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ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Sometimes folks will email me with questions about game design. This is not only very flattering, but it's also helpful, particularly when I need to write a blog-thing but haven't yet settled on a topic. The stars happened to align in just this way recently, and so here we are.

The question was, When designing games and using mechanisms created by others, how do you avoid feeling like you're stealing from them? Specifically the designer in question was inspired by a game he loved to make something using similar mechanisms, and was worried that his own work would be too derivative. It read to me as a quintessentially Bloomian anxiety of influence.

I haven't struggled with that as much myself, not as a game designer anyway, and I think that's largely because game design, more-so perhaps than other forms of artistic endeavor, is a medium of synthesis. In the world of wargames especially, we speak a common language: movement points and column shifts, zones of control and trace supply, Terrain Effects Charts and Combat Results Tables, squares of cardboard with two steps of strength moving from hex-to-hex. I don't feel any twinges of guilt when laying out a hex grid, or when putting a combat factor on the left and a movement factor on the right, because in many ways they're the essential building blocks of the idiom in which I'm working.

Now, I might not use all of them; I've only done a traditional, odds-based column cross-referenced with die roll Combat Results Table a grand total of once in my thirty-plus wargame designs. But a Shields & Swords II game for example has enough similarities with other hex-and-counter games that it's very clearly a piece of "traditional" wargame design. None of the ingredients in that pot are particularly exotic or innovative, but I think the way I combine them gives the series a unique and streamlined feel (especially compared to other medieval battle games).

I think the "feel" is tremendously important there. As I've talked about before, when I design a game, I don't do any active work on it - no orders of battle, no maps, I don't even write out the words "1.0 Introduction" - until I have a very clear idea in my head of what I want the end result to be and to communicate, the dynamics and tensions I want it to explore, the points I want it to emphasize, and how I want it to feel. Once I have that picture in my head, I then start putting together the pieces and mechanisms that I think will best work together to realize it. Mechanisms that contribute to that experience, whether existing or of my own invention, go into the game; mechanisms that don't, don't.

Really, it's in that preliminary process that anything "new" is created, because it's during that process that I am trying to justify the game's existence, and justify the time I will spend designing it. How is the overall emotional and intellectual experience different from what's already on the market? What does this model emphasize that another already doesn't? If you have a good answer to those questions, I think you'll be fine.

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