Essential Boardgame Designer's Resources, part 1
So you want to create a boardgame, eh? Publish it? MAKE MONEY from it?
Well, look no further, here is a list of handy resources everyone with a game inventor's itch should be familiar with. This is a collection of useful websites and books which I discovered in my years of wandering the earth as an unpublished yet aspiring game author... which is about to change in a big way, I hope.
Creating board games is not all about designing, not by far. Once you've brought your perfectly crafted and balanced creation from the seething ocean of endless chaotic possibilities, your journey is only beginning. No game is made to be played by its author only, so whether you want to get rich by inventing a new Trivial Pursuit, or you just want to share it freely with folks of this planet, publishing a boardgame is quite a different game altogether.
Boardgames are experiencing a huge resurgence in popularity. It seems that people who spend most of their working time isolated and sitting in front of a PC don't necessarily want to sit alone in front of a computer once they get home. Go figure. They'd much rather invite a couple of friends over, buy a bag of pretzels and open up some drinks... Strange but true, but good old cardboard and dice industry has been experiencing a steady yearly growth of more than 10 percent...
Since originality is one of the crucial components in any boardgame success, today's leading companies remain open to outside designers. While many great games have been created by in-house staff, there is still plenty of room for independent designers to make their mark. So, if you do have a fantastic idea you just need to share with millions of players out there, here are some cool sites and books that will help you on your way.
Designing the Game
Well, obviously the first step in getting your game published is actually designing it. While basic ideas usually come as a flash of inspiration (a card game.... with cards you can collect!) design is actually becoming quite serious science. Already there are numerous university courses in game design, and although they mostly focus on video games, the basic principles involved are pretty much the same.
Personally, I found that reading too much into game theory tends to stifle my creativity somewhat, especially in idea-generating stage. However, once you build your first prototype and realize that things are not really working as you imagined, a thorough rational analysis can get you out of a slump. Is this game interactive enough? Which player faculties does it use? Does it suffer from king-maker complex? Is playtime consistently stable?
Here is a collection of books and websites which will provide you with invaluable food for thought and maybe even a new idea or two, if taken in moderation...
Is my Game Original?
This is the imdb of boardgames. Check and re-check games with similar themes and mechanics. While it is true that "there is nothing new under the sun," please do save yourself the embarrassment of getting "sorry, but your game seems very familiar to us..." reply when contacting a publisher. Usually it is enough to rethink and fiddle around with mechanics in order to save yourself some major hurt feelings.
Rules of Play
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals is THE book on game design currently on the market. In its 600+ pages it proposes a unified terminology and conceptual framework for the new scientific field of game design; it covers the process and inner workings of game design from the perspective of games themselves, rather than as just a social phenomenon... although it dedicates almost 100 pages to the cultural impact of games on the society.
Written by seasoned experts Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman and published by the prestigious MIT Press, this work is bound to become the standard textbook in any game-design classroom. Brimming with sharp analysis of popular games and useful theory covering everything from the role of luck to elements of interactive storytelling, this book seamlessly integrates mathematics with psychology and sociology. As an added bonus, famous game designers were invited to contribute their original designs and describe their creative process step by step, in detail.
The Ultimate Tool
My personal take is that great board games are a perfect match of mathematics and psychology, you can't make a good boardgame without understanding and synergizing both. Game Theory actually has nothing to do with "games"... in fact it was developed during the Cold War in order to see who is going to press the button first... and if the second button is going to be pressed as well.
But anyway, if you come to game design from mathematics, you probably know all about Game Theory. If not, it's well worth looking into. It'll save you countless hours of initial playtesting, you know the stage where you just want to see if the balance is ok and resources do flow as they should. At its most basic, Game Theory methods will enable you to test your basic design on your own, using only pencil and a piece of paper.
Game Design Workshop
Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton is another book which firmly belongs on any professional game designer's bookshelf. Unlike "Rules of Play" it focuses more on the practical nitty-gritty od game design, but it doesn't shy away from some pretty nerdy theorising (and if you're interested in game design, this shouldn't sound like a bad thing to you.)
With awesome chapter names such as "Playtesting and Iterative Design", "Fun Killers" and "Working with Dramatic Elements" it is chock-full of amazing concepts to mull on while you're waiting for your next idea or wondering why your latest prototype doesn't play as fun as it should. A particular treat are in-depth interviews with many legendary designers, both digital (Peter Molyneux, Warren Spector) and cardboard (Brian Hersch, Alan R. Moon).
While it does tend to focus on digital games, Game Design Workshop gives more than ample space to boardgames and even goes out of its way to emphasize the similarities between the two mediums. Even if you do concentrate solely on boardgames and have no interest in digital games, this book proves that one cannot exist fruitfully without the other. In fact, the chapter on playtesting your video game concepts in the form of cardboard-and-dice is worth the price of the book for any professional video game designer. Conversely, in my own work I found that many original video game concepts can serve as "seeds" for novel boardgame ideas.
While we're on the subject of prototyping, here are a few sites where you can find free graphics for building your first playable prototype.
