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This is the blog of a first time game designer trying to figure out what the heck he's doing.

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The Island of **** it!

Updated: Mar 1

My latest board game design has be torturing me a bit. I've been under the hood trying to maximize every last aspect, and get it running at the highest strategic level. While I've got a lot of it perfectly balanced, my players have been struggling with the game in some surprising ways, and strangely, it was a PC game from the 90's that might have helped me see what I was doing wrong.


As a kid, I was obsessed with the King’s Quest games.  To the point that when the sixth one came out with a full ballad on the CD with actual human voices, I actually made a couple calls to KC101.3 trying to see if they’d play the theme from a video game on the radio.


Beyond having a single that is the most 1992 thing that ever 1992’ed, the game was fun as hell and gorgeous to look at.  Just take a look at a few scenes from the first island you visit in the game. 



They fill the screen with as much character as possible, refusing to let even a bookstore look mundane in their fantasy world. 



Every scene was painted out, and I looked forward to each to area I got to explore. But, enraptured as I was, even I raised an eyebrow when somewhere in the mid-game I ended up here. 



In a game marked by detail and beauty, we show up to a place called The Island of The Sacred Mountain, and it's the tiniest inlet in front a lump of grey, with two random items just dropped out in the open devoid of context or reason.


I had my own thoughts about this but I think Leigh Graner put it at its NSFW best.


They dubbed it “the island of f*** it,” adding “this must be the last thing they programmed.”


There’s this kind of understanding in video games, especially older games, where the last levels usually don’t have as much polish as the early ones. 


The really obvious examples of this were usually because the development team ran out of money, time, or both, but you might even notice this kind of dip in well developed games. The reason for this isn't necessarily insidious or lazy, it's just that many teams put priority on the earliest parts of the game. Because those are the parts that most people play. The fact is half of the people that buy a game won't ever make it half way through it. (Check your achievements on Steam or PlayStation if you don't believe me.)


That got me thinking about how board games get played most of the time.


The other day I was watching a bunch of players I didn't know play Avalon.  They were obviously experts.  They played with every possible expansion and wrinkle, and knew every strategy like the back of their hands.  Even as someone who's played quite a lot of that game, it was awesome to watch, like seeing the strategic equivalent of a baseball infield throwing a perfect triple play.


But the fact of the matter is, most of the play a boardgame will get, unless it's a stone cold classic, will be a bunch of newbie players trying to learn the ropes.  


Think of your own collection. How many games have you played more than ten times?  How many have you only gotten to the table one or two times?  How many are still on your shelf of shame?


That makes me wonder who I should be designing for. My last few tests, I've been agonizing over an increasingly complex system that could give a lot of depth to high level play, but it's been confusing the heck out of first time players.


I could feel it when I was doing the teach. I kept doubling back to add exceptions or little caveats that weren't natural enough to remember on the first pass. If I was tripping over all the rules, my playtesters were definitely going to. 


It's tempting to optimize the system for maximum nuance, but if it becomes so cumbersome that no one bothers to play enough to get to that level, what's the point?  (Also, Maximum Nuance would be an excellent emo band.)


Of course you want to give every aspect of your game love and care, and ideally you would make as much room as you could for both experiences. "Easy to learn, hard to master" is the end goal of so many designs, but if you were going to have a favorite child here, it has to be making that first game as enticing as possible.  


Plus, I think lost myself trying to whittle my way to an ideal game, when what ends up playing better is a intuitive system that reeks of potential.  Something that's easy going down in its pure form, but begs to be mixed into a more complex cocktail.  That's what leads players to call for "one more round."


I can still play with all those fiddly details, but they're not first priority. I'm not exactly sending them to the Island of F*** It, but definitely to the back of the rulebook. 


Maybe it just seems worthwhile to remind myself that game design doesn't have to be about mechanical perfection. It can be just be about fun, for as many people as possible, as easily as possible. You can let the complexity grow from there.


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