Board game design, Personal, This blog

My goal is to enjoy the sunset. From a mountain. While designing board games.
I’ve given a number of prototypes for Los Buenos to people with the request to test it without me being there to explain (or influence). While this is happening I don’t want to do any further work on the game as I don’t want to have superseded the feedback I’m going to get. Which leaves me with time and energy to work on a new project.

There is one idea that has been buzzing around in the back of my head for a long time and it was the first thing I felt like picking up. I however also realize that it’s going to be a monster of a game to design, requiring a ton of content and a bunch of new mechanics that I only have some vague ideas about. And my fears are that if I pick this up I’ll sink my teeth into it and not let go until I have something, which may well take many years.

An alternative is to start working on something smaller and simpler. I don’t have any particular ideas for this yet, but coming up with ideas is not that hard.

Still, it’s a conundrum. And so I asked online for ideas and suggestions.

Suggestions were split about halfway for the two options. But I got one really good question:

”What are your goals as a designer?”

Interestingly enough, I had never really thought about that! But now I am thinking. And perhaps this is something useful for other people as well?

How I got into designing

I used to work in financial services as a freelancer. The pay was good, it was intellectually stimulating and it lacked any form of creativity whatsoever. I was able to convince myself that things were ok for a long time. But then it started to seep in that I wasn’t that happy with the line of work.

Having saved up a decent amount (and having a loving girlfriend who was willing to pay a bit more of the rent – Thanks love!) I decided to take a few months of sabbatical. I didn’t want to go travel and not see my girlfriend, so I had to come up with something else to fill my time.

I loved playing board games and was very interested to do something with that. I started a small company with some friends to do something on the overlap between board games and digital technology. As a sortof “aside” to the company we thought it would be good to actually create a board game to get a feel for the industry.

The company fairly quickly collapsed as there was no real clear goal and everybody else was doing things on the side. But “creating the game” had firmly taken hold and I loved continuing with it.

It was also at this time that I started to write this blog. I had once read somewhere that the best way to learn is by teaching. Through my writing here I can say I now fully agree!

A few months passed and the game got better, but it was still far from great. And my savings were running out. So, back to what I knew would make money: Financial services. Different company, different type of work. But still the same problem of not being creative…

So when after a year I got a message that a company was looking for someone to help them create a bespoke board game, I was very enthusiastic! And very scared!

Still, I’m very happy that I accepted the offer and that I now really am earning my bread through board game design.

Seeing your own game in store

Look for me here. At some point…
When I first started designing a board game my idea was that hopefully it would help me somehow get established in the board game world. Then I had to go back to financial services and it became a cool hobby to pour my excess creativity into. At that point I didn’t really need to make any money off of it, so my goal was to see something that I made for sale in my local board game store.

That is still my goal, because it would totally amazing to see something I’ve created really “out there” in the world!

But it’s come full circle: I’m again hoping to establish myself into the board game world. And as such having a game published is a goal, but also a means to an end. It means gaining the experience of designing something that people actually want to buy! It means getting my name out there so that hopefully it will become easier to take the next steps. Because the more you’ve done, the easier it becomes to do more (I imagine that if Uwe Rosenberg walked into a publisher’s office saying he had a game he wanted published, they would sign him there and then without even looking at the game).

A designer for how long?

This brings me to an even more fundamental question: How long do I want to be a board game designer, in the sense that that is the way I make my money?

There are three parts to answering this question.

First, I know myself well enough that eventually everything gets to be boring. On the other hand, I stayed in financial services for ten years while never really loving what I did. Still, do I want to “commit” to this for a long time? What if I really hate it after 2 more years? Of course that can happen, but I don’t really expect it will. And even saying something now doesn’t mean I’m oath-bound to actually see it through.

Second, I’m dead scared that this won’t last. Yes, I have an assignment now. But that game is going to get finished at some point. And it feels like I got extremely lucky this time. Realistically, how many other companies are there going to be that want to have a bespoke game developed?! So it almost feels like hubris to make a goal out of continuing doing this. Then again, if you don’t set that goal the chances of it actually happening go down even further!

