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Where Creativity Comes From (Design Challenge)

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Read an interesting idea a few days ago in IMAGINE, by Jonah Lehrer. (Excellent book for people interested in creativity, incidentally.) The idea goes like this:

On its surface, creativity appears to be the ability to summon ideas and solutions out of thin air. People often believe that it’s an innate ability that some have and others don’t.

Creativity is (actually) the ability to combine ideas that seem unrelated.

Creative epiphanies come from a desire to draw connections between things. My friend once told me that I can steer any topic into a conversation about skateboarding. I’m constantly on the lookout for strange ideas, and instinctively apply them to whatever problems or challenges I’m trying to solve. It doesn’t matter how far away they seem from my interests… in fact, the further the better. It was the same while I was in game design.

Consider this real-world problem that I faced for a while…

You’re working on a “Commander” piece for a board game. The piece will be injection-molded plastic. The player will move the piece around the board, and each player will have their own piece indicated by the color of plastic.

(So far you might be thinking of a Hershey’s Kiss-type piece. I consider the Sorry piece one of the finest designs in board games. It’s stable, easy to grab, and clear to see.)

Now, the piece you’re designing is a command unit and can be upgraded by adding combat units. The combat units move with and are inseparable from the Command unit. The Command unit can hold up to six units.

The units are shared by all players from a “bank,” so they’re universal. There are Archers, Pikemen (soldiers), and Knights (cavalry). They do NOT need to be placed in any kind of formation. You might consider them a bit like RPS-pieces… pikemen beat knights, knights beat archers, archers beat pikemen.

A player may own several Command pieces as the game progresses. Each of them might contain a mix of units, or be “specialized” with a particular type. A weaker Commander may only have one or two units attached to it, while a powerful one might have a full six. Units are added but never removed individually, (this might influence your design solution). When the Commander is lost, all his units are lost with him… they are returned to the Bank. The units are not lost individually apart from the Commander.

What are some ways to solve this design problem?

(The injection molding process requires that the piece be cast between two halves of a mold. Each side of the cast represents half of the piece, so the pieces cannot contain elaborate hooks or overhangs. In other words, the pieces must be very simple.)

Here are some solutions:

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At first I was thinking that the commander piece would simply be a transport vehicle, (maybe like a sheltered ram wagon), and function like the “Life” vans, but I decided I wouldn’t like that and instead decided that it should be a big circular piece with a commander looking guy in the middle surrounded by holes to put the combat units in. Here’s a quick mock up I did of what I mean.

The commander figure doesn’t have to be too elaborate and probably not in that stance.

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Creativity is (actually) the ability to combine ideas that seem unrelated.

What about inception o-o

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This is a really neat challenge. There are a few questions I have, though, that would affect the design.

How many players play the board game at a time? If it’s 2, do they sit across from each other? What shape is the board? Is it a grid (like chess) or a track (like monopoly)? Is it played on a flat board or a three dimensional board? Do all commanders have the capability of being strong commanders? As in, if I enter a commander piece into play, will he have an opportunity to get up to 6 units at some point, or will he only be a so-so commander who can hold 3 at most, but starts with 2? Lastly, how important is theme with the rest of the game? What we’re really designing are the commander and unit pieces (not just the commander pieces). If the rest of the game has really beautiful fantasy art, it’ll look pretty silly if you played the game with brightly-colored Trivial Pursuit pies. If the whole game is abstract, that might not matter at all.

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Qwerber, by “inception” do you mean the genesis of fresh, uncompromised ideas? If so, I don’t believe in inception. Ideas, and creativity, is the collision of disparate concepts coming together in new ways. Consider any “new” idea and you’ll see what I mean.
Post-It Notes are the combination of light-tack glue and notepad paper.
Sunglasses are the combination of spectacles and stained glass, (so to speak).
Obama’s HOPE Campaign Poster is the combination of a photographic portrait with constructivist style.
I believe that creativity is propelled by a few key ingredients. You need a touch of frustration… you need to be “stuck” on a problem that you enjoy dwelling on. There should be a little pressure to solve it. It helps to have the willingness to capture your ideas, good and bad, in a quantitative catalog. The more ideas you can throw against your problem, the better. Finally, you need the inspiration to seek solutions for your problem in places that you might not look.

