Stealing From Games (And A Game About Stealing)

HeatI see this a lot among game designers of all kinds, both new and experienced:

I really want to use [game mechanism X] but I worry it’ll be too much like [popular game]

I am here to set you free and tell you not to worry about that.

Inspiration Particles

In any creative field, people will generate ideas in different ways. Some folks are real “bolt out of the blue” types, where a brand new idea comes to them seemingly from nowhere. Sometimes the idea is mostly formed, or it just forms a centerpiece.

However, there are those people (like me) that take influences from all around them and start to combine them in new ways. I call it a “garbage in/garbage out” process, though you may have a more flattering-sounding name for it.

I know there are some game designers who specifically avoid playing anyone else’s game for fear that it will influence their game designs. While I don’t have a problem with that (and it may even serve as a useful form of protection if you’re very much in the public eye), it’s not how I work at all, and I encourage any beginning designers to play lots and lots of other games and mine them for ideas.

Who Wants a Sweaty Game?

There’s the old adage about writing being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. In terms of game design, that perspiration is the development process, including lots and lots of playtesting. During that development time, your game will mutate and change to best fit what the game wants to be. Even if you start by directly taking pieces from three other games, by the time you’ve done a lot of development, the end result will have a completely different feel  than any of those games.

That’s part of another adage: good artists copy, great artists steal. You can make a perfectly serviceable game just by combining parts of games in different ways. In a way, that’s all a game variant is. Great games steal parts, and then refine those parts to make an ever greater whole.

Let’s Steal A Game

The inspiration for my newest game, Heat, came to mind when I was playing Love Letter. Love Letter is a brilliant microgame, meaning that it only contains 15 cards that power the entire game. Game play is simple and it involves, essentially, having a one card hand, then drawing one and playing one. I was (and still am) playing a lot of Magic: the Gathering drafts, as well as other drafting games like 7 Wonders and Sushi Go. This was the first steal: what if I made a game with a small number of cards, but instead of just playing them, there was a draft?

That idea just kind of floated around. I took down the idea, but it was missing something. Just drafting and trying to do set collection or something similar didn’t grab me. Later, I played the new Lords of Waterdeep expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport. The expansion introduced a new resource called Corruption, which Daniel Solis noted was a really good implementation of the “Tragedy of the Commons” type problem: the more any player took, the more punishing they were for everybody. THAT was the piece I had been missing: a second resource track.

Finally, I needed a theme to help drive the types of cards I needed for the game, that also would explain that second kind of “bad” resource. I had been working on a heist game prototype that didn’t work out that had a heist theme. From there, it was easy to think of the cards as various criminal activities that netted you both money (points) and attention from the police (Heat).

Turn Up The Heat

From there, I took those two ideas, and made a card set. Now, I should stress that was no easy task. The combination of these things didn’t exist yet. It wasn’t as simple as taking Love Letter cards and adding both points and Heat to them. Certainly I continued to take inspiration from other sources: there were cards that used set collection, cards that required you to guess what other players were going to do, and more defensive/safe plays. From there, the first few prototypes flew.

After a few games, however, it became clear that the traditional “pick and pass” method of drafting I was using  (that I had lifted from all those other games I enjoyed) was pretty bland here. In the process, one of my awesome playtesters suggested the eventual method of starting with a small hand, passing a card, and drawing a card, so that your hand evolved. It created a kind of draft I had never seen before that kept the kinds of decisions I enjoyed in drafting while also giving more information about what your opponents could have.

What would follow would be tons of fine-tuning about the cards, making the rounds run cleaner and simpler, avoiding confusion, balancing, all that stuff. By this point, even though I had started from three different games, what I had was new and unique, and had its own constraints and demands.

Even after I had been demoing the game at events like Unpub in a relatively stable state, there were still improvements. After Asmadi Games signed the game, the publisher was able to look at it with a fresh set of eyes, and suggested taking the original corruption mechanism, where each space held 3 resources, and making it more “triangular.” This was an immediate improvement, and it had moved even further from its roots, and was a better game for it.

So that’s what I mean by not being afraid to steal. If I had just said to myself at the beginning of the process “I don’t want this to be too much like Love Letter” or any number of other blocking thoughts, I never would have pursued the game and developed it into its own thing. An idea that comes from a place of inspiration from other sources isn’t any more or less “pure” than one that comes from nowhere. Don’t be afraid to play with other games’ toys. The end result should be something that stands on its own anyway. (And don’t forget to credit your inspirations along the way.)

One Final Lesson

And most importantly, don’t be afraid to shill for your game on Kickstarter in the guise of a game design article.

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About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, the Geek's Dream Girl.

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