Third, I do not want to go back to the other thing I know I can do well, which is finance. If I have to I will and I won’t hate it, but I won’t love it like I love game design. I could try to pick up a different (third!) career, but there I’d have to start even more from scratch than in game design.

So…

I believe that I’ll enjoy doing game design for at least another five years and I can fully imagine doing it for the next ten. It sure beats the obvious alternative. After ten years it becomes too hard to make anything like realistic predictions for the future. Aiming for “over 5 years” then seems quite reasonable. In other words, enough to really learn things and to make a career out of this.

To be continued…

Let’s keep on keeping on
My goal as a game designer then becomes first and foremost: Continue being a game designer. Or perhaps better, continue getting paid to design games!

That means a number of things.

It means I want to spend time on designing games. Which is easy enough: Lock myself in a room, do some prototyping, test for a bit: I’m a game designer!

That is a good start, but it’s not enough. As “designing” isn’t what people pay for, it’s the end results. Which means getting games out there!

These can be mass-market games, or bespoke games for companies. The first are probably more fun to make as I have full creative freedom. The second however are easier to pay the bills with. So a combination of the two would be best? Probably with a skew towards the second.

It also means getting my name out there. Having games in the hands of players certainly would help with this, so this is a self-re-enforcing step. (Good! :- ) )

But just that will not be enough, I’ll also have to spread my name in other ways. This blog certainly is a good step (it got me my first assignment!) so I’ll definitely continue doing that.

I’m also somewhat active on social media, though that can definitely be picked up. It’s a balance though, because it’s very hard to see what the direct benefits of it are. How much time is the right amount to invest? I guess this is something that would be good to think about further (perhaps in another blog post?).

What to make next?

Luckily there are always choices
All of this was brought on by a simple question: What kind of game should I start working on for my next project? Should I make the game that I would love to make, knowing I might be biting off more than I could possibly chew? Or would it be better to go for something simpler?

I have dreams. I hope to someday to make something as awesome as Gloomhaven or Pandemic Legacy. And this big idea might be it!

But it probably isn’t.

Because for every mega success, there are hundreds if not thousands of games that fall somewhere between outright failures to “decent”. And so pure statistics are against me in this. (Did I mention I used to work in risk management?)

And while I’d love to work on something that has the potential to be overwhelmingly awesome, it can wait. That idea will still be there in one year. It’ll still be there in 10 if need be.

For the shorter run I believe that getting a bit of volume in production is more important, pays off more, than taking a chance on hitting it big.

And so, based on what my goals are as a designer, my choice is to work on something other than my big idea.

Watch this space for further updates!

Closing thoughts

It’s been very good to articulate my thoughts (and fears!) for what I want to do with this “newfound career”. It made me realize some things that weren’t clear when they were happening, like how much I missed being creative in my previous jobs.

One thing that is still unclear is how much of this is based on luck? I know I got the design job I’m currently holding because I’ve been prolific in writing and doing my best in getting my name out there. But is that all it takes? How many other companies are walking around with an idea for a game? Is this a one-off or can it really be a steady source of income?

“Luckily” I’ve been in this situation before. I worked for 5 years in a permanent role in financial services before I started as a freelancer. My first assignment felt like dumb luck. The second already gave a bit more security and after the third I felt confident that there really was a decent demand for my skills.

For board game design I’m not at that point at all, but just knowing it can be reached makes things easier!

What are your goals as a board game designer?

So all of this has been about me. But what about you? What are your goals and dreams as a designer? What are you doing to achieve them?

Perhaps more interesting, what are your fears? Or what were your fears which you have now conquered?

I’d love to hear your story!

Further reading

Want to know a bit more about how all of this started? Here is the first post for this blog.

And I mentioned that I am now working as a freelance game designer. You can read more about that here.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

Personal

It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life…
All things must come to an end, even (or especially!) games.

Last week I had an ending of my own: I spent my last day at my permanent job (working as a risk manager for a small bank). And in some ways it was even more of an ending; for over ten years I made my living in financial services, but no more.

Endings make space for new beginnings.

Playing two games at the same time is hard and frustrating for most. So we tend to not start a new game until we finished our last. Ending a game creates the opportunity to play a different one. It might be more fun, or less. But you won’t know until you play it.

