Art for Art’s Sake…Sometime’s It’s Not Just Business (Dev Diary: 07/14/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

I talk a lot about the business side of board game creation. So much of success in this industry is based upon your abilities as a project manager, marketer, promoter, and accountant. When I talk about game design itself, I often talk about the relentless play-testing, balancing, and different levels of communication that you must master so that your game is understood and enjoyed.

But what about art? I don’t necessarily mean art as in pretty pictures, beautiful graphics, and appealing boxes. No, no, no. I’m talking about art for art’s sake. I’m talking about art in the sense of pouring yourself into a project, finding a way to creatively express yourself, and making something you truly care about. Where does art for art’s sake come into the business savvy game dev’s process?

 

Board games are often pretty because…why not?

 

“Secret one: if it ain’t fun, you’re done.” That’s a line ripped from a hip-hop track by KRS-One. It’s also an underrated rule of entrepreneurship. It is imperative that you like the project you’re working on, or you just won’t simply have the motivation to sort out the logistic tangles it takes to deliver. Oh, and there are always logistics tangles…

I like travel. I like it a lot. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little dangerous, and exposes you to a lot of different ways of life. The aesthetic experience of travel impressed itself upon my soul as the rubber of my car’s tires impressed themselves upon the freeways of the USA. That is where the theme came from. That is the basis from which the mechanics of the game are born. The mechanics and rules of the game are meant to capture the openness, spontaneity, and pleasant tension of travel.

I’m not so married to my ideas that I won’t murder mechanics. I’m not so attached to rules that I won’t rewrite the whole book if needed. Yet this is the wellspring from which my ideas are born. I suspect many game developers have had similar experiences.

Many of you know that War Co. was a childhood dream that I pushed long enough to publish. Fewer people know that the corporate dystopia theme basically came from career anxieties. In fact, even I didn’t really realize it at first. That’s because something in me came out through the writing of card stories. These stories were processed into art by James Masino. This art was used as a way to market and attract attention to the campaign. It paid off. The root of all this, the prime mover in this whole story, is self-expression.

It is okay to use your games as a form of self-expression.

You can still sell games while using them as a form of self-expression.

I feel like sometimes people see “sell-able” and “enjoyable to make” as mutually exclusive. I disagree with this so much.

I want to bring this all together now by telling you what James and I are thinking for the Highways & Byways art approach. There was a time in American history in the late 1960s and the early 1970s where travel was rapidly becoming affordable. Airlines were still nice. Motels were popping up. You look at postcards from this era and you see these beautiful and painterly representations of Americana.

 

Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument Postcard
Photo the Bureau of Land Management’s Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Source)

 

I’ve been in an out of many Motel 6’s and Super 8’s that haven’t been updated since the 1970s. I’ve flipped through old books in the motels with faded pictures of bygone eras when the cars looked funny and blue jeans fit weird. I internalized this and wasn’t able to totally express what I was going for until James said it himself. As I’d been collecting brochures from rest stops, he’d spent hours searching for the right look on Google Images. He sought that certain je ne sais quoi tirelessly.

We’d had a conversation two nights ago that got me really excited. We both found ourselves expressing what we were trying to make Highways & Byways look like in the rough, imprecise language that so characterizes the early stages of creative projects. To be clear, we were not talking about accessibility issues, clear display of information, or high-level themes. We were talking about heart and soul. As it turns out, the heart and soul of Highways & Byways is probably going to look like this. (No promises. Games are iterative, you know)…

We want to capture that retro vibe of the “golden age of road travel” from back when a cheap motel cost $8.88 for a night. We want to capture that “load up the station wagon” era from before the Gas Crisis. Highways & Byways will exist in a realm where Gerald Ford is president, but cars from the 1990s are really old. It’s a little anachronistic, as if the luxuries of yesteryear are within the grasp of adventurous college students of this era.

This is not a calculated approach intended to appeal to the largest audience. This is not pinned to how many people I can get to sign up for a newsletter. This is not tied to a Gantt chart. This is what James and I want to do, and we’re going to find people who are into it.

Want to come along for the ride?

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • We’re working on the board. It’s been outlined and now it’s time to color it in for a play-testable draft.
  • I’m continuing to make wise use of downtime by growing my game dev Discord and by focusing on making the newsletter great for members and readers. My business case thinking is that once I get them both on autopilot, I’ll benefit from the exposure those two things bring while being able to refocus mainly on Highways & Byways.
  • I don’t have a lot of sexy updates this week. It’s nose-to-grindstone, ugly, early work for the next few weeks.

Method Acting for Board Games – Immerse Yourself in a Theme (Dev Diary: 07/07/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

Much like last week, I’m finding myself with downtime in the development of Highways & Byways. I’m making wise use of this time by growing a community of game developers, but that is a subject that I will cover in more detail on another day since community building is such a ripe area for discussion. Instead, I’d like to focus on the conversations that James Masino (the artist) and I are beginning to have about the direction we want to take with the Highways & Byways board design.

Board games have few ways to communicate with players. Video games can use sound and video. Film can use various forms of visual metaphor. Music can use a wide variety of audio techniques. Board games, however, don’t change (unless you add expansions or do a reissue), so you have to make sure everything needed to play is clear to players from the get-go. If you can do so while leaving finer facets of strategy to be discovered slowly over time, even better.

 

Themes make games easier to understand. You take one look at Ticket to Ride and you know it’s about trains and travel. Posted to Flickr by Jean Marconi under the CC BY 2.0 license. (Source)

 

Themes are one of the primary ways in which board games can communicate. Just about every game has a theme, unless it’s abstract strategy like Chess, Go, or even Hive. As communication tools, themes function as metaphors. Cure the disease before it spreads to the city. Win the Cold War before the Soviets take over. Connect the United States via rail. Themes create this story that make it easier for players to understand and interact with dry mechanics.

A lot of times, board game designers and publishers will create abstract games and add themes later. While I have theme ideas in mind when I start games, I don’t mind tossing them in the trash if they don’t work. Re-theming is totally fine by me. Once I’ve got the core engine and mechanics of a game going, I like thinking of my game with various themes and seeing what fits.

