Friday, 16 September 2011

review: kobold guide to board game design

Metric: Pieces.  Whether of eight, of mind or meeses depends on the game.
DISCLAIMER: Review based on PDF copy provided by Open Design.  Based on read through of book.  Play and design experiences vary according to environment and participants.  No refunds.
Overall: 5 pieces (collected wisdom from diverse perspectives)
From conception through design and development to presentation, the creation of games is discussed. While board games are a primary focus, dice, certain card games and even tabletop RPGs also get a look in.  Gaming is now a multidisciplinary process and the advice here is surprisingly relevant even to non-board game publishers.

Contents: 5 pieces. (sage wisdom from those in the field - and lots of it)
From first steps of conception (using story pacing and metaphor to inform mechanics and inject fun into the play process) as well as considering your co-creators and the game in holistic terms, not merely as a collection of pieces and rules in isolation.  In addition, an excellent piece from Richard Garfield on playing wider than a narrow remit.  Something edition warriors and snook-cocking types will fizz, spit and dissolve under.  And so it goes.

Design is next, through intuitive design, creating a gateway game that keeps them coming back, devising kick-ass mechanics, taming the two-headed mutant dog of luck and strategy and how to introduce the gambling element that keeps people coming back for more.  Editor Mike Selinker gives a whistle-stop tour of the best game mechanics though the entire section is studded with excellent examples of design, it's hard to pick a favourite here.

Development of the original design involves rebalancing, testing and revising the design and the great challenge of playtesting.  The articles here deal with incorporating challenge, looking at inbuilt bias and permutations of play elements, editing rules text into cohesive, coherent English and playtesting to shake out the creaks and groans.  All articles entertain with insights, from Mike Selinker's skewering of rulescreak in Advanced Squad Leader and Afrika Korps to Dave Howell's golden guidelines about keeping games fun.

Prototyping the game offers it's own pitfalls - the greatest games you never played fail here.  Avoiding the 'artwork sneezed over maths puzzle' aspect of games design, making a good pitch to a company and getting your game published.  The article by Steve Jackson is a wonderful point by point warning while Dale Yu offers a revealing view into doing it right. Assuming you got that right, Richard Levy takes you through the art of the pitch and licensing brands while Michelle Nephew gives insight into getting the game finally published.

The authors have a formidable line of credits - Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Kill Dr. Lucky, Brave New World, Fluxx, Risk 2110AD, Dominion, Pok√©mon, Munchkin, GURPS and the Furby among others.  Their voices echo with hard-won experience and useful lessons for those willing to learn. You'll even learn why there's an underground lake on the first floor of the House on the Hill and the eldritch horror spawned of find & replace functions that is dawizard (see p.98 for details).

Artwork/Layout: 4 pieces.  (clean, oddly redolent of the ...For Dummies line)
Previous Kobold Guides have appeared mildly scholastic, their look and layout resembling compilations of academic journals.  Here the styling takes a slightly more workmanlike approach.  It's reminiscent of user manuals and ...For Dummies guides.  A special hat tip has to be made for the flowcharts, both the process flowchart on p.35 (crying out for some poster love) and the Jenga flowchart on p.44 which manages to illustrate Jenga's classic appeal and the core concept behind Dread all in one go.

In conclusion, this book lets you in on a number of secrets.  Some will seem obvious in a "D'OH!" way until you realise, hang on... and that is the book's strength.  While cursory examination makes it worthwhile, on re-examination it gains considerably.  Individually, it's strong enough to merit purchase. As a companion to the Kobold Guides to Game Design it offers valuable industry context.  If you're in the business of game design, or would like to be, this book is worthwhile.

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