Ending a job creates the opportunity to start a new one. I didn’t quit my job to sit on the couch and do nothing, while slowly (quickly!) seeing my saving fade as snow in the sun. I quite because I got an offer for something that seemed like it would be even more fun than what I was doing before.

As of now I’m working for a company called oneUp (yes, that’s the right way of capitalizing). What they do is run projects within big companies as though they are startups.

Big companies and startups have things in common (they want to make money, they hire people), but there are also a lot of things quite different in how the two are run. And it’s not easy to convince a corporate manager that she should throw away the project plan, fail fast and break things. But these are essential ingredients if you want to copy the stellar rise of Snapchat, Spotify or Uber.

Boxart for the Startup Thinking Game (v1.0)
So oneUp wants something that helps them explain these and other concepts in a fun, engaging and interesting way.

”Fun, engaging and interesting you say? That sounds like….”

Yes, it does. It does sound like they should be using a board game!

And that is exactly what their thoughts were.

Which is where I come in.

I’ve been writing this blog for my own entertainment and educational purposes. I’m happy that other people seem to enjoy reading it as well and that I’ve gotten some very nice compliments (thanks all!). But I never thought it would actually lead to anything.

I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong!

It turns out that writing about board game design can put you in the searchlight of a company that is looking for a local designer, eager to have you help to create a truly unique educational and marketing tool.

So… As of now I am an official (in the sense of getting paid for it(!)) game designer!

So now what?

I know the gist of what oneUp wants to have created and I know some of their ideas around this: I’m to build them a board game that explains how startups function. It should be fun, engaging and interesting. And it should play in half an hour or less.

That should be easy right? Piece of cake, walk in the park… Right? Right?!

Yes it’s a challenge. But one I’m very happy to be taking on. One I’m excited to take on!

And I’m looking forward to taking everybody along in the design process. That might be on this blog or I might start up something new specifically for the project (I’ll have to discus with my new paymasters on what their preferences are. Getting paid is awesome, but it does put a bit of a dent in your freedom to do whatever you like… 🙂 ). Either way, I’ll be sure to keep you posted!

Closing thoughts

Step by step – and with a little help from others – anything can be achieved
I never really had a concrete plan, but I had sortof been hoping to be able to slowly scale up my game design work while I scaled down my “actual” work. That slow process got jump-started with this incredible opportunity.

I’m not spiritual, don’t believe in karma (even though Los Buenos makes heavy use of it!), have always thought that the law of attraction was nonsense. But I can’t deny that the job came to me because I write this blog. And it’s all completely logical: I go out there and share what I do, so of all the people who are doing something similar (or more awesome!), my work shows up more easily. Still, it feels like a reward somehow…

So perhaps two take aways that will hopefully inspire you:

  • Good things sometimes really do come to those who do good
  • It’s not impossible to turn a passion into a job

Further reading

This is a blog about game design, even though the above isn’t that much. Luckily I have two old posts that sortof makes sense:
All in-game resources are temporary (which is because games end!)
The time value of resources

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, Los Buenos, Personal, Play-testing

The current state of the game
Yesterday I spent a good number of exciting and exhausting hours playtesting Los Buenos at “Spellenspektakel”, a board games conference in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

In this post I’ll give my observations about going to a conference in general and what lessons I have to make my next time even more productive.

Preparation

Before going to the conference I created a nice prototype of Los Buenos, with significantly upgraded graphics. This meant a lot of work in the previous weeks to get all of that ready, including a high-intensity printing-and-cutting session the evening before. The upgraded graphics seem to have worked; previously I would get comments on the “simple” graphics, while now I did not hear anything negative about the look of the components.

Lesson for next time: Make sure I have at least decent graphics for the game.

I also created some feedback forms, for people to fill out after the game. These had fairly general questions (“What was the best moment in the game?”, “What element would you remove from the game?“), as well as asking for a score of the overall game and whether they would recommend the game to others.

The feedback form ensured that everybody gave feedback on the same things. This was good in that it was consistent, but it also meant that some subjects that were in fact important weren’t covered in the feedback forms. For example, I was quite interested in whether people felt any form of “scarcity” and specifically in what resources.

