Lessons of Amateur Game Design
Our Designers Reflect on Some of Their Earliest Games
Even the most experienced game designers start somewhere. Before they worked on games like KeyForge and Arkham Horror: The Card Game, our designers began with their own amateur projects. For today's Designer Journal, we asked a few of them to tell us about one of the first games they ever designed, including how young they were when they made it, how the game worked, what inspired them, and what—in loving hindsight—was terrible about their earliest effort? Join us today as they tell us a little about their experiences as amateur game designers!
Starting at about twelve years old, I began to make homebrewed content for my favorite card games and RPGs. I had a couple of ideas for my own card games but nothing that I really wanted to flesh out until I came up with an idea that fused my love of card games and my interest in mythology. You would play a god trying to gather enough power to materialize into human form. You would do this by playing minions that granted you their Faith, monsters that fight for you, and spells to help you dominate the board. My working title for the game was Avatar, which, at the time, was not yet the title of another popular franchise—in other words, this was a long, long time ago!
The elements of the game I was most excited for were two of the game components. To track the god's progress from incorporeal wisp to animated skeleton to full-blown walking deity, I wanted god cards to come with a series of transparencies that you could overlay onto them, with each level “building up” the god in the artwork as well as changing some of their abilities. To track the passage of time through the game, I wanted an ornate wooden wheel with each of the zodiac symbols inscribed in it.
While these components certainly would have been visually striking, they also made my game far too ambitious of a plan. As a budding indie game designer with limited resources, growing up in a time before crowdfunding, there was no way for me to realize such an elaborate vision. Knowing that, I probably shouldn't have spent as much time prototyping it as I did. But my friends and I had a great time getting to play it for a while, and I was pleasantly surprised that the game actually functioned (which is far from given on first iterations, let me tell you). It was massively encouraging to finally get something from my head out in a playable form, and I wish I'd done it simpler and sooner. It put me on the path I'm on today.
Way back in 8th grade when I was a wee lad, Magic: the Gathering changed my world. At the time, I was obsessed with collecting sports cards. Magic cards quickly followed suit and they added a whole new dimension to explore: you could play a game with them! Naturally, I thought it would be cool to combine the two. The result was the first card game I ever designed.
From what I remember, my game was very crude and primitive, made with one pack of handwritten index cards. Originally, I wanted each player to build a team of NBA players, but I hit a road block and couldn't figure out how to implement that into a game. So I simplified it, to say the least. Each player had a deck of cards consisting of offensive cards, such as “Slam Dunk” and “3-Pointer,” and defensive cards, such as “Block” and “Foul.” Players would alternate taking turns. During your turn, you would draw two cards and play one offensive card. Your opponent could react by playing one defensive card. Offensive cards could score points and defensive cards could counter them. The first player to score 50 points won.
The game wasn't all that engaging, so I changed most of the cards to have wacky names to help mask the tedious gameplay. “Slam Dunk” became something like “Triple Whammy Windmill Jam” and “Block” turned into “Stuffed Like a Thanksgiving Turkey.” I even drew pictures and added flavor text consisting of trash talking and “yo momma” jokes. These additions gave my game some life, but I quickly got bored of it and through-the-legs-360-dunked it into the trash bin.
Looking back at that game, while striving for simplicity in gameplay is important, going too far in that direction can make a game feel more like a simulation where players lack meaningful choices, and giving players meaningful choices is integral to designing great games.
I created a lot of games as a child. I mean a lot of games. Most of them were trashed in less than a week as I grew bored of them or became fixated on a new idea. I very rarely crafted something to a form that was actually playable, and even then, I usually just left it on my desk at home, never to be seen or played. However, there was one game I created in middle school that stuck with my friends and me for many months.
As a kid, I was enthralled by real-time strategy games like Starcraft, Command & Conquer, and Age of Empires. I always wanted to play them with my friends, but back in those days that was easier said than done—the internet was a hassle to use, and most of my friends didn’t even have access to it. We’d have to physically carry our computers to one another’s house in order to play together (RIP, LAN parties). My solution was to try and recreate the enjoyment of a real-time strategy game with pen & paper. First, I designed a ton of units, weapons, and buildings. Then I created a huge map on several sheets of graph paper, complete with various types of terrain and control points.
Each of my friends had their own version of the same map with “fog of war” that would obscure the parts of the map that they personally had not explored. Of course, since there was no computer to run the game, I played the role of the gamemaster. I was the only person with access to the “master map” that showed where everyone’s units were without any fog of war. So, as each player took their turns, I would relay to them what they saw as they opened up more of the map, and I would be the one to resolve all combats. I would send messages and status updates to each of the players by slipping notes into their lockers in between classes.
This ended up being the game’s downfall. I’d taken too much responsibility onto myself. I loved playing the gamemaster in tabletop RPGs, and I had assumed this would be no different, but boy, was I wrong! It took a lot of time to sort out all of the players’ orders and commands, even in a turn-based game. Since all of my friends were competing with one another, remaining balanced and impartial was somewhat stressful. It was fun at first, but eventually I burned out. I eventually decided that one of my friends had “won” the game despite not giving any clear victory conditions ahead of time. (You’re welcome, Chris.)
One of my earliest game designs that I can remember was a game that put players in charge of a power company. The catch was that they needed to send their workers off to collect electricity from roaming thunderclouds. I was hoping that the decision points would cause players to find ways to navigate the terrain and figure out the most efficient way to ferry electricity back to their home base. In practice, however, the mechanic that caused the clouds to move required more maintenance to keep it working than was fun for the players. And, because it was easier to simply wait for clouds to come to you, players did not engage in the main mechanic.
At the time, I was pretty disappointed that the design didn't work, since it seemed like I had such a solid idea in my head for how the game would play. Making this game taught me an important lesson, though: just because it seems like a design works on paper doesn't mean that it will be fun to play or you'll actually be able to engage players to interact with its mechanics.
Wow, this topic takes me way back to 7th grade. I designed a monster fighting game that involved drawing a monster on one half of a sheet of paper, putting its health and gold at the top of the other side, and then beneath these two stats was a column with the numbers 2–12. There was a list of starting attacks, weapons, spells and powers a monster could choose from, and the player could assign these to each of the numbers as they saw fit. There were bonuses available to starting health, gold, and powers depending on how cool the monster’s drawing was.
Gameplay was pretty simple. On a player’s turn, they rolled two six-sided dice and resolved the attack or power or ability in that slot. Some damaged the other monster, some healed you, and other special effects like re-rolls or defenses against a specific opponent's attacks were also available. If you beat the other monster, you got all its gold, but the other monster could always resign at any time and then you only got ten gold for winning the fight. There were even upgrades to the abilities and weapons that could be purchased from the store if your monster saved up enough gold.
I initially made the game to pass the time in study hall: I’d make up two monsters and watch them fight each other. A friend eventually got in on it, and then a few more. Before we knew it, there were a LOT of people in the school playing the game, including kids I had never even talked to before. At one point, someone came up and asked if I played the monster game, and had a monster with attacks and powers that weren’t even part of the system… and yes, they were OP beyond belief! As with most things in Junior High, the monster game fad passed quickly, but it was fun while it lasted!
It bothered me a little at the time that people were making up their own items and powers for the game, but I can see now that they were doing it because they were really having fun with the game. This experience helped me realize an important fact that is a tenet of professional game design: after you release a game to an audience, it becomes as much their game as yours.
We hope you enjoyed this edition of the Designer Journal and that our designers' stories of their earliest games inspires any amateur game designers out there to keep creating. Until next time!