Designing a Game: Part 1 - The Core Fantasy
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
July marks the start of the 2021 Solitaire Print-and-Play Game Contest on Board Game Geek. Last year I entered my Ironclads game in a similar contest for wargames, but this year I wanted to have a try with a solitaire game. Leveraging my experience with Lonely Cairn, I thought that another exploration game was in order. I pitched the idea to my 9-year-old son, Theo, who's been wanting to design a game with me. He was thrilled and we got to work.
I thought it would also be a good opportunity for me to document my process of making a game. I should note that this is just one way to make a game, and it's not at all the definitive way to go about making one. Indeed I often use several approaches myself, depending on the size and type of game I'm making, but these articles outline more-or-less the main beats in my process. So without further ado, let's start at the beginning: Ideas and Concepts
Phase 1: Ideas & Concept
I often get questions about where I get my theme ideas from and the answer is usually fairly unhelpful: everywhere. I've found that sources of themes are all around us and easy to pick up and run with. What's hard is crafting the theme into an enjoyable experience, but more on that later.
Ideas are Cheap
For example, after working on Lonely Cairn, my mind went to a million places as to where I'd like to take the game system. While researching the Franklin Expedition, I started to collect information and listening to podcasts about similar expeditions and stories. I started to document these into a series of meta-themes across exploration and non-exploration versions. I organized them into similar game styles, so below are all the ideas, each game idea broadly defined in a light grey box. As you can see, ideas are plentiful. How many of these will reach the tabletop has yet to be seen. But I'll keep collecting the ideas and adding to this list so that I don't loose track of a good idea. It means that when the inspiration strikes I can grab a theme off this shelf and run with it.
For this game I turned to Theo to name the theme. I wanted him to have some buy-in to help retain his attention. I've found that I need to have a deep connection to the theme that I'm working with. This serves as my main anchor when the winds and tides of inspiration inevitably try and pull me from the project.
Theo chose Hillary and Tenzing's achievement of climbing Mount Everest in 1953. At the time Theo and I had been hooked to a podcast series called the Explorers Podcast (available on Spotify and other places) and we had just finished the 5-part series on the expedition to climb the world's tallest peak and he loved the story. He checked out mountaineering books from his school library and dug up a book about the climb from his own bookshelf. It just so happened that I had Everest on my list above, so that sealed the deal: The Highest Adventure would be the next game off the rank.
Now armed with a theme, Theo and I set about doing our research. We listened to the 5-part podcast series again, read all the books Theo had gathered, and started jotting down ideas for the general gameplay. When starting this step, I look for two types of materials. The first I tend to gather are narratives that cut directly to the emotion and feel of the theme. This helps me feel out what the core fantasy I want the players to be a part of (more on this below).
Once I have a good idea of the emotions and activities that the player should be experiencing in the other resources I gather is technical data that will give me insight into how these things happened or were made possible. For this project, that included materials about the Himalaya mountains, the climbing equipment of the day, types of snow and ice formations, any political circumstances that might influence the story. I primarily draw on these resources to craft or justify game mechanics (more on that later), but in this early stage they help me define scope and high level touchpoints that people might be expecting to see in a game about mountaineering in the 1950s.
Establishing the Core Fantasy
Theo really enjoyed Lonely Cairn so he wanted to do something similar, but with a uniquely "Everest feel". So I asked what experiences (also known as the core fantasy) that he wanted his players to have during the game. He wanted the player to believe and feel like they are leading an expedition through dangers up the mountain. We wrote this down and made it the central and starting point for making decisions in the future.
We then started talking about what things would contribute to that core fantasy. We wrote these down as well:
Players should feel like they are planning a trip up the mountain
Players should feel like they are in charge of the expedition
Players should face the same sort challenges the expedition faced
Players should feel like they are going up, ascending to the summit
Players should face more challenges the closer they are to the summit
Players need to balance risk and reward as they climb to the top
Taking the core fantasy and the things that enable it, we came up with the game's abstract. It's the first thing we put on our digital whiteboard (I use Miro Boards, which I hope to cover in detail in another article one day). The second thing I pencil in are the game's specifications, such as gameplay time, number of players, and age demographic. While not super critical and somewhat more malleable later in the process than the core fantasy, I find that defining these early help me design a game fit-for-purpose. For example, if I know I want the game to last no more than 30min, I'll try to make sure that my collection of mechanics use this time purposefully and wisely.
With these documented, we had enough to start digging into gameplay. But more on that in the next article!