A couple of months ago, I asked the readers of this blog to send in answers to the question “what confuses you most about board game development?” I got a lot of responses, and two of them were about knowing when to pivot during a game design project. That’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.
This week, I want to respond to a comment by Corry Damey. The question can be roughly summarized as “how do you know when to pivot your board game design?”
Why Pivot in Board Game Design?
Play-testing is notoriously difficult. Game design involves creating a system of rules and mechanics that are interpreted by players according to their expectations. Rules and mechanics alone often interact in complex, unpredictable ways. This alone makes play-testing difficult.
On top of that, people don’t always completely understand the rules of the game or the possibilities that mechanics provide. People bring their own biases and expectations. In short, gamers won’t play your game the way that you want them to.
There are far more ways to screw up a board game than to do one well. Because game designers are creators of complex, unpredictable systems, even the best ones cannot reliably create fantastic games on their first time. For that reason, game designers have to make peace with the fact that their games will have to change a lot before they are ready for public consumption.
Smart Play-Testing Principles
In an old post called Designing Tests and Keeping Records, I talk about how you can stay organized even as your game is revised dozens of times. I encourage you to read that post in its entirety.
Even if you don’t, though, there are two principles which I would like for you to bear in mind when play-testing:
- Take notes.
- Save your old work.
If you do these two things, you can always reverse a pivot. Don’t destroy old versions of your board game – make new ones instead!
Pivot Early, Pivot Often
Game designers are an intellectual crowd. The great struggle with which intellectuals will eternally battle is a simple one: the real world will never look like the one you imagine. People with perfectionist tendencies may be tempted to stick with a design that’s “almost working.” In truth, though, if you’re early in the process, your game is far more likely to need a big change than a small one. (More on that in a minute.)
Suffice it to say, if your design just feels “off,” then pivot. Pivot like you’re trying to get a big couch up a staircase.
When to Pivot: The 10 Elements Method
In 10 Elements of Good Game Design, I riff on an old Wizards of the Coast article and talk about what makes great games great. I wrote the original version of that post in 2016, and it’s the oldest post on this blog that I actually like, so I encourage you to read that one as well.
The ten elements of good game design, listed in that post, are as follows:
- A clear objective
- A runaway leader killer
As I see it, if you’re missing any of the first eight, you need to pivot. Flavor and/or hooks can often be added late in the development process since they are primarily thematic. That said, if you don’t think you can add flavor or a hook without ruining theme-mechanic unity, then, yes, you need to pivot.
With that in mind, let’s talk about eight specific scenarios under which you would want to pivot your game.
1. Your game lacks a clear objective.
Without a clear objective, you cannot determine who won or who lost. Objectives are so essential to board games that not having one arguably makes your game not a game at all, by some dictionary definitions.
Having an objective, of course, is not the whole battle. If your scoring system is confusing, for example, then figuring out how to score the most points is too obscured to be playable.
2. Your game lacks constraints or has too many constraints.
If achieving the objective is incredibly simple or incredibly difficult, then odds are, you need to change either the game mechanics or the rules to make it easier or harder to win. Too few constraints rob the players of any sense of achievement. Too many constraints give your game all the fun of a trip to the DMV.
If you cannot fix this issue with a few superficial rule tweaks, you probably need to pivot.
3. It feels like nothing you do in the game matters.
Games need to be interactive. You may achieve this interactivity by having the game impose constraints upon the player, or you may achieve this by having players play against one another. No matter what, though, gamers need to feel like they are interacting with the game. Otherwise, the game feels pointless, like a first-person shooter video game that’s 90% cut scenes.
4. Runaway leaders happen often.
Allowing the leaders to run away with a game is one of the worst qualities that a game can have. Players need to feel like they have a chance to win up until the very end of the game. The only exception may be hardcore skill games.
Again, if you cannot fix this issue with superficial rule tweaks, you probably need to pivot.
5. Your game does not reward skill.
As bad as it is to allow leaders to dominate the game with no hope of the losing players recovering, it’s also bad to feel like your lead is not sustainable. Games need to have an element of inertia. Otherwise, it becomes Candyland.
6. Your game has no surprise.
Even in games with perfect information (where all the pieces can be seen) like chess, your opponent will still catch you off-guard. This doesn’t happen nearly as much at the hyper-competitive level of chess, but for your average day-to-day person, chess is a game that affords players a lot of viable strategies.
Games with no sense of surprise will become dull quickly. They risk becoming “solvable,” which is to say, they have one right way to play. If your game is headed in this direction, you probably need to introduce an entirely new mechanic.
7. Your game is all tactics and no strategy.
You need your game to give players a chance to win by merit of their skill, but not lose for the slightest tactical error. That is to say, your game needs to have an over-arching strategy instead of just a series of tactical decisions. If your game feels like it is missing this key element, you probably need to pivot the design.
8. Your game just doesn’t feel fun.
It’s a soft rule, but an important one. Games are supposed to be fun. If you make a series of small tweaks but your game just still feels like a chore, then you probably need to pivot the design on a much larger level. Even deeply flawed games can often be cleaned up if they feel fun.
Pivot early, pivot often. Creating board games is complicated and oftentimes when our designs don’t work, it’s because an underlying assumption of ours is wrong. The fastest way to solve that is often by pivoting the design entirely and trying something new.