Am I a board game designer?


Brett Gilbert’s ‘Divinare’

Last night at our regular board game prototype/playtest Meetup, a guy Richard I hadn’t previously met asked quite innocently if I was a game designer.

It’s not the first time this has happened at the group, but the response is always the same; I stumble over my words and fudge an “I dabble, but erm not really” kind of answer.

Interestingly, the same guy runs a creative writing Meetup group and when asked if I write, the answer was an unequivocal “yes”. It’s what I do for a living, after all. But even if I didn’t, I think my previous incarnations as fanzine writer, college paper contributor and blogger would still make me feel qualified to answer in the affirmative.

I’ve been attending the group for some time now and I think some of the suggestions I’ve made for other people’s games have been useful, so I certainly feel I’m contributing. But even as a game I’ve been working on (The Empire Engine) nears completion this, “Am I a game designer?” question continues to be problematic. Quite simply, if I answered yes, I’d feel like a fraud.

Earning the right?

The ‘Game Designer’ tag over at BoardGameGeek is certainly part of the problem. Because of the way the system works, it means the likes of Reiner Knizia (and his eight gazillion published games, some of which you can get in WH Smiths) has the same ‘designer’ status as Bob from Texas who self-published three copies of his ‘Noughts and Crosses Made Easy’ variant; the only difference being Bob would probably list himself as a ‘Game Publisher’ too.

The BGG ‘designer’ functionality itself is great and I’ve found it very useful to track down games by designers I’ve liked. But the fact anyone can put their game up on the site and become a designer does muddy the water and I’m a little loath to become part of that, especially if I’m part of the problem on the faux designer side.

On the other hand The Empire Engine is turning into something I’m proud of, so why shouldn’t I hang up a little bunting if it gets out of the door – even if it’s just to a ‘print and play’ website (which was always the intention anyway; and it’s looking like being a bloody good website too)?

Is that a flash in your pan, sir?


Terror Bull Games’ ‘War on Terror: The Boardgame’

Another part of the problem is the other games I’ve tried to put together to date. Even after quite a bit of work they have without exception been flawed, flaky and generally funny looking – but worst of all derivative.

They say everyone has a novel in them; maybe everyone has a game too – but does it make you a game designer?

I’m blessed with a very strong playtest group, especially for a place as small as Cambridge (although as a city it clearly has more than its fair share of large, fizzing brains). Designer Brett Gilbert has been practically buried by the praise he has received for last year’s Divinare, while Andrew and Tom from Terror Bull Games gave us both ‘War on Terror’ and ‘Crunch’.

Matt Dunstan (my co-conspirator on The Empire Engine) is on the verge of his own triumph, while both he and Brett have also shown well in a variety of national board game design competitions. And that’s before mentioning occasional visitors such as Jonathan Warren (creator of the highly regarded, and rightly so, Inspector Moss: House Arrest) and Alex Churchill, whose ‘Space Dogsbody’ game really deserves a publisher.

When these guys are all around I have a great time and feel privileged to see and experience their designs as they slowly come to fruition (or sometimes crash and burn). And of course there are others who attend, regularly or not, who are also bringing along ingenious and interesting idea and designs. I feel part of the group, for sure, but do I feel like a game designer? Not really, no.

Stop fishing for sympathy/compliments, you old windbag

I’m acutely aware this could start to read as a desperate cry for a hug from mumsywumsy; believe me, that’s not my intention. And I’m also aware that, in the great scheme of things (or indeed any scheme of things), this isn’t one of life’s great unanswered questions. However, I’d be fascinated to hear any opinions you may have (not on me, on the topic!).

When I picture a game designer I see someone published, or as at least recognised by the industry/their peers in some way (perhaps a competition win, or high placing). What I certainly don’t see right now is me.

Maybe when I see our game up there on the website, or read the first trashing review of The Empire Engine, I’ll feel differently; or if I start to feel a second game I’m working on is going to come to something. Perhaps we can enter this game into a few competitions as well and see how it compares to its rivals.

But for now,  the next time someone asks I’ll be able to look them squarely in the eye and say, without a stammer or stutter, that no, I’m not a game designer – and that’s fine.

15 thoughts on “Am I a board game designer?

