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The Easiest Game Design Exercise Ever (Really)

July 9, 2008

Without commentary, here you go:

Create a “Race to the End” Game.

Step 1

Understand the pattern. We have all played race to the end games. Think Candy Land or The Game of Life. Basically, you start at point A and get to point B. That is all you need to know. Draw a straight line on a long sheet of paper. You are now over 1/4 of the way finished. You can make the line squiggly if you want, but it probably won’t affect gameplay.

Step 2

Find a narrative. What are you racing toward or what are you racing from? You can go as simple as Candy Land and say, “We’re racing to get to the end first” or something a bit thicker like:

  • A bank heist (catch the robbers or get away if you are the robbers)
  • To freedom from X
  • To the pot of gold
  • Toward the partner of your dreams
  • Toward the top of the corporate ladder

The first one there wins. There are about a zillion more ideas from real world races to any contest in which one person tries to excel above another. If you cannot think of a narrative, pick one here or just keep going without one.

Step 3

How do you race? What’s the game mechanic that allows you to move forward? You could use an element of chance (dice, random draw or whatever) or you can use an element of strategy (though this takes it out of the easiest design exercise ever) or skill (i.e. one point per foot a person can jump… though that would just be weird). Keep it easy and go with dice.

Step 4

Add conflict. The easy as toast version of “adding conflict” is as follows. As a designer, you need to figure out a way to make the race interesting:

  • Speed people up
  • Slow people down
  • Make people change places
  • Make people lose a turn
  • Give people an extra turn

Once you figure out how you will do this, let players do this to each other. So, I get to make you miss your turn. I get to change spots with you, etc. Add a few players so they have to decide who to affect or who to reward. The simplest way to do this is to put spaces on the board that force these actions. A modified version of this uses spaces where a player gets to draw a card. They may use the card on themselves or on another when they choose. So, I draw a “Skip a turn” card, and I play it on you or someone else whenever I want to.

Step 5

You’re done. Will it win awards? Never, but you will have actually created a game, and the process will be satisfying enough that you just might want to make something else a bit more complex.


There was some talk over the last couple of days on my Fear of the Game post. This exercise is designed to get people who have never designed a game, but who want to design a game no valid reason not to do so.

Every single week, I am currently putting people through a design bootcamp of sorts. I declare on Monday, “By Wednesday, you will have a playable game,” and no one believes me, but by Wednesday, there they are playing and fixing and playing and fixing. All this is happening in a summer design workshop for rising high school juniors and seniors that I am presently teaching. It’s one of the most fun gigs that I get to do, because I truly see people get passionate about game design for the first time in their whole lives. I don’t know what they come in expecting (It’s called “Game Design Basics”), but I push each and every one of them from standing still with a bag of 100 wood tiles to a complete non-digital prototype in the space of a week. Granted, the prototypes are of varying quality and conviction, but each and every one of them is a real game that someone made. I hear “I love game design” daily, and for a geek like me, that’s poetry.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2008 10:30 pm

    You said something about giving people a way to design games when they don’t yet understand the basic principles of game design.

    Do you think it’s better to start by having people design games, or do you prefer to give people the fundamentals of the field (MDA Framework, etc.) first and THEN have them design games using the knowledge they’ve gained?

    And… do you feel it’s just personal preference, or do you think one way is superior to the other (and why)?

  2. July 10, 2008 3:39 am

    Ian, I think it’s often a matter of matching the right person with the right method. There are some “top-down” people for example, that want to learn the “theory” first and then get their feet wet with practice. Those need to be pushed earlier from the top, so that they don’t get lost in theory. Then tere are the “bottom-up” people, who just start with making, but its important to feed in a concept or two at the right time, to make them learn more from their experience and help them to gain a more structured way of thinking (without choking their creativity). If you have too much students, then its difficult to understand their personalities because you cannot devote enough time to each one. But if the classes are relatively small, you can understand their styles better and think of more “individual” solutions for them.
    I like Brenda’s exercise a lot, because it is quite simple to start with, but open to really complex game structures. I definately want to use this method at some point.

  3. July 10, 2008 6:20 am

    I like this, good post. Conventional wisdom dictates that digital game designers should have, at a very least, a minimal technical background (such as in programming) to get the most out of the format and it’s limitation. To me, game studios would be wise to ask programmers, artist and other non-designers to participate in mandatory game design exercises such as the one described above from time to time. Great way to raise the level of creativity.

