Top 5 Takeaways from Designing My First Game

By: Dustin Freund

While mowing my grass in the Summer 2016, it hit me. Take my ideas and rough drafts for my novel and instead use them for a tabletop dungeon crawler.

It’d be simple: make a bunch of interesting loot to collect, develop some unique monsters, add some combat mechanics never seen before, write some fun dialogue and story – shouldn’t be a problem. But subconsciously, I knew the ridiculous commitment I was about to make.

Haphazardly, I dove in.

After two years of splashing around in the deep end, I finally made it to shore. The Ghosts Betwixt (TGB) is now fully playable (but still with so much left to be done). There have been plenty of struggles, plenty of times where I’ve looked at the big picture and thought, what are you doing Dustin.

But, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t–and continues to be–a highly enjoyable and educational ride. So, if your considering making the next great game, or if you’re stuck in the middle of a design, here are five things I’ve learned from designing my first game.

1. Stay True to Yourself and Your Game

While listening to podcasts, receiving critiques from playtesters or rulebook editors or reading comments on social media, remember: this is YOUR game.

Now, absolutely take edits or critiques seriously, especially if they consistently come up. But if you have a strong vision for its gameplay, its visuals or its story, don’t alter your game flippantly. Why? Because often times critiquers:

  • Don’t know your “end game” (pun intended)
  • Aren’t as familiar with your game as you are
  • Are passionate about the “best practice” (I’ll call it) in board game design. For example, just because one tweak shaves off 5 minutes of gameplay, that doesn’t always mean it is the right decision if it sacrifices something else.

I’m not at all saying don’t seek feedback, and I’m not saying don’t tweak your game based on said feedback. Just remember, if you listen and act on everything, you’ll eventually have a jumbled mess. Rather than the foundation of your initial idea, you’re now stuck with a game developed by dozens of various people. You don’t want that, nor does your audience.

2. Commit

Let me ask you something — how lofty are your goals for your game? Are you “swinging for the fences” creatively and financially? Or are you designing a game to play with your friends and family, and perhaps one day you’ll take it to market?

If your goal is to create something truly special, it’s no secret that your game will take an overwhelming amount of your time.

You don’t have to spend a dime to create all the components that will eventually form your prototype. But you do have to spend an immeasurable amount of time thinking about even the smallest things. Finding the necessary time is tough.

Areas I’ve found time to “work” on TGB while not physically working on it include:

  • Walking my dog – About 15-20 minutes is usually a good amount of time to think about a small rule or develop a new idea to jot down when I get home
  • During lunch – Hell yeah I work on my game at work. I often eat lunch at my desk, which is the perfect time to write or edit a few pages of the rulebook.
  • Driving – Put on some creative background music and mentally tackle the latest challenge or idea you’ve been battling around in your mind.

Game design is essentially a giant list of questions that need answers. Try to check a few of those questions off the list every single day.

3. Research (but not how you might think)

Of course, consume the Board Game Design Lab Podcast and Stonemaier Game’s Blog. Of course stay up to date with the newest trends in gaming. But you know what I think is the best research you can possibly do?

Play other games in your genre, and pick them apart piece by piece. What mechanics are truly successful? What mechanics could be improved? What mechanics fall way short? And look at BoardGameGeek – what are others’ beef with the game?

If this was your own game, how would you make it better?

I’ll give you a quick example: One of my favorite dungeon crawlers of all time is Shadows of Brimstone. I think it is absolutely brilliant in a lot of areas. But I also believe there are a few areas it could be vastly improved. One mechanic is the use of Event Tokens (I forget their exact name) when a path splits in two. If the heroes take Path A or Path B, the players draw from the same pool of tokens, so the path they choose is ultimately inconsequential.

That always irked me. Fundamentally, it eschews the right-vs-wrong-path dynamic found in my favorite dungeon crawl RPGs like Diablo, Final Fantasy and Earthbound. Any dungeon crawl fan knows that taking the “wrong path” is actually right because it often leads toward valuable loot. Most of all, it forces the players to make an important, yet easy decision: Path A or Path B?