Then I throw myself into the theme. This is where it gets fun.

Because themes function as metaphors to help players intuitively grasp games, you must understand the essence of a theme before applying it as a metaphor. What I mean by that is that if you make a game about 1500s farming, you should read about 1500s farming and make sure your theme is at least roughly consistent with what people actually did back then. If your game is about warfare, read about battles, read political articles from bygone eras, read Wikipedia, and read relevant genre fiction. If your game is about driving far away, go drive. Highways & Byways came out of my interest in long-distance road travel. The game is a manifestation of another hobby I already had.

I’ve been lots of places. I’ve driven from Tennessee to the following locations: the bottom of Texas, Arizona, Montana, Maine, both Carolinas, and so on…you get the idea. Every once in a while I’ll take a vacation and I’m terrible at being a beach bum. I’d rather have adventure than spend time laying around on the beach. That’s why I’ve spent many night sleeping in my car at campgrounds. I’ve spent many more nights huddled up in Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. I’ve pulled over at far away gas stations only to stretch my legs and clear my floorboard of many discarded coffee cups. I’ve done all this in cars no newer than fifteen years old. Highways & Byways is about rough-and-tumble, tight budget travel by young people, which is what I’ve done.

 

Scaling a mountain in a 25 year old car that cost $1,500. It can be done.

 

I’d gathered so many pamphlets and maps and coupons from rest stops along the way. I’ve scrutinized brochures looking for the aesthetic of my game. I’ve paid attention to which maps make sense to me and which ones don’t. After all, Highways & Byways is a gigantic map. Paying attention to what made sense to me gave me a good feel for what to tell James when I was writing up the art spec document for him.

Granted, not all themes lend themselves to “method acting.” Obviously, it wouldn’t have made a bit of sense for me to act out War Co. in real life by shooting spaceships with spaceships. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that Bernd Brunnhofer didn’t live in the Stone Age while creating Stone Age. Still, someone involved in that project had to have become an amateur historian at some point.

Returning to the metaphor of Highways & Byways, James himself is preparing himself to do great artwork by becoming something of an amateur cartographer. He’s spoken to me about looking at all sorts of maps – topographical maps, political maps, metro maps, and so on. He’s looking at the way maps organize information while maintaining their aesthetic sensibilities. He’s doing the same thing I’m doing in a different way – gaining knowledge of a theme so that he can make metaphors stick.

Theme immersion is an illusion caused by the communicative powers of a theme matching up neatly with the game’s core engine and mechanics. To truly understand how to achieve these communicative powers through theme, you need to read as much as you can about your theme. If possible, you could even try living your theme out a little. Sure, you can’t capture in a single game everything that a theme can offer. Yet you can use what serves your game’s purpose. A depth of knowledge will make that far easier to do.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m still working very heavily on community growth in the interim period while the board is being drawn by James.
  • My main priorities right now are the Discord, newsletter, and Start to Finish articles. I’m getting ahead so that when the board is done, I can focus completely on heavy play-testing.
  • We’ve just started making the board. This will be a tricky process since there is so much data which needs to be neatly organized.

Board Game Development – Wait Like a Champ by Using Downtime Wisely (Dev Diary: 6/30/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

Last week in the Dev Diary, I talked about how board game development is a long, ongoing process with a lot of different stages. Every once in a while, you’ll find yourself waiting on something in order to continue. Common situations include:

  • Waiting on the manufacturer to print a sample run of your game so you can complete product testing or send copies to reviewers.
  • Waiting 4-8 weeks for reviewers to cover your game, while praying that their feedback is positive.
  • Waiting for Kickstarter to approve your campaign.

Waiting is a big part of self-publishing a board game, as well as entrepreneurship in general. I know it’s not sexy. Nobody grows up and dreams of waiting days, weeks, and months to get a dream off the ground. Yet it’s important to accept its inevitability and have a mindset that allows you to make the best use of your time.

 

 

In my case, I’m waiting on James to finish up art for his last project. Then I’ll be waiting for him to rapid prototype the Highways & Byways board. I’ve just about exhausted my close circle of family and friends as far as first-time play-testing is concerned. With the amount of visual data being used in the game, it will make it much easier to get useful feedback with a proper board drafted. In short, I need a prototype board to do efficient play-testing. It’s going to take a little while.

So what does one do with all this extra time? Remember that if you are making a game and publishing it on your own, you’re running a business. Businesses need more than just a product or service to survive. When you are not able to work on game development, there are several other things you can work on.

 

Artwork: If it’s really early in your project’s timeline and you find yourself stuck for one reason or another, you can always start looking for artists. You can start making lists or curating special feeds of artists you like on Instagram and DeviantArt. You can start jotting down your art direction thoughts, even if you’re not ready to write an art spec document yet.

Production: Once you have a basic idea of what’s going to go into your game physically, you can start asking manufacturers for quotes. Most manufacturers will give you a free quote. I suggest asking for a quote at the MOQ (minimum order quantity), MOQ x 2, and MOQ x 10. That gives you a wide range of figures that will let you figure out which company is best depending on your financial situation later on.

Where do you find board game manufacturers? It’s not so hard. You can Google “board game printers” or “board game manufacturers” and start finding them that way. You can also peruse Reddit and Board Game Geek threads, since they tend to be gold mines of information on this sort of topic.

Reviews: Start looking on Twitter or Board Game Geek for board game reviewers. Make lists. Get to know them. Learn their styles. When it’s time to send your game out to reviewers, this gives you the advantage of sending your game to people who are both reliable and fans of the type of game you’re making.

Kickstarter: It’s never too early to start a draft Kickstarter page. It’s also a great idea to start backing campaigns for $1 just so you can watch their newsletters. Plus if you back 20-30 campaigns, people will take you a lot more seriously when you do intend to Kickstart your game. Nothing says “red flag” on Kickstarter like a creator who hasn’t backed anyone.

Fulfillment: If you’re an American, read up on my first and second guides about shipping. Order some free USPS mailers to your home just to get a sense of their size. Ask Snakes & Lattes or Games Quest to send you free materials on international board game fulfillment pricing.

Preorders & Sales: Figure out how Celery and Amazon work before you need them. Their set-up is more complicated than you might think, so you need to plan ahead.

