How to get from here to there – Design Journal #1

I took a week’s rest from my workouts and my brain decided to take some rest from game design thinking as well. But just as I got back to physical activity, my brain started working on all gears again. So it is time for another game design diary post.

This became a very long post. After discussing my game design process at length, with examples of my current board game concept Lords of the Under-Mountain, I also share a random game idea. That maybe has a potential to be a recurring piece of content in my diary entries.

A connecting thread to all this

I get distracted very easily. That is why I need reminders of where I am and where I am planning to go to. So as to not get frustrated by lack of progress.

This is pertinent for my game design endeavors as well. I’m only doing this as a hobby. But I still want to create ambitious goals for my hobby game designs. Not in terms of traditional success, but in terms of game design.

My game design process

An ambitious goal is not enough constraints for me. Without some constraints on the process, of getting there, it is easy for me to get frustrated. Doubts of I’ll never get there start forming. And I might switch onto some other concept if that happens too often. In itself, that is not a bad thing. But if I do it for the wrong reasons and keep bouncing between projects that’s no good. That is why I’ve come up with this kind of framework for my game design. Here it is in one picture:

In short, it works as follows. I’ll explain the framework and also give examples of my most polished game concept, Lords of the Under-Mountain.

Start with a goal

Actually, that is not right. I might start from anywhere. But before long, I want to clarify my idea of the vision for each of my game concepts.

Game vision describes what kind of game I want to design. I describe my game vision in two parts:

  1. Desired game experience
  2. Constraints

Desired game experience

Desired game experience is a high level description of how I want the players of the game to experience playing the game. During the game, but also before and after.

My desired game experience for players of Lords of the Under-Mountain is:

Competition between the players, a bit feisty affair even. But not too stern a fight.

Challenge comes from the players’ actions having a significant impact to each other, providing a complex problem of rolling with the blows to win. Success requires adapting to the actions of other players and learning the strengths of each factions (so yes, it is an asymmetric game).

Theme/fantasy: LotUM has familiar elements for the people familiar with fantasy themes and games. They recognise these from the game art and text and also from the game rules and mechanics.

Discovery experience comes from learning about the factions in the game, learning to play them and against them effectively.

Now that I’ve written that down it looks like a lot. But for me that is okay, because I see all those things intertwining nicely. And this is not a game pitch description. It was just for me to guide my design efforts.

Note to myself: Writing about the taxonomy of board game experiences could be interesting, as I’ve already done some work on that.


Constraints are all the other restrictions for the game that narrow down the creative scope and are not desired game experience.

Some examples:

  • the type of game (card game, board game, mobile game etc.)
  • number of players
  • playing time
  • complexity, how hard the game is to learn

The constraints I’ve set to Lords of the Under-Mountain are:

  • It is a board game for 2 to 4 players
  • It is a shortish game, takes about 45 minutes to play
  • It is a medium light game, quite easy to learn (you can play fluently after one training game)
  • As a board game it can be played on a normal dining table even in a small apartment (not a mega big game like say Captain Sonar)
  • It is easy to set up (5 minutes max to start playing)

Eating the elephant slice by slice

Looking at the game vision I wrote for Lords of Under-Mountain it is easy to see that I cannot accomplish all that at once. And game design is complex and uncertain – I can only test whether a game prototype provides the desired game experience after playlists.

That is why I need to try to make the vision come through one step at a time. I call these steps intermediate goals.

Each intermediate goal is a subset of the game vision. I’ve found out that it can help that I flesh out these parts of the game vision into something more concrete and tangible. That helps me come up with solution candidates.

I only define the next intermediate goal for myself. I know that there will be others, but I will flesh them out when I get there, meaning when I’ve reached all the intermediate goals in the way there.

I choose an intermediate goal based on what I see as the biggest problem or uncertainty in regards to my game concept reaching my vision. At the start it can be something foundational like “does my main game mechanic work at all?” or “does my main game mechanic provide the kinds of challenges I want it to?”.

Current intermediate goal of Lords of Under-Mountain

I’m quite a way a way from the beginning of designing LotUM and I am now happy (for now) about the game pieces and basic mechanics.

My current goals for LotUM are:

  1. To reinforce the positive feedback loops in the game to make winning the game easier, leading to shorter games, especially when people are playing for the first time
  2. Streamline the game by getting rid of some of the pieces and at the same time reinforce the theme in mechanics (actions and features of factions, impact and names of action cards etc.)

The first of those is derived from the competition game experience and game length constraint. And the second comes from theme/fantasy game experience goal and game complexity constraint.

And I see that I’ve cheated a bit as I have two goals at the moment, but let’s see if that works.

Riding the Game Design Cycle

After I’ve set the next intermediate goal, I can go back to the drawing board. I’ll work on this game design cycle to reach my next goal by:

  • Building the next game prototype (using the previous ones as foundation)
  • Playtesting the newest prototype
  • Learning about what worked and what did not (and whether I reached my intermediate goal)

After step 3 (learning), it is time to start the cycle once again if I did not reach my intermediate goal yet. Or change my intermediate goal if I feel like it.

Writing about this game design cycle in more detail could be a subject of a future post, I think.

How this all helps me?

I have an ambitious long term goal in the game vision to keep me interested.

I have a reachable but challenging short term goal in my next intermediate goal to keep me focused and to make my progress visible to myself.

And if I get stuck, I can change my intermediate goal to a different one to help myself get unstuck.

And my game vision helps me set my intermediate goals by making me ponder “how could I achieve that?” and “what I am most uncertain about regarding this game concept?”.

Shoutouts and thanks

My own practical game design theory is hugely influenced by these two articles:

The game experience I wrote about is essentially the aesthetics that Hunicke, LeBlanc et al. write about in their article. And the game design process I describe owes a lot to this article by Eric Zimmerman.

I would also like to thank Katie Salen Tekinbaş for her Games and Storytelling workshop decades ago which really brought out the game designer in me. As well as all the participants of Play4Agile with whom I’ve explored agile game design of agile games.

Bonus: Random game idea

I promised to share a random game idea that I got the other day. Here goes!

A strategy game about global conspiracy to prepare the earth for alien invasion. The aliens being carbon dioxide breathers and unable to thrive in a world with rich flora and fauna. Maybe a two-faction game with the resistance and alien conspiracy. Or a co-operative game with players playing the resistance against the game.

Basically this would be a game about Doughnut Economics (protecting the planetary boundaries and social foundation globally) while not being boring (where the global conspiracy element comes in).

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