How to Design a Game

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”
-Leo McGinneva

Quarter Inch Holes

A game is an exercise in logic, forethought, memory, and mathematics. It is a contest between participants who engage in subterfuge, risk management, and controlled aggression in an effort to complete some defined objective.

A good game hits most of these marks and does so with simple, novel game mechanics.

Is that what we want?

Of course.

But we’re looking for something more. We want your game to be original. More importantly, we want your game to tell a story.

What Works

New Subject Matter

The easiest means to provide us an original game is to start with original subject matter. If you really must go where others have gone before, take an approach that no one has used before.

What might original subject matter look like? There are many games about interplanetary war, but few between fictitious inhabitants of Venus and Mars. Humans and Earth sit this one out.

What might an original approach to mundane subject matter look like? There are many war games, but I can’t think of one in which the players portray civilians trying to escape the conflict.

Narrative

When someone plays your game, we want that person to take part in a narrative. We want players to feel that they are part of the story, and that their actions impact events outside the scope of the scenario.

Do Your Homework

Whatever subject matter you choose, there is source material for that subject matter. In most cases, some of the fiction, mythological bases, or historical resources are in contradiction with others. This works for you because you can set your own direction, taking some ownership of the subject matter.

In any case, read all of it. Bathe in the material. Grok it. If you don’t have an intimate association with the subject matter, it will show. The players will see the weakness, and they will hate you for it.

Form Flows from Function

Now that you know the material, you can create the mechanisms that will best represent it. Don’t jump to tables, or cards, or die rolls, or hit points because you are used to them. Find the correct medium for each necessary mechanism. Hone that medium until it does precisely what it needs to. A game system should not only resolve an effect with the correct likelihoods of the correct outcomes. It should also make the player feel like the event is actually transpiring.

Time Requirements

The real time required to play out an event must be less than the duration of the actual event. Too many game systems are designed around the first idea that popped into the respective designer’s head. Pity. The designer must make a concerted effort to create a system that maintains the tempo of real events, or better yet, a great movie’s representation of those events. If your role-playing game uses a combat system that requires 45 minutes to resolve a combat that would only have seven minutes of screen time, it’s time to find a better game.

Pacing and Plot

Pacing is more difficult to apply. Every Hollywood blockbuster movie follows an extremely tight schedule. At specific minutes in each film, specific plot events occur. You can find these scheduling events in any number of screenwriting articles online. A good game can leverage that pacing and plot schedule.

Minimalism is Key

Your game has to fit into a small box. It must be easy to understand. To meet these conditions, you must maintain a laser-like focus on the most important thing your game has to do. Ensure that you get that part right.

You’re done. Put the game in a box and sell it. All of the other things you wanted to add are almost certainly superfluous — unnecessary distractions to a clean design.

It really is critical to maintain the discipline necessary to avoid including all of the additional nonsense you originally intended. If you have a solid vision for your design, then it doesn’t need additional ingredients.

What Does Not Work

Same Bat-Channel

Regurgitating classic game systems will not endear your design to us. If you want us to grade your game poorly, design it using cliché game mechanics.

In conventional war games, units are represented by counters with printed values for combat and movement. Combat odds are compared on combat results tables (CRTs). Movement is regulated by hexes and terrain effects charts (TECs). These primitives have not changed much since the 1970s. They were passible mechanisms forty years ago, but the industry has moved above and away with more intuitive and narrative mechanisms.

This doesn’t mean you can never use cliché game mechanics. It means that they should be used sparingly, and only when they are the ideal mechanism for what you are trying to represent.

Gimmicks

A Gimmick is basically lipstick on a pig. It’s a ham-fisted contrivance added to a mediocre design to disguise the mediocrity or to act as a feeble attempt to conceal the fact the game design a crude copy of another game. We spot gimmicks a mile away and will ax any submission designed around them on that basis.

Cards

Cards are frequently used as a crutch by lazy designers. There is nothing wrong with cards as a medium, but they are rarely leveraged to their potential. Using cards well takes thought and effort. There are a couple of really good collectable card games. Those designers get it.

Cards are generally used as nothing more than random events generators. Random events do not tell a story. They create an atmosphere of arbitrariness, and that’s very, very bad.

Format

Physical Format

Know what your publisher wants or can do, and make sure your design fits in that box. For purposes of Ares Magazine, the format requirements are rather tight.

We can provide you a rule book with no more than eight color pages. We can provide a double-sided map that is 17” x 22”. We can provide a letter-size sheet of double-sided, die cut, cardboard playing pieces.

We are investigating whether we can replace one of those components with a small deck of cards. For now, we don’t support cards as an option.

Pawns, dice, chips, and other non-printed material are not options. We may require players to supply their own items of these types.

Subject Matter

Please stick with one of our Preferred Genres. You can find the current genre list on our Submission Guidelines page.

Play Mode

This is important. Pay close attention.

We are trying to avoid two-player games.

Really.

We receive plenty of game designs. They are all designed for two players. We will be publishing plenty of two-player games. But we would like to salt our games with solitaire and multi-player games as much as possible. We would be happy if we didn’t get another two-player game for a couple of years, if solitaire and multi-player games replaced them one-for-one.

This is the easiest way for you to ensure we will evaluate your design in the most positive light.

Summation

We want you to design a game for us. We want you to be creative. Show us something new. We want subject matter and mechanics to be innovative. Stick with one of our preferred genres. We want your game to tell a story. We want you to know your subject matter and select methods and means that are applied to best represent the material. Your design needs to fit the physical requirements of the magazine. Ideally, your game will be designed primarily for solitaire or for four to six players.

All that said, go get ’em!

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