AnnaMaria has designed Synchronized, HEAP, and Net Fishing, she is the social media manager for Pencil First Games, and is a content creator at Girl’s Game Shelf.
Watch the live chat below:
Staying Organized in a Pandemic
There are so many online resources out there! Before the pandemic, we did so much in person, and there was definitely a change when the pandemic happened. Learning how to utilize all of the online tools made a big difference in getting back to design. This included things like learning how to get cards onto tabletop simulator, learning how to use shared documents so others can easily collaborate, and getting into different online spaces.
There are a ton of online playtesting groups out there, like the Seattle and MidAtlantic groups; there’s a playtesting group every day of the week if you want to join them. It’s so important to connect with other designers as you can find answers to your problems so much easier and you don’t have to keep trying to reinvent the wheel. This is especially true with things like Tabletop Simulator that aren’t always intuitive. You can join a great group where you can playtest and get feedback, you can complain and get answers, and just be around other people for inspiration.
The key to doing anything successfully is having an organized space. You want to make sure your space is in a good order to help you.
Get craft bins for all your bits. If you need cubes of a certain color, you’ll have them immediately instead of needing to search through a bag of cubes for an hour trying to get to those 13 white cubes that you need.
Keeping all your notes together can save so much time. If you have one journal, then you know where all your notes are and you never have to search. Keeping notes is definitely helpful, especially for all of your game design ideas and playtesting records.
Find a box for each game! If everything you need for the game is in a specific box, you simply have to grab that box and you can start iterating.
Making space is another huge part of the equation. If anything takes forever to find or to get to, that means you’re less likely to actually work on the game. You want to make everything as easy as possible and it can be as easy as making space in a closet.
You don’t need any kind of special journal. AnnaMaria mostly works with just a plain journal that she can subdivide into different subjects. She uses big headers so she can quickly flip through the journal and find what she needs quickly.
There’s also the Fail Faster Journal, which is really great for new playtesters as it has places to list out a lot of specific things about the playtest, like who the playtesters are, how long the playtest took, and what the goal of the playtest was.
AnnaMaria is a huge advocate for the ‘use what you have’ philosophy. You don’t need to go out and buy a kit to be a game designer, you can generally create games with the things you have on hand.
The important part about taking notes is that if you write something down, you’re much more likely to remember it. There’s also a benefit to writing down your notes physically, then going back and digitizing them. You’ll remember them even better that way and you can have a different perspective on the notes if you go back over them later to see what was important enough to put in your digital records.
You should always have a specific goal when you’re playtesting. If you do have a goal when you playtest, you’ll be much more efficient and take less playtests to get the game into a great state. A goal could be to answer a question or to test a specific aspect of the game. Here are some examples of playtesting goals:
Is this prototype a game? Does it have anything that’s really cool about it?
Specific Player Counts: Does this game work well at a specific player count? How does the gameplay change at this player count? Does anything need to change for this player count?
Testing a specific fix.
Making sure the game is balanced.
Player Types: Does the game work when the players don’t know each other? How does a certain type of player interact with the game?
Thematic: Is everything about the game thematic? Are things intuitive enough from a theme perspective? Is there anything about the game that stands out as not being thematic? How much do players have to know about the theme to enjoy the game?
You can try to answer multiple questions in each playtest, but knowing exactly what you’re looking for when you start the playtest can let you prep the players properly and allow you to focus on looking for specific things during the playtest.
Working with a Codesigner
For Synchronized, it’s worked out really well to have a shared document where both codesigners can write down notes and see what the other has written. They don’t have to pull up social media to talk, they just add everything to the notes.
It also helps to get right down to business. There’s no need to send a hello message and wait for a response before getting down to why you reached out in the first place. You can certainly add the hello to your message, but you don’t want to waste time when you could just get to what you want to know.
Also, you never want to say something like, “Hey, we need to talk,” and leave it at that. That can be a terrible thing for someone to deal with as people can assume you mean something bad and worry about it all day, when it might be something good. If it is something bad, just say what you want to say and don’t draw it out.
Things You Don’t Do
Some people say that you need to crunch a problem right now, but that doesn’t work for everyone. AnnaMaria rarely gets anything out of sitting down and forcing herself to work on an issue.
Time is your biggest resource and you really want to respect yourself and your time. Game design is something you do because you like it, so grab your game and see if you get inspired and if you don’t, put it back on the shelf.
You want to be able to recognize when you might have creative time. Some people are great at getting things done in the morning and better at chilling out in the evening, so knowing how your brain works and organizing your time around that can definitely help you make significant progress.
Being able to know what times you’ll most likely be efficient, creative, or neither can help you block out those times and schedule them. Just like with playtesting, if you have a goal for a block of time, you’ll be much more focused and productive.
You do want to make sure you haven’t overscheduled yourself and to make time for breaks!
Game design is also not just one thing; it can be creative time, playtesting, data entry, or even just sorting through bits while watching TV.
Not everything works for everyone. We’re all different as designers and that’s ok! Games are interesting because we’re all different and work differently, so being different can certainly be a positive thing.
Advice for New Game Designers
The biggest piece of advice for new game designers: Just go make a game!
It doesn’t have to be good or interesting, it just has to be something. Once you make a game, you can learn from it and become a better designer, but this can’t happen until you take that first step.
The next piece of advice is to take advantage of online resources. There are so many resources online that you don’t have to go anywhere to get answers and to find a community. There are tons of people out there willing to help you, there are game design groups that are specific to locations, groups for women, etc. Go out and find a group that might fit you and start asking questions. Being willing to ask questions will save you so much time in your game design journey.
Be willing to expand your circles within the online communities if your local group isn’t a great fit. We’ve all experienced bad playtesting, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing something you enjoy. AnnaMaria might have stopped game designing at one point, but since she had more people to reach out to, she didn’t stop.
Game Design Learnings
AnnaMaria didn’t realize initially how much you need to playtest and how much you need a very diverse group of playtesters. Diverse groups of playtesters can help you identify who the game is for and why certain things don’t work for specific types of players.
The more different types of playtesters play your game, the more you learn about your game. You can learn so much about game design by seeing how players play and enjoy games differently than you do.
Working on Multiple Games
It’s really nice to have multiple games at different stages of completion. If you have several games that are all at the same stage, it can be hard to playtest them all at the same time and also hard to motivate yourself to do the same thing for multiple games. If you have games at different stages, you can usually find a game that fits with the playtesting group that you have.
If you have one game per night, you can also get all of your games a little further each week.
Other Passions in Game Design
AnnaMaria loves fresh ideas and would rather take an overly used mechanic with a fresh theme and see how it fits. Some themes are used a lot and aren’t great for us to think about. Take themes you’re interested in and design a game; this can make you a lot more motivated to actually work on it. You can even try to slap some theme over poker and see what happens! If nothing else, it’s one of those creative exercises that will help you grow as a designer.
New and interesting themes grow our hobby, and board games with IPs do better than games without IPs. Putting on the marketing hat, if you have a cool new theme, you can then approach a whole different segment of the market that isn’t tired of seeing KS or board games.
When You’re Stuck on a Game Design…
…Move to another game! Trying to push yourself through something means you might not make progress. If you need to take a break, you can do that, and it could help you get reinvigorated with the project.
You can do things like go to Twitter to ask a question, but come up with a similar question that’s not related to game designers. With game design specific questions, you might only get a few game designers answering as some might not want to answer due to Imposter Syndrome. If instead, you ask a more generic question that you don’t have to feel like a game designer to answer, you’ll get a lot more answers. That can definitely help you get unstuck on your game.