AdministratorMarch 20, 2022 at 8:48 pm
Sen-Foong Lim, designer of Mind MGMT, Belfort, Junk Art, and many other great games, joins us this week. Sen has been designing games for years and has worked on lots of games based on licensed IPs.
Hit reply to ask him anything! (Sen will respond to your questions on Mar. 24th.)
-Please limit your questions to one per person.
-Please submit your question before 11:59pm PST on Mar 23rd.
MemberMarch 21, 2022 at 9:11 am
What has been the most valuable things you learned from your full time employment that you have been able to use in your game design career?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 7:39 am
Hi Duncan, thanks for the question! As a therapist and professor (Developmental Psychology), I think the most important thing I’ve learned from my day job that I use in game design are the theoretical frameworks of learning and behaviour that I view games through.
I’m particularly interested in the theories of Flow Experience (Csikszentmihalyi), Operant Conditioning (Skinner), and Social Learning (Vygotsky) and I made a quick vid on those topics here: https://youtu.be/GKl-hCh5FYM?list=PLWuEi8OvyRYIUOOmB891fTlAtpZDaUuNW
MemberMarch 21, 2022 at 3:04 pm
Designers often make mistakes when designing their first board game and good designers learn from those mistakes. But even if you aren’t making “mistakes” anymore a prolific game designer still has many lessons they will learn on future designs. When thinking of your designs that came AFTER your first published board game: what are some of the big lessons (i.e. lessons other than “mistakes”) that you learned?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 7:46 am
Great question, Robert. As a therapist, I have a practice and I firmly believe that we’re never perfect, even when we’re so-called experts – we’re always practicing, always improving. So, even though I might have “mastered” the craft of designing a game, there are sooooo many facets to game design – so many hats! – that mastering the whole job is, perhaps, not realistic. It takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to make a game.
Part of that team is playtesters and one thing we learned while making MIND MGMT was that we can’t rely on the same teams to test repeatedly on complex games. We need to remember that the FIRST play of a game is likely the most impactful. If someone can’t get past the first play, they won’t get to experience all of the goodness you have in store for them!
We experienced this testing MIND MGMT with Matt Leacock of Pandemic fame. He was playing the full version with everything in the now-soft locked SHiFT system in play, because that’s the way our playtest groups liked it – they had started playing from the beginning and kept asking for more and more challenges which we, as most designers can attest to, were more than happy to provide them with. The problem with this is that this lead to skill creep – our testers had mastered all of the previous levels of play and so they wanted more more more. That cumulative experience broke the brain of Matt Leacock, arguably one of the best game designers of the modern era. So it was back to the drawing board for us.
We had to figure out a way to keep all of the cool and awesome stuff we made while stripping the game down to it’s essentials for first time players.
We needed to make the game APPROACHABLE and not intimidating.
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 11:49 am
That’s a great answer, thank you!
MemberMarch 21, 2022 at 3:54 pm
It is said that a person is the sum of their life experiences, and I’m sure that is true of game designers. What experiences, outside of board games, have influenced your game designs the most?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 7:56 am
Hi Roger! Outside of game design, I’d have to say being a performance artist, a competitive martial artist, a therapist, and an educator have greatly influenced my game design. How, you might ask?
Performance artist: from a young age, I’ve been on stage and expressing myself creatively. I have been adjudicated since I was 4 by masters of the art, so I’ve never experienced imposter syndrome – that’s something that a lot of creatives who do not have formal training feel regularly. I’m used to numbers and scores and being graded – it doesn’t phase me and I can take constructive criticism and improve from it.
Martial arts: I’m a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, an art that is almost chess-like in it’s strategies and movements. For me, Jiu Jitsu is a lifestyle and a mindset as much as it is a martial art. I’ve learned a lot about myself through putting myself through over a decade of training and competition and I’ve had my outlook on life changed greatly by participating in the art. There’s a famous quote from coral belt Rickson Gracie (universally recognized as one of the greatest practitioners of the art ever) where he recommends that people “flow with the go”. I use that daily in life and in game design. Whatever problems I’m faced with in the game design, I know that I can flow around whatever barriers I encounter to find a workable solution – it just takes effort, know-how, and time.
Therapist: I’m a keen observer and note taker which helps me during playtesting sessions. I actually care more about how players behave in game than I do about what they say post-game. More on psych stuff up above, though!
Educator: As a professor, I have learned a lot about how to teach people, how to give feedback, etc. and I find that helps me with rules writing, mentoring, and giving feedback during playtests.
Thanks for asking!
