Have you ever dreamt of designing a game, but have no idea where to start?
Then here is a hack-your-own-game workshop recipe that you can try at home, with your class, club or organisation.
It works very well as a team-building activity! You can run it on your own with 3→infinite people, or hire me to facilitate it for you :)
What you’ll need, beside this recipe, are crafts material for paper-prototyping (such as post-its, sharpies, scissors, markers and paper) and this amazing book (or the rules for the 10 games in the book, which are free and public domain; scroll down for the complete list).
OK, ready to start?
Yes, you are a n00b. We’re all n00bz at some point.
How does a n00b like you learn to make games?
By reading a game design book? By playing a lot of games?
Let’s take a step back and see how you learned other skills, such as talking as a child. Probably, your younger self started by copying adults. By repeating and mashing up what you heard. By observing the reactions you got from your attempts. By trial and error.
You (probably) didn’t read a grammar manual (the equivalent of reading a game design book), or just listened to other talking (the equivalent of just playing games). Of course writing, knowing your grammar, and listening are all important skills, but none of them is the first skill you pick up when learning your mother tongue.
Likewise, if you want to learn to make games, I propose this approach. Start by copying and mashing up existing games. By observing the reactions you get from your attempts. By trial and error. In other words, start by hacking existing games.
Then you can continue to read game design books (plus articles and podcasts), play a lot of games and design your own games from scratch.
What do I mean by hacking?
The term hacking has a negative connotation in the mainstream. But can we look at hacking as a neutral, or even positive practice? As in modifying something, possibly to improve it.
Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things.
From A Hacker Manifesto by Mackenzie Wark
A hacker practices creativity as hacking the new out of the old.
So, you will start by hacking boardgames.
When playing boardgames, you are the game engine. You constantly process rules and check that other players are not cheating. In other words, boardgames keep your brain active!
Boardgames are quicker and easier to hack. Because they’re necessarily simpler than digital games (human players are like slow computers from the 1980s, says Prof. James Wallis), and because you don’t need to know how to code. No need to worry about digital bugs.
The process of playing and hacking a board game is collaborative and accessible, as team members can throw ideas on the table, move pieces of paper around and think together.
Now, find at least another person to work with. Ideally three people per team.
Over the next 10 minutes, try and hack rock-paper-scissors into a new game!
How could you approach your hack? You could hack the rules, rename the 3 basic moves, add/remove some moves, hack the goal of the game, hack the winning condition, hack the number of players, etc.
At this point, anything goes.
By hacking games, we can start to understand their ingredients and how they affect the play experience. We can start to grasp what a game is.
Just like a kid, you will hack a simple game by trial and error, without really knowing what you are doing. That’s great!
MDA, a slightly more structured approach
Game designers and researchers have put a lot of thinking into defining what games are, how to analyse them and how to make them.
One way to understand games is to analyse their mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics, aka the MDA framework.
The MDA framework was developed by game designers LeBlanc, Hunicke and Zabek. In the same paper linked above they also proposed a taxonomy of 8 types of fun. Very influential in game design.
Mechanics = the rules
Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.
In simpler terms, mechanics are the rules of a game, the laws and constraints under which the game operates.
How is the game set up? What actions can players take? How do those actions affect the game state? When does the game end, and how is a resolution determined?
For example, what are the mechanics of a game like Chess?
They include the board size and layout, the initial set up (for each player, one row of pawns, two rooks, etc.), one move per turn, the way different pieces move, the check rule (if your king is put into check, you are forced the move it out of check), etc.
Really Bad Chess is a brilliant hack of Chess, which alters just one mechanic: the initial combo of pieces. Everything else is the same. Yet the game plays differently.
Dynamics = emerging behaviours
Dynamics describes the run-time behaviour of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others outputs over time.
In simpler terms, dynamics are what players tend to do in order to reach their game goals. How do players interact with one another? What strategies emerge from the rules?
Dynamics describe the play of the game when the rules are set in motion.
For example, what are the dynamics of Chess?
If you play classic Chess, you may start your game with pawns, then shift your focus on more powerful elements as the board clears. There isn’t a rule that forces you to do that, but you may have noticed it’s a better strategy.
Another dynamic of Chess is that players tend to keep the King protected/surrounded by other pieces. You don’t usually venture out with the King as an attack piece.
The image above is Play it by Trust (1966) by Yoko Ono, another Chess hack in which all the pieces and the board are white. In some interviews, Ono claimed she hacked this together just for fun, to tickle players. In others, she described it as an anti-war statement, made during the Vietnam War to draw attention to the deeply militaristic metaphors embedded in this game.
Regardless, how does this hack change the dynamics of Chess? In other words, how does it change the way people play it, their tactics and strategies?
Aesthetics = experiences + feelings
Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.
In simpler terms, aesthetics are what players experience and feel while playing.
Aesthetics (in the MDA sense) do not refer to the visual elements of the game, but rather the player experience of the game: the effect that the dynamics have on the players themselves.
Is the game fun? What kind(s) of fun? Is play emotionally or intellectually engaging? Is play slow and strategic, or fast and frenzied?
For example, what are the aesthetics of Chess?
In classic Chess, you play the role of a medieval commander, trying to outsmart your opponent in an open war between two armies. It’s a competitive game that rewards strategy and patience. There is no chance is Chess.
