So you want to design a board game?

During a recent interview with Hermann Luttman, the creator of the ‘Blind Swords‘ wargame system, I asked if he had any advice for aspiring wargame designers.

This reply he gave me contains such a huge amount of useful advice for all game designers – not just wargame designers – that I am posting it here in it’s entirety.

Take it away, Hermann:

Design advice Hermann Luttman
A prototype of Beware the Shades, one of Hermann’s in-development projects

Sure! I love encouraging new designers. Here’s my two cents of advice:

Design what you love and what you know! Passion is half the battle when trying to get a design finished and published. Don’t pick a subject that you have no interest in just because you think it will be popular. Also, pick a subject you really know well as that will allow you to bring some interesting details to the game design and teach players something about the topic.

Trial and error is very important. Don’t get stuck on one particular approach if it’s not working. I know it’s a cliché but it’s a good one in this instance – think outside the box. Try seemingly whacky approaches that on the face might be ridiculous, but which might very well change your mode of thinking and lead you to a unique solution when you’re bogged down.  

Follow through once you seriously start a design. Almost every wargamer has thought about and probably started some kind of game design. 99% of those gamers abandon their project when they get about one third of the way through the process. Don’t be that person! Fight through the lulls, the difficulties and the boring parts (yes, there are a lot of those when you’re doing mundane rules-writing tasks). And this also why you need to pick a subject matter that interests you – it will help get you past the one-third mark. Don’t let yourself get discouraged.

Don’t be afraid to go to the smaller companies to get your first published game and to learn your craft. Alan Emrich gave me my break with Victory Point Games and that made all the difference for my design career. Newbies need to find companies (like Tiny Battle Publishing, for example) that are willing to give new designers a shot, and they are out there. Then you use those opportunities to hone your skills and get experience.

Don’t expect to get rich. This is not a job for those who want to retire early. Even if you’re really successful, you’ll only make enough money to go out to a nice dinner a few times and buy some more cool games. Don’t even think about trying to convert your commissions into an hourly wage rate – you’ll be shocked on how little you earn on that basis. Designers, for the most part, do this because it’s fun and gets the creative juices flowing. For me, it keeps me thinking, active and involved … and it cleans out the brain plaque. So design for your entertainment and mental health – not to buy a new Porsche.

Take advice. Do not, under any circumstances, ignore feedback, suggestions or criticism. You are not as good as you think you are and you will miss something or do something horribly wrong. Believe me – listening to play tester, publisher and development feedback will only make you a better designer.

Push your boundaries. Once you get a couple of published designs under your belt, design outside your comfort zone. Try new things and different methods. For me, designing science fiction, horror and fantasy games allows me more freedom to explore design techniques and mechanics. It is very freeing when you don’t have to worry about historical accuracy and realism. So that’s my boundary-pushing mode and it may very well be something totally different for you. Whatever it is, it only makes you more versatile and creative.

Play more games. Yes, playing other designers games will help make you a better designer. Working through those game mechanisms will spark ideas in your head. No, I’m not suggesting that you plagiarize or steal ideas – use them as inspiration and allow those other games to help you think about your design in a different way.

Thanks for letting me do this! It was fun. All the best and good gaming!

Hermann Luttmann