What I Learnt from Entering a Design Challenge
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
I recently entered a Button Shy design challenge. Button Shy are known for their compact games, which have a maximum of 18 cards and come in a bifold wallet. I've been a fan of these games for a while now, with a number working really well at 2 players.
Some of my favourite button shy games (Circle the Wagons broke from too many camping trips!)
The focus of the challenge was to design a game that only used 18 cards, each numbered 1 through to 18. Other than not using the backs of the cards, which is a key part of several of Button Shy's line up, this was pretty much the only restriction on the designers.
Why I tried the challenge?
When I first saw this challenge I was initially hesitant, with such limited components and what what seemed to be no room for implementing much of a theme, I wrote off being able to design an entry worth anyone's time.
However I was in a rut with my other designs which were suffering from scope creep, leading to playing testing become less and less manageable, so I thought that this new challenge might give me the direction I needed. I ordered my 18 cards, and quickly begun to brainstorm ideas and even generated some prototypes before they arrived. So...
What was different this time?
Unlike any of my other designs, this one had a clear deadline and I was already a month into the first round when I ordered my cards. This forced me to lose any vanity I had about my design. By jumping straight into doing playtests with my quick and dirty prototypes, first solo and then with my partner, I was able to focus in on what was and wasn't working with my game. Rather than obsessing for hours over font sizes and card art, I was actually designing a game.
You can't listen to a podcast about game design without learning the importance of play testing, but doing this challenge and scribbling over the same card multiple times really brought this home.
Some of the cards from my first prototype, just paper, pen and some colouring pencils needed
The Component Restrictions
As much as I tried, my other design attempts haven't come with a clear set of restrictions. Writing down the essential experience and creating a design brief for your own game is one thing, but sticking to it is another. Without the opportunity to just 'add one more component' when things weren't working out, it forced me to be creative and simply drop ideas that weren't working.
It can be easy to put plasters over design problems in the form of additional components such as resources, trackers and dice. When I would add a new part to a game, I would then go and research the component, spend time working out what size and shape it would be before looking for places to buy some cheap prototype parts. Without this crutch to lean on, the scope of your game can't increase and you have to make the most of what you have, and actually design a game!
The description of the design challenge included a link to the Button Shy Discord. Designers discussed their ongoing entries, bouncing ideas off each other and sharing the progress they were making. Seeing other people working through similar problems, and being able to learn from their designs was invaluable. The feedback I received throughout my prototyping stage was great, and having people willingly print and test them was amazing.
Through out this contest I also started spending some time on the Board Game Design Lab Facebook community page, which was a great resource for further feedback and generally a positive place to be.
Seeing the positivity of the community and the willingness of people to help each other lead me to decide to bring my prototype game to the UK games expo next month for in person playtesting, previous to this competition something I wouldn't have done. This has given me another deadline to work towards, keeping up the momentum of my design.
So what I did I learn?
To set out a clear brief, and stick to it, adding more parts isn't the way to solve design problems
The theme of a game doesn't come from its components
To set self imposed deadlines, to force my focus to be on playtesting and not making the game a vanity project
That there is a whole host of kind people willing to help you solve design problems, and looking for your to help them with theirs.
I'm under no illusions that my game could win the design challenge, but as Button Shys Jason Tagmire said in the discord, its called a challenge and not a contest because its about inspiration over winning, and I like to think I at least rose to the challenge. Seeing my little game get posted off across the ocean, I was very proud to say that I created a game that were playing and enjoying and was actually very sad to see it go.