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Chapter4.gif (957 bytes) Designing Manual Games

How to Do It Yourself

Game design is very much like writing a book, term paper or any other work of nonfiction. In many respects it's actually easier. But in some respects it's definitely different. In this section, I will explain the differences.

The main difference is the structure of the work. A nonfiction writing assignment is basically an act of communication. The writer collects, reorganizes and presents data in a form that the reader can easily use. This type of communication, however, is what I call linear. That is, we start at the beginning and proceed word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page along the line laid down by the author. A game, on the other hand, is nonlinear. To be sure, it starts at a beginning, but from there on it is primarily an exercise of choices and options, of different tines that the reader or gamer may follow. Designing a game is working with a much more structured piece of work than is writing nonfiction. For one thing, a game is much more graphic than a literary work. A game is much more precise. Even on a "literary" level, it is mainly a set of instructions. But minor mistakes or ambiguous passages that might not seriously harm a nonfiction work can cause grave problems in a game.

There are many rules to designing games. Above all, there are two game design rules that control all others. First, and most important, is:

Keep it Simple.

The second rule is nearly as important but is a bit more complex in its use. The second rule is:


Plagiarism is a dramatic way of saying, "use available techniques." If you try to plow too much new ground, you're not going to get very far and you will have an extremely difficult time in keeping your game sufficiently simple to be manageable.

It is very difficult to keep a game design project simple. Once you get going there are tremendous temptations to add this and add that. A game design is a very dynamic activity. It soon acquires a life of its own, asking questions and providing parts of answers. The game designer is sorely tempted to go deeper and deeper. Without some years of experience and a high degree of professional discipline it is extremely difficult to do an unsimple game that is not a truly incomprehensible one. For a game is, in addition to being a source of information, also a form of communication. If thee information cannot be communicated, the game does not work. You've got to keep it simple.

Using available techniques provides you with a wide range of proven procedures on how to design a game that gives you the most bang for the buck. I assume you only have limited time for designing a game and I presume you would prefer to spend less of your time banging your head against a wall and more time refining a functioning game.

There are no iron-clad guaranteed ("follow these rules and you cannot fail") guidelines for designing a game. I do have, however, 10 steps which are generally followed in designing games successfully. The number of steps has actually changed over the many years that I have been designing games. But, in essence, these 10 steps, albeit rearranged and renamed occasionally, have remained remarkably consistent.

  1. The first, and most important step, is concept development. You must determine at the very beginning what it is that you want to do.
  2. Next comes research. You will have done a little of this during the concept development stage. At this point you must fill in as many of the gaps in your knowledge as you can.
  3. This is what I have dubbed integration. This is where you take all of the research material and your knowledge of game mechanics and integrate it into a prototype game.
  4. Now you flesh out this prototype, coming up, in effect, with something that looks remarkably close to the finished game. In some cases, if you're lucky or the phases of the moon happen to be just right, your prototype will be exactly like your finished game.
  5. Prepare a first draft of your rules. Many people overlook this step, preferring to keep the rules in their heads for a while longer. They usually come to regret this.
  6. This is one of the more difficult steps: game development. This means play testing and changing the game and rewriting the rules and taking a lot of abuse from people who would rather play than design and don't appreciate at all the problems the poor designer has in getting anything done.
  7. I call this step blind testing (computer game designers call it beta testing). This is where you take your physical prototype and your written rules and send them out to somebody who can play the game without your presence. This is often very revealing.
  8. Editing. This step occurs when all of your blind-testing results have come back and have been integrated into the manuscript. Somebody else should now take over the manuscript and edit it. This also means trying to play the game with all of your final corrections and changes and generally attempting to smoke out as many gremlins as possible.
  9. Production. If you are going to publish the game, this is the production step. This is where many things can go wrong. Rules have to be typeset and things can get scrambled about. The art work has to be prepared from your prototype and things can get changed again. There is much potential danger in this phase of game design.
  10. Feedback. This step is also extremely critical if you are going to design any more games. This is the feedback step where you must systematically collect feedback from those who play your game to see where you went right and where you went wrong.

These steps are used for the publication of historical games. Most people will apply their game design skills to the modification of existing games or the design of games that will most likely never be published. For these unpublished games (I deliberately refrain from calling them amateur because I am consistently impressed by the quality of unpublished games compared to many of those that are published), the designer's effort should be directed toward producing a game that the designer can easily and effectively use. This means that all of the 10 steps are basically used, although blind testing, editing and production tend to be folded back into development and prototype construction. But it would not be that difficult for a gamer to conduct a blind test as well as having some other player edit it and then going through some simple production procedures which would enable the gamer to give out copies of his game without going to the expense of actually publishing it. I will explain these techniques farther on.

There is a lot more to the 10 game-designing steps than I have briefly explained. The tricks of the trade are what make these steps functional. The tricks that have been uncovered in the last thirty years could fill a few books. In order to get across to you a good number of these tricks in a format that you can use, I will describe the actual design and development of a game that was prepared expressly for this book. Although a rather small game, it has all of the same elements much larger games contain and requires that the designer go through all of the same steps and encounter and solve the same problems.

  Chapter 3 - Why Play the Games

  Designing a Game Step by Step

  Table of Contents