Lesson for next time: Also think about the more specific issues I have that I want to get some thoughts on.

Setting up

I arrived at the location in time to set up my game. I laid out the game, ready to play for 4 players. I believe that this created a nice overview and made it clear that there was something to be played here!

The table I got had 4 chairs. As Los Buenos plays 2 to 4 players I thought this would be perfect, but I was wrong… A group of 4 wanted to play, leaving myself without a place to sit. I was able to borrow a chair from another table, but they were a bit reluctant to let me have it. I was also somewhat in the way of the flow of the crowd, so this wasn’t an ideal situation.

I don’t know exactly what I could’ve done about this. I’m guessing the organization wouldn’t have been particularly responsive to me requesting an additional chair… I could’ve rented a second table, but that feels like overkill as well…

If the game played more than 4 I definitely would’ve been in trouble…

Lesson for next time: Keep in the back of my mind how many people I want to test with and whether that works.

Getting people to play

Just gather around and we’ll play!
I had asked on Twitter for some last-minute tips. One of them was to create a nice board with the title of the game, a tag-line, how many players can play, playing time and a short introduction. I chose sleep over making this and so I didn’t have it when I arrived, leaving me a bit nervous.

Some of the other stands had something like this, but most didn’t.

Testers were a bit secluded (on the upper “balcony”), meaning that it took a bit of time before people started filtering up.

I found it easy enough to get people to join my game. I spoke to groups of 2, 3 and 4 people (I was mostly interested in testing for 3 and 4 players), asking whether they were interested in playing a game. If they didn’t walk on immediately I gave a very short explanation of the theme of the game and what players would be doing, including the playing time (10 minutes per player). I emphasized what I think is the unique thing about the game, which is that you’re getting points (karma) for doing things that help your opponent.

If people were interested to play I’d have them sit down. If there were two of them I’d play the third player, for groups of 3 and 4 I let them play without me “interfering”.

Lesson for next time: Having a sign explaining your game isn’t necessary. Though if you dislike accosting strangers it might help to draw people in without having to cajole them.

Lesson for next time: Having a short explanation of the game really helps. I also think that the short playing time was a good way to pull people in. If I have a longer game next time I’ll have to give some thought on how to entice people to give up their valuable time.

Explaining the game

I hadn’t really thought too much about how to explain the game in advance. I did find I quickly got my rhythm there. So much so that people complimented me on my explanations!

I tried hard to emphasize consistencies in the game. For example: When you do anything that benefits your opponent you get at least one karma point. After doing that three times players would be able to fill in the gap themselves: “You place the money in the vault, which means that anybody can use it from there. What does that mean for you?” “I get a karma point!”

I also made connections to the real world where possible. “For example you can only start work on a building once you have the required materials for it, because in real life it doesn’t make sense to start hammering away if you don’t have the wood to hammer together”.

Lesson for next time: Point out consistencies within the game and with real life. It helps if the game designed specifically around those ideas of course 🙂

Lesson for next time: Think about how to explain my game a bit more in advance.

Playing the game

No actual dice involved in playing Los Buenos (though these are pretty cool!)
When playing I tried not to point out anything to the other players – no tips and tricks. When I was playing myself this was somehow a bit harder than when I was just on the sideline. I guess I was more involved when actually in the game?

Lesson for next time: Try to stay out of other people’s thought processes even more. I want to see how they play the game, not how I play the game!

I did ensure that I pointed out any rule mistakes that players made. Testing whether rules are easy to remember is something I want to do, but not in these tests.

When it came to distributing resources, doing the end-of-round cleanup and setting up for the next round I tried to be as helpful as possible, mostly by doing as much of the work as possible. This ensured that the “bookkeeping” parts of the game flowed as smoothly as possible. This resulted in quick gameplay and (hopefully) more fun for my testers. It does mean I didn’t observe the “full” game as played by others. Were there mistakes in setting up or moving resources? Is that something I need to think about further?

Lesson for next time: Let players take a bigger part in “running” the game, so I can also observe whether anything can be improved there.

