Do you have the urge to make your own tabletop game? Do you have an idea that you've always wanted to try or are you full of ideas for games but aren't sure where to start? Would you like it to be good enough that your family and friends will want to play it? Table top games seem simple enough, but are they really? Even expert game makers struggle to explain their craft, so it's not quite as easy as it seems.
The purpose of this Instructable is to give you some main concepts that will help to make enjoyable games. Then I'll talk about some websites that you can use to make a professional quality game.
I'll be using some of my games as examples, just to give some flavor to the instruction.
So who am I and why do I know anything about this? I'm a game design hobbyist. That means I make games for fun, although I do make very modest amounts of money from my games. I started designing Role Playing Games (RPGs) twenty seven years ago. I've thrown my hat into the ring in making board games and card games in the last five years. I've entertained my friends with my games for all that time. The pictures of games in this instructable are working games I've made and played with my friends around the world.
Game design employs psychology, neuroscience and a solid grounding in basic product design. I'll try and distill some of the critical concepts for you here. This will not be a step by step guide. Not only would that be impossible to write, it would only allow you to make the kind of game that I wrote the instruction for. There are going to be large leaps that you will have to make yourself but if you already have a desire to make a game, you'll have no trouble finding your way.
Of course the first step in making games is to play games. Play lots of them. Play games you don't even like. Learn to take them apart and what makes them fun.
Step 1: Tell a Story
Most games, aside from games that only use dice or cards, tell a story or tell several different stories. They tell them in very different ways but if a game is going to be fun, it's very helpful to know why the players are doing what they do.
The initial concept of a game is usually the desire to tell an interactive story that the players decide the events of. That sounds like it could be very complicated, and it can be if you let it, but it can be as simple as rolling dice and moving a token.
Pick your story.
Example: I wanted to tell a murder mystery story.
Step 2: Who Are Your Players?
It's important to know who your target players are. Will this be a game for children under 12? Will it be for the whole family? Are your friends all adults? What games do they play now? Are you going to use this game to teach the players something (will this be educational)?
There's a lot that understanding your players will do for you. If you say that your players are "everybody" then you've just made your job really hard. The more you can target a particular type of player, the easier it will be to make a game. If your players are your friends, then you have a very specific group of players in mind and your job is much easier.
Games made for young children should require as little math as possible. Rolling a single die and moving a counter can be a challenge for children below three years old. Adding two dice together can be tough for children under five.
Games that are for the whole family need to have a strong random factor and limited strategy. Games like Checkers and chess are strategic, no randomness and narrow skill ranges. It's not going to be interesting for a thirty year old to go up against a five year old. A random game puts young players on an equal footing with older players. Adults have fun in this kind of game because they're playing with children.
A game with only adult players will need a strong strategic element. Adults want to know that their choices matter and that their strategy is what won the game for them. Sometimes a lucky dice roll is fun too, but in a game with all adults tend to not enjoy games that are strongly random.
What kind of games do your players already play? Are they card game players? Are they chess players? Card game players are used to organizing random events and building a strategy out of them. Chess has no randomness. So if your players are into chess, they may like a very stable game where their choices are all that matters.
Example: I want my murder mystery to be fun at parties, meaning players aren't looking to think really hard about the game. Murder is a more adult subject so I won't need to design for young kids. This tells me that there needs to be nearly no math or memorization required to play my game as people at parties are likely to be distracted.
Step 3: Mechanism
This is importantly the third step. Many budding game designers jump straight to this step without having handled the first two. This might seem harmless, but it fails to make a whole game. Mechanism helps to tell a story. Without knowing where the story is going the players may sense that the play of the game doesn't match the story they're telling.
Now that we know where the game is going with the story and who you'll go with, the mechanism can get you there.
Mechanism is how the game is played. It's the tools that the players will use to tell their story.
Is this to be a board game? The board is a visual mechanism, one that usually gives the players a sense of space or distance but can be used for many purposes.
Does the game use dice? One six sided die introduces a random element. Interestingly, adding together multiple dice makes things less random because they average out. The more dice, the larger the average but the more stable the result will be.
Cards can be a way of introducing randomness or they can be used to store information or both. Cards can be great for temporary rules that only happen when the card is in use. Printing the rule on the card saves in memorization and shortens the general game rules.
Tokens can be used to indicate ownership, position or numbers.
There are plenty of other mechanisms you can employ to make a table top game. Not all of them are physical things. Many are rules. What a player can and can't do according to the rules is a vital part of the game's mechanism.
Honestly, this step and all that entails could fill several books.
Example: I decided on a deck of cards that would each have a fact written on them. The players are dealt cards and discuss the facts on the cards. The main rule mechanism is one player will act as an investigator and use the cards to find out who is the murderer.
