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#7 – Outside the Box

Designer’s Den is a game design blog covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!

Have you ever played a game the “wrong” way? That is, have you played a game in a way that wasn’t intended by the designer? And if so, what was your experience? Did your version make the game better and funner or worse? In today’s post, I want to explore the topic of thinking outside the box and what lessons we, as designers, can learn from it.

At our hearts, though, designers are really just gamers themselves who’ve taken the extra step to convert theory into practice. So I’m interested in learning how you made the transition. What game prompted you to be a designer? Or was it an archetype of gaming or a specific mechanic that did it? And why did you make the leap? Were you trying to solve a problem or refine an old standby? It’s true when people say you can’t reinvent the wheel, but you can certainly make it roll smoother, faster, and farther.

For me, it was trading card games that gave me the bug (which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my game). I’ve always been fascinated by the deckbuilding aspect, especially as a way to discover new and exciting combinations or enhance interactions to their fullest potential. (I suppose this would make me a Johnny.) But games like Magic and Pokemon never managed to scratch the itch crawling around the back of my brain, which for decades I shrugged off as “I guess I just don’t get it.” 

It wasn’t until I began designing the game that would become Rise of the Gods that I realized instead of trying to “fix” these other games or design an homage to them, I should build the game I wanted, my way. But it didn’t happen all at once. As it goes with creating most new games, first you have to play it wrong to get it right.

Non-Canon (Until It Is) 

Sometimes, a casual or fan-made version of a game is absorbed by the publisher and adapted into the real deal. Whether or not the creator of the new version is credited is another story. (They ought to be. However, exerting your influence onto a property you enjoy playing probably carries far more reward than recognition itself.) For a famous example in the TCG universe, there’s the Commander format of Magic. It started as a variant played between friends and now is an official format with its own product line that sees yearly releases.

Commander (or EDH at the time) happened because that group of friends decided not to play by the rules. And sure, Magic had other formats at the time, but what made them different from standard were either ban lists or restrictions on deckbuilding (e.g. draft and sealed). Never before had there been a mode of play with a “commander” card, something unwritten into the DNA of how to play Magic. Yet, introducing this clause to the game didn’t detract from anything. Instead, it introduced an entirely new flavor to the player’s palette.

While Commander didn’t splinter off and become an entirely separate property altogether, it certainly changed Magic’s history. According to Mark Rosewater himself (the game’s head designer), “The data says it might currently be the most played constructed format.” 

Break It until You Make It

Game designers often encourage playtesters to try and “break” their games. This helps the designers find flaws they’ve overlooked that may lead to undesirable gameplay or that outright stop the game from working altogether. You can begin by asking your playtesters (or yourself), “What would happen if you did Y, even if X is the better move?”  

But trying to break a game can have other outcomes, too.

For instance, when I was doing a homemade stress test of Rise of the Gods one Saturday morning, I accidentally created the traveling mechanic. I purposefully disregarded one of the game’s core tenets, which resulted in a eureka moment and the game turned on its head. I later learned this mechanic was already done in another field-control game, Summoner Wars. (Same concept, different execution.) Still, the break from the standard way I’d been playing my game until then was the spark I needed to push it forward when it was starting to languish.

Because I had been trapped in the mindset of incorporating things I liked from other card games, I’d forgotten to focus on what made it uniquely mine. Like a mended bone that heals stronger after the break, I had to force myself into making mistakes so that later I could learn from them.*

Start Over (Again)

In post #5, I talk about the importance of rewriting (or, redesigning) as a form of growth. Doing things differently a second, third, and fourth time around. However, sometimes when we think we’re making changes, we’re still operating within the same confines that keep us from experiencing meaningful improvement. You can recolor the same line drawing over and over, but how significant are the changes as you shift from shades of lavender to periwinkle? 

Eventually, you’ll tire of the repetition or convince yourself the twelfth color change is good enough. Instead, color outside the lines. Or better yet, redraw the lines altogether. Your first idea is often not your best, it’s just your most spontaneous. You may surprise yourself what you can come up with if you do things wrong for once.

So, what were some of your biggest “ah ha!” moments you had while playing a game the wrong way? Did it lead you to a novel idea for your own design? Let me know below!

Thank you for reading, and until next time! And happy New Year! 🎊


*There’s actually no conclusive scientific evidence that a bone is any stronger or weaker after healing, except for the reparative phase when calcium collects around the fracture and hardens. Eventually, the site demineralizes and returns to its condition pre-break. That said, it makes for a motivational platitude, does it not?

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