Designing from First Principles

I’ve written before about different tools for running play-tests, ideating on designs, and interpreting feedback, but none of those have ever really covered how to develop a framework around implementing that feedback.

After I sent my proto off for publisher review, I started mentally projecting myself into a future where I would be asked to make hard decisions about Valour’s final incarnation, and I could picture this publisher having to interact with designers who were defensive about their baby, and making the process challenging. Based on conversations I’ve had with play-testers, I knew there were some things I was totally unwilling to change, things I would happily change, and some gradient in between. But if the publisher came back and asked me about changing “X”… how would I determine where on that spectrum that landed?

I felt like being prepared for this would likely save a lot of hassle in the long run, so I sat down to feel out where those walls stood. I skimmed my latest ruleset to make sure it was totally fresh in my mind, and tried to consider the project holistically. What would I be willing to scuttle a deal over, were a publisher to try and change? Literally everything else, I would have to considered mutable to avoid hamstringing their developers.

I came up with four principles that I considered core to what I was trying to accomplish with my design. When performing this mental exercise on your own designs, more or fewer might be appropriate, but my gut tells me that five is probably an upper limit. Below are what I came up with for Valour. Hopefully this will be inspirational for anyone choosing to try this:

  1. Glorify Gaul, not Rome.

Rome is great, don’t get me wrong, but there are already plenty of games where we get to experience that. Gaul has been relegated to the “barbarian” section of history for years, and in my opinion, they deserve some attention for their contributions to history and culture. I discovered that this was a difficult line to hold when I realized I had included a giant image of Julius Caesar on the “Rome” area of the board, but no Gallic faces appeared anywhere during prototype gameplay.

  1. Defeat is inevitable

There’s a certain sadness when studying the history of a fallen culture, knowing the endgame while reading about their accomplishments. While I don’t have any desire for players to be sad while playing my game, I do want to tap into just a tinge of that regret for ‘what might have been’, had history been different. This becomes front-of-mind for me every time a play group suggests that they should “have a tiny tiny chance of defeating Caesar”, or that “one player should get to play as Caesar”, and I feel that opening that door even a crack changes the dynamic of everything.

  1. “History is written by the winners”

In spite of principle number one, principle number two is the unfortunate fact of history. And because of that, all(mostly what) we have left of Gaul is Caesar’s writings. Therefore, from our perspective on history, what impressed Caesar, impresses us. The progressive recording of game events in the Commentarii de Bello Gallico to be reflected on by future generations is core to evaluating ‘victory’. This hasn’t been a tough line to hold during feedback sessions, because most players really enjoy this system, but occasionally methods I’ve tried for scoring the Commentarii have been quite complex or burdensome, leading players to suggest scrapping it for a straight VP track. Making this a principle reminds me that the victory counting method must flow elegantly from the Commentarii at the endgame, and if it doesn’t, it needs to be revised.

  1. Resources are community-owned

Significantly more rulesy-‘tactical’ than the others, and very much in continued service of principle number one, this aspect of the mechanics is something I feel is core enough to Valour’s unique offering that it is worth codifying as its own principle. As the rough edges of the game start smoothing out and testers have gotten more easily into the flow of the game, I’m observing that the most interesting and joyful player-player interactions are happing through the manipulation of available community resources. This idea came directly from ideas in Gallic culture, but it is sufficiently different from resource-owning mechanics that players and developers are familiar with that I don’t want to risk it getting cut or changed out of discomfort with its “differentness”.

I found the process of thinking through my concept and determining what aspects I consider “first principles” and completely core to achieving my objectives to be incredibly helpful. As I described above, I initially undertook this exercise in preparation to have hard conversations with a publisher around potential changes by their development team. However, in the weeks since receiving my “thanks but this is not ready” letter, I’ve found that using these first principles for my own design iteration has been an incredibly potent tool. By looking at them, essentially in reverse, I’ve been able to evaluate every other mechanic and interaction very objectively… “Is this covered by a first principle? If not, it’s fair game to be changed entirely, or completely removed.”

I will definitely be instituing this same process for all the designs I work on moving forward. Do you do anything like this? I’d love to hear about it.