Many people have asked us what kind of process we followed to create Emergence, especially as first-time board game designers. This post is meant to answer that question. This isn't necessarily the best or right way to create a game - it's just how we did it.
Who are we?
We are a group of friends that have known each other since high school, with a couple of college friends thrown in. We hang out pretty regularly to play basketball in the summer and board games the rest of the year. About two years ago, an awesome new game store opened in our town — shout-out to Mox Boarding House — and we quickly became regulars! As we played more and more games at Mox, we started kicking around the idea of making a game ourselves. After all, it's just cardboard with some pictures on it — how hard could it be?!?!
So a little over a year and a half ago now, we decided to put our heads together and create a game with this simple goal in mind:
"To make a sick, dope game that our friends will be hyped about and also make our parents think we are putting our Mox spending to good use!" - Billy
Essentially, we wanted to work on a fun project together with the hopes of making something good enough to Kickstart and have professionally printed. Of course, it would be great if our game really took off, but at a minimum we wanted to share a game we were proud of with our friends, family, and maybe a few board game enthusiasts on Kickstarter.
With our goal defined, we were ready to begin making our game. But wait! Everyone in our group had their own ideas of what they liked and didn't like; what themes were cool and which weren't, etc. Furthermore, we each had our own day jobs and other life responsibilities leaving limited amounts of free time to devote to this project.
So how did we manage these differing points of view while still working within our time constraints? We simply decided to follow Dory's advice and...
"...just keep swimming!"
But what does that mean? Were we designing a board game based on Finding Nemo?! Not quite...rather, it means that we first agreed to follow a kind of spiral development model that looked like this:
- Define a decision that needs to be made.
[We need to pick a theme!]
- Brainstorm Solutions
[Wild West, Outer Space, Political, Medieval, Dystopia...]
- Try out and discuss solutions
[Wild West is overdone and Politics is too sensitive...]
- Vote on a solution.
[Three for Dystopia, one for Outer Space, and one for Political]
- Integrate 'winning' solution into game.
[Dystopia it is!]
The entire point of the process was to keep the project moving forward. Oftentimes, we would have multiple solutions to whatever problem we were working on and "lively" debate would ensue. While these types of discussions are great and can lead to quick solutions, they can also cause analysis paralysis. This usually happens when people try to nitpick the absolute best solution, or they get entrenched behind their favorite solution and won't budge. Both of these cases can cause the project to get bogged down or even deadlocked. However, by calling for a vote and forcing everyone to accept and support one solution, we were able to collectively move on to tackling the next problem and keep the project moving forward.
We found that an easy way to implement this strategy was to meet every Tuesday. At these meetings, anyone was welcome to propose something to tackle. We would then discuss the problem and usually post a summary in our Facebook group for tracking and ongoing discussion throughout the week. Then, at the next meeting, we would present our ideas, discuss them, and usually vote on one solution. This allowed us to quickly move on to implementing the solution instead of endlessly discussing the problem.
Our first two meetings were traditional brainstorming sessions. We mainly discussed what kinds of things each person liked and disliked in other board games and what they wanted to see incorporated into our game. The goal of these two sessions was to aggregate some high-level ideas about what kind of game the group would be interested in making.
The key features we derived from these meetings were:
- Teamwork - there were too many games where essentially one player on each team could quarterback the game and play for their teammates which isn't very fun for everyone else.
- Strategic Movement - moving a meeple around a game board is just so satisfying!
- Social Interactions - games are just more fun when you get to verbally interact with your friends...or maybe we just talk too much...
In general, we felt that there were a number of games that captured each of these aspects well individually, but none that combined all three. So we set out to try and create a game that integrated each of these aspects in fun and unique way.
Our next step was to develop a couple very crude initial concepts, either individually or in small groups. Even if the rules were less than half-baked and the theme didn't quite make sense, the point was to simply present straw-meeple game (as it were) to get the process started.
We ended up with three initial games; each made from an assortment of cut-up cardboard, 3x5 notecards, and components taken from different games in our collection. (Can you guess what game we took those hex tiles from?) After playing through each game as best we could, we would stop to discuss the pros and cons of the game we just finished.
And then we discussed some more. And some more...already trying to refine the rules of all three. But luckily we had our spiral strategy! We needed to pick just one, otherwise we would be designing multiple games in parallel which would be completely unsustainable.
