Bare-bones game design

(header image from the superlative Anthony White of BlackPaperSky)


When we make games – either live or tabletop – there’s a desire to make them perfect. What we need to do is make them work.

In your horror game, for example, maybe you want to scare players with complex monster attacks, and set-dressing, and sound-effects. In your Victoriana salon discourse game, you want to make sure that everyone has access to a full range of teas appropriate to their social class. In your sci-fi game, you want to make a working computer system that players can hack into and subvert for their own ends.

This all happens in the opening stages, I’ve found, of game design. The canvas before you is limited only by your imagination because budget isn’t a real concern yet – or maybe it is, but you’ve yet to spend it – and your mind runs wild with loads of ideas.

That’s good, of course, that’s golden. That’s one of my favourite times in game development; when you’re internally brainstorming, putting forward ideas, chiselling mechanics and experiences out of the block of marble in your mind.

It’s also an act of tremendous self-sabotage.


Fun fact: They all died

Players at Zombie LARP: You’d Better Watch Out make rapid progress down a corridor

I had this problem back with the second and third LARPs that I ever ran – The Second Incident and Cult, both Zombie LARP games – in that I came up with too many ideas. The crew, as a whole, came up with and tried to implement too many ideas. We had multiple handouts and mysterious texts and convoluted mission objectives and special loadouts for special teams and a magic system timed monster arrivals and hacking puzzles and split-team objectives and AGH NO.

Chris, my good friend and then-fellow-GM, said to me halfway through the night: “Man, fuck this, seriously. Can’t we just give them guns and let them round around and shoot each other?”

I was hurt, to be frank, because I’d spent maybe a hundred hours at that point planning and organising and preparing for the game, only to have my partner in crime tell me that it wasn’t working and that we needed to scrap it all halfway through the night.

I think it hurt more because he was right. There was too much to organise. Players were hanging around for too long. They were confused about mission objectives. We didn’t kick off the second game of the night – and there were seven or so – until around half past one in the morning. We were top-heavy and trying to sort out admin and NPC and marshal the Zombies and get the teams prepared and we had too much, by far, too much gilt and not enough grit.

I couldn’t see it at the time, of course, and we pushed ahead and ran a pretty-good event but it wasn’t the set pieces that the players remember: our artfully-rigged monster arrivals, our magic spells, our video clips, our hacking puzzles, have all faded away. It was the terror of being stuck in a building with not enough bullets and too many enemies.


We learned from that.

We’d still spend our time before games making up ridiculous ideas, some of which saw it through to completion; like our unkillable robot Drone zombies that emitted bursts of static from speakers rigged to MP3 speakers built into their combat vests, or the very concept of trying to collect fatally poisonous silver tinsel to feed to Father Flexmas, an interdimensional horror brandishing two butcher knives.

But we came up with the concept of Run Tomorrow, and it’s very much the point of this meandering article, and I think that all designers – traditional games designers, rather than video games designers at least – should have a think about it when they build their games. It is the state your game is in when you are fully capable of running a quick and dirty version of it immediately.

Run Tomorrow, for us, requires three things:

ONE. We have enough guns for our players.
TWO. We have a venue.
THREE. We have ten semi-convincing props to grab and hand into a ref to unlock the doors.


Rook leads the other hunters in a victory celebration at Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter live

Rook leads the other hunters in a victory celebration at Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter live

That’s it. In Birmingham, ten thousand miles away from my desk as I write this, we have a Go-Bag prepared which contains everything we need to run a forty-person game of Zombie LARP. If we had a venue, we could land in the UK tomorrow, pick up the bag, and be ready to go. (Jetlag aside, of course.) We know how our game works, now. We can separate the bells and whistles from the fundamental parts.

We’re not reliant on any other parts of the game to make it happen; any props we have, any puzzles, any costumes, any sound-effects or smoke machines or prizes or specialist costumes are just icing on the cake, set-dressing, adornments to the fundamental core of the experience. Running. Dying. Screaming. Adrenaline. Shotguns. Awesome.

We’ve had the benefit of five years of iteration to work our game down to the bare minimum and then come back up from there, but I wish someone had told me about the concept of less being more when we started out.

I made the same mistake with Abraham Lincoln Hunt Club Live. I got ahead of myself; I was dazzled by the budget that Fox waved under our noses. The instant the money came through, I ordered six fire axes to be made, because I believed that players carrying silver fire axes was a very important part of the game.

I hadn’t written any of the plot past a bare minimum of character profiles; I hadn’t really planned out what the players were going to do. As such, the first game was a monumental clusterfuck – one that the majority of the players enjoyed, still, thankfully. But what they enjoyed was – Running. Dying. Screaming. Adrenaline. Shotguns. Awesome.


So here’s some advice for you, when you’re making something – put all the high concept stuff to one side. Don’t worry about the flash, the big events, the excitement, the explosions. In fact, deliberately ignore them. Sit down and work out what you need to bring your game to a Run Tomorrow state.

It doesn’t have to be the full experience, of course, but it has to be a sawn-off version of your game. If it’s a social game, you need to build a minimal rules-set and create not quite enough resources to go around. If it’s a combat game, you need a sturdier rules-set and enough equipment for your crew to participate. And so on. Not perfect, just functional. A rough sketch of the elegant statuary in your head.

Once you’ve got yourself to the to point where you can say – “Right, if someone came up to me and told me I had to run this in 24 hours, I could do it,” and not be lying to yourself, you can add all the bells and whistles you want. Because once you get down to it, set-dressing is ballast to the mechanical underlay of game design, and there will be a point when you need to throw some of it out to keep yourself going.