Rawismojo, to answer your questions…
As this was a real game that was not produced, some of the details you’re asking about weren’t fully resolved. However, here’s what I recall:
• It was a 2—5 player board game.
• The board was rectangular, flat, and could be folded into a quarter of its full size.
• Each player had 4 or 5 commanders. (Each commander was slightly different in appearance and abilities, but the form function of holding units was the same. Each player had the same commanders, but in different colors. This was a detail I left out of the original design spec because it wasn’t that useful.)
• The board’s design resembled an ancient, medieval fantasy map with 24 regions. Some regions had more adjacencies than others. Only one commander from each player could occupy a region. Two commanders in one region initiated conflict resolution. (This was the meat of the game.)
• All commander pieces start off equally weak. Recruiting/buying units will strengthen the commander. It is the player’s preference whether they want to have lots of weak commanders, fewer strong commanders, or some balance in between. This is a strategic option.
• It would be nice to have the command pieces be elegantly descriptive. The colors are tasteful… burnt orange, grayish-blue, off-white, charcoal, deep red, and forest green.
• Color is used to differentiate the players, so care should be taken if color is ALSO used to differentiate the power-up unit pieces. No unit, (i.e., archer, pikeman, knight), should seem to belong to a particular player until it’s associated to a commander. (In other words, if color is used for the units, we would identify three additional colors for them… mustard, khaki, and deep brown, for example.)
• Ultimately, a “literal” solution is better… but even a Trivial Pursuit “abstract” piece could be easily decorated to look like a piece to a kick-ass medieval combat boardgame.

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Kantieno, that’s an excellent solution. The smaller unit pieces are dropped into the cavities at the base of the commander. There are some things I like and some things I think are challenging about it.

• The base piece cannot be molded in one cast. Although that’s not a deal-breaker, it’s a pretty complicated piece that would basically require two separate pieces be glued together (by underpaid Chinese children); the base piece with the holes, and the top “sculpture” piece depicting the commander.
• The base is quite wide and feels like it may not be entirely the most efficient use of material. This could probably be resolved through design refinement.

• The idea of a commander surrounded by his hirelings is clear. First-time players will have no problems understanding how these pieces work together. It’s intuitive and easy to get. Perfect.
• The pieces can be pointed outward or all facing the same direction. While this may not have any gameplay impact, it can produce a little bit of “roleplay” opportunity. (Are you the guy that doesn’t care which direction your units are facing? Or the guy that meticulously points them all in the same direction?)
• The round shape is a nice solution because it helps reinforce that the game piece does not have a “face.” This is good for learnability.
• The piece seems easy to grab and move without spilling pieces or screwing up the game board. It’s not “delicate.”

Good solution!

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You kind of got me interested in this little challenge and also in the game, it seems like it would have been pretty neat.

Thanks for the good review. I was trying to think of a few ways to improve it, mainly cosmetic details such as the possibility of having textures on the commanders piece to make it resemble them standing on grassy field with textures and bumps for grass, rocks, or hills ect.. Nothing fancy just a texture to make it seem more lively or such. Also it would probably be a lot thinner than the clunky piece that was in my picture and have shallower holes and bases.

Also I was wondering, are you planning on posing more challenges like this, because I rather like these.

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I gave a go at it. Again, it’s a really awesome challenge and definitely presents some interesting decisions.

The commander base has 3 poles coming up from it which hold the ‘unit’ pieces. The unit pieces are white, grey, and black rings that sit on the poles. As you add units to your commander, you just put the rings on the poles. Each of the poles will hold a single unique color of unit up to all 3. As I see it, this design has its own pros and cons.

*The commander base is designed such that it can easily be injection molded with 5 different variations to represent the 5 different commander types.
*You can easily see the number of units on each commander and the distribution of units at a glance.
*Similarly, the ‘units’ are easy to tell from each other and a player new to the game couldn’t possibly think that because they chose the green player that the archers are theirs.
*It would be easy to pick up and move without disturbing the unit rings, and the base would be pretty stable.
*As described in the spec requirements, the units would be super easy to remove from the commander base all at once.

*The commander piece could be fragile and the pegs could snap off over extended use.
*The units would fall off if a commander piece was tipped over, although it wouldn’t be hard to figure out where they came from.
*While the commander pieces hold together theme pretty well, the units are completely abstracted. Someone who walked in on a game wouldn’t say “oh, it’s a commander with some pikemen and an archer.”
*Storage would also be an issue. They’d take up a fair amount of space in a box, although that isn’t a huge issue.

