, that there are no strategy exploits that are too powerful, and that all players feel like they have a reasonable chance of success.
  • Lastly, as the game nears completion and the mechanics become solidified, you’ll consider the “user interface” of your game – the visual design of the physical components that will make the game as pleasant, easy to learn and easy to play as possible.
  • Once everything is set, you’ll spend a short amount of time on the craft of the physical components, making the artwork and assembling the components in their final form.

Keep in mind that game design is an iterative process, and that at any point in the process you may find a reason to return to earlier steps to redo something. This is fine, and it is to be expected. This is also the reason why it is better to kill an idea early than to abandon it late. If you find that you have to start over from scratch, you’ll have more time remaining if you start over in the first days (as opposed to restarting the project in the last week).

Idea Generation

There are many ways to start conceiving of ideas:

  • Start with the core “aesthetics” — what do you want the player to feel? How do you want them to react? What should the play experience be like? Then work backwards from the player experience to figure out a set of rules that will achieve the desired aesthetic. Think about the best experience you’ve ever had while playing a game; what game rules led to that experience?
  • Start with a rule or system that you observe in everyday life, particularly one that requires people to make interesting decisions. Look at the world around you; what systems do you see that would make good games?
  • Start with an existing, proven design, then make modifications to improve on it (the “clone-and-tweak” method). This often happens when making sequels and ports of existing games. Think of a game that you thought had potential, but didn’t quite take the experience as far as they could; how would you make it better?
  • Start with technology, such as a new game engine (for video games) or a special kind of game piece (like a rotateable base for miniature figures). Find a way to make use of it in a game. What kinds of items do you have lying around your living space that have never been used in a board game before, but that would make great game “bits”?
  • Start with materials from other sources, such as existing art or game mechanics that didn’t make it in to other projects. Design a game to make use of them. Do you have an art portfolio, or earlier game designs that you didn’t turn into finished products? What about public domain works, such as Renaissance art? How could you design a game around these?
  • Start with a narrative and then design game rules to fit, making a story-driven game. What kinds of stories work well in games?
  • Start with market research: perhaps you know that a certain demographic is underserved, and want to design a game specifically for them. Or maybe you just know that a certain genre is “hot” right now, and that there are no major games of that type coming out in a certain range of dates, so there is an opportunity. How do you turn this knowledge into a playable game?
  • Combinations of several of these. For example, starting with core aesthetics and narrative at the same time, you can make a game where the story and gameplay are highly integrated.

Today, start generating some ideas. Look in the world around you. What systems do you see that would make great games? Write down every idea that occurs to you, no matter how silly it may seem.  The more you generate ideas, the easier it gets.

Design Project Constraints

I could leave this entire project open-ended, but in order to get you started I’m going to give you some constraints. Constraints are your friends (more on this another day).

Basic Constraints for all Games:

  • Create a board game, card game, or tile-laying game (that is, it must either have a board, cards, or tiles as physical components). 
  • It may have more than one of these components, and it may involve additional components beyond these (such as dice or pawns). 
  • You may choose any theme you want, as long as it is original – do not use an existing intellectual property. In short, if your work would violate someone else’s trademark or copyright, don’t do it.
  • You may NOT make a trivia game, or any other game that relies on large amounts of content (such as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Apples to Apples, or Cranium). This is purely for the purpose of keeping your scope limited; if you have to generate 250 cards with unique trivia questions on them, it will leave you far less time for playtesting the game mechanics. I would put Trading Card Games (like Magic: the Gathering and Pokemon TCG) in this category as well, since it requires so much time to create a large number of cards.
  • You may NOT use “roll-and-move” mechanics in any form (ie: luck-based/random-number-generating device that determines what a player does on their turn). Do not throw dice/spin-a-spinner/draw cards/... and then move a game-bit around the track. The main reason for this constraint is that the mechanic essentially makes the key decision each turn for the player, so the game is making interesting decisions but the player is not. By seperating player intentionality from the game’s outcome, you usually end up with a game that is not particularly fun to play (no matter how fun it is to design).

Additional Constraints you may (or may not) choose add in to your Game:

  • Design your game such that it has a strong embedded narrative that is interactive in some way. You will have to think of ways to tell a story through the player actions of a board game, and how to integrate narrative and game mechanics. If you are interested primarily in RPGs or other forms of storytelling, do this.
  • Create a purely cooperative board game for two or more players, so that everyone wins or loses as a team. This is challenging for several reasons. The game must provide systems that are the opposition, since the players do not provide opposition to each other. Cooperative games generally have a problem where a single skilled player can direct all of the other players (since everyone is cooperating, after all), leading to an MDA Aesthetic where most of the players are bored because they are just being told what to do by another player. If you are interested in the social dynamics of games, choose this.
  • Make a two-player head-to-head game with asymmetry: the players start with unequal resources, positions, capabilities, and so on… and yet they are balanced even though they are quite different. These games are not so hard to design the core rules for, but they are very difficult to balance. If you are interested in the technical and mathematical side of game design and game balance, try this.
  • Create a game to teach any topic that is normally taught at the high school. It is up to you whether to teach a narrow, specific fact or a broad concept. The challenge here, of course, is to start with a fun game and not have the focus on education get in the way of that. If you’re interested in “serious games” (games that have a purpose other than pure entertainment), then do this project.

What If I Don’t Want To Make a Board Game?

You may be interested in making video games. The vast majority of time making a video game will be spent creating art assets and writing programming code, and if you want to learn game design then you should choose an activity where the bulk of your time is spent designing the game. The principles and concepts of game design are mostly the same, whether you work in cardboard or code, so if you have got the skills to design video games you should be able to use those same skills to make a board game.  If you are really keen to do this, talk to me in person.

You may be interested in creating tabletop role-playing games. The design of an RPG is tricky, since a sufficiently skilled GM and players can salvage a weak system (or, sufficiently inexperienced players can ruin a perfectly good system). This will make play-testing far more difficult to evaluate, so you will find it useful to practice on a board game project first. If you are really keen to do this, talk to me in person.

What do I have to do for Today?

Start a document in GDocs:

  1. brainstorm a list of at least 25 ideas for a game (you may do this as partners/group of three).
  2. make a list of the following - core “aesthetics” (the A in MDA); rule (mechanics - the M in MDA) or system; existing, proven design; technology; materials from other sources; narrative; market research.
  3. match your brainstormed ideas into the categories from 2.
  4. each member of group pick 3 different ideas and using the quickly create:
    • Goal
    • Setup, Progression-of-Play, Victory Condition Mechanics
    • Order
    • Player Interaction
    • Resource(s)