Apr 29

Game Design: Family Think & Make Workshop

I recently gave a presentation about tabletop game design at Perry Meridian Junior High School as part of their series of Think and Make Workshops.  These events are run by their wonderful librarian, Leslie Preddy, and with the help of a few dedicated volunteers.  One of the school’s math teachers and resident gaming expert, Doc Rissel, also took part in the presentation by teaching the audience about strategy and tactics as well as how to make variants of existing games.



For my part, I gave a short speech about my personal background with gaming, game design, and powerful lessons I have learned that I believe can help aspiring game designers or creators in general.  I followed this up by creating a basic board game template and then allowed the students to customize their own copies thematically so each student left with unique copy of a game they played a part in creating.

I began my presentation with some background on how I became a gamer, which is of course the foundation of how I wound up designing games.  I explained that it all began by angering my grandpa!  The first game I can remember playing was Checkers with my Mom’s father.  He taught me when I was about 5 years old and much to the surprise of all, but especially his, I crushed him!  Pa was not pleased.  In fact he displeased enough that he not only never played Checkers with me again, but to the best of my knowledge never played Checkers with anyone ever again!  While he may have done a poor job teaching me sportsmanship, he had awakened my love and talent for games that endures undiminished to this day!  Thanks Pa, who knows what would have happened if you never taught me Checkers!

I explained that Checkers led me to learn Chess, Poker, Chinese Checkers, and countless other games at a very young age.  I discovered Rpgs in my teens and played more advanced board games like Axis and Allies and true hobby games like Battletech until the bomb dropped.  The bomb in question was Magic: the Gathering which, aside from Poker utterly dominated my gaming life from 17 until nearly 30.  I explained that the near decade and a half of Magic was my doctorate in learning iterative design and understanding the interactions of game mechanics, even though I did not yet know it to be the case.

It was only after I had given up Magic and discovered modern board games in around 2006-2007 that I slowly began to feel the itch to design a game of my own.  After playing modern classics such as:  Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, and so many more I began to believe that it might be something I could do.  For the next few years I played at being a game designer, but did not really put in the work needed to actually accomplish my goal.  I would test once in a blue moon and make countless changes, but never really got down to business.  That is until I saw a video that made it all so clear to me exactly how I had to proceed!  This video, and its message, was the first piece of advice to my young audience.  I recommended they watch it.  I recommend you watch it.  I recommend everyone who thinks they might ever try to make or do anything creative!


Fail Faster

This the most powerful advice I have ever received in my life!  It made it possible for me take the partially formed Legacy Wars game idea I had and mercilessly pound it into the ground with my testers and eventual publisher V3G until it emerged as Strife: Legacy of the Eternals and realize my dream of becoming a game designer!  This helped me to overcome my fear of showing people something that wasn’t ready by allowing me to understand that doing so was the only way it ever would be ready!  It seems obvious, but it is not.  Apply the concept of failing faster to your creative endeavors, games or anything else, and they will start you moving down the right path!

“You can do anything, but not everything.” – David Allen.

This was my second piece of advice/wisdom to the kids.  During the run-up to Strife, their were a number of friends and some even in the industry who strongly advised me to self publish and run the Kickstarter myself.  While considering my options I remembered this quote and helped me make up my mind.  I realized that the extent of my game industry talents were working on a game and applying the fundamentals of iterative design and that was it!  I knew nothing of art direction, producing a product, running a Kickstarter campaign, graphic design, shipping a product globally, warehousing or any of the other important skills/knowledge sets that going into making a game or any product for that matter.  Now I am a smart guy, and I believe that I could learn how to do any of these things or at least how to hire out to skilled people who could, but I did not think that trying to do so on the fly while also designing my first game was the right time to do so.  Yes I could do anything, but not everything and I had to prioritize my goal to match with the skills I possess.  I wanted to design a game.  Out of all of the aforementioned skills this was the one that I felt I most possessed.  I knew that I would be best served focusing on that goal alone and that having a publisher handle all of those other concerns was the way for me to go.  I may someday run my own Kickstarter, as I have learned, and continue to learn so much from the great people with whom I have worked, but I truly do not know, as all I really want to do is design games.  I have no doubt that my design would suffer or at least my pace would be greatly reduced if I had to juggle everything else at the same time.

“Haters gonna hate.”

I am the furthest thing in the world from a fan of rap or hip-hop, but this saying is an absolute truism that all creators need to understand.  So much of what stands in the way of people creating a game or whatever their dream may be is tied up in the fear that someone will hate it.  I want to put your mind at ease…someone will definitely hate it!  Think of your favorite food…someone hates it.  Think of your favorite movie…someone hates it.  Think of anything in all the world that you think is wonderful and amazing…someone out there hates it!  So, given that there is a 100% chance that someone will hate what ever it is that you create there really is nothing to fear is there?  People are going to hate what you make for legitimate reasons in that it is simply not to their taste, which is fair.  Unfortunately people are also going to hate what you make for completely illegitimate reasons because they don’t even understand what is, which I find somewhat less fair.

