Design Diary: Introduction



A successful playtest meet up

One of our ambitions for 2017 here at the Crafty Players is to put out more higher quality articles. If you read our post about our new year’s gaming resolutions, you would have read that I have set myself the goal of having three games ready to submit to the Cardboard Edison Award in January 2018. To help facilitate both of these goals, I’ve decided I’m going to write about my experiences of trying to design board games. From the early steps of idea to early prototype, to playtesting and how I modify the game based on those playtests.


Mostly, this is for me: codifying my experience will help me track changes to my designs and generate ideas for how to fix mechanics, player interactions and other issues that might arise. Hopefully some of you, dear readers, will chime in and offer solutions or insight too, if you think there’s something so bloody obvious that I’m missing (this is a recurring theme in playtests).

What’re you working on?

At the moment I have two games in development and three or four ideas I’ve written down to try and prototype. The two games I have in development are:

  • Sheep Dog Shuffle – A 2 or 4 player team game, where a shepherd and sheep dog team must round up as many sheep as possible and bring them back to the pen. But watch out of the wolves in sheeps clothing!
  • Agency – You are a small marketing agency, trying to make it in the cutthroat world of advertising. Under-cut your opponents prices, release quality marketing campaigns and you’ll be richly rewarded.

As you can imagine, the names are a work in progress. Coming up with names is surprisingly difficult! The other ideas I have are:

  • A miniatures wargame without dice, where you play cards from your hand to determine if you hit etc
  • A two player assymetric game where one player is playing a deck building while the other player is playing a worker placement game
  • A rondel game where players can customise their rondels
  • A game where you must manage a new colony. How do you balance the dictates and demands of the Empire, without causing the colony and the locals to erupt into open rebellion?

Top Left: Sheepdog Shuffle

As you can see, some of these games are ideas involving mechanics and no theme, while the last one is a theme, with very little mechanics. This is how my ideas come to me. Sometimes I’ll be walking to work, and I’ll think of a certain combination of mechanics, and I’ll try think how it might work. Sometimes a theme will come to me and then I try figure out mechanics to fit it. The final idea, a game about managing a new colony, came to me while in the archeology museum in Split, Croatia!


Today, I’m going to talk a little about Agency, which is the design I’ve dedicated the most time to recently. When we ran our Build A Board Game event we provided each team fixed components to build a game. In order to challenge myself, I sat down one weekend to use those very same components to design a game. The components were:

  • 10 wooden cubes each in black, white and red
  • 3 wooden discs in black, white and red
  • 20 blank cards
  • 2 blank dice
  • 2 sheets of cardboard

I didn’t want to use the dice to determine outcomes. I wanted the players to react to the dice, to work with what the dice generated, rather than be hindered by them. I decided that the dice would generate one of three resources, represented by the cubes. The dice had one face for each resource colour, plus one face that would let the player pick a color from the three. The other two faces were blank. Each player would roll the dice and they would be pooled together, from which the players would then draft one at a time.


First iteration of Agency

I had it in my mind to make a game about marketing, which helped pull some ideas together. These three resources would represent different demographics. The players would have a hand of cards which represented products, which they would be marketing on social media platforms. Different cards would have a required colours in each platform. How did the social media platforms get populated? Easy, from the pool of resources the players would take one cube each, one at a time, and place it into their desired platform. From randomly generated resources, the players would have an element of control about how they were used.

Genius, I thought to myself. Design completed.

No. Not at all.

Playtests are frequently a wake up call. No matter how much brain power and thought I put into a prototype, the players always, always find something wrong in a matter of minutes. Often before I finish explaining the rules. The first playtest, for me, was an unmitigated disaster. I was wholly unprepared, and elements of the design were poorly thought through and even more poorly implemented. It was hard. I blamed the playtesters a little, but they were right, of course.

Back to the drawing board

In the first play test when someone cashed a card in, they would remove the cubes from the platform to show how the card scored. This was to represent those particular demographics spending their available income! But it just didn’t work. It slowed down the game, it just wasn’t fun and there was no real incentive for players to draft the demographics they wanted. The fix for this was to have a separate track for the amount of cash each demographic had, and when a card was cashed in, you had to take the cash from this reserve. Great. A new action was added that let the player discard one of the demographic cubes to increase the amount of cash in that demographic.

Genius, I thought to myself. Design completed.

Again, not a chance. This new addition to the rules didn’t fix anything. The problem still remained, it just surfaced in a different way. One player could just put all the demographics into whatever platform they wanted and wait for the other players to increase the cash available. Alternatively, one player could increase the amount of cash available to the red demographic (for example), only for the very next player to use all that cash to complete one of their cards!

I realise this is probably very difficult, dear reader, for you to follow. You’ve no concept of what the game looks like. You haven’t played it. I’m talking about fixes to problems that you’ve never experienced. The key takeaway is that I was designing in isolation, thinking these systems would operate in a specific way, allowing the players to try time their moves, to give options and decisions, but they just fundamentally didn’t work, resulting in the players feeling frustrated and powerless.

Our playtest group meet once a month. I needed to try fix these problems. I also felt that what I had now wasn’t enough to be a whole game on it’s own. What did I do? Well, I’ll continue the story in my next Diary.

Have you tried your hand at designing a game? What are your experiences? Let me know in the comments below, on Twitter, our Facebook page or on our Instagram.

5 thoughts on “Design Diary: Introduction

  1. Rory .J Somers says:

    Ah, I feel you plight. Playtesting is the longest, hardest struggle with game design I find. I often get bogged down in building the prototype. I’ve recently discovered that it is better to test the game in layers. With my current design Bad Pets , I have plans for bonus scoring, 3 and 4 player asymmetric variants and so on, but right now I’m testing the foundations of the game. The very bare bones. Once I’ve got that down and sorted, I’ll move onto adding new bits and will repeat the process


    • PatrickBrophy says:

      Playtesting is hard, but also so rewarding! When you see people enjoying something you’ve enjoyed that makes it worthwhile. Recently, after one of my first play tests with Agency, a play tester sent me a message on Facebook saying he woke up thinking about the game, which was a big compliment!

      I’m in the same boat as you, trying to lock down a core game play experience, making that solid before looking at adding in variable player powers, different set ups, more companies etc. Its fun to think about the possibilities once you have the core fixed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. dmsense says:

    This sounds familiar! The game I’m currently working on has been through dozens of iterations. Usually I get 1 or 2 plays out of the game before I’m changing the rules, reprinting cards, etc. I’ve had numerous instances where I’ve scrapped ideas after trying them out on imaginary players before I even let real people try them. The game was becoming bloated with extra mechanics and rules meant to correct flaws. I finally took the main core deck of cards that had inspired the whole thing, set aside all the other components, and played with them to determine what was essential. After a couple more tests, I realized just a few elements needed to be added back in. But now it’s so much better than before! I love the quote: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”


    • PatrickBrophy says:

      Hey! Thanks for your reply. It’s always great to hear from other designers and to hear their stories.

      I’ve actually been through a fairly similar experience to you recently. I stripped away about half of the mechanics in my game to focus on some of the core mechanics, and it worked really well. Of course there’s some things to tweak here and there, but it’s more progress than I feel I’ve made in recent months.

      I’m interested in how you try out your games with imaginary players. Do you just sit down by yourself, and try out different strategies and ideas? I always find it difficult to pretend I’m multiple different players and play myself.


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