Marketing: If all else fails, it’s always a good idea to get more email subscriptions, social media followers, likes, subscribes…whatever your most valuable metric is. You can never have too many people ready ahead of time if you plan on Kickstarting your game. Have lots and lots of genuine, heartfelt, one-on-one conversations over several months and you’d be amazed what you can make happen.

 

So to bring it all together, what does my use of downtime during Highways & Byways look like? What have I done this week to practice what I preach?

Well, I’m about to launch a new blog series called Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game on Monday. I’m also making a brand new companion email newsletter for the series as well, which you should totally sign up for.

I’ve been growing my game developer Discord by seeking out people on Twitter who seem cool and inviting them personally. At the same time, I’ve been growing that email newsletter list like crazy. Meanwhile, I’ve been cleaning up my social media channels so I can more clearly see what’s relevant. I’ve been experimenting with advertisements. I’ve had lots and lots of one-on-one conversations in the downtime.

 

Part of the fun of self-publishing a game is that you get to take on a variety of tasks. You never get mired too much into any one thing. Much of your success will depend upon waiting like a champ and making great use of downtime.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I play-tested version Highway 3 with components.
  • The components I’m testing with are clearly not going to work.
  • I’m waiting on some preliminary art before getting much further into play-testing.
  • I’m launching a new series on the blog, growing the newsletter, and growing the Discord community.

Timing is Everything in Board Game Development (Dev Diary: 06/23/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

Everything snapped into focus this week. Highways & Byways now has an artist. His name is James Masino. He created all 300 of the original pieces of art in my first game, War Co., and he’s back again to do everything in Highways & Byways. To say he is a freelancer that I trust is the understatement of the year. After all, he’s the guy who drew this…

 

Hawk 19 from War Co.
Hawk 19 from War Co.

 

I could tell you about the methods I suggest for finding an artist. I could opine on how important trust is in business relationships. I’m not going to do that today. Instead, I’m going to talk about something that happened as a result of hiring a stable freelance artist for Highways & Byways. I’m going to talk the importance of timing when you’re developing a board game.

 

 

There are a lot of areas of development that you’ll need to consider when you plan out your project. They include early game design, game tweaks, artwork, sample production, the game review process, Kickstarter preparation/campaigning/wrap-up, manufacturing, fulfillment, sales, and the marketing. Having James’ time estimate on art allowed me to make accurate time estimates on every one of these other areas. I’m not ready to reveal dates yet, but I want you to get a sense of how my mind is working on this project so you can learn from it.

 

Stages of a Board Game Project

 

Early Game Design: I’m mostly past this stage since Highways & Byways is a playable, fun game that needs subtle tweaks and a lot of play-testing at this point. I’m pretty sure by now that any changes would be evolutionary instead of revolutionary. But I understand that I could always be wrong.

The tricky thing about making estimates about the length of time it’ll take to complete early game design is that…well, it’s not really doable. Some games snap together easily like Highways & Byways and others involve month-long marathons of early testing to be playable, like War Co.

Artwork: Your artist or team of artists will set the time frame on this. Plan for a few months, though, especially if your game requires a lot of original art. Also plan on doing lots of game tweaks at the same time.

Game Tweaks: As you gradually get more and more art, you’ll need to keep testing your game. You’ll need to test your game both to refine it, but also to make sure the artwork is having the desired impact on players. You don’t want to get a bunch of art, end the contract, and find out later that you need to fix it because players don’t understand what’s going on. Take a few months to do this.

Sample Production: You need to have art before you print sample copies of your game for final testing and the review process. In the game tweaking stage, you should really be vetting printers as well. At this point, you’ll need to go with the printer you intend to manufacture with and budget a few weeks to get those sample copies. Go with what they tell you.

Reviews: In order to succeed on Kickstarter – if that is the route you choose to go – you’ll need to get your game reviewed. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but you need to have a game that very closely matches the production quality of your game after you fulfill the rewards, assuming you succeed on Kickstarter. Reviewers often wind up with a backlog of games to play, so you’ll want to give them a minimum of 6 weeks to do their thing. Ideally, you should give them two months – longer around the holidays.

Kickstarter: Most campaigns take about 3-4 weeks, but you should prepare far in advance. Your campaign page should be ready to go some time in the middle of the Review stage. You should block off a couple of weeks before the campaign to focus specifically on Kickstarter. You should also block off two weeks after the campaign to handle the chaos of the campaign while the payment clears.

It should go without saying, but to go any further than this stage, you’ll need to successfully fund on Kickstarter. If you don’t, you’ll need to push back everything else for a little while and relaunch your campaign.

Manufacturing: Manufacturing often takes a month or two PLUS the shipping time. Shipping is most commonly done by sea for cost reasons, which can take a full three months. Budget four to five months for manufacturing time.

Fulfillment: It will take a few weeks to ship your game, too. It’ll take a week or two for your distributors to get ready PLUS the week or two it takes to actually move games by mail.

Sales: You should plan a couple of months to focus on the sales of your game after your fulfill the campaign if you have inventory left over.

Marketing: Lastly, throughout the entirety of this project, you should be doing some sort of marketing. That doesn’t necessarily mean for your game. You need to make sure people know your name. Spend time building social media. Get email contacts. Get to know people. It’s critical if you want to get past the Review stage.

 

Long story short: board game projects are 12-24 month commitments. Mentally prepare yourself for that.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • It’s been a whirlwind week for Highways & Byways.
  • I’ve signed a contract with James Masino. He’s the guy who did all 300 originial pieces of art for my first game, War Co., and he’ll be making all the art for Highways & Byways.
  • We play-tested together through Tabletop Simulator and his feedback immediately set my agenda for fulfilling the game’s visual accessibility needs.
  • It’s looking like we’ll start the art over the weekend.
  • I created a project timeline and road map, which is what inspired this post.
  • I rephrased some confusing cards.
  • I play-tested some more.
  • I’ve tweaked the rules for clarity.
  • I’m starting to play-test with components.
  • All of the above is happening while I’m writing articles for Start to Finish, doing a deep clean of all my social media networks, and compiling lists of people I’d like to play-test with.