A great community effort site. Here you can find thousands of b/w clipart pics depicting... nouns! Everything from elephants to chickens and lawnmowers. Very easy to access and modify for all your prototyping needs.
rpg maker tilesets
Just google "rpg maker tilesets." Its a dirty secret of mine, but here you go: If you like the pixellated look in your designs (and I do) this is the way to get access to a huge range of fantastic graphics, made by generations of talented fans. Just remember to take care to preserve all those wonderful pixies in printing otherwise you'll end up with muddy blobs!
A Theory of Fun for Game Design
A Theory of Fun for Game Design is an awesome inspirational read from one of the giants in boardgame design field, Raph Coster. At moments theoretical, intensely practical and touchingly personal, this is a wonderful expose of what it really means to be a game designer.
Practical advice and well thought out theoretical framework aside, this is the book which primarily focuses on the "ethics" of game design - why do we do the thing we do? It goes well beyond the purely material and egotistic motives game design shares with any profession and touches upon the essential - when you design a game, you bring fun to the world. If you were living in a cave 50,000 years ago, would you still be designing games for your fellow cavemen? And why would you do such a thing? An awesome, touching and deeply inspirational book, not only for game designers but for anyone working in any creative field anywhere.
Well, there are two ways you can get your inspiration for a new board game. One, from other games (and there is nothing wrong with this, we all stand on the shoulders of giants...) and Two, from the so-called "outside world," aka RL.
Sadly, RL is pretty much limited, for most of us at least. We rarely have an opportunity to travel to a completely new environment to get our minds reset and inspired. Instead we browse the great sea of mass media and get swamped by more of the same... and the prime reason is that we unconsciously filter material that is foreign to us. When faced with google search field I doubt that many of us can think of more than a dozen terms to type in.
Unless you do have an opportunity to meditate on a mountaintop or spend a day tied to an armchair while your cat repeatedly walks over the remote, I suggest a visit to stumbleupon.com as an inspirational device. You won't believe what's lurking out there! Just by checking the link I learned that there are 25 types of gourmet sandwiches - I'm sure there's a game hiding in that information somewhere!
My other inspirational source on the web is the geekmod function on boardgamegeek. You do earn some piffling amount of geek gold (the currency to buy fancy microbadges and stuff there) for moderating game photos and reviews, but the real value is that you get into contact with games you wouldn't otherwise ever think of playing, not to mention buying. If you are serious about game design professionally, you should be as aware as possible of what is out there, regardless whether it actually interests you as a player or not.
Book of Lenses
This is a great book on game design, already achieving somewhat of a cult status. It approaches game design in a decidedly gamery manner... by giving you "lenses," discrete ways of looking at your design in order to isolate and detect any potential trouble spots.
Just like games themselves are "ways of looking at reality" so are the questions presented in this book. One hundred questions gives you one hundred "lenses" you can use to determine what are the strengths and the weak points of your design. Once you get deep into your "forest" you do tend to loose sight of your "trees" and that is exactly what The Book of Lenses provides - an analytical toolbox, a hundred fresh perspectives that you might be blind to when deep in the embrace of your creation.
A seminal and eminently practical book useful in any field of creative endeavor.
And now, for something completely different, Homo Ludens (The Man who Plays) is the seminal book on the phenomenon of games and game-playing in general. Written in 1938 by the eminent dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens is one of the first and greatest works on the very nature of gaming itself.
A work of enormous scope and erudition, it expands the idea of "play" into almost every niche of human endeavor. It proposes that game-playing is an essential part of what it means to be human, an almost species-defining activity. It finds games an ever-present activity in any human society and any human interaction. From ancient rituals and medieval jousts to modern politics, games are ever-present; the rules, the winning conditions and the revolutionary idea of "magic circle" - a separate, consensual virtual reality a game creates... they are all an integral part of what we call the "human condition."
An essential book on the nature of humanity and the role games play in our lives. Whether you design games, play them or even don't care for games at all, this is a book that is eye-opening and inspiring at the same time.
Although there are literally thousands of websites dealing with video game design, their boardgame counterparts are not that easy to find. Here are several which are invaluable to any budding boardgame designer.
Again, this is the central website on all matters concerning boardgames. It is the imdb.com for board games. Here you'll find a database of pretty much all boardgames ever created, their ratings and reviews, variants and editions. This is the place to check whether your amazingly original concept was already done by someone else, to check out what's hot and what's not and to chat with other boardgame geeks out there. Whether you're a game designer, a fan or are just interested in boardgames as a hobby, this is the first place to check out for all you gaming needs.
Board Game Designer's Forum is just that - an online forum for boardgame designers. Very spartan but friendly, this is the place to discuss your latest concept or idea. You can ask for advice from experienced pros lurking in there or participate in an occasional game design contest. Membership is a must if you're serious about your game design career.
Phew, What a Long Hub!
Oh dear... I thought I'd manage to squeeze all the resources for both game design and game publishing into a single article, but now I see that it is perfectly impossible. So, I decided to split the article into two parts, the first dealing with game design itself and the second one with nitty-gritty of actually seeing your game in print.
Part 2 is already in the works so don't panic, it'll be here sooner than you imagine.
Cheers and keep working on that ingenious new game of yours!