We decided to create a game design together, from scratch. We called it “the Plot Quickens”. Here’s how it’s going!
When the latest TGC competition details came out, I thought: oh no, this isn’t for me at all! I have written Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories since I was a kid, but I haven’t ever incorporated a proper tabletop game. How on earth can I do this?
Turns out, step one: get my husband involved!
Generally, one or the other of us has an initial idea, which they design and develop to a certain extent before we try playing it. So in this case, it was really refreshing to start an idea from scratch together!
We often communicate via messenger about this sort of thing, even though we are in the same house, because 1) we each have different spaces in the house where we work, and 2) it makes it really helpful when we need to look back at our brainstorming sessions.
The game theme bounced around a little, but as we are actually in the process of planning our own vege garden anyway, it made a lot of sense to include that research – write what you know, right? So, we decided to write about a Community Garden.
We spent a lot of time trying to get the narrative part of the story to work – we plotted out storylines, thought about how the different choices people made could impact the gameplay, and how to make that fun and interesting – some things could loop back in so you got a second chance to experience an arc, while others would be excluded permanently from this episode of the game because of early decisions you made – but it all felt contrived. It just wasn’t resonating. The more we talked about it, the more it felt like the core of the game lived outside the “narrative” elements and on the actual board.
Format – the bones of a game
One of the first things I do when I start working on a design is decide the format of the game assets – the cards, board, player mats, tokens, etc – that will be required. Part of this is because I design from my vision of the game experience.
When I say “experience”, I mean how it feels to play the finished game. Is this a peaceful, low-interaction game where players quietly focus on increasing their own points until the end of the game is reached? Is this a high-energy, fiercely competitive game, where players constantly interfere with each other’s paths to victory? Is this a game with a lot of small decisions, or lots of values to track? Do I hide my information from the other players, for example, with cards in my hand, or is everything visible to everyone, like worker placement or area control games?
I tie in the way I want the gameplay to feel with the theme I choose, so in this case, frantic dice battles don’t really fit with the idea of a community garden, for example. So I want reasonably peaceful gameplay, with a gentle build towards a common goal, but while the community’s success is important, my overall driver as a community gardener is to get enough out of my donated time to feed my own family – and the same is true in this game. So while it has co-operative elements, each player is still playing to win.
Working with George from the start on this game has been a very different experience for me, as all of these decisions are usually mine alone. Luckily, we had the same general feel in mind for The Plot Quickens!
In this case, we started with: square cards, double-sided, that represent the land, and smaller square cards, also double-sided, that represent what we grow on it. I made rough layouts for them, and started work on producing a basic prototype that we could use to start figuring out how this game was going to work.
I knew we were going to need icons to help identify the different categories of plant, the types of soil we were planting in, and other elements of the initial gameplay, so I put together some temporary versions so we could get the prototype into play.
In this case, we had a few categories of crops, and a few categories of soil, so I scribbled out some icons to represent the crops, and made some quick patterns to represent the soil types.
I know from experience that it’s not worth investing a lot of time into things like symbols early in the game development, because the structure of a game can change so much that some of them become obsolete within the first few play-tests. With that in mind, I kept my icons simple and straightforward, so that changes later on would be easy and painless.
While we had been slogging through the choose-your-own-game-narrative side of things, I was also chugging through the illustrations for the known game elements. Illustrations always take longer than expected, so I was starting nice and early. A competition deadline has this way of sneaking up on you out of nowhere.
I often illustrate my game designs very early on – it’s part of my process, and because they are my own drawings, I can easily alter them to fit new format requirements.
I particularly enjoyed making these illustrations, because I was finally getting the hang of using vector illustration, and they came out so well! Earlier attempts to draw on my screen using my stylus and Inkscape were frustrating – Inkscape doesn’t respond to the tip of the stylus the way paper responds to a pen, and I couldn’t get the lines to work the way I wanted them to. But as I got used to drawing in Affinity Designer, all of those problems went away, and I started seeing drawings that looked like what I draw on paper, at last – but cleaner, scaleable, and perfect for creating board game assets!
Once I had enough illustrations to mock up the tiles, I made a first prototype so we could test the game out.
In principle, The Plot Quickens works well. George has some ideas to improve the gameplay, now that the narrative element is definitely out of scope – we’ll keep you posted on developments!