If there’s one thing I know about the world, it’s that there’s nothing better than spending your day watching people talk in front of powerpoint presentations, ESPECIALLY if those presentations occasionally include cool graphs and data. So when I discovered that the Game Developers Conference, for the first time ever, hosted a day of board game discussions and talks, I knew I had to gobble up this rich, delicious information ASAP. After filling my gullet to the brim and emerging on the other side unscathed and, perhaps, enriched, I hereby present to you what is hopefully a persuasive case to also consume each and every one of these videos.
I came to this one expecting that I’d get some interesting stories about the development of Mechs vs. Minions from lead designer Chris Cantrell. Not only did I get that, but I also got a riveting story about a man’s struggle with doubt and indecision, and why sometimes you have to risk everything to make the version of the game you know is best. Chris is exceptionally proud of the game he and his team made, and you can feel that emotion throughout the talk.
Designer David Sirlin may be controversial, but there is no doubt that he has a deep knowledge of game design and, more specifically, the core strategic hooks that make great games great. (He’s also the author of a great book about playing games competitively that I wholeheartedly recommend). This expertise is in full display as he discusses the design problems and challenges that he navigated when creating Puzzle Strike. This talk has challenged me to think more deeply and precisely about the competitive games I love.
One of the joys of listening to board game designers talk about their creations is seeing that they too are uber-fans of board games. Secret Hitler designer Mike Boxleiter, like me, absolutely adores Avalon. At one point in the presentation he calls it the perfect game. So, as a design challenge, he tried to see if he could improve on it. What results is a deconstruction, not of the game of Avalon, but of the specific emotional moments that make that game great, and the construction of Secret Hitler around those moments.
My favorite out of the group. Geoffrey Engelstein is always brilliant and insightful, and this presentation is no exception. Loss aversion is a fascinating psychological phenomenon that has applications to both game designers and players. I firmly believe that, as a competitive gamer, one of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to recognize and compensate for your own irrational psychological tendencies. This presentation explains why. I love it.
Designer Tim Fowers talks about his delightful “Oceans 11 in a box” design that I now desperately want to play. Tim begins the design process the best way possible: he finds the core emotional beats of his theme and designs around those emotions. He works with thematic emotions the same way that Sirlin works with strategic and competitive emotions, and in both situations it grounds the design around core principles. I am only speculating here, as I haven’t designed any games, but this has to be the best approach.
Of course, after listening to Susan McKinley Ross talk about her design process for Qwirkle and many other abstract games, I had to reconsider. Susan discusses valuable lessons she has learned from being a game designer for many years. It’s a bounty of information from a true veteran in the field. At the very least you’ll come to understand the value of naps.
Exactly what it says on the tin, and as good as you would expect. Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock tell the story of how the #1 ranked game on BGG came to be. They keep it spoiler-free, but I think this is even more entertaining having played the game. There were a lot of crazy design ideas that were ultimately scrapped here. If anything it highlights how difficult it is to create (and playtest!) a legacy game.
Paul Dean from Shut Up & Sit Down moderates a trio of board game design behemoths: Rob Daviau, Geoff Engelstein, and Eric Lang. They discuss all sorts of different issues with the board game space right now, from overcrowding of the market and how difficult it is to make money as a designer, to cultural issues like how important it is to be advocates for making board games a safe space for women and minorities. If there is one of these talks that I would recommend most after Geoff’s Loss Aversion presentation, it’s this one.
I sincerely hope that GDC continues hosting presentations and talks from people in the board game industry in their future conventions. If they do, I will be watching with keen interest.