If I remember correctly it came down to a pretty close vote of 4 to 3 between the top two choices. However, as we agreed, we all stood behind the winner to focus on turning it into our "sick, dope game" that we eventually called Emergence.
Thus, within about a month we had gone from nothing to having a pretty good idea of what kind of game we wanted to make and had a working (if not well) first draft to begin playing with! Pretty good for a bunch of novices!
THEME & ArT
Naturally, the best games have a theme that complements the objective and art that supports the theme, while still making the gameplay intuitive. However, balancing the theme, art, and game mechanics can be quite tricky. For our game, we decided that clarity of play was more important than intricate artwork. This is why the art is based heavily on icons and color-coding. Every piece has a color and/or an icon (as well as hints) that reflects its purpose.
Similarly, we wanted a theme that was fun for people who enjoy immersing themselves in game world, but we didn't want it to hinder gameplay if someone wasn't interested in the topic. We also didn't want to dissuade people from trying our game because the theme was too niche.
With this in mind, we quickly gravitated to a futuristic dystopia where rebel Humans are pitted against militaristic A.I. for survival. We felt this theme was mainstream and accessible enough to to many, especially with movies and TV series like The Matrix and Westworld, yet still caters to more hardcore science fiction fans in a way that is reminiscent of Neuromancer by William Gibson. The straightforward icons and colors conjure a feeling of the A.I. military as being extremely practical and industrious, favoring clarity over detailed aesthetics. This theme also helps promote the social interactions of the game; many people find it fun to role play a murderous AI — and it is very difficult to offend someone when the biggest insult in this world is to call someone a "Dirty Human!"
With a good foundation for the mechanics, a theme, and art direction the next step was to build a high-quality prototype that we could use for initial playtesting among ourselves as well as with strangers.
For this prototype, we cut the game board tiles, player boards, and knowledge tokens from chipboard sheets that can be found on Amazon. We then printed the graphics and used spray adhesive to glue them onto the chipboard.
We then ordered some meeples and plastic cubes, printed out the allegiance cards (player identity cards), and constructed our secret ballot box from a small cardboard jewelry box someone had lying around.
In total, we put about 20 person-hours into creating a high-quality prototype by hand, and it was definitely worth it! We could have reused components from other games, but it wouldn't have given us the right feel for how all our components worked together — especially since so much of our game is color-coordinated!
PLAYTEST & ITERATE RULES
Next we wrote the first draft of the official rules and played through the game...over and over again. Each time we played through the game we tested out small tweaks to the rules. Again, remember our spiral strategy? Each time someone proposed a tweak we would try it, discuss, then vote on whether to incorporate it or not.
We also discovered the importance of teaching the game to new people and gathering their feedback. This is probably obvious, but it was surprising how much teaching the game to other people and fielding questions really made us examine whether things made sense or not. It helped illuminate which parts of the game were too complicated or idiosyncratic. Furthermore, since we had multiple people working on this project, we could split up and playtest with multiple groups in parallel, allowing us to do quite a bit of playtesting in a relatively short amount of time.
After working on the game for about seven months we finally had a fairly well functioning game that we were constantly playtesting and refining. But how were we going to decide when we were done? The game was playable and pretty fun from the feedback we were receiving, but we could easily have kept tweaking it forever. So at this point we decided we needed to take Nike's advice and "Just Do It!"
For us, this meant Kickstarter. We always knew that if we had something playable and reasonably fun we would Kickstart it so that our friends, family, and maybe a couple board game enthusiasts would pre-order it to help us pay for a small manufacturing run. Again, with our inexperience we thought, "how hard could it be" to launch a Kickstarter? And again, it was a lot more work than we anticipated. But we definitely learned a lot! For more on that check out some of our other blog posts about Kickstarter Marketing, Shipping, and Kickstarter Graphics. We launched our Kickstarter on March 14th, 2016 with an estimated delivery of September 2016. This gave us a deadline of July 1st to finalize everything and send it to the printers.
Overall, the game turned out really well and we have received a lot of positive feedback so far including a 7.1 rating on Board Game Geek at the time of writing this. However, this would have never happened if we got sucked into an endless design cycle or became roadblocked by analysis paralysis. Instead, we kept the project moving forward and actually created a finished product that we could enjoy and be proud of!