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Now, the Twist: When Design Fails

Now, the Twist: When Design Fails

The Chess GameWelcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey that will force him to take a long, hard look at game design.

Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.



Even the best game designers out there—whether for tabletop RPGs, board games, or electronic games—occasionally deliver something that falls well shy of actual fun.

Of course, when this happens, we try very hard to see what the designer was trying to do. Quite often, there’s a mechanic that’s really brilliant or combines features from other games in a new and exciting way, but it’s just that the overall execution failed. Some other element was lacking. Maybe it was the small details. Maybe it was the premise. Maybe it was the production value. Maybe it was the art style. It’s a lot easier to blame someone else on the team than it is to examine our own behaviors, but passing the blame around doesn’t do anything for you but cement your reputation as a jerk. It’s better to look at what we could have done differently or better…

We have two choices when we fail as designers: learn from our mistakes or get on the internet to explain why our detractors are wrong (sometimes in less than polite terms). If you’re talented or learning the wrong lesson, you can do both. The second choice, while momentarily more satisfying, leaves you feeling dirty afterward, and you can apologize or ignore it, both of which will incite some fresh new insight about you, and soon the discussion turns into a detailed critique of you rather than your game.

That’s definitely not constructive, and it’s not good for your game. That’s why you’re doing this, right? It’s certainly not for the money, and you should probably know right now that while games are big business, game designers are not exactly “famous.” It’s more like we’re (in the words of Monte Cook) “demi-famous,” or famous to a small but devoted group of people.

But I digress.

So fame can’t be your motive. It’s not money. In that case, it had better be the game. So focus on your game and try to make it awesome. Of course, we each have our own ideas about what games are awesome and what games are not, and it’s hard to admit that our ideas aren’t panning out. In fact, this is one of the easiest traps for a designer to fall into. It’s extraordinarily simple to start believing the hype of your own mind, just as it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing your work is no good. Both of these are terrible traps, and I urge you strongly to avoid them. Fortunately, you have an easy way to get out should you stumble in.

One of the first and easiest ways to find out if your game is any good is to test it out. That sounds simple, but it’s not. To playtest effectively, you need people who aren’t going to filter their feedback based on your reaction. Maybe you’ve got jerky friends who always talk crap about you because they think it’s funny—these guys can’t be trusted to give you honest feedback. Likewise, your siblings aren’t a good test audience because they have the weight of your shared history, whether good or bad.

So you need to test with strangers. And then you need to filter their feedback too. If one person says a game isn’t fun, they’re a blip on the radar. If five people say it, you’ve got to start thinking about what might be wrong. And if 50 people say it, you’ve got your work cut out for you, and you should be ready to answer some hard questions. For one, why are you showing your game to 50 people if it isn’t fun?

Or maybe they all love it. Regardless, they’re going to have questions, and they’re going to make suggestions. Before you take all of theirs, though, I have a few of my own.

  • Make sure your numbers work. Balance is important, and if your game isn’t balanced, one side will have all the fun, at least for a little while. But they’ll never be able to convince anyone else to play with them more than once, so that’s not a great sales strategy.
  • Present the meaningful information in your game clearly and succinctly. I love to write complex and wordy sentences, and sometimes I fall in love with my writing style (though why this could be is beyond my powers). Let me be declarative: this is bad. Important information should be succinct, concise, and to the point. You want there to be no question how you intended the game to play.
  • Mechanical benefits should be balanced with mechanical drawbacks and flavor benefits balanced with flavor drawbacks. I say this from personal experience. Once, early on, I crossed those streams in The Complete Book of Elves when I created the elven bladesinger. The kit got a great deal mechanically speaking, but boy, did they pay for it in the flavor aspect. What I didn’t consider was that some people don’t roleplay, or bring the bare minimum to the table to get by. In other words, I ignored a large portion of the player base and empowered munchkins, and I rightly got dinged for it. In fact, I’m still apologizing for it, 17 years later although with a lot less frequency now.

Of course, none of this advice adds up to a specific recipe for fun. Throwing a pile of numbers together and making sure they’re even on both sides of the balance sheet is accounting, not playing. Anyone can break out a spreadsheet (though some with significantly more facility than others), but not everyone can bring that elusive idea of fantasy to life. To make your game sing, you need imagination and fire.

But where do you get that?

11 thoughts on “Now, the Twist: When Design Fails”

  1. Shoot, I liked the Elven Bladesinger. When I played one about a decade ago I felt like the benefits received in combat were balanced by the responsibilities that a bladesinger had to their people. It ended up being a deep roleplaying character for me, since we were playing a party of elves. Many memorable scenes with me butting heads with the leader of the group and establishing a relationship with each character.