On the Benefits and Limitations of Play-Testing with Family (Dev Diary: 06/16/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

I’m juggling quite a few responsibilities with Highways & Byways at the moment, most of which are not particularly rife for diary articles. I’ve got contracts, timelines, and budgets going back and forth between a potential artist and me. I’ve got some Gantt charts and knockoff Vizio diagrams explaining my approach to Highways & Byways as a holistic project and not just a game. It’s decidedly unsexy project management work for me right now. This is all very important, but I don’t have specific details ready to share at the moment in that area.

 

Board Game Pic

 

Yet I did have an experience over the weekend that will dramatically improve the gameplay of Highways & Byways. I played two games with my parents. Just a couple hours of play-testing revealed a lot of things to me – mostly good but occasionally suggestive of opportunities for improvement. What absolutely floored me was just how productive it was to play-test with my parents. I didn’t expect that! This got me thinking about the benefits and limitations of play-testing with your family.

Let’s start out with the limitations. There’s a good chance that your family members do not fall within your intended audience of hobby board gamers. There’s a good chance they don’t know much about games. There’s an extremely high chance that they’ll give you rosier feedback than you deserve, inflating your sense of game quality.

That said, there’s something absolutely critical that comes with testing with family who aren’t board gamers. There are two major benefits that are hard to find somewhere else.

  1. You get to play your game with non-gamers.
  2. You get to play your game with people who understand the points you’re trying to make.

My parents are not gamers, especially not my dad. You could see his eyes glaze over when he was playing War Co., and though he was proud of the effort I put into the game, it very clearly wasn’t appealing to him. My mom is a little more experienced in games, but she doesn’t own any hobby games. When playing with them, I paid attention not to effusive parental praise, but rather places they got hung up. I made a note of any game elements that caused them to hesitate, anything they regularly forgot to do, and anything they asked me. I wasn’t testing for their pleasure, which will always be at least somewhat biased in my favor, I was testing for their confusion.

As a note to people following for game updates: Highways & Byways was – as a whole – intuitive. I still walked away with some to-dos such as rule clarifications and the need to make reference cards for game events and processes.

I like testing with family. It’s a good way of catching up and sharing part of my life. It also just so happens to be a fantastic way to vet a certain subset of game problems. I prefer testing alone first to make sure the game functions, with my brother next to make sure the game feels like it plays well, then with family to eliminate communication issues. I want those communication issues sussed out before I start reaching out to play-testers in game stores or online, because that requires a lot of effort on my end.

Highways & Byways tested well with my parents. My dad picked up the game in about 15 minutes, which is a really good sign for any game and any gamer. It’s especially a good sign with someone who doesn’t play board games. My mom picked up the game in about the same time and this was early in the morning with neither of us adequately caffeinated.  Let’s suppose they couldn’t pick it up. What would that mean?

  • If I lost them before I even finished explaining the game, something would be wrong with the core engine of the game. The very basis of the game would be confusing. This doesn’t entirely destroy a game’s chances to succeed, but it makes the whole thing an uphill battle.
  • If they stared blankly at the board without much of a clue what to do, something would be wrong with the mechanics. I would need to change them to be more understandable.
  • If they continually did things wrong when playing, that would mean the rules are confusing.
  • If they continually forgot aspects of the game, that would mean there are some accessibility issues – namely, having too many things to remember without a reference. (This actually was a minor issue which I’ve corrected this week.)
  • If they complained that the game plays well but doesn’t “make sense”, that could indicate a mismatch between theme and gameplay – a breakdown in the inner narrative, if you will.

 

Long story short, play-testing with your family can be a great source of feedback, if you know how to interpret it. Know the limitations and be sure to appreciate the loving people who can help you vet your game before it reaches uninvolved strangers.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Play-testing with family has these benefits:
    • You get to play your game with non-gamers.
    • You get to play your game with people who understand your intentions.
  • Play-testing with family has these caveats:
    • They may not play a lot of games.
    • They may not be in your target audience.
    • They’ll almost definitely tell you that your game is better than it is.
    • Constructive feedback often has to be interpreted in a way other than it’s initially said.
  • Overall, if you understand the limitations of family play-testing, it can act as the canary in a coal mine that catches communication issues before you share your game with people who don’t know you.

 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m working on the details of a contract with an artist. This involves a lot of back-and-forth on pricing and timelines, as well as legal details. It’s going well and I expect good news soon.
  • I play-tested the game with both of my parents in separate play-tests, which uncovered a handful of accessibility issues but largely was well-received.
  • I’ve created a rough timeline and business case for Highways & Byways, which is necessary for me to coordinate a lot of what’s about to come.
  • I’ve updated the rule set and updated the game version to Highway 2 (version 13) based on play-tests with my parents, who are not board gamers.

When is it time to start play-testing with others? (Dev Diary: 06/09/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

Highways & Byways has just been upgraded from “State Route 11” to “Highway 1”. Highway 1 is actually version 12, but there is a logical reason behind my bizarre, thematic numbering scheme. The “Highway” designation is my way of saying “I’m ready to play-test the game.”

Passing this major milestone got me thinking about a question which game developers no doubt find themselves asking: when do I start play-testing my game with others?

 

Highways and Byways – Version Highway 1

 

First, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. There is no definitive answer. It depends upon the complexity of your game, the ease with which you can find new play-testers, and your overall project schedule.

No matter what, you’ll have to play-test your game in order to take it to the market. Play-testing requires an organized effort and, if you are partial to digital play testing like I am, playing at least a few times with similar physical parts before you order a sample and start playing with that. This is a given. The play-test question ultimately comes down to one trade-off:

If you play-test with others too soon, you run the risk of running out of new play-testers. That would make it very hard to do blind play-tests.

If you play-test with others too late, you run the risk of spending too much time on gameplay elements that don’t work and which players would not accept.

 

With this trade-off in mind, here are a few questions for you to consider:

  1. How easy is it for you to find new play-testers?
  2. When self-testing, do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels – making no new progress?
  3. Are there parts of your game that you aren’t so sure about and feel the need to run by others?

