Meeple Speak article written by designer, Chris Hamm on prototyping.

Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. This time our guest writer is Chris Hamm. Designer behind the game, Strife: Legacy of the Eternals and author of the blog Life in Games.


The Genesis of a Game

by Chris Hamm

I am often asked when demoing a new prototype or discussing a premise that I have for a game, “How did you come up with this?”  I think this is a question worthy of an answer, and I will attempt explain how I first come up with an idea for a game and then how that idea becomes a game.

Any game designer, published or aspiring, will tell you there are moments when the idea for a new game just strikes and it is followed by a rush of excitement at the possibilities.  However, where do these moments of inspiration come from and why do we experience them?  It is hard to say, but I think those who are very active in the hobby are much more likely to experience them.  Obviously, anyone could have such an epiphany, but more often than not it happens to people completely obsessed with games, of whom game designers tend to be the most obsessed.  I am of the opinion that such a high level of exposure creates a certain openness to seeing all kinds experiences as potential games.

So if the answer is as simple as play lots of games and think about them all of the time, you might ask, “why is everyone in the hobby not a game designer?” The reason is the crucial step that follows that initial inspiration…action!  It is not enough to simply have an idea for an awesome game, you must act on it!  Just to be clear, I am in no way talking trash. For years I fell into the exact same habit as most people of having a great idea for a game (In my opinion at least) and never taking things any further.  In fact, I carried around the most basic concept for my first published game, Strife: Legacy of the Eternals, in my head for years without acting upon it in any way.  It was not until I took the action of making my first prototype that the idea became a game and I a designer!

That instant where inspiration and action intersect is what I call, the genesis of a game.  It is when your action pulls a rough idea from the primordial soup of your mind into the world and it begins to evolve either toward extinction or something greater.  Everything that occurs from that moment on is game design, and whether you ever publish or not, that makes you a game designer!  Welcome to the club!
Now that we understand that taking action on the heels of inspiration is the key, what sort of action should you take?  Everyone of my games, published, soon to be published, hope to be published, and will never be published has begun in exactly the same manner…in a notebook!  Maybe it is because I am old-school or just old, but I prefer working on paper. I find that I am less constrained by a desire for perfection if I am writing and scribbling fresh ideas in a notebook than typing on my computer.  This is imperative during the early stages, because you never know what is going to be important later, so getting everything down from possible board shapes, card designs, mechanics, story, and even graphics is key.  There will be plenty of time for perfecting it later!  Understand, that by taking just this simple step you have gone further than most people ever will and it makes everything that comes afterwards seem less daunting!

The next step is to create a prototype as soon as possible!  This is important, because the more real your game becomes to you the easier it is to keep working on it.  Some designers are blessed with tremendous artistic talent and can make even their early prototypes look lovely. If you are one of those people, I am envious of your gifts, but I would caution against pushing the graphic side too far before working on the actual guts of the game.  This is because in the very beginning your game, like most freshly created games, is probably quite bad and the more invested you become in pushing your game in a certain direction to fit artistic considerations the harder it will be to make needed changes due to the upheaval it will cause to everything else you have done.  This, and my complete lack of artistic ability, is why I prototype UGLY!

Ugly to beautiful! First prototype to final product on Strife: Legacy of the Eternals.

When I say that I prototype ugly, I mean that I put zero consideration into the appearance during this early stage for any other purpose than functionality!  I use cubes, index cards, magic cards in sleeves with paper in front, dry erase mega mat, poster board, glass beads, poker chips, dice, and even coins to make my earliest prototypes.  These rough components allow me the flexibility to make the quick and numerous changes that will surely be needed as the game develops without feeling as though I am destroying anything I have put my heart into making.  This is very important, as you must be ready to cut anything that doesn’t work without letting your emotional attachment to it get in the way.

This is the very rough first prototype of a barbecue rib game! Ugly!

With the creation of that first prototype, so begins the long process of testing and refining to the point where you decide the game simply will not work and cast it aside or seek to publish via one of the avenues in the industry:  traditional publisher, self publishing, or crowdfunding.  However, whether or not a particular game is ever published it is this process and going through it that is of the greatest importance!  While there is often debate if game design is an art or a science, few would argue that it is not a skill, and like any skill one can get better with practice!  So the best way to become a better game designer is to design games.

You really need a vinyl mega-mat! This is the board for a quick abstract. Ugly!

Learn to open your mind to everyday experiences, behaviors, or subjects that can possibly be turned into a game.  Regardless of what it is, try to think of systems and mechanics you could create to capture the essence of the topic in a unique fashion, and if anything strikes your fancy get to work right away!  In the end, it may be nothing, but it is during this initial flurry of excitement and action where many games are born.  By practicing the necessary skills every time, you will be ready when the right idea comes along and it will be the genesis of your game!