Lesson 4: Iterative Design - The Cardboard Designer

Lesson 4: Iterative Design

So you have your game theme, you have your core mechanics, and your ready to get the game in front of people to play test. This is where the magical journey of iterative design kicks in!

After what I considered to be a very fruitful play-testing session, I returned to my kitchen to cut out new cards, tweak numbers and overhaul the game based on user feedback. I worked like a man possessed, desperate to get the next version of the game in front of friends. Brilliant I thought as I strolled down to the pub a couple of weeks later, updated game in hand, ready to knock em dead with all the great improvements I had made.

My friends eagerly setup the game and started to play. And it sucked! All the updates I had thrown at the game had made it sluggish. Some of the mechanics had become enormously over-balanced, while leaving others worthless. The new player experience had become, “we are only playing this because we said we would!” I started to jot down when I had gone wrong with the tweaks I had made, and honestly – I didn’t have a clue where to begin! There was too much to know where to start!


Board game design an extremely iterative process. What do we mean by that? Well, it means that we present something, we see how it plays, we make tweaks and then we start all over again. Most design in general is actually quite iterative, but in certain disciplines, you are able to follow conventions you know will work a bit more. For example, designing a new dishwasher (oh the excitement) you are always going to need water, a place for plates and a place for the soap. In game design, because the mash of new ideas creates entirely new dynamics, those same conventions often don’t stick.

As I explained in the very first lesson post, the reason that play-testing is so crucial is that we just don’t know how things will play out when we get the game in-front of a player. People are an unpredictable mess. It’s partly why games are so fun, but it’s also why we can’t predict a games reception until it’s played.

We want to aim to quickly prototype our game and get it into the hands of some willing participants, knowing that no-one get’s it right first time. Even the most award laden designers require tweaks and changes to new game ideas.

An example of the iterative design process. Iterating upon ideas is key to board game development and design
Picasso eat your heart out – the iterative design process

There are more intelligent ways to go about this than others, and as my story at the top of the post tells you, you can make life really hard for yourself if you don’t follow things through logically and methodically.

To the left I have drawn an (extremely rough) example of how the iterative design process might look. We start with V1 of our game and play-test it, at which point we receive feedback, make tweaks and play-test it again with V1.1, identifying areas of improvement that will lead us onto v1.2 The golden rule to remember here is that you should only change one thing at at time!

Early on, time between each version might only be minutes as you hash out the ideas with a friend and change and thrown out things that aren’t working. As the game is refined, it’s likely that there will be more time needed between sessions to make tweaks, but be very wary of making too many at once. If you change several elements of your game and it improves in someways but is made worse in others, it can be hard to clearly identify what changes you made that had the correct impact on the game.

Especially as you are nearing the end of the design process, you may need to focus on just making the very smallest of changes at once, as often you’ll see the butterfly effect where just a small tweak can snowball into a big impact of the game. Imagine changing the cost of a card that suddenly makes it much more worthwhile to players. You could dynamically change the game so a pseudo-goal of the game becomes about getting that one card!

The other thing that you should be conscious of as you are working through the iterative process, is being honest when something isn’t working and don’t just try and fix it with duct tape. It has happened to all game designers – they create a mechanic or a system that they are in love with. They think it’s going to revolutionize a particular genre of game, and they can’t bare to part with it! The problem is that sometimes (most of the time) these things just don’t pan out in a way that creates a rewarding player experience.

Instead of admitting that their game might be better served by severing the ties with the particular bug bear in question – we stick out fingers in our ears and swaddle and protect it like our first born child.

I’m not saying that you have to let go of the idea entirely. It may be that you need to overhaul the way it’s implemented to create something worthwhile. Or maybe it just turns out that the dynamic between different elements of the game means that this particular design isn’t right at this particular moment in time, and should be side-lined for another project. Either way, don’t try to shoe horn it into position and hiss when ever it’s criticized.

It is natural to be protective of our own creativity. Especially when we are trying out something new, it’s comforting to put up a shield and ignore all criticism. The problem with that approach though, is that you will never improve as a designer nor will you games with you.


The iterative design process in the hallmark of good game design. Get the game into the hands of the players, and let them tell you what they like and don’t like. It is the quickest and easiest way to improve your game, and your skills as a designer.

Enjoy the process, because it can be extremely rewarding if you let it!

Exercise

The iterative design process need not just apply to our own games. All designers stand on the shoulders of giants, learning from games they’ve played before. To that end, iterating upon existing games becomes a valuable tool to see how you might modify and adapt mechanics to make your own title.

Choose a board game – ideally one where you have access to the rules. Read through those rules and jot down the main mechanics and rule. Now take those notes, and see how you can tweak just little parts of them to subtly and drastically change the game as it stands now. Does anything have a surprisingly beneficial or detrimental effect? Do you gather any ideas from the changes that might work well in a new game with new dynamics? How easy does it become to break the game your iterating on? How else can you fix it rather than just re implementing what was taken away.

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