To illustrate this point to the audience I read to them some of the most interesting reviews of my game Strife:  Legacy of the Eternals. It is designed to have a very low amount of luck and is as a result almost entirely a game of skill.  Some reviews back this fact up by referring to it as, “Card Chess” and “A challenging game with virtually zero luck.”  While some of the reviews and ratings are from people who simply do not enjoy that kind of game, which is a perfectly valid opinion, but there were also others.  Others who said things like, “This game is totally random with no skill at all,” and “Strife is a game that seems like it requires skill, but is really all luck.” The vast majority of the people who did not enjoy Strife fully acknowledged that is was a low luck high skill game, but not their preferred type of game, but as you can see some people did not even recognize what the game was about, but they knew they hated it.  This will happen no matter what you make and rather than worry about it you should embrace it and be freed from your fear.  After all, no matter what you do haters gonna hate!

Clackasaur vs Ninja Squirrels

My second part of the presentation was to help the kids in attendance make a game that they could take home with them.  During the week leading up to the event I designed a simple battle game where a “Big Monster” would be trying to steal the “Valuables” of “Type of Small Animals.”

This is the picture of the board and set up.

In my case I used a crab token that my step-daughter Katie gave me as part of a Christmas present full of prototyping materials as inspiration for my monster, Clackasaur.  Ninja Squirrels are my small animals and they are trying to defend their valuable, cotton candies, from the rampaging Clackasaur.  Obviously, this is ridiculous, but that was part of the point of the exercise.  It allowed the kids to use their imaginations when filling in the theme they wanted the game to be and understand that a game can really be about anything.  The Fail Faster video mentions this when it explains the silly concepts some of the world’s most iconic games have, such as:

Mario Brothers: Is about plumbers on drugs.

Sonic the Hedgehog:  Is about a blue hedgehog in sneakers that can run really fast.

Gears of War:  Is about linebackers fighting bugs with chainsaw guns.

They even go on to explain that Angry Birds, launching birds at pigs in castles, made a billion dollars!  It is about perfectly implementing your concept in an entertaining manner instead of coming up with the perfect concept.

The kids really enjoyed this part of the presentation and I will list below some of my favorite titles and valuables they came up with:

  • Locoraptor vs Elven Bunnies for the pieces of the Scepter
  • Big Joe  vs  Tiny Lizards for the Crickets
  • Ronster vs Flying Mice for the Cheese
  • Hydrasius vs Invisible Chipmunks for the Golden Strawberries
  • Giant Raccoon Vs Armored Turtles for the Iron Ingots
  • Dragonzilla vs Ninja Wasps for the Divinity Logs


A game in progress!

There were several others, but as you can see they let their imaginations run wild and we got some unique takes on the game from these young minds!

After customizing the attack cards in their battle decks to thematically represent the creatures they had chosen, everyone played their games.  I am happy to report that the results were reasonably balanced, as I heard stories of both animals and monsters winning, but most of all everyone having fun.

As the event came to a close four Gen Con passes, that had been generously donated, were awarded two at a time by random drawing.  I was given the honor/curse of drawing names, and as such was able to both fulfil and crush the hopes and dreams of the attendees.  I answered any questions the departing crowd had, with the most interesting coming from a young man who first told me I was awesome, always good way to get my attention, and then desperately pleaded to do some playtesting for me in the future.  When I told him to subscribe to this blog so I would have his email if I needed to reach him for testing he was super excited!  Leslie, thanked me profusely and told me the kids loved it and that I had been elevated to hero status.  She also gave me a little card containing a present I had not expected.

All in all, it was quite an evening.  A presentation like this is exactly the sort of assignment I would have skipped when I was in school, as I have long had terrible fear of public speaking due to my extreme introversion, and now here I was volunteering to do it as an adult!  Young me would be shocked to learn of such a future, but as the say, “What long strange trip its been.”  I must confess that most of my encounters with the education system as a step-parent and in general have left me disillusioned and cynical about its current state.  However, it must be said that Leslie and Doc are incredible educators, who are passionate about bringing unique experiences to their students that will broaden both their knowledge base and their minds!  It was inspiring to see such dedication and a great pleasure to help them in the small way I was able.  We need more like them!

In closing, I am glad to say that it was a positive experience for all involved including myself.  I originally offered to volunteer as a favor to a friend who teaches at the school, but after meeting Leslie and Doc found myself becoming more excited about the event.  It was truly a case of stepping out of my comfort zone, and although it made me nervous I feel the better for it.  You should try it sometime.  You may find it an excellent opportunity to learn something even as you teach others!



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