Tabletop and role-playing games are a unique medium for telling stories. Unlike a book or movie, which is typically enjoyed on an individual basis (even when sitting amongst a crowd), a boardgame enforces group participation to create a narrative. It makes sense, of course, since going to a friend’s house to read a book doesn’t sound quite as much fun as going to a friend’s house to play D&D!
One of the things I like the most about tabletop games are the lore/backstory and artwork, which are part of the gaming experience. Many amazing illustrators and storytellers work in this industry and naturally I want to try and emulate their success. I’ve often wondered, ‘I wonder how I could make one of those?’ This year I’ve decided to take the plunge and make an attempt on my own game. I won’t be working alone – I have a comrade helping me out and it’s very fortunate for me that he has a lot of experience playing these types of games. His understanding of what does and doesn’t work in terms of gameplay mechanics will be something I’ll be leaning heavily upon as this project develops.
A few days ago, we brainstormed some ideas and developed a very rudimentary prototype which can be used to establish the setting, characters and mechanics in further detail. Future playtesting will hopefully reveal even more insights which will polish this game. If you’re interested in creating a game, but don’t know how, read on to see how us beginners are doing it and what works and doesn’t work.
Step One: Find an idea
The idea behind your game is very important because it will underpin the mechanics used during play. There are many lists online which describe the various types of games out there, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll quickly run down a few in my own words:
Rollin’ dice: As in ‘Monopoly’ or ‘The Game of Life’. Outcomes are determined by a combination of dice rolls and possible accumulation of items in player inventory. There isn’t too much in the way of plot with these games and winning is strongly correlated with luck. These games are suitable for everyone but are generally most popular with children or families as the mechanics are very simple.
Deterministic/Strategy: These are games like Mancala, Checkers or Chess. Obviously, these games have no plot as such and the mechanics revolve around moving pieces around a board in order to control territories or remove enemy pieces.
Party games: Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary and Cards Against Humanity. I look at these games as being heavily reliant on the social aspect of the game and who can communicate the best. There is no attempt to tell any kind of story so the amusement of playing these games comes entirely from the group around you. For instance, the game ‘Telestrations’ becomes a lot more fun when playing with people who can’t draw.
Dexterity games: Jenga, pick-up-sticks, knucklebones, dominos. These games rely on agility, coordination and a bit of luck. Players manipulate physical objects, build structures and try to outperform other players. This is a pretty broad group and has no narrative.
Deck-building games: Players accumulate, discard and use cards to advance their pieces, control territories or eliminate opponents. Dominion and Welcome to the Dungeon come to mind but there are many, many, many out there. Cards are used tactically, to advance the plot or to acquire more powerful cards.
Pen and paper RPGs: Essentially a role-playing simulation wherein character actions are described through speech. There is usually a ‘Game Master’ on hand who runs the story, decides on the rules and setting and arbitrates any disputes. Player characters typically have extensive stats or attributes (like health points or attack points) which are kept track of via pen and paper (although I suppose it could be done using an iPad or similar). Generally success-fail actions are determined through dice rolls.
That’s a pretty long list and it surely doesn’t cover the half of it. There seems to be a lot of innovation in the tabletop gaming world at present, possibly due to the influence of Escape Rooms and advances in video gaming. Regardless, the reason it’s important to ‘do your homework’ is because some stories work best with one game engine and some work best in others. If you, for instance, don’t care so much about plot, then you may prefer creating a party game which encourages playful social interaction. On the other hand, if you want to make an ongoing storyline which allows for changing narratives and features plenty of worldbuilding, then an RPG would be the way to go.
I suggest making a simple story to start with (just a very basic outline of a plot, written into a journal) and worrying about characters and in-depth descriptions of the setting later. Depending on how your prototype progresses, you’ll probably end up tweaking the outcome incrementally until both the idea and the mechanics are balanced.
Step Two: Do some research
Of course, it pays to do some homework about what you’re trying to create. The best thing to do would be to play a variety of tabletop games so that you can more accurately identify what devices work for you and which won’t. Tabletop games can be on the expensive side and are generally best played with 2-6 people. Instead of purchasing these games, you might want to visit meetup.com to join tabletop gaming groups in your area. This also will be beneficial when it comes time to testing your prototype, since you can ask your group to try it out and give you their valuable advice.
Many people want to create something which is entirely original and are disheartened when they find out that someone else has beaten them to their idea. In my career as a designer, I’ve met many people who had good ideas for company names, logos or products but balked at pushing ahead with their ambitions because a search online had revealed someone else had also experienced the same flash of inspiration. In my opinion, it’s very difficult to create something autochthonous/brand-new. Most ideas are built upon old ones, improving upon or altering what came before. Don’t be too concerned if your idea has already been ‘taken’, be concerned with whether your iteration of that idea is enjoyable, well-crafted and fun.
Our idea for a game has actually been touched upon before (we are creating a horror-themed survival game). I’m unbothered by that because
a) I have no intention of plagiarizing the content of other games. All text, imagery and lore will be our own.
b) I aim to do something better or differently to that which already exists
Step Three: Write down an outline
Sit down with your journal and write down a very basic rundown of how your game works and what the essential story is. Some of the things your outline should cover is:
What is the main conflict of the game? – Are the characters lost, waging a war or trying to solve a mystery?
What is the goal of the game? – Is victory achieved when players land on the last tile? Is the last player active on the board the victor?
What is the setting?/Who are the characters?
How many players per game?
What are the mechanics?
What props/pieces do players need?
This is also a good time to jot down some questions you may have regarding aspects of production. If you are planning something very elaborate, with many detailed models or other such novelties, then it’s a good idea to begin thinking about how you will manufacture this product. Even if you’re not planning on selling your game, I’m sure you want to make the best-looking game you possibly can, which in some instances means spending money.
We decided on creating a deck-building game with character pieces and a board which could be re-arranged on each play-through. Although this seems ambitious, as we are both illustrators we felt it was achievable within our scope of skills. Depending on where your strengths lie, you may have to teach yourself how to create these materials or incorporate an artist into your team. At this stage, as no artwork is necessary, this outline merely gives you and your crew an indication of what work needs to be done to create the product once initial testing is complete.
Step Four: Build a prototype
Once you’ve nailed down your idea, looked at some similar examples and written down a clear outline, it’s time to build a prototype. For our prototype, we are using a large sheet of card and a set of blank study cards. These cards are very useful, as they are roughly the size and shape we would want for the final deck and were very inexpensive (only around $3.00AUD for one pack).
We have on hand:
1x sheet of card (A1 size)
2x study card packs
Pencils, pens and markers
We drew out a rough template for the mansion our game is set in. Each tile on the board is a square inch. Each room is an individual piece which can be re-arranged at the beginning of each game by the player in the villainous role. For our prototype, we only drew on a few cards to see what kind of actions would be useful for the player. We want players of our game to have a choice in how they interact with other players -will they cooperate or turn on each other? We also created a few cards which are used exclusively by the villain of the game, to see how their unique powers would work as they chased the heroic character around the board. During our testing, we realized that in order to keep the game balanced, at least three players would be needed or there would have to be a greater variance of movement/action cards.
On my next post, we’ll be continuing to refine our prototype. I will then create a vector version of this board which can then be printed out and tested further. We’ll also be more closely examining character archetypes in our game and how their special attributes can be integrated into play. Additionally, I’ll also be looking into Kickstarter and board game kits and how they can be used to speed up development time. Thanks for reading!