How a boardgame comes to life (part 1)
FIRST RULE: have the stuff.
For me it always starts from a particular, a detail, a temptation I could not resist. In this case the temptation is this:
A black synthetic bag containing 100 dices of ten different colors. I bought it on Amazon only because I liked the idea of having it, it’s kind of a messy way of thinking: accumulating stuff (like hundreds of white business cards of different sizes) just because then it could become something else (boardgame cards, for example!).
And then sheets, pens, markers, colors, scissors, pieces of wood or cardboard, pieces of cloth.
Then it happens that I try to apply to boardgame the Steven Brust (author of the Vlad Taltos series) Cool Stuff Theory of Literature:
All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.
Then I decide that the game that will involve those hundred dice (or a part of them) must be:
- structurally balanced game, not balanced thanks to ad hoc rules;
- a management game with customizable RPG-like characters;
- explainable in a few minutes and must not be an abstract game;
- have a fantasy setting avoiding elves, orcs, humans and dwarfs.
SECOND RULE: have friends. Patient friends.
I have been thinking about rules for a while, I wrote them, I did a handful of solo playtests, then I collect some drawings went to Alessandro, an historical friend of mine, in order to make the first “public” playtest.
He says the game has no catch and I think it depends on the fact that that skeleton of rules is missing all the juicy meat (setting, characters, history and stories) and the body of the game is uncomplete.
So all that remains is to start writing… and drawing.
THIRD RULE: don’t be in a hurry.
When I’m not at home and I’m not at work, I start writing: about 40 pages with everything that comes to mind. On the train or late at night, this takes me about a month.
But I need this to get an overview, for the details I have to take rubber and pencil and imagine a story. To feel more inside the game, I start from the map. I do a schematic one to understand what the characters in the first scenario can do apart from meeting monsters or overcome obstacles
and then I make a more realistic one because I like to pull out the ecoline colors every now and then.
Then I begin to imagine the creatures that will populate this place (for now I copy around things that seem suitable to me).
It’s time to write rules to create the characters: eight pages, but then I decide that for the playtests I will use pre-packaged characters, so I draw them so I try the rules for creating the characters.
FOURTH RULE: don’t forget that the goal is to have fun (not playtesting).
When I have the first demo ready I make a second playtest with friends, again Alessandro and another friend of mine, Marco.
The judgments are not negative, but we finish the game too quickly and too easily. Even if the setting is better now, what doesn’t work properly is the rule system.
I take off a phase that simplified the game and, during the third playtest session with Alessandro and another Marco (it seems I’ve got a lot of friend called Marco), Ale tells me that phase was actually cumbersome.
Good, yet I’m not satisfied. But two important elements emerge:
- the narrative element of the game is still not too present;
- I, on the other hand, am too present: I lead the game too much, I decide too much, I present the possibilities too much.
And then I understand that I have to rewrite the rules for other players and not play too (and possibly not intervene), to understand how the game behaves.
And, for now, I’m at this point.