Having Something to Say

My annual pilgrimage to Gen Con harvests bushel upon bushel of ideas. I generally meet with at least six publishers and shoot for ten. Each is looking for games to fit certain needs and I want to supply as many of those as possible.  We do a large amount of brainstorming, looking for the best idea to fit each need. If we find something promising, it becomes my job to take that idea home and develop it.

As I work to develop these ideas into worthy games, some energize me while others drag me down.  This led me to a discovery about myself – not necessarily a good thing – to really get a project moving, it has to have something to say.

What does that mean?

It means that the game has to go someplace new. It has to speak up for itself and say you haven’t seen this before or you may have seen this before but I’m doing it better.  Offering anything less leaves me feeling more photocopier than designer.

For example, my first published game reverted to me about a year ago and started searching for a new home. While I’m still proud of this game as it is, I also challenged myself to recreate it. Twelve years of experience let me look at the game in new ways. This was where the project began to have something to say–it wanted new play experiences from the same core experience.

This understanding guided the brainstorming which followed. We focused on ideas that updated play and scoring mechanisms. I created several different prototypes, each with these ideas in mind. Of course most of these prototypes failed.  Some were flat, which is bad, while others were convoluted, which is even worse.  But because I knew what the game wanted to say, it was much easier to spot the prototypes that had real potential.  And out of this, one solid contender emerged.  Today, that contender is in the queue with a major publisher.  Because it has something to say.

To be clear, innovative elements alone do not give a game something to say.  I’ve seen hundreds of eurogames with creative–even baroque–elements that still saying nothing. For a game to say something, its elements have to serve its core engagement. It has to energize players. It has to feature interesting decisions. It has to flow.

So what does all of this have to say about me?  Am I artist or elitist?  Visionary or fool?  Honest or hung up?  I’m not entirely sure.  

How about you?  What does it take to get you excited about playing a new game?  What does it take to get you excited about writing a new game?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

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2 thoughts on “Having Something to Say

  1. Eric Lang once said that if you design games then you’re one of three things: A Rock Star, An Artist or an Entertainer. A rock star is in it for the fame and recognition. An artist wants to make the game he/she wants to make. An entertainer wants to please people and make a game people will like. (From a great interview with Jay Cormier – http://theinquisitivemeeple.com/2015/02/23/designing-meeples-with-jay-cormier/)

    You didn’t get into game design for the money. There’s something about making games that excites you, that makes you willing to put forth the time and effort even though there are more lucrative or hedonistic things you could do. It’s no surprise that not every game idea pulls that trigger, and your income doesn’t require you to work on the games that don’t. It’s a great position to be in!

  2. For me, what gets me excited about a game is exactly this: it has to do something new, and it has to be cohesive. Although it is true that “something new” is not necessarily a new mechanism; oftentimes it is presenting a mechanism in a new context (whether purely theme or combined with other mechanisms). I think about the eventual generation of Fields of Arle by Uwe Rosenberg, a process that seems to have started with Agricola and progressed forwards through Le Havre, Ora et Labora, All Creatures Big and Small, Glass Roads… until ending with Fields of Arle, which I consider a thematic achievement around a pleasing set of mechanisms that were dutifully matured and streamlined over time, and that intertwine so well that it’s difficult for me to call it what it is (point salad). Fields of Arle has so much more to say than any of its ancestors did, and that’s saying something. 🙂

    And that sort of thing has always attracted me. And I think it drives a lot of reviewers and the boardgaming public—sure, there are darling flash-in-the-pans, but the games that say something will generally outlast the ones that don’t.

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