Mike at SBS
Designing a Game: Part 3 - Components
We started this journey with covering how I tackle the idea/research phase followed by the framework phase. This week I'm going to dive into components and choosing what pieces you need to bring your game's story to life. But first, as usual, a few notes:
Again, I want to iterate that this is my process that I've crafted over the course of nearly two decades of designing games. My path was largely self-taught, and there is a wealth of excellent blogs out there (such as the famous Jamey Stegmaier articles or Ignacy Trzewiczek's Boardgames That Tell Stories), so be sure to check out what other designers are doing as well!
Second, I debated putting this article at the start of this series as it's often that components will inspire me to make a game about them. This is actually the origin story of Lonely Cairn. After I scratchbuilt two 1/600 scale models of HMS Terror and Erebus, I wanted a game to use them in, and thus was began the journey of Lonely Cairn. In the end I decided that the more "normal" (for me) way ideas came was the one described in the first article, so I began there for this series. I did want to mention it here, however, to make the point that inspiration comes at us in all sorts of different vectors. Our job as designers is to attune our receptors for those messages and let them guide us to new and interesting design adventures.
Alright, enough notes, on to the article!
Phase 3: Components that Tell a Story
Theo and I knew what we wanted our players to feel, do, and believe on the tabletop and we knew, roughly, the framework of the game. What came next was components, or the pieces we would need to realize our design. I typically let the story of my game define what mechanics and components it will have. I break down the story, then line that up with the framework (as demonstrated in the previous article), and then carefully select the minimum components necessary to deliver the story through the framework. The outcome is that I add components with purpose and intention. It might be a little strange, so I'll walk you through it.
From the exercises in the last few articles I knew the game needed a few things:
it needed characters (the Heroes)
it needed a destination (the Journey)
it needed obstacles for the player to face (the Challenge),
it needed ways for the player to overcome them (the Power Ups), and
it needed a sense of increasing tension (the Urgency).
From these basic requirements, the components we needed really revealed themselves. We'll cover each of these in detail.
Highest Adventure was born the minute Theo said that he wanted to make a game about Edmund Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's adventure. The most critical thing to him were the characters, which was excellent. Their story is what we're here for so they should feature as the centerpoint.
This raised an interesting question about who the player was meant to be, echoes of the core fantasy discussion a few weeks back. In Lonely Cairn, the player controlled a single ship, which traced their journey along the adventure line. But as we listened to podcasts and read books, it was clear that the teams within the expedition were in constant motion up and down the mountain as required. So it felt like a single relentless move up the mountain was not going to work here and that pieces of the expedition needed some autonomy to really get at the flavor of what was happening during the 1953 expedition.
To that end, we decided that the player would be control teams rather than the expedition as a whole, and we made the call to split it into three main teams, two assault teams (expert climbers that would make the attempts) and everyone else (leaders, doctors, porters, etc.) as a support team.
Stemming from that decision, we needed to think about how to manifest these teams on the table, especially since they could theoretically operate independently from each other. Meeples were the obvious choice so we started there.
Next, we knew that we needed to have a distinction between the teams. The assault teams needed to be the ones who were good at making the final push, but the support team was equally valuable for getting them into place. This meant that the meeples each needed a corresponding Expedition card to represent their unique roles.
For games about exploration, the journey is rather important. Where do you want your players to get to? In our case, we want to get players to the top of Mount Everest. There were several ways we could have solved this. We could have had a point on the table that we had the players move to. We could have had a board with a track the players could follow. Ultimately, we settled on an "adventure line" of landscape cards for a couple of reasons.
Above: We mapped out the major points in the story and came up with nine locations. We labeled them and marked the numbers on the map to help contextualize them.
First, it kept the locations modular so that we could future-proof the design for expansions, such as new locations with different attributes. Theo wanted to make sure we could include not just Hillary and Tenzig's 1953 ascent but that of Mallory and Irvine's ill-fated 1924 climb as well, so making sure we could quickly swap out the locations was important.
Second, and most importantly, going with cards removed the need for a special component, in this case a board. If the the came could be built mostly from cards, it would reduce the unique component list, modularize the graphic design components (more on that later), and improve storage (smaller box). From a production point of view, this also has the effect of reducing the manufacturing costs and thus, in turn, the end-user's price point. So with that, we knew we needed Location Cards.
