In part 1 of our Comic Con 2020 panel on tabletop game design, the panelists talked about how COVID-19 affects their creative process and their playtesting. They also discussed the challenges of new designers to network with publishers online.

In part 2, the discussion shifts to advice on the actual game design process, working with IPs, and where the industry might be headed in the future.

Stay tuned for some real nuggets!

Theme vs. Mechanics, or The Chicken vs. The Egg

One of Emerson Matsuuchi’s early successes was a game called Specter Ops.

In this futuristic deduction game, one of the players is a rogue agent trying to infiltrate a facility, while the others are hunters trying to unmask and eliminate the agent.

But initially, the game had a slightly different theme and name. It was going to be called Wanted

“I was watching an episode of Cops,” Emerson recalls. “Where there was a suspect being chased by two policemen. I remember stopping what I was doing and just imagining the adrenaline level that the police must have had trying to chase the suspect. And especially the suspect trying to do everything in his power to elude the police.”

Tabletop Gaming Panel Comic Con at Home

Comic Con @ Home’s “Get It On the Table: Designing Your Tabletop Game” panel.

Specter Ops is a perfect example of how a real-world experience managed to grab the designer’s attention. Emerson goes on to explain how the experience drew him in, and how he wanted to replicate that feeling in a game.

“My design came from the question: how much of that experience I could capture. How close can I get to replicating it with gameplay mechanics? You look to see what mechanics can evoke some of those particular emotions.”

“My design came from the question: how much of an experience I could capture.” — Emerson Matsuuchi Click To Tweet

Challenging Oneself in Game Design

Kathleen Mercury’s design process centers around challenging herself. She pushes herself into new avenues previously unexplored. From there on out, she is guided by the feedback of her playtesting groups. 

“I’m playing around with a dice game because I’ve never made a dice game before,” she says. “So much of what I do comes from experiences that I get from my playtesters, and I’ll follow that rabbit hole. I will always consider the most important ideas to be the ones that other people pointed out to me and that changed or shifted my game for the better.”

Elisa Teague claims to have an ADD brain. She keeps a bullet-style game design journal to help her tame it. 

One section is for funny title ideas, which will sometimes spark a theme or mechanic. Then, she flips over to her ‘themes’ or ‘mechanics’ sections and writes those ideas down there for cross-referencing purposes.

Sometimes during playtesting, Elisa discovers a specific element doesn’t fit her game. She will then cut the game mechanic out, move it to the ‘unused mechanics’ section of her journal, and keep it there until it finds a home somewhere else.

“I even color-code everything. It’s like a serial killer’s journal, basically”, she laughs. “But I need it because I’m constantly thinking about other games that I’m designing, and this helps me to keep my thoughts organized.”

“I color code everything. It’s like a serial killer’s journal, basically.” — Elisa TeagueClick To Tweet

Elisa points out storytelling as the most important aspect of her game design process. This is just as true for complex RPGs as it is for the smallest of party games, she explains: 

Afterwards, you’re going to tell the story of how you got to a certain scenario in the game, even if you’re just answering trivia. The story of the gameplay itself is what creates those epic moments that make people want to come back to the table over and over again.

How Intellectual Property (IP) Impacts the Design Process

Sen-Foong Lim works with Intellectual Property (IPs) from all forms of media and entertainment.

He has designed games based on TV shows like Orphan Black, Batman: The Animated Series, and is currently developing the eagerly anticipated title Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion

In 2019, the tabletop adaptation of the wildly popular mobile tower defense game Kingdom Rush raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter. It’s scheduled to be sent out to impatient backers later this year (writer’s note: myself included!)

Sen doesn’t consider IP to be constrictive, but rather a guide during the early stages of game development. He often listens to fans, asking them on Facebook what the key elements are they would like to see in a game. He only accepts work on IPs that he’s a fan of himself, otherwise he feels that he wouldn’t be doing it justice.

“We start off by getting all the thematic hits the publisher wants in the game and then look for mechanics that we think will fit,” Sen explains. “The next step is looking at the dynamic. It goes thematics – mechanics – dynamics. The interplay [of the first two] needs to lead to something that feels fun and cool to play.”

IP Worldbuilding

Elisa Teague is currently working on an RPG called Wardlings, for publishers Renegade Game Studios and Wizkids. Currently, there’s only a few miniatures on the market, so there’s not much yet to build an entire universe on. But Renegade Game Studios have given Elisa carte blanche to worldbuild as she sees fit. 

She had exactly one conversation with the publisher, who told her: “This is our idea for how the world works. We want it to be that only kids have magic and we don’t want them to die, ever.”

“That was basically all I got,” she chuckles. “Luckily there’s all sorts of mechanics that get identified and created just from the thought process.”

The Future of Game Design 

Emerson believes the keys to modern game design are innovation and providing unique experiences. The goal is to keep learning which experiences players enjoy and which psychological benefits they gain from playing games. 

“The satisfaction of creating a strategy and executing it makes players feel smart,” he says. “The lessons we’re learning are helping us develop our designs to really hit those pleasure centers in the brain.”

At the same time, game designers need to strive to come up with something different and unique. For that, they must try to go outside of the realm of board games and look at other types of entertainment. 

Emerson gives the example of a video game called Snake Pass, which is a puzzle platformer where players embody a snake. Rather than jumping, which is the traditional platform game mechanic, the snake has to traverse levels by coiling itself around objects.

“They went outside the box,” he explains. “By thinking: how do we make a platformer but take away one essential aspect of platforming, which is jumping? What are the things we can start to question, throw a wrench in, and see what comes out? Those are some of the areas I’d like to see game design progress into. Once we have innovation, those games start to become genre definers.”

“What are the things we can start to question, throw a wrench in, and see what comes out?” — Emerson Matsuuchi Click To Tweet

The Dreaded Board Game Bubble

As small companies struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic, will the future of board games continue to spawn many different titles hoping for a hit? Or will there be a much more careful cultivation of specific titles?

Emerson says:

There’s a term for it in the video game industry: indiepocalypse. It means the supply is outpacing the demand. It’s both scary and empowering in a way, because it’s going to be a much tougher arena for independent authors and publishers. It’s going to push us to be innovative and really come up with outstanding products.

Elisa agrees, adding:

When I first started in the industry, there were a couple of hundred titles released a year by about a dozen game companies. Now, we have hundreds of game companies producing thousands of titles a year. There’s only so much shelf space, both in stores and in gamers’ cupboards. Eventually, the bubble is going to pop, it has to. Hopefully, all the best game designs will float to the top.

What do you think the future of board gaming has in store, especially in the light of the current COVID-19 pandemic? Is the board game bubble real? Will there be fundamental changes on the horizon after a vaccine is developed, or will we go back to business as usual? 

Let us know your opinions by tweeting us Brown Geeks  (@AvaazMedia_).