The Board Game Design Course

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Game Design

When should I shelf my game?

One thing that’s often difficult to know is whether to continue to work on a game that’s not quite clicking. I often hear the question, “Should I shelf my game?”

Shelfing a game literally means putting it on the shelf rather than continuing to work on it. But just because you put a game on the shelf right now doesn’t mean you can’t come back to it at a later time.

We’ll get into this more in a moment.

In this article, we’ll look at when it’s a good idea to continue working under game versus when putting your game on the shelf might be a better idea.

Why it’s sometimes beneficial to shelf your game

Problem-solving is a huge part of designing a game. You’re going to constantly run into issues that require a solution.

You can’t just give up when something isn’t working quite right. But at the same time, if you’ve tried absolutely everything you can think of and nothing is working right, you can’t just keep banging your head against the wall.

Sometimes there is no elegant solution to your problem or at least not one that’s readily seen at the moment. So, rather than continue being frustrated with your game, it can be a good idea to put it on the shelf for a while.

You’ll find that solutions to problems will often come at the strangest times. It might be when you’re working on another prototype, playing a published game, or just out taking a walk. Sometimes just by taking a step back, you’ll come up with a great solution. At that point, you’ll want to take your game off the shelf and give that solution a try. It may or may not work in reality, but at least you have a new idea to try

The problem with continuing to try one fix after another is that you’ll spend a lot of time trying any possible idea that comes along, even if you can clearly see in hindsight that it wouldn’t have fixed the problem. You may become very frustrated with your game and feel that you don’t have the skills as a game designer to bring it to completion.

That’s why it’s a great idea to have multiple games on the go. I don’t necessarily encourage this approach for a brand new game designer, as I feel there is a great benefit to bringing one game to completion and proving that you can actually make a game first. Too often we are inundated with shiny new objects, or in this case new game ideas, and if we let ourselves continually chase the next new thing, we’ll never finish what we started.

However, once you’ve created at least one game, it’s often a great idea to have multiple games on the go, particularly ones at different stages of development. That way if you’re stuck on one game you can move on to another. Quite often you’ll find that by taking a break from one game you’ll come up with ideas for it later on, sometimes even while working on another game.

When to think about shelfing your game

There are times when you’re working on your game and everything seems to be clicking. Players are enjoying the experience, there are no major issues, and you can see it getting closer to the stage where you can pitch it to publishers or self-publish.

But there are other times when there is a clear problem with your game and you’re struggling to find an elegant solution. Sometimes you’ll end up slapping on a band-aid solution that leads to more problems in other areas of your game. You may then end up with a bunch of if/then conditions, which can make your game very clunky or require repeated referencing of the rules.

You don’t want to have a lot of edge cases in your game, that is to say, certain uncommon occurrences that can happen that are outside of the norm. You’ll often have to put a fix in place for each of them, which will take players out of the flow of the game, which is something you want to avoid.

So, it’s important to work these issues right out of your game.

However, you’ll often discover that a solution that you try will not fix a problem or you can’t find the right mechanic that matches well to the theme and fits well with the gameplay. It’s definitely worth trying several solutions, whether they are ones that you have brainstormed and feel they are a good fit or ones that were suggested by playtesters that seem like they might solve the issue. Yet, if you try one fixed after another, none of them seem to work, and you don’t have any other real viable solutions, it may be time to put your game on the shelf.

That’s not to say that it will stay on the shelf forever. Sometimes a game isn’t meant to be. I know I’ve put some games on the shelf and haven’t taken them back off for many years and probably never will. And that’s OK. Not every game will be published and not every game should be published. Sometimes they are simply an experiment that didn’t pan out. Regardless, every game you work on will make you a better designer and make your next game even better, so don’t feel that this time has been wasted.

So, if your game is bringing you more frustration than joy and you can’t find a viable solution to the current problem, stop beating yourself up over it, and set it on the shelf for a while. If and when you come up with a great idea for that game, it’ll still be there on the shelf waiting for you.

Final thoughts

It’s completely fine if some of your games never reach a stage of completion. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Sometimes you just need to allow more time for ideas to percolate and solutions to be found.

Banging your head against the wall and getting frustrated over your game won’t help. So, don’t be afraid to put your game on the shelf for a little while. You may come back to it later and you may not. If it’s meant to be, the solution will come to you sometime down the road.

Have you ever had to shelf a game? Did you come back to it later with a great solution?

I’d love to hear about your experiences. Please share them by leaving a comment.

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    Thanks for the post, Joe! Some of what you wrote sounds familiar to me. I worked on a game for a couple of years, went through many, many different versions, wrote up dozens and dozens of pages of notes, had multiple playtests with my friends, and was never really happy with the game. It never clicked, at least to my mind. I stopped working on it before the pandemic, haven’t gotten back to it. The overall experience ended up making me feel that I’m really not a game designer. I essentially felt like I was using the brute force method the whole time, trying one thing after another, but with no real feel for what might be an effective solution. I came up with a LOT of ideas, but no combination of them ever worked as a game. I don’t know if I’ll get back to it, but perhaps it was better to realize relatively early that I’m not a game designer, rather than put more time into it with no results. Thanks again, Joe!

    Thanks so much for your comment, Andrew! Not everyone is suited to be a game designer and we can’t all design games, as there are plenty of other roles that need to be filled. Fortunately, there is a need for game developers, graphic designers, project managers, social media specialists, rulebook designers, and many other positions. You may just need to figure out which one is right for you if you’re interested in being part of the industry. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with just enjoying playing great board games!