The 10 Commandments of Game Designers

by Moritz Eggert

Transcript of our podcast from 3 August 2007

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1. Thou shalt playtest

Playtest, playtest, playtest. Have I said playtest? Well, I can’t say it enough, because it seems like the simplest commandment of game design it is the one that is easiest forgotten. Remember Time Control? Well, that was a game that had beautiful graphics, an interesting concept, professional marketing and distribution. It also was a game that was never even once played by people, because then one would have noticed that it sucked big time.

Martin Wallace is known to test his games endlessly, as are most German game designers. Reiner Knizia has playtesters working full-time for him, it seems. It is a process that sometimes takes years, even decades. It is a gruelling, boring and sometimes annoying process. But it is worth it – because a game that is solid and tested will work, and I think this is something so basic that it should not be forgotten, but rest assured: it will be forgotten again and again...

Thou shalt give plenty of examples

Have you ever had the experience of reading a complex description of a certain rules section that simply blew your mind? Well, I have had that experience lots of times, and it drove me nuts when this complexity was then not followed by an example. Some things are better intuitively learned by reading an example than understanding an abstract set of laws. Just put in that little oomph in your rules, your players will love you for it.

Thou shalt not steal without talking about it

Strange, that sounds just sound like one of the real commandments. And it has the same meaning here. You know, stealing happens a lot in any field of creativity, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Sometimes game mechanics inspire other, better games that build up on their predecessor, like Pillars of the Earth takes many elements from Caylus and streamlines them. I think that one should talk about these things and not keep them a secret. Which brings us to...

Thou shalt acknowledge the work of others

Many games have forewords in which the designers explain meticulously where they got their inspiration from. I think this is a very good thing. Acknowledging the work of others, perhaps even asking them about the use of certain mechanics etc. is not only good style but also helps us gamers to learn about the evolution of gaming principles. But that’s not the only work to be acknowledged. People who inspired a game, people who helped playtest a game, people who edited the rules and such should all be named. Designer’s notes are a good thing, and I’m always sad to see rules where they are missing from.

Thou shalt be inventive

We have thousands and thousands of games at the moment. And the next Essen will again break a new record in new games. Our collections have become so huge that the shelves break down and we have to send our kids to boarding school to find more room. But why is it that so many of these games are so... samey?

There are actually very few games that really break new ground and that become influential.

Just give it a try and be creative. I know it is difficult, but at least try it a little more than you sometimes do, dear designers, ok? We don’t need a new rehash of Monopoly, we just can’t stand it anymore. Be wild and brave and you will win.

Thou shalt avoid tired themes

Well, this sounds banal, but hey: how often have we complained about too many games with trading in the mediterranean, and then we go to the next Essen convention and there are 30 more such games? The same can be said about games where you build temples and pyramids, etc.. Themes come and go, and after years of avoiding a certain theme they can be interesting again, but hey – why does it happen so often that just gazillions of games use the theme of the season instead of something different? Only because there is a succesful pirate film in the cinemas we don’t need 1000’s of pirate games, even though pirate games can be fun. Come on, just give the theme a little more thought than just picking any abstract game design and paste the theme on at the last moment.

Thou shalt not be silent

I still remember the first time I contacted a game designer over the internet. It was the inventor of the game “Sorcerer’s Cave”, Terence Donnelly, and I was extremely impressed that he actually answered in a friendly way when I had some questions about his game. I know that it can be tiresome to keep up blogs, forums and such as a game designer, but if you just speak out from time to time your fans will love you even more. It gives us so much insight in your creativity, ideas and personal style, and of course it is even better if you respond in some way to input of your players. Many recent games have been succesful because their designers kept in touch with their audience, and this is certainly a good example.

Thou shalt put substance over style

There was a time in wargame history when certain principles of hex-and-counter games like ZOC’s or combat resolution tables became so common, that there were hundreds of games that basically had very similar rules but presented different battles of history, with different maps, counters and such. Very often these games used the style of other wargames, they were basically en vogue, but had very little to offer apart of that, their content was just shoddy or very thin. Or look at the eye candy games – ok, we all love to have great miniatures and such, but even the greates game material cannot save a game without substance. Or look at the D-20 style games – just having Wizards of the Coast’s logo on something doesn’t mean it’s good. Forget style – give us content, content and content!

Thou shalt not create boredom

Have you ever played a game where the bookkeeping was so awful and tedious that you just stopped playing? Have you ever played a game where the individual player turns were so long that you could watch a complete football game between your last and next move? Have you ever played a game where your personal choices were so limited that your brain activity slowly dies down? Or a game where your choices are so complicated that you feel lost in a kafkaesque labyrinth of doom? Whatever the reason, these games became boring, boring, boring, and that is the kiss of death for many a game. Whatever you do, dear game designers, bring some excitement in your games. If you are able to pull that off you can even sell a game about the German election system, think about it. But just dealing out cards, rolling dice or moving pawns on a track is not per se interesting, it is jut interesting if there is some motif behind it. Strangely enough many games lack in just that department.

Thou shalt love your own game

Again I would stress the fact that love is important in the world. If you are doing a listless hack job for Hasbro you are doing something evil, because not only will you suck out any joy from the people that play your atrocious movie conversion or similar, you will also be ripped off by Hasbro anyway. There are so many games out there whose reason for existence is not inspiration but simple marketing. These games can be saved by pure love. Love for what you’re doing. The designer of “The Queen’s Gambit” by Hasbro, a Star Wars Movie tie in, clearly was so much in love with the game theme that he created a game which is hundred times better than the film. You can just tell that he had fun. If the love for gaming is missing in your design, something is very, very wrong. Go home, find the love, and share it with the world.

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2007, Westpark Gamers