That stuck with me. So, from step 1 of designing TGB, when developing my list of components I’d want in a perfect dungeon crawler, “meaningful branching paths” sat near the top of the list.

Play the games you like repeatedly. Play the games you don’t like repeatedly. Look under the hood of these games and figure out how you’d incorporate the ideas you like and fix the ideas you don’t within your own game.

4. Understand the State of the Biz

Unfortunately, you and I are both designing games in an oversaturated market. So, this goes back to setting the goals for your game.

If you are “all in” so to speak, and hoping to make a big splash, I’m likely not the first to tell you that your game needs a hook. What’s your hook? Here are a few examples:

  • A completely original theme that’s never been explored
  • Amazing artwork that instantly catches people’s attentions and adds a sense of quality
  • A campaign-style game that unfolds and continues to provide new experiences
  • A new gameplay mechanic that is universally considered fun
  • A completely unique mechanic that revolutionizes the industry

I think to succeed in today’s market, your game needs at least one hook, if not multiple. Something you can really market throughout all of your materials. Something a person instantly thinks about when they hear or read the name of your game. For me:

  • Gloomhaven – Card-driven combat (hook 1) with unlockable characters (hook 2) and a long campaign (hook 3)
  • Darklight – The most amazing pre-assembled miniatures on the market (hook 1) with a long campaign (hook 2) and inspired by Warhammer Quest (hook 3)
  • Shadows of Brimstone – An amazing Wild West horror theme (hook 1) with a completely open-ended story and randomized missions (hook 2)

These are the three games that instantly came to my mind because they have character. There are “A-HA!” moment that tell players THIS is what Gloomhaven is, for example. It’s not setting up the map, it’s not penciling in a checkmark on your stat sheet. It’s making that agonizing decision in card combat; it’s opening a box that grants you a new hero; and sadly yes it’s retiring that character you’ve spent 50 hours with. But, those are REAL emotions that stay with players for a long time.

So, what’s your hook? Figure it out and make it special.

5. Keep it Fun

I’m not going to belabor this point, but the moment your game design starts feeling more like a chore than something you truly enjoy, I think you’re in trouble. Your enjoyment, your passion will be felt in every nook and yes in every cranny (in the flavor text of a weapon card, in the creativity of your characters, etc.).

An important component of taking a game from good to great IS that last 10 percent you inject into the game. Your players will notice those small details. If you seem to be having fun with your design, that fun will absolutely shine through.

But at the same time, reaching that last 10 percent is what’s tough. There’s still sooo much work to do! It’s key to not feel overwhelmed. Don’t worry too much about timelines. Don’t look at the end of the tunnel too often, but certainly remain excited for it. Like I said, focus on those few questions you can check off your list every day.

If you can find a good productive rhythm, one that feels like a fun challenge rather than an overwhelming burden, you’re in good shape. Weeks and months later, you’ll be amazed at how quickly those small tasks add up. Then, the big tasks aren’t so big anymore!

Pro-Tip – If you can help it, prolong your Kickstarter campaign as long as possible. You don’t want that avoidable timeline hanging over your head. And you certainly don’t want the stress of having people’s money for potentially years. That very well could turn this from a fun hobby to a stressful burden.

Final Thoughts

This all started with an idea. What does the “perfect dungeon crawler” look like to ME? The goal was never to make TGB liked by everyone; the goal was to make it loved by those who enjoy this genre.

So, I stuck to that goal.

Over the next several months, the combat dice began coming together. Monster AI began formulating. Small tweaks like the offensive and defensive stance mechanics made worlds of difference in strategy. It was exciting to see small decision begin to compound tangibly. 

And ultimately, it all comes down to whether your game is fun. If you follow some of the aforementioned ideas, like identifying the hooks of your game, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of other games in the genre, and remaining confident in your original idea your version of fun should absolutely be there at the end of development.

But, will other people find it fun? Perhaps that’s a topic for another day!

If you’d like to get in touch, I’m easy to find:


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