MemberMarch 22, 2022 at 5:19 am
How has your background in psychology influenced your game design?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 8:00 am
HI Arthur! I’ve talked a bit about it in the posts above, but specifically, I think it helps me with observing behaviour and analyzing communication patterns. My area of expertise is working with children who have communication disorders. I apply these skills in game design when playtesting, specifically. In game design, I use psychological principals to do the actual design (e.g. incentivization of desirable behaviours) and in rules writing (e.g. how people, in general, learn best from specific formats). Understanding somewhat of how people think and thus behave has definitely provided me with some insights into how to design better games.
MemberMarch 22, 2022 at 12:40 pm
Regarding Junk Art, how did the component design fit into the overall design + plan for publication process?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 10:10 am
Great question, Anthony! If I can find some of the old pictures, I’ll post them…
Component design was extremely important with Junk Art. We wanted to ensure that you could use pieces in different ways – not just stacking! If you’ve played, you know that you can slot pieces together, get them to hang on each other, balance things in ways that are slightly different from other balance games.
So I spent a lot of time with a mitre box, drill press, and router to shape each piece lovingly. But I started out with good forms. I had seen these wooden model kits on sale at Michaels. You know, for a car, a helicopter, a plane, etc. and they were 2 dollars each. So I bought 4 of each (as you do when you’re a game designer and you see things that in useful shapes/colours). From those kits, Jay and I picked out the coolest looking pieces and the most useful pieces. We glued some together to come up with the pieces that are now in Junk Art and we cut or drilled or routed others to make them more useful for the game.
In the end, we had something like 15 pieces made in 4 colours which corresponded with the 60 cards in the deck. We had to reduce the set for publication due to the cost and weight of the product and eliminate some that couldn’t be produced easily. The size of the final pieces were reduced by 15% to further cut costs and save on weight (which affects shipping). One thing that also happened was that the factory we manufactured at was able to source a bunch of similar-sized wooden pieces from unassembled toys (e.g. a toy train) in vast quantities so we were able to increase the number of types of pieces again at a low cost because the pieces were already mass produced at the same factory. We just had ours painted differently!
MemberMarch 22, 2022 at 8:05 pm
Given that you or the publisher you are working with has access to the IP rights, what tips do you have for designing around a licensed IP that differ from the “typical” design process?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 10:23 am
Hi Justin! I learned this early on from my friend Kevin Wilson – IP is a guidepost, not a stop sign. Basically, use the IP to guide you, don’t let it dictate things to you.
As an “experience-first” designer, I’m always wondering what people’s experiences are with the specific IP. I always work with IPs I know intimately and I have my own ideas of why it’s a cool IP, but I want to know about how other people engage with the IP. I’ll ask friends and find out. I do research. I rewatch shows, reread comics. I read scripts and commentary on films.
In the end, I want to capture a moment, an experience, of that IP in a game. I’m not trying to recreate the whole IP – that would be a fool’s errand for something like Batman… I’m trying to give someone a tabletop experience that reflects a key moment in the IP.
For example, for The Legend of Korra: Pro Bending Arena, Alara and I rewatched all the shows, but then put 1 single clip (Not the one below, sorry!) on repeat where we saw the experience that we wanted to emulate in the game: attacking and defending at the same time within the same move.
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 2:24 pm
That’s fantastic advice. Thanks so much!
MemberMarch 23, 2022 at 1:56 am
Thanks for being here! I had a question about what it’s like being a cultural consultant for games? And if you had any awesome examples of where your impact has greatly impacted a game’s cultural identity?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 1:14 pm
Hi Jamie! Being a cultural consultant is interesting. It doesn’t mean that you speak for the entire culture, like some people might think; it means that you have ties to the communities and have lived experience to draw on. You also know enough to know what you don’t know while having access to people who do. You have the trust of the community because you’re a part of it and so when you go asking questions, you are greeted and welcomed instead of being looked at suspiciously.
It’s funny – I’m Chinese-Canadian, but we still hired other cultural consultants for Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, an RPG that I wrote with another Chinese-Canadian designer. Why? Because neither of us had tons of experience with restaurant life – we had family members that owned restaurants, but we needed more detailed information than we’d be comfortable asking our relatives for – so we hired people to tell us what we didn’t know or couldn’t find out for ourselves from strong primary sources.
In terms of games that I’ve had impact on, I’m working on one right now that is going to be revamped. It’s based on a Chinese game, but never gave any credence to its origins, so that could be problematic to a large number of people in the world as it could seem appropriative. My work is helping it to recognize the roots while celebrating the differences.
MemberMarch 25, 2022 at 5:22 am
That’s a great perspective as I did think a cultural consultant was the expert in isolation, but it makes much more sense that it’s more about having the base of lived experience in conjunction with engaging with the community / culture that the game is looking to represent.
I’m actually thinking of a restaurant type game idea, and thinking of culture as more than just race / religion opens it so much to what we as designers should be thinking about when we are designing a game 😛
Looking forward to taking the principle forward of “My work is helping it to recognize the roots while celebrating the differences.” both in game design, life and more!
