Challenges for Game Designers, by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber.
Bear with me readers, I’m going to try a bold experiment today. I’m about to break with my usual pattern and review an actual game design book written by actual game designers. I know that’s a pretty radical departure from the norm but work with me on this, I think you’ll like it.
The book is Challenges for Game Designers and it is the book that I wish I had written. In fact, if you look on page xxiii my name is mentioned. See it? Well okay, it’s not actually mentioned, but see where it says “Interest … had already been shown on Game_Edu…”, well that interest is me. And some other people too, but mostly me. Pretty cool, huh?
Game_Edu is a mailing list for academics who teach game design and development. A number of us were discussing exercises that we used in class to teach game design. Someone suggested the idea of a book, but none of us really had enough material to take the idea seriously. Or so it seemed.
A year later I wrote to Ian to see if he would be interested in following up on the idea. He said that indeed he was. So interested, in fact, that the book was already at the publishers. Hmmm.
Sour grapes aside, the book is exactly what we on the Game_Edu mailing list wanted: a book of exercises. To learn to make games you have to make games, right? But building an entire computer game is a long and difficult process. When it goes wrong it is hard even for professionals to spot exactly why. This is not the kind of experience that is easy to learn from.
Anyone who teaches knows that you need to break down a large complex problem into a bunch of smaller, simpler exercises that focus on specific topics. Small exercises have a shorter turn-around time and involve fewer elements, so lessons are more easily learnt. Unfortunately writing even a small computer game involves a lot of ‘housekeeping’ code that has nothing to do with the game design itself. It is not something you can do in a two-hour class.
Enter Challenges. The subtitle says it all: non-digital exercises for video game designers. This is a book of exercises for designing board-games, card-games and tile-games, that illustrate many of the key ideas that also apply in digital game design. Standard design decisions that occur in large-scale computer game design are reproduced ‘in the small’ as card games or board games. In this way the particular problems can be isolated and experimented with without lots of development. Changing the rules of a board game is a much simpler process and many variations can be explored much more easily.
Brathwaite and Schreiber’s experience in the game industries is apparent throughout the book. I say “industries” plural because it is plain that they just as at home designing video games as table-top games. They are not video-game designers pretending to understand board games or vice-versa, and their book provides valuable insight into either industry.
So while I still smart at a missed opportunity, I must admit that I could never have produced a book as valuable as this one. I look forward to using it extensively in my next class. And maybe some day one or two of my own exercises might make it into a later edition.