Step 4: Players Want Different Things
Now it's time for a bit of philosophy. A widely liked game delivers a different experience to individual players. Some players like a game that allows them to socialize. Some players play a game to win. Some players enjoy the story that might be told through the game. Some players just want to do better than their friends. A dedicated player may play just to uncover the secrets of a game that is hidden in the mechanism.
Games can deliver all these things at the same time if the designer allows it to. Understanding who you're making the game for can help you to foster these desires. If you as the designer enjoy a specific type of play, don't exclude the others. What is fun for you may not be fun for your players.
Some players love competition while others are uncomfortable with it. Allowing a strategy that lets a player build without interfering with other players should be an option. If possible, a strategy where players help each other may be enjoyable. Of course many players thrive on competition and these are likely to be a majority of players. The best thing is to accommodate as many modes of play that you can.
Example: My game is primarily story telling and comparing the stories of each player. This lends to a highly social game which is good for a party atmosphere. It allows for players to be competitive and try and interfere with each other's story. It also allows them to tell their own story without trying to interfere, multiple players can attempt to corroborate making cooperation possible.
Step 5: Simplify
Games can get complicated very quickly. It's one of the greatest challenges a game designer can take on to get complex game play out of simple rules.
Looking at what you've created so far, it may seem like the game is already simple. This is the curse of knowledge. You are an expert in the rules of your game and you can't see it from the perspective of someone that is a novice.
There aren't many people that whip out a tax form and fill it out for fun. They're complicated and require math and that isn't any fun. If your game is complicated and requires math, it had better deliver on fun or players will enjoy it as much as a tax form.
It's now your job to reduce the difficulty of playing as much as possible. Are all the steps needed? Can you combine any?
When it comes to math, there's a order to operational complexity.
The most mentally complex common math operator is division. You should almost never use division in a table top game. Find a different way if you put this math operator in your mechanics.
The second most complex operator is multiplication. If you have any multiplication in your game, make sure it happens only once or twice in any session. Any more than that and players will tire mentally. Multiplication that benefits the players may be tolerated a bit more, but still keep it to a minimum.
The third most complex is subtraction. Avoid subtraction as a regular function of the game. Repetitive use of a complicated math operator taxes the player's mental abilities and reduces their ability to make complex choices.
The second to least complex is addition. Most games use addition, but be careful even addition in large quantities can reduce a player's ability to make complex choices over the course of a game.
Least complex is a comparison operation. This is when you are evaluating if a number is less than, equal or greater than another value. Comparison operators should be the bulk of the math that you'll use in your game. Most card games like poker, hearts or rummy operate almost exclusively on comparison operators during play.
Example: From the beginning I included no math in the game. The play is entirely story based and the resolution to finding the murderer is whoever's story fails to account for or contradicts facts on the cards. These are all value judgements that humans engage in intuitively. In playtesting some players acting as investigator don't quite follow the instructions and look for the person with the least good alibi but the play is still enjoyable and the difference is not usually noticed. Since players are still having fun there's no reason to reinforce the rules with any other mechanism. It's still functional to kind of play by the rules.
Choice is an interesting factor in simplifying a game. You may think that giving players as many choices as possible is a good thing, but it actually makes the game more complicated to play. Players should only be weighing two to four options at any one time. Anything beyond that leads to decision fatigue. Once a player is an expert, they may want more choices. Thats why you make expansion packs!
Individual steps are another complication in a game. Rolling a die, moving a token, buying a property and collecting money are all individual steps. Strive for the fewest number of required steps in a player's turn. Optional steps may be okay to pile on, as long as the players don't have to know about them at the start.
Step 6: Prototype
Making tabletop prototypes is fairly easy. Game boards can be mocked up on a large piece of paper or foam board. Playing cards can be used or if custom cards are needed, writing on 3x5 index cards work well. Borrow dice from another game if you don't have free dice available.
Your prototype does not need to be polished and it's probably better if it isn't. You can hand write cards and freehand draw any graphics you'll need to play the game. If you need some kind of custom dice, cut self sticking labels to the size of the die faces and then attach them. Each side can then be drawn or written on. The labels can be removed and replaced if needed.
Write up your rules by hand or type them out on a computer and print them out. It's important that they are recorded and not simply in your head.
Example: My prototype is a deck of 3x5 cards written out by hand.
Step 7: Playtest
This is possibly the hardest part of making a game because it will reveal all the problems your game has. It's important to understand that finding flaws is why you playtest. Expert game designers always playtest and don't expect their games to be problem free. A playtest is simply playing your game before it's completed in it's final form. You'll be using your prototype for this.