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Kantieno, I’ve worked on FAR more game designs that didn’t get produced than designs that did. Coming up with solutions like this is not exactly a daily experience, but it certainly comes up from time to time.
I think the ways you describe making the piece more evocative of the period, (high fantasy), is probably where I would have taken it too.
There were some other interesting design problems from my time at Wizards. I’m happy to revisit some of them if you like.

Rawismojo, you’re VERY close to the solution I personally came up with. (Or, at least, the one that I liked enough to present as part of the pitch to our management.) The difference is that in my version, the captain stands on a pillar and the donut-units slide over him and down to the base.
I think you nailed it on the strengths and weaknesses.
The injection molding would be about the same as for Kantieno’s solution. It would be two pieces. (The base with the poles would be one piece; the commander model would be the other. They would be glued together later.)
I like that the commander holds a weapon to describe his personal traits. In a real game setting, I might suggest that the weapon be held upward so that it could easily be seen on all sides of the piece. This solution, however, introduces some new concerns.
You’re right to point out the possible structural weakness of the posts. It probably wouldn’t be difficult to modify the design to reduce risk. This exercise is about concepts… and your concept is clear.
It wasn’t required of the design, but your solution would be great for a game where power-up pieces needed to be separated or grouped for some reason.

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Here’s a challenge for you, Kantieno.
Lots of the games I’ve worked on I’m not happy with. In fact, most of them could be improved in significant ways. Sometimes, (often), I know the game is being compromised and fight against it, and sometimes it’s that I simply didn’t consider something… or we ran out of time… or we simply lacked a solid vision on what it could have been.
I worked on a game called Betrayal At House On The Hill.
HotH, as it was known, was a light party game for 3-5 players, (if I recall). It was not very strategic. Players would begin the game in cooperative mode. At some point mid-game, certain events will cause one of the players to turn against the others. Nobody knows who that person is until it happens… not even the traitor. There are a good number of ways the traitor can betray the party, so nobody can prepare for any specific style of betrayal.
Each player has a stat card that corresponds to their piece on the board. The stats change throughout the course of the game. (There is always a risk of one of your stats getting dangerously low.) One of the challenges I faced while working on the game was a fun, creative way to allow players to manage their changing stats without introducing a bunch of bookkeeping and pencils to the game. This is what I came up with.

The small plastic clips slide up and down the edge of the heavy board. The clips are identical. They point to the number currently being tracked.
There are some good things and bad things about this concept.
• The shape of the sliding piece mirrors the shape of the character card. (Shape was used a LOT as a way to group similar items. All character-related objects were pentagonal. Terrain was square. Monsters were circular. Traps were triangular. And so on.)
• The back side of the card presents a different character without requiring the player to remove the clips between games. (Once the clips are on the card, there’s no good reason to remove them.) Both sides of the clip and the card could therefore be more-or-less identical.
• For very aggressive or clumsy players, sliding the clips could scrape and damage the card. By “pinching” the clip on the top and bottom, you put more pressure on the grip of the clip, increasing the chance of damaging the card. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to revise this.
• The stats that the four clips point to are Speed, Might, Sanity, and Knowledge. Speed and Might are physical traits. This comes up sometimes in gameplay, (-1 to either Physical Trait). The other two are mental traits. This code should have been expressed somehow… probably through graphic design. This is not important to address in the form of the card/clip ensemble… but perhaps worth considering if a new direction emerges.
• The clips are too small and hard to handle. (They were originally supposed to be quite a bit larger. So large, in fact, that you can see where I intended the pointed ends to stop. Executive decision post-production went directly to the production engineer to reduce the size of the clips to save a few cents. Literally.)
This card is the best I could come up with given the circumstances. I don’t know if you can top it, but maybe you can! Can you fix the problems? How would you have designed this component?

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It wasn’t required of the design, but your solution would be great for a game where power-up pieces needed to be separated or grouped for some reason.

Since you mentioned that the troops offered a RPS-style element to the game, I thought it was important to be able to see the distribution of the specific troops on any one commander at a glance. In your solution, it could be (using my colors) white, white, grey, white, black, grey, grey going up the pole, and you’d have to sit and count the distribution each time you wanted to assess the unit’s strength. But, as noted, the poles add lots of challenges (fragile, extra molding, etc).

