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So you’re building a chair. You put together some legs, a seat, and a back, and some armrests.

It’s finally ready, so you have a few people over to sit in it and tell you what they think. Then you go back to the chair, and based on your friends’ feedback, you decide to replace the legs. They don’t really work with the rest of the chair. The new legs are much better.

The next time you test it, you realize that the seat doesn’t really match the legs anymore. But you really like those legs, and that seat was never the highlight of your design. So you replace it with a new seat. And you might as well replace that back while you’re at it.

On your next playtest — er, I mean, sitting-test — you realize those legs aren’t going to cut it. So you try on some new ones.

Rinse, repeat. Eventually, you find you’ve replaced every part of the chair multiple times, and you’re no closer to having a finished design than when you started.

You are now stuck in an endless trek through design space. You can explore until the heat-death of universe, and you still will not have discovered all of its territories. You can replace every part of that chair, over and over, in a never-ending search for the best design.

I suffer from this problem a lot when I’m designing. For years, it prevented me from ever getting a playable design. I think I’ve finally found a technique, or perhaps just a frame of mind, that seems to really help.

Step I: Wandering Is Good

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First of all, don’t be afraid to replace parts of the chair over and over again. That’s how you find cool mechanics. Rip out that deck of cards and replace it with custom dice. Eliminate that tedious worker placement board and try a bidding system. Go crazy with that deck building thing you were idly contemplating.

But your wandering should have a mission! That mission is NOT to find the perfect combination of systems. This way, madness lies! If every part of your game is up for change, you could easily be sifting the near-infinite sea of game mechanics forever. Your mission, at this point, is to find what I call your design landmark.

Step II: Choose Your Landmark

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The idea is to narrow your search on one thing — just one thing — that fits your theme and experience perfectly. I tend to stumble upon these after a few cycles of undirected meanderings across the design landscape. It comes when I realize that there’s one part of the game that is the source of most of the fun.

I honestly don’t think you can find your design landmark from the blueprints; it’s something you discover from the field testing. For me, they’re never the parts of the game that I initially think are the most clever or elegant; they’re always some emergent behavior that only comes to the forefront during playtesting.

Some examples:

  • In Ars Victor,

    the Glory Track quickly became my design landmark. I added and removed a lot of different systems from Ars Victor, but it was the Glory Track that ended up being the focus of the game. Once that was established, everything else in the game was geared towards enhancing that focus.

  • Hundred Kings War

    has gone through several major changes in mechanics. I’ve gone through three or four completely different systems for “how players fight over things”. Finally, out of nowhere, I discovered the perfect scoring mechanic. When I chose that as my design landmark, everything else became easy.

  • I’ve wandered for many miles across the design landscape with Commies!

    I’ve swapped out the parts of that chair so many times, it’s unrecognizable. A few iterations ago, I realized that the most fun in the game came from the Blame system. No matter how crappy the other parts of the game have been, the Blame system has consistently been a source of fun for everyone. I’m still replacing other parts of the chair, but that part ain’t changing.

When you find a part of a design that just fits the theme and experience perfectly, nail it down. Plant a flag. Draw a line in the sand. Mark your territory. Put a big old “X” on the map. Congratulations — you’ve just chosen your design landmark!

Step III: Finishing the Design

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Now you finish the rest of the design: but no matter how far you meander across the design landscape, always keep your chosen landmark in sight!

Design decisions should be much easier now, because you have a fixed star by which to compare all your other systems. You’ve limited your search space from “interesting mechanics” down to “interesting mechanics that work with my design landmark”. The choice is no longer based on an amorphous “is this a good system”; you now have a concrete foundation, and the rest of your game has to actually work with that foundation.

  • When I was developing Ars Victor,

    I had a “Stealth” system that used decoy pieces to simulate fog of war. It was clever. It was interesting. But the amount of extra rules weight that players had to deal with did nothing to focus the game on the Glory Track. Once I chose that as my design landmark, the decision to cut the Stealth system was easy. Similarly, I had an Army Powers system at one point — until I decided that it just got in the way of the Glory Track, and axed it.

