How to fix National Game Design Month

by Gil Hova

National Game Design Month (NaGaDeMon) is almost upon us. I’ve spent the past few years complaining and griping about this event, but I think I’ve finally figured out how to fix it.

If you’ve heard of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which participants are encouraged to write the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, then you pretty much know the idea of National Game Design Month: Design a game in a month.

Here’s the problem: NaGaDeMon encourages you to “finish” a “complete” game in the month of November.  How do they define a finished game on their About page?

Finish the game in November. Complete the game! A complete game should have everything required to play – no hand-waving (“Oh, I’ll make those cards later”) allowed! In the case of an RPG this means rules for character generation, resolving conflict, experience, and setting. Boardgames will need the actual board, pawns, cards and/or other objects gathered or created. Wargames will require rules for all the pertinent action and probably a couple of army / force lists (and you will obviously need some armies to battle with when it comes time to play the game!).

To anyone who has ever designed a game, this is complete and utter poppycock.

Saying a game is “finished” when its rules are written is like saying a novel is “completed” when its dust jacket is completely designed. Rulebook writing, card layout, and art creation are all part of game design, but there is much, much more to game design than this. Let’s look at the next paragraph on that about page.

Play the game in November. It doesn’t matter whether you play your game in the garage with your mates, on line with a stranger, with your Nan over a cup of tea, or by yourself in the attic – just play it at least once!

Guys, this is it. This is game design. It’s not trying to figure out how many cards to fit on a card sheet or sweating about the size of your board. It’s playing your game, seeing what doesn’t work, trying to fix it, and playing it again.

The fact that this vital, central element to game design gets tossed off as something that can be done “with your Nan over a cup of tea” infuriates me (with no disrespect meant to your Nan). To extend the previous example, it’s as if NaNoWriMo’s goal were to design your book’s dust jacket, and then bang out a few words to put inside the book.

You cannot skip playing your game when designing it. You cannot get away with doing it just once. It is not a formality. It is the heartbeat of game design. That goes for video game design, RPG design, and especially board game design. Make your game, play your game, see where it breaks, try to fix it. Then play your game, see where it breaks, and try to fix it. Again and again.

But I don’t want to have this post just be about the negative. I want to offer a positive solution. So here it is.

Four playtests.

Gil’s version of NaGaDeMon (or NaGilDeMon, if you wish) doesn’t care about your rulebook, your art, your pawns, or your layout. I don’t care what your game looks like on December 1. To be successful at NaGilDeMon, you must playtest your game four times.

The game doesn’t have to look good for each playtest, just playable. You don’t have to finish the game on any of these playtests, but you do have to get feedback from all your players. Don’t settle for “I liked it, it was fun.” Even if it’s your Nan. Figure out what kept them from saying “I love it, when can I buy it?” and try fixing that. Then play it three more times, getting the same kind of feedback each time.

Talking about playing your game is awesome, but does not count as playing your game. Talking about a game is never a substitute for playing it.

Four playtests is not a lot. It’s just one playtest a weekend. But it is a lot if you don’t have an existing playtest infrastructure in place. That’s where community kicks in. Just as NaNoWriMo writers don’t go it alone, but have a whole community to cheer them on, so do NaGilDeMon participants should have each other. Find fellow NaGilDeMon participants. Agree to exchange playtests for the month. If you get at least two others, you should be good to playtest most games. And remember: playtesting someone else’s game will always help you as a designer.

If you’re a video game designer, don’t sweat finished art or sound. Placeholder assets are fine. Heck, even a paper-based proof-of-concept prototype is fine for the first playtest or two.

If you’re an RPG designer, don’t worry about writing that rulebook. Draft an outline of the rules that makes sense to you. Don’t be afraid to change your rules. The best way to see if a different rule works is to see it in action. Also, take advantage of the fact that most tabletop RPGs can be played over a group voice chat, like Skype or G+ Hangout.

If you’re a board game designer, don’t even think about a POD site like Game Crafter. They are awesome for finished or close-to-finished games, but you’re just getting started here. Your prototype will change like crazy between playtests, so make sure you have plenty of printer ink, cardstock, and empty card sleeves.

Will you wind up with a finished game after four playtests? No, not even close. But NaNoWriMo doesn’t promise you a finished novel, only a finished first draft. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is that new writers find first drafts overly intimidating. It’s a way of getting over the drudgery of finishing that first draft.

The intimidating drudgery of game design is not writing the rulebook or designing its components. It’s the constant iteration of the game’s rules. It takes a long time, and it’s hard. NaGaDeMon’s failure is that it doesn’t address this obstacle. NaGilDeMon does.

So if four playtests doesn’t get you a finished game, what will it get you?

  • Momentum. You will get into the habit of iterating your design, and seeing what actually works and doesn’t work.
  • Infrastructure. You will make connections to other designers with whom you can share playtests for the rest of the year.
  • Bias to execution, not idea. As I’ve said in the past, ideas for games are worthless. You need to execute the idea, which takes significant work. NaGaDeMon is incorrectly biased to ideas. NaGilDeMon is biased to execution.

I know it’s almost November, but if you were planning to participate in NaGaDeMon, I urge you to consider my alternative. NaGilDeMon will make you a better designer.