 

If it’s easy for you to find new play-testers, I suggest testing with others as soon as you have a playable game. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to play without a cataclysmic breakdown that halts the progress of the game. Play-testers are often a patient bunch, but you still want to iron out the obvious flaws before you share your game.

If you have deep connections at cons or game stores, or even an active and large gaming group in your town with whom you frequently play, don’t waste precious mental effort ironing out all the kinks on your own. Get help play-testing soon. You are among a privileged class of game developers.

 

If it’s hard for you to find new play-testers, test alone until your game is close to complete. If you don’t have a lot of gamer friends, I suggest asking family to help you out. Many of you know that I test my games very heavily with my brother. I iron out the catastrophic flaws and turn to him, asking gently (and occasionally begging and cajoling) for his assistance. I also test games with my cousins and parents, all of whom have different levels of experience with board games. You’d be amazed how much quality play testing you can do with a handful of family members.

 

 

You can’t just test with family members and close friends, though. You really have to get the opinions of some acquaintances or strangers. You need people who don’t have emotional attachment to you! You can find them through game stores or through social media. In fact, regarding the latter, Twitter and Instagram both provided me with a handful of play-testers for War Co., which really helped me refine that complex game.

Here’s the thing about recruiting strangers who have no emotional attachment to you for play-testing: they expect polish. Your game should probably have art by the time you speak to them, but if that’s not plausible, it needs to look as professional and possible. Above all, it must play well.

To bring it all in, here’s what I’ve got in mind so far:

  1. Make sure your game doesn’t break down.
  2. Are play-testers easy to find? If yes, start play-testing and stop here. If not, read on.
  3. Do more self-testing.
  4. If you’re still self-testing, do so until you start spinning your wheels. Then get family or close friends to help.
  5. Get your game to a really professional point, then start testing with strangers.

What if you don’t have family or close friends in town? What do you do then? I recommend using online software such as Tabletop Simulator. If that’s not viable, though, and you really have no one close to turn to, then you have one option remaining. Self-test until you cannot any more. Then find strangers to play-test with and grit your teeth through all the vague and dissatisfied feedback. It will take longer and hurt more, but you can still get your game play-tested even without people you know to help.

 

Knowing precisely when to test with others is really tricky. It’s a tough call to make, but I hope this Dev Diary entry has got you asking the right questions. After all, that’s where the magic in game development truly starts: asking the right questions.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • There is no definitive answer about when you should start play-testing.
  • If you play-test with others too soon, you run the risk of running out of new play-testers. That would make it very hard to do blind play-tests.
  • If you play-test with others too late, you run the risk of spending too much time on gameplay elements that don’t work and which players would not accept.
  • Ask yourself these questions:
    • How easy is it for you to find new play-testers?
    • When self-testing, do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels – making no new progress?
    • Are there parts of your game that you aren’t so sure about and feel the need to run by others?
  • If it’s easy for you to find new play-testers, I suggest testing with others as soon as you have a playable game.
  • If it’s hard for you to find new play-testers, test alone until your game is close to complete.
  • Try asking your family and close friends to help you.
  • If you really have no one to turn to, ask strangers at game stores and online. Just know that it will be harder and it will slow down development. It’s still doable.

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Upgraded game version from State Route 11 to Highway 1 (version 12). That means I’m ready to start play-testing with others – within limits!
  • Cleaned up the rule book and added diagrams. This will let play-testers read the rules with the level of detail that I will include in the final rule book.
  • I’ve been running experiments with advertising. This is only tangentially related to the game for now, but if advertising showed to be more cost-effective, it could have changed the whole way I promoted this game in the future.
  • I took a few days to write the entire art spec document. It’s about 10 pages of prose and 45 pages of photos for reference.
  • I’m working on finding an artist. More details to come later.

Tell Your Artist What You Want – Making Good Art Specs (Dev Diary: 06/02/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

Great art is one of the most critical parts of a board game. As game developers, we have only a handful of tools at our disposal to help teach players what a game is about and how to play it. We have only a handful of tools that help us say “this game might be for you” and “I think you should buy it.” Art is the most powerful marketing tool for board games and one of the most powerful tools for communicating game information.

 

Art from my first game, War Co.

 

Art is also one of the only tools handled by someone other than the game developer. A lot of the artists I know who work on board games are freelancers and not actual members of the development team. To help you find a freelance artist for your game, I’ve got an article coming up in the near future. In the mean time, I’d like to talk about making specifications for your artist to use. In keeping with the Dev Diary tradition, I’ll be sharing an example from Highways & Byways development.

When creating an Art Specification Document, it’s a good idea to follow this outline:

  • Art Needs
  • Aesthetic Guidelines
  • Functional Design
  • Accessibility Concerns
  • Technical Notes
  • Workflow & Schedule
  • Individual Design Specs

 

Each section will provide your artist with different information that they need to do their job well. Please note that there is no industry standard for how you communicate with artists. This is simply an approach I find effective. Sending this document along with the latest prototype of your game gives artists a ton of information to work with.

I’ll go ahead and break down each section in more detail. Each section has a snippet from the Highways & Byways draft specs (which are subject to change).

 

Art Needs: This is a list of everything that you need created for your game. Boards, boxes, cards, rules, components, and so on. Anything that you need made should be listed here in specific quantities and sizes.

1 Game Board (25″ x 20″)

1 Box (12.75″ x 10.25″ x 3″)

101 Card Designs, Poker Size (2.5″ x 3.5″)

72 Byway Card Designs

64 Green Byway Cards

8 Yellow Byway Cards

24 Event Card Designs

1 Construction Card Design Template (for 10 Cards)

4 Card Back Designs

 

Aesthetic Guidelines: This will give your artist a sense of the broad themes and styles. In short, summarize the art style and provide examples.

The overarching theme of Highways & Byways is “wanderlust.” This is done by creating a game based on scenic road travel within the United States…

The board will essentially be a road map of the United States. The rule book will resemble an atlas. The Byway Cards will resemble postcards in aesthetic (but not size). The Vehicle Cards will resemble car advertisements. Event Cards will be somewhat more abstract but still travel-themed. Construction Cards will use imagery associated with highway construction such as traffic cones.

