Confessions of an Amateur Designer

Game design is a funny thing. It’ll hit you without a moments notice: an idea popping into your head, a new game springing forth from a simple thought, image or sound or, as happened to me recently, an old design coming back with a vengeance and the correct solution. It’s a mysterious art and one that many are better at than me, but I thought it might be of interest to have a look under the lid of how I personally design games, and track one in particular: This is my Blade, hear its Tale (TIMBHIT) (snappy title huh?).


The calm before the storm of the first playtest, will it survive?

Crouching Idea, Hidden Game

The idea for a game where you build a sword over the course of play has been in my head for a while, a long while. It started with a mate of mine’s design many moons ago that never really got completed and stuck around with me since then. I’ve had some goes at it a couple of times but it never really seemed to work. Some attempts have included story paths like a maze of cards, betting on things all sorts of mechanics to try and make the thing work, but most never saw it past the ‘spewing random thoughts out onto a page stage’. A few years ago I had a version where you rolled custom dice that activated your blade in a King of Tokyo style manner, and this felt the closest to a ‘game’ than any other design had. It still wasn’t quite right though, so I abandoned it for other pursuits.

Until recently. Inspiration is a funny thing and I can’t even remember what I was doing when the thought popped in my head: Dungeon Machi Koro. Like someone finally seeing the right piece appearing in a rapidly building Tetris screen I finally had the core of a game I could see working. That is one of the keys for me in early design: that I can visualise what the game might look like in play. Using Machi Koro and similar games as my base I immediately started pouring forth ideas from my brain and the core of the game was quickly built. I’m going to share the ‘rules’ I wrote with you but keep in mind it’s liking looking into raw chaos, and is only really meant as reference for me.


You’ll notice immediately that I have two voices within that text, one for putting in new and untested rules one for writing thoughts about existing rules. There is less of these two voices in this text than there will be in later versions, as the entire document is basically untested rules. I do find this really useful for tracking changes I make and will also iterate the document keeping older versions so I can see the evolution of a particular idea, or look back as to why I rejected something.

Once I’ve gotten an outline of the rules down the next step is making components. I admit that I mostly design card games because I have a method down that makes this easier. I was first put onto this method by Daniel Solis’ Blog and it involves making CSV files of your cards then datamerging them with an Indesign template. I find this a great way of rapid prototyping a game that I can then alter and iterate easily by changing the spreadsheet that holds all the information for the cards.


From bottom right (anti-clockwise): core template, datamerged preview, multiple record layout which I’ll export as a PDF

You can see the sample sheet for TIMBHIT here. The initial work is probably a fair amount more than prototyping on blank cards with a pen or similar but I find that this way I can then more quickly change the parameters of even a single card. What I tend to find myself doing is altering cards with pen during playtests and then I’ll do a major reprint when I want to iterate to the next version of the game. When that is, well that depends a lot on how things roll. No game survives contact with the players.

The First rule of Game design club….

… is that it’s really fun and you must tell everyone about it!. We’ve covered some of the the method to the madness so what about the actual game itself. Assembling everything was relatively easy: print out cards, chop up (I recommend a guillotine if you are going to do this), sleeve with blank cards as backing (which you can get on amazon for peanuts in large amounts) and you are ready to rock and roll (it does help to have loads of card sleeves from years of gaming).

Next step is to corale your friends, find a local gaming group who are willing to help you playtest or you can create one! Playtesting a game is very different from designing and one that can be a very raw emotional experience: you’ve got to be prepared for harsh feedback because without that you are never going to make your game great, you need people to be critical. At the same time you need to figure out who to listen to and who not and that can be massively tricky, as some players might see something in your game that you can’t or don’t even want. Holding the vision for your game in your head is massively important, as it’s going to be buffeted by doubt, criticism and difficult decisions.

For me a playtest session starts out very much like me teaching a game, but with some added information about what I am aiming for with the design. I like to have strong elevator pitch in my mind so for TIMBHIT that went something like this:

“We are all adventurers sitting in a pub, telling stories of how we came by the fantastic blade that we now possess. The person who tells the best story by the time last orders are called will get a free room for the night”

That’s the hook which I think is pretty good and certainly gets everyone thinking about that situation. I give a a brief overview of the mechanics starting with how you win and then turn orders etc. as I would for any other game. I also like to give an idea of the sort of game I am looking to design here: length of a game, games that inspired the mechanics etc. Not only does it help me solidify the idea by saying these things out loud, but it helps the playtesters get an idea of what I am looking for from the design, what they should feedback on and whether or not I have achieved that with this particular iteration. The more times you explain your game out loud the better as far as I am concerned, as it helps solidify ideas in the mind and allows you to think about how you will explain those concepts in the written word, which in the end is your ultimate goal.

They have a plan

I recently took TIMBHIT to my playtest group and got two games in. I was really surprised how well it did and we managed to conclude both games pretty quickly, possibly slightly too quickly actually. The players were great and gave me some excellent feedback on all sorts of aspects of the game from mechanics to game flow and clarity of symbols. The core of the game came out really solid and it’s a design I am really happy with so far. I’ve had this idea in my head for so long it feels like such a relief to get it on to the table, working and enjoyable!


My First Astrological Blade of Fire was not a winner for me!

What’s next? Well I’ll be taking that mess of rules you saw earlier and rewriting it top to bottom to clarify some concepts and start laying things out in a more logical manner, though it won’t be ready for a blind playtest (something I’ll cover in an article down the line) for some time to come. I’ll also be pouring over my card spreadsheets, tweaking some numbers, coming up with new cards and the like.

One of the real joys of this design is figuring out how to emulate various monsters and traps within the confines of the system and I’m really happy how flexible I’ve found it so far allowing me to emulate everything from a Dragon to a Pit Trap. I got some really good ideas from the group I played with so I am going to implement all of those ideas, which you can see at the bottom of the rules I linked earlier, and then see if I can make this good idea into a fantastic game.



Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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