Realising ideas: creating game pieces

After a few weeks discussing what this game is really about, it’s time to realise what’s in my head and playtest it on October 20 at Linköping University (sign up here to join us – it’s played the old-fashioned way, i.e. on-site and face-to-face). In this post, I’ll tell you a little bit more about how I work as a game designer and also what I’ve learned about working in game design processes involving a team of experts and stakeholders.

For those of you who read my last post, I’ll just add that it generated some really excellent feedback from my team, which resulted in me reading e.g. Hagens (2020). This provided an overview of the issue the game will be dealing with, and gave me a better idea of the scope of the energy system and the changes it may undergo during the game. For the first playtest, we’ll restrict ourselves to the parts of the game in which populations interact with energy distributors for fossil fuels, biofuels, and electricity, who in turn interact with energy producers. Although this is only a very small – and very likely the easiest – part of the game, it will likely prove difficult enough for the players and control team to deal with. The objective will be to give me a fair understanding of how players handle the kind of game mechanics I’m imagining us using in the final game, and I believe this will also give my colleagues an opportunity to learn more about what kinds of negotiations and interactions this level of detail give rise to.

When I design board games, I have an idea (which may come to me suddenly or growing glacially slow over periods of months or even years), which is then followed by sketching, often on a classic paper notepad. What’s in that sketch varies – sometimes it’s a map with game pieces strewn over it, sometimes the structure of the game round or some mechanic – but what never varies is that there are always (huge) gaps that need to be filled in. It seems my mind can only do so much abstract work without losing track of things and, at times, several sketching rounds are needed, during which the game idea changes (sometimes radically). In the end, there’s really only one way to fill in the gaps enough to come close to the structure of a playable game: constructing game pieces.

This is the point where I’m at now – in fairness, however, I’ve already been doing some of this for weeks now. What I’ve learned since I designed my first megagame together with Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist three years ago is that a clear understanding of what the game is about can almost only be reached by sitting everyone (i.e. the experts and stakeholders connected to the game) down and drawing the structure of the game on e.g. a (digital) whiteboard (such as Miro) along with some game pieces to represent key features.

In my experience, discussing things without the assistance of drawing leads mostly to abstract discussions and people stating (often over and over, as if they are likely themselves making up their minds as they speak) what they want the game to be about or what it should do – often in theory or very abstract terms. This is valuable in the beginning of a research project, but until the team sit down and sketch together, I find that the understanding of each individual differs quite a lot from the others, which is very confusing in the game design process. Thus, for my next project (which just so happens to be the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame), I’ll get to sketching a lot faster in order to allow the project participants to create a joint understanding of what the game we’re creating is really about.

As for how my brain works, it cannot create clarity when viewing all parts of the game simultaneously, i.e. from a birds-eye view, and so I need to delve into making game pieces to get to grips with how the game really works. This process is really the same as someone setting about untangling a heap of yarn: they pick a thread, any thread, and follow it for as long as they can without getting stuck. When they do, they pick up another thread and repeat the process. After following a fair amount of threads in this way, I’m usually able to take step back and see the structure of the game in a new light – it may even be that a structure has emerged that was not there before.

What I imagine myself doing when I throw myself into making game pieces is putting myself in the shoes of the player and seeing the game at ‘ground level’, from the perspective of those who are going to play it. If I have a certain game piece placed in this position and tied to this kind of action, what options am I left with as a player standing in the room by this table, looking out over a sea of people? Will I be so engrossed in understanding my options and meticulously planning the perfect move that I will lose sight of the focus of the game? Will I realise that I need to talk to a number of people to make sense of what’s really going on, understanding which actions and resources I have access to and how to use them to survive the round?

This work is both intensely enjoyable and very frustrating, and it takes a lot of time, some of which is spent realising that all I’ve done so far is not going to work. Also, it is best done on my own. I find that discussing the game with others should be done in relation to more or less complete parts of the game (or when completely out of ideas), as such discussions inevitably lead to taking a step back and looking at the overarching theme/goal of the game, which is less than productive when creating/modifying existing game pieces and making sense of how they fit together. This is my current view, and it may well be that it changes over the coming months and years of game design.

Those are my thoughts looking up from a number of hours creating game pieces and fitting them together to make a game – in my next blog post, I’ll likely discuss some thoughts that have popped up during the week and after presenting and discussing the prototype to my team.


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