Game School: Designing in the White Space and Hunting Mistakes

whitespace

So you’re sitting around playing all of your favorite games and wondering to yourself – “where the heck do these designers get their ideas?” Ah, let us delve deeper!

Where the heck do these designers get their ideas?

The short answer is – lots of places. Every person is different, and everyone draws ideas and inspiration in different ways. But you know me, and you know this column, so there’s bound to be a long answer out there. Actually, there are many, but I’m going to tackle the answer that I think best helps newly minted game designers. I’ll give you, free of charge, really costing only your time to read this, a wonderful, bountiful place so chock full of game ideas that it’s fit to burst. You can apply this not only to board games, but to role playing games as well. Any game that has a set of rules telling you how to manipulate it is surrounded by a cloud of white space.

White space

I think I’m stealing this term ‘white space’ as it applies to game design from Tom Vasel’s excellent podcast Board Game University. One of the designers being interviewed on this show referenced aiming for the white space while designing and that term stuck in my head.

What is this white space that I type of? It’s that place that exists just outside of a current design that you’re familiar with. Let’s look at an example. Dominion came out in 2008 and took the table top world by storm. It’s a deck builder, a concept I’m sure you are all familiar with. You start off with a base deck, and expand it by purchasing cards from a set of 10 cards available to everyone. Your hope – to build a sleek, card powered engine with which you can most efficiently buy victory point cards. Wonderful concept, great idea, great execution, best seller.

But that’s not all you can do with deck builders, right? Let’s look at the next most popular deck builder, Ascension (2010). This was a design that has the same basic principle, but looked into the white space surrounding Dominion and pulled out a few ideas. Add in a deck of many cards, six of which you could purchase/defeat at any time. Add a bit of an actual combat element. They just took a great design, and tacked on a few bits that felt right. Now there’s a whole slew of new deck builders out there, with more coming every year. Heck, I even designed one of the things.

That’s what I mean about white space, it’s the things you could do with a base mechanic that hasn’t been done (or hasn’t been done well, popularly or with a wide audience) already. Here’s a visual aid, which I found very helpful.

whitespace2

That is a great place to start on a game design. Find a game you love, love, love! You love to play it, you love to win it, you even love to lose at it as long as you’re experiencing it. Now, look long and hard at how it works and think of ways you could make it better, more interesting, involve another element, even trim off a bit of fat to make it sleeker.  Thought of something? You’ve just reached into that white space and grabbed a new idea. That is a great place to start designing. If it’s a popular game, a popular mechanic (har har) and is something you love, tweak it and make it better, different, more interesting. Design it with a theme you’re interested in as well and you’re working on a wonderful project that has a good chance of succeeding if you design well.

Subtle mistakes

Another great place to pull from is perhaps below that white space and slightly to the left. Errors. Mistakes. Oopsies! Do you have a game that you really, thoroughly enjoy. One that you’d agree to play at the drop of a hat, but that has this one thing in it that just doesn’t work correctly? Perhaps it’s role selection gone wrong. Or cards that just aren’t necessary and only muddle up one part of the game. Maybe you’ve thought of a more elegant way to acquire and track victory points?

Whatever it is that you think deserves a change, that doesn’t work quite right – capitalize on that! If for no other reason than it lets you dig very deeply into a working, selling game design and see what can be changed. Perhaps you’ll come to realize that what you think of as a mistake is actually a compromise to keep the game balanced, or to make it flow better. Perhaps you’ll hit on the next amazing iteration of the current mechanics built into that type of game. I don’t know, and you certainly don’t know until you try it.

Think of it as Game School homework – deconstruct and rebuild that game. If you have any parts left over but the game still works well, even better than before, then you’ve hit on a good thing. If you’ve found that by adding in or changing one or two things the game works better, has a whole new twist or works so differently using the same base mechanics that it’s practically a different game – you’ve also hit on something great.

McKebab

I am not encourage the blatant rip-off

So don’t even go there. What you should not do is take a game you love, slap a new theme on it and go to town. In order for you to make it your own, you have to innovate on an existing design. Change it for the better, make it subtly but truly different. Ripping off a game is doing yourself and all of us a disservice. We’re not here to pirate ideas, but improve on them, alter them and make them if not better, different enough to qualify as a whole new game.

In conclusion

I think a lot of potential game designers overlook white space and mistakes as a source of new games. Let’s face it though, we use this concept all the time! House rules are a great example of this. While some may not qualify as changing a game enough to call it new (removing one or two cards from a set of 40 by example) others may. And it’s not really all that tough a call to decide which is which.

If you could take your changes to some existing games, and play it as a new game with your group, would you or they say “wow, this is exactly like that game!” or would they say “wow, this is a lot like that game but better because….”

At the very least, its a great exercise in finding out what makes your favorite game your favorite game. The experience and insight you’ll gain from doing a personal redesign is completely worth it in my opinion. At best, you may be the next designer to have another great game in that space hit the market.

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