Two key factors that allowed me to become a game designer with a career in the board game industry (Paint the Roses #6) November 19 2019, 0 Comments

This is the sixth post in a series about our upcoming game Paint the Roses, written by the game’s designer, Ben Goldman.

I went to art school for graphic design, where I spent as much time designing board games as graphics. Games were how I slacked off.

It turned out to be productive slacking, as I now work full-time in the game industry and North Star Games is about to publish a product of that slacking: a game called Paint the Roses.


(It’s a cooperative game where you’re a gardener for the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. You’re trying to plant her rose garden right so she doesn’t behead you. Problem: she’ll only give you partial information about how she wants it planted. So you and your teammates must deduce her wishes or lose your heads.)

In the interest of helping others find their way professionally, I want to share what I think are the 2 keys to my having ended up where I am.

Key #1: I combined graphic design with game design (talent stacking)

It’s not a stretch to say graphic design is as important to game sales as the games themselves, especially since Kickstarter became important. As a result, graphic design skills are in demand.

And while there are many incredible graphic designers, and many incredible game designers, few people do both things. If you can do both things, you have something.

This relates more generally to the cartoonist Scott Adams’ conception of the talent stack: the idea is you can combine multiple modest talents that become uniquely valuable by their combination. In Adams’ case, he wasn’t the funniest, or the best cartoonist, or the best businessman. But he was pretty good at all those things, and he could combine them uniquely to create the comic for which he’s now famous: Dilbert.

Even if you’re not good at graphic design, this general lesson applies: develop some skill that complements game design (or whatever it is you want to do for a living), and sell yourself on the strength of that combo.

Key #2: I gave myself weird design challenges

Teeming hordes of game designers pitch games to publishers every day. TEEMING. EVERY DAY. How do you design something that stands out enough to be published?

Turns out the way I slacked off doing game design in college was a good solution to this problem, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Each week I’d give myself an odd design challenge, then rapidly prototype a playable (but usually bad) game. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the challenges, just whatever felt interesting. Some favorites:

  • A game where the board is a Möbius strip.
  • A game where eating the components is core to victory.
  • A drinking game that is still fun for the designated driver.
  • A game about lasagna.
  • A positional strategy game with a limit of 9 spaces.
  • A game where players make their own win conditions.
  • A game that models having to do all the work in a group project.
  • A player elimination game without player elimination.
  • A cooperative deduction game that allows for lots of communication.

A Möbius strip racetrack in Mario Kart

Half the games I made doing this had no redeeming qualities. The other half were stinkers with embedded nuggets of intrigue. But that didn’t matter, because their oddness:

  • kept me from getting stuck in conceptual ruts
  • led to concepts other designers hadn’t considered. If you want to find gold, you have to go down unexplored paths. Weird design challenges are a great way to do that.

Those same weird restrictions also limited the design space I could explore for each challenge. That was helpful: like many (most?) novice game designers, my early designs tended to bloat. The restrictions limited the bloat.

One challenge that led to a nugget of intrigue was the last one above: "A cooperative deduction game that allows for lots of communication." That nugget is what eventually became Paint the Roses. The reaction to it so far is making me optimistic that it will sell well, and I'll get the chance to make more.

So there you have it: I have a career in games thanks to talent stacking and pursuing odd challenges. I recommend considering how you might employ both ideas in pursuit of your own aspirations.

Paint the Roses will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. To be alerted to new blog posts and the Kickstarter's launch via email, sign up here.

Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series

  1. Why I designed a logic game set in the illogical world of Alice in Wonderland.
  2. How to fix the biggest problem in cooperative games. 
  3. Feedback wanted for a key component in our next game.
  4. What can dictators teach us about game design?
  5. A new way to visualize game rules, as a network of ideas.