  • Hundred Kings War

    This game went through similar transformations once I decided on the scoring system as my design landmark. I threw away an entire card-driven-wargame that I’d built (including ~60 cards with special actions) and replaced it with a fast, tense, hidden bidding system that focuses player attention on the scoring. The complex strength-point-and-leader drafting system got replaced by a simple card draw. The game has transformed from a 4+ hour slog into a ~2 hour strategic blitz.

  • I’ve just recently nailed down the design landmark for Commies!

    I have just started another overhaul. I’m not sure that the new systems I’m trying are going to work — but I now have something to judge them by. I’m not just asking, “do I like this worker-placement system”, I’m now asking if it supports the design landmark I’ve chosen.

Step IV: DON’T Change It!!!

Once you’ve chosen your design landmark, don’t change it!

Sure, you can tweak it a little if you need to, but don’t replace or abandon it. Your choice is immutable. If you change it, it wasn’t really immutable, was it? You’ve actually been at Step I this entire time, and only pretending that you made it all the way to Step III. Don’t lie to yourself like that!

If you find some cool system that replaces your design mechanic and you absolutely have to go with it, it’s a new design. Treat it like one. Shelve all the work you’ve done so far and start designing a new game.

Stephen DeBaun

Game Designer/Publisher at Trip West Games

Stephen DeBaun is a board game designer by day and software developer by night. Check out his latest title, Ars Victor: The One-Hour Wargame.

13 Readers Commented

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  1. Christian Strain on May 16, 2014

    I design in the same way with an anchor point or two that won’t change. It’s a great practice and some good advice.

    • Steve DeBaun on May 16, 2014

      The hardest part for me is finding that anchor. It seems like whenever I start with a fixed landmark in mind, it always ends up being wrong, and it takes me forever to admit it. I like the creative wandering — but it can go on forever! Learning to choose a design landmark really helped.

  2. Lewis Pulsipher on May 16, 2014

    This is a different way of approach than I’m used to.

    I confess I have never had a problem with perpetual changes in mechanics or anything else. Although you mention theme, I think the reason I don’t have a problem is because I make models of some (possibly fictional) reality, most of the time – and you don’t. Then what the players do in my game must correspond to what happens in the reality, and what happens in the game has to correspond to reality. My “landmark”, then, is what I’m trying to model. If you’re not really modeling anything, not worrying about that correspondence, then you’ve got to find something else to be the “landmark”.

    I do design the occasional abstract game – by the way, by my lights most “Euros” are abstracts with a theme tacked on, just collections of mechanics – but then my landmark is, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) (Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is “Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.”) Complex abstract games – again, a description of many Eurostyle games, because they’re more puzzle than game – are abominations to me. Why bother?

    http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/

    • Stephen DeBaun Author on May 17, 2014

      Dr. Pulsipher! First of all: many hours of my misspent youth where spent playing Britannia. And I’m talking about the Avalon Hill edition, not this pretty-boy nancified FFG version. Thank you for giving us such a great game!

      “I confess I have never had a problem with perpetual changes in mechanics or anything else.”

      I envy you! Hey, have you written anything about the design process on Britannia?

      “Although you mention theme, I think the reason I don’t have a problem is because I make models of some (possibly fictional) reality, most of the time – and you don’t.”

      I’m not sure what you mean here, because that sounds like how I design, too. :)

      E.g.: I want to make a game about sci-fi tactical combat. That’s my theme. I could model it with:
      - miniatures rules a la Warhammer 40k.
      - a card game a la GMT’s Battleline
      - an old-school CRT-and-hexmap a la AH’s Gettysburg
      - a lightweight blocks-and-card game a la GMT’s C&C Ancients
      - ad nauseum

      At some point, I still have to decide on a design landmark.

      For Britannia, when did you decide it was going to be an area control game?

      “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

      This, this, a thousand times this. I think this is true whether you approach your game design as a simulation or an experience.

      • Lewis Pulsipher on May 19, 2014

        I’m glad to know you enjoyed the Avalon Hill version, although for me it’s the worst version of all the versions of Britannia. When they were unsure about how things worked in the Gibsons edition they consistently guessed wrong. (And as I had dropped out of the industry by that time I was not available to help them answer their questions.) The FFG version is mainly my attempt to put the game back to the way it should have been while adding the Roman roads and Boudicca (and less importantly, burhs).