I’m actually really interested in this challenges and any challenges like this you can think of (I’m thinking about the Betrayal solution. Did the characters all have unique attribute-distributions or were they universally the same?) as I’m independently designing a few board games at the moment. I’ve done a bit of video game design and that’s where most of my academic knowledge of game design comes from, but board games are just their own can of worms. I’d really encourage anyone interested in game design (or design at all) to grab a piece of paper, a bunch of stones/markers/coins/whatever of 2 different types, and just design an abstract game (think chess, go, checkers, etc). The thing that has interested me (and subsequently frustrated me) the most is that you can’t meaningfully restrict player actions without choking player choices. If you give players a million choices to do as they wish, they’ll find ways to break your game in 5 seconds. In a single player video game, you can restrict player actions extremely easily while still giving them the illusion that they’re making meaningful choices since there’s a system that governs their actions.

Anyways, this was an awesome challenge and I’ll definitely be checking back to see more.

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Yeah, the Betrayal game basically worked like this:
• 6 unique figurines, (think Scooby Doo-type characters)
• Each figurine is color-matched to a stat card
• Each stat card has two sides; one favors the physical attributes, the other favors the mental attributes

This was our method for basically doubling the number of available characters at no increase in production costs. Players needn’t be stuck with “The Little Girl” figurine because it was the only one left with stats they liked, if that makes sense. While the game only supported 6 players, (or maybe 5, I forget), there were essentially 10 or 12 unique characters to choose from.

Here’s something interesting about board game development, since you expressed interest. In a traditional video game you can embed the “tutorial” in the early levels. In a console shooter, for example, you start off learning to navigate the environment, pick stuff up, interact with the environment, practice jumping and ducking, and so on. Eventually you encounter a few easy “target practice” monsters, and off you go.

In board games, you don’t get those liberties. All of the pieces of the board game need to express their proper usage and purpose on an intuitive level. In fact, in many “European style” board games, you don’t even really know what your central decisions are going to be. A key consideration in board game development is, “how do we express that this is an important decision? Is this fundamental to gameplay? How do we express what effect this decision has on the game?” In video games, you can experiment… but in board games, you don’t get that opportunity (as much).

Anyway, here’s the solution I’d come up with. I had a nice rendering but I couldn’t find it so I just whipped this up.

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I am not entirely sure whether my ideas would be feasible with possible limitations that might have been imposed on the design of the card.

However my first thought was possibly have a strip of card gone beside the numbers where the player could put a small bead/marker (A in below image) made from two halves of the bead that the player would be provided with in the box. To deal with the problem you had of the slider possibly ruining the card, I thought that the two halves of the bead would have a small gap between them (See picture), that way it wouldn’t apply pressure on the card. However then there would be the problem of the beads sliding freely, so I thought you could put notches in the line to put the bead (B), so as long as the player didnt turn the card upside down, the beads would be locked in place.

This design would have several problems though:

1. The area between notches would probably fray easily.

2. Its not that ascetically pleasing.

3. And its not very effective at keeping the bead in place.

So then I thought it would be better to just have the straight line, because I thought it would be more durable than having notches, and would also look better. So I thought of another way to keep the beads in place. When putting the bead into the line, you would first put provided foam rings on each halve of the bead, and then put them together on the card. The foam would hold a tighter grip to keep the bead in place, while also making the card less likely to mess up when sliding the bead.

If I didn’t explain it well enough, just tell me and I will try to make what I mean clearer.

EDIT I like this design because it keeps a bunch of the elements that you had such as the fact that it would work well with both sides of the card, the beads don’t need to be removed once they are put on, however they also have the disadvantage of being hard to handle. I also like it though, because the foam makes the bead stay in place while also making it easy to slide.

So I wasn’t able to solve many challenges but so far it was the best I came up with.

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That’s not bad!
The idea of a sliding post would probably work well. The term an engineer would use to describe the interaction would be “net fit.” Meaning, the diameter of the post is identical to the width of the slot.
There are two significant challenges with this solution:
1. Over time, the paper board will fatigue and lose its “grip” on the post.
2. The additional cost of adding another piece to the game.
An option would be to create a hinged plastic piece that locked over the card. It could even have an aperture to reveal the current number. (Here, I sketched it up.)