 

Functional Design: In this section, you describe how each bit of artwork will be used in the game. That helps your artist use their discretion when making art that actually serves its purpose.

Box has to be perfect – use the “Instagram rule” (clear object in focus, high contrast, lots of detail). This will be used to get people to click on the box when they see it on Kickstarter / Amazon. It will also be what attracts people to buy it in the store.

The game board needs to elegantly display a lot of information – roads should not overlap. Byways should be clearly separate from highways. Byways will mimic their real life shapes, and highways will be straight lines. Everything needs to be readable and clear. Remember that people will be placing pawns or car pieces on spaces. State names should be clearly visible, but unobtrusive. Board will need a subtle longitude/latitude grid.

Byway Cards and Event Cards will be the pretty ones. Construction Cards will be more functional. Byway Cards will need to have small maps on them to show where the roads are located. Event Cards will need to have maps when relevant to showing affected states.

Accessibility Concerns: Pay special attention to the physical, cognitive, and socioeconomic needs of your players when you’re designing art. As a general rule of thumb, you want everything to be visible, clear, and inoffensive. Accessibility is a loaded topic, so you can read more about it here, here, and here.

Be sure to account for colorblindness when making art. When creating designs, make sure text is as large as possible. When designing the board, make sure relevant information is easy to find and track.

Technical Notes: Printing is extremely technical. Artists don’t necessarily know how to create art that prints well, especially if they’re digital artists. I strongly suggest you read about offset printing before asking an artist to do work for you. Technical notes exist to make sure that what looks good on the screen also looks good on paper.

Workflow & Schedule: This will give the artist a rough idea of when different parts of the project will need to be done.

  • Initial Conversation
    • Consultation on Overall Aesthetic & Theme
    • Discussion of Cost and Payment Plan
    • Discussion of Rights and Royalties
    • Contract
  • Phase I
    • Create templates for all the cards in the game
    • Create a draft version of the board
  • Phase II
    • Bring board art to near completion
    • Bring all card art to near completion
  • Phase III
    • Draft box art
    • Draft rule book

Individual Design Specs: It is in this section that you would describe briefly how each piece of art should look. I actually don’t have any examples yet. I still want to get some more play testing done before I start writing these.

Once you’re done writing all this, you’re in good shape. Having your needs clearly documented helps artists out a ton. It will help prospective artists make sure they are interested in your project, it will make contract writing easier, and it will serve as a guide for your artist or artists once the art process actually begins.

Communication is key. You are telling your artist what to tell players. Make sure you give this a lot of thought.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Art is the most powerful marketing tool for board games and one of the most powerful tools for communicating game information.
  • Communicating clearly with your artist is critical.
  • When working with artists, I create a document called Art Design Specifications. I send that to the artist with a copy of my latest prototype.
  • Here is the outline I use for Art Design Specifications:
    • Art Needs
    • Aesthetic Guidelines
    • Functional Design
    • Accessibility Concerns
    • Technical Notes
    • Workflow & Schedule
    • Individual Design Specs

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I was on vacation from May 19 to May 26. It was a long road trip. I did it to get away from responsibility for a while, but I came back with a lot of new material for the game.
  • Tweaked some game rules to improve balance.
  • Prepared version State Route 11 for testing.
  • Play tested State Route 11. Results are inconclusive. More testing is needed.
  • Drafted art specifications for the game.
  • Drafted physical specifications for the game.
  • I’m currently working on finding an artist. I want to get my game a little further along before actually starting the art process, though.
  • Working on some process improvements that should free up time and bring in money. They include:
    • Cancelling the Roadgeek Blog on the Highways & Byways site (which never made a lot of sense to begin with).
    • Switching all social media automation to the same platform (Buffer).
    • Advertising tests.

The Art of the Paper Test: Catching Accessibility Issues Early (Dev Diary: 05/19/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.


 

Many of you know that I am open and activate promoter of the Tabletop Simulator software available on the Steam store. Not only did it help me tremendously by allowing me to stream War Co. prior to and during its Kickstarter campaign, but it is also my favorite rapid prototyping tool. There are a lot of software suites better suited to different games, but I use Tabletop Simulator for its versatility. Still, Tabletop Simulator is just one form of digital play testing for board games.

Digital play testing is an excellent way to reduce the costs of developing early board game prototypes. Tabletop Simulator keeps my early prototyping costs effectively down to zero because I’m not going through a ton of paper and printer ink. Unfortunately, digital play testing does not accurately simulate the physical movements that players must make in order to play the game. Play testing games with a board and components that are roughly the size and shape of the final product needs to be done before committing wholeheartedly to a certain style of gameplay.

That is precisely why I’ve made this…

 

Paper Test of Highways and Byways

 

This is the paper version of Highways & Byways. It consists of nine pieces of printer paper taped together and pinned to a posterboard. It matches the size of the final game based on my best estimate of how big it will be. I substituted perforated business card stock for regular playing cards because of the similar size. I substituted Pandemic pieces for original pieces.

When my brother and I were playing with the first physical version of Highways & Byways, codenamed State Route 9, we noticed a handful of things. It was a mix of good and bad. The board was a nice size, the spaces were big enough for pieces, all the text is readable, and the number of cards you must handle is manageable. Yet we came across something annoying that we never noticed in Tabletop Simulator. You had to shuffle the decks all the time! It was ridiculous. It was adding several minutes to play time and was tedious.

The deck shuffling tedium is a really important issue. Not only is it annoying, but it could outright ruin a game for somebody whose hands can’t make the subtle movements needed to shuffle cards. This is more than an issue of “7/10 – good game, but shuffling gets old.” It’s an issue of making sure customers can actually use your product.

This was a really easy to fix problem since all I had to do was reword a rule. However, if shuffling cards was a part of the game’s core engine, I would have to go back to the drawing board. It is possible, especially for new developers, to tie important gameplay factors to physically clumsy behaviors. If you do this, you want to find it early and nip it in the bud BEFORE you go out of your way to find play testers or commission art.

