A primer to game design

Written by Lex Ryan
On July 26, 2023
Maybe you just want to homebrew a tabletop game you already know and love, maybe you’ve had an idea for a game knocking around in your head for a while and simply don’t know where to start, or maybe you’re just a curious mind. But who am I? What’s “homebrew”? Why care? Some brief answers to that and more are below! 

My name is Lex Ryan, I have a degree in game design and development, have well over 200 board games in our board game room (yes, I have a board game room), and have been a Dungeon Master for D&D for over a decade. If that last credential raises an eyebrow, read on. Needless to say, I’m familiar with the topic at hand.  

When playing a tabletop game, you’re participating in an activity, which has had its guidelines defined by another person, a human being, far away, whom you’ll likely never meet, and thus it becomes pretty easy to read a rule book and take it as gospel. To an extent, that is entirely fair, it leaves the person who made the game, who isn’t present, as the ultimate arbiter should conflicts arise during gameplay. Yet, it’s a bit fallacious to stubbornly adhere to such a philosophy. The creator made this game, with a certain intent, for hundreds of thousands of people to experience, yet it’s that very same disconnected scale and lack of familiarity with you and your gaming group, where the hard “rules as written” concept waivers. What did they really mean by [insert some rule in the book they aren’t there to explain]? What really matters is that the player group present agrees to the terms of play, whether it is written in the rules or not. If a certain element or game mechanic just doesn’t jive with your group, or is too weak/powerful for the playstyles you employ, then change it so that it is fun for everyone! 
And that notion is the key concept that serves as the backbone of all game design: Is it fun? Of all the questions you will ask yourself when designing or modifying a given game, they all fall under this umbrella, and you must always remind yourself of this basic question to keep the goal properly in sight. If you’ve ever modified a game in this way, for the sake of your players, it’s what we call, “homebrew,” or perhaps more commonly, “house rules,then congratulations, you’re already a fledgling game designer! Similarly, if you’ve ever served as a Game Master for a tabletop RPG, such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), you’ve probably learned another valuable lesson: It isn’t about winning. 
Yes, a game is meant to be won, and where there are winners, there are losers, so it’s best to respect both sides. When you play a game where your opponent is the game (such as most single-player video games, or cooperative board games), your true opponent is the designer. Let’s be honest here, making a game that “wins” by beating its players is easy; very easy. As a player, when you beat that really hard level and think, “Aha! Look at me now, I beat this impossible thing!” I’m happy for you, but ultimately, you were meant to win. For example: As a DM (The term for a Game Master for D&D), your goal is not to “beat” your players, it’s to lead them through a fun, challenging, and entertaining experience. Realizing the journey is the point, not so much the outcome, is the next big step of the, “Is it fun?” philosophy of game design. 
A primer in game design inline image; showing a solo gamer winning

With some basic mindset explanations out of the way, let’s dive into a little advice for those of you with entire concepts you’d love to see realized on the table. As mentioned above, game designers are just people too, often with other primary jobs or means of income. In other words, you can do this! First up, grab some supplies: pencils, note cards, blank paper, you can even buy blank playing card sized cardstock. Much like software development, testing is key, so jot down your basic idea and rules, then, try it out! Yup, right away! No need to dilly-dally. I assure you; designers don’t dream up an idea, write it all up, and call it a day. It’s actually heavily iterative. And don’t go it alone either, drag your spouse, kids, family and friends into the mix as often as possible for feedback, always being attuned to what is fun. 

“But Lex, my idea is for a video game!” I hear you, but even then, many video games start conceptually with paper and pencil too! In the end, when it comes to finally producing game components and assets, be they digital or physical, that’s a discussion for another day, after all, this is just an introductory primer, so get out there and make some games! And most importantly, have fun!