A quick primer on game design.
You’ll need to develop a new eye for games. What makes them fun, interesting, powerful? Study games you know well—games like Truth or Dare, Charades, Twister, Tag, Chess, Basketball—to see for the first time how they work, where their richness comes from.
These 8 ways your game could suck will help you understand what the classics get right and improve the games you’re making:
1. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE IT HAS NO SATISFYING BEGINNING OR END
Does the game begin and end in a satisfying way? Is the beginning scary? The end triumphant? What design elements are important here?
2. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE EVERYONE HAS TO BEGIN FULLY ENGAGED
Some people go all-in as soon as a game starts, and others are slower to warm to it. Ideally a game can accommodate a variety of levels of engagement and win people over to a kind of commitment through play. Does your game do this? How does it create room for the less engaged player? Will they have experiences that draw them in? Will social pressure exists even among less engaged players that will push them towards commitment? Can it accommodate different rates of engagement?
3. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE IT ONLY USES OBVIOUS, COMMON SKILLS
Does the game have a skill set all its own, or does it just engage standard issue human skills (i.e., will the winner generally just be the strongest, the best at pattern matching, the most social)? Ideally, challenges of the game should be unfamiliar and worth improving at.
4. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE IT’S IMMEDIATELY OBVIOUS HOW TO PLAY
The best games have a complexity and richness which isn’t revealed in the instructions but instead slowly through play. Does your game have strategies which a player would only hit upon after 10 minutes (or 10 hours) of play? Do the roles and tasks create an ecosystem together which affords a variety of ways of playing and of attending to the play of others? Are there different ways to use the room, to use props, or to use other players which take time to explore? Do the instructions manage to create a good beginning and a good end without spelling exactly out how they happen?
5. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE THERE IS ONLY ONE WINNING STRATEGY
In game design, the word balance is used to mean a game in which very different personality styles and very different strategic approaches can compete equally. So a game is balanced if offensive strikes and more defensive approaches can both seem like a good idea. Or if introverts and extroverts can play against one another, using their different strengths. Balance, more than any other feature, is what makes a classic game.
6. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE IT ONLY HAS ONE THING TO FOCUS ON
What do the players focus on, at each stage of the game? Do competitive or race condition tasks take players focus off of each other, and is that desired? Does a difficult task take focus off how a player is being perceived? If there are moments of conviviality, how does focus come to be on the group feeling?
7. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE IT IS EXHAUSTING
Is there a rhythm to the engagement of the game? Does it give people time to breathe, to appreciate their accomplishments, to plan? Are there quiet moments, or moments of sub-group intimacy / knowing eye contact / etc?
8. YOUR GAME SUCKS BECAUSE IT MAKES NO ROOM FOR THE INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITY/CREATIVITY OF THE PLAYER
At what level are players able to contribute something of their own? Do they invent their own strategy? Is there a performative quality they can bring? Are their creative tasks? Does a player have room to really invent or are they pressured to optimize? Is their contribution actually of consequence or is it merely a gloss?