Not Just a Board Game Design Class Aug15

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Not Just a Board Game Design Class

"Discord's Game" | Art by Karzahnii. Used with permission.

MITx-11.126x Introduction to Game Design

The title intrigued me and tuition was free. I clicked “enroll” and started off on seven weeks’ immersion in game mechanics, themes, prototyping, playtesting, meaningful choice, constraints, player experience, and finding the fun. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that board games can teach a lot about life.

Just Get Started

In the first exercise, I had ten minutes to create a pen-and-paper prototype. Seriously. They made us set a timer and we had to have a completed, ready-to-play prototype. I doodled a series of circles on a sheet of typing paper, decided they looked like lily pads, and declared it a game about frogs crossing a pond. In a fit of imagined literary cleverness I named it Calaveras.

Was it playable? Technically. Was it interesting? No so much. As a game it offered all of the excitement of sorting mail. What mattered, though, was that I had actually done something.

Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

Too often in life—mine, at least—I’ve been stuck in the “wanting something” stage. It’s easy to want something. It’s much harder to actually do something. It’s impossible if you never start.

Failure can seem like a sign that I’m on the wrong track.

Think something should be done to help the homeless in your area? Splendid. That makes you the perfect person to do something about it. Come up with a plan and get started. Think your church needs a new prayer group or Bible study? Excellent! Take that “want” and make it an “action.”

Embrace Your Failures, They’re Part of the Process

In the class, we had to take a mechanic which interested us and turn it into a playable game. Working with the movement mechanic from Calaveras, I struggled to “find the fun.” No matter how I pushed the game, design after design ended in failure after failure. If it hadn’t been a class assignment, I might have given up.

My life feels a lot like that sometimes. Every effort seems to be met with failure and the temptation to despair is great. Failure can seem like a sign that I’m on the wrong track.

My class taught me that finding out what doesn’t work is an important part of the process. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis said:

After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God.

That trying again—throwing out design after design—was bringing me ever closer to the game I wanted to make. Without the process, there’d never be a product.

Listen to Others

“What if they were trying to get to the middle of the board, instead of the other side?” My wife’s question turned my broken prototype on its side and sent the game galloping in an exciting new direction. (Honestly, she should get half the credit for the class.)

Movement toward the middle suggested it wasn’t a pond. It was… a mountain! What climbs mountains? Goats! Mountain goats! They butt heads and knock each other down and what I really needed was a whole bunch of goats all bumping each other off of the mountain!

I whipped up a prototype and we played our first game. My twenty-five-year-old son who plays Warhammer 40K declared that mountain goats “didn’t totally suck.” High praise. For my part, I was pleased. The game had excitement, players got to interact in an interesting way and I had finally found the fun.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

None of which would have happened if I had ignored my wife. When she spoke up I could have pointed out that it was my game and I was doing just fine. Except, of course, I wasn’t. More than once in my life I’ve ignored the opportunity to take honest and helpful feedback because I was certain I was smart enough to go it on my own. If my simple game was improved by listening, I have to wonder how different my life might be if I had learned to listen sooner.

Of course, this is not a new idea. The author of Proverbs pointed out:

The way of fools is right in their own eyes, but those who listen to advice are the wise. (Proverbs 12:15)

It’s About Connecting People

We spent a lot of the class considering the player experience. For me, that’s the most important part of any game. When I think back on the games I’ve played, it’s not the rules or the artwork or the clever mechanics I remember. It’s the interactions; the frenzy of trying to get everyone out alive in Escape: Curse of the Temple or the look on the other player’s faces when you’ve played all of your tiles in Scrabble.

The same holds true in my life as a Christ-follower. I can—and do—pray alone. Worship, though, is more powerful within a community. That’s where I’m challenged, strengthened and encouraged to continue my journey of faith.

The course had a community as well. We chatted online, shared ideas, critiques and encouragement. My game is better for their involvement and I’m ready to design again. All I have to do is keep in mind the life lessons I learned in my board game design course.

Kevin Cummings

Kevin Cummings

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kevin has been the husband of one wife for more than thirty years and the dad of two sons for not quite that long. A geek from birth, he grew up with the original Star Trek and Star Wars and enjoys finding expressions of God’s love in the worlds of fandom.
Kevin Cummings

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