Game Design

A Game of Faces: Why I Recently Changed My Game’s Theme

I’ve been developing a game since the summer of 2017. It’s now autumn in 2018 and I think I’m only halfway to the finish line. Developing a game is a marathon, not a sprint. Come with me…on a magical journey through time as I detail the timeline of my…uhm, magical tabletop journey.

This is another post about killing your darlings.

Summer 2017


After playing a short game of Rome: Total War (which means roughly 6 hours), I think it would be fun to play a tabletop game centered around the politics of Rome. But instead of focusing on the Roman Empire, I wanted to make a game that centered around playing the part of a senator during the late republic trying to navigate through a rocky political landscape. I wanted to make a game where every player came from a different background (retired centurion, foreign ambassador, mensarii tax collector, etc), and they all have a different way in which they’ll overthrow the republic and replace it with their own type of dictatorship. I get to work.


I created a prototype: handwritten index cards and stolen assets from other games. The game is large, it has policy cards for players to use, which allows them to in turn build structures and grow resources (including military and navy), all to solve crises that face Rome (think event cards which affect all players).

It didn’t work out well. I made a game that was not winnable and was hard to work with. Population was equivalent to Rome in the time of the republic. How do you track that? Do you have chips which equal 100,000 people so that you can track the population of Rome at that time? (Which ranged from 500,000 to 1 million at any given point in the republic.)

I confess, I’m a history (linguistics) major and it was difficult for me to try and carve out a square in something that was clearly already a circle. But I kept pressing on.

The theme, I kept. The game, I left behind.

Fall & Winter 2017

I was excited. I started to tell people that I was designing a game, which I think was a mistake because I had no place to point anyone when they wanted to know what my game was about or what I was doing. I had no blog or website or handwritten scroll. I had nothing other than the breath of my word. (So I had nothing.)

Regardless of my eager boasting, I refined my game. In public, I talked about all of the neat things that I wanted the game to be about; in private, I wondered why I said those things and continued to develop the game.

I realized a major issue: it was too much. There was too much resource management that players would have to deal with, too many rules they’d have to remember, too many crises which had turn-by-turn effects that they’d have to implement.

The Takeaway

Do you know how I realized most of this? By play-testing the game. Whatever you do, print things out and play them by yourself and with people that you trust. Do it often. Do it when the game doesn’t have a clear win condition. Do it when you don’t understand what the hell you’re making. Do it when your game feels absolutely right and you love it.

If you ever run into my situation, where you want to add so many fun elements to the game, stop. Strip down your game its core elements. Figure out what emotions you’re trying to evoke out of your game. What are you trying to get your players to experience? Build on that. Don’t add mechanics that you enjoy just because you enjoy them. Many people would rather play an hour-long game that is easy to learn and hard to master over one that is quite the opposite.

Summer 2018 to Now

A year had passed and I still had nothing to show for it, save a plain sort of prototype. This is why I felt disappointed about telling my friends that I was designing a game. I love talking about tabletop games and, well, pretty much any creative endeavor that I’ve experienced or that I’m creating. Talking about imagination stokes a fire in me. The issue is that people may not be so enthusiastic when you keep talking about something and have nothing to show for it. Or in my case, you are hesitant to show anyone anything because the game isn’t “right” enough.

I also had realized that I had outgrown the theme of my game. I kept trying to fit this wonderful experience in a box of Roman diplomacy, when I really wanted to branch out and develop something with a unique, intriguing theme.

As of about 3 weeks ago, I shed the Roman Republic-to-Empire gameplay and decided to create my own land. A republic where players are people of power who influence the senators from the shadows and ultimately one player overthrows the republic to instill their own government…which is built in their favor.

More to come on this. More to come on the artwork, on the assets. I’ve play tested my game about 10 times with another person so far over the year that I’ve been developing it. I’ve play tested it about 15 times by myself. It’s not nearly enough. I need to get more hands-on time with my game.

I will, but on the plus side: the gameplay and the mechanics of the game feel right for the first time in a while. I think it took me about a year to figure out what game I was developing in the first place. I had a lot of ideas swirling around in a cloud and after dancing with these ideas for a year, I’m finally making it rain.

Right now, I’m working on a rough draft of a rulebook. I’m pinning down what assets are necessary for the game (tokens, boards, cards, etc), and I’m starting work on the artwork.

It’s all exciting, but I’m not fooled for a second to think that I’m even halfway done here. Back to work.

By Neutrino Burrito

A writer and board game designer currently puttering about the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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