Build A Game In Under 2 Hours! No, Really…

Building games is very hard…

This likely goes through the mind of anyone sitting down to make their first game. Most gamers have ideas for their own game(s), and yet when we sit down to build we don’t even know where to start. This experience is one of the reasons I started my blog. This post is about how my group has consistently managed to create a playable game (some with real potential) once a month in 2-hours or less for about a year straight.

Typically we make use of whatever materials we have access to, so whatever is in your immediate proximity WILL WORK for this exercise, I promise. If you want to purchase some good materials there are links are below. Also, thank you to Maker State for letting us use their space during the Meetup group seen above

At this point in time you are probably either scrolling ahead to the “How-To” or doubting your ability to do this yourself. It is worth mentioning that during a typical session, most of my group’s attendees have zero game design experience yet our final products are very rad. This exercise can work for anyone.

So, for the sake of keeping this brief, I am going to share the actual write up I made when designing this exercise with my fellow Meetup organizers. Keep this in mind – by the end of two hours, you’re not going to have the greatest game of all time… However, you will have a more complete game then you are currently imagining and a plethora of ideas you want to test and play with when you continue to work on this project. Your first draft is the version of your game that is furthest from what you want to build. This process will force you to create a draft and revision will eventually make your draft complete.

The Framework – Build a Game in 2-Hours or Less:

Why should you use this?

  • It will prove that you can create a game
  • You will be pushing yourself and becoming a better game designer
  • Creativity, even if you do not want to publish a game, is good for your mental health and well-being
  • Trying our framework will make you an official member of our growing community, dedicated helping each other make games

Setup (15 min): 

Goal: Generate a Theme, Mechanic and Type for the exercise to revolve around.

Take the full 15 minutes: use a timer and dedicate the full amount of time to deciding what you want to build. Don’t lock in any one option until you have at least 5 ideas each for Theme, Mechanic and Type. It is more important to get a bunch of thoughts down then it is to fixate on any one option. Can’t think of anything? Try spinning our home-made roulette for a little inspiration! Here are some examples of themes, mechanics and types.

  • Theme: Pirates, birds, laundromat, dolphins, weird hats, war, time travel, golf, peace on earth, tie-die coloring
  • Mechanic: Asymmetric characters, overlapping cards, storytelling, tile placement, time limits, auctions, battle royal
  • Type: Deck builder, social deception, dexterity, puzzle, children’s, family, party, cooperative, worker placement, tower defense
Some cat scratch from my group’s last Setup phase.
Theme: Treasure hunting, Mechanic: Jenga, Type: Dexterity

Discussion (15 min):

Goal: Using the agreed upon Theme, Type and Mechanic as inspiration start to ask yourself, or whomever you are working with, some of the following questions and write down your answers (be sure to use the full 15 minutes):

  • What are the end game conditions and/or goal of the game?
    • End game examples: point thresholds, number of turns, quest completion, hidden objective
    • Goal examples: most points, largest city, highest tower, capture the object, reach a level, survive (could be anything)
  • What does a turn look like?
    • Examples: simultaneous, phases (draw, play, act, resolve, cleanup), event decks, actions, options
  • What does a player want to do on their turn?
    • Examples: I want to… cast spells, sell goods, fight monsters, fly to the moon (how is your game going to make the most use of your theme?)
  • How is the game structured?
    • Examples: what does the board look like, does it change? How much do players interact? What decks or objects exist outside of the players control (like event decks)?
  • Answer this last: What do you need to build? What do you need to play the game you started to define via the questions above?
Some of the thoughts we gathered for how the game could play out

Build (15 min):

Prior to beginning: It is a good idea to collect some useful materials. I use disks, meeples, player tokens and cubes I purchased online. Loose-leaf, index cards and grid paper are also useful to have at hand. This site is a good place to create custom grid paper.

Goal: Go with your gut! If you think this game needs a custom deck of cards, grab some index cards or paper and scribble down some ideas. Don’t get stuck on any one thought. This is still part of your brainstorming process.

While building, try to not focus on “expansion” type components, break your game down to the five “must-have” components to complete one turn. Even if the game would not be fun to play with just these five components, that is where you will want to start your building.

If Stuck: it is a good idea to transfer the information gathered in the discussion phase onto physical Rules Cards or Game State Summary Cards (think cheat sheets used in games like Catan) for inspiration about how the game will look to the player and how to complete a turn. Do not let this phase last for more than 15 minutes and do not be discouraged if you can not build very much in this time frame! (it is supposed to be hard)

Tokens such as these are cheap, versatile and can provide a surprising amount of inspiration

Play (15 min):

Goal: Try it out! Make it work! Create rules on the fly! Take notes! Don’t stop your first play-test to rewrite or design new components. Play through your clunky game for 15 whole minutes. Oftentimes, the game will not be very playable, see if you can find a way to fit the pieces you built together and play it nonetheless. Making rules on the fly is a good way to facilitate this and help your game make sense. If working with others, talk about what’s not working. Get creative, struggling through this experience is key to understanding your game’s potential and finding your inspiration.

FYI this is the 1-hour mark and you will have already played your game! It won’t be perfect but you should have some clear direction.

Discussion #2 (15 min):

Goal: Capture your feedback. What did you like? What would you change/did not like? Ask yourself the same questions you did during the first discussion phase and update your responses:

  • Update the end game/goal of the game 
  • Update what a turn looks like
  • Update player motivations and what players would like to do differently on their turn
  • Update game structure – board state, player interaction, how to play
  • Do this last: Discuss what materials will have to be updated/created during the next build phase. Now that you have played the game, this will be much easier

Build #2 (15 min):

  • Update old materials to accommodate changes to the game
  • Create new materials as needed based off of changes to the game

Play #2 (15 min):

Goal: As you play, take notes on your final thoughts as they pertain to the questions we have been asking ourselves throughout this process:

  • What do you like about the game?
  • What would you change/do not like about the game?
  • Does the end game/goal of the game need to change any more than it has?
  • Does the structure of a turn need to be updated?
  • Do we need to account for player motivations more or less than we currently are? Does the player get to do what they want to?
  • How would we change the board state, player interaction, or how to play information?
  • What materials would have to be updated/created during the next build phase?

At this point: you should have a very clear idea about your game’s strengths and weakness, where it will be challenging to design elegant solutions and where the game will need little to no work. This exercise should have uncovered a laundry list of positives and negatives that would otherwise take months of game design to find.

Here is what our team’s Dexterity/Jenga Treasure Hunter type game wound up looking like.
Rules: When a player pulls a piece from the opponent’s temple they have to complete a dexterity mini game like rolling a bolder or shooting air darts (think Indian Jones)

Share (15 min):

You now have been building your game for 1 hour and 45 minutes and you have already played it twice, something most game designers could only dream of. In my group, this extra 15 minutes is used to share what we built with other teams going through the same exercise. In your group, you could use it to buffer the amount of time it will take setting up and switching between phases (while getting used to the framework) or just finish well below the 2 hour mark for extra bragging 🙂

Let us know what you think!

If you like this framework, either conceptually or in actual practice if you had time to give it a shot, please let us know your thoughts and be sure to check us out on Meetup, Instagram and Twitter and if you would like to hear more about some of the games we have built in 2-hours or less, please feel free to reach out to me via whichever channel suits you best!

In closing: How do you see this framework playing out if you were to give it a shot? Was reading this helpful in understanding where to start when it comes to game design? Which phase do you think would be your favorite?

Published by Benjamin Scaglione

Long time table top enthusiast and game designer.

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