Designing Tabletop Games #2: What Design Is

Design is about doing things with planning, purpose, and intent. It involves building meaning into what we create. It also involves fun things like psychology, aesthetic appeal, and in general doing good for your audience.

Game design – tabletop or digital – is like any other design practice. It involves using rules, principles, and objectives to achieve a desired outcome. For instance, when creating environmental signage, the goal is to provide clear way-finding directions for the public. With tabletop games our goal is making a fun and satisfying experience for our intended audience.

Here are some ways to look at the different aspects of game design.


In design, planning is about building a framework or structure for how we'll build a project. When I'm starting a game design project, there are three things I want to understand.

  1. What is the project?
  2. How much will this project cost in terms of resources – time, money, energy?
  3. How will this project impact current commitments?

The answers to these questions can be complex. But I start by answering each question in a brief one or two paragraph statement. For instance, on question number one I might write something like:

This project is about creating a game mechanic for a card drafting game. It'll take 10 to 12 months to finish. It'll involve writing down all my ideas, refining prototypes based on those ideas, and developing a solid prototype to play test with many different groups.

In my view, planning isn't about solving creative problems or trying to account for every possible variable in my life. It's about getting clear about what we're talking about and what is actually being committed to. After this is done, then we can start setting deadlines.


Purpose in design is about asking "why". A lot. For example: Why are we doing this, this way? Why are we building something small instead of something big? Why have we chosen to keep production costs low versus high?

So purpose involves understanding the reasons for which something is created. We can't really benefit from how something looks, or how it works, or how much it costs until we ask why.

I learned this lesson creating Iconica. The game started with six characters and grew to 106 over 10 years. I kept having ideas for characters and wanted to see them brought to life. I mean, people want more of them, they help expand the world setting, I enjoy making them. Why would I not make more?

However, the other question I would have benefited from considering is: Why not streamline the character count? Rather than going broad, go deeper into each character, perhaps with modifications, customizations, or variants of archetypes. This held potential to make each existing character more rich and alive.

Things to think about as I consider new projects.


For me, this is about keeping my end goal front and center at all times throughout a project. It's easier said than done. As projects go on, the chances for distraction rise.

This is where things like determination and dedication come in. When we're able to keep our main objective in front of us and stay focused on it, it's more likely we'll achieve our goals. Some ways I do this:

  1. Writing things down and putting them up on the wall.
  2. Putting calendar reminders in my phone.
  3. Telling someone I respect what I intend to do and asking them to hold me to it.
  4. Little rewards for myself when I achieve milestones.
  5. Setting realistic deadlines.

Maintaining a practical mindset with regard to design means I'm less inclined to be distracted with all the ways something may look and feel OR what color something is. Those things are just icing on the cake. Substance is built with planning, purpose, and intent. Refining the way we design can only improve our results.

What about you? Do you have thoughts on what design is or what it means to you?