Lesson 6.2 - Min/Max and Contraints - The Cardboard Designer

Lesson 6.2 – Min/Max and Contraints

Sometimes when you hit “designers block” it can be equally useful to both back yourself into a corner as well as setting yourself free. In this post, I want to look at some ways that you might do that to aid your design process.


My artist for El Presidente was never happy to call things finished, no matter how amazing the artwork looked!

The creative industry has a boogie man! He lurks in the shadows, ever ready to strike, and if you turn your back for a moment, he can descend upon you like a perfectly-oiled German-engineered elevator – silent and on time.

I am of course talking about the block. Probably most colloquiolly known as the “writers block,” I wish that our story weaving friends were the only to suffer. I refer to it as creative block.

I’ve never really found a way of predicting it’s arrival. Sometimes it’s just simply because I don’t know how to solve a problem that has arisen out of a play-test session. Other occasions it may be that I am too focused on a single project, and have lost the woods for the trees. Maybe I’m just burning the candle at both ends and the creative goo (official term) that bubbles within has run dry.

Whatever the reason, blocks hit the best of us, at the worst of times. Sometimes, you just have to let them have their fun and move on, but there are a few tricks that you can utilize to try and crowbar your way through.

Minimum and Maximum

Those familiar with Dungeons and Dragons may believe that I am talking about leveling up a character “by-the-numbers” to get the most perfect balance of offensive and defensive skills. I am not talking about that.

What I mean when I refer to min/maxing in terms of game design, is taking a element of your game and wildly altering the allowance to shake up the game as it exists at the moment.

What might this look like?

Well, imagine that your game allows for a hand limit of 7 cards? What happens if you allows players to hold as many cards as they like? What happens if you limit your players to having only 2 cards at any one time? Or you give them only 2 cards that they must utilize for the entire game?

Imagine that your players each have a character ability that can be carried out only once per game? What happens if you allow players to do that ability twice, thrice or unlimited amounts through play?

In the two examples above, you may well be screaming at your screen – “Tom, that’s madness! That would totally unbalance the game!” That is kind of the point of the exercise.

Think of the act of min maxing like shaking an apple tree. You spy a plump and juicy Pink Lady that you have to have, and frantically being wobbling the trunk in the hopes you and gravity can convince that sucker to drop. In the act of trying to get the apple you are focused on, you might shake others off the tree. Others that you wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t started shaking.

The act of min maxing isn’t just about applying it to an aspect of the game that you feel is broken and seeing if you can fix it by exploding the mechanic. It’s about bending and flexing the shape of your game to see if you can discover things that you might not have noticed before. What Bob Ross lovingly called “happy little accidents.” And there will always be at least a sprinkle of luck in great game design.

Constraints

The reality is that we exist in a world of constraints and so do the games we make. I can only buy something if I have money. I was only (legally) allowed to drink alcohol when I turned 18. My wife will only let me leave my house after agreeing to wearing clothes.

As so it is with our games as well. Whether you approach your game from a thematic or mechanic perspective, you will constrain yourself by the theme or dynamics you focus on. You will likely constrain yourself to using cardboard and plastic. Most designers work within the confines of what they know can be made easily by board game manufacturers. Beyond this, natural constraints develop based on the artwork you use, the age range you appeal too, the length of the game. Even the MOQ and unit cost limits how much you pack into the box.

The point is that constraints are not bad things to have at all. At first they can seem restricting. If you constrain yourself too much, your not giving yourself room to stretch your creative muscles. This is a complete misnomer. In actual fact, where you hit limits of design is where your brain works all the harder and more focused to find solutions.

How much harder is it for us to think of something when we are provided an open question? I used to do improv-comedy in my spare time and if I said something like, “can anyone shout out anything,” I would have been met with a sea of blank faces. If on the other hand I said something like, “can someone name an object that would fit in a cupboard,” I am constraining the request enough that their brains were able to focus, and the responses would come much more readily.

Where your board game is concerned, how can you constrain yourself?

You can focus you thought process. Tell yourself that a particular solution needs to come from a certain mechanic or game element. You can limit player interaction. What if everyone had to play a round in silence or with their eyes closed? Sounds silly but games like The Mind and Resistance rely on these mechanics.

What if you constrain yourself in terms of the number of elements you are allowed to use. How can you resolve a problem by only using 1 card, or by reducing the size of the play area? What if you had to limit the number of players available or your rule book had to be a whole page lighter? Some of these may seem unrealistic, and they probably are, but we can never predict what spark of inspiration turns a game from good to great.


Ultimately, how each of us approach game design is governed by our personality and our desires. Some people work better in isolation, others are very much team players and make the most progress through playing with others. Some focus at each step of the journey on the player experience, while others check in as appropriate to make sure they are still aligned.

This article is not telling you how you should approach your next tabletop masterpiece. I think it’s important that everyone finds their own way of working. Having said that, there are things that also make us all human:

  • You will hit creative blocks every now and then and yes, it can feel soul destroying.
  • Limiting your scope, is not the same as limiting your creativity and can in fact embolden it
  • Shaking the tree from time to time and seeing what falls off is always a good use of your time.

Exercise

  • If you are actively working on a game, now is your opportunity to try out the min max and constraints approach to game design. It doesn’t even matter if your game is balanced or not at the moment. Shake the tree and see what falls!
  • For those of you not currently working on a game, pull something off the game shelf that you’ve played enough to have a fairly good understanding of the rules. Alter one of those rules in such a way that it either limits the game play experience, or it gives you much more freedom. It doesn’t matter if it breaks the game, see how long you can keep things going!

— Tom

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