3 key lessons learned designing my first board game and how they could apply to yours October 21 2021, 0 Comments
I’m Ben Goldman, designer of Paint the Roses. I’ve been developing board games at NorthStar for 6 years, working on Climate, Most Wanted, and Oceans but this was the first time I’d had nearly complete creative control over the design and I learned a lot through the process.
After years in the making, Paint the Roses launched on Kickstarter, being selected by the platform as a “Project We Love” and reaching its funding goal in just 30 minutes. This article will discuss some of the challenges faced in turning my original idea into the version of Paint the Roses we see today.
For the sake of your sanity (and mine) I’m going to focus on 3 key areas; theme, feedback, and fun. Let me start by pitching you Paint the Roses as it is now:
Set in the puzzling world of Alice in Wonderland, you and your friends are the newly appointed Royal Gardeners working for the notoriously demanding boss, the Queen of Hearts. Paint the Roses is a cooperative deduction puzzle game that automatically adapts to your skill level during play. You'll need strategy, logic and teamwork to stay one step ahead of the Queen, otherwise the last thing you hear will be, "Off With Their Heads!".
Build understanding through theme
When I first designed Paint the Roses it didn’t have a name or a theme. The design featured patterned and colored squares placed on a grid with the logic sat on the surface and that was it. I hadn’t come up with a clear way of describing it so my early game pitches really weren’t great. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’d say:
“In this game you place tiles on a grid, those tiles have 2 variables. Each of those variables has 6 states, making a 6 by 6 matrix of possible tiles. When you place those tiles next to other tiles you mark how many times a variable relationship on your card was created, and that information is used by the team to correctly deduce what is on your card, and thereby be able to score more points with each tile placement.”
Before the theme was added my design was a pure score chaser, with no way to lose. Theme opened the door to another change with the introduction of an antagonist, the Queen of Hearts. If players made too many mistakes the Queen would demand an execution, signalling the end of the game. This change added feelings of tension, relief and even celebration in a way a simple token wouldn’t.
These changes also meant the design, now titled Paint the Roses, could be described in a more thematic and engaging way. Rather than saying “place tiles on a grid“ I now said “place shrubs in a garden”. The “variables” and “states” became “Shrub tiles” showing card suits and rose colours. The reason for tile placement changed from trying to show the “relationship on your card” to trying to solve “the whims of the maniacal Queen of Hearts”.
I used to see themes and mechanics as two discrete things. In creating Paint the Roses I learned that the theme and mechanics can be unified, supporting each other. Theme helped change a fairly abstract puzzle into a more immersive experience that we can see ourselves within. After all, who hasn’t felt the pressure of a boss, teacher or parent watching their every move?
Finding the fun
If I’m being honest with myself, the early versions of Paint the Roses were interesting but arguably weren't very fun. Wanting a design to be fun seems like an obvious goal, but identifying and optimizing for this isn’t always that straight forward.
Not every game automatically creates laughter at the table but fun comes in all forms. Screaming in terror on a rollercoaster or quietly reading a book on a rainy day look nothing alike, but depending on who you ask both might be described as a fun activity.
So what did optimizing for fun mean when designing Paint the Roses?
Two things. The first was to have the players ratio of fun to not fun time be as far skewed towards the former as I could make it. In Paint the Roses the fun is the solving of the puzzles, the conversation at the table and things like longshot guesses that end up being correct. The ‘not-fun’ part is placing the cubes, or the frustration of not being able to solve a puzzle. Part of my design work was ensuring I increased the fun aspects, whilst keeping play as streamlined as possible to outweigh the ‘not-so-fun’.
The second thing I focused on in Paint the Roses was to align the win condition with the fun directly. In the alpha version of the game, the one with the colored and patterned square tiles, winning was based on cube placement. Deducing other players' turns was still part of design, but was secondary to a scoring mechanism largely revolving around counting.
Optimizing for fun needs to be at the front of the mind throughout development, otherwise it can get lost in the weeds. In Paint the Roses, by changing the win condition to solving other players cards, the game became dramatically more fun. By streamlining the rest of the game, I let the mundane aspects fade into the background and brought fun right into focus.
Feedback doesn't have to hurt
You love your game. You crafted it. You spent countless late nights fine tuning the intricate systems that make it tick. So it can be really hard to have someone come along and tell you how they think it could be better. Your natural instinct might be to get defensive. You need to learn to fight it.
My design truly benefited from feedback so let me highlight a few key examples.
Paint the Roses includes notepads to help you track the game information, but originally notetaking was forbidden. I was very reluctant to include it, but after it was suggested I came to see how memory could be a barrier to fun and allowing notes reduced this aspect allowing the focus to go back onto play.
When Dominic first suggested introducing a theme to my design I was unfairly disparaging of the concept and more resistant than I should have been. Once I found a theme that clicked, Alice in Wonderland, I realized just how wrong I’d been.
The introduction of the theme led to Scott Rencher (NorthStar Co-President) suggesting adding the Queen of Hearts to the scoretrack, and this changed the game from a pure score chaser, to one with a loss mechanic and palpable tension in play. Based on further feedback the White Rabbit was added to the game, giving a thematic way to signal the increasing speed of the Queen on the scoretrack.
In hindsight, Paint the Roses without the Queen is a perfectly interesting score-chasing logical puzzle, but she is what makes everything in the game into a gesamtkunstwerk.
Had I been too arrogant in my own core design I would have dismissed some of these changes as too large for a game that already worked. Without taking to heart the feedback from others and simply designing in the insular world of my mind the end result would have led to a worse game.
Of course not all feedback is made equal, and as a designer you still need to determine what will improve a game and then how to properly implement it. Although difficult, figuring out how to listen openly and honestly can allow your design to unlock the potential it always had inside.
These three concepts; Theme, Fun and Feedback are what allowed Paint the Roses to become a fully formed game that makes me unabashedly proud, something I’ll admit I rarely am about my own work. I know I will take what I’ve learned on Paint the Roses with me to all my future projects, and hopefully, you can take something from my experience on your own journey.