        I thought your landmark was something often not decided until you had done a lot of experimentation via actual testing. I recognize that you can model anything in a great variety of game formats, but surely that game format is decided at the same time as you choose what to model, or at least, before you make a prototype.

        One can have a so-called “theme” in mind but still make a game that lacks the correspondence I was talking about. In that case the designer may have had what I call an atmosphere in mind, a gloss or appearance of something without any of the reality in the actual play of the game. And if there’s no reality in the actual play of the game then there probably wasn’t in the design of the game.

        Here’s an example of a lack of correspondence from the original Britannia. Roger Heywood at Gibsons (who published the game before Avalon Hill – I’d originally offered it to Avalon Hill but they said games of that era didn’t sell) misunderstood how Raiders worked. And this was reflected in what amounted to a change in the rules. (As you know, designers rarely have a final say in the rules of the game is published, the publisher does, though I should say that Roger made at least one major good change as well, and the game obviously was robust enough in its original form.) When I first watched this edition of the game played in 2004 at PrezCon – yes that’s 18 years after it was published – the Jutes were floating out in the English Channel late in the game, long after the Jute nation had ceased to exist. I have witnesses who saw me exclaim “No Way!” This is something I fixed in the FFG edition, because it was supposed to be raiding *turns* not raiding armies. One veteran of the Avalon Hill edition told me about holding Angle invaders at sea onto the last two turns of the game to help the Normans.*Ridiculous* – though a clever game move. These guys floating at sea long after their source nation had disappeared are an example of a mechanic that has*nothing* to do with reality.

        There are lots of mechanics about which we can say the same thing. Chief among these is worker placement, something that very rarely exists in reality but is common in the abstract Eurostyle games I was talking about. If you consider using worker placement in a game, then you’re not making a model, or you’re modeling something that’s very rare.

        I’ve seen people go to great lengths to justify their favorite mechanics as fitting the model, what amount to excuses, setting a standard whereby almost all games that have any kind of atmosphere or theme are “models”. In the heyday of wargames most games were models, but now I see it more as much closer to 50-50.

        In part, I think people accepted so much ridiculousness in tentpole movies, so much that is obviously unrelated to reality, that they tend to treat games the same way. Credulity may be at an all-time high.

        In order to make a model you need this correspondence, and if you make that choice, to make models, then you already have a landmark. You are no longer at sea in a bunch of mechanics that seem equally suitable for abstract game playing purposes.

        Sooner or later I’ll get to describing this at great length in my blog, but nowadays I’m more interested in working on game designs and on online audiovisual classes than on writing. So it may be a while.

        (As an aside, in the new edition of the standard Britannia game, which will be called Epic Britannia to differentiate it from Rule Britannia (diceless) and Conquer Britannia (playable in 84 to 120 minutes – 84 is an actual playtest) the Raiders will have to come ashore every turn, even if they go back to sea at the end. Raiders aren’t going to the trouble of crossing the sea in order to raid and then not raiding, consistently, over the course of 75 years! They are going to go for it.)

        Lew

        • Steve DeBaun on May 19, 2014

          Whoops – replied to the wrong comment! See my reply below.

  3. Ryan Wilson on May 17, 2014

    I agree; the wandering can be painful as you let certain mechanics go. I think the trick to finding the landmark is to think about removing each mechanic one at a time (with replacement). The mechanic that hurts the most to remove is a good place to plunk the flag, or at least start further searching.

    • Stephen DeBaun Author on May 17, 2014

      I like that, except for one thing: a couple of times, I’ve found that it was mechanics that I was personally enamored with that I most had to let go. I sometimes fall in love with systems that I just can’t bear to let go. I started using the mantra, “Kill Your Favorite Children” to remind me not to do it.

      I would amend your suggestion to, “The mechanic that hurts your playtesters the most to remove”. I think that sometimes, the things that hurt the most to remove are the ones that most need to go.

  4. Stephen DeBaun Author on May 19, 2014

    EXT – DAY – ANGLE COG

    A boat full of Angle raiders huddles in their cloaks on a leaky cog that CREAKS and GROANS in the foggy sea. They are acutely aware that they have been waiting for some time, and they think their chief is a little obtuse.

    SAILOR: M’lord, when are we going to land?

