Dealing with Failure


It’s been a bad week this week.  A number of things that I’ve tried to do have failed.  A couple of things in particular I’ve been working on for literally years and they seem to be coming undone at the seams.  It’s pretty demoralising, to say the least.

If you ever try designing or publishing a boardgame, you will have to deal with failure.  Well, in all honesty, if you try to do anything in life you will have to deal with failure at some point.  But I thought we could come at it from the perspective of boardgames today.  What do you do when it all goes wrong?

Option 1: Quit

This is the easiest option, but it’s rather limiting.  Imagine deciding before attempting to design a game that you’ll do it until it becomes difficult, and then you’ll quit.  You’ve got to wonder what the point of starting in the first place is.

I guess if you just want an interesting way to pass the time, then that’s fine, but most people would want to believe that there’s at least some chance of completing the project.  If you quit when the going gets tough, all the effort that you put into designing and refining your game will have been for nothing.

“Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

In fairness, most people who quit don’t approach it this way.  Rather, they feel that they won’t be able to succeed, even if they tried hard and so they think, “What’s the point of wasting all that effort on something that will never work anyway?”

Paraphrasing Thomas Edison, “Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”  It has certainly been my experience that working hard makes far more difference to your odds of success than you might think.

Option 2: Refine and Try Again

Let’s say you’ve designed a game and got your friends to playtest it.  You ask for some feedback and while they were all polite, they were clearly not overwhelmed by the brilliance of your design.

Rather than throwing your hands in the air and saying, “Well, I guess I’m not a designer,” ask people what they liked about it.  Keep the bits that worked and throw out/replace/change the bits that didn’t.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Even the best games have issues when they first hit playtesting.  “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” according to military strategist Helmuth von Moltke.  Try not to hang on too tightly to any one mechanism, or even the theme.  Being willing to adapt is a key requirement for victory.  You may love a particular mechanism or theme, but sometimes they just don’t work.

Each time you change and refine your game and playtest it again, you learn.  The more you learn, the better your game will become.

Option 3: Move On

If you look at well-established, successful designers who have been pumping out classics for years, I can almost guarantee that you’ve never heard of their first game.  Why not?  It probably wasn’t very good!

Game design, like many things in life, is a skill and you get better at it with practice.  If you’ve tried reworking your game and it still feels mediocre at best, chalk it up to experience, go back to the drawing board and start again!

Dream some new dreams.

Dream some new dreams.  Get the creative juices flowing again.  Your second game is very likely to be better than your first.

This can be difficult.  We can become very attached to our creations.  The idea of abandoning a game can feel like quitting, and obviously you can’t just abandon every game that doesn’t work first time or you’ll end up with a litany of unfinished games.

However, if you’ve worked at a game and given it your best shot, there’s no shame in moving on.  You can always revisit it later if you have a bright idea.

Do you have any tips for dealing with failure?  What approach do you tend to take?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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