The point of paper testing is to eliminate physical accessibility issues before they become an irrevocable part of your gameplay. You can eliminate cognitive accessibility issues such as inelegant data and event tracking through digital testing. You can eliminate socioeconomic ones through digital testing, too. Yet for physical accessibility issues such as fiddly components and hard-to-see parts, there is no replacement for paper testing.

Paper testing also allows for some observations that are neither good nor bad, but rather necessary for the development and marketing of a complete game. Tabletop Simulator has a tendency to greatly abbreviate or greatly lengthen games depending on how much fiddlier it is to play on the software. Highways & Byways, in particular, turned from a 90 minute game into a 60 minute game – which is much more like what I was aiming for.

Of course, a simple paper test won’t be the end of testing for Highways & Byways. Once get game art – which is still quite a ways off from happening – I’ll need to test different colors for pieces. I may also experiment with little car pieces as well. When it’s time to deal with boxes, I’ll have to make sure everything fits in the box. I’ll also want to make sure that sideways storage is feasible for the odd handful who prefer to do that.


For those of you who would like to learn more about making games more accessible, I’d like to refer you to Meeple Like Us. On that site, you can find a lot of in-depth discussion about board game accessibility. Those articles can give you a depth of information which I can only touch upon in these Dev Diary posts. It’s very worth your time if you’re a game developer.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Tabletop Simulator is just one form of digital play testing for board games.
  • Play testing games with a board and components that are roughly the size and shape of the final product needs to be done before committing wholeheartedly to a certain style of gameplay.
  • The point of paper testing is to eliminate physical accessibility issues before they become an irrevocable part of your gameplay.
  • It is possible, especially for new developers, to tie important gameplay factors to physically clumsy behaviors.
  • Paper testing also allows for some observations that are neither good nor bad, but rather necessary for the development and marketing of a complete game.

 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Updated to version State Route 9.
  • Updated again to version State Route 10.
  • Started doing “paper tests” with a printout of the board, business card stock for playing cards, and pieces borrowed from Pandemic. This was done to simulate the physical movements players would need to make during the game.
  • I’ve made lots of little tweaks to the rules, the details of which I won’t go into right now.
  • I’ve set up a recurring direct deposit from my checking to my interest savings. This is to help pay for art when it’s time to buy art.

How to Learn Complex Material Quickly (Dev Diary: 05/12/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.


 

Over the course of the last week, I’ve taken a bit of a left turn in the development of Highways & Byways. Instead of focusing directly on game development, I’ve focused on learning as much as I can about board games. That includes popular games, mechanics, and themes; well-known designers; and how to run a successful Kickstarter. I’ve advocated before the importance of ongoing training, and I’ve focused very heavily on it myself this week.

Why go to all this trouble? A lot of new designers see that I’ve published War Co. and imagine that future Kickstarters will just be more successful from there. Future games will be better by the mere act of having experienced the development process before and being aware of some of the pitfalls and opportunities to be more productive. My community continues to grow. This is all true, but I see room (read: a vast expanse) to improve even still. Experience gives you advantage, but it cannot substitute for systematic book learning. If you want to get better at something, you have to continually and thoughtfully work for it.

With this in mind, I’d like to share with you a learning technique that I came up with late in my undergraduate studies. Ever since I developed it, I got A’s in all my classes for the rest of undergrad and grad school. It didn’t take nearly as much work as you’d think, either. I didn’t do anything particularly special. This technique is something that you can apply to almost anything you’re interested in and see similarly positive results.

 

Studying Dog with Glasses
Study hard and you won’t have to work like a dog later.

 

The Study Technique

1. Find primary resources. In school, primary resources were textbooks and lectures. In the world at large, primary sources can include all sorts of things: data from your business, academic journals, videos, blogs, magazines, news sites, social media, books, and so on.

2. Read the Overview so you so you know what to expect. The Overview could be an actual overview paragraph, a summary section, a Table of Contents, a list of blog articles, or the abstract of an academic article. Sometimes this is not available, but in long-form material, it usually is.

3. Read the primary resources all the way through, slowly, taking in every word. Take it slow and stay focused. Pay attention to every word and every image. Don’t get too mired down in the details, but take in as much as you can the first time.

4. Start taking notes. Go through the entire resource and start taking notes on your computer. Every header, every definition, every bit of bolded text, every numbered list, every bulleted list, and every sentence that looks generally important should be in the notes. Adapt these rules to the medium you’re pulling information from. There are signals of important information in anything you pay attention to.

5. Read the notes once every day, even if it’s speedreading.

6. Bonus: make flash cards and start memorizing your notes. You can use a tool such as Quizlet to make flash cards online. For most situations, this is overkill, but it works really well in school and in high-pressure situations.

 

Study Materials

 

This is a time-consuming, difficult, painfully boring technique, but I promise that in can save you time, difficulty, and boredom in the long run. In school, I cut my study time by about 25% and my grades went up.

It’s not just for textbooks, though. You can apply this to a variety of skills if you choose your sources wisely. Want to learn cooking? Use this technique with a cookbook. Want to learn home repair? Use this technique with a home repair podcast.

Want to learn game development? Use BoardGameGeek’s database, blogs such as Stonemaier Games Kickstarter Lessons, Dice Tower videos, design books such as the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, and even academic research papers (which you can find on Google Scholar). Obviously, you still need to be experimenting and developing your own games, but this information will help you get to the next level in your development.

The repetition and hard work are half of what makes this technique work. The other half is that its designed to help you gather and remember only the most important information. We can’t remember everything, so we must be careful to remember the right things.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Experience gives you advantage, but it cannot substitute for systematic book learning.
  • Periodically focusing on ongoing training can make you a better development.
  • You can use the same study technique I used to get A’s in grad school to learn game development.
  • The study technique:
    • Find primary sources
    • Read the overview of each source
    • Read the entire primary source all the way through slowly
    • Take detailed notes on each source
    • Study the notes
    • Bonus: make flash cards and memorize the notes
  • Some good primary sources for game development: BoardGameGeek, Dice Tower videos, Stonemaier Games Kickstarter Lessons, the Kobold Book of Design, academic journals.