Good stuff, Kantieno!

EDIT I realized that a single hinge would not allow for the thickness of the board. The black plastic bit would need to have two hinges to create the proper width for the thickness of the paper.

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Yes I like that hinged piece, while I was thinking of a way to improve the hinged piece option, I thought of a different design that may or may not work better.

One thing that bothered me about my other design and the hinged piece design, is that those areas on the outside of the piece where the strips are cut out may be kind of weak and bend easily, so I thought it would be better to have just a hole in which you attach a needle to that you can spin to the appropriate value. The needle could be designed however was wanted, from being a thin strip of plastic or possibly going back to the pentagonal shape or possibly have the aperture to reveal the current number as your hinged piece had.

The player would simply have to have to put the provided to halves of the needle through the hole as shown in “A” and “B”.

The two halves would have a small gap in between the two, so that when spun, it would not scrape against the card. The hole and needle-base would be a “net fit” (if i used that term right) so that the needle would stay in place and not rotate freely. However over time the area of the holes may wear down so then the needle would become loose and rotate freely, which is a problem.

Another thing is that that this rotating display would take up more room, however it could probably be designed more compact so I doubt that would be a problem.

Also the way the two halves of the needles are connected would make it so that the two sides could rotate differently and the two sides of the card could potentially show different values if that was desired.

Overall I think this design would work pretty good, unless there may be something that I’m overlooking.

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It’s a neat solution, but there’s one big thing you have to worry about whenever you design a counter of any kind. If someone brushes up against it, accidentally sets something on it, or someone bumps the table, you don’t want all the counters to get messed up because then you’re just guessing where everything was at before the incident. I think if you dragged your design across the table, the needles on the bottom might get hung up on the friction of the table and turn the dials. That said, I really like the general concept and think it would be easy to see all the information you need at a glance (which is a super major obstacle when displaying any information, and especially important in board games.)

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Hmmm the main thing I could thing of to prevent the the needle from accidentally moving, would be to have a kind of hybrid between this and the hinged design. There could be small hole at each number, where a tooth on one half of the needle could be connected to a slot on the other half through the hole at the number. The base needle connection would need to be hinged so that when the time came to change the value, the player can separate the tooth and slot, move the needle around, and reconnect the tooth and slot through the appropriate hole at the respective number. It may be an extra hassle, but it could be worth it if someone bumps into the table.

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A net-fit solution for the “spinner” would probably work. Just a little bit of friction would help keep the needle in place. It is annoying when someone jostles the table and pieces go scattering. In old military wargames, units could stack to create fire groups. This usually works okay since both players are heavily invested in the bookkeeping of the battlefield… but in a casual game, your little brother is going to want to play, and he’s clumsy, and will get bored about halfway through. More mature games can usually get away with more delicate mechanisms, if that makes sense.

Needle mechanisms need two pieces to work. Each side contains a ball-socket style lock that is coupled through the character board. This will increase cost. (Plastic pieces are often the most expensive part of a board game to make.)

Another interesting solution wouldn’t use plastic at all. Perhaps board could be die-cut and scored so that the players could assemble some kind of marker… like, two pieces of board interlock in some way at different positions corresponding to the appropriate score. (Or, imagine a dice marker made out of board.) There’s lots of development room there.

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Oh, in Betrayal, once you choose one side of the character board, you use only that side throughout the game. (FYI)

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After saying some of you “plastic free” ideas, I decided to delve into that possibility and try to think of something really good, until I thought of one thing that I thought was pretty cool, but pretty much completely pointless :P

Basically when you said “two pieces of board interlock in some way at different positions corresponding to the appropriate score” it made me think of if you had say 4 pieces of paper that you would move around to create different numbers to represent the stats, I think its kind of cool but it would probably take to long to figure out how to arrange the pieces of paper and people would probably give up :P Also its just not practical, but I decided to test it out anyways.

Note: I made this on paper first and it worked pretty well but then i tried to recreate it in paint, since I don’t have access to a scanner right now, and well, im not very good with paint, so it looks kind of weird and not as clear as the paper version i made.

So i decided to start with seven, because I thought it would be a good number, and also some numbers are backwards, but you can still tell what they are, and besides the game seems kind of creepy and weird written numbers kind of keeps up that vibe IMO.

