Scent of a Gamer

From the computer to the tabletop, this is all about games. Updated each week-end.

Design Time 3 – Top or Bottom?

Welcome to the third Design Time, following me as I design my own tabletop miniatures game. If you haven’t already, check out parts 1 and 2. For the third part, we are into the design process now. I was going to talk about rules writing, but that can wait until part 4.

Instead I want to talk about top down design versus bottom up design. If you aren’t familiar with the terms, think of it as form versus function. In bottom up design, you consider the type of character or attribute one side needs, then design something around those needs. Finally you look at the more creative side. For example if you think one side is lacking ranged attack ability, you might design a ranged attack model, but decide what that is later. Once you have your model’s rules you can decide whether it’s a swift-footed elf ranger with a box, a human mage flinging fireballs, or some warrior hurling javelins or whatever. The function is your focus in this case.

Top-down design starts with the creative concept, taking a swift-footed elf ranger, developing abilities and rues that support the contempt, then dropping it into the game. Top down  is the more dangerous method of the two; it is also the easier and the one most people use.

Why dangerous? Because every game must have its balance, a fulcrum around which all models function. Powerful models and effects must be possible (otherwise why bother, you could simply play chess), but they must fit functionally within your game system. Balance is not about making each side identical, or making sure the same mix of rules and abilities appear everywhere. Balance is about making victory possible for either side at multiple points in the game.

The danger with top-down design is that all considerations of balance necessarily come second. If you have decided ahead of time that all your elves move faster and shoot better than non-elves you’ve made quite a rod for your own back. The player with slow moving, weak goblins (that may have nasty claw attacks if they ever get close) is not going to have a fun game against a player who shoots then moves further away. You do your players no favours by creating situations mid game (or worse yet early game) where they can no longer win, or no longer lose. At that point the game is effectively over, and your game needs to recognise that through the rules. This is a thread for another article though.

As you can see I lean towards bottom-up design as a superior process, but don’t neglect the top-down option. Its strength is that it creates instant resonance for you players, giving them a fair idea of what certain models or types will do before they have even played the game.

This isn’t an either/or article. The answer is, both are important. However if you have gone through the type of game you are designing, and you know the end point you want to reach, it’s time to look very seriously at a bottom-up design process. The top-down additions can come later. My preference is to begin with a bottom-up process once the key rules are in place. Worldbuilding is something that happens concurrently with game design sometime even before. Worldbuilding is a great source of top-down design ideas, but its better to have your key functions in place first.

Form follows function. It’s a common phrase in design, but I don’t hear it that much is game design. It’s a good phrase to keep in mind.

The main advantage for me in starting with function is that at the early stage of the game ideas for everything are coming at once – worldbuilding, characters, combat rules, scenario ideas. My brains fires these things up without any actual process in place. If I don’t write things down, chances are they will be lost later. I at least need a document where I can put even sentence fragments, character or place names, turn sequence ideas, and so on.

I focus on function, and scribble those inconvenient flashes of creativity off to one side, to be revisited when there is a framework for them to be developed within.

The framework is of course the rules of game. Come back for part 4 where I will look at rules considerations, and making sure the game plays like you think it should.

[back to part 2] [on to part 4]

2 comments on “Design Time 3 – Top or Bottom?

  1. Pingback: Design Time 2 – Decisions | Scent of a Gamer

  2. Pingback: Design Time 4 – To Rule Them All | Scent of a Gamer

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2013 by in Game Design, Miniatures, Tabletop and tagged .
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