Ideally, it's best to hand your game to players, have them read the rules you've prepared and try to play without you explaining the game to them. You might give them a short description of the game, maybe the kind of thing they'd be reading on the game's box, but the less direct input you give the better.
Be ready to take criticism from your players. Unless you've playtested games in the past, this experience can be distressing especially if you've worked hard on the game so far. Once you're used to the playtest process, it becomes very rewarding. Expect there to be problems, possibly serious ones.
It's important to playtest early and be ready to take the player's input. It may also be important for you to ignore player input. Sometimes they players may not understand why the game is designed the way you've made it. This is a difficult part of game making, do you stick with your vision or follow what the players want. There are times when one or the other is the right call.
Make notes, recording any time there is confusion. You'll either want to clarify what the players are having trouble with in the rules, or make changes to the prototype depending on what is confusing to the players. Be willing to try things different ways.
Example: The first playtest went well but revealed that one card was especially bad for players to get because it displayed a motive. We wrote up several more motive cards to balance this out.
Step 8: Adjust and Playtest More
Think about what went well and what didn't. A lot of times an idea might sound good when you're designing things but can end up slowing the game down or just making things confusing. Remove anything that's making it hard for players to get the story out of the game or anything that gets in the way of players having fun.
It's really important that whenever you make a change, you try the game again. Try with different groups of players if at all possible.
At this stage, ask yourself if your players are having fun playing the game. If the answer is no, there are a few simple things you can try. Ask them what makes the game not enjoyable. If the answer is that the game is too hard, it's likely that the game has too many steps or there could be too much math. It could be that they feel a rule is unfair, or that they can't use a strategy they'd like to.
Example: After our first playtest session, I felt there needed to be more cards in the deck. Some seemed to detract from the game. I removed the poor cards and categorized the remaining ones. Where a category was unbalanced, I made up new cards to fill in the gap. After that I ran another test session.
Step 9: Make a Second Prototype
After playtesting as many times as possible, make a new prototype. Try to improve in the materials and put effort into any graphics that you need. If you need drawings and are not good at drawing, see if you can enlist the aid of one of your playtesters.
If desired and you have the skills needed, have a Print On Demand service make an early version of the game. When writing Role Playing Games I have an early beta book printed up on Lulu.
Having a semi-polished second prototype really helps to get a feel for the game as it will be in it's finished state. For some reason, whenever I get my second prototype, I notice problems that I hadn't seen before, even though I tried to make things as perfect as I could.
Example: I have an account with TheGameCrafter and had a deck and box printed up. Instead of a separate sheet of paper, I was able to fit the rules on two of the playing cards.
Step 10: How Far Are You Going?
Why do you want to make this game? Is it for your friends to play or are you interested in trying to sell your game? Most commercially successful game designers make and sell dozens of games, each one contributing a small amount of income. Very few ever quit their day jobs.
If you're only going to play this game with your friends, then congratulations! You're a successful game designer. You can enjoy your second prototype for many years or you can continue to refine your game. Making games for fun of it is a noble endeavor all by itself.
If you're looking for a wider audience, the key to getting people to play your game is to get their attention. People value a physical item that is in front of them more highly than one that they may only see a picture or a sample of.
Getting a wider audience usually requires playing the game with as many people as possible and having copies available for people to buy. This usually means going to game conventions or hosting games at open game nights at universities or local game stores. Once you have a group of people that enjoy your game, they will play it with their friends and you may be able to get more people playing your game.
Putting a product online is rarely enough to get people to play. There are thousands of games available, more than any one person could play in their lifetime. People will invest their time in something their friends recommend though.
Prototype and Publishing
For game graphics, creative use of photographs can be a very helpful starting point especially if you don't have robust art skills. Getting familiar with digital art is a must though if you want to move toward a polished looking game. GIMP is an excellent tool to become familiar with. It has everything you'll need to make professional looking graphics. Inkscape is another tool that many game makers enjoy but I've never had much success with. It's different from GIMP because it's a vector graphic program vs. GIMP being a bitmap program. (If that doesn't make any sense to you, don't worry about it.) Adobe offers a monthly plan for it's creative suite that's reasonably affordable. Adobe Acrobat Distiller is indispensable if you're making a game book. A monthly subscription is the cheapest way to be able to use it's powerful PDF tools.
For board games, my go to resource is The Game Crafter. It takes time to learn how to make a game board or a box wrap, but they have an impressive array of options. It's a Print on Demand website that can assemble a single copy of whole board game for a reasonable price.
For printing out game books for things like RPGs DriveThruRPG is becoming the place to go. They now offer the ability to print on demand books and cards.