    The best game design exercise I ever heard of was pretty simple. One simple directive: Participate in an activity you have never done in your life today and guide us to your thought process, how you came to select the particular activity. At first it seems innocent enough, but the results are always interesting, as it gets participants to forgo their deadly daily routine and rediscover their inner playfulness.

  4. July 10, 2008 7:56 am

    @Brenda: Loved the post, hope to publish my design soon. I’ve already written down some ideas. πŸ™‚

    @altug: The approach that worked for me was the “top-down”. Some years ago I tried to begin creating digital games by reading some tutorials but never could even being anything. Then on the last year I joined an on-line Game Design Basics course and it was awesome! It provided me with basics tools to go further on exploring this amazing subject. It’s true that I have started and not finished some game designs upon completing the course, but hey, I’m still trying. πŸ™‚

  5. July 10, 2008 7:57 am

    @Brenda: By the way, you mentioned this design bootcamp and I wondered. Do you happen to know any online course on Game Design? The one I have completed here on Brazil is still the only one I could find. 😦

  6. July 10, 2008 8:16 am

    @Alvaro – Yes, there’s Game Criticism and Analysis, and it’s presently taught by Ian Schreiber (of Ian Schreiber fame). More are in the works, particularly at the grad level.

    @Ian – When I teach game design, I throw people into the fire. Try to design something with a bit of direction. it’s so much easier for me to communicate somewhat abstract concepts and theories when they actually have a prototype or two under their belt. Then, they have a basis upon which they can work. I have also done it the other way, but it’s more fun and more impactful, I think doing it with game first and learning in steps after intermixed with games. Iterative learning?

  7. July 10, 2008 8:21 am

    You know, I’m myself of the top-down type. What I found so striking about Brenda’s “Fear” article was that it somehow described me. I recognized the pattern immediately and I was very thankful to her that she took the time and just told how she felt herself sometimes. This sincereness of hers resulted in insight about myself. It was indeed beautiful for me to read. Like if someone held a mirror to me. Great πŸ™‚
    Btw, I’m glad you broke the shell! (So did I, somehow). I hope to be able to see your designs soon πŸ™‚

  8. July 10, 2008 5:19 pm

    Neat. I made a game that might even be fun to play under certain circumstances.

    Do you have similar exercises that help newbies refine dumb first-draft designs? Maybe how to find a weakness and either prop it up or excise it kind of things?

    Also, and maybe this exceeds the scope of the topic, but I’m curious, what are the functional requirements to call a thing a game (rather than say a pass-time)? I wonder about decisionless “games” like Candyland and whether they really count.

  9. July 10, 2008 9:55 pm

    @Chris Weeks: You want similar exercises? Glad you asked…

  10. July 11, 2008 11:08 am

    Hey Brenda, just wanted to say thank you again for your exercise, because of it I’ve been able to finish creating my very own board game. πŸ™‚

    Here it is:

  11. July 11, 2008 1:56 pm

    It’s a very fruitful exercise. And you get really great results in just a few minutes. We had a free half an hour with a couple of students today, so we gave it a try. Within a few minutes we had around ten game concepts + some preliminary board drawings, with themes ranging from an “Escape from Alcatrazz” type story to a “graduation game” where you compete for a scholarship with other players. The students really felt very comfortable with the exercise. The step by step approach helped them to do one thing at a time, the objective of each step was very well defined, which kept their heads clear about what to do. It was therefore very easy to develope the initial idea into a quite detailed design within a very short time. And the most important things is: it gave everyone a lot of confidence in their ability and creativity. Thanks a lot.

  12. July 11, 2008 8:22 pm

    @ Alvaro and Altug – those posts truly made my day.

    “And the most important things is: it gave everyone a lot of confidence in their ability and creativity.”

    That is incredible. I find that with my students, too. If you can just get them through that first game, it helps a lot.

  13. latoya shuck permalink
    November 2, 2010 4:09 pm

    this certainly is a simple exercise but it illustrates the basic concept of a game of chance. The game design gets even more involved when you add elements of skill, and even more interesting still when you add prisoner’s dilemma-type situations.


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