Obviously I have a lot more experience with this game than anybody else that came to the table. This means I could’ve beaten everybody, but I don’t believe that would’ve given them the best experience. Me being part of the game already skews results, but by playing at my best I believe they would’ve skewed even more. So, I played sub-optimally. Taking actions that were not the best, while not being obviously stupid either. I hope that this resulted in “reasonable” results.

Lesson for next time: Try to get more groups of 3 and 4 (or test my 2-player version) so that I can be on the sidelines more.

Getting feedback

During the game I tried to make notes on what was going on. Here I focused on some of the issues I had in my mind, like the scarcity of resources from turn to turn. I specifically noted when these got out of kilter – when there way too many or too few resources.

I also noted how people were playing: Intent on the game, or distracted (the first mostly).

And I wrote down any interesting quotes that people had during the game: “What am I to do?” “You should’ve helped me when you had the chance!”.

My feeling is that most quotes were positive, but that might just be projection. It’s hard to gauge exactly what internal processes are when someone says something. “What am I to do?“ can be out of frustration because there really isn’t anything interesting to do, or it can be a sign that there are multiple options that are equally tempting. The first is bad, the second is good. Paying attention to voice and body language then becomes important. Those are hard to capture just in the words though.

Lesson for next time: Put emojis with quotes, to get some idea of how people said it

Taking notes was much easier when I was not playing, so another reason to try to be outside of the playing group.

Lesson for next time: Try to stay out of the playing my own game while testing.

Finally a lot is going on during play, meaning it’s hard to capture it all. Added to that is that my handwriting in the best of circumstances is poor – when writing quickly it becomes horrible.

Lesson for next time: Consider recording the tests – either video or audio

As mentioned I also got feedback through feedback forms. Everybody was happy to fill them in. I did feel a bit awkward in asking even more questions afterwards. I had some good discussions, but I’m sure I could’ve gotten even more out of it.

Lesson for next time: Push through my own awkwardness and ask more questions / feedback afterwards.

Taking care of myself

Because in some ways, a convention is similar to a desert…
Doing an entire day of testing is exhausting! The last test I wasn’t really paying that much attention anymore and I have basically no readable comments from it. Perhaps it would’ve been better stop before that?

Lesson for next time: Stop when drained. Pushing through doesn’t actually give a lot more useful information.

I was also lucky that I got a suggestion to bring snacks and drinks. Especially the big bottle of water was a blessing as I got very thirsty. And while I ate a bit, it felt very rushed, eager as I was to get into the next test. That might have had something to do with me losing energy as well.

Lesson for next time: Take the time to actually eat and drink properly.

After the event

Today I worked through all of my notes, writing everything out and collating the feedback forms. Next step is to draw conclusions and to think about what kind of experiments I want to run in next tests.

Picking this up quickly was good, as where my handwriting failed, memory sometimes still served to bring back what I had tried to write down. It’s also fresh so that I’m eager to get to work on a next prototype!

Lesson for next time: Schedule time very soon after such an event for writing everything out, so that I keep the momentum.

Closing thoughts

Going to the convention was a great experience! I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot! Looking back I think I did very well, but there are always some things that I could do even better. Now to remember to read back this post when I go to the next convention!

I also hope this has been useful to you as a reader, perhaps you picked up a few things you’ll change when you go to your first / next convention? If so I’d love to hear about it!

And perhaps you have further tips for me, so that I can do even better the next time?

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Learning, Personal, This blog

An early version of "Voluntarios", the game I've put most effort into
An early version of “Voluntarios”, the game I’ve put most effort into
It was 2005 when I left university and eagerly threw myself into this strange thing they called a “job”. And where I went from having no money and lots of time to do fun stuff, I went to decent money and little time for the good things in life.

One job led to another and while the money slowly got better, the time didn’t really.

Ten years passed, in which I learned a lot of things and had a great time. But as the years added up, there was a growing feeling of: “Is this it?”

So by the end of 2015 I decided to quit what I was doing and to pursue something more worthwhile: I would be a board-game designer!

I had been playing games for the better part of my life, so that part of it I had down. But the other side, the actually creating something from scratch? Not a clue!

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