Designing with Others

Shared Idea

Most people who have had a go at designing a game jot down a few ideas, raid their games collection for components and then have a play… on their own.  They don’t usually show anyone else what they’re working on until they have something that they consider ready for playtesting.

However, most people who design a game this way never get beyond the first playtesting session where they discover that their game doesn’t play as well as they were hoping and so they give up.

Designing a game with other people though (even if it’s just one other person), can significantly improve the quality of your game and your chances of finishing it.  Today we take a look at the advantages of designing with others.

We have a design group at The Dice Cup (my local boardgame café).  We meet once a month or thereabouts to share ideas, brainstorm and provide feedback on each other’s games.  It’s incredibly valuable.

If you don’t have access to a bunch of other gamers with which to do this kind of thing though, you should still be able to get together with at least one other person to have a go at designing together.  Having designed variously alone, with my friend Steve and in our design group, I would highly recommend designing with others if you can.

You may have reservations about designing with others, which we’ll take a look at in a bit, but first, let’s look at the advantages:

  1. Moral Support

You can easily become disheartened when working alone.  Any game design is going to have issues and it’s all too easy to give up.  If you have someone else there to encourage you, it makes a big difference.

  1. Two Heads Are Better Than One

Twice the brain power, twice the ideas!  Most gamers have a few good ideas for games.  Pooling ideas with others allows you to select the best ones and discard the inevitable duds.

  1. The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

When I design with Steve, I’ll throw an idea out and he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, and we could do it like this, which will interact really well with that!”  Before I know it, he’s taken a vague concept and fleshed it out.  This then sparks other ideas in me.  We accomplish far more together than we could if we each worked separately.  We fuel each other’s creativity.

  1. Critical Feedback

As well as encouragement, we also need other people to tell us when our ideas aren’t good.  This can be hard to hear, but it’s so important.  Not all of our game ideas are going to be winners, but we’re naturally blind to our own faults.

I had an idea for one of my games that I thought worked really well until our design group pointed out a critical flaw.  I tried arguing my case, but I quickly realised I was fighting a losing battle – my idea really wouldn’t work.  However, they then helped me rework the idea into something that did work, which I could never have done on my own.

  1. Sharing Expertise

Everyone will have a different area of expertise.  Some people may be good with mechanics, some people with theme and story, some people with the practicalities of creating components.  We have one guy in our group who’s into 3D printing, which is perfect if we need custom plastic bits for our games.  Designing with others allows you to benefit from their expertise, while they benefit from yours.

That all sounds great, you might say, but what if someone steals my idea?  This is the main objection that I hear when it comes to designing with others.  Approached in the right way, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Firstly, most people think ideas are valuable.  Great ideas could be worth millions!  In practice, nothing could be further from the truth.  Everyone has ideas.  All gamers have ideas for games.  They’re two a penny.  The thing that turns ideas into reality though, is hard work.  Lots of it.  That’s where the value lies.  Few people want to put all their hard work into somebody else’s idea.  They want to develop their own idea.

The second thing to realise is that game design is a skill.  You get better at it with practice.  Games are better today (on the whole) than they were 10 years ago and the games from 10 years ago are better than the games from 20 years ago.  As a species, we’re getting better at designing games as we learn from the past.

Nobody has just one great game in them.

Nobody has just one great game in them (unless you give up after making one).  Your experience of designing and playing games is far more valuable than any one idea you might have.  So don’t hold on too tightly to your ideas.  Learn and grow, and there will be plenty more great ideas in your future.

Finally, I think it’s worth covering these things with your game design group before you start.  Establish some ground rules.  If you’ve spent a lot of time with one other person working on a game, then obviously you should both be credited with the design of the game – even if it was your idea originally.

But if you’ve just helped out another designer by suggesting a few tweaks to their game, don’t expect to get your name on the box!  Approach it with a spirit of generosity.  The more we share ideas, the better we become collectively.

I’ve talked about the importance of community before, but for me personally, the people I design games with are more important than the games we design.  Going in with that attitude allows you to be far more open and giving, which in turn allows you to enjoy the experience more.

Have you tried designing games with others?  How have you found it?

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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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