The Board Game Design Course

Where great games begin

Game Design

Getting to the core of your game

I had a request from another game designer, Jonathan, asking me to write an article going into deeper detail about understanding the core of your game. This was in response to an article I wrote on gathering feedback to make your game better that he found helpful but wanted to dive further into the topic.

Getting to the core of your game is an important thing to keep in mind and I was glad to be asked to elaborate on this further.

Now when I hear discussions about what the core of a game is, my brain immediately thinks of the vision from my game.

So, whether you think of this as the “core” or the “vision” for your game, let’s dive right into this important topic.

Starting point

Whenever I come up with a game idea or start working on a new prototype, one of the first questions I ask myself is “what do I envision the experience players will have when they play this game?”

Is it a frantic, tension-filled experience?

Am I aiming for a lot of laughs and memorable inside jokes (as I might for a party game)?

Or do I want the players to feel smart after that have put together a strategy or solved a problem or a puzzle?

There are lots of other experiences you can consider. These are just a few examples.

This is really where I come up with the vision for my game. While the theme, mechanics, constraints, and endgame condition may change drastically, I want to stay as close as I can to my vision (the core) of my game.

What playtesters say

One thing we need to keep in mind as game designers is that getting the right feedback can be tricky.

Quite often, playtesters will jump to solutions before they’ve properly identified what the actual problem is.

For example, a player might say “I wish I had could attack that other player.” But they are thinking about a solution (and not necessarily the best one) rather than first identifying the problem.

It’s up to us as designers to get to the root of the issue, then we can entertain suggestions, but ultimately, it’s up to us to make changes and test the results. By digging a little deeper and asking that player why they feel that way and peeling it back, layer after layer, you will get to the real underlying problem.

You may discover that players felt frustrated because another player ruined their strategy. Or players may not feel there is enough interaction. There are many possible reasons why players are making suggestions, so start by asking “why?”

But the other thing that will often arise, especially when testing with other game designers, is someone will suggest making changes to your game that will make it more like the game that they want to play or create. This is where things can get really challenging.

It’s up to us to decipher what problems and suggestions will help improve upon the vision for our game, versus what will take the game in a completely different direction. It’s fine, and usually inevitable, that some of the mechanics, perhaps the theme, and the endgame condition will change over the course of developing your game, but we must be careful not to stray far from our vision.

How to stick to your vision

When you get feedback from playtesters, you have to ask yourself the question, “Will this make my game better, or just different?”

This is a really important distinction to make.

Also, ask yourself whether making this change will take you away from the vision for your game. Every decision you make must be in alignment with the vision or “core” of your game.

Someone may make a great suggestion, but the end result could look like an entirely different game. And that’s fine. Maybe that could turn into another game idea you want to explore further.

But remember, it’s not the game you’re currently working on.

So always keep in mind what will keep your game moving forward in the direction you intended and be cautious not to stray far from your vision.

Take action

Write down the vision for your game. Commit this to memory.

Whatever the feedback you receive, always put it through this filter. Is the change or suggestion in line with your vision? If not, you can always record this as an idea for a different game but make sure to stick to your vision for your current game.

Comment below and let me know what the vision is for your game. Think of this as an extra layer of accountability to yourself and your vision.

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    Great article Joe!
    One thing I’ve also observed is that players often suggest changes that will allow them to do more stuff, gain a competitive advantage, or remove obstacles to victory. However, the limits and restrictions on players, and figuring out how to overcome these, is what creates the satisfying challenge of a great game. So while players might want card or ability X to be more powerful to help them win, it might actually not be the what they *really* want in the long run. It’s up to the designer to figure out what’s the right level of constraints so that players feel challenged, but are given adequate tools to overcome these challenges.
    Keep up the solid content!

    Thanks so much, Paul!

    You’re absolutely right. It’s up to us as game designers to figure out just the right balance to allow players to do the things they want to do while imposing restrictions that make these actions more challenging. When you find the sweet spot, you’ll have players coming back for more.