Game Design Discussion: Building a Game System

Game systems are an interesting blend of design and adaptation. They take a page from the idea of video game engines: using the same components, common mechanics and similar rules to create different games and experiences. The outcome is that you have a versatile foundation on which to build many future games. But what exactly goes into creating a system that works beyond just one game?

Examples of Game Systems

Game systems are more prevalent than you might think in the tabletop gaming hobby. The 18XX series of railroad games is a prolific example, with dozens of games that follow its system of rail building and stock trading. Upper Deck's Legendary system is being applied to multiple franchises, as is AEG's Love Letter ruleset. Even Fantasy Flight's Descent 2.0 rules have been extended into the Star Wars universe.

It's worth noting that just because a game has multiple expansions or editions doesn't make it a system, at least not how we're defining it. A game system has to support multiple games, ranging in theme, activities and even mechanics, but using the same components and possibly a common ruleset. For this reason, the Savage Worlds RPG setting, supporting numerous settings and rulesets, would be considered a system, but Dungeons & Dragons would not.

Benefits of a Game System

Why bother with a game system? Admittedly, it is not a necessary aspect of game design, but it can definitely have it's advantages.

  • Ease of development: Once you have a working game system, you can adapt other games to it much more easily. Rather than starting from scratch, you can start with a working system and customize what you need. It's the mechanical equivalent of working with an intellectual property (IP).
  • Opportunities for licensing: Speaking of IP, a good game system is also a great vehicle for crafting working games around various licensed properties. The Legendary, Love Letter and Dice Masters systems are all perfect examples of taking a working system to multiple themes and brands.
  • Community engagement: In addition to your own development, you may find fans adapting their own rules to their system. This can make some companies leery, as their "property" is being appropriated in new and unsanctioned ways, but this kind of engagement is a great sign for any community built around a brand.

Two Approaches

So, how do you develop a game system? There are basically three ways to approach the concept: Starting with a generic system, starting with an initial game or reverse-engineering an existing game.

Generic System

The first route is to simply try to create a generic game system. In essence, you're creating an abstract game that can then have different themes and special rules applied. The downside to this is that because there was no theme in mind, thematic elements may feel pasted on. Another challenge is that without an experience in mind for the player, or a particular outcome, development may be more challenging. The upside is that this is the easiest way to adapt to different games, as there was no single game in mind at the system's creation.

Building an Initial Game

This is a close cousin to the first approach, but it involves actually building a game. In this case, you're going to be developing a game, with a theme, specific mechanics, etc., but all the while, keeping in mind that these rules will need to be adapted to future games. As a result, you may not want to make catapults your core concept if you also want to see this system in a sci-fi setting. It's an interesting design challenge, but one that can be a little easier at the outset that just trying to create an abstract raw system.

Retrofitting an Existing Game

Thjs kind of thing happens when a great IP falls into your lap and you want to get a cool product out with it. The prime example of this I can think of is Star Wars: Imperial Assault adopting the Descent system. In this case, a game was created with no intention of expanding to other games. Indeed, Descent had plenty of expansions in its own right, plus multiple other games within its universe. So to adapt the game rules to the Star Wars universe meant making an ad hoc system out of it. Magic became the Force, bows became blasters. The rules were adjusted and streamlined, but the system was still in tact. This takes more work, because the original game wasn't designed with Star Wars in mind, but nevertheless, it's easier than building a game from scratch.

System Development in Practice

Broomstick Monkey Games' next release, a game system called Eight Kingdoms, followed a mix between paths 2 and 3. The system started out with a game called Kingdom Quest, but early in development, Justin and Jarom realized that the relatively simple components of the game could be adapted to multiple games. So instead of embarking to develop one new game, they started building four around the same component system.