Game Design Part 1: Hooked on a Feeling
This week's topic is going to be my first in an ongoing series about designing a miniatures game (though these thoughts can be applied to designing any kind of game, I hope). It's going to be unique because it will pretty much be in real time with a game I'm designing, and also because I've never designed a miniatures game beyond two play tests. I'll talk about my thoughts behind certain decisions and how I came to certain conclusions or methods, and you can see how things change through the process. It might be a bit weird for the above reasons, but also because like a lot of creative endeavors it's putting a little bit of myself out there, and there will definitely be missteps along the way. But hopefully someone out there reading this will find it fascinating, helpful, or even inspiring (if only for what not to do).
Today, specifically, I want to talk about starting points: what kind of game do you want to design? It may seem a bit shady to say, but most ideas begin with an already-published game. Taking a look at popular miniatures games already on the market, it's easy to see their inspirations. Looking at the original version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, it's hard not to notice the historical war-game inspirations: blocks of troops marching around blasting D&D-type spells at one another. Even original-seeming games like Warmachine and Hordes actually began using a modified set of rules from the Vor miniatures game done by FASA (with art done by one Matt Wilson, creator of Warmachine). Very little exists in a vacuum, and hardly anything does in the gaming world.
So you've chosen a stack of your favorite miniatures games, and you've read and played them to death. Now you have to begin the arduous task of finding a core idea and concept for your game. This can be as simple as a concept of "hard sci-fi" or something as detailed as "a game where opposing mages square off on a 4' square table, summoning monsters and blasting each other with spells" (you can even choose non-miniatures games as inspiration). Often times this concept can even come from the question of what you'd like to see in a miniatures game. What type of game or even which mechanic do you think is missing in the world of gaming? There are more games than ever right now, but in no way has every inch of design space been explored.
With your core idea in place (and remember, this can even be as simple as "I want there to be hidden treasure that models/players can find," or "ray guns") you can now start winnowing down certain things and narrow your scope. Try to avoid mashing too many things together. This can come off as a bit cheesy, or busy. An undead-themed game that's also a spec-ops style game, but one side has Spelljammer-style flying ships is, frankly, disjointed. If you want action points to factor into your game more heavily, you can start there. Look at games like Warzone or Necromunda. Massed-combat games like Oathmark or Deus Vult might now fall by the wayside as you explore this space.
It's important for me to mention right now that while I'm spending a lot of time talking about inspiration from existing games, you do want your game to be unique. Don't just crib mechanics from eleven different games and mash them together. No matter how well you fuse disparate rules, it can still be a bit of a Frankenstein's monster, and that will show.
While you're thinking about which games or other media is fitting your vision, also look at what you think makes those things evocative, or makes them work. X-Wing works the way it does because it feels like your movement matters. It evokes a feeling of you being a pilot in a sci-fi dogfight. Dune (the novel) evokes a byzantine web of politics (I'm continuing my statement of anything can be inspiration, game or not). When you're beginning your game think about what you want the game to evoke in the players. This will help tie all your mechanics together and will make it easier when it comes time to begin the arduous task of streamlining your game. If a mechanic doesn't work towards making your players feel like they're down in the trenches, then maybe it should go (or maybe you should change the scope of your game, if you really like a mechanic you've come up with).
Remember that at this point you're starting out. It's okay to have a mood board full of inspiring sources, disparate mechanics, and too much wonky stuff. I'd even venture that at this point you want a ton of stuff, so that you have a lot to chop off. Games don't just spring into being, spend two months play testing, and then become hits. A lot of games can take years to play test and refine, and need to be seen by more people than exist in your immediate circle. Even if you chop off bits from your initial rats nest of ideas, keep them handy in case they find a spot back in, or become solutions to problems later down the road. You may even start working on writing the rules and realize that things you thought belonged in your game 100%, don't.
Once you've spent some time thinking about what your game is, what the players are going to feel, and the basic scope of the game, it's actually time to get some ink on the page and work on the rules. For this, I like to start with a "one-page" rule set, which is really a topic for another time.