Thanks for giving me some insight into what that world is like!
MemberMarch 23, 2022 at 3:32 pm
I’ve recently been thinking that it might be possible to sort most game designers might into three categories:
* those who have this one game idea they want to pursue
* those who have a passion for designing board games (plural), but aren’t really interested in doing it as their job
* those who want to work in board game industry, not necessarily restricted to only game design
The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that I think these categories probably have different things they need to learn, and perhaps different ways of learning it (even when restricting learning topics to game design). The first category needs ideas and theories to probe their one game idea with. The second and third category needs a general orientation in the landscape of game design. The third category also needs all the economical aspects (more than the first two). All three need the basics.
I think most board game design discussion is focused on the third category.
Do you think this is a fair description, and a fair conclusion?
- This reply was modified 3 months, 1 week ago by Johan Falk.
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 1:19 pm
That’s an interesting question, Johan. I don’t really fall into any of these categories.
I would be someone who has a passion for designing board games and would gladly do it for a full time job.
Yes, I’m a developer and writer as well as a cultural consultant, but I view most of that through a design lens. Also, if I could make enough to sustain my family with solely design, I would prefer to do that instead of development, etc.
MemberMarch 23, 2022 at 4:29 pm
Since you participate so much in the designer community,
What parts of game design do designers tend to find more difficult than they should be, and what tips do you have to make those parts easier?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 1:24 pm
I think a lot of designers focus on the aesthetic parts of a game without considering if they need to or not; I’m a function over form guy, personally, so I’m biased. I care about solid UI that leads to the UX I’m trying to engender.
I also think people might put too much weight in their playtesting – there’s a law of diminishing returns to think about. My point isn’t to playtest less but to playtest intelligently. All things considered, playtesting > not playtesting, but if you have options of playing with a new group in a nearby town over an experienced group close by, you may pick group A over group B depending on your current needs in playtesting. Also, not nearly enough independent testing (blind testing) is done.
I also think a lot of people ruminate about their game a lot vs. putting it on the table. Stop chewing on it and get it played so that the time you spend thinking about it and making mental changes are more focused and productive.
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 2:01 pm
Thanks for the solid advice! Really appreciate it.
AdministratorMarch 23, 2022 at 9:58 pm
As you’ve found yourself with more and more cool opportunities, how do you prioritize projects and know which ones to pursue and which ones to pass by?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 1:27 pm
Good question, Gabe.
I let my co-designers decide. Honestly, I’m just stoked to work on interesting games, so if someone I’m working with is super hyped about an idea, I’m super hyped to work on it with them. Passion and energy go a long way to keeping things going during the dry spells. I also take a lot of short writing contracts etc. just to give my brain something productive to do when the game isn’t progressing quite like we’d like.
I have definitely had to say no to more things as of late and learn to prioritize what projects I can sign on to.
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 4:44 am
My question is regarding co-designing a game (and sorry for it being a multi-part question) –
Are all decisions a consensus, or does one person take the leadership (maybe the one that had the idea originally?), and the other one is helping/supporting? That is, how do you decide who does what? When there are discrepancies in direction, how do you reconcile them to move the game forward? Do you split tasks or share them (i.e. one person doing all playtesting, the other all balancing, or both people doing all tasks at different times and sharing the workload)?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 1:30 pm
Me, personally, I’m pretty easy going so I let the person who is most passionate about things decide where to go. I’m pretty resigned to the fact that the table doesn’t lie – this means that all truths will become evident through actual play. I used to argue a lot more, but I’ve mellowed with age! There are definitely things where I’ll say my piece (e.g. “I think that card’s a little OP”) but the easiest way to prove if a hypothesis is correct or not is to put it to the playtest, right?
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 1:37 pm
This is going to be multipart because I can’t scroll down to read your whole question for some reasons…
Who does what is usually determined by skill. For example, Jay is skilled with making the prototypes quickly. I’m skilled with writing rules. Jay is skilled with pitching games verbally. I’m skilled with planning which publisher needs what.
Tasks are split fairly evenly and some are going to be only done by one person first and verified by another second.
Other tasks are best completed by both designers – playtesting is one of those tasks: In most cases, its very important to be on the same page or else it’s very difficult to tell the story together. So if there’s a playtest in Vancouver that has a specific result, we want to do our best to get a test in London to see if we can replicate that.
An even split of tasks AND pay is honestly the best way to ensure that the relationships are good and the power dynamics stay even. The only time that I would consider differentiating pay scales is if the other partner was demonstrably spending more time or had a skill we were using that I could not replicate to do.
Hope this helps!
MemberMarch 24, 2022 at 7:34 am
Thanks for having me, Gabe!
The discussion ‘Sen-Foong Lim, awesome game designer’ is closed to new replies.