The New Year is a time for making resolutions, or at least setting vague goals and aspirations. If you're a game designer or a gamer, chances are one of those goals is to start your own game design. Taking that first step can be a little daunting: Where do you start when you're trying to make the next great game? That's what we're going to talk about today.
A Short Note on Theme vs. Mechanics
There are plenty of blogs and podcasts that have discussed (or argued) this point: Whether it's better to start with a theme and build a game out of it, or to start with a mechanic and layer a theme on top of it. I'll keep this short and say that there is no right way to start. If you have a good idea you think you can run with, work with it.
Getting the Idea Down on Paper
Even if you've got a great idea, it doesn't count until you've at least written it down on paper. Take some time with either a pencil and paper, or your favorite word processor, and just write a stream of thoughts down, starting with your idea.
Some questions you might want to think about: What is the core of your game? What are the players doing? Do the players interact? How? What physical actions are they taking (drawing cards, rolling dice, pushing cubes)? What is the experience you want players to have? What stories should they be telling when they walk away? What do you NOT want your game to be?
This can just be a list or outline. You can even write some short prose if that's where your mind takes you (that can work particularly well when fleshing out a backstory). Whatever works to get the ideas on the page.
This is your foundation document. It's going to be a sort of tome that you can always come back to as you're designing. And it will help keep you honest to your design even as you get into the weeds of development.
The Next Steps
As you're writing all this stuff in your foundation document, you'll likely find that you're writing a lot about either gameplay or pieces, or both. This means its time to take your foundation document into the next phase of design: building out a ruleset and a component list.
For your first ruleset, you might want to try just writing an outline of one turn. What does a player do to start? What can they do on their turn? How do they know when their turn is over? Keep it quick and to the point – the special cases and exceptions will come later (and should be limited at all costs). One you have a turn, you can also look at building out a round and even the game set-up and ending.
When I say component list, I mean that you should start thinking about specific components in addition to the inventory list of cubes and meeples. Are there specific cards in your game, or tiles? What do they have on them and what affect will they have on the game? While these special effects and abilities may not be explicitly written into the rules, they can have a big effect on the game.
This is certainly not the only way to start a game design. You may want to dive right into a draft of the rules, or to start listing cards and units for your game. Maybe you really want to nail down the theme of your game with a short essay on the game universe, and then let the rules grow from there.
Regardless, getting your ideas on paper is the key. 99% of game ideas never leave a would-be designer's head. Taking that first step makes all the difference. Good to luck to you and your designs in 2015. We'll be back in the future with a look at building a more formal ruleset.