Features// Michael Fox's Table Top Gaming Column #4

Posted 22 Feb 2013 15:05 by
Hello poppets. Welcome to another column about boardgames. I'm much happier this week for a number of reasons, mainly down to the fact that I'm spectacularly ill any more. Even better though?

My first game, Ace of Spies, is finally being shipped to folks all around the world. Originally funded through Kickstarter some time in the mid 1700s, it's made its long journey by boat across the Pacific and is currently sitting in a warehouse ready to posted out to everyone.

It's quite exciting. It's also mildly terrifying. This game that me and my mate created from scratch, tested, refined, scrapped, restarted, rebuilt, retested and generally played to death is now going to be Out There for the world to pass judgement on. Where I'm normally the guy who writes the reviews, I now get to see what life is like on the other side of the mirror. I just hope folks like it. More importantly, I hope if they don't that they're at least constructive in their criticism.

Anyway, to the point of this week's babbling. A few years ago I would never have thought I could create a game that not just worked but was considered good enough by a company for them to pick it up and release it. Now, having gone all the way through the process and seen both the good and the bad, I can't wait to do it all again.

But what about you? Ever had an idea for a game? If you have, it's highly probable that you've considered it for a brief moment then thought "Fuck it", consigning it to the recycle bin of your mind. Maybe some of you have scribbled down a few scant notes that you thought you'd come back to one day. Well, my friends, it's time to fish those scribbles out of the back of your notepad. I want to to make your ideas real. Because if I can do it, you sure as hell can.

The nice thing about making your own board or card game is that you don't need a fortune to get it going. No dev teams. No skills in texture mapping necessary. Don't know any programming languages? Not a worry you need some paper, pens and an idea. That's all. It's just you and a concept, and nothing is lost if you screw it up.

Your first step should be to play. Play everything you can get your hands on. Play the games you love and see exactly what it is about them that appeals. More importantly, try out the games you hate and find out why you dislike them. You never know, there could be elements that you may enjoy despite not being a fan of the whole thing. Only by playing as much as possible will you be able to ascertain the bits that you want to bring into your design

On the flip side of that as much as possible try to ignore stuff that has gone before. Of course, it's nigh on impossible for you not to be influenced by games that have already been released, but for the love of god DON'T JUST GO AND COPY SOMETHING THAT'S ALREADY BEEN DONE. The world doesn't need yet another trivia game where you're answering questions (even if you reckon it'll be A Guaranteed Hit). Have a bit of pride in yourself and trust in your abilities to do something new.

Next up, get a working prototype of your game up and running as quickly as possible. It doesn't need to look pretty, it doesn't need to have the most streamlines ruleset ever, it just needs to exist. You can theorise as much as you please about how things will work, what'll happen to X when Y occurs in play, but until you have a physical representation of your game in front of you that doesn't mean a damn thing. Shiny art and high quality production are far from necessary at this point, so don't worry about the look of the thing. For now you should be focusing on making it work.

Having a Real version of your design means you get to do the most vital thing of all playtesting. I can't stress enough how much you need to do this. Every time you finish a round of testing, make some notes and don't be afraid to make some tweaks even in the middle of a game. Playing it with people you know is fantastic, but remember to take absolutely everything they say with a pinch of salt.

If you want your game to be a success you've got to be utterly brutal, so having a load of people just saying that everything you've done is wonderful is no use whatsoever.

What you really need is the feedback of strangers. A bit of digging on the internet will turn up plenty of independent playtest groups who will be delighted to get in on the ground floor of a new idea (especially if it ends up being a success).

These folks are invaluable not only are they experienced in seeing through the initial roughness of a design, they're also not worried about hurting your feelings. If something works, they'll tell you. If it doesn't, they'll also tell you but they won't be a dick about it. Constructive criticism is the order of the day, so use them.

Once you've got feedback, you should go back to testing. After that, a bit more testing doesn't hurt, followed by more testing. Afterwards, I'd suggest some testing with a side of testing.

Get the idea? You want to be doing so much testing that you end up entirely, totally sick of your bloody game, so much so that you don't want to play it any more but if you believe that you've got something that's worth sticking with, this is the point where you'll either fall by the wayside or discover just how determined you are to make it a success.

By the time you get to the end of this process, you could well have something entirely different to what you started out with. In the case of Ace of Spies the difference was like night and day it originally began as one of the most over-complicated games in history; bits moving around a board, an AI player who controlled certain elements, far too much going on to be an entertaining experience.

Through testing we stripped it back to its bare bones, ending up with a quick playing card game that both me and my co-designer are proud of. Without over a year of near-constant testing, we would never have even got close to our end product.

Next time around I'll talk about what your next step should be once you've got something you reckon is ready to go. In this age of Kickstarter, it's meant to be simpler than ever to get your game out there but it's far from easy, and is it always the best option anyway? Is it a better idea to schlep around publishers?

Find out in next week's THRILLING CONCLUSION...

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