Above: Theo went to town and mapped out other routes up the mountain, with Mallory's 1924 track in blue. He did the same exercise with labelling the locations on the cards.
Like in good stories, our hero (the player) needed to face some challenges to achieve meaningful success. In some games this role is played by other players, but in a solitaire game, we needed some way of serving up challenges to the player. I plan to go into detail about designing the encounters soon, but for now we knew that a player needed to face a series of risks that one might expect to face on the mountainside. These would be represented by Encounter cards.
Now, as an example of cross component development, the idea of Encounters then facilitated the need to somehow impact the expedition members in varying degrees of consequence. This meant that we needed Encounters to target aspects of the expedition to to really sell the story of these events impacting the climbers in different ways. Thus we hit on three distinct aspects that the encounters could target: Heath, Spirit, and Endurance. Just how much each expedition team had in each of these aspects would provide the distinction between them.
Above: Encounters impact the expedition's resources, in this case Frostbite has cost the Assault Team two health, representing the painful effects of frostbite.
Thus the assault teams are heavy in health (being kept in reserve, fit and rested), high in Spirit (the prestige of summiting the mountain), but lower in Endurance as it's only two climbers. The support team, on the other hand would have high endurance, but lower spirit and health to depict their specialized role of getting the assault teams to the place they need to be.
Next the player needed ways to help them overcome the challenges. There are a few ways to do this in games. The simplest way is to give players the ability to flat out negate challenges. These tend to be easy to understand and use, but are not particularly satisfying for the player. They're like the junk food of power-ups. Another way to power up players to to give them a combination of cleverness and agency to try and overcome an obstacle, such as combining two average things to make one powerful thing.
Yet another way is to offer the player a gamble where they can try to take a risk and gain an advantage. Players like to take gambles, especially those in a hard spot, where there's not a lot to loose, so these can give players the hail mary they need to win, creating an opportunity for an emergent story.
Above: In Highest Adventure, we added all of the above types of power ups. Some things are straight-up the right solution to a problem, such as a ladder to overcome a rock wall, others can be enhanced with other supplies to make them powerful, and still others offered players the chance to take a gamble.
Finally we needed some way to track the game's tension. In Lonely Cairn this tracked on two levels: tension during turns and "meta" tension during the overall game. How these interacted formed the core of the push-your-luck mechanics. We incorporated the same mechanics into Highest Adventure.
To represent these tensions, we used simple acrylic gem tokens. I'll dig into this mechanic in another article because adding tension to your game is a critical step to game design and is worth it's own deep dive.
A while ago I struck on the magic number of 9 cards per page. So when I was thinking about how many of each type of card, multiples of 9 were in my head. Furthermore, I knew that I wanted to have this be a Print-and-Play game, so I wanted to make sure that the use of paper space was efficient (I make sure pages have at least five cards to avoid wasting paper) and could fit on both A4 and US Letter page formats. Thus when thinking about the scope, I struck on:
9x Locations Cards
27x Encounters Cards
18x Supplies Cards
9x Expedition/Camp/Support Cards
From a printing point of view, that's seven pages of cards (not including card backs if printed separately).
Above: At the end of the process, I total up about how many of each component I'll need. This list tends to vary and need updating as I proceed through a design when it becomes clear more or less items are needed. I also note the general mechanics here to help remind me what these components will be facilitating in the game.
One final step in this space that I really enjoy doing is to take the ideas above and then sketch out what I think the game might look like on the table. I should note that I only have a very loose idea of how the game will play, so this sketch isn't definitive because that's not it's purpose. It's a creative tool to help me get a feel of the game's aesthetics and space. This exercise will often suggest the general components I'll need.
Above: I asked Theo to help me make a picture in Miro of a game. One of his requirements was that it needed to feel like you were going up a mountain, so he arranged the theoretical components accordingly.
With the initial list of components penciled in, the next step was to start filling in the Miro board with content, and that means cards. So next week we'll dive into card design, which means that we'll no doubt encounter the infamous Yeti...