  1. Maybe your unfinished games are all part of the learning process, and now you’re a little further along? I find writing a bit like that: I have a *ton* of unfinished pieces of work, some are over 40,000 words in length, but only last year did I actually write a whole novel. I don’t call myself an author yet, either, but I’m still a writer as long as I write.

    So, I’d say you’re a game designer. You’re just not a professional one. Yet. 🙂

    • Yeah, I did think about the distinction of adding ‘professional’ but I see that as problematic too; it just seems to belittle the non-pro designer tag to a point where you wouldn’t want it anyway! Is your novel online?

  2. I think, for me, the way to determine if you are or not, is whether you’ve made (any) money at it. You were paid for (some?) of your writing? That’s what makes you a writer. Paid for sex? That’s what makes you a prostitute.

    Once you’ve received payment in some form for a game, then I think you’re a designer. Until then, it’s a hobby.

    Which is fine too, of course. 😉

  3. I’m with you – there are so many game designers who’ve never really designed a game end-to-end that just the aspiration and some mostly-finished ideas don’t count. I generally think of publication – and not just self-publication – as the bar to full-blown initiation into the game designer circle, although there are bound to be exceptions.

    For what it’s worth I’m also reluctant to take on the “game designer” title in the digital realm, despite the fact I sold my first games over 20 years ago and have had a couple of hundred thousand people play the things I’ve made as solo projects. It’s because I know that what I do doesn’t stand up to what some of the professionals produce; I don’t live in that world all the time, and claiming to be in that group seems as disingenuous as someone who’s written an Excel macro claiming to be in mine.

    Having said that, on page 1 of “The Art of Game Design” Jesse Schell lists the first step to becoming a game designer as just saying to yourself “I am a game designer”, so maybe we should all just get over it.

    • I’d say you count as a game designer for sure; although I see it more as a single hurdle to entry, where perhaps you’re looking at it as a curve on which you’re placing yourself somewhere along it?

      • Maybe, and I’d quite happily admit to designing games. It could be the expectation that comes with adopting a title: better to fire a low opening salvo than proclaim some expertise and likely have it exposed. “I’m a game designer”, “Oh, what have you designed?”, “Well, nothing you’ll have heard of”, “Oh… can you show me one of them now?”, “Not really, they’re not online any more” etc etc. You spend more time defending/explaining the starting position than talking about anything interesting.

        It’s also a bit of evil marketing experience: if you claim to do too much, then nobody believes you can do any of it well. For better or worse, pigeon-holing (oops, I mean specialisation) is the way of the world.

    • I find it mildly entertaining that the English approach seems to be about debating whether we’ve earnt the right to be called game designers, whereas the American approach (via the Jesse Schell quote) is to identify as one before you’ve even started. 😀

  4. Lloyd, your capitalistic reduction of identity is a little disturbing. I’m a human, a cyclist, a birdwatcher, a traveller, a reader, a piano player …. I don’t get paid for any of these things, but I allow myself to be defined by them. Oddly enough, despite earning money from it, I still consider myself a charlatan in terms of game design. My very uninspiring answer to the question “and what do you do?” is usually a mumbled “a few things … ” It’s not money, it’s your own personal view of yourself. If you feel like a game designer, you are – simple as that.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for the comment. I think all of the comments above, and indeed Chris’ whole post, show the struggle to define ourselves through our actions. For me, being paid for it seems like a good and consistent measure, if slightly blunt. It’s not a perfect metric, but it seems to work fairly effectively.

      I think a (large?) part of this is the tendency for people, when they meet, to ask “So, what do you do?” and for the response to be that person’s job. We define ourselves by our jobs, not by our hobbies, overwhelmingly. To steal from your example, Bradley Wiggins is a cyclist; I am a cycling enthusiast.

      Of course, your interpretation may (and does) vary. That’s part of the fun.

  5. I’ve had ideas for games, but they’ve stayed in my head and thus I’m definitely not a game designer. I reckon if you’ve made a prototype, had people play it, observed and made changes, and arrived at a rule set you’re happy with, you can call yourself a game designer!

  6. Pingback: A board game designing diary: The Empire Engine | Go Play Listen

Have your say!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.