Game Design

Is that a game or a toy?

The other day we opened our newest acquisition, Forbidden Sky. We own and quite enjoy the first two in the series (Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert) and are big fans of designer Matt Leacock, so it was natural that we pick up this game as well.

After opening the box, we noticed there were quite a few interesting parts. I read the rules and discovered that you are actually connecting pieces to form a circuit to launch the rocket, which is the goal of the game.

We tried it out and found it quite challenging, which was exactly what we were hoping for. We didn’t succeed in our first mission, but we just had to find out what happened when you did make a circuit and place the rocket on the launchpad. After fiddling around a bit to get the connection right, we got the pleasure of hearing the rocket make some cool takeoff noises. It was pretty awesome to hear and I’m sure it would’ve been a satisfying ending had we completed the mission.

This got me thinking about what made that experience so intriguing. I had heard or read a few comments about Forbidden Sky, talking about it being both a toy and a game. Now I understood what they were saying.

There’s a bit of a child-like wonder in all of us, and we can still become fascinated by a simple toy.

I started delving back into much earlier games that could also be considered very toy-like.

Do you remember Operation, the game where you try to extract plastic pieces from the patient without setting off the buzzer?

How about Hungry Hungry Hippos, the smacking, slamming, marble chomping game?

Or Mousetrap? This one always looked really cool but I don’t remember anybody actually wanting to play the game. Rather, we’d just try to set up the elaborate trap and see if it would actually work (spoiler: it usually didn’t!).

There were a number of other games along these lines that didn’t quite reach the same level of popularity. I remember one called Don’t Wake Daddy and another one where you had to catch fish with little fishing polls as the pond rotated.

And how could I forget Perfection? In this game, you have to place all these different shapes into the right spaces on the board before the timer went off and launched all of the pieces flying. That brought back some memories…

But surely this fascination has passed and nobody is creating games like this anymore, right? Forbidden Sky must be that rare exception. Or is it?

While maybe not as obvious or childish as Operation or Mousetrap, you can still see toy-like elements in some games being designed today. Don’t believe me? Consider these examples…

The Climbers. Introduced in 2018, this game is all about climbing up the tower of blocks to try to be the first player to make it to the top. You do so by maneuvering around building blocks (who didn’t play with these as a kid?) and climbing little ladders. This game would be just as at home in a kindergarten class as it would at your gaming table.

Ever play Junk Art? This is a fun dexterity game, where you’re placing different shaped objects like flowerpots and mini barbells to build towers that are either taller or remain standing longer than your opponent’s.

How about Santorini? Yes, this game is very chess-like in its movements and strategy, and gets even more intricate with the use of the God cards that give players additional powers. But the main mechanics are building and climbing up and down towers made of cool plastic pieces. My six-year-old self may not have been able to figure out the gameplay, but I sure would have loved to build those towers!

Still not convinced? How about Fireball Island? This game from the ‘80s was recently brought back to life by Restoration Games, and features the rotating head of Vul-Kar, set atop a mountain, which launches fireballs (marbles) at anyone daring to steal treasures from the island. Players can also flick ember marbles at opponents to knock them and other obstacles over and steal their treasures. Again, the line between games and toys gets blurry. But who cares? It’s so much fun!

How can you find ways to incorporate more fun, toy-like experiences in your games? What other games give you this same feeling?

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    Believe it or not most of my original game designs are inspired by great components that I acquire for the explicit purpose of utilizing in a game. For example, I incorporated actual minerals and rocks, most that I hand collected myself, to give my dice rolling game about geology a hefty does of realism, scientific accuracy and a very pleasing tactile experience for the players. I found awesome chicken meeples on Meeplesource and recently converted to Veganism so those inspired me to create Hen House Hijinx about rescuing chickens from factory farms.

    That’s awesome, Shawn! Sounds like a couple of games I’d love to try.