This is part one in a series about the ongoing process of creating a board game.
A long time back, before I got paid as a game designer, I used to prototype out different board and card game ideas. Actually, “prototype” is the wrong word here. I was just creating games to create games because that is what I enjoyed doing.
One of my favorites, I remember, involves a bunch of D&D dice on the pool table in my parent’s basement. The table is covered by a thick plastic sheet that binds fairly tightly, so there was a nice gradual grade between the table and the edges, creating essentially a tiered bowl. You would flick a die between other pairs of dice and try to get them to land as close to the edge as possible without going over. You scored whatever was on the closest dice to the edge. It was a great example of triangulation before I knew what that meant. Regardless, it could pretty much only be played in my parents basement which really limits its exposure. Somewhere in some cupboard in my parent’s house is the rules to that game, likely stuffed away with all my 2nd edition D&D paraphernalia.
In 2006, I was at EA and we were in pre-production on what would become Superman Returns DS. We were looking for a developer to partner with and so all we could do is design on paper. As a result, while the business people were doing long contract negotiations, we were designing essentially a board game paper prototype of the multiplayer mode using cards, dice, figures, post-its and a Gamecube copy of Mario Party 6.
Since no one who owns a copy of Superman Returns DS actually knows another human who owns a copy of Superman Returns DS, the best part of the game was pretty much never played. But it did teach me a lot about board game design: going back day after day, trying new ideas and throwing 90% of them out. Like most designers, I was learning by doing. And the cost of iteration on paper is so minuscule compared to the cost when done on a big digital game project, that you get 10x the learning in an equal amount of time.
I kept up the paper prototyping idea, but it was not well-supported at EA. I worked on a new IP project where the main mechanic was heavily tested via paper prototype but it was cancelled before we could even get anything real on a screen. As I was basically told that paper prototyping was witchcraft and a waste of time, I eased away from it, which in retrospect was unfortunate.
When I rediscovered board games recently (specifically Euro-style board games) I also rediscovered my love for designing with just some paper, dice, cards and so forth. For one, you don’t get compiler errors. And as long as you aren’t trying to sell it, no one is telling you are wrong and stupid stupid awful when it is half-done or not working correctly which was a needed emotional crutch at the time. But additionally, at the end of the day you have something physical in your hands which is always quite nice.
So over the past year I’d get inspiration regarding a theme or a mechanic and I would scribble in a notebook or on Google Docs about it, try to put together some basic rules and try it myself. I have the awful tendency to never want to show people anything until it is done. But with games, if you keep that attitude it will never be done. It needs the exposure of real players. Nonetheless, there must have been six or seven ideas that got to the “write stuff on cards” stage where I schizophrenically played three or four players at a time to assuage my ego. These ideas were ok, but nothing great. Soon I lost steam and tried to come up with something different. The goal was not to vainly get something published, but to create something good enough that others could enjoy it without having me there to sell it.
In March, I was stuck in an airport – there were snowstorms across the country and it was affecting the whole network. Planes were being delayed or cancelled with malice. If mine was cancelled, I would have been stuck in Orlando, so I wasn’t sweating it. Every time the public address announcement would come on, everyone would clam up, stay still and listen. If the PA would say “JetBlue Airways Flight 6789 to Kennebunkport will now be departing from gate 45” then all the folks would pick up their bags and make a mad dash over to Gate 45 in the hopes that even if they didn’t have a ticket they could weasel and bitch their way onto a flight, any flight, back home. They’d get to the counter and start screaming at the ticket agent. All around the airport, the same song and dance.
That image of the passengers rudely shouldering their way to rush across the airport to make a flight is the inspiration for the board game I am working on tentatively titled “Airport Rush“. It is a highly strategic game in the European style and in the next few posts, I will talk about the design and the process.