Game design, like many creative pursuits, often involves working towards a goal that is hard to quantify or describe. That being said, I’ve certainly had times where I’ve thought I had an excellent idea for a mechanism or theme, and I was able to sketch out most of the concepts before I even started making the first prototype. I knew exactly what I wanted the game to be, the experience the players would have, and the sorts of decisions they would encounter along the way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is sometimes the games we think that we completely understand that end up being our most unexpected creations. Take for example the game that I mentioned in my last post, which was merely a mechanism at the time. I thought that it would be a fairly standard Eurostyle game, where any theme would suffice as a backdrop for its mechanical underpinnings. A game that would make Stefan Feld proud (well, we can all hope!).

One week, prototype and playtest later, the game has completely changed. But not in the sense that it had a bad playtest, or that the mechanism I had envisioned completely missed the mark. In fact, the playtest went fairly well as first playtests go, and certainly the high point for me was the fact that the machine I had placed in the game did give the players some agonising and interesting moments (even if there were other problems). It was rather that I now view the game in a different light, and have some similarly differing goals for it.

Whereas previously theme had taken a backseat in my design choices, some random thread of thought I had while making the first prototype simply read ‘Vikings’. Don’t ask me why or how, but within a few hours of this thought, I had a complete prototype, replete with Viking pieces scavenged from Walhalla and a heptagonal player board:

From a game that previously revolved about the crucial decision as to where to make your next bid for an action, I now see a game that tells a whole story for the players, as they lead the members of their clan to glorious battle in this world and the next, attempting the appease their gods so they might live for eternity in the Hall of the Gods, Valhalla. It even has got to the point where today I made a trip to the local library to devour more details to include in the game. Previously generic temples are now rune-covered stones, and your ‘meeples’ have become mighty Viking warriors and wise priests.

The theme now not only interests me, but is inspiring me in the direction I take the game’s mechanics, crafting an arc that I couldn’t have imagined before. This in turn helps me better define who the players are in the game and why they are doing what they are doing (something I had been having problems with prior to this revelation). I’m not going to argue that this as a whole is a particularly novel experience, but I am glad to have had it all the same. I actually think it will change the way I approach the early stages of game design in the future – having a strong theme from the beginning can offer so much inertia to a design to really help you push through those first few major iterations while maintaining a clear vision of what the game is actually about.

I never cease to be amazed by the crazy journeys that you take with your creations. No matter how exciting or strange your starting vision is, you simply have no idea where you’ll end up. A scenic route indeed.