You love tabletop games. You love to play them, but that’s not all — you like to think about how you could tweak your favorite games to make them better. A house rule here, an alternate victory condition there, a homebrew scenario that’s been taking shape in the back of your mind during your evening commute. And it’s not just little ideas that have been poking at your attention. You’ve also thought about creating your own totally new board or card game design from scratch.
If any of those things describe you, we at Gameplaywright and Atlas Games made The White Box for you. It’s a game design workshop in a box, a 208-page book full of information about game design, development, and publishing, plus more than 400 components to get you building right away.
But even with a tool like The White Box in your hands, it can be hard to get started. Neil Gaiman was talking about writing when he shared this truth, but it’s no less accurate for game designers:
“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.”
Today I want to help you beat the blank place on your gaming table where your new design isn’t yet, but could be soon. Here are five ways to get your creative process flowing right now.
1. Make Lists
Get some paper. Every time you’re faced with a challenge or decision, start a list of ideas. Don’t know what kind of game you want to make? Start a list of possibilities. Don’t know how the resource-generation system should work? Make a list of ideas about where they could come from. Not sure whether tokens, pawns, or miniatures are the right kind of component? List pros and cons. Lists, baby, lists!
2. Make Your Lists Longer
When you list ideas it’s easy to latch onto an early concept, start executing it, and carry on without further reflection. It’s especially easy to do this when you get stuck in your brainstorming. Don’t fall prey to this trap! The great ideas — the unique ones, the ones that no one’s seen before, the ones that will set your game apart — will only come when you’ve already written down the obvious solutions and you’re really stretching for more.
(Why is that? The obvious solutions are either the ones that were obvious to everyone, or the ones that were obvious to you because you’ve seen them before in someone else’s game. The problem is that everyone else has already experienced the obvious ideas. Why would they buy your rehash when they could play a game they already have, or something fresh from someone else?)
3. Start Rolling Dice
If you’re stuck on a mechanic, just grab about a couple dozen dice of different shapes, colors, and sizes and start rolling them. How can you manipulate them on the table? How can you compare different results? How can you group them? What interests you most as you continue to fiddle with them?
Dice are a great way to get random input, and stretching your mind to make sense or stories out of randomness is a great way to generate new ideas.
4. Just Make Some Cards
Often a mechanic that requires cards (or tiles, or similar) will occur to you as you are conceiving elements of a design. Don’t stop at the idea of using cards — start making them. Considering an encounter deck? Create four encounter cards. Thinking about building a board out of tiles with terrain on the backs? Make some and start building a map, just to see what it looks like.
Making actual content forces you to jump from the general to the specific. This can both expose problems with the general idea (“Yeah, but how would encounter stats work in practice?”) and help you drill into specifics that can help you flesh it out (“If mountains are a terrain type, what are the effects of having mountains in on the map?”).
You don’t need pristine, round-cornered cards on playing-card stock. I use index cards. Sometimes I cut a giant stack of index cards in half first, so they’re not so big and I don’t feel the need to fill them up with text. Make a mistake, or don’t like the idea after all? Throw it away! No one feels bad about recycling an index card.
5. Play Early, Play Often
Play a rudimentary version of the game as soon as you can. You don’t need whole decks, entire tile sets, clip art from the web, hard-and-fast victory conditions, or even other people. Whether you’re playing the roles of four players yourself of you’ve gathered the nearest three people you can find to help you, watching your prototype in use will expose rough edges you didn’t know were there right quick. Actual play will also serve as a springboard for new ideas that never would have occurred to you in abstract brainstorming mode.
Bonus List: Don’t Do These Things
1. Surf the Web
Don’t open a browser and surf existing games on BoardGameGeek or anywhere else. This seems like a good way to get ideas because it’s like looking at a restaurant menu. But creating a new game is nothing like ordering dinner. At a restaurant everyone has to get something the cooks are prepared to make. In the world of gaming, very few people want to buy a game they already have.
Surfing the web for game ideas has an even more dangerous downside, too: it’s an endless sink of non-productivity. Before you know it, hours will have fallen down the Internet hole, and you’ll be no closer to making your game than when you started.
2. Look at Existing Games
Don’t go to your game shelf and look at the games in your collection for ideas. This isn’t quite as bad as surfing the Internet for ideas, but it has the same tendency to generate ideas that are derivative, instead of unique, and of wasting time doing something other than making real progress.
Don’t get discouraged if it’s not easy at first This may come as a shock, but even though playing games is fun, making games isn’t easy! Just like riding a bike, painting a picture, or managing an office are skills that improve with practice, so is designing games. The more you work at it, the better you’ll get. If you don’t like the looks of your first attempt, keep trying, either on that design or on a new one. You’ll get better!
What’s stopping you? Game Trade Magazine is great literature, sure, but I want you to put it down. Go get started on that game you’ve been meaning to make… right now! (GTM will be here when you get back.)
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Jeff Tidball is an award-winning designer, producer, and publisher who’s worked with just about everyone from Alderac to Z-Man. He’s the Chief Operating Officer at Atlas Games (Gloom, Once Upon a Time), a co-founder of Gameplaywright (Friendly Local Game Store, Hamlet’s Hit Points), and an at-large director of the Game Manufacturers Association. You’ll find his website at jefftidball.com, and you can probably hear him tweeting as @jefftidball from wherever you’re reading this.