Advice from Tom Lehmann

Tom Lehmann’s greatest success, so far, is the very popular card game, Race for the Galaxy.  Race for the Galaxy is ranked 13th on BoardGameGeek!  My favourite game of Tom Lehmann’s is the expansion for the popular cooperative game Pandemic, Pandemic: On The Brink (which he co-designed with Pandemic designer Matt Leacock).  While Pandemic is ranked at #32 on the Geek, Pandemic:On The Brink has a higher rating by users (and an N/A ranking).  There is no doubt for me that when you add the expansion to the original, Pandemic ranks more highly.  It seems whatever Tom touches adds that little bit of gold.  Two games in the Top 50 is excellent!  Thanks Tom for your designs.

Tom’s advice is below.  I would like to thank him for his extended reply and wise words.  Here is Tom Lehmann’s advice to aspiring gamers:

Advice for Aspiring Game Designers
by Tom Lehmann

I’ll split my advice into two sections: first, design advice; and second, advice on how to break into the field.

A) Keep your designs simple.  I tested several games from aspiring designers last year that were loaded with different mechanisms — an auction, an action-point movement system, a rock-scissors-paper conflict mechanic, and so on.  When I asked why all these different things were in the same game, I was told, “I didn’t want to use the same idea twice.”  The resulting games felt like bloated mish-mashes and were difficult to teach.  As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

B) Related to this is the principle that a designer (in any field) should feel “equally uncomfortable” with every aspect of the design.  Surrounding a brilliant mechanic with a clunky, boring game may get a game published, but the game won’t be played after a year or two and then another designer will take that mechanism and surround it with a better game that does better and enjoys lots of replay.  When looking at your game, examine everything and ask, “How can this be improved?”

Does the game work but overstay its welcome?  Find a way to end it earlier, so players want to play again.  Are the first few turns “scripted”?  Start the game later, with asymmetric starting positions.  Does the player who goes first have a significant advantage?  Find some way to balance start positions.  Are there obvious “no-brainer” choices?  Eliminate them.  Does the game bog down in “analysis-paralysis” near the end of the game?  Add some hidden information.  And so on.

This is why designers are always saying, “Test early, test widely, test often.”  Until you get better at spotting potential problems (and you will get better after 5+ years of designing games), you need to test a game over and over again to find all the problems.

Experienced designers will spot 90% of these problems during the early design, but will still overlook something (because they are too close to it), and then when it rears up during testing, will smack their foreheads and wonder why they missed it.  Consider and test alternatives to everything.

C) To create interesting strategic games, “Mind the Gap” and introduce “Steeples of Excellence”.

If the granularity of choices is too fine, a game becomes almost entirely tactical.  Having “gaps” — where a player has to spend more for a big advantage or just a little for an small but efficient power, but can’t buy something that is “just-right” for a medium price — means that a player has to trade-off long-term versus short-term advantages.  If you supply all three choices, then the game becomes one of tactical optimization, instead of strategic planning.  You can “dial” these “gap sizes” to make a game either more tactical or more strategic.  Which is better for your game?

Steeples of excellence, goals that pay off 10-20% more than they “should” pay, are targets that guide players down different strategic paths.  Because these “steeples” pay off better than they “should”, a player can profitably “switch” from one path to another if the opportunity arises.  This keeps a game dynamic, instead of being one where players pick a strategic “path” early on and then are stuck with it (when the switching cost is too high relative to the reward for switching).

Advice on breaking into the field:

A) You have to get the game out there.  Test it beyond your local gaming group by taking it to conventions.  Get lots of feedback and make adjustments.  Polish your rules.  If the game can’t be easily played once you do submit it to a publisher, it won’t get played.

B) Some publishers attend conventions and are willing to play new games after the dealer’s room closes.  Ask politely if they’re willing to play your game.  If not, send inquiry letters for publisher’s submission guidelines (do not send your game unsolicited).  If they do send you submission guidelines, follow them!  Newer, smaller publishers may be more open to outside designs.  Some events allow designers to present prototypes to publishers, perhaps by competing against other games in design competitions.  Sign up for them.

C) If you decide to self-publish your game, keep the first print run as small as you possibly can (300 copies or less).  Use 100 copies as review copies, sent free to interested reviewers and publishers (publishers can look at already published games, as opposed to unsolicited unpublished games).  Sell the other 100-200 copies individually to game enthusiasts who will play it and help your game build positive word of mouth.

The worldwide market for semi-professionally produced games that play really well is around 200-500 copies these days.  If the game is good, some publisher will likely want to publish it.  If not, you will still learn all the things you need to improve for your second edition, should you decide to keep plugging away as a small press publisher.  Once you have established a name and some buzz around your game, then you can use sites such as Kickstarter to get money for a polished second edition that can, hopefully, reach those customers who won’t buy semi-pro quality games.

In any event, the self-publishing route is very, very hard.  Don’t undertake it lightly.  Usually, you are better off making 10 high-quality prototypes, improving your rules, and showing your game at conventions and gradually making connections among existing publishers, until you find one or more who are willing to evaluate it for you.

Good Luck!


About Clive

Just an average guy who loves board games, movies, musics, books, comic books, video games and anything else fun.
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One Response to Advice from Tom Lehmann

  1. David Short says:

    I like Tom and his work, but this has been the least helpful advice so far. Still good, but not as enlightening as the others.

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