I know that they look really strange, but a good artist could make it look fancy and make the numbers easiers to read, because some, like this 5, and several others can just barely be made out, but if some work was put into Im sure that they could look really good.

And i was trying to make out the bottom symbol on the card you made, and i thought it kind of looked like a skull (maybe meaning that if you stat goes all the way down you die?), idk what it actually is though, so i made a skull formation too.

So this wouldn’t really be a useful way of keeping stats, and overall kind of failed, but I still think it was kind of an interesting idea.

One reason I think that actual card versions i made on paper worked better, is that I had the actual cards spaced out a little more in between them, so your mind would kind of fill in the blanks and it looked better.

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That’s a really cool idea! I love it.

Magic: The Gathering players often use dice to keep track of their life, (i.e., “hit points”). Each player starts with 20 life and, through the course of the game, are each whittled down. The player that hits zero first is the loser. Twenty life points can be represented with four 6-sided dice… 3 of them with 6 facing up, and the 4th die with 2 facing up. (3 × 6 + 2 = 20) As the player suffers damage, the dice are flipped or removed so that the sum equals their current life total. That’s the same kind of interaction I see with your “point tiles.”

You could actually do it with two strips of board. One strip has the bottom half of the numbers and the other strip has the top half. The numbers are arranged so that however the two strips are arranged, only one number can ever be fully formed. Whatever number is formed is the “active” number… the others are just abstract shapes. (The 6, 8, and 9 could be a challenge… would have to mock that one up.)

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Thanks, I wasn’t sure what you’d think of it :P I also wasn’t sure how great it might actually work in a board game, but if you think it would, then tomorrow I’ll probably try making a new set but with just two strips, that will make it a lot easier to make and use :P

Also just to see how much of a difference a little color could make I really quickly colored and put random lines for just some random decoration, not sure why, but I think the color makes it a whole lot better.

Although spacing it out a little like I did in this one also makes it easier to read. And the five would probably look lots better spaced out too.

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In the board games I’m designing, I’m just using the old-fashioned pawns on a track system for keeping track of values for players. It’s super inelegant and really prone to bad table shakes, but it’s super cheap and people can see a track and be handed a pawn and know how it works. The main issue I’m having (and this may stem from a basic game-design issue) is that I have a ton of things to keep track of for each player. Each player can have between 0 and 6 of any kind of good, with 8 goods total. Right now I just have 8 tracks, but at first glance the game looks super complicated because there are all these numbers and tracks, even though it isn’t so much. I used to use tiles instead of the tracks for each good, but producing 6-10 unique cardboard tiles is super expensive, and reducing it to tracks will be very cost efficient. Once I have something beyond a basic wireframe (that has gone through dozens of revisions) i’ll post it around and get some feedback for some other ways I may represent the information.

I really like the concept for your counter, Kantieno. It does bring some issues to the table (no one would look at those 4 pieces as a casual spectator and say "oh! that’s your life counter) but I think a lot of those issues could be wittled away, especially if the game is designed around that kind of tile manipulation as a core mechanic. You can usually get away with having more complicated or elaborate mechanics if they’re the focus of the game and anything else they need to play the game is more intuitive or simple. Having to have a whole page in your rule book describing how to manipulate your health tracker probably wouldn’t work out, but if the game had some kind of collection mechanic where you buy/earn/steal/etc different tiles and could arrange them in different orders to progress in the game (score points, do damage to another player or NPC, gain money, etc) that could be super neat.

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Originally posted by rawismojo:

if the game had some kind of collection mechanic where you buy/earn/steal/etc different tiles and could arrange them in different orders to progress in the game (score points, do damage to another player or NPC, gain money, etc) that could be super neat.

A game like that would be pretty cool and also I get what your saying that the tile thing would work better if it were a core focus of the game, so it may not be that great in Betrayal since it wouldn’t be a core mechanic, although I think it could work as a simple stat tracker for Betrayal pretty well, as long as it was kept very simple, where it would be easy to manipulate it into the next number (with just two strips of top halves and bottom halves of numbers more or less) It would mainly just be a more interesting way of keeping track of numbers.

But it would be cool to have the tiles as the core of a different game, where you could make it more complex, like you were saying. I kind of want to start planning out a game like that.

Also good luck with designing your board games. Hope to see you post more about them.