Tabletop Game Design Tip #1

Hi, all. Over the decades, I’ve designed more than two dozen board, card and rpgs. I’m not boasting – I don’t have any of them on the market (I’ve spent little time trying, frankly, but that’s starting to change.) Recently, I started a complete revamp of one of my designs, this time with the intent to try and get it on the market (I know – about time!)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about game design, theme, mechanics, components, etc. and I’ve done a ton of research, learned some new tricks, and thought I’d do a short series on tips I’ve learned over the years. Hopefully you’ll find something useful here, or at least a good reminder. (Btw, the pic below shows part of the cover of my last novel: The Shadow Reaper, and one of my custom dice: The Overkill D20, heading to Kickstarter very soon.)

Using Space to help identify problem areas
Whether you’re designing a card, reference sheet, character sheet, hero board or rule book, you can learn more about what you are actually doing, what works and what doesn’t from how you have been using the space you have and what you had in mind.

When I first started my revamp for Freeze Or Burn, I wrote up a bunch of spells then tried putting them on the cards and had a rude awakening. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was an amateur mistake, but it had been awhile since I’d messed with cards and I was still coming off the excitement of reworking an already cool game. There was no way the text was going to fit without being super small, and even if my eyes were less than stellar, I wasn’t interested in giving a wall of text to read for something that should be fairly quick to digest. Instead of using bigger cards, I simplified the rules and the cards were better for it.

Super tiny text more often than not is a red flag that you might want to rethink how you are handling the concept, simplify how the effect/spell/monster works, use more iconography, come at it from a different angle, etc. This has helped me with RPG design and board game design. If your game is intentionally crunchy, then you can get away with more and smaller text (though older gamers may struggle to read your text), but if you are going for something slimmer (not simple), but more elegant, or at least faster to understand and play, you will want to be very mindful of space.

As the years roll by, attention spans and patience for complicated games and reading in general declines. This is a serious issue, so even if you don’t mind reading large volumes of text, you have to consider what your players might be willing to do. Also, if you can use fewer words, you should, if it doesn’t decrease understanding. Throwing a spell on a card and seeing that you need to cut out half of the text is a good way to force yourself to think smarter about how you are writing spells, for example. It helps you get creative about how to handle things. More than once I’ve done this trick and it helps me actually improve the spell/magic item, etc.

Character Sheets and Rules: Making a character sheet or hero board/character board helps you see where your rules get bogged down and how much emphasis you are placing on certain themes, whether you meant to or not. i.e. If 50% of a character sheet is skills you have to ask yourself if skills are that important to the game – half of what your character is about. Maybe they are important to you, but is there a better way of handling skills? Do you need that many? Is it truly 50% of what a character is, and if it isn’t, should it take up as much room?

Cluttered rules, text-heavy cards and character sheets are also like noise and do nothing to carry the game’s theme, tone or mood. What type of gamer are you focusing on? What are you trying to achieve with the space you have? Are you offsetting the flavor text from the rules? That’s a good idea more often than not. I’m all about theme, but I try not to inundate when what the player is really looking for is how the mechanic works. It’s one thing to naming something that carries the theme, and another entirely to delve deeply into lore in the middle of a rule. Fluff belongs in their own sections/side bars. But that’s another topic.

The mind needs some blank space. Things need to be aired out for the mind to appreciate them, digest them, and understand them. A little iconography is great. A lot is difficult to remember and is therefore confusing, even with big icon legends. Find a happy medium. If you’re having trouble remembering them all, imagine those who haven’t lived with your game for a year or two. Some gamers just walk away without ever playing your game to find out how awesome it is if it looks intimidating.

Thoughts? Tips of your own? I’d love to hear them! As for what else I’ve been up to, we’re gearing up to run a custom RPG dice Kickstarter (our 3rd Kickstarter), recently put up The Shadow Reaper novel on Amazon and are working on a bunch of other goodies. I don’t post on the blog regularly because there aren’t too many folks who know it exists and I’m very busy with writing, designing, art and publishing, so to make sure you don’t miss anything, join our mailing list (that’s also a great way to get some cool, free fiction!) Well, have a great week, all!

About Bob Whitely/QT Games

Welcome to QT Games! Mission Never publish junk or waste people's time. Publish only high-quality fiction and games. 'Nuff said. Company Overview QT Games LLC was created to publish blended-genre (fantasy blended with sci-fi, etc.) fiction, board, card and roleplaying games for a discerning gaming community. Unlike most small press, we have very strict standards: Only pro writing, pro editing and pro art. That means that if we can't get it right, we find someone who can. We pay well for what we don't do in-house. We don't cut corners on quality. This means we stand to make less money than other small publishers, but that's okay with us. We value your time and money, so we're willing to take the bullet. We've designed a large number of games and written a pile of stories. Now we're polishing some of them and getting them out the door. 'Bout time, we know. Good stuff ahead!
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