The image above is Rethinking Wargames (2003) by Ruth Catlow, a hack of Chess in 2 phases:
- Catlow instigated a participatory net art project (just before that illegal war in Iraq you may remember), posting to Chess forums an image of the board reconfigured with pawns on one side and the higher pieces on the other, with the question Under what conditions could the pawns in this game win?
- Crowd-sourced proposals led to the creation of an online game for 3 players, representing white royalty, black royalty, and the united force of pawn. While white and black royalty try to eliminate each other, the pawns place themselves as barriers to the aggression, trying to slow down the violence like virtual protesters. The pawns act as blocks and after five turns, if neither royal side has taken a piece, a period of non-violence is counted and a piece of metaphoric grass grows on the game board. After five turns of non-violence, grass will have taken over the fighting field. By staving off the aggression and overcoming the hotheaded part of the conflict, the pawns win.
What kind of aesthetics (ie, what kind of experience) does Rethinking Wargames foster?
The main point
The key point about MDA is that mechanics shape dynamics, which in turn shape aesthetics.
For example, the mechanics of card games include shuffling, trick-taking and betting — from which dynamics like bluffing can emerge […] Adjusting the mechanics of a game helps us fine-tune the game’s overall dynamics.
If you want to affect how people experience a game (or any other interactive system), you need to work on its mechanics.
You can’t directly manipulate player experiences (aka aesthetics) and it doesn’t really work to just encourage certain behaviours (aka dynamics).
For instance, what would happen if you just asked people to be nice to each other while playing Chess (that would be trying to affect the system dynamics) without putting certain mechanics in place that make people behave differently?
Game designers often start by asking: what are the aesthetic goals for this design? In other words, what kind(s) of fun do I want the game to foster? Once they’re clear on that, they start draw out dynamics that support those goals, and then experimenting with a range of mechanics accordingly.
But if you’re a n00b, you can skip the aesthetic goals for now, and just focus on hacking the mechanics of an existing game!
Ready to hack a boardgame?
There are some really intricate boardgames, which take hours to learn. We won’t hack those kind of boardgames. There are also some boardgames that have very nuanced themes. We won’t hack those either. What we’re looking for are games that are simple enough to be learnable in 5 minutes, and abstract enough to be hackable in half an hour.
10 Best Games in the World is a playable collection of ten traditional board games in one cute book. Not the obvious ones like Snakes&Ladders or Draughts, but quirky games that the Vikings or the Maori played. Despite originating from cultures separated by centuries and oceans, all 10 games share a beautiful simplicity. Simple boards (dare I say minimal), a die, some pieces and a few simple rules to govern the gameplay.
If you don’t want to buy the book, here are the rules for all 10 of them:
- Malefiz (aka Barricade)
- Li’b El Merafib (aka The Hyena Chase)
- Zohn Ahl
- Dou Shou Qi (aka Jungle Chess)
- Qirkat (or any of its many variants)
- Mū Tōrere
Pick one game that inspires you and then play it critically. With your teammates, discuss and jot down your observations.
- Mechanics: what’s interesting/weird/broken about the game rules, setup, turns, win conditions?
- Dynamics: what behaviours and strategies do the mechanics foster
- Aesthetics: what’s the play experience? How did you feel while playing?
After some 20 minutes you will have a good grasp of the game. Before you start hacking it, I’d like to warn you about a couple of common n00b pitfalls.
Avoid hacking a game of pure chance, even if you start from a game based on sheer luck. Chance-based games may be ok for small children, but generally adults don’t like them. What you want instead is give players interesting, non-trivial choices to make while playing.
Above is a medieval drawing of two posh men playing Backgammon. In this game chance is mitigated by strategic choices. You still roll the dice, but then you get to choose which pieces to move.
Avoid hacking a content-heavy game. It may be tempting to add a trivial/quiz on top of existing mechanics, but then you’ll end up spending a long time working on content rather than mechanics.
Now hack the game you played with new mechanics, and paper-prototype your new game!
You may also want to jot down the rules of your new game.
Even the most experienced game designers will tell you that you won’t have a clue how something will work until you’ve observed other humans play it.
Playtesting is 80% of the game design process.
Broadly speaking, these are the three key questions you’re trying to answer through playtesting.
- Is the game functional? When you have a new mechanic (or you changed one) and you want to make sure the game system (still) works. You can stress-test certain aspects of your game, and skip others.
- Is the game fun? Once you know your game is not mechanically broken, you need to find out if people enjoy playing it. What kind of fun (if any) are they experiencing?
- Is the game learnable? You also want to check how people learn your game. Are there any bits which are confusing? Questions that players repeatedly ask you?
Most of the times playtesters will surface a problem with your game, but their diagnosis of that problem will be wrong. It’s your role to steer the conversation away from diagnosing what’s wrong with the game, and keep it at the symptoms level. Ask players about their experience, not their suggestions.
Iterate on the 🐝
Sometimes you’ll stumble upon an issue that has an obvious fix. Don’t wait for the next game to try it. Change it immediately.
Now playtest your hack with another team, or with friends & family!
Send me pictures+rules of your game. I’d love to see what you hacked :)