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Though I’ve primarily been studying game development this week, I’ve made quite a few updates on the game still.
  • I’ve updated the game to Version State Route 8, and it’ll probably be State Route 9 by tomorrow.
  • Rules have been cleaned up so I’m using consistent terminology.
  • I moved starting spaces around on the map so they’re more balanced.
  • I broke the hardest roads into two sections for both balance and simplicity.
  • My brother and I have play tested the game again and we agree that while it’s good, something is missing and we’re having trouble defining it.
  • I’ll be doing a “paper test” soon. I usually play test in Tabletop Simulator to save money, but I need to make sure the physical size of the board works as designed and I need to make sure it’s not too fiddly to play the game in real life. This is a necessity that comes with spending most of your time doing digital testing of a physical product.

How to Make Board Game Rules (Dev Diary: 05/05/17)

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Dev Diary

The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.


Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

Developing Highways & Byways has been an absolute blast this week. It’s been one of those weeks where everything is going well and I can feel the vision starting to becoming coherent. I’ve been rapid prototyping like a fiend this week, going from version State Route 5 to version State Route 7. The newly introduced Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics are going really well. It’s too soon to be more specific than that, though 😉

With the core engine and mechanics of the game pretty well determined by now, I’ve found myself focusing on tweaks, specifically tweaks to the game rules. As I said last week, “rules regulate the way mechanics are implemented. A mechanic is the concept behind the game and the rule is the way that it’s handled to ensure balance.” Rules are really tricky to do right because you have to serve two purposes: balance the game and communicate clearly.

Speaking of communicating clearly, let’s draw a distinction between rules and rule books. Rules are conditions within the game that constrain the players from immediately achieving their objectives. Rules can be in rule books, on cards or pieces, or on the board itself.

The rule book is a document meant to teach players how to play. It always includes at least some rules, but often doesn’t include all of them. Many of the rules in a game will come from the board, cards, etc. Rule books teach information as well as intention. Rule books need to be short, or else outside sources will explain the game for you. Rule books need to include examples and specifics, but they shouldn’t go overboard by explaining the finer points of strategy which are better left discovered. Rule books can be used to prime a player’s experience to make sure the player has the most fun possible. Rule books need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. Rule books need to give players enough information to play the game, even if they only halfway read it.

 

If your rule book needs a hard cover, it’s probably too long.

 

You can’t have a game without rules. A game without rules is by definition simply free-form play. You can have a game without a rule book – it might just be difficult to play.

With all this said, how does one create rules that fulfill the twin purposes of balancing the game and communicating clearly? I have some guidelines. This is non-exhaustive and it just includes what’s on my mind this week.

 

Balance Scales

 

Making Balanced Rules

Playtest a Ton: No amount of planning, cleverly designed trade-offs, Excel spreadsheets, or game design theory will ever replace the need to play your game hundreds of times to make sure the rules work. Sometimes stuff you don’t expect work ends up working beautifully, and vice versa.

Consider How Much Challenge You Want Your Game to Have: Rules are the primary way to add constraints (or rather, difficulty) to the game. Think long and hard about how much you want the game to fight back against the players. Make sure your rules are lined up with your intended difficulty. Failure to do this thwarts player expectations, which makes them upset with the game being too easy or too hard.

Consider Where Your Game Falls on the Luck/Skill Spectrum: When it comes to luck vs. skill, there is no ideal way to create a game. There is a sliding scale of luck and skill and you need to choose a place you want your game to fall along that spectrum. Make sure your rules are tonally consistent with your intentions.

Avoid False Choices: If you give a player a choice, make it a tough one. Nothing takes the steam out of game like too many obvious decisions. It makes a player feel powerless, perhaps even like the game is being condescending. When rules force players to make a choice, all choices should come with important pros and cons.

 

Metro of Tokyo
Too much information will rob your game of clarity! (Photo taken by Antonio Tajuelo. Source, License)

 

Making Clear Rules

Clearly Point Out Relevant Keywords: Relevant keywords should be capitalized at the least. When you introduce them for the first time, it’s a good idea to bold the words as well. When you make reference to the color green or any other color, you should stylize your text to match.

Use Consistent Keywords and Phrasing: Nothing is more confusing than rules which call the same thing by different names. In Highways & Byways, I make reference to tracking pieces called Travel Cubes. I call them Travel Cubes every time I reference them. The words Travel Cubes are always capitalized in the rules – both the rules in the rule book and the rules on the cards.

Use Present Tense, Active Voice, Second Person: Be direct when writing rules. You will directly address the player with succinct imperatives.

If a Rule is Confusing, Drop It: Want to know how to find a troublemaking rule? Look for a rule requires a bunch of tracking or a bunch of caveats. Your game will be played by people who don’t know the rules inside and out. It might be played in a loud environment. The more you force your player to remember bizarre little rules, the more you risk being misunderstood.

 

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Rules regulate the way mechanics are implemented.
  • Rules are really tricky to do right because you have to serve two purposes: balance the game and communicate clearly.
  • Rules are conditions within the game that constrain the players from immediately achieving their objectives.
  • The rule book is a document meant to teach players how to play. It always includes at least some rules, but often doesn’t include all of them.
  • Rule books need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. Rule books need to give players enough information to play the game, even if they only halfway read it.
  • To make balanced rules:
    • Playtest a ton.
    • Make sure your rules match the intended level of challenge.
    • Make sure your rules match the intended luck/skill balance of your game.
    • Avoid false choices.
  • To make clear rules:
    • Point out relevant keywords.
    • Use consistent keywords.
    • Use present tense, active voice, second person.
    • If a rule is confusing, drop it.

 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I clearly marked starting locations on the map. (It’s amazing what you can forget to do in the early play tests!)
  • Play tested version State Route 5, which included the Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics.
  • Both mechanics introduced in State Route 5 showed promise, so I included them in the game.
  • I upgraded the game to version State Route 6.
    • I improved the Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics.
    • I improved the rules. Instead of being bullet points, I’ve got about 3 1/2 pages of prose in a Word document.
    • My brother and I tested the game again. It shows a lot of promise.
  • I’ve upgraded the game to version State Route 7. I’ll continue to refine the Car Choice and Event Pool mechanics.
  • Overall, the core engine of the game is complete. All the fundamental mechanics are likely complete as well. The rules need some serious tweaking.