Iterative design process

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A game is a work that provides the experience to performers, and also, in most cases, its progress, player's challenges and opportunities depend on actions of all players that participate in the game. These two factors cause that game designers will be careful not to consider the game finished without trying it out, regardless of how much thought was given to it. After all, it is not usually possible to predict how other people will act in any situation and emotionally react to circumstances presented to them.

Structure of the process

When you start with your game idea, your first step is to shape it into a form precise enough to play and to make a playable prototype. Then, after playtesting you should have information about what choices actual players tend to take and also how they feel in situations that the game provides. So the basic design loop is:

Game Idea - (Rules - Prototype - Playtest - Revision).

There are some exceptions from the most common path in the loop. Usually, your revisions will result in adjustment of the rules but sometimes you may discover that the very game idea was misguided and it needs deeper modifications. On the other hand you may occasionally skip a stage if new rules for the next iteration need exactly the same game components, or if your test was not conclusive as for the rules, but showed that players are constantly confused by your prototype and cannot proceed with the game. Let's have a closer look now at all of the stages.


Process stages

Game idea

Interestingly, in board game design, an idea is not glorified as much as it seems to be in some other art fields. Main reason for this is a difficulty of evaluating the idea — despite the fact that many very creative people come up with ideas for games all the time, none of them will be sure if the idea is good until it is tested, which requires work and time.

Specifying the rules

Testing rules in their written form might be necessary at some of the final iterations, but usually during design you operate with spoken explanation. Most importantly, you need to clearly establish what player are allowed to do and how their actions are structured. Consider clearly stating also goals and the end condition.

Preparing a prototype

Good practices of making a prototype include putting the very minimum of effort into it. This may sound paradoxical, but the reason for some preparations restrain is based on the very iterative nature of the design process. You sure should make things readable, but by default, it is assumed that changes in the game will indeed be necessary, especially in the early stages — try to make it easy for yourself both as for potential technical difficulties and emotional attachment.


Playtesting is the most important phase of the iterative design process. It may provide you both general orientation about the game system and answer specific questions. Consider why do you playtest and with whom. You may soon find that a willing playtester that have never played your game might be especially valuable. First impressions are importan — don't run out from possible providers of it. Remember that you may gather information from asking questions, from observing the non-verbal reactions and also from additional measures. Try out keeping the scoring notes, checking the time, or taking photos for later analysis.

Further Reading

Now that you know the basics, you may follow up with references to iterative design process from the game-related literature.

Extensions: Critical Play

In Critical Play Mary Flanagan proposes a detailed idea for additional considerations during the iterative design process. Some of the description is left out, passages that stayed are especially thought-provoking, even if not suitable for each and every use-case or style.

  • Set a design goal/mission statement, and values goals. […]
  • Design rules and constraints that support values. […]
  • Design for many different playstyles. The designer could, for example, provide for a noncompetitive type of play alongside a competitive play scenario. The designer should design for subversion of the system and other means by which play can emerge.
  • Develop a playable prototype. […]
  • Play test with diverse audiences. Designers need to get out of the studio or laboratory and play test with a wide-ranging audience, making sure to play with nontraditional gamers. Various players test the game for dead ends and dull sections, and types and levels of task difficulty.
  • Verify values and revise goals. Designers evaluate the game through the play tests and player comments. They verify that the values goals emerge through play, and revise goals and add or drop options based on feedback to ensure an engaging game and support the project values.
  • Repeat.

Mary Flanagan, Critical Play. Radical Game Design, MIT Press 2013 [2009], p. 257-258


The factors that should encourage you to playtest are:

  • replayability,
  • multiplayer gameplay,
  • game goals / win condition.

Additional content for the future…

Repetitions — overall changes

Each time you run through the design cycle your goals might be different.


Connections: David Foster Wallace ?

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