One of my biggest struggles when I first started designing games was wanting to put a complete game on the table for a first test. I wanted to have fully developed mechanisms, nice components, some art and graphic design, complete sets of cards (with the math all worked out), and a definitive end to the game all there for the first play test. I know (now) that was completely unrealistic. Since then I have really been working to adjust my expectations and forcing myself to test incomplete games and mechanisms with nothing but hand written cards. As I worked on this aspect of my design process I still struggled to know what to bring to the table and what to wait on. I would find myself waiting to test a game because I didn’t have X nailed down, or the layout of Y wasn’t what I wanted yet.

Not good. No testing means no game development.

No testing means no game development.

I was listening to an old episode of the Plaid Hat podcast and heard Jerry Hawthorne (designer of Mice and Mystics, Tail Feathers, and the upcoming Stuffed Fables) make a distinction between structure and content design. This delineation really stuck in my head. It’s something I knew but had never defined in my brain.

Breaking the design of a game into these two parts helps me make sure I am working on the right thing at the right time. Designing the structure comes first. If I find myself working on content I can say, “Brian, put that down for now. Get the structure done first.”

Let’s do a bit of defining. How am I separating these two things? I think structure elements are mechanisms, components (not having final ones but knowing what components will be used in the game), and rules. These things form the foundation to lay content on. Content is made up of things like art, graphic design, complete sets of cards, and fluff text.

If you create content without structure (mostly) in place you are essentially building a house on a foundation that hasn’t set yet. If something in your structure does change it will change or nullify the content work you did. For example, if you decide you want a some kind of card in the game, do the graphic design of the card, make them pretty and print them, and then change something about the structure of the game that gets rid of the need for those cards you just have to throw them out, graphic design and all.

Focus on designing the structure of your game first then start layering on the content to flesh it out.

That exact scenario has been a huge frustration for me. It would stop me from working on the game for a while since I was demoralized about the amount of work I was throwing away. On top of that I’d have to create some other components.

Separating and defining these two parts of game design helps me to focus on the thing I need to work on first. That’s not to say some content can’t be created, it just should not be the focus at the beginning. The focus at the beginning should be mostly on the structure of the game, testing parts of all of that first. Once I feel like I have a firm foundation to build on I can start adding the content.