As an exercise, you can go through a number of key questions about your game to get a good sense of where to begin. These questions are just to help you get started. Most of them will be obsolete by the time you make changes to your first prototype. It is usually a bad idea to keep any of these answers locked down and written in stone:
- What is your problem statement?
- How many players will there be?
- What is the object of the game for each player? What are their short-term goals?
- Do players work together or alone? Who is their adversary: the game, other players, or something else?
- Do you have any key rules in mind?
- What resources do the players manage?
- What do players do? What decisions do they face?
- What information is public, hidden to particular players, or hidden to all players?
- What hinders players? What are the trade-offs?
- How does the game end? Are there winning conditions?
- Explain a turn or two (or equivalent time period) of the game.
After answering these questions, you can make an attempt to write down the rules for the game.
To use the example of the airport game I mentioned above, earlier in my career, I had a period of about a year when I had to fly somewhere about every month. One evening, I was in New York while a huge blizzard was approaching. It was hammering the Midwest and the flight network was already suffering from delays. As I sat awaiting the fate of my flight, I could feel the tension in the room rise as flight after flight was delayed and announced over the loudspeaker. Periodically, it would be announced that a flight was changing gates. I watched as dozens of stressed travelers grabbed all their belongings and rushed off in unison to another part of the terminal. This happened a half-dozen times as I sat and watched. Having nothing better to do, I started to brainstorm an idea for a board game where passengers rushed through an airport. Here is what I came up with when I worked through the previous checklist of questions:
What is your problem statement?
What would a board game be like where you had to shuffle weary and stressed passengers through an airport?
How many players will there be?
I’m going to guess 3 to 5 players. I imagine it will be similar to a Eurogame like Ticket to Ride, and those games generally have 3 to 5 players.
What is the object of the game for each player? What are their short-term goals?
Each player tries to score victory points by getting as many passengers onto correct flights as possible.
Do players work together or alone? Who is their adversary: the game, other players, or something else?
Players work alone, trying to achieve the best score. Players can out-position other players’ passengers to score.
Do you have any key rules in mind?
Passengers have to make it through security before they can move freely through the airport. Players should be able to move their passengers all at once. When a flight fills up, it leaves, kind of like the boats in Puerto Rico. Flights will change gates often.
What resources do the players manage?
Players will manage the passengers on the board. I want this game to be as minimally random as possible, so no cards or dice.
What do players do? What decisions do they face?
Players get one action on their turn. They can move people through security, move passengers to gates, or move passengers into club lounges.
What information is public, hidden to particular players, or hidden to all players?
All information is public. The flight board will show the order of flights.
What hinders players? What are the trade-offs?
Players hinder players because there will not be enough room on each flight for all passengers. Players must choose to spend their action on getting more passengers, placing them effectively, or changing the flight board.
How does the game end? Are there winning conditions?
When all the flights are gone from the flight board, the game is over. The player with the most points wins.
Explain a turn or two (or equivalent time period) of the game.
Each player gets one main action. They choose from a menu of actions. A player may choose to put passengers through security, move their cleared passengers, or move a passenger into a club lounge.
The descriptions from these questions are not enough to write the rules of the game. There is still a lot of work to do. However, it does help to frame the ideas that are nascent. From this, I could start a sketch of what the actual rules look like. Once I have something that can direct play, I could craft a prototype to test where my idea of the rules are broken, fun, or both.
If you do not have answers to all these questions, it’s OK. You can still attempt to build a prototype at this point. Playtesting suggests answers. Some of the best games were started by having a broad problem statement that could be built into a functional toy that suggested directions for further development.