Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Design by iteration, and the perils of blind spots

An interesting retrospective on the evolution of a game design over at Board Game News - Gil Hova's Prolix.  I haven't played the game, but the story he tells is a familiar one.  I get this great idea, I make up a prototype, play it, enjoy it, with family or with a few friends.  It seems awesome.  I'm so stoked about this that I kind of ignore the issues that surface during playtesting.  Finally, some flaws become apparent.  Then, I try increasingly arcane tweaks to fix them, eventually ending up with an unworkable Rube Goldberg machine, where the attempts to fix old flaws have created new ones.  Then, I despair.  Eventually, I try more tweaks, some of them radical, iterating back and forth, never sure if I'm actually progressing, until eventually, I either fix what's wrong, or realize I have to give up for a while.

That's been my experience with several boardgame designs.  One example is Galapagos - I've been working on this game on and off for over ten years.  I got excited again about it last fall after playing some fun games with my family.  So I finally got it all put together in a nice package at TheGameCrafter.com, bought myself a test copy, and then tried playing it a few times with new groups.  It ended up being hard to explain, not really working, being too luck-based, and taking way too long.  It obviously needs some help, but I don't know what to do at the moment.  Totally in the despair stage, although I think it's a terrific theme and pretty good game - I just don't know what to try next, so I've shelved it and gotten focused on other projects.

With Diggity, I've been through several rounds of iteration, and I think it plays well.  I've tested it with all kinds of groups, and although there are some who like it better than others, it's worked every time, and many people like it a lot.  The game rules are pretty simple and easy to understand.  So, I'm pretty confident that I'm at the end of the iteration process here, even though it's taken way less time than Galapagos.

The blind spots are always worrying - you don't know what you're not seeing (or willing yourself not to see).  You know you design games that you'd want to play, so obviously you're more likely to enjoy your designs.  You want to maintain your enthusiasm and be excited about the game, but at the same time, you need not to ignore any problems that come up repeatedly, even if they don't bug you much.  A tricky tightrope to walk, and tough to know when you're finished.


  1. Not to make matters worse for you - but you're also in another predicament that I found myself in recently: that name is taken by another game! I have an unpublished game called Santorini - and found out recently that there's a game coming to the market next year with that name. Damn. Oddly enough we had thoughts of relocating the whole game to the Galapagos - but since that name was taken too - we abandoned that idea.

    You can follow my trials and tribulations of game design here: http://inspirationtopublication.wordpress.com

    And here's a link to Galapagos: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/66251/galapagos

  2. Doh! But I had the name first, back in 1999...

    Heh. OK, well, back to the drawing board, namewise. The issues with the game at this point are bigger than the issues with the title.