  2. No need to feel bad about the Elven Bladeslinger: Unless you were the sole author of *all* the TSR/WotC splatbooks, you were only making the same mistakes that most of the other writers were making.

    Even The Man himself, Gary Gygax, fell into that trap. The Barbarian class from 1st edition’s Unearthed Arcana was about as balanced as an elephant on a kindergarden teeter-totter.

  3. I really enjoyed your article! It will influence my game design (which has got me really busy right now). One criticism: your second bullet point was a bit wordy…

  4. Thanks, all! I should note that I do take requests. If there’s an issue that you’re having trouble in with design, or if you have questions, I’d be glad to address it here or in a future column.

    @SpecBear: That’s exactly how the bladesinger was intended, and because I was designing the kit as something I’d want to play – that is, roleplaying with a mechanical boost – that’s how I designed it. But I’ve had DMs come to me and tell me that I totally broke their campaigns, and it’s only later that I’ve realized that they still bore ultimate responsibility for what went into their games.

    @Charles: Let’s not forget the Cavalier. Though on balance (ahem), the Barbarian basically rampaged all over everything. Still, for a bunch of kids power-tripping, UA was a great book.

    @James: Ho. Ho ho. ;)

  5. Great article, Colin! I shall enjoy reading these. :)

    Those are some interesting notes you shared about the bladesinger, which I think might expose a self-contradicting mindset among some gamers: playing a creative game (i.e., an RPG) and refusing to create (i.e., make it your own). There will inevitably be gamers who find something too crunchy or too flavorful, and if that’s the case, they should either ignore it or change it to suit their style of play.

    No matter how hard we work on design, we can’t please everyone–and even if we could, we shouldn’t be in the business of telling people what is fun, only suggesting avenues that they themselves might explore.

    In summary (and obviously, brevity isn’t my thing either), I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit. :)

    AND you should keep posting these.


  6. Erik –

    Absolutely. Looking back, at least part of the problem I had in designing the bladesinger was simply the tunnel vision of youth. It would have helped had I ever realized that I was not necessarily my target market.

    I agree 100% that we can’t please everyone, and frankly, we shouldn’t try. What we do need to do is find the people who we can please, and make sure that we’re delivering the maximum amount of fun to them. (cue the image of the dump truck slowly reversing; gamers falling beneath the load of fun sliding out)

    Thanks for the kind words (man, what a professional thing to say) – but seriously, thanks. For some reason, Wolf and Scott have decided that I should do this column regularly, so until I manage to incite a riot, there’s no escape!

  7. An excellent and enjoyable read! But you left us hanging, and I don’t know the schedule of your column :o

    What would be an example of a “flavor benefit”? How are “flavor” and “roleplaying” related in this discussion?

    You might have this in mind, but I’d love to know how you would re-work the Bladesinger (in brief, without getting too system-specific). I’m not looking for any free design :)

    Thank you!

  8. Another aspect that slips by during design is, quite simply, “not every player will think like the designer.”

    I like to think I hit all the points you mention re: game balance when I created the BLOOD WARS card game (too many years ago to contemplate now). Every mechanical trick was balanced and counterbalanced by cards of equal rarity to keep the game tight.

    And then it went to playtest…and I found people using cards I designed as defenses offensively (and vice-versa). I believe [two former coworkers of ours] showed me that I’d created the potential for serious screw-your-neighbor play…and they loved that the meek little designer (I was at the time) set up some seriously nasty game interactions.

    Didn’t change a thing about the rules or the game–just the perspective on when something would be played…and it made the game far wilder once I realized there’d be at least two or more different ways a card. It made it a lot more fun (and trickier to design cards past the initial test group) to design, once we realized the scope of how many ways each mechanic could operate.

    Wonder if there’s a column/discussion for that–the unintended or unseen consequences/repurcussions of game design?

  9. Great article – very insightful. Were you purposely being verbose in your second bullet as a way of demonstrating said point?

    I can walk-away with quite a bit from this, as both an armchair-designer and an observer. I have to admit from my own experience that you can definitely get caught-up in all the self-love and think something you have nurtured is wonderful, even though its stinks like last week’s Ogre-droppings.

    As for ‘bad design’, that’s highly subjective. I have been both a player and GM over the many years, and I freely admit that the ‘broken stuff’ I HATE as a DM, I often love and embrace as a player (like your Bladesinger, and the infamous 1e barbarian).

    The real trick is making the game fun for everyone, including the DM. If you can get that right, its pure win.

    Looking forward to your next installment.

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