Understanding Game Design – The Basics

Some of the most amazing mechanics ever created have been drowned by copycats that they have become stagnant and boring. Deckbuilding Games are one of the best examples of this, as there seems to be a deckbuilding game out there for every theme possible. Back when it released in 2008, Dominion was ground breaking. It ushered in an era of game design that we had never seen before. There was a good two year run where every new release was a deckbuilding game and they were all advertised “we are like Dominion, but…” At first, it was charming, since everybody adored Dominion and the differences it brought to how games were played. As the market further saturated, however, it became frustrating to no end.

Today, I want to talk about the basics of game design. There are certain qualities that should be in every game, especially those of you out there that want to have the next big hit. They are pretty straightforward, so I haven’t given a long, drawn out explanation for each:

15 Minutes to Learn

It should take no more than 15 minutes to have a basic understanding of how to play your game. Let my group get going right away. It is ok for some of the advanced rules to be missed, or for us to make a few mistakes along the way. The first time playing a game should be like learning to paint. You won’t get things perfect on the first try, but you should know what you’re doing and be able to get it done. Nobody wants to spend hours watching game play videos or burying themselves in rulebooks just to learn how to play a 60 minute board game.

45 Minutes to Play

Game play should be 45 minutes or less. Some groups might take an hour on their first game if their group is inexperienced at gaming, especially if the group just picked the game up out of the blue from their LGS, but they shouldn’t feel like the game is dragging on. 45 minutes gives players just enough of gameplay to be interested in replaying the game again soon, with a better understanding of exactly how to play.


The last point I’ll touch on today is that simple can be elegant. Game designers don’t need to drown us in complex rules in order to make a complex game. Instead, give players an option on what they can do each turn. Allowing players to make several simple choices will allow for the game to become more interesting by their own design. Players will feel like they are directly interacting with their opponents when they are given control over the details of the game. A spectacular example of this is Splendor, and I highly recommend designers check that game out as a baseline for simple but elegant gameplay.


In either case, gaming can be one of the most rewarding social interactions that people can experience. Well designed games lead to happy players and thoughtful discussions. Poorly designed games cause people to suffer, and often feel stupid, simply because the design was too complicated for an ordinary person to pick up and play. I hope this helps anyone looking to reinvent the wheel or shake up the industry. I certainly am looking forward to seeing what new games release in the New Year!

~ Kevin Gaffuri