For the last three years, I have participated in the Game Chef competition. After my first year, I sat and penned a few rules for myself. I poured over the reviews of the game I’ve made. I also scoured over the finalists and winners of previous years looking for patterns. This list came from that effort and was successful when applied the following year. It led to a finalist nomination.
These rules aren’t hard and fast. Looking over the finalists in years past will show you times when one or more was ignored. I think, however, that you will begin to see the trends align with these tips. I broke two of my own rules this year and did not make finalist. Given the comments on the reviews, it seems that is why I did not. Ignore them at your own risk.
Clearly stated, visuals aren’t supposed to be considered. Polish isn’t what this game competition is about. I get it and agree with it. That being said, the reviewers are human. Humans are visual. An aesthetic design is going to feel more appealing on a gut level than a wall of text. A well-done picture can speak volumes. They move towards helping someone understand what you are saying.
Even something as simple as the use of color or meaningful fonts can make a huge difference. If I am writing a horror game, putting the section titles in a spooky font adds a greater sense of that setting. If I want to make information distinct, adding colors make it immediately clear. One or two well-placed pictures can spell the difference between confusion and understanding.
I am not saying to spend a lot of time on visuals. I am only saying that you should consider including them in some way if time allows.
There are several reasons for simplicity. The first and most obvious is the short time frame to build the game. A complicated game means you have to do a lot more work to get it done in the short window. Second, a simple game allows you to refine your design quickly and offer a better finished product. Don’t discount how valuable that can be. Lastly, a simple design means that it is easier for the reviewer to grasp and understand. With each reviewer looking over 4 games, they don’t have time to focus on anything that confuses them.
Double Down Theme
I can’t begin to tell you how valuable this can be. Find a way to take that year’s theme and apply it to your design in more than one way. This way you are sure that no one fails to see it. The odds of someone finding your use of theme smart increases. Of all the tips, this one is least common. At most, half apply it in a given year. Still, if half of the finalists are doing something it must be worth attention.
All too often, people try to shoehorn ingredients into their games mechanics. Don’t do this. Make sure 2 ingredients are vital to playing that game. Without those two ingredients, you could not play. Period. At the end of the day, an amazing game without this is still going to fail to place. Slapping a few words on a single mechanic that isn’t all that important or isn’t at the core of the game is weak at best. If the ingredient you used is Slap, slapping something better be primary to gameplay.
4 Ingredients Can Be Messy
I was guilty of this my first year. I tried to take all four ingredients and make them sing in harmony as cores to gameplay. I had some small success, but it meant fudging meanings. You don’t want to shift aspects in sub-optimal ways. Try to only have 2 play center stage. Go ahead and include all 4 if you find places they fit well enough, but let those extra ingredients play backup. Your designs will improve for it.
Given the theme this year, I set this rule aside. That was a mistake. I learned the hard lesson in my first year. People will like the game in theory, but often get hung up on the application. Your favorite technology may seem intuitive to you, but to someone else, it is a mystery. Not everyone goes on forums. Not everyone uses a wiki. Not everyone has twitter.
You’ll notice that 2 of that list apply to my competition entries. It’s a roll of the dice who you will get reviewing. If you get someone unfamiliar, then they find your game incomprehensible. If you find someone who’s better with the technology than you, they may see something you missed.
Personal experience says you’ll get high praise from 3 out of 4 reviewers, but one falls prey to unfamiliarity. Two who praised it will feel like the technology has some negative impact on the overall design. Maybe you will get lucky and have 4 people who all have and use the technology. Congratulations. They still might not nominate your game. It is just too easy for the subjective aspects to muddle the technological ones.
Be All Inclusive
The less someone has to own, the better. I don’t even like pencils to be honest. Not everyone has dice. If they do, not everyone has every type of dice. Some people don’t have smartphones. Some people don’t have a printer.
It’s almost impossible to account for everything. If you are going to require something outside of the printed materials, use caution. The more common, the better. Most people will have pencils. Some people will have dice, smartphones, and printers. Maybe half will have specialized dice. One in every few hundred will have a 3D printer. You get the idea.
Try to select extras that are nearly universal. That’s limited to pencil, paper, and a body. Of all the tips, this one may have the most flexibility. Many people without a printer or dice can still see the value in the game. Just use caution.