How to Host a Game Design Class

the following is a brief write-up i made for myself upon reflection on the month-long board game design class i taught at the baltimore free school.

BOARD GAME DESIGN CLASS – a debriefing

for a total of four weeks, i was the head instructor for a board game design class in baltimore. there were a total of four game sessions focused primarily on game design, and three ‘satellite sessions’ devoted mostly to playing games – either our own or professionally-published titles. a good friend of mine served as co-instructor and a true asset to the game critiques; he’s much more a fan of abstract strategy, and his analyses of various game mechanics, balance, and flow were very valuable for everyone involved.

to keep things fairly simple, i’ll organize my remarks into separate categories.

VENUES

the classes took place in a local non-profit building called the baltimore free school, while the satellite sessions were carried out in a local gaming shop in northeast baltimore: collector’s corner.

free school: an excellent venue; plenty of tables and chairs for the students, games, and game materials. Only once did we have to pick up and move to a different room; another community group had reserved the space, and we needed to give them the larger of the two spaces. restrooms were adequate and clean; food and beverages were permitted, no problem. also, renting the room was free, and scheduling was simple enough. it was a very open, laissez-faire experience. we even stayed later than scheduled to work/play even longer on some nights, because the venue was not being used after us.

collector’s corner: average, all things considered. The shop had been crowded with other gamers, who happened to be rather loud on more than one occasion. There were more than enough tables and chairs for us, in addition to some players jumping in on a pick-up game of whatever we had going on. the one public restroom seemed neglected by staff. this space was also free for use, and all i did to schedule an event was talk with the owner of the store beforehand, and he gladly invited me in for as many sessions as we wanted.

for the future: i’d like to stick with the free school, and find some other free venues closer to downtown. as the shop was in northeast baltimore, distance and traffic were problems for several of the students. An alternative is to find a few more game shops near downtown baltimore with the hopes of being accessible to more potential game designers. i do not want to meet at peoples’ homes at this point.

COURSE CONTENT

there was one introductory class, two straight crafting classes (including a day with a guest speaker), and one day of straight gaming with critique. satellite nights exclusively consisted of gaming and critique.

rapid iteration process: this term is significant enough to have its own section, as it was a core practice utilized during the entirety of the course. essentially, the process entails crafting a game until it has a working prototype, reviewing it with playtesters, and changing small aspects of the game – perhaps one or two aspects at a time – so that a new version can be tested and played rather quickly. the process rewards rapid thinking, trusting in the organic process of play – change – play – change, and keeps the emphasis of the sessions on playing games for fun as well as for critical analysis.

there were four distinct aspects to the whole of the classes.

lecture. I spent the first half of session 1 discussing the shared vocabulary we would use for the majority of our game development sessions.

the good news is that this was very informative; i printed out copies for all the students, and essentially talked them through the different pages, definitions, practices, and other aspects, using aspects of published games as examples. the bad news is that, for a first day, it was dense material; i’m sure i freaked out at least one attendee by jumping into the descriptions of game components and mechanics. he didn’t show up for any further sessions, but oh well.

game design. this was the meat and potatoes of the game design classes, naturally. students took what they had learned and used it to transform their imagined game designs into real-world, (mostly) working game prototypes. i brought in extra paper, game bits such as dice, chips, and counters, and other useful materials for the students to incorporate into their prototypes.

game testing. of course, no game design class would be complete if the students didn’t play their own creations! about a third of the total class time was spent doing this, and on an as-needed basis when a student brought in their own game design or finished up the day’s changes and wanted to try them out.

guest speaker. on day three, a representative from a small, local games and media company gave a q&a presentation to the class about what it takes to develop a successful game design and submit it to a publisher. having been a designer and publisher, this representative delivered plenty of insights on a topic that mystified all of us, and definitely whet our appetite for seeing our game designs published and up for sale.

for the future: guest speakers are always nice to break up the routine and inject a little freshness into a situation that could become stale. more publishers, designers, and game club leaders will be on the list of future guests. I really enjoyed sharing our enthusiasm with someone who started out just like us.

PROMOTIONS

of course, i feel that i fell flat in this category once again. although i developed fliers for the class, put them on the free school’s website and facebook, and even posted them in several buildings on a nearby college campus, at the end of it all class turnout ended up being six people total, which includes the co-instructor and myself, as well as two immediate drop-outs who did not stay for the entire first session.

i know there are plenty of people just like me who want to do this sort of thing; i need to find a more effective way of attracting their attention and convincing them that the class is worthwhile. that, and maybe find someone else to design a flier for me…i have a feeling i may have agonized over the process a bit too much and delayed the flier’s release.

STUDENTS

what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality. i am immensely happy with the input and growth the students had shown over the four-week course; this tells me i had done something right, even if it was simply “wrangling the cats,” as it were.

having a chance to see someone else’s design on the table, then play it, and finally offer feedback on the total package is a wonderful experience. not only did we learn a lot about game design; not only had we something to show for our hours of work; we had a tremendous amount of fun for several sunday afternoons, to boot.

i also had no idea how exciting it would be to read a playtester’s feedback about my games; hopefully the rest of the students experienced the thrill i had whenever they read through the game critique forms after a playtesting session of one of their prototypes.

PRODUCTS

between four students and the instructors, i think a total of 8 different games were developed. there were two students who developed two games each, and i personally developed several.

in fact, i was able to come up with a solid idea once per week while the game design classes took place. being immersed in game designs, playing over a dozen different games through the course of a month to spark new game ideas or help refine mechanics, critically thinking about the presence of things like “meaningful choices” and the balance between chance and skill…i admit i daydreamed quite a bit during lulls in the day job, thinking of how to enhance my own designs with new features and various improvements.

for the future: i’d like to make it clear that i’d desire each student to focus on at least one game design, and bring it to at least the workable prototype phase before the course is complete. it’s a free-of-charge free school class, so it’s not like i can expect them to accept a final exam or something like that. besides, finishing a game is a monumental task in itself and i doubt any of us could have a fully-realized publishing candidate within a month. however, expecting a prototype from each student hovers fairly within reason.

OVERALL

this class is a keeper. there are several takeaways from the sessions:

  • complete game designs

  • new ideas

  • new friendships and shared experiences

  • new potential playtesters

  • exposure to new published games we hadn’t seen before

  • an affordable new hobby

i’d like to do this again, perhaps in the spring of next year. meanwhile, i’ll be hosting some kind of monthly game night, where published and prototype games will be played. the venue has yet to be determined, as well as the specific dates.

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