    THANE: We’re waiting for the Normans, lad.

    “I recognize that you can model anything in a great variety of game formats, but surely that game format is decided at the same time as you choose what to model, or at least, before you make a prototype.”

    I do no such thing, and don’t call me Shirley. :)

    It sounds like what I call your design landmark for Britannia was your initial decision about what you call format? I mean, couldn’t you make a game with the same theme, and a different format? At some point, you had to make a decision to have a map with areas and counters, and not something else.

    For me, that ‘format’ is just another mechanic, and it is as malleable as the rest of the game. Two of my designs-in-progress have gone through major changes in format. Hundred Kings War started as an area-control game, got changed to a Berg-style strength-points-and-leaders CDG, and its latest incarnation is a ‘hidden strength point’ placement game with scoring reminiscent of Twilight Struggle.

    “In order to make a model you need this correspondence [to reality], and if you make that choice, to make models, then you already have a landmark. You are no longer at sea in a bunch of mechanics that seem equally suitable for abstract game playing purposes.”

    I think there’s an interesting difference in how we approach design. I’m always focused on keeping a correspondence to reality in my games, but to me, that means the veracity of the player experience. That’s what I’m trying to model.

    With Hundred Kings War, I don’t want to model the behavior of fictitious 18th century armies via little bits of cardboard. I want to model the experience of the heads of powerful factions engaged in a brutal and treacherous civil war.

    “There are lots of mechanics about which we can say the same thing. Chief among these is worker placement, something that very rarely exists in reality but is common in the abstract Eurostyle games I was talking about. If you consider using worker placement in a game, then you’re not making a model, or you’re modeling something that’s very rare.”

    Would you like to found a “Worker Placement Game Haters Club” with me? I’ve only tried a few WP games: Agricola, Stone Age, and Lords of Waterdeep, but I hated them all. There was very little immersion, because whatever it is I was supposed to be doing when I was placing these little meeples had so little to do with the proffered theme.

    I have assumed a personal quest to make a worker placement game that doesn’t suck. In fact, I should call it, “A Worker Placement Game That Doesn’t Suck”. I will run that past marketing, and see what they think.

    • Lewis Pulsipher on May 21, 2014

      “Two of my designs-in-progress have gone through major changes in format. Hundred Kings War started as an area-control game, got changed to a Berg-style strength-points-and-leaders CDG, and its latest incarnation is a ‘hidden strength point’ placement game with scoring reminiscent of Twilight Struggle.”

      Wow, I can’t even imagine doing that. I think I’d just stop and work on a different game. Evidently I settle on my “landmark” without realizing that’s what I’m doing, to me the format and what I’m modeling go together. Yes, I could pick a different format – Britannia the card game exists but has not actually been played – but I’d prefer to stop rather than change the format. No sense beating my head against a wall, I’ve got dozens of games to work on.

      “I don’t want to model the behavior of fictitious 18th century armies via little bits of cardboard. I want to model the experience of the heads of powerful factions engaged in a brutal and treacherous civil war.” I don’t think that can happen in a tabletop format. No board or card game, at any rate, gives anything like the feeling or experience of real war. (And maybe that’s the Ph.D. in military history talking . . .) So I’m not trying to model the feeling/experience.

      Worker placement serves a purpose in abstract games where the design objective is to have a few clear paths to success, and provide players ways to temporarily block those paths. Which is a common objective in Euro games. I just don’t like Euro games generally, worker placement or no. If you’re going to make an abstract game, keep it as simple as possible, I think. But then, I don’t like puzzles.

      Diff’rent strokes.

  5. Luke Laurie on May 20, 2014

    Stephen – this piece really spoke to me, and reflects on my experiences with developing Replicant. I have veered away from my design landmarks a few times, and have been mightily slapped in the face when I discovered how different the game was. I lost the feel. I feel like now I’m in a stage that’s very close to the way I want it – but I’m afraid that some of the highs in the earlier versions aren’t possible – so while I have moved past some flaws, I also took away some highlights. Anyhow, development continues. When you’re trying to do things very differently, you face many challenges. My more conventional designs progress in a more linear fashion.

  6. Shawn Klimek on November 24, 2015

    Great article. I love the accompanying artwork, too.

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