SaltCON ’18 – Learning from the Masters

While many attendees look forward to SaltCON because it gives them the chance to try playing new games, one of the hidden gems of the conference is the panel on game design. Entitled Game Design 101, the 2018 edition of the panel included insights from Tim Fowers of Fowers Games (Burgle Bros.), Ryan Laukat of Red Raven Games (Above and Below), Bryan Kelley of Eagle Gryphon-Games (Scarlet Pimpernel) and Alf Seegert of The University of Utah and Z-Man Games (Trollhalla) and was moderated by Dave Bailey of SaltCON and the Board Game Designer’s Guild of Utah. The experience represented on the panel spanned self-publishing, crowdfunding and publisher partnerships, and all panelists are associated with the Board Game Designer’s Guild of Utah.

The panel shared a variety of insights and advice on design, but three primary themes emerged during the panel discussion. Below I’ve summarized those themes and paraphrased the panel’s wisdom as best I could.

What designers should know they are getting into

Alf – It’s a good sign if you’re losing sleep over your game. Alf also recommended that aspiring designers enter their games in to competitions, because the deadlines competitions provide will help to drive development to completion

Ryan – Be willing to let your design go, since the original idea will change as people interact with it (this one really struck me, since Ryan Laukat is his own graphic designer in addition to being his own game designer)

Tim – Put ideas on the back burner. Have multiple ideas in development at once. Being able to switch between ideas helps to diffuse emotion away from whatever it is that the designer is closest to

Brian – Be able to step away from the game so that you are not the game manager. Games don’t work when they always require the designer there to explain how to play

Tim – Don’t be afraid of people stealing your ideas. That fear comes from a belief that you’ll only ever have one good idea. You’ll have lots ideas


Ryan – Encourage your playtesters to play to win. Also, make your prototype look like something people will want to play

Dave (moderator) – Get both the good and the bad from your play testers. Playtesters should want to figure out if the game is fun. Standardizing feedback can be helpful, which is how the Board Game Designer’s Guild of Utah structures their playtesting

Alf – Give your game to somebody that is willing to say that your baby is ugly. Find playtest groups that have chemistry, as the feedback will be much different when a group of strangers play a game versus when a group with an existing dynamic encounters a new game. Also, playtesters will be able to tell you what’s wrong with your game, but they probably won’t have the best ideas or be right on how to fix it. Alf cited this concept from author Neil Gaiman:

Tim – Tell them it’s somebody else’s game and you’ll get way more feedback and honesty

Brian – Playtest in stages, and bling playtesting (the designer is not present) is a must

Knowing when to stop and consider a game complete

Brian – There are practical things to consider, like if it is getting too expensive or breaks the game

Alf – Kickstarter is becoming a new medium of design because of the possibility for “stretch goals.” It encourages the kitchen sink, which doesn’t always make the game better

Tim – The real process is figuring out what to cut, not to keep adding on

Ryan – Teaching your game 100 times will cure you of knowing if it’s done. When you have to keep explaining it, you learn quickly what really makes the game work, and you’ll get tired of talking about anything extra

Alf – Watch for the time when a change makes a difference for the feedback. Alf told a story about a game he was designing around an elephant theme, and people described the pace of play as “plodding.” When he changed the theme it dramatically impacted how players interpreted